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However, the Prime Minister overstates the achievement in the banking industry. I express my grave concern at the lack of real progress. The Prime Minister referred to Basel III being completed within 18 months. With all respect to the Minister, nothing has been achieved under Basel III, which is not due to be implemented until 2018 and, in some respects, 2023. Not a single bank has had to increase its capital as a result of Basel III. We have seen no material progress on the identification and agreement of process for globally systemically important financial institutions. We have seen no progress on the agreement of a net stable funding ratio. These are all critical to creating a more stable banking system.
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much welcome the early remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Myners. He was agreeing with me so, naturally, I agree with him. The right approach is about growth, getting the deficit under control, international trade and fighting the battle against protectionism-a path other countries would like us to head down. The noble Lord can easily make the case that it is still too early to decide whether Basel III has been a success. It is true that there is a long transition period between 2013 and 2019, when it needs to be put in place.
Having said that, a significant strengthening of capital and liquidity requirements and a binding constraint on leverage are essential to strengthening financial stability. Therefore, we welcome the G20's endorsement of the Basel reforms to global capital and liquidity standards. Full, consistent and non-discriminatory implementation of these new international standards is now crucial to minimise the risks of regulatory arbitrage and the fragmentation of international financial markets. The UK, as the noble Lord well knows, has consistently argued for strengthened international financial regulation to address the failings that were laid bare by the crisis. The G20 has agreed major reforms to international financial regulations and we aim to move these forward. The key to this is to maintain the momentum that has come from Basel and the G20.
Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: It is impossible at the moment to persuade China to be more flexible over its currency. What is the Prime Minister doing to develop a powerful consensus that surplus countries have a responsibility equal to that of deficit countries in dealing with global crises?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that one of the key issues has been the global imbalances. Part of what was discussed at the G20, and much of what was agreed on, was a protocol to reduce these global imbalances. The Prime Minister, in a speech at Peking University, said:
"We need a more balanced pattern of global demand and supply, a more balanced pattern of global saving and investment ... We all share an interest and a responsibility to co-operate to secure strong and balanced global growth ... just as China played a leading role at the G20 in helping to avert a global depression so it can lead now".
That was the clearest signal to policy-makers in China that they need to play a full part in sorting out global imbalances. The recognition that we need to move towards more market-determined exchange rate systems was a vital ingredient of that and was agreed by all parties in the G20. I contend that that is a positive step forward.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, I wish to repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice:
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to announce today proposals for the reform of legal aid in England and Wales and proposals for the reform of civil litigation funding and costs in England and Wales. I have today laid before Parliament two documents, Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales and Proposals for the Reform of Civil Litigation Funding and Costs in England and Wales, which consult on these issues and copies of which will be available in the Vote Office and on the Ministry of Justice website. The changes will require primary legislation and, subject to consultation, I hope to include proposals in a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Legal aid forms a vital part of a system of justice of which we are rightly proud. The Government strongly believe that access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society. However, I believe that there is a compelling case for going back to first principles in reforming legal aid. The current system bears very little resemblance to the one that was introduced in 1949. Legal aid has expanded-so much so that it is now one of the most expensive systems in the world, costing the public purse more than £2 billion a year. It is now available for a very wide range of issues, including some which do not require any legal expertise to resolve. It cannot be right that the taxpayer is footing the bill for unnecessary court cases, which would never have reached the courtroom door were it not for the fact that somebody else was paying.
The previous Government made many attempts to reform legal aid, conducting more than 30 consultations since 2006. However, successive changes have been of a piecemeal nature and have failed to address the underlying problems. I have gone back to basic principles to make choices about which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people's means and the merits of the case. I have taken into account the importance of the issue at stake, the litigant's ability to present their own case, and the availability of alternative sources of funding and of alternative routes to resolving the issue, as well as our domestic and international legal obligations.
My proposals have also been designed with the aim of achieving significant savings. No other Government in the world believe that the taxpayer should pay for as much legal aid and litigation as we do in the United Kingdom. We have made clear our commitment to reducing the fiscal deficit and encouraging economic recovery. Last month's spending review set out the scale of the challenge. My department's budget will be reduced by 23 per cent over four years. Legal aid needs to make a substantial contribution to that reduction. I estimate that the proposals in the consultation paper, if implemented, will achieve savings in the region of £350 million in 2014-15.
I do not propose any changes to the scope of criminal legal aid. However, I propose to introduce a more targeted civil and family scheme, which will discourage people from resorting to lawyers whenever they face a problem, and instead encourage them to consider more suitable methods of dispute resolution. Legal aid will still routinely be available in civil and family cases where people's life or liberty is at stake, or where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home. For example, I plan to
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Other cases which I am proposing to remove from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme include clinical negligence, where in many cases alternative sources of funding are available such as no-win no-fee arrangements. They also include education, employment, immigration, some debt and housing issues and welfare benefits, except where there is a risk to anyone's safety or liberty or a risk of homelessness. In many of these the issues are not necessarily of a legal nature but require other forms of expert advice to resolve.
I recognise that there will be some cases within those areas of law which I propose to remove from scope which international or domestic law will require to be funded by the taxpayer. I therefore propose a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. I want to ensure that those who can either pay for, or contribute to, their legal costs do so, so that we ensure continued access to public funding in those cases that really require it for those who have little or no funds of their own. I therefore propose that all clients with £1,000 or more disposable capital should make a minimum £100 contribution to their legal costs and that the capital of any prospective legal aid clients is taken into account when considering eligibility.
I have also looked at how best to reform the way in which we pay lawyers who provide legal aid services. I want to ensure that criminal cases are resolved quickly and cost-effectively and that legal aid fee structures support that aim. In the long term, I propose to fulfil the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, to the previous Administration to move towards a competitive market to replace the current system of administratively set fee rates. However, it will not be possible to fulfil that aim in the short term. Therefore, I propose some more immediate changes to the current fee structure. I propose to ensure that in Crown Court cases that could realistically have been dealt with in the magistrates' court, a single fixed fee for a guilty plea will be paid based on fee rates in the magistrates' court. I also propose that the same fee should be paid in respect of a guilty plea in the Crown
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These proposals complement other reforms to the justice system which I will be bringing forward, designed to encourage cases to be brought quickly and efficiently to justice, so sparing the victim the ordeal of giving evidence in court unnecessarily and the justice system significant but avoidable costs. It is important to strike a balance between the need to ensure that legal aid provision is innovative, efficient and good value for taxpayers' money on the one hand; and ensuring that people can continue to access legally aided services where necessary on the other. I believe that there is more that can be done to strike that balance. I propose to reduce fees paid in civil and family cases by 10 per cent across the board and make similar levels of reductions in rising experts' fees. I also propose to extend telephone access to advice through the Community Legal Advice telephone helpline, which has a high rate of public satisfaction, to help people find the easiest and most effective ways to resolve their problems. I am also consulting on proposals to make much better use of alternative sources of funding for legal aid. In particular, I would welcome views on making use of the higher rates of interest generated on money invested in a pooled account used by solicitors to hold their clients' money, and on making use of a supplementary legal aid scheme. Lastly, I seek views on how to make the administration of legal aid less bureaucratic for solicitors and barristers doing legal aid work. I recognise that processes have become overly complex and want to do what I can to simplify these while remaining consistent with the highest standards of accounting practice.
Also, Mr Speaker, on 26 July this year, the Government announced their intention to consult on implementing Lord Justice Jackson's recommendations on the reform of civil litigation costs and funding arrangements. Sir Rupert Jackson's independent and comprehensive report published in January 2010 makes a clear case that the costs in civil cases in England and Wales have become too high, and he makes a broad range of recommendations for reducing those costs. I am convinced by Sir Rupert's argument that achieving proportionate costs and promoting access to justice go hand in hand. I believe that the consultation proposals for the reform of civil litigation funding and costs presented today will help rebalance access to justice with proportionate costs in civil cases.
In particular, Sir Rupert's proposals would reform the operation of no-win no-fee conditional fee agreements or CFAs. CFAs are funding agreements under which lawyers are not paid if they lose but may charge an uplift or a success fee of up to 100 per cent on their base costs if they win. CFAs as they currently operate allow claims to be brought at no financial risk to individual claimants, but the other side of the coin is that CFAs impose substantial additional costs on defendants. The Government have already accepted the recommendations of my right honourable and noble friend Lord Young of Graffham's recent report on health and safety and the compensation culture, Common Sense, Common Safety. My noble friend's typically cogent report endorses Sir Rupert's proposals. The key proposal is to abolish recoverability of success
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We are also seeking views on implementing other recommendations which are designed to balance the impact of these major changes, in particular to assist claimants. These recommendations include a 10 per cent increase in general damages to help pay the success fee and introducing a mechanism of qualified one-way costs shifting. This would protect the vast majority of personal injury claimants from paying a winning defendant's costs and will therefore reduce the need for after-the-event insurance. We also propose to allow damages-based agreements or contingency fees in litigation before the courts. These are another form of no-win-no-fee agreement under which lawyers can take a proportion of the claimants' damages in fees. This would increase the funding options available to claimants.
Other proposals would further encourage parties to make and accept reasonable offers, as well as introduce a new test to ensure that overall costs are proportionate. We also propose to increase the modest costs which can be recovered by people who win their cases where they represent themselves without lawyers.
Taken together, my reform proposals complement the wider programme of reform which I will be bringing forward to move towards a simpler justice system: one which is more responsive to public needs, which allows people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies where they are appropriate, and which encourages more efficient resolution of contested cases where necessary.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by the right honourable and learned gentleman, the Lord Chancellor, and for allowing me an advance sight of the Statement; but I have to say, thanks to the very comprehensive briefing that has clearly been given to two newspapers over the past 24 hours, we have had the chance of looking at the Statement more than in just the past few minutes.
The Green Papers on cutting legal aid and reducing civil costs are among the most important published by the Government to date. Legal aid, as the Minister said, is one of the pillars of the welfare state that were set up by the post-war Labour Government. It plays a crucial role in tackling social exclusion, especially in
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Under successive Governments, the legal aid budget has grown to the point where it now stands at more than £2 billion per year. That is not sustainable, especially in the current economic context. Indeed, the previous Labour Government had moved to cap the legal aid budget and to reduce it. We also planned to turn the Legal Services Commission into an executive agency, and the then Opposition-both parties that now make up the Government-supported us. Why have the Government not introduced legislation to achieve that aim? It was quite clear that that was a necessary step to take as quickly as possible. They have not done so, thus far; when are they planning to do so?
In recent years, we brought the principle of fixed fees into civil and family legal aid cases. That principle has applied to criminal cases for some time past. We introduced means-testing into the magistrates' courts and this year into the Crown Court. Indeed, on the very day that the general election was called, we signed off cuts to advocates' fees in higher courts without any support from the parties opposite; so much for the accusation that the then Government were somehow economically irresponsible.
We took those decisions because we recognised the need to reduce the legal aid budget, and it should be said that many of our actions were taken in the teeth of opposition from the legal profession, as one would of course expect, and from the parties that then made up the Opposition-by that I do not mean just the Liberal Democrat party. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that had we been in government today, we would have announced, perhaps not today but earlier, further cuts to legal aid. That is a reality that we have to acknowledge.
The crucial question, however, is where those cuts are to be made and how the money that is left-still a large sum-will be spent. Our policy was, and is, to control the legal aid budget and to get value for money for the taxpayer while optimising services for people who need support the most. That is why we concentrated so much of our investment on what is described, perhaps a little uncomfortably but accurately, as social welfare law legal aid, by increasing it over the years and-even towards the end, when we were cutting back other parts of the legal aid budget-making sure that we protected it at all costs. That is because we argue that legal aid, delivered in the form of legal advice and delivered early, has the power to change lives and, of course, save huge amounts of public money further down the line.
The housing possession court duty scheme, for example, still saves thousands of people from repossession. It delivered a social and financial good. Are the Government committed to preserving that and similar schemes? What balance do the Government intend to strike between the needs of criminal legal aid and civil legal aid? Everyone knows that, over the years, criminal legal aid has had the majority of the spend. Do the Government believe that that should continue?
The Minister said that the Government propose in the Green Paper to reduce fees paid in civil and family cases by 10 per cent across the board. That proposal is,
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I turn to another serious point that I should like to ask the Minister about: the proposal that all clients with £1,000 or more disposable capital should make a minimum contribution of £100 to their legal costs. Full ineligibility is extremely worrying. We as a Government increased civil legal aid eligibility rates by 5 per cent last year to deal with the unfairnesses that the recession had meant for those who needed that vital piece of advice. However, the Government's proposal in the Green Paper reduces eligibility a great deal more than that, and we are concerned that it will take many people who cannot afford the private insurance that the Green Paper talks of away from getting the legal advice that they need and deserve. Does the Minister agree that that is likely to happen if civil legal aid eligibility is reduced by so much? Will that not harm what we all want: access to justice?
One other disturbing part of the Statement talks about some housing, social welfare and debt cases being taken out of the scope of legal aid, although some will be left in, apparently. Can the Minister help by telling us which cases in those categories will be taken out of scope and which will be left in?
I turn briefly to the important and massive report of Lord Justice Jackson on civil legal aid costs. Before we respond in detail, we will consider that report carefully, as we will consider the Green Paper on legal aid. I remind the Minister and ask a question about what Lord Justice Jackson said at paragraph 4.2 of chapter 7 of his final report, on page 70. He stated:
The basic test that we will apply to both Green Papers is whether the proposals will deliver a saving to the public purse while ensuring that no one is denied access to justice simply because of their means.
Lord McNally: My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord about the press coverage over the weekend. I wonder what advantage it gives, with something that is going to be the subject of a three-month consultation, if somebody leaks to or briefs the press. I will say that neither report is entirely accurate, but this is the world that we live in. I would much prefer that Statements were made to the House of Commons and to the House of Lords and then reporters could do their job.
I welcome the noble Lord's assertion that we are talking about one of the most fundamental parts of our society: namely, access to justice. I also welcome
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I hear what the noble Lord says about social welfare law. In reviewing this, we are trying to focus legal aid on the most serious cases. We are looking at where other sources of funding may be available and where advice can be given to take some of these matters out of the legal system to tribunals and other instruments of resolution. However, we are not trying to pretend anything other than that we are taking hard but necessary decisions to move some cases out of scope and out of legal aid.
The noble Lord asked about the Legal Services Commission. We will take action on that as soon as parliamentary time is available. We are battling for that time at the moment. The 10 per cent across-the-board cuts will apply to the assistance that the noble Lord referred to, and to social welfare work. The noble Lord asked in particular about housing cases. We made it clear that in cases where there is the threat of absolute homelessness, assistance will be retained. We propose that legal aid will be retained for both housing and debt cases where there is the risk of homelessness, and for housing cases where there is a serious problem to be addressed. We propose that legal aid ceases to be available for employment and welfare benefit matters, because the vast majority of these are heard before tribunals. We propose no changes for community care. On the question of contributions, it is critical that those who have the resources to pay for or contribute towards their legal costs should do so, and that the public purse must be the fund of last resort where people own substantial assets.
I hope that I have covered most of the specific points. I understand that the noble Lord will want to study carefully what Lord Justice Jackson said. Like the previous Government, we are trying to take away the inflation pressures caused by the way in which no-win no-fee operated and by the way in which costs, damages and add-ons were calculated. Our old system was inflationary in costs, and encouraged litigation. We hope that what we have extracted from Lord Justice Jackson's recommendations will address problems that were recognised by all parts of the legal profession.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I cannot welcome the Statement, but I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that not principle but finance has caused the reductions that we have seen. When I read the Statement, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, could easily have issued a similar Statement in the previous Government. No doubt that is why his criticisms were so muted.
This is a considerable challenge to the legal world. Here I declare an interest as a practising criminal Silk, paid very often by legal aid. The suggested reforms set out in the Green Papers require very considerable
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I ask the Minister about the suggestion that there will be a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. I had a number of discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, when he was in the previous Government, on that very issue. Its importance is that it is wrong for an individual to be in a court, tribunal or inquest and to find himself facing a state-funded organisation such as the Army or the Air Force, or a well funded public company, when an allegation of negligence has arisen. The previous provisions for an exceptional funding scheme were largely concerned with inquests. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, will recall that it was not easy through that mechanism to obtain proper funding for families in distress who faced paid advocates at a very high level who were trying to make sure that their clients were not accused of any negligence. What is the new exceptional funding scheme? Will the mechanisms be improved? Will they be more apparent so that people understand how to obtain exceptional funding in the future? That is a very important issue and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond.
Lord McNally: I thank my noble friend. His question gives me the opportunity to mention a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to which I did not respond. If not exactly ring-fenced, criminal legal aid is more protected because we take the view that when people are on trial for a criminal offence, it is important that they have access to justice and legal aid. However, that does not mean making a choice between criminal and civil cases, other than that, in terms of access to justice, a criminal charge is more serious.
The exceptional funding scheme will go wider than assistance for inquests, and it will indeed be available for those who may find themselves out of scope in these decisions but who have an exceptional case to make. I note what my noble friend says. We are well aware that we are making tough decisions that are needed to ensure access to public funding in cases that really require it and in protecting the most vulnerable in our society, as well as encouraging the efficient performance of our justice system. As we have made absolutely clear, those decisions are motivated partly by economic circumstances but also by a view that the legal aid system, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, acknowledges, needs to be recalibrated and rebalanced, and that is what we have tried to do.
Viscount Slim: My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord said just now, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for the sensitive way in which, during the previous Government, he dealt with many issues relating to the military and, in particular, veterans and war widows. He would always listen and I know that he then went off and did his best. I did not like the phrase "out of scope" and I am not sure about "eligibility",
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Lord McNally: My Lords, I associate myself with the comment of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, about the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and his record in this area. Within the constraints in which we find ourselves, we certainly intend to make sure that our responsibility to service personnel and their families remains. Exceptional funding will remain available where there is a significant wider public interest in the applicant being represented at an inquest. Therefore, the families of service personnel will still be able to access legal aid funding for representation at inquests into their loved ones' deaths. Rebuilding the military covenant is one of the top objectives of this Government, and the Ministry of Defence is currently considering how best to fulfil that covenant.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, I am very sorry that the Minister just brushed aside the leaks in this case, as the Government always seem to do, by saying that it is just a matter of the world that we live in. It is a matter of the world that we live in only because it is tolerated. It is about time the Government adopted a slightly more rigorous approach to investigating and pursuing these things, as the Ministry of Defence did in the previous Parliament. I very much welcome the Government's decision to propose that success fees should no longer be chargeable to defendants. It seems quite wrong to penalise defendants because of the funding structure that plaintiffs agree with their lawyers. Does the noble Lord agree that one of the great anomalies and problems of legal aid is that the costs incurred by a successful defendant cannot be claimed against the plaintiff? That is not only unfair, unjust and unbalanced between plaintiffs and defendants and legally aided plaintiffs and non-legally aided plaintiffs; it clearly reduces the financial disincentive to litigate marginal cases. Do the Government have any plans to deal with that anomaly?
Lord McNally: I think that I had better duck for cover in this case. I hear the point that the noble Lord makes. If we already have specific plans in this area, I shall write to him; if not, I shall make sure that that point is fed into the discussions that will be part of the review, which will go on for the next three months.
On investigating leaks, at the very beginning of my career I recall the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson, setting up a leaks inquiry and the first meeting of that inquiry being leaked to the Guardian. I was not dismissing the issue; I deplore it and, as I said at the beginning, I wish that we could get back to the rather old-fashioned idea that statements are made to Parliament and then the newspapers report them.
Baroness Browning: My Lords, can my noble friend clarify the response that he gave the noble Lord, Lord Bach, just a few moments ago, when I believe I heard him say that welfare cases are to remain the same? The House will be aware that, with all-party support in
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Lord McNally: My noble friend's question points to many of the problems that we face. If legal aid is automatically given in many of the areas that we are removing from scope, it becomes almost a first stop. We are actively trying to promote a different, cheaper and quicker mechanism for settling disputes. A dispute between someone suffering from autism and the local social services department almost automatically ends up as a battle between lawyers in court. We have got something wrong somewhere. We have taken tough decisions; we have taken people out of scope; and we shall look at different ways of getting advice. We propose that legal aid be retained for community care cases and for judicial review in community care cases. As I said before, we are not hiding the fact that this is a removal of legal aid from areas and cases that have previously been covered. We seek to encourage the alternative resolution of disputes, partly because, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said, successive Governments have found that the creep of legal aid makes it very difficult to keep overall control of it.
Lord Boateng: My Lords, no one would seriously suggest that we should not reform the legal aid and civil costs regime. However, citizens advice bureaux and the law centre movement have long played a distinguished part all over our country in providing access, not just for the most vulnerable but for the middle classes, to the law and to legal advice. It is cost effective and involves paid volunteers, lawyers, mediators and experts from a whole variety of sources who are needed to ensure that people get justice. The Minister's right honourable friend has been silent in his Statement about the role of citizens advice bureaux and the law centre movement. Can he give some words of encouragement and support for the contribution that they currently make? Can he indicate whether they will have an opportunity to play an enhanced role in the future and perhaps do something about the crisis in funding that CAB centres face up and down the country, even as we speak?
Lord McNally: My Lords, I can give some limited encouragement. It is true that the law centre movement and other such bodies, which rely on certain cases of
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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I welcome the reference to promoting alternative dispute resolution to accelerate and simplify the resolution of disputes. Can my noble friend indicate what the criteria are to be where exceptional funding for excluded cases is awarded? In particular, will he recognise that it is an issue not just for the excluded individual but for the courts, because if a case is of a particular complexity it can clog up the courts: a point that was made by a former Lord Chief Justice and a former Master of the Rolls when a previous Conservative Government cut legal aid?
Lord McNally: My Lords, if we are going to recalibrate legal aid, we shall have to explore the alternative resolution of disputes through mediation and other means. On the exceptional cases fund, part of the consultation will be about the criteria and the range of that fund. The recommendations of the Legal Services commission to the Secretary of State will determine how the fund is used, but the opportunity to consult will be taken to ensure that the fund is flexible to the needs of those who really need access to justice.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the conflation of the costs of civil and criminal legal aid in the sum of £2 billion, to which my noble friend Lord Bach referred, disguises the greater proportion devoted to criminal legal aid? What will the percentage cut on the civil legal aid budget be? Can he also indicate where he expects alternative provision to be made and at what cost, and who will fund that cost? Perhaps he could also identify an estimate of the number of cases currently in receipt of legal aid in the categories that will no longer receive legal aid: that is, as the Statement made clear, education, employment, immigration, debt, housing and welfare benefits.
On a slightly tangential matter, will the Minister ask his right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to look again at the court fees that local authorities are required to pay in child protection cases and which are widely thought to inhibit the necessary promotion of those cases? I declare an interest as an unpaid consultant in my former practice as a senior partner in a Newcastle firm of solicitors.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord on the specific numbers that are being dealt with in areas that are now going out of scope. I shall raise the issue of court fees with the Lord Chancellor. The target saving is £350 million, and I made it clear that that would come mainly from the civil side.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, first, are the Government aware that the greatest advances in the development of law happen in legal aid cases? By diminishing legal aid, you end up undermining law as a whole. Secondly, family law has already suffered cuts, and we are seeing legal aid deserts in certain parts of the country. Women, for example, are not getting the kind of expert help that they need in cases of domestic violence. Thirdly, if the Ministry of Justice is concerned to look at spending on legal matters, has consideration been given to the money paid to lawyers by government, not as legal aid money but money paid by government departments to lawyers at the market rate, which is often excessive? Perhaps we should do something to drive those costs down instead of limiting access to the law by the poor.
Lord McNally: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is encouraging me to cheap populism by agreeing that we should drive down the cost of legal advice to government. Legal costs in general are certainly being looked at. I can reassure the noble Baroness that in the key areas of family law, which I referred to as domestic violence and child protection, legal aid will be retained.
On the Statement's intention, I can say to the noble Baroness only that, against the financial constraints that we face and a general agreement that legal aid needed recalibrating, we have tried to take some tough decisions in a way that protects the vulnerable and retains the core sense of our system: that all have a right to access to justice.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, it is considerably later than we had intended to start the main business of the day, but I now beg to move that the Bill be read a second time. This Bill is a core part of the coalition Government's programme. It is a simple measure that provides for three things: a referendum on the voting system for the other place; a modest reduction in the number of MPs; and fairer, more equal constituencies. It would not have existed in its present form without the creation of the coalition. Speaking for my party as well as for the Government, I say clearly that we are completely committed to honour the coalition agreement. That is why, as Leader of this House, I open for the Government on the Bill.
Of course, I would have liked 20 more Conservative seats at the general election, but that was not the people's choice. They did not deliver a majority for a single-party Government. They asked us to work together -and that, I believe, is our duty.
I know that many of my noble friends do not like or want the alternative vote system. Frankly, I am inclined to agree. As this Bill allows your Lordships to vote in the proposed referendum, I can let you into a secret: I will vote no.
I can let your Lordships into another secret: my noble friend Lord McNally will vote yes. Some might think, as our votes will cancel each other out, we should just stay at home and have a quiet dinner together, but we will not, because both of us are agreed that the British people should have this choice, and we will each campaign for the answer we seek.
How odd it would be if this unelected House, which lately voted overwhelmingly against the very idea that your Lordships should be elected, should have the temerity to tell the elected House how to proceed on its own election or to deny its wish to give the people their say.
The Lords Constitution Committee has now published its report on the Bill. It states that there has not been enough consultation on it. Respectfully, I disagree. The proposals in this Bill apply entirely to the other place. It has been rigorously examined there over eight days on the Floor of the House and through 35 Divisions. It reflects the settled will of the elected House.
On the referendum, the Government have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and administrators, and the commission has declared itself broadly satisfied that sufficient progress has been made to enable the local returning and counting officers to run the polls well and that voters will be able to participate in them.
There has been speculation about the last possible date for Royal Assent to allow the referendum to happen on 5 May. I believe there is more than adequate time. It is certainly important that, commensurate withfull scrutiny in this House, we give participants and campaigners in the referendum as much time as possible to prepare for a full and informed campaign. We owe that to the electorate, but it is possible to do that and allow enough time to examine the Bill, which I hope will complete its passage as soon as possible in January 2011.
I do not want to make unnecessary political points, but I remind noble Lords opposite of a forgotten document: A Future Fair for All, the manifesto of the party opposite only this spring, written by their current leader. On page 62, it talks of, "A New Politics". It continues:
"To ensure that every MP is supported by a majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons".
There is a small quibble: the party opposite promised a referendum by October 2011. The Bill proposes it in May 2011-one year into this Parliament, but that is a far slower timetable than the six-month one used by the party opposite for the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1997.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Is not there a big distinction, in that what the Opposition, then in government, were proposing was a pre-legislative referendum, not a post-legislative referendum, which is an important constitutional distinction?
Lord Grocott: Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I hate to have to admit it in public, but we lost the general election. Can the noble Lord point me to a constitutional principle which tells us that parties which lose the general election are thereby bound to put to the electorate ad infinitum the same proposals on which they lost?
Lord Strathclyde: There is none. I was just hoping that there might be a little consistency from the party opposite and that it would wish to support the coalition in giving the people their say on whether there should be an alternative vote system.
The reason to have the referendum on 5 May is that it will save money-about £30 million-to hold it on the same day as other votes. About 84 per cent of the UK electorate can go to the polls for local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies on 5 May. I do not see the purpose of dallying a few months, at a cost of £30 million, to get to the self-same place.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: On that particular point, is the Leader of the House not aware that because of the chaos in the Scottish elections in 2007, when many people lost the right to vote because of spoiled ballot papers, the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament have now legislated so that council elections, which were due to take place next May, will take place a year later, in 2012? Is it not absolutely daft then to add the referendum to the complex elections for both the constituencies and the list that will take place, when the Scottish Parliament has freed it, as it were, by getting rid of the council elections on that day?
Lord Strathclyde: I do recall the chaos, and the noble Lord is right to refer to it. I hope that a number of lessons were learnt as a result of that, but the referendum question is different from the issues raised in May 2007. It is a very simple yes/no question. I am sure that our respective countrymen in Scotland will be able to decide between the two.
I hope that we can agree with the other place on the question of the date and the other provisions in the Bill: that the size of that House should be reduced, and the unfairness resulting from imbalances in the size of parliamentary constituencies rectified.
Surely, under any electoral system, people's votes should have as equal weight as possible. That is not the case for the people of Warrington South, which last December had just under 80,000 electors; their vote is worth a quarter less than the people of Preston, which had 60,000. This is not an anomaly: these differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, a vote in Arfon in Wales had twice the weight of a vote in Falkirk. This inequality is compounded by the drawn-out process by which boundaries are drawn. It took more than six years to complete the last review in England. The constituencies in place for the 2010 general election were based on data that were a decade old. That is not fair for electors. Other countries draw their boundaries far more quickly.
Lord Martin of Springburn: We must be even-handed, my Lords. The noble Lord will know that, because of the Scotland Act, there was a reduction from 72 seats down to 60. It was Lady Cosgrove, the High Court judge, who looked after these matters. This matter was dealt with very efficiently and a report was put before Parliament in due course. So it is not always the case that it is a long drawn-out process.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that of course is right, which is why I pointed out the case in England. In Scotland there was a reaction to the Scotland Act and the reduction in the number of seats. It does not mean that it always has to take a long time, but in England it demonstrated that it did. Maybe in Scotland these things are, on the whole, managed rather better.
The new rules put in place by this Bill will require that every constituency is within 5 per cent either side of a single size. To ensure that constituencies remain equal and up to date, boundary reviews will take place on a five-yearly basis. The Bill will also set the size of the other place at 600 MPs. This is a modest reduction of around 8 per cent and will save the public an estimated £12 million a year.
Lord Maples: I am grateful to my noble friend. Does he agree that an electoral system which, at the general election in 2010, required the Conservative Party to get 40 per cent of the vote to get an overall majority but Labour to get only 34 per cent cannot possibly be considered fair?
Lord Wills: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Before he moves off this point about the size of the reconstituted House of Commons, does he recall that at the election both the coalition partners were committed to reducing the House of Commons to below 600? Can he explain to this House what exactly changed their minds about that?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in the same way as the figure of 650 is one that has developed over time and is basically an arbitrary one, so the figure of 600-I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, plucks a figure from the air. It was not quite like that. Six hundred strikes me as being a nice, round figure. But these are precisely the points that we will take up in Committee.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the number of new Peers since the general election is infinitesimally small compared with the number of new Peers introduced during the period of new Labour. Moreover, no one is suggesting that these new Peers will cost £12 million to house and look after in this House.
Lord Strathclyde: Given that ministerial salaries have already had a 5 per cent cut since the general election, the answer to that is: not much more. The other place has considered all of these questions carefully.
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: Does the noble Lord accept that this is a constitutional issue, not a financial issue; and that by reducing the number of MPs but not reducing the size of the Executive, the Government will weaken the Commons' ability to hold the Executive to account?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I fully expect that this will be an issue that we shall discuss in detail when we get to the Committee stage. The Government have already expressed a desire to reduce the size of the Executive, but not in this Bill, not at this time, not at this stage.
My right honourable friend's proposals will result in constituencies of around 76,000 electors, and over a third of existing constituencies are within the approximate range that will result from this Bill. That, I believe, is a reasonable proposal.
We look back at how the Duke of Wellington wisely led this House to allow reform of the constituencies in another place, and we marvel at the fact that your Lordships originally resisted it. So I think that, in future generations, if people read our debates, they will marvel at any speech by noble Lords or any other ditchers or diehards who venture to suggest that the disparities in current constituencies should be preserved.
As is now well known since the debate earlier today, the Bill preserves two specific constituencies: the island groups of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. Both are dispersed island groups which cannot readily be combined with the mainland. In recognition of the fact that certain parts of the United Kingdom are very sparsely populated, the Bill caps the size of a constituency at just larger than the largest now-Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
It is important that consultation is effective, and that is why the Bill reforms the system. It triples the time that people and political parties have to make written representations from one month to three. Local people will be better able to make their points to the commissions, and the overall review process will be faster and more efficient.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the Leader has given way, and I appreciate that it is difficult at this stage. However, I wonder if he will comment on this section of the Bill in the context of constituencies where there is a low level of electoral registration. His noble friend sitting next to him referred to an "average" on the radio this morning, but we all know that non-registration is much higher in impoverished communities in city centres. What are the Government doing in advance of this proposal to change constituency numbers to ensure that the electorate have a proper chance and are encouraged to register?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, of course registration is important, and currently the average registration in the United Kingdom is 90 per cent, which, by international comparisons, is extremely high. We will continue to encourage people to register their votes and play a part in the democracy that we have in this country.
The commission will continue to use the electoral register as the basis for its reviews, as it has done for decades. To go on to the point that the noble Baroness just raised, as the secretaries to the Boundary Commissions themselves have noted, the register is the most comprehensive data source that is regularly updated, and this Government will continue to seek ways of ensuring that more individuals exercise their right to register.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Does the noble Lord accept that low registration in inner-city constituencies means high-population constituencies? Is that not a central flaw in the Government's whole approach?
Lord Strathclyde: No, my Lords. First, the basis of deciding constituencies based on the size of the electoral register is well precedented. Secondly, the Government will continue to seek ways of ensuring that individuals exercise their right to register. So we will want to avoid the problem that the noble Lord raises.
Members of this House have opposing views on which is the better system with which to elect Members of the other place, but the place for that debate is during the campaign. At the end of the campaign, it will be for the voters to decide which system will be used in the future, and this is fair too.
Before I finish, I will briefly outline the effect of the substantive clauses. I know that many noble Lords wish to speak, so I will not detain the House with a clause-by-clause commentary. I hope it will suffice to say that there are three main parts to this Bill: provisions for a referendum to be held and combined with other polls on 5 May are found in Clauses 1 to 7 and Schedules 1 to 9; provisions for implementation of the alternative vote system in the event of a yes vote in the referendum are found in Clause 9 and Schedule 10; and provisions to reform the setting of parliamentary boundaries are found in Clauses 10 to 13. The remaining Clauses 14 to 19 and Schedule 11 deal with technical and financial aspects of the Bill, and that is it.
It is not a complex Bill. It offers a referendum on the alternative vote, reduces the size of the House of Commons and makes the size of constituencies more equal. This is a fair Bill and a clear Bill. It gives people choice on how they vote and a more equal say when they do vote. The other place, which is uniquely affected by it, has approved it, and I commend it to the House.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, together with my noble friend Lord Bach, I shall pick up the baton so expertly carried by my right honourable friend Mr Sadiq Khan and my honourable friend Mr Chris Bryant in another place. We have heard two speeches today from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House. In the first, he refused to engage with the issue at all, and in the second, he said that we should not think about amending the Bill because the House of Commons has approved it. I regard this House as responsible for improving legislation so, if the noble Lord does not mind, we will reject his second invitation.
This has been described as the most important constitutional Bill since 1832. Those are not my words but a description of the Bill by the right honourable Mr Nicholas Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who came to office stressing that his job is to raise what he described as the hitherto lamentable standards of our politics. As he put it on 19 May 2010,
The Deputy Prime Minister had the opportunity in this Bill, the most important constitutional change since 1832, to put his sanctimonious mouth where his money is. Instead, there has been no Green Paper, no public consultation and no pre-legislative scrutiny, which are all things that over the years we became so used to hearing the Tories and the Liberal Democrats demanding. At the first opportunity, they have disappointed us and they have disappointed the public out there. This is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy does not help to restore trust.
"The Deputy Prime Minister has accurately described the Bill as 'fundamental to this House and to our democracy'. We regret that the Government's timetable has denied us an adequate opportunity to scrutinise the Bill".
The Bill before your Lordships' House today is an ill-thought-through, partisan muddle of a piece of legislation that, in truth, seems to be more about ensuring the longevity of the coalition than about nobler aims of equality of representation. As the Minister has told us, the Government seek to hold a referendum to ask the British public whether they would like to adopt the alternative vote system for Westminster elections. The intended date for the referendum is 5 May 2011, a day on which more than 80 per cent of the population will, in addition, be asked to vote in local council, devolved Assembly or mayoral elections. The Bill is being rushed through to meet this desired target date.
However, can the Minister explain to the House why the rush with Part 2? The independent boundary commissions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are being asked to redraw every single parliamentary constituency in three years, which is less than half the time that previous periodic boundary reviews have taken. They are being asked to do so before the electoral register, on which the new constituencies are to be based, can be brought up to date to correct for the estimated 3.5 million voters who are currently missing from it. Under-representation is the real scandal, but this Government feel that that can wait to be addressed until after they have railroaded through new constituencies based on flawed data that will inevitably punish the people to which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours referred. This is not fair but nonsensical.
If all that were not illogical enough, the Government-and the noble Lord did not even mention this-seek to take away any serious public say in the redesign of constituencies. Public inquiries, which are the democratic life-blood of boundary reviews and which allow local people a say in what happens to
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The committee's criticism of the process is all the more heated-rightly so, we would argue-for the lack of any pre-legislative consultation. It is an insult to democracy and to the principles that we in this House hold so highly that a measure to enact constitutional change of such lasting significance has not been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation. Only last month, the Leader of the House said that the Government are committed to pre-legislative scrutiny because,
Lord Strathclyde: I do not like to overquibble with the noble and learned Lord, but I went on to say that early Bills in a Session could hardly be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny because they were early Bills in the Session.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: What a load of nonsense. Of course they could be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I shall tell the noble Lord what you do. You say, "Let's have pre-legislative scrutiny first", as I understand the Government are doing in relation to House of Lords reform. Why could that not have been done in relation to Part 2 of the Bill?
Lord Tyler: The noble and learned Lord was a very distinguished member of the previous Administration. Does he recall that it took two years to bring forward any proposals on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and that, when the Bill came forward, it acquired a completely new clause on AV that had not been subject to any pre-legislative scrutiny? Was that not just the same thing as what he is now suggesting?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, exemplifies the attitude of the Liberal Democrats, who seem to think that the Bill is splendid and marvellous. Look at them. The moment that they have the most important constitutional Bill since 1832, they simply
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This is an unsatisfactory Bill. As its specific proposals are not to be found in either of the coalition party's general election manifestos, we must conclude that not only is it an unsatisfactory Bill but, as the noble Lord appeared to be conceding, it has no mandate. This is truly a shame. We on this side of the House support the holding of a referendum on the electoral system for elections to the House of Commons and we approve of the stated intention to bring the size of Westminster constituencies more into line with each other than they are at present, but the way in which the Government articulated their proposals and rammed them through in another place quite hypocritically-as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has demonstrated-was shoddy. Then they say, "We can't change it because the other House has approved it". I should say to the noble Lord that this has succeeded in uniting opposition to their plans.
First, on the Liberal Democrat part of the Bill, the AV referendum, I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the provisions in Part 1 are not in reality a referendum Bill. The Bill seeks to change our system of voting from first past the post to an alternative vote system, but it makes the introduction of those changes subject to a yes vote in a referendum. The referendum in this Bill is not advisory, as in all previous referendum Bills in this country, but binding. There is a requirement on the Minister to lay the order that will introduce the changes. It is totally unclear from the Bill whether it will be a negative or an affirmative order that will fundamentally change our electoral system. We need therefore to scrutinise very carefully the provisions concerning the new system.
The Bill proposes that the referendum will take place on the same day as elections already scheduled in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and most local authorities in England. The Government have failed to consult with the devolved institutions on the timing of the referendum. The plans have been condemned by the devolved Assemblies, but the Government have arrogantly ploughed ahead regardless and have not explained the magic of this date. We need to ensure that, if there is a referendum, it is one that best addresses the development of the electoral system in our country.
The following are points that we will explore in the next stages of this Bill. First, the referendum should be advisory and not binding. Secondly, the referendum should give voters the opportunity to vote on other systems apart from just first past the post or AV. Thirdly, the date should be moved to a date when there are no other elections. Fourthly, there should be a threshold of yes votes measured against a total number of those who can vote in the referendum.
Part 2 proposes a reduction in the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs and a redrawing of constituency boundaries that-give or take 5 per cent-will prioritise the equal size of parliamentary seats above all other factors. Considerations of community, local ties, shape and accessibility of constituencies and geographical
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I apologise. The noble Lord is absolutely right. It was the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who said that the figure was plucked from the air. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that it was "a nice round figure". Thank you very much. Does the 600 figure have anything to do with research from the University of Liverpool, conducted for "Newsnight", which clearly demonstrates that Labour will be the net losers in this situation? Labour would lose 25 seats to the Tories' 13 and the Lib Dems' seven.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Perhaps I may say that the unspoken interventions of my noble friend Lord Dubs are more powerful than the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. What is the effect of removing 7.7 per cent-some 50-of the total of MPs? According to Professor King, the respected psephologist, the average constituency size will go up from 66,000, which it was at the end of the Second World War, to around 105,000 by the time of the next election.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I appreciate that. The reason why I refer to that figure is because that is the group of people that the MP has to deal with. If someone comes in and says, "I want some help", I do not think that you say, "Can you prove to me that you are a voter?".
MPs provide the pool from which Ministers are chosen. That pool would be reduced. The removal of 50 MPs would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs available to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account. Professor King said:
I hope that, in the five days that it cobbled together this agreement, the coalition thought about what effect this number-to quote the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, "a nice round number"-would have on our democracy.
Why does the coalition propose the reduction? The Deputy Prime Minister, whom I mentioned earlier, said that it was because the legislation underpinning
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Crucial in the Bill is the method for determining new constituency boundaries. With the exception of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, a new system will apply to all constituencies. The crux of the new system is that the driving factor will be the number of constituents in a constituency. We agree with the need for substantially greater equalisation of constituency size and that there should be a small number of exceptions to the process, but we consider that the constituencies to be treated as exceptions to the system should be identified and chosen in a fair way. Why not choose the Isle of Wight? Why not recognise the importance of keeping Cornish and Devonian constituencies separate from each other? We support the inclusion of the two exceptions that are already there, but we think that there should be more and that their selection should be entrusted to someone other than a politician. Let there be a fair process. If the hybridity route has been rejected by this House, perhaps there should be an inquiry conducted by the boundary commissions, which have proved themselves over very many years to be above politics.
As regional, council and even ward boundaries are crossed in the onward march to perfectly sized constituencies, representation will become more strained and harder to navigate. For instance, the Government's insistence on only 5 per cent leniency in constituency size would require 385 extra electors to be found for the Forest of Dean and 59 electors to be expelled from Warrington. The prospect is ridiculous.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My noble and learned friend has mentioned the report of the Constitution Committee. Is he also aware of the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in the other place, which is a Conservative-dominated committee? It said:
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I was not aware of that. There seems to be a trend that any independent body within Parliament that looks at this matter criticises the way in which it has been done and criticises the conclusions. The only way in which we can give effect to that is by this House introducing amendments to the Bill.
The prospect of the sort of fiddling around with constituencies to which I have referred is ridiculous and unnecessary. It can be removed by increasing the
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As acknowledged by the chairs of the boundary commissions, every constituency will have to change. If this is not an ideal moment to include the public, who will be most affected by these changes, in a meaningful way, I cannot think what is. The Government talk-just as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has talked-of the big society and of a new politics where power is handed to the people, but they stubbornly ignore the calls of the constituencies of the Isle of Wight or Argyll and Bute to special recognition of their communities. The Government may talk of the big society, but with the abolition of public inquiries they will remove the one meaningful mechanism that allows ordinary people to have their say. I hope that the coalition Government will realise their mistake, but I am not optimistic.
We want to support proposals for greater equalisation and we would welcome discussions with the coalition to achieve it. This sort of Bill is a classic vehicle for seeking consensus rather than ramming things through in this way. We will not support operating in this overly hasty way, which places the power to influence constituency boundaries out of reach of local people and which in the short-term will disfranchise 3.5 million people in the country, the vast majority of whom are young, living in private rented accommodation, in poverty and from the BME communities.
This Bill will promote rapid and damaging changes to our constitution in order to have the new boundaries in place by the next election. It will do so at great cost to local communities and to the unregistered voter, and it will do long-term damage to faith in our politics. We can achieve the goal of equalisation without the damage that this Bill will cause. I hope that the fact that there is now a coalition embracing the Tories and the Liberal Democrats does not mean that this House loses its reputation for amending Bills when they need amending. I hope that the House will join together to make this Bill a much better Bill than the poor, partisan Bill that it is at the moment. It can be done, and I ask your Lordships' House to help us to do that.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I find myself in considerable agreement with the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Within six days, this House has seen the Government deal with two Second Readings of Bills of immense constitutional importance. Noble Lords will recollect that last Tuesday we had the Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill, and now we have this matter before us. The Bills have a great deal in common, but what is most striking is the fact that the Government seem to be very much on the defensive and, if I may say, on to a loser in respect of them both. They are on a loser in relation to the arguments that have been and will be deployed in this House later today and tomorrow, and very much on to a loser in relation to the castigation of both Bills by that most distinguished body of persons, the Select Committee on the Constitution. The committee's castigation has not been a mild dissertation on what the alternatives might have been. It was not a slap on the wrist, as I described it the other evening. Rather, it was a magisterial rebuke of such dimensions and intensity that it would cause, I suggest, any sensitive Government to smart in embarrassment.
One is tempted, in relation to both these losses, to remember Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest". Losing one is indeed unfortunate, but losing both smacks of carelessness. That will be the verdict of the community not only in relation to these two matters over the long term, but also very probably in relation to the third, which will be with us in a few weeks or perhaps months, on the Government's protection of their position in the House of Commons. They will be protecting themselves on a five-year basis, taking out a lease on a certainty of five years rather than having a month-by-month tenancy, as it were, along with the other provisions of that Bill.
On the question of the attempt to equalise the size of constituencies in the United Kingdom, it is of course superficially attractive to aim for equality all round. But that is the most shallow and superficial approach imaginable. It is based entirely on the mirage of a chimerical conception. You cannot achieve, with a mere mathematical formula, any form of total equality. Even with constituencies of exactly the same size, you would not achieve equality. Let us assume for the purposes of argument that the AV provision is not carried by a referendum-and I would be surprised if it would be. If that is so, you would still have inequalities. Constituency A will have a successful Member elected by 37 per cent of the electorate, while constituency B would have a 55 per cent vote and constituency C 65 per cent. Where is the equality in the situation of a compact urban constituency covering a few square miles in which a constituent living at the furthest periphery can walk to the office of his Member of Parliament in 20 minutes, compared with a massive rural constituency comprising a couple of counties where it would take half a day's travel to achieve the same result? No equality is possible. Slavish adherence to a mathematical formula does nothing to bring about equality save in the most shallow and chimerical way.
The price that has to be paid for this is high. Many constituencies are communities that have a history. They have a soul, an identity and a cohesion that will
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That position is one which will bring about the greatest injustice of all in Wales. The total number of seats in Wales will inevitably be reduced under the plus or minus 5 per cent on 76,000 rule from 40 to 30-a reduction of 25 per cent. Wales will have fewer seats than it had at the time of the Great Reform Act 1832. Many will say, "Come off it. You should be saying not that it is wrong now to change the system but that it was wrong not to change it over the decades". That argument was put to Mr Kenneth Clarke when he was Home Secretary and dealing with the Boundary Commission Act 1992. He said, "No, I am not having it. Wales is a national entity; there is here a constitutional arrangement of long standing which I am determined to honour". The situation now is exactly as it was in 1992.
There is one further consideration in relation to Wales-the question of devolution. I raised that point with the Deputy Leader of the House in June of this year and asked him whether there would be an over-cull of Scotland and Wales because of devolution. I received a straight and clear answer-no. So the situation in relation to Wales turns entirely upon the question of the 76,000 plus or minus 5 per cent rule. That is entirely wrong and the matter must be looked at again.
The question of reducing the total number of Members of Parliament compounds the evil. We are in a situation where Members of Parliament-some of them deservedly; most of them undeservedly-have been castigated and regarded as extremely unworthy persons. The coalition Government are saying, "Yes, we agree with you. They are pretty rotten chaps so we will get rid of 50 of them". I will not animadvert on the question of why it is 50 rather than 115, as proposed by the Conservative Party, or 150 as proposed by the Liberal Democrats but, be that as it may, I make the point, with as much force as I can possibly command, that there never was a factual basis for that calculation. One could easily argue that, if an in-depth inquiry had been held into the number of seats the House of Commons should have, it is at least as possible that the inquiry would have found that we needed more Members of Parliament rather than fewer.
Let us consider the facts. It is said that we have more Members in our House of Commons than most other Parliaments in Europe. That is perfectly true,
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The point has been eloquently made more than once already in the debate that it is not as though slavish adherence to mathematics is of itself any panacea because you cannot slavishly adhere to that which is impure and incomplete in itself-in other words, a register of December 2010 that is inaccurate to the tune of 3.5 million.
I doubt very much whether the Conservative Party really believes that it is necessary to reduce the numbers of Members of Parliament. It has given the wrong message-a message which belongs more to Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado", Pooh-Bah and Ko-Ko-remember the little list of the people who should disappear-than to the bringing about any equity in this situation.
I refer the House to the evidence given in 2003 by a Member of Parliament, a member of the Conservative Party, to the Boundary Commission in relation to the question of reducing the numbers of Members of Parliament. He said that he was entirely against it and that he hoped very much that the idea would be abandoned. He was the Member of Parliament for Witney, Mr Cameron.
This Bill, the one that we dealt with six days ago and the one that we will be dealing with in a couple of months' time will have a massive impact on the whole situation; it will be epoch-making. It will not cause equity but it will bring about total chaos.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, the Church of England has been around for some very considerable time. We have centuries of experience of making changes and we have not always got it right. What we have learnt, though, is that change management is a skill which has to be honed with experience-and my experience still tells me that trying to run two unrelated and non-interdependent changes at the same time is fraught with difficulty.
With regard to the voting system for the other place, noble Lords will know that the established church has for many years adopted the principle of the single transferable vote for election to its own governing body, the General Synod. While the church will not be putting forward a corporate line on the alternative vote, I would comment that there is a danger that under this system the member elected, rather than being "the one whom most people like", as is often claimed, could better be described as "the one
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The redrawing of the constituency boundaries may seem, on the face of it, to be a welcome move in equalising the size of constituencies, but surely we must not forget the law of unintended consequences. If, as we are assured, the revisions are to be speedy and often to ensure that the constituencies remain roughly equal in size as registered voter numbers change, small communities on the edge of larger populations could find themselves being moved in and out of a particular constituency at consecutive elections-a kind of electoral ping pong. A different though related problem could arise for a rural community surrounded by urban communities. The small pockets of population in the rural area could be used similarly to the "makeweight chocolates" that I remember from my youth; they would be added to larger urban areas just to make up the numbers.
An advantage of our present constituency system is that a community of interest develops over a period of time. I would suggest that such communities of interest are important, not only to those who live in them but also to those who represent them. To move parts of communities from one area to another, with no recourse to representation from the members of those communities, is in my view wrong. It may suit the numerical purists to be able to work it out on a spreadsheet, but it is destructive of the very thing that we are trying to produce, which is better accountability.
Noble Lords will note that I referred to "those who live in them"-elected Members of the other place represent all who live in their boundaries, as we have heard this evening, and not just those who are registered to vote. There is strong evidence that the urban, more deprived areas are those that have the highest number of unregistered eligible voters. That view is supported by the Electoral Commission. These are the very areas that are likely to be affected most by the redrawing of the boundaries and the consequent reduction in the number of elected Members.
The north-west as a region has the lowest deviation from the mean electorate in England, based on the election of 6 May 2010. However, under the proposed revisions, it would lose the most representatives of any English region. I hope that these proposals will be looked at again and that a solution will be found that is both locally supported and fairer in impact than the present suggestion. To do less would, I suspect, be to disfranchise large numbers in my diocese.
"Act in haste and repent at leisure": I fear that that may be the most useful comment with regard to this Bill. The changes proposed are far-reaching and, as the noble and learned Lord said, they are untested-they were not even in an election manifesto. The Bill also has major implications for other constitutional changes that are being talked of, not least in relation to your Lordships' House. In humility, I ask that we think carefully about separating parts of the Bill and allow time for that community of interest to develop around an agreed way forward.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Any port in a storm. I say to my noble friend that I am supporting it because I am very much in favour of the second half of the Bill, which deals with the reduction in numbers in the House of Commons and the equalisation of votes in constituencies. I do not care for the first half of the Bill, but that is the price for having the Bill; it is the coalition price. I think that it is a price worth paying, because I do not think that the referendum will succeed. I am sure that there will be a majority of no votes.
I am opposed to the alternative vote system. I shall speak against it at rallies and all the rest of it. I am rather surprised that my new friends the Liberals are quite so keen on the alternative vote. After all, Roy Jenkins's commission savaged it and said how unsatisfactory it was. However, my surprise is even greater that large parts of the Labour Party have embraced the alternative vote. I would have thought that they had had enough of the alternative vote. They have just gone through the process of having an alternative vote in electing their leader. It wreaked havoc on their party and did not produce the best man as the winner. The result of every alternative vote is that you have to try to persuade yourself that the person who won was the best man, when everyone knows that he is not the best man; he is the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. If the Labour Party continues to embrace the alternative vote system, all I can say is that the position was well described by Kipling, who said:
Lord Snape: I am sure that the House is grateful for that bit of doggerel, but will the noble Lord accept from me that not all of the Labour Party is in favour of the AV system? I will find myself campaigning alongside him against that prospect later, but will he come to the nitty-gritty of the Bill and his support for it? Is it not about political advantage for his party rather than anything else?
I favour the second half of the Bill because three years ago I took a Bill through your Lordships' House that did very nearly the same thing. The Bill was to reduce the House of Commons by 10 per cent, which was then Conservative Party policy, so there would have been not 50 but 65 fewer Members. It was also designed to equalise votes. I was interrupted by my new noble friend Lord Rennard-yes, he is in his place-who knows a thing or two about constituencies
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Why do I think so? The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, talked about the numbers in other countries. We have a population of 60 million and we have 600 MPs. Compared to other countries, we could be described as well represented. Japan has twice our population and 470 MP equivalents. Russia has two and a half times our population and 450 MP equivalents. America has five times our population but just 430 Congressmen and 100 Senators. Six hundred is quite a good number for the electorate's representation. In Scotland and Wales, there are also the local Members of Parliament, who deal with most of the complaints of their constituents, as powers have been considerably devolved. There is plenty of representation at all levels where people can go and seek support from their elected representatives.
Under the Bill, the new constituencies will have an average electorate of 76,000, give or take 5 per cent either way. The former Lord Chancellor wanted 10 per cent, which would largely negate some of the Bill's effects, but he is used to putting forward such amendments. At the moment, the size of an electorate in England is 72,000, in Scotland it is 65,000, in Northern Ireland it is 63,000 and in Wales it is 56,000. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and I were both in the House of Commons. It was a long time ago.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Time runs not to the memory of man. The noble Lord had quite a small constituency compared to an English constituency. I think that his electorate was about 50,000. That meant that English seats had 14,300 more electors than Welsh seats. There is substantial overrepresentation. You cannot deny it. If democracy means anything, it should be that one vote is equal wherever it is, but it is not. The Welsh voters who put the noble Lord into power as an MP were much more powerful than the voters who put me into power in England; they had a greater say on our nation's affairs. The noble Lord cannot shake his head; it is a fact. It is true and realistic. There is massive overrepresentation.
That can be seen not just in Wales. Islington in London has an electorate of 67,000, whereas just a little way away in Brent-these are Labour seats-the electorate is 87,000. There is no logic to this and it is indefensible.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Yes, and I enjoyed that enormously. I do not see where that comes into it. The constituency eventually disappeared altogether, it was so small. But if you think generally of all the other, great constituencies in the country-I would not want to make a personal matter of it-that is the plain fact. There has to be a greater equality.
Labour's attitude, from what the noble and learned Lord the former Lord Chancellor was saying tonight, is that this Bill should not proceed because a large number of people are unregistered in our inner cities. The general comment was that it was not fair to do it until registration had gone up. I find that rather an astonishing argument. Some electoral scholars call the people who do not register non-people, although they are not non-people but actual people. It is quite possible for people to register if they are interested in politics; if they are interested in affecting society, they can register. It is their duty and responsibility if they wish to have it. If the Labour Party wishes to pursue that argument very far, it should ask itself what it did in office about registration of the electorate.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: We introduced individual registration and it drove up registration to more than 90 per cent. It is completely wrong to say that people do not want to register because they are not interested in politics. If you have a registration drive, registration goes up. The noble Lord is talking rubbish.
Lord Baker of Dorking: With great respect, I ask the noble and learned Lord to address the figures. That is a total exaggeration, which is not unknown from the former Lord Chancellor. In fact, very little was done, and I have read apologies from those on the former government Front Bench in the other House saying that they did not do enough. I ask the noble and learned Lord to read Hansard occasionally.
Among the other things I favour in this Bill is the proposal that the Boundary Commission should do five-yearly reviews. We have been accused of just looking after the Conservative interests in this Bill, but I have seen situations when Labour in office has deliberately delayed boundary reviews. Let me give an example. Before the 1970 election I had won a by-election in Acton, which was a Labour seat. We were coming up to the 1970 election and a boundary review was published, which was going to make my seat a safe seat, so I had a vested interest in it. Alas, the Home Secretary of the day, Jim Callaghan, did not share that interest and did everything that he possibly could to manoeuvre to prevent the Boundary Commission proposals coming before Parliament. It was a shameful process; he tried to jiggle a few seats here and a few seats there, and it had to be withdrawn. So for electoral advantage the Labour Party rigged the system in the 1970 election, and it has done it before.
Successive Governments have always been rather slow to introduce Boundary Commission reports. As a result, you had the electorate of 2000 for the 2010 election, while the 2005 election was on the electorate of 1991. Successive Governments have delayed. So I welcome the fact that this will be done on a five-yearly basis.
I am also glad that public inquiries are going to be scrapped. I do not know how many Members of this House have attended a public inquiry of the commission, but they will all agree that it is a misnomer to call it a public inquiry. At the ones I attended, no ordinary citizens turned up at all. The only people who turned up were the ward councillors and their wives-I suppose they are ordinary citizens-the sitting Member of Parliament, the various candidates and their election agents. It was really a rehearsal of all the submissions they had made to the Boundary Commission. Those with the small interests of the locality were not there at all. Moreover, with regard to the findings of those inquiries, the greatest changes that they have ever instituted were to change the name of the new constituency. In the whole history of the Boundary Commission there have been three inquiries leading to significant changes in the boundaries.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Those changes are as modest as the change that the noble and learned Lord was speaking about earlier concerning the movement of Charlwood from Surrey to Sussex. That happened to be in my constituency. They are very minor changes on the edge.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. That brings to mind two public inquiries that I was involved in when the constituencies that I represented in Liverpool were abolished in two successive reviews. A quite significant change was made as a result of the first public inquiry. I regret that significant change was not made as a result of the second. But many ordinary people and communities did attend and participate in those inquiries and I very much regret the removal of the right of people to appear at those inquiries to contest decisions made by the Boundary Commission.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I appreciate that some will feel that, but in my experience no members of the public turned up at all and I think that that was more the pattern. Occasionally they do, but very rarely. Obviously, they did in the case brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Finally, if you are going to have an equal and fair democratic system, where votes should have equal value, you have to address the problem of unequal boundaries. Other countries do this on a regular basis, such as Australia and New Zealand, and in America it goes on all the time. It is a sensible thing to do. I know that it upsets local communities. I remember listening to a speech by Michael Foot in the House of Commons when he represented Ebbw Vale, which was very reminiscent of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when Ebbw Vale was to be very much changed and expanded. It was a most moving speech of the kind that Michael Foot could
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I come back to the point made by my new-found campaign colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, about political advantage. Yes, I am glad that the Bill removes quite a large part of the advantage that the Labour Party has at all general elections. At the general election, we had to be eight to nine points ahead in the opinion polls before we got to a level playing field with the Labour Party. What fairness is there in that? That is partly due to the maldistribution of seats around the country. So I want a fairer and more equal playing field; I want the checker board of politics to be on an even table. That is what this Bill does.
Lord Hart of Chilton: My Lords, I put on record that I am a member of your Lordships' Constitution Committee, whose report was published last Thursday. The Bill today is one of three promoted by the coalition. Two have commenced their parliamentary process and the third, for an elected House of Lords, will appear at some unspecified date next year. Each impacts on the other, but the coalition is proceeding with them in isolation. The evidence of the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Harper was that the underlying purpose for constitutional reform is a desire to win back the confidence of the British people by electoral reform, greater accountability and legitimacy, reducing the power of the Executive and increasing the power of the legislature. Those are important ideals and put in a rather more high-flown way than the noble Lord, Lord McNally, put them this morning on the radio, when he said that the Bill was really about ironing out a few wrinkles. That seemed to assume that the House of Commons was a crumpled frock that needed a bit of tightening.
The Constitution Committee points out that proposals for major constitutional reform should be subject to prior public consultation and legislative scrutiny. There are obvious advantages in doing that: first, by seeking consensus on important issues, not just in principle but in detail, in order to ensure that the principles work; secondly, by testing the evidence for the proposals; thirdly, by considering the implications of one proposal on another; and, fourthly, by seeking to explain and justify, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, constantly reminds us, how the proposals fit into an overall constitutional framework.
The coalition seeks to justify the rush to legislation on the basis that the referendum on AV needs to take place on 15 May next year, but that only justifies Part 1 of the Bill. It does not justify Part 2. The timetable for the Bill is so tight that it runs the risk of deadlines not being met. That is why the Bill was rushed through the Commons. Hansard records the controversy in the five heavily whipped and guillotined days, with some Members of the other place expressing the hope that your Lordships would provide the scrutiny that they could not, while the report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is heavily critical of the Bill.
The absence of any full, proper and normal consultation and scrutiny for a constitutional Bill is nowhere more apparent than in the provisions relating to parliamentary constituencies. There has been: no coherent explanation for the number chosen for the reduction in constituencies to 600; no analysis of population shifts and increases; no proper analysis of comparable legislatures or the missing millions from the electoral register; no proper examination of the roles and functions of MPs; no action on the increase in the power of the Executive at the expense of the Back Bench; and no account of the inter-relationship of the House of Commons and your Lordships' House in the context of proposals for another elected House. How ironic-somebody has mentioned this already-that as 50 elected MPs are hurtled to oblivion from the other place, the door to paradise in here is thrown openand in come another 50 unelected Peers.
Many of your Lordships will wish to comment on the speeding up of boundary reviews, so I simply observe that if the fixed term of Parliament is shorter than five years, for whatever reason, a review could be completed a mere six months before the next election, with the attendant crisis at local level as attempts are made to adapt the new constituency boundaries and contests. Similarly, many will wish to comment on the proposed basis for equalisation. Here, there has been no attempt to achieve consensus and no consultation with the public. What evidence is there that a strict arithmetic formula with little flexibility-just 5 per cent-is preferred by the electorate to more weight being given to geographical, customary or traditional local and historic boundaries?
Finally, may it not be that by removing a right to a local inquiry, many will feel that a sense of legitimacy has been taken away from them, for no good reason, at a time when the confidence and trust of the public is so important? How is this Bill likely to achieve the objectives that I outlined as being the coalition's avowed intentions? First, the Bill will increase the power of the Executive, not diminish it, while by an absence of consensus, consultation and scrutiny, and by an absence of any solid evidence for its proposal, it has failed to make out a case for greater transparency and accountability for constitutional change. All these arguments are ones that the two parties opposite constantly put forward when in opposition. I see now from the papers that the coalition is going to have the audacity to ask us all whether we are happy. I fear that there may be many who, when they actually hear of the provisions of the Bill, will answer in the negative.
Lord Myners: My Lords, I will be brief and confine myself to a single point. I have chosen not to speak on the issue of alternative voting, the referendum or the size of the other place, because many in your Lordships' House are far more knowledgeable and can make a far more effective and informed contribution on those subjects than I can. I speak as a man of Cornwall and to issues relating to Cornwall, which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton has already referred to twice today. Cornwall is bounded by the oceans and the Tamar. At the last general election, we returned six Members to the other place: three for the
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The boundaries, however, of Cornwall-the boundary of the Tamar river-have not been crossed by a parliamentary constituency for 750 years. The Tamar has not been crossed by any local government reorganisation in the past 200 years. Yet this Bill proposes such transgression into the county of Cornwall by voters from the county of Devon. We heard earlier about the preserved status of the Western Isles and the voters from Orkney and Shetland. I am persuaded of the good reason why they are given such a preserved status, but I ask myself whether they are the only constituencies that so qualify. It seems clear to me that Cornwall does, by dint of its geographical extremity. In terms of getting from there, it is probably a longer distance from north Cornwall to London by public transport than from any other constituency in the country of England.
Cornwall has a distinct culture. It has a Celtic history and an economy which is very distinct and different from that of Devon and of Plymouth in particular. The economic position of Cornwall is dire; it is one of four parts of this country which qualify for EU poverty-related grants. The people of Cornwall, even where their homes, their schools and their communities abut the county of Devon, look to the south and west for leadership and self-identity. They look to Cornwall and regard themselves as Cornish, even if they live on the borders of Devon. They do not want to be absorbed into Plymouth or north Devon and it is, quite frankly, shameful that arithmetic should take precedence over identity and common sense.
Not a single Member for a constituency in Cornwall spoke in the other place against this proposal. Not a single Member from Cornwall in the other place voted against the Bill. Today, we had an opportunity, on the earlier Motion from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, for those Members of this House who have had associations with Cornwall to have voted in support of the hybrid proposal. They did not do so, and those from Cornwall and with associations in Cornwall will be recognised as such for their failure to vote and speak up for Cornwall in our earlier debate.
Some people in Cornwall are saying that now is not the time for dissent. They mislead their constituents, arguing that the Bill is not important and that the real point where you exercise your leverage is with the Boundary Commission for England. Yet under the powers of the proposed new schedule in Clause 11(1), in its paragraph 5(1)(a) to (d), the interests of local communities are recognised by the Boundary Commission but are at all times subordinated to the 5 per cent tolerances, while no arguments about boundaries are to be taken in a public arena. I regard this as a very unhelpful step if we want to engage people in democracy, with a sense of being involved in the choice of their own constituency and in having control over the political process.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, who I see is not in his place, asked earlier whether there was any opposition to these changes from the people of Anglesey or those of the Isle of Wight. I cannot speak for people from those constituencies, but I can tell your Lordships that the feeling in Cornwall on this issue is absolutely intense. In our anthem, we sing of Bishop Trelawny and of 20,000 Cornishmen who will want to know the reason why. But 250,000 Cornishmen will want to know why the Liberal Democrats are supporting this change, which strikes at the heart of the identity of Cornwall and its uniqueness.
When we come to Committee, I for one will be proposing that we widen the tolerances from the 5 per cent currently allowed in the Bill to 10 per cent or 15 per cent. As noble Lords have suggested in this debate, that will also provide a greater continuity of relationship. We simply do not want, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn pointed out, people in a constituency for one election but out for the next election. That would be a terrible outcome anywhere in the country but would be devastating in Cornwall.
In the same way that preserved status has been granted to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so that parliamentary constituencies will not cross national boundaries, I will argue that that should also apply to Cornwall. The integrity of Cornwall should be protected by preserved status.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am delighted to follow my fellow Cornishman in this debate. He may well know that I am a direct descendant of the great bishop Jonathan Trelawny, about whom he spoke and about whom we sing in our national song. He is, though, technically incorrect: it would have been totally inappropriate to deal with Cornwall under the hybridity issue. It is much more appropriate, as my colleagues in the other place indicated, to deal with it under Clause 11 and revised Schedule 2. It would be quite possible to amend the Bill if that was the wish of your Lordships' House.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, seemed to have one core message for the House today. What he was really saying was that, because his Government failed in 13 years to make progress on central constitutional reforms, promised to the electorate in their manifestos at a series of general elections, somehow the present Government should therefore proceed more slowly. That seems to come within the definition of "hypocrisy" that he was preaching to us about earlier.
I turn to Part 1 of the Bill. I do not want to spend precious minutes on the merits of AV; that, as has been indicated, is a debate that we will take to the country next year. It seems, though, that the public already see that the first past the post system is no longer fit for purpose. In the 1950s, when I was first interested in politics, that system worked-the two-party system was well represented by first past the post. In the 21st century, though, it patently does not work; the electorate are cheated. When the battle is joined next year, those in the yes campaign can surely robustly
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I hope, too, that when the public are given the opportunity, they, not politicians, will enthusiastically sell AV's potential to strengthen the connection between people and Parliament that was so woefully damaged last year, affecting both Houses; to end the scandalous complacency of safe seats; and to make politics positive again so that elections are about expressing a full preference for those who want to represent you rather than a bald vote against the candidate that you most fear.
That brings me to Part 2. This is where there will be legitimate and proper concerns that we will need to address carefully in your Lordships' House. I agree that, by drawing attention to this section of the Bill and making it clear that this is the really controversial part that we have to analyse and scrutinise, the Constitution Committee has given us a great deal of assistance.
I feel confident that your Lordships' House will not want to challenge the basic principle of Part 2; I think that that was indicated even in the speech from the opposition Front Bench. I hope that we will not challenge the right of the elected House of Commons to give people a say in how MPs are elected, as in Part 1.
The principle in Part 2 is quite simple, as well, as has already been indicated. It is that votes should have an equal value, an equal weight, whether you are in the farthest reaches of rural Cornwall or in the inner cities, and whether you are in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. That is the principle spelt out clearly nearly 200 years ago by the Chartists, from whom Labour claims political descent. Along with their calls for a universal franchise, they recognised that votes for all would be of little use without challenging the rotten boroughs.
Incidentally, I should say to the noble Lord from Cornwall that it was not because of Cornwall's economic strength that we had so many rotten boroughs there-it was because of the Duchy of Cornwall. As it was a royal possession, it was always possible to promote the Court party by having more Members improperly elected from that part of the country.
So, the Chartists expounded the key idea of constituencies of equal size-or, rather, of equal worth. There would be no seat that could simply be constructed to suit vested interests, and no election could be bought with the votes of a few poor and pliant electors.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: I am much obliged to the noble Lord. The fifth point of William Lovett's charter was equal-sized constituencies. Whether he meant it literally is another matter; he was applying his mind to the question of Old Sarum having, I think, seven people living in it and one Member of Parliament while Manchester had two MPs. At the same time, of course, along the same avenue of thought-trying to make Members more answerable to the public-the noble Lord will remember what the sixth point was: annual general elections. Thank God it never came to that.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I should not have gone so far into the issue of the Chartists; the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, is an expert on everything that can be taken literally. I do not wish to pursue him down that course. Perhaps I should say, though, that I represented North Cornwall, and one of the rotten boroughs in that constituency was Bossiney, of which Sir Francis Drake was the rotten borough Member. I think that here were only two electors, one of whom might have been himself.
We in this House would be incredibly unwise to subscribe to the hubris in the other House about alleged gerrymandering, led ad nauseam-I have followed this both in print and in person-by Mr Chris Bryant. At best this was misplaced and, at worst, deliberately misleading. At present, Mr Bryant has 51,554 constituents. I had over 87,000 constituents when I represented North Cornwall. If ever there was a gerrymander, that is it. That is something to which we must surely attach a principle, and it is justifiable to do so.
Since the Bill is about voters and their relationship with Members of Parliament, though, we need to look in detail at how Part 2 will be implemented. There must be a vital role in your Lordships' House for revising that. Having represented Cornish constituencies for some 14 years, I know that special connection between MPs and their constituents. For years people campaign in an area, helping constituents or putative constituents and hoping to earn their trust. We must be careful that the Bill ensures that those links, those distinct local ties, are enabled to stay in place. The Deputy Prime Minister clearly wants that. I carefully examined the statements that he gave to the Constitution Committee, and he said that he is seeking only to give primacy to the electoral numbers in each seat, not to completely override the other factors, which he-not I-lists as follows: community relations, community cohesion, history, the character of an area and the disruption that might be caused. So the issue of disruption to existing constituencies and communities is, at the moment, a serious question under the Bill and we will have to look at it carefully. I think that there are Members on all sides of the House who have formally performed that important constituency role and will agree with me that that is a proper role for us to undertake.
The Bill could lead to an electoral map drawn from scratch, with all the ties that constituents and campaigners have made with one another severed at a stroke. However, I do not believe that that is what Ministers or indeed your Lordships want, and we have a vital role in addressing that problem. I look forward to hearing the Minister.
Lord Wills: I was interested in the noble Lord's quote from the Deputy Prime Minister. This is what the Bill says-no matter what the Deputy Prime Minister says-in relation to the factors that the noble Lord just outlined:
Lord Tyler: That is precisely the role of your Lordships' House. When we reach Committee stage, I am sure there will be general agreement on both sides of the House that we need to look carefully at the order of priority of those criteria. That is precisely what I said. I am delighted to have the support of the Minister who was previously responsible for these matters and sadly had so little effect on other, more senior members of the Administration. We would have made more progress on these issues if he had had his way.
As I have already said, I have a special connection to Cornwall. My ancestry is there and my constituency was there. There is strong evidence from the people I have spoken to and heard from-whom I knew over 40 years in public life there-that keeping Cornwall whole, as the campaign is called, is a priority. It may be that it is a higher priority even than the equality of representation. I hope we can do something in this House to meet that demand, as perhaps we might for others with a particularly compelling case, such as the Isle of Wight. However, we should recognise that it is a dilemma. In both cases it may be that the communities concerned are prepared to accept a lower level of representation in exchange for maintaining their identity. That dilemma is one that should be put fairly and squarely to the people concerned.
The Bill is not a panacea. It is not some holy grail in the scripture of political re-engagement, but it is a good start. Again, I say to noble Members opposite: it is a great pity that they did not start this process when they were given such a long opportunity to do so. The Bill says that people, not politicians, should have the final word over the architecture of their voting system. It says that whichever system we use, everyone's votes should be of roughly equal value. These are good principles from a good Government, and principles that the latter day Chartists on the other side of your Lordships' House should endorse as well. In short, it is a good Bill and, with some work along the way to improve Part 2, it is a Bill we should all be able to support.
Lord Touhig: My Lords, as a Welshman in your Lordships' House, I will direct my remarks to the impact that the Bill will have on Wales and address three main issues: the impact of the Bill on the union; the ending of community-based representation; and the silencing of local opinion in parliamentary boundary changes.
As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, Wales will be more adversely affected than any other part of the United Kingdom by the Bill. If this measure becomes law, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its elected representation in this, the Parliament of the union. It will be the biggest shake-up in representation since the 16th century and it will leave Wales with fewer MPs in Parliament than at any time since 1832. One hundred and seventy-eight years ago Wales sent 35 MPs to Parliament. If the Bill gains the statute book, we will send just 30. It will weaken the voice of Wales in Parliament and it will weaken the union-something I and many others have fought against all our political lives. As I look across to the almost empty Benches opposite, occupied by a once great party that was proud to call itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, I cannot believe that for short-term party-political advantage the Conservatives are prepared to put our union at risk, but that is what the Bill will do.
The Bill will adversely affect the predominantly Welsh-speaking parts of Wales. This was powerfully illustrated in a letter that Lewis Baston, senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, sent to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place. The committee, which has also been mentioned and which has a Conservative chairman and a non-Labour majority, conducted an inquiry into the implications of the Bill, concluded it was wrong and roundly condemned it. Mr Baston said:
"There are currently 5 majority-Welsh constituencies: Ynys Mon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Arfon, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East & Dinefwr. All of these are undersized, and the Bill will mean reduction accompanied by radical boundary changes. The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament".
As I look across the Chamber to the left, I shake my head in disbelief at the Liberal Benches. How can the heirs to Lloyd George, who loved Wales, loved its people and loved its language, support this Bill? Lloyd George must be turning in his grave. Both Tories and Liberals will pay a high price for the Bill when their candidates face the electorate in Wales next spring.
Mr Baston, in the paragraph I quoted, mentioned constituencies that are undersized. This brings me to the heart of the second part of the Bill. The mantra that the Bill's supporters use is "fairness of representation". The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke about it on the radio this morning. Its supporters say fairness of representation can only be achieved by creating constituencies of equal numbers of electors. Why is that the only criterion? Why is that the only definition of fairness that they will admit to? The union of the four nations of these islands, which has allowed us to live as a united country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held this union together.
We do not have a written constitution. Some of us say, "Thank God for that", but had we sat down to write a constitution, would we not have had the good sense to allow for the smaller states of our union to have greater representation in our Parliament than their populations must justify? The United States did that, as did the Australians. Both the United States
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My second point is that the Bill will bring an end to community-based representation in Parliament-a feature of our parliamentary system since the earliest times. When giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, Mr Paul Wood, a member of the Boundary Commission for Wales, said that,
"The creation of very large constituencies, rigidly defined by numbers, will destroy community-based constituencies since it would appear that, to create such constituencies, local ties, geography and tradition are likely to be ignored".
What will the ending of community-based representation in Parliament mean in practice? I see from an exercise carried out by the Electoral Reform Society to redraw the boundaries in Wales based on this Bill that my former constituency of Islwyn will disappear. I am not suggesting that the society's report is definitive but it gives a flavour of what could happen. It suggests that the community of Abercarn should be part of the new constituency of Caerphilly. Abercarn is in the Ebbw Valley; Caerphilly is in the Rhymney valley. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. The community of Cefn Fforest, the society suggests, could become part of the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Ystrad Mynach. Historically, Cefn Fforest and Merthyr Tydfil are in different counties-they are miles apart-separated by mountains and rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. If this Bill becomes law, we will not need a Boundary Commission to settle new boundaries-the new parliamentary seats can be created by anyone with a map, a pencil and an abacus. We might as well give the job to the Flat Earth Society for all the good it will do in preserving local representation.
My third and final point is the proposal to end local public inquiries into boundary changes. The Bill, most disgracefully, does away with this, thus denying local people a say in the drawing up of constituency boundaries. The abandoning of local public inquiries into proposed parliamentary boundary changes will silence the voice of local people. What price the big society now? The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement said of the big society that the aim is,
The Prime Minister said in an article in the Guardian in September that this is the Government who will give power back to the people. How hollow all that sounds now with this Bill, which is silencing the voice of dissent in a way that only people such as Robert Mugabe is used to deploying. The Bill is partisan and there is no motivation for redrawing the constituency map other than Tory Party self-interest. The Liberals have gone along with it in exchange for the holy grail of electoral reform, except that the Bill does not give them electoral reform-it merely promises a referendum on changing the voting system to AV. They do not like it and nor do the Tories, so why on earth are they pursuing it in this way? I suspect that many Liberal supporters in Wales will think that is not much of a prize to gain for the betrayal of selling out the Welsh people.
This is the most partisan Bill I have ever seen. Its aim is to manipulate our constitution to assist the governing parties to remain in power. This House has long prided itself on being the guardian of our constitution. This is the great challenge we face now in defending our constitution from subversion to party-political interests. If we are worthy of our role as constitutional guardians, we need to find the stomach to fight and tackle this Bill head on. To do anything less would be a dereliction of our constitutional duty.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, my interest in this Bill is not so much in the reduction in seats and its effect on boundaries, although I regard the truncation of process in the boundary reviews as outrageous, and from what I hear it is causing concern across the Commons.
I have been through two Boundary Commission inquiries and I know that you simply cannot short-circuit the whole process-it leads to mistakes. For those MPs who do not pull their weight, it does not really matter, but for MPs who take pride in offering a service it is hugely important and can be very disruptive. Anyhow, enough of that, that is for the Committee stage.
My interest is AV and the question asked in the referendum-the Liberal Democrat agenda. Therefore, I direct my contribution to their Benches. I hope that they seriously consider my concerns. I believe in electoral reform and in a preferential voting system for the Commons which allows for the use of more than a single preference. I do not believe in STV for the Commons. I could stomach an additional member system but I am not advocating it. If AV as proposed survives the Bill, I shall reluctantly vote for it but I believe that the system is flawed and should be amended. Furthermore, I do not believe that the public will vote for it. A turnout of more than 30 per cent would surprise me.
A system which allows voters to number candidates 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, eliminating the least popular in turn, has major flaws, which will be exposed during a referendum campaign. I believe that the Liberal Democrats are allowing their electoral reform agenda to be hijacked by a system which they do not believe in and which, if defeated, will delay the electoral reform agenda for a
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The system is far too complicated. Even the Electoral Commission reports admit that the public find it difficult to understand the numbering of candidates and their relevance to the result. The commission believes that public education will help. I do not believe that. People will not be interested. Secondly, Ministers have repeatedly stated that candidates need more than 50 per cent of the vote to win. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said it again this morning on the "Today" programme. That is plainly not true. Furthermore, they are still peddling this myth, using carefully crafted language and skilful juggling of statistical argument. It will all fall apart when exposed to public scrutiny. The 50 per cent argument has become the central plank pushed by advocates of optional preference AV. It will crumble when exposed, as indeed will the argument of those who suggest that AV is some form of proportional representation.
He reveals in simple language a real concern already known to we anoraks. In tightly fought seats, the second preferences of the bottom candidate, the first to be eliminated, can determine who wins the seat. What that means is that the BNP and other extremes, can actually determine who wins, while all second and subsequent preferences of the majority are not even taken into account.
Then we have the work of Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, of the University of Plymouth. Their research into voting behaviour in Queensland, Australia, which uses the Government's proposed system, concludes that the most likely scenario over time is that many voters will treat an AV election just like first past the post, and not cast multiple preferences. Incredibly, in Queensland in 2009, 63 per cent of those who turned out at the state elections voted for just one candidate. It defeats the whole raison d'être of the initiative that the Government are taking. This will be music to the ears of my noble friend Lord Grocott. We then have freak results. Do we really believe that when the public learn that third-placed candidates on the first ballot and, in extremis, fourth-placed candidates, can leapfrog the top-placed candidates and win seats, that they will support the AV system proposed? I believe not.
So why did the Labour Government propose a similar system? The answer is very simple. It was due to a combination of a lack of detailed research, insufficient consultation and a failure to draw lessons from our experience in the mayoral elections. We should have acted years ago and learnt from our experience. In 1990, in an attempt to select a credible system, Labour established the Plant commission, under my noble friend Lord Plant. The commission undertook the task of examining a number of electoral systems, and in its landmark and authoritative report recommended the introduction of a variation of AV called the supplementary vote-SV. In the previous year, prior to the Plant commission being established, I had worked
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With the supplementary vote, there are two columns on the ballot paper-one for first choice and one for second choice. Voters can mark an X in each column if they so wish. All the first preferences are counted. If a candidate has more than 50 per cent, they are elected. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent, then the top two remain and the rest are eliminated. The second preference votes of the eliminated are then added to the top two candidates and counted. The candidate with most first and second preferences is then the winner. It is simple and easy to sell to the general public.
When the system of mayoralties was established in 1998, Nick Raynsford MP and his department had to select an electoral system. They opted for the supplementary vote, the London version of AV, because of its simplicity and the fact that it was easy to sell to the public. It is a well proven system, already in use in the United Kingdom, that has worked very successfully for millions of voters in multiple elections. Boris Johnson and the mayors are elected under it, so why not MPs?
Professor Dunleavy at the LSE, Professor Helen Margetts and a number of other academics, including Professor Simon Hix and a few international commentators, all seem to prefer the supplementary vote, or London AV. Peculiarly, when asked to comment on how the Bill's version of AV would work, both Labour and government spokesmen have used SV arguments to support AV. They did not even know how the system they were supposed to be advocating works-a sort of plagiarism in advocacy. I have often asked MPs how AV works in detail, and most of them got it wrong.
London AV is very popular in London and elsewhere. If we chose the London AV system, support among Labour and Conservative voters for a yes vote would go up and the referendum would be won, whereas the Bill's complex and problematic imported Australian AV model will fail to gain public support.
How do we get ourselves out of this mess? The Liberal Democrats might wish to ask themselves that question, as they control the agenda. We could amend the referendum question in Committee or on Report. I intend to table an amendment on London AV/SV, which I regard as a form of alternative vote, as does Professor Dunleavy. Alternatively, we could amend the referendum question in Clause 1, which states:
This could read, "Should an 'alternative vote' system be used instead?"-we could substitute "an" for "the". The effect would be that, after a yes vote in a referendum, Parliament would have to decide between AV systems. Professor Dunleavy's view is that the electorate may have difficulty in supporting a system that had not been specified. He suggests that an amendment might refer to a question being placed before the electorate after Parliament has specified the system that it wishes to legislate for. I shall therefore also table such an amendment.
Some of my amendments will introduce delay. I am afraid that that is inevitable if we are to place a credible system before the electorate. I appeal to the Liberal Democrats, who have it in their hands to sort out this problem. I am sure that they will find support on the Conservative Benches for a tweaking of the proposed referendum question. I remind the House that it was a Conservative Member of Parliament who moved the SV amendment in the Commons only a few weeks ago. It is not too late to do the same in this House and to change the question that will be asked.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in talking about the alternative vote system and the question that will be put in the proposed referendum. Before turning to the main burden of my remarks, I will make one or two observations about things that have been said, and will ask the Minister three questions.
First, I return to a point that I made in an intervention on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. I refer to the question of public inquiries and reiterate my belief that the public should have the right to contest decisions made by the Boundary Commission. In the 25 years that I served as a local councillor, and the 18 years as a Member of Parliament for an inner-city neighbourhood of Liverpool, I was struck by the alienation and the detached nature of democracy from the grass roots. It is important that we do not entrench that further. Having been through two public inquiries and successive boundary reviews in the constituencies that I represented, Liverpool Edge Hill and Liverpool Mossley Hill, I was very conscious of how important it was that the process was given legitimacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, remarked a few moments ago, if we do anything to undermine the legitimacy of the process, it will not inspire confidence in our democracy.
I am also struck by the remarks that have been made about registration in inner-city areas-which, again, I wholeheartedly support-and by what has been said about geographical and community considerations being taken into account, as well as sheer arithmetic. In another place, Mark Durkan MP said that he felt that the process had been,
He particularly raised the issue of Northern Ireland, which has not yet been referred to in our Second Reading debate. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say something about the effect of the arithmetic on the very delicate balance that has to be sustained in Northern Ireland. Of course, we should do nothing in this legislation that in any way jeopardises what has been achieved there.
My other remark concerns the process through which we have got to this point today. I am aghast at the fact that we have not used pre-legislative scrutiny and that we have not had the opportunity in a Select Committee to try to reach more consensual positions on issues that I think need not divide the House as
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