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I said that I had three questions that I should like to put to the Minister. First, given that Jenny Watson and Peter Wardle, the chair and chief executive of the Electoral Commission, have said that they need at least six months to prepare for a referendum, how can that requirement now be met, as we have passed 5 November and the ballot is scheduled for 5 May 2011? Secondly, can the Minister explain why the Government resisted threshold amendments in another place? Will he confirm that a referendum could be won on as little as 15 per cent of the popular vote? Furthermore, does he accept that such an outcome would, again, call into question the legitimacy of the process? Thirdly, do the Government regard the proposed change to the voting system as a constitutional change-hence the need for a referendum-or is this simply an incremental change in how we govern ourselves? If it is a constitutional change, will the referendum be used as a precedent for how the voting system is determined for your Lordships' House when the Government's next reform Bill is laid before the House? If not, why are elections to the two Houses to be treated differently?
I said that the main body of my remarks would focus on the referendum question which will be used to determine the future shape of our voting system. I will join others in seeking to amend that question, so I was particularly pleased to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, say today that he intends to table amendments to broaden the scope of the referendum question, and I am sure that many others will support him in that.
On 11 January this year, I initiated a short debate in your Lordships' House and argued the case against closed party-list systems, which of course we continue to use in European elections, and for carefully assessing other electoral systems before contemplating any changes to Westminster elections. In that debate, I recalled that at the age of 17, and perhaps in danger of being called an anorak-a word used earlier by one noble Lord about those who are interested in electoral systems-I chaired a meeting for the late and indefatigable Miss Enid Lakeman, who was then director of the Electoral Reform Society and had been sent to our town by Mr Grimond to extol the virtues of the single transferable vote, or STV, system.
We currently use STV in Northern Ireland, where, for well known reasons, we say that we need the fairest possible system. However, we also use it in local elections in Scotland-an experience addressed in evidence by Mr Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy in remarks that he made to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. He said on 22 July, reported at page 3 of the oral evidence:
Therefore, I was particularly glad last May to see that in the general election Mr Clegg gave a pledge that his party would support the single transferable vote in any reform of the voting system. Sadly, pledges
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On 5 October last, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, gave an explanation as to why the decision had been made to jettison previous support for STV. He said:
"If we could persuade our coalition partners and the Labour Party of the merits of STV, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree ... we could then go to one system in all elections".-[Official Report, 5/10/10; col. 8.]
I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, truly believes that, but it is not about persuading his coalition partners or even the Labour Party about the merits of a particular system; surely it is about allowing the electorate to express their views on several alternatives.
We were told earlier that the referendum is to cost £30 million of public money; I think that was the figure given. If it is entirely to exclude a question on whether we might move towards a proportional system-which the alternative vote, AV, is not-this political deal, which superseded the manifesto commitment, will miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a truly fair, just and representative system. Even worse, from the noble Lord's point of view, it is likely to create an alliance among those who oppose the political fix of the alternative vote and leave us with the status quo. Certainly from some of the speeches we have heard today from both sides of the Chamber, the noble Lord would agree that he is likely to be caught in that kind of pincer movement.
This argument is not about persuading other political parties; it is about whether the public should be allowed to decide on something other than the alternative vote, which is neither proportional nor much of an improvement on the present system. This argument involves popular sovereignty and it is surely a matter for our fellow citizens to settle, not political caucuses.
I need hardly remind the noble Lord-in those times we were noble or at least honourable friends-that the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead's 1998 commission reported to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that AV can be even less proportional than first past the post and that:
Mr Clegg has reportedly said that he sees AV as a step towards a proportional system. Perhaps the noble Lord could clarify that remark. What is the timetable? What would be the system? In political life, do you not get some credit for arguing for what you believe in rather than something less? In any event, you do not usually get to your destination by walking in the opposite direction.
As it stands, the Bill provides that the question should read: do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the alternative vote system instead of the current first past the post system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons? As proposition questions in the United States illustrate, voters are quite capable of understanding multiple choices and they are also capable of understanding when real choices are denied them. What are these arguments for STV, arguments which the public have a right to hear?
"By contrast with AV, single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party-a kind of built-in primary, without the extra expense ... Since each party has more than one candidate, there is wider voter choice and the power to eliminate the least suitable".
"There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on, without quotas-a point highlighted this weekend by the Speaker, Mr Bercow ... in comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons". -[Official Report, 11/1/10; col. 354.]
Another contrast between STV and AV is that AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons. That is something which many of us are vigorously opposed to. By contrast, STV would ensure fairness, with the parties' share of the seats more closely reflecting their share of the vote, while avoiding the fragmentation and centralising effect of party lists. That would change the culture and the conduct of politics, ushering in a permanent need to build relationships and alliances and to win pre-legislative agreement before introducing legislation.
One of the outcomes of the 2007 Scottish elections, to which I referred-elections which used STV-was that nearly three-quarters of voters are represented by their first-choice candidate. They now have a choice of representatives to turn to when the need arises. By contrast, AV would leave many voters without a local representative whom they had supported at the ballot box. Nor would AV do anything to end the relentless focus on a handful of key marginal seats-100 or so-which so distorts British politics. Under STV, there are no safe seats and no no-go areas for any party. STV has the added advantage that it requires political parties to coexist, as it has done to such historic effect in Northern Ireland.
By comparison, AV is a very complicated and uncommon voting system, used only in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and, as we have heard, Australia-where, incidentally, 60 per cent of people are reported to want the system scrapped. That does not seem like a compelling case for taking a small step in the wrong direction.
The political reality is that we are saddled with a proposal which neither coalition partner likes. The Conservatives will campaign against it, and the Liberal Democrats-and certainly the old Liberal Party, of which I am a one-time Chief Whip-have never supported it. Only the Labour Party argued for the alternative
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When we come to Committee, this House should do its historic duty and amend the referendum question so that there is genuine voter choice about the way in which we cast our ballots. In this generation, there will be only one opportunity-one chance-to achieve electoral reform, and we have a duty to get it right.
Lord Wills: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has already outed me, I begin with the confession that I was indeed the Minister in the previous Government responsible for the issues with which the Bill is concerned. Had my party been re-elected, I am sure that we would have approached these issues rather differently, but that has not led me to oppose the Bill. I oppose the Bill because a large part of it attempts to rewire our constitutional arrangements for partisan advantage; and that is unacceptable.
Part 1 sets out to deliver a referendum on the alternative vote. Had the Government adopted the approach pursued by the previous Government, I might have felt able to support them on that, although I recognise that some of my colleagues in this place will differ from me on this in all conceivable circumstances.
If agreed in a referendum, I believe that the alternative vote could help to tackle the problem of legitimacy created by the phenomenon of Government after Government-including the present Government-being elected to power with the support of only a minority of the electorate. The alternative vote system is not a panacea for all the problems of legitimacy faced by our political system, but it at least ensures that more MPs will be returned from their constituencies with the support of a majority of those voting. Crucially, it does so while retaining the MPs' direct link with their constituents. Here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who made exactly that point. That is vital for accountability in our democracy.
Sadly, the Government have not followed the careful approach of the previous Government, they have pushed ahead with a process which, as we have already heard, is precipitate; it denies Parliament a proper opportunity to scrutinise such an important constitutional measure. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, pointed out, this referendum is post-legislative.
I shall return to some other flaws with this process shortly, but I turn to Part 2. It aims to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons and equalise the size of the constituencies that remain. It is reasonable at the very least to debate such reduction and equalisation. There is nothing axiomatically right about that Chamber's current size. As the House will know, the principle that all constituencies should be a broadly similar size is already written into legislation.
However, when we examine how the Government are setting about these tasks, we see principles and practice which have long ensured the fair working of our constitution rejected in what I am afraid can only be construed as partisan self-interest. It has long been accepted, as we have heard over and over again this evening, that the boundaries of a constituency should
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Nor do the Government appear to have given any consideration to other relevant factors-for example, the optimum size for a constituency; not a number plucked out of the air, like 76,000, but the optimum number, taking into account the respective role of MPs in their constituencies and their role in Parliament, and the implication for both those roles of further decentralisation of power to local authorities and, indeed, then to local councillors.
Instead of a proper consideration of all these important issues, what we see is the Government claiming that the equalisation of constituency size must be elevated above all these other important considerations. Why? We are not given any satisfactory answer whatever. But then they do not uphold even this dubious principle consistently. Wales, as we have heard, is to lose in one swing of the axe 25 per cent of its parliamentary representation while Northern Ireland, for perfectly understandable reasons, is allowed to depart from the electoral quota rule.
Moreover, as we heard in a previous discussion earlier today, the Bill makes an explicit and privileged exception for two Scottish seats, one of which, I am sure coincidentally, is held by the Liberal Democrat MP, the Deputy Chief Whip of the Government. And then again, as we have already heard, a further exemption from the electoral quota is given on the basis of the territorial extent of a constituency, drawn up coincidentally, I am sure, in such a way that it can have practical effect in only one area of the United Kingdom-the Scottish Highlands, where only one constituency currently falls into this special category: the seat held by the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. So why exactly does the Bill allow the factors of sparsity and geography to be given priority over electoral equality in these places but nowhere else?
It is hard to find anywhere in the Bill anything that could pass as a consistently applied informing principle. The Bill abolishes the ability of local people to have any significant say in the shape of the constituency in which they live, even though local representations have significantly influenced boundary revisions in the past. As we have heard, the Boundary Commission report in 2007 found that just about two-thirds of local inquiries had led to changes in the original recommendations of the Boundary Commission.
Lengthy and time-consuming-exactly the same might be said for democracy itself. Administrative convenience for the Executive is never a good argument for attacking the foundations of accountable democracy.
Then we have the decision on the proper size for the House of Commons. How exactly did the Government alight on the figure of 600? Both the coalition partners were committed before the election to reducing the
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That is right-but they already do. They are only counted once. Every vote is only counted once. What the Deputy Prime Minister appears to mean is that on average it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP. However, that is not because votes for the Labour Party weigh more than votes for other parties; it is the consequence, in part, of the fact that turnout and electoral registration are lower in Labour areas and in part it is because Labour's vote is currently distributed more efficiently within the first past the post system. There is no inherent, systemic bias in favour of the Labour Party. The same system worked against the Labour Party throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
As Liberal Democrat MPs, of all people, should know, if each vote weighing equally means that the share of the vote translates directly into an equal proportion of seats held in the House of Commons, there is only one electoral system that delivers that. We have already heard that tonight. It is proportional representation, which is not on offer in the Bill and carries with it all sorts of other problems that mean that I for one would never want to see it introduced as a method of election into the House of Commons.
If the Government were really so concerned about equality among voters, they would not be seeking to redraw the electoral map on the basis of a register that fails to include over 3 million voters who would otherwise be eligible to vote. Do the Government seriously believe that any credible equalisation of boundaries can take place when some constituencies achieve nearly 100 per cent registration rates while others achieve barely half that? When we look at it, another so-called principle crumbles.
Then there is the way the Bill has been introduced in a display of contempt for Parliament by the Executive. The Labour Government introduced a raft of constitutional reforms, and they always did so by seeking consensus wherever possible on the grounds that whenever constitutional changes are made, they should be made in the interests of the legitimacy of our constitutional system as a whole. This is a crucial principle. These changes should not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued. I am truly sorry that this Government have rejected this approach.
In the rushed passage of the Bill through the other place, not a single Opposition or Back-Bench amendment was accepted by the Government. That is not the only
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If due process and consistent principle do not underpin the Bill, why are the Government bringing it forward? A clue might be provided by the speed with which these measures are being rushed through: speed in rushing this through the other place, speed in holding a referendum less than six months from the presumed passage of the Bill on to the statute book and unprecedented speed in completing the wholesale revision of constituency boundaries. Why the rush? Surely such important constitutional measures deserve appropriate pre-legislative and legislative scrutiny. Surely people should have the time and opportunity to have their say on the shape of the constituencies in which they live.
It is clear that the reason for this haste is that the Government want to get the new system in place by the next election, but why? Important as I believe these measures to be, there is no popular clamour for them, nor any other compelling reason to rush these measures through. Why rush to draw up the boundaries on the basis of an inaccurate and incomplete register when legislation has already been passed by the previous Government-this is the answer to the charge laid by the noble Lord, Lord Baker-to task the Electoral Commission to make the register comprehensive and accurate by 2015 and gave it new powers to do that? The Governments that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, so illuminated in his time in the other place never did anything like that to achieve a proper register. The date selected in that legislation was 2015 because it was judged that that time was needed successfully to compete the task, not least because the key to guaranteeing that the register is comprehensive and accurate is going to be using the results of the 2011 census, the most up-to-date figures we have on the population, to validate it.
Such an analysis is unlikely to be available before 2014. So why are the Government rushing it through before that crucial analysis is available? Why could the Government not wait just a few months longer to be sure that boundary revisions can take place only on the basis of a comprehensive and accurate electoral register, which is the only fair basis on which such revisions can be conducted? The only reason can be that the new boundaries would not be in place for the next general election, but constitutional changes of this significance should be drafted to endure for generations. In this context, whether they are in the place for the coming general election or the one after that really should not weigh in the balance.
Why, after all this, might the Government still be so anxious to get these measures in place by the time of the next election? They must have foreseen these criticisms. I am sure that they did. But why are they proceeding like this nevertheless? Is it too cynical to suspect that it is because they expect to benefit from them? It is
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Let me quote from a prominent Conservative, Mr Mark Field, Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster. On his website, which is available to all Members of this House, noble Lords can read that,
It should not need me to say that political expediency for one party is an unacceptable basis for constitutional change. This is not the new politics we were promised. It is an old politics where constitutional arrangements are subverted for partisan advantage, which should have no place in our democracy. Far from restoring legitimacy to our politics, as the Government claim, this Bill will damage it further. It is a bad Bill. I hope that this House will do its duty in making all the changes necessary to make it a better one.
Lord Snape: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend. I have only one quibble about what he said: it is not just one party attempting to rig our constitution in this Bill, it is two of them; it is the coalition. That is the purpose of it all and what is behind it. There is no magic figure of 76,000 as far as electors are concerned. Anyone who has read reports from the Boundary Commission-I do not say that they are exactly compulsive reading, although those of us who served in the other place will know that they are if they refer to your own constituency-will know that sheer numbers is not what they are about. I think that the figure was 66,000 in my time in the other place. That is a general aim, and an avowed intention when new constituencies are created and old ones are altered. But it is not a hard and fast rule. There are other considerations too.
As my noble friend Lord Touhig said earlier, there are geographical considerations to be looked at. He amplified the nonsense of seats in Wales where it is possible to cross two mountain ranges and three rivers, or whatever the figure was, in order to arrive at this magic figure of 76,000 electors. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said, it is community that is important-community is the vital aspect of any constituency. This is a cynical attempt at gerrymandering.
As my noble friend Lord Hart reminded us, this is part of a triple attack on our constitution by the coalition Government. It does not apply just in the other place; it applies here too. They want to reduce the other place by around 50 and to increase this place by, coincidentally, the same number. The problem is that they will not be the same people. The idea is to get rid of a majority of Labour Members from the other place and plant-it has been said in the newspapers-another 50 or so Liberals in your Lordships' House. I am not sure, given the rate of attrition in the Liberal Party currently, that there will be 50 of them left to come in here before Christmas. But certainly that
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In opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, threw out a comment about the number of Labour Peers created by the Labour Government. I would remind him that it took more than a decade of Labour Governments, two of whom had majorities in three figures and one with a substantial majority, before Labour Members of your Lordships' House outnumbered the Conservatives, let alone formed a majority on the Floor, which of course we never did. But that is the clear intention of the gerrymandering that is taking place in both Houses. It will ensure that a Conservative/Liberal alliance or something similar will continue up to and, they hope, including the next election in 2015. But I hope it is our job to see that such a philosophy does not go unchallenged, and when we come to the Committee stage, I hope that the battle for some of the things that have rightly been pointed out during the course of this Second Reading debate is waged loud and long. I say that because if we are still a revising Chamber, at least until the parties opposite have done their worst, then if ever a Bill needed revising, it is this one.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was at his ebullient best earlier today, saying that the Bill is almost a tidying-up exercise that makes a few minor alterations, with nothing really to concern your Lordships. But that is not the view of his distinguished noble friend Lord Baker, who let the cat out of the bag in his speech. I have always envied his capacity for swallowing his words and inventing new ones. He talked about the small size of some constituencies, predominantly Labour ones, but I remember that he won a by-election in St Marylebone. His hair was darker and shorter in those days, if I may say so, but I am sure it was he who represented one of the smallest constituencies in the country. However, I do not think he made any protest at the time about the relatively low number of constituents. Indeed, like many of us who represented inner city areas, I bet he was grateful that his constituency was a bit smaller because your Lordships will recognise that social problems in the inner cities are enormous. I do not say that Conservative or Liberal Democrat Members in the other place have fewer problems so far as their constituents are concerned, but in my experience the number of social problems in inner city constituencies can considerably outweigh those in the more affluent parts of rural areas. So there is a good reason for the relative size of constituencies.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I did represent a small borough which disappeared completely. But we should dwell on the rest of my political career, when I went on to represent a constituency in Surrey that was one of the biggest seats in the country.
Lord Snape: I shall reflect on his distinguished career, but I was surprised that he failed to point out to your Lordships that he has had some experience of a small constituency and made no protest at the time.
Let me turn to his article, a copy of which I have with me. I am not sure whether the Times is compulsive reading on either side of your Lordships' House, but I can imagine the conversation that took place between a senior journalist on the Times and the noble Lord at the beginning of October: "Ken, what's your view on the coalition?". "Oh, I am broadly in favour of it". "Good. Knock us out a thousand words for 4 October". Being the sensible man he is, my computer says the article is only 985 words, so I hope the Times does not ask him for a rebate for the words he has missed out. The very readable article about this legislation appeared under the headline,
The noble Lord then set out exactly what the coalition hoped to achieve. I have to say that the article is not entirely accurate, and again I hope that there will not be a demand for his fee to be returned. However, it is eminently readable, as one would expect given the talents of the noble Lord. He said:
Again, that rather ignores the lessons of history. I seem to recall that Tony Blair, if I can call him that in your Lordships' House-repeating the noble Lord's words-was pretty successful in 2001 as an incumbent and did not do too badly in 2005, again as an incumbent. I am not sure about the accuracy of that part of the article but I am sure about the part I am about to read out because, despite the emollient words from the Leader of the House to which I have referred, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, went on to say:
"The greatest prize for the Tories is yet to come: constitutional change that will eliminate Labour's 8 per cent advantage at every general election. This will be achieved by equalising the votes in each constituency to around 76,000 and by reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs".
That brings it down to the 600 figure that my noble friend Lord Dubs was accused of mentioning and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was afraid to mention, or chose not to mention, during the course of his speech.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I thank the noble Lord for drawing to the attention of a wider audience the words that I wrote in this article in the Times. The point I wanted to make is that the Bill will be very significant in removing the basic unfairness in our democracy that at the last election we had to be eight points ahead in the opinion polls even to come level with Labour. That is manifestly unfair in any democratic system and cannot be justified. The Bill removes not all but about half the unfairness and means that the checkerboard of politics will for a long time be set out on a level table.
Lord Snape: There were a few clichés there which I would not care to follow too far. I do not agree that the present electoral system gives the Labour Party an 8 per cent advantage, nor do many independent commentators, for the reasons amply outlined by my noble friends during the course of the debate.
Before I leave the noble Lord's article, I should say that I am pleased that he feels the two of us should embark on a crusade against AV because, like him, I am against it. Before we go round the country together, however, I have one request to make of him: that he lets me speak first because, given the quality of what he has said tonight, he could empty a hall even faster than me. However, it would be worth while to undertake such an exercise because on this issue he is right. During my 27 years in the other place I never heard a great clamour for AV. Indeed, I have yet to hear from any of my former constituents that they would be happy in West Bromwich only if they had AV at the next general election. AV is about transporting the party that traditionally comes last in the electoral system-that is, the Liberals-into permanent second place and, of course, into permanent coalition with whichever party happens to come first.
The Bill is a blatant attempt at gerrymandering. It arises not from a desire to do good in our thankfully unwritten constitution but from a desire to survive. The coalition Government hope that the voters will have short memories and that, with a rigged and gerrymandered system, they will sneak back into power in 2015. It will be up to us during the Committee stage and in the debates on the Bill to ensure that none of that comes about.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, as someone whose title was taken from Lerwick in Shetland, I was somewhat startled and delighted this afternoon to arrive here to find that Shetland is once again in the cockpit of history. I am sure that the noble and
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I wish to follow the noble Lord, Lord Snape, in one respect, as I shall talk mainly about AV. On Part 2 of the Bill, which seeks to reduce the size of the House of Commons, I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Baker that, when we compare the size of our legislature with the size of legislatures in other countries, we should look not at Europe-as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, did-but at countries such as Japan, the United States and India. There is a strong argument for saying that our legislature is too large.
We heard moving speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Myners and Lord Elystan-Morgan, about natural boundaries, rivers, county boundaries and history. I remember in my suburban constituency of Kingston that people used to think that Worcester Park should be excluded simply because it was on the other side of the bypass. I am sure that in Shetland, too, some people think that Orkney should be excluded because it is too far away. These are, as has been said, important points and principles, but the overriding factor must be the integrity and fairness of the democratic system and, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, elegantly said, ensuring that as far as possible each vote is of equal value.
Part 1 of the Bill stems from the coalition agreement. As I support the coalition and the necessity of a coalition because of the economic situation that we face, I support the general principles of the Bill. However, I have some suggestions for improving it. In the coalition agreement, there is one statement with which I disagree. The agreement says:
was last used by Sir Oswald Mosley. I do not believe that our political system is broken. Of course we have had, rightly, anger and disillusionment with politicians over expenses. We have had some rotten apples. We have had some people who should be and will be punished. However, that is not the same as saying that our constitution is broken. There is no connection between the scandal of expenses and arguments about
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Bismarck once remarked that laws are like sausages, in that it is better not to see them being made. Many laws, many aspects of our constitution and many anomalies in our constitution are the result of accidents of politics and political deals. That applies even to the wonderful and pure theory of PR in Europe. In continental European countries, PR was often introduced in order to save the Liberal party from the rise of socialism and Labour parties.
None the less, we should be cautious about trading permanent changes in the constitution for short-term political advantage. We do not want to get into the situation of Latin American countries, where people campaign on changes to the constitution. We do not want to get into the situation of the fourth republic in France, where there was an old joke about the man who went into the library and asked for a copy of the constitution and was told, "We don't stock periodicals here". We do not want to get into the situation whereby one political change is seen as a precursor to the next. Some see AV as precisely that-as a precursor to a move towards PR.
The support for AV in the Bill and the coalition in some ways seems quite surprising. In February this year, the Deputy Prime Minister described AV as a "miserable little compromise". As has been said, AV is the system used in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. In Australia, AV has proved to be often less proportional even than first past the post and to lead to even larger swings-the large swings under first past the post have been among the things most criticised about our present system. AV has not reduced the proportion of safe seats, which is a very high proportion that is similar to the number in this country. In addition, the system of AV often leads to deals, which are not always declared publicly, between major and small, minor or fringe political parties in order to secure office.
The intellectual justification for AV seems somewhat elusive. The system was first proposed in 1917 in the Speaker's conference, which is more likely to be remembered for having proposed votes for women over 30. The system was put forward in 1931 as a positive solution, and Winston Churchill described it at the time as,
As has been said in this debate, in many cases the outcome of a poll in a constituency under AV will be decided by the person who comes bottom, who might be the British National Party candidate, as has been said. In any case, it seems difficult to justify why the result should always be decided by the second preferences of those who voted for the candidate who came bottom, even if he is only the third candidate. I recently read an article by an Australian academic who suggests that,
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As was said by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, the referendum proposed on AV is unusual in that it is not an advisory referendum but an implementary one. That raises an important matter. Changing our voting system is a very significant move. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said, when we make such changes they ought to be for generations-for the long term-and the outcome must be seen to command confidence and respect. They must be seen to reflect a real demand for change. If there is a derisory turnout, those conditions will not be met. I submit that this is a significant change.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made some points against the first-past-the-post system, but I say that it has served us well. The same system is followed by leading democracies such as the United States, India and Canada. It has accommodated change, such as when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the interwar period. What some see as inflexibility or the insensitivity of the system has often protected us from extremism, such as we see when we look at the different electoral systems in Europe and the rise of far-right parties in Holland and Belgium. That was particularly the case in the 1930s, when extremists of both left and right failed to get any parliamentary representation whatever in this country, which was quite different from the experience in continental Europe. We like to put that down, of course, to the moderation and good sense of the British people. I am sure that that exists, but we should not deceive ourselves too much. It may also have a lot to do with our electoral system, so I suggest that we have to think carefully before we change that.
That brings me on to the point about referendums and constitutional change. Many countries have a specific threshold, either of turnout or of the numbers voting yes, before constitutional change can be made in a referendum. Germany and Spain have provisions for a fixed majority before they can effect a change in their constitutions. In Denmark and Italy, the requirement is for a specified proportion-in Italy, it is 60 per cent, I think-not in outcome but in turnout. In 1979, of course, George Cunningham inserted into the Scottish devolution bill a requirement for a 40 per cent yes vote. That has possibly somewhat scarred the Labour Party-I am not quite sure why-so I was particularly interested that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, returned today to the subject of a threshold.
I want to put a question to my noble friend Lord McNally, the Minister who, as I understand it, will answer at the end of the debate. I understand that the coalition agreement specified that there should be a simple majority in the referendum without an outcome-specific threshold-that is, there should not be anything similar to the Cunningham amendment. Am I not therefore right that the coalition agreement does not specify that there could not be a turnout threshold and that a provision in the Bill which said that the result of the referendum would only have the effect of law provided that there was a certain turnout would not be inconsistent with the coalition agreement? That turnout provision could be put at whatever level the House
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Some people object to a turnout threshold on the grounds that it encourages people to abstain but, first, the referendum is to be held-this is a subject of controversy-on the same day as local elections, when people have every reason to participate. Secondly, in order to encourage someone who would have voted not to vote as a gesture with political meaning, you would have to have some sort of campaign. I do not really accept the argument that having a turnout threshold would simply encourage people to stay away and would invalidate the whole idea of initiating a debate on this subject. The result of the referendum vote would be much strengthened if there was a provision for a minimum turnout. That would lend much greater legitimacy to the outcome of such a referendum, and I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will give it serious consideration.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, having sat through this debate so far, I have been greatly encouraged, as I suppose we all are, by the number of people who I found myself agreeing with wholeheartedly-not least the previous two speakers. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, made a series of points very effectively-I will not repeat them-while my noble friend Lord Snape, with whom I have not knowingly disagreed for 36 years, likewise made some very powerful points indeed. Yet I do not want to put false optimism into this debate because, overall-trying to find the right adjective to describe the Bill-I find it depressing. That is the best adjective I can offer to the House.
I find it depressing, in part, because it is a political fix. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, tactfully described it as a political alliance but we know what we are talking about. I was not born yesterday; I know perfectly well that parties have to reach agreements and that compromises are made. However, I cherish many aspects of our constitution and I do not like the idea of it being the subject of a political fix, not least for the reason, which was mentioned earlier, that once constitutions are changed, the chances are that they will stay changed.
I am also depressed because there is no overall view of the constitutional reform structure, if I may put it as grandiosely as that, that the Government are engaged upon. There is no attempt to explain how each of the three Bills that we are promised-there is another one as well, I think, about recalling MPs, so I make that four-relate to each other. Not least, why are we discussing changing the electoral system in the Commons in such detail when we are about to talk about introducing an electoral system into the Lords? Surely those things should be considered, at least in part, in relation to one another.
I am depressed as well because the Bill damages two or maybe three important parts of our parliamentary democracy. First, it damages the relationship between MPs and their constituencies, which for me has always
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The Bill is depressing for another reason too, and the Minister really will need to address this. He repeatedly prayed in aid big majorities in the Commons. Now, he knows the Commons pretty well, as do a lot of people in this House, and he should know it well enough to know that if people had been voting in the way that they strongly felt-in a free vote, let us say; a funny thing for an ex-Chief Whip to talk about, but let us surmise for a moment-my guess is that there would have been at least a two-thirds majority against changing the electoral system. Nearly all the Conservatives would vote against it, although they can speak for themselves, and my estimate, although it is a low one, is that 60 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party would have voted against it. I do not suppose that any Liberals would have done so because they vote as a bloc in a Stalinist way, but the rest of us would have made our own minds up. That is my guess. So let us not feel any inhibition whatever about what we do in dealing with the Bill, because the House of Commons, and I could cite names if that were required, wants us to do some work on the Bill and make changes to it.
I shall say a word or two about first past the post versus AV, which is a crucial part of the Bill. If anyone should hate the first past the post system, it really should be me. I have lost more elections under that system than I care to remember: four out of eight general elections, not to mention sundry country council elections and others. In this case, though, experience gives me an even greater respect for the first past the post system, certainly in comparison with AV. Indeed, for me it is not first past the post versus AV; I prefer to see it as being first past the post versus second or third past the post, which is obviously what AV amounts to. It means that the person who comes first is not necessarily declared the winner. As someone who spent a bit of my youth talking to bookies, I must admit that I quite like the notion of the horse that comes third or fourth being declared the winner-I would be richer-but that is not a good basis on which to operate a constitution. I find the arguments in favour of AV almost totally unconvincing and almost dishonest. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, suggested, it is not at all the solution to the difficulties that the parliamentary system has encountered recently.
A whole new concept has been introduced, which made me do some research. I was suddenly being told by Liberal Democrats and others that there was a crucial determinant of someone's eligibility to be a Member of Parliament-namely, whether they achieved 50 per cent of the vote. That is what gave them legitimacy. If they did not have 50 per cent, they did
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I simply report to the House as a matter of fact-I am happy for someone to intervene or contradict me on this-that not only did I not know whether I had got 50 per cent until I checked the figures, but I absolutely assure the House that my constituents would not have had the faintest idea. Whether I had 50 per cent did not make a scrap of difference to the work that I did in the constituency. The same people came to me about the same kind of problems. Nor did it make a scrap of difference to my work as a Member of Parliament. As far as I know, no one said, "Don't listen to him" or "Listen only to 48.3 per cent of what he says because he hasn't got 50 per cent of his electors behind him".
I hoped I could pray in aid the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on this. I took the precaution of checking the result in Stockport South in 1979. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, achieved 45.1 per cent of the vote. I had not appreciated the angst that he must have suffered because of this. When the returning officer declared him duly the Member of Parliament for the said Stockport South constituency, he would have been consumed by guilt, I imagine, because he was not a legitimate Member of Parliament. He must have felt quite ashamed when he came down here as an illegitimate Member. It is beyond parody or sarcasm. It simply bears no relationship whatever to how people here or in our constituencies ever think about the legitimacy of an MP.
I will say two other things about the weakness of the alternative vote system, which I hope are relevant to our debate. First, we surely have enough different electoral systems operating in this country at present. We have five by my calculation: first past the post, the additional member system, single transferable vote, supplementary vote and-wait for it-the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, which I do not understand and I suspect many other people do not either. More to the point, we will now not only have another electoral system for the Commons if the coalition has its way, but we will also have another electoral system for the House of Lords. That makes seven different electoral systems in this country. I would have one simple question in the referendum: would you like to revert to the first past the post system, which has served us so well in the past, for all these elections? I am certain that it cannot possibly be right to have seven different electoral systems. Added to which, we are warned-let us acknowledge the warning-by Nick Clegg and others that this is only a temporary phase. I wish those who are going to vote in favour would be honest with the electorate and this House and say, "We are voting for it but, as Nick Clegg has said, it's a miserable little compromise. It won't last long. Get ready because we're coming with
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I want to comment on the "making constituencies bigger" section of the Bill, which I prefer as a title. Again, I offer the House my own experience, which may or may not be accepted. I had the privilege of representing two constituencies during my political life: one was Lichfield and Tamworth, with an electorate then of 101,343; the other was The Wrekin, which, before its redistribution, had an electorate of 90,872. Thank heaven, the dear old Boundary Commission came along and split that constituency into two, as it has also done with Lichfield and Tamworth. The link between MPs and their constituents is at the heart of our constitution. However hard you work-and, my word, I did work hard, as do most Members of Parliament-you cannot give the same service to constituents when you represent 101,000 as you can when you represent 60,000 or 70,000. For the life of me, I cannot see the justification for increasing constituency size in the way enshrined in the Bill.
I can conclude only where I started. I hope that this speech is not too depressing because I feel depressed about the Bill. The coalition has a huge majority in this House and in the other House and so far there is no sign that the Government are listening to any of the arguments. However, I am encouraged by the overwhelmingly hostile contributions which so many noble Lords have made today. Their speeches were overwhelmingly hostile to large sections of the Bill. I hope that we will do our job in this House and put it into better shape.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, whoever drew up the speakers list clearly had a good sense of humour since my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I have debated the electoral system just about since the river Tamar came to mark the boundary between Cornwall and Devon, and I am sure that we will go on doing so in the run-up to the referendum, whenever that may come.
Before I turn to the other side of the case that he has put so well this evening-the case for AV-I want to refer to the other bits of the Bill in a couple of considered sentences. Governments of every complexion have generally proceeded cautiously on electoral matters, giving them due consideration, using, where possible, the independent judgment of the Boundary Commissions, and avoiding any charge of partisan manipulation. Most Governments have been extremely wary, and rightly so, of making electoral arrangements a kind of war booty to go into the hands of whatever party wins. We have only to look at France, which has enjoyed no such tradition, to see how wise we have been to adopt that. Therefore, it is our duty in this House to ignore the spurious arguments that have
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I want a referendum on AV but I do not want it on 5 May next year. Whenever it comes, I hope that the country returns a yes vote. I speak as a member of the Jenkins committee on electoral reform, on which my noble friend Lady Gould, who is not in her place this evening, also sat, and which recommended AV as part of its recommended solution. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who rightly quoted the report, that Lord Jenkins, who chaired that committee and was held in respect on all sides of this House and in British politics, had, by the end of his life, changed his mind. He wanted a move to AV, and he would be arguing for it if he were here tonight.
What is wrong with first past the post? In days of yore, maybe there was not much wrong. In 1951, 97 per cent of voters backed one of the two big parties-Labour or Tory. Nine MPs in 10 received half or more of the votes cast in their constituencies. The change has been dramatic. Today, the two big parties have just two-thirds of the national vote between them, and only one-third of MPs-one-third-are the choice of at least half the voters in their constituencies. That may not bother the noble Lord, Lord Grocott-as long as he was there, he felt all right about it-but it should worry anyone who believes in majority rule.
These facts create a disproportionate House of Commons, of course, but that does not particularly bother me. My objections to first past the post are quite different. It starves MPs of the legitimacy that comes from election. First past the post delivers Menshevik MPs. It encourages perverse political tactics by MPs. We should seek an inclusive politics where MPs try to get as many votes by reaching out to as many voters as possible. With first past the post, the temptation all the time is to concentrate on just enough of your core voters to get you back into Parliament. It gives too many MPs safe seats for life-a matter to which I shall return in a minute. It robs voters of choice. What do you do if you are a voter? Do you back the candidate you most want, or the candidate who has the best chance of beating the candidate you most do not want? First past the post, like rotten boroughs, the all-male franchise and university seats, is a system which people back out of nostalgia. Its day has gone, it is broke and it must be fixed.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: The noble Lord alluded to the situation in the 1950s when he said that first past the post worked very well. We are often told that the Conservatives received a majority of the votes in Scotland in 1955. Was not part of the reason for that that really only two parties stood in most constituencies, because the Liberals had been destroyed as a result of their involvement in a previous coalition?
Lord Lipsey: The noble Lord is, of course, completely right historically, although he makes a wholly irrelevant point. In the political circumstances of those days, in a
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I do not want to go full circle by going for a fully proportional system-partly because I have never seen the advantage of it. I do not very much like the additional member system, which applies in Germany, because it too much erodes constituency loyalties. I do not like STV, loved by the much-mourned kind of Liberal who went around in sandals. STV again breaks the constituency link. In any case, in our constitution, we prefer to proceed by evolution rather than revolution. That is why we should have AV now and then in a few years, we could take stock again, or go further, stay where we are or, if you like and you can make your case, go back to first past the post.
I want here to confront a paradox. We AVers argue that AV is a relatively modest change and that it would be a change significantly for the better. How can we ride both these horses at once? As Jimmy Thomas said, if you cannot ride two horses at once, you should not be in the political circus. The resolution is like this: it will not make an enormous difference to the results of elections. At the general election in 2010, according to the academics David Sanders, Paul Whiteley, Marianne Stewart and Harold Clarke, it might have led to 22 fewer Tory seats, 10 fewer Labour seats-sorry about that-and 32 more Lib Dems. The effect, if there were to be a general election tomorrow, according to Professor Patrick Dunleavy, would be much less. Even changes of this magnitude would of course have mattered in a close election such as that in 2010, but they are scarcely seismic. However, there would have been far more seats in which the result was genuinely in doubt-so more MPs would have had to work harder to reach out to more people to win them.
I come finally to the main argument that I hear used against AV; namely, that it would help to create a situation where we had permanent coalition government and disproportionate power was given to the third party. I hear this complaint mostly from Conservative politicians. I am not sure how they square their enthusiastic support for the present coalition with the belief that coalition government is by definition a bad thing. It must be understood that in the new political geography of Britain, the strong probability is that coalition will be the norm. It is true that the eight general elections up to 2005 all produced majority Governments, but psephologists have compared this to tossing a coin that comes up heads eight times in a row-unlikely, but it happens. I often back eight even-money shots in a row at the races and they all lose.
First past the post has lost its potency to deliver majority Governments in most circumstances. There has been a very sharp decline in the number of seats that are marginal. According to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, the number of marginal seats has fallen from 166 in 1955 to just 85 in 2010, so a given swing is much less likely to bring about the number of changes in seats that will deliver a majority to one party or another. There will be fewer majority Governments under first past the post in future.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Perhaps my noble friend will give way. One of his arguments is that first past the post creates rotten boroughs. Would he tell us what happened to the Tory rotten boroughs of Stirling, Dumfries, Eastwood and South Edinburgh in Scotland? Are they still Tory rotten boroughs?
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, over a very long period of time, of course, political geography changes; but, in each contest, most MPs contest boroughs that I would not call rotten, but in which they can reckon themselves to be wholly safe. That is why so many MPs do not reach out as widely as they should, and as we would desire them to, to get the support of a wide section of the electorate.
I was about to say, when we took a slight diversion into Scottish local politics, that AV may indeed make it more likely that there will be majority Governments in future, because AV tends to be good for parties that are making ground and advancing. Anyone who can predict that first past the post will deliver more majority Governments than AV simply has not done the electoral arithmetic.
I would not expect AV to be popular in this House. Among those who benefited from first past the post in the House of Commons, there is a great affection for that system, though I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lost some elections as well as won some. However, I am confident that when the arguments are put fully before the British people in the referendum that is to come, voters will opt for a system that gives them more choice and more power.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I will speak mostly about the principle of the referendum proposed in the Bill. I would like the House to imagine an organisation with 650 consultants working for it, each of them on a fixed-term contract. What would we think if that organisation gave the 650 consultants the exclusive power to determine all the details over whether to renew their contracts? We would say the organisation was barmy, yet this is effectively what happens at present with the House of Commons. It is a closed shop of the sort that employment law some time ago rightly prohibited trade unions from operating. At present, only Parliament has the power to determine the system by which MPs are elected. Unsurprisingly, MPs in the past have tended to support the system that got them there and that they feel is most likely to keep them there. However, the people who pay for their services have had no say in how their representatives are chosen.
I will look briefly and in turn at the positions on this referendum of the Constitution Committee of the House, of the Labour Party and of the coalition Government.In my view, the Constitution Committee was right to be sceptical about the legitimacy of the widespread use of referendums, but in its report, which we recently debated, it accepted that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues, of which this must be one.
"To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011".
"To ensure that every MP is supported by the 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".
Thirdly, it is greatly to the credit of the Prime Minister that he agreed, as part of the coalition agreement, to allow people to have their say on the fundamental constitutional issue of making a change to the voting system. The coalition agreement says:
"We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies".
I do not propose at this stage to enter into the subject matter of the referendum itself but I will say that I think it is right that it should be held. I will address briefly two areas of controversy relating to the referendum. First, there is the timing issue.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: The noble Lord, when arguing the case for the alternative vote system, said that it is important for the person elected to get 50 per cent of the votes. Does he favour thresholds for the referendum? Is it important to receive 50 per cent of the votes from the electorate in a referendum, for example?
Lord Rennard: I shall turn my attention to thresholds very shortly because in my view they are tied to the issue of turnout, and turnout is tied to the question of when the referendum is held. If it is held at the same time as other elections, in my view there will be a higher turnout and greater legitimacy.
First, on the issue of timing, there is in my view no ideal or perfect time to hold a referendum. However, we know that we struggle to get voters to turn out at polling stations to choose their elected representatives, and we should not assume that they will be any more likely to want to turn out to vote in a referendum which is held on a day separate from when any elections are held. It is actually convenient for many voters if an election and referendum are combined, and I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of people in this country to put an X on two or three different pieces of paper within the space of a few minutes. Indeed, it is a rather easier task than filling in a National Lottery form.
On the question of a threshold and whether there should be a minimum turnout for voters' views to be deemed valid, there are those who want to say that anyone who does not turn out to vote should effectively be recorded as having voted no. However, I do not see any democratic argument whatever in counting abstentions as no votes. There is no more legitimacy for that argument than in counting them as yes votes and saying that change should certainly happen unless most people turn out to vote against it. We have elections in this country for councillors, MPs, MEPs and Members of devolved Assemblies with sometimes very low turnouts. If a minimum turnout threshold were imposed in this referendum and it were held at
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Lord Hoyle: My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that there is a difference between voting in local and parliamentary elections and voting for constitutional change. Surely, we are arguing that there ought to be a bigger majority for constitutional change than for a normal election.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I am arguing that if people do not turn out to support an alternative, it is equally valid to say that their vote could be counted in favour, as it is to say, as other noble Lords have argued, that they should simply have their vote counted as a no. It is in the interests of democracy always to encourage high turnouts and that is why I believe that the first Thursday in May next year would be a good time to hold the referendum.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, but perhaps he can help me. Is not one of the problems the fact that the question that is being put is between AV and first past the post, with no mention of STV, for example? Might there not be many Liberal supporters who support STV who might abstain because they were not getting any of the choices that they wanted?
Lord Rennard: My Lords, there are other noble Lords who favour a two-horse race between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. In an ideal world, I would not favour a two-horse race between AV and first past the post, as many noble Lords will know, but in the practical politics of not having won the general election and having to make compromises, the overarching principle is to allow the voters to have some say in how their representatives are chosen. People have been appalled in recent years that MPs were able to fix effectively the benefits of being in Parliament. A much more important issue is the means by which MPs are chosen and allowing people to have some say on that is of paramount importance. Risking giving them a further choice, which would be my first choice, may mean that they get no say whatever.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for allowing me to intervene. Is he recalling that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House has not only said that there should be,
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, my noble friend has said that it would not be difficult to have multiple choices on the same day, with people voting in several different contests, such as for a devolved Parliament, a local election and the referendum. Therefore, why is it such a problem for people to vote on, for example, propositions for AV, STV or against first past the post?
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that point. As many noble Lords will know, I was very proud to be his agent in elections some years ago. We have discussed this issue many times. I noted very carefully his comments when he spoke of it not being a question of persuading people that they should have more options than simply two. I wish it were as easy as that because I think the electorate could cope very easily with that choice, as other electorates do in a number of elections in other countries. It is not a matter of persuading the people that they could do this; it is a matter of persuading people in other parties to allow this to happen. Sadly, people in other parties will not allow it to happen so we have to make what progress we can.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I remain very puzzled by the noble Lord's explanation. Surely, Mr Clegg simply messed up the negotiation. He was in a very strong position indeed to get anything he wanted into the coalition agreement and he missed the opportunity to get STV on this ballot paper.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I can think of a number of very good books that are to be recommended, some of which are currently in circulation and more are due out, which will explain the fallacy of that argument. From personal experience of the 1990s, I know there were clear commitments from the party which the noble Lord now represents to hold a referendum on proportional representation and to support the outcome of that referendum. In 13 years of trying, no progress was made. More progress has been made in the past six months at least in allowing the voters to have some say on this key issue of how representatives who serve them should be chosen than was made in the 13 years the Labour Party was in office with three good majorities and a manifesto in 1997 pledging to give people the choice between proportional representation and first past the post. I am grateful now that at least some progress is being made and a precedent is being set to allow people some say in how their representatives are chosen.
Let me briefly address the question of the boundary review, because it is a very important part of the Bill. I think that the consequences of the reduced and equalised proposals are greatly exaggerated by many people. Most of the academic research on the issue confirms that marginally reducing the number of MPs increasing
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I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is not in his place, but he made the most effective points psephologically in our debate so far. He pointed to a number of factors as to why there is the apparent advantage-it has been described as an 8 per cent advantage-that the Labour Party holds over the Conservatives in the present voting system. He highlighted a number of reasons why, of that apparent 8 per cent advantage, very little is to do with the different sizes of electorates in Labour and Conservative-held constituencies.
The highly respected psephologist, Lewis Baston, was also prayed in aid by noble Lords opposite a few hours ago. He has made calculations suggesting that perhaps eight or 10 seats may be varied between what the Conservative Party or the Labour Party might have as a result of these reviews. Those are figures in line with all the previous Boundary Commission reviews-and there have been three in the past 27 years. There is no big change out of this.
To some of those whom I must now call my noble friends, I must say that the enthusiasm in their party for making these changes-although I note a little lack of enthusiasm looking at their Benches at the moment-is misguided, but so is the opposition on the Labour Benches to the changes, because they will not actually have a big outcome in the general election. Of course, changing boundaries is never an easy process for MPs, candidates or parties, but the principle that MPs should generally have the same number of electors must generally be a sound one. It is the same principle for which the rotten boroughs were eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act 1832. It is not a principle that is unusual, unfair or undemocratic, and it has been at the heart of all the previous boundary reviews-perhaps in a less rigid way-conducted under previous Governments.
I close on what is a very important point for me about the process of the boundary reviews. I think that the Bill may make the problem of redrawing the boundaries a little more problematic than it needs to be. All the previous Boundary Commission reviews have had a guideline asking them to respect the need to minimise inconvenience among other logical factors when redrawing boundaries. The Bill provides for that provision to apply in reviews for the 2020 general election and in subsequent reviews, but it does not do so for the next review to be published in September 2013 for a general election in 2015. There will, of course, be significant changes to constituency boundaries when there are significant reductions in the number of MPs.
Of course, it would be much easier for the staff in the Boundary Commission to start with clean maps that do not have existing boundaries marked on them which must be considered as part of the new configuration, but I believe that it would be much better to allow the commission to take into account the existing boundaries-at least as far as it sees fit. This would go a little way, at least, to addressing the many concerns raised in the debate about the consequences of the review in many areas.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, the parliamentary Boundary Commission has always been respected for being independent. I happen to think that the process of reviewing whatever it might decide might be far better conducted openly and transparently online than through expensive and slow public inquiries, some of which have produced changes. Having been a part of them on many occasions, I also think that many of the arguments made by QCs representing the parties, not generally the voters, have had disproportionate sway in the forum of the public inquiry and that a legitimate online consultation and proper, open representation may be a much better way of dealing with these issues. But the significant point on which I would like to finish is simply that if the Boundary Commission was asked in the next review-as it was in the past, and will be in the future-to take into account the existing parliamentary constituency boundaries, a number of the problems that have been raised in both Houses would be more effectively addressed.
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: My Lords, I do not think that I have ever agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, but I certainly agree with him that it is absurd to suggest that our politics is broken. It is manifestly not broken, but we are naive if we do not accept that the craft of politics has seldom been held in lower regard. I regard this legislation as a wasted opportunity. Had the constitutional conventions been adhered to, had we had proper consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and had we had time to go through the Bill in its entirety, there would have been the opportunity for cross-party agreement on the issues that are raised in the Bill. That would have been for the good not only of the country but, especially, of this House and the other place. Instead, we are left with a shoddy piece of legislation that has been cobbled together at short notice. The only thing on which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is his comment that his party did not win the general election. My party lost the election. No party won the election. In such circumstances, I should think that it is important to show humility rather than arrogance; this is an arrogant piece of legislation.
It is very notable that in the other place there were very few Liberal Democrat or Conservative Back Benchers who supported the legislation. It has also been extremely interesting tonight to look at the Benches opposite-the wasteland on the other side of the Chamber. Where are the supporters? Among those who have spoken tonight I have counted three who support the legislation. I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is not in his place, supports the Bill or whether he just supports AV.
I support the idea of a referendum on AV, but I also have to say that, after four and a half years in Australia watching AV in operation, I have become extremely sceptical about it for one simple reason. Deals have to
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Australia has compulsory voting. If we had had the opportunity properly to scrutinise this Bill, perhaps we could have discussed issues such as compulsory voting, which would provide a long-term, rather than short-term, benefit to society. In Australia, the fine for not voting is peanuts-something like 20 or 30 Australian dollars-but people are so used to going out to vote that they do so automatically. You do not have to vote for a political party; you can spoil your paper. If we had had the opportunity to discuss these matters, we would have had a real opportunity to advance the progress of the legislation.
I also find it bizarre that the Prime Minister, immediately after the election, went up to Edinburgh and spoke about respect for the Scottish Parliament. What respect was shown when it was told, not even consulted, that the referendum would be on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections? A Motion has been passed by the Scottish Parliament opposing that, and we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Touhig about the situation in Wales. That lack of consultation does not show respect, nor does it show a proper understanding of, and respect for, the constitution.
I want to address the issue of 600 seats. I am pretty agnostic about the size of constituencies, but I find it bizarre that in the coalition discussions the Conservatives, who have a history of arguing for 585 seats, and the Liberal Democrats, who have a history of arguing for 500 seats, reached a compromise of 600 seats. How did that work out? It is incumbent on the noble Lord, Lord McNally, when he replies to this debate, to explain to us why we are to end up with more seats than were in the manifestos of the two parties that are now in coalition. It is bizarre. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, could not keep his face straight-as well he might-when he had to answer questions on these matters. We need an answer on these matters.
I do not want to delay the House too long as the hour is late, but I want to look at the parliamentary boundary commissions and public inquiries. In the other place, I was privileged to represent the town of Airdrie, which is even older than the Church of England. The first references to Airdrie were in 576, but it was at the peak of its national significance between 1160 and the middle of the 19th century. Airdrie was a base for the Covenanters. In 1832, the town hall became a hospital for the victims of cholera, which is very much in our minds at the moment. The reason that I make those points is that Airdrie is an historic town. In the early 1990s, a proposal was made to split Airdrie right down the main street. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, pooh-poohed the idea of local communities being
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I make that point about local inquiries because, if you come from where I come from-I take my title from the village of Coatdyke, in which I was born and brought up, which lies between Airdrie and Coatbridge and has been alternately contained in a constituency, split and quartered in all sorts of different shapes such that it should probably be renamed "Hokey Cokey"-everyone in the communities of Airdrie and Coatbridge has a real view about the importance of their community. Years on-and, like Miss Jean Brodie, I am in my prime-I am still referred to in Coatdyke as Bessie Lawrie's daughter, regardless of the fact that I am now a noble Baroness, because communities have histories and those histories are very important indeed. For this House and this Government to demean that sense of community and involvement is to show contempt for society. As we heard earlier, the hypocrisy of a Government who promote the big society to argue against people's faith in society and love and admiration for the society that has forged them, is indeed a travesty.
My mother used to say, "Marry in haste; repent at leisure". Here, we are legislating at haste, and the country will repent at leisure. I hope that, in the best traditions of this House, we can be a genuine, revising Chamber to save the coalition from what it has achieved with this legislation. There are many Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches in this House and in the other place whom I count as friends. They have been let down by this legislation. AV is not PR but a miserable little compromise, which has been cobbled together only to save skins for the future. However, the electorate are not daft and will see through it. That is why, in the days and weeks that lie ahead, we must do our utmost to amend this legislation to make it at least in some way fit for purpose. As of now, the Bill is not fit for purpose.
Baroness Smith of Basildon: My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting debate. We can tell the degree of interest by the number of noble Lords who wish to speak. I am sorry that the government Benches have been so sparse all evening. I do not want to repeat the points made by many other noble Lords, other than to say that I have similar concerns about the Bill. It seems to be being rushed through and pulled out with indecent haste. I take on board the comment made by my noble friend Lady Liddell about the Bill being a missed opportunity.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, with his perhaps usual modesty may have overstated it when he said that his plans for change were the greatest constitutional reform since the Reform Act 1832, which we should recognise had deficiencies in itself. But it remains that this legislation is highly significant. It is extremely important for the future of and the legitimacy of our democracy.
I want to address two issues. The first is the constituency boundary changes and the abolition of public inquiries as outlined in Clause 10. While it may be initially superficially popular, I have not been convinced by the arguments put forward of the need to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. If we are to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons, should there not first be an examination of why it is considered to be the right course of action and, if so, what would be the appropriate number of MPs? Nowhere have I heard a coherent case being made, other than the Deputy Prime Minister's assertion that the Government need to reduce costs and that this will save around £12 million a year. I do not think that factored into that are the additional costs of the greater workload for MPs with larger constituencies. But it has to be said that that reason alone is insufficient. It is also an argument that is difficult to sustain when the Government are also seeking to increase the number of paid professional politicians in the second Chamber, the costs of which we do not know yet. There may be a great deal of good arguments, but the case has not yet been made.
The number chosen seems random, as we have heard from other noble Lords. When the Leader of the House was asked about this earlier, he should have been embarrassed to admit, although he seemed quite gleeful about it, that 600 was "a nice round figure". I assumed that he was making that comment in jest, but nothing else came forward. There was no other explanation of why 600 was a good figure. I have too much respect for him to believe that he thinks that 600 is "a nice round figure" and should be used. But he did not even try to give an explanation of why 600 MPs is the right number.
As a former Member of Parliament for 13 years, I represented my home constituency. The relationship between the constituency and its Member of Parliament is important and precious. It possibly is more so today because the workload of MPs is increasing, particularly in constituency work. I could never support any form of electoral reform or change which would reduce that relationship between an MP and his or her constituency.
The proposals before us today have the potential to change every constituency in the country-bar two, bizarrely-and we have to recognise the enormous upheaval that will bring. The boundary commissioners will have the duty to define the new boundaries of the 600 constituencies. Every election sees reviews. At the last election, my own constituency of Basildon suffered significant changes; indeed that constituency no longer exists in that there is no longer a seat named Basildon. Sometimes we get electoral changes we like from the boundary commissioners, and sometimes changes that we do not like, but that is not the issue. The system in place allows representations to be made and in some cases inquiries to be held. It confers legitimacy on the
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In the last boundary review, the majority of constituencies remained unchanged, but significant changes in all areas and most likely to most seats will be made in this review. There could be changes in areas that have not seen any alterations for generations. We are setting a hard task for the boundary commissioners. The Bill also seeks to change the ground rules by which the commissioners will operate. For the first time, changes will go across constituency boundaries and, depending on the recommendations, we do not yet know how they will affect local government or the conduct of and arrangements for elections. The boundary commissioners are already tasked with seeking to maintain recognised communities, but this is now subordinate to ensuring that the electorate is no more than 5 per cent more or less than the new electoral quota, along with a limit on geographical size. So, for the first time, arithmetic-the physical size of a constituency and the number of electors-will be the dominant features. Those criteria undermine the conviction that constituencies should take into account communities and their histories. Given that this is to be overridden by the numbers game, it will be all the harder for the commissioners to draw up meaningful constituencies that residents can identify with. Furthermore, it must all be completed in time for the next election, so it will be a mammoth task.
It is interesting to note the views of the boundary commissioners themselves. I was struck by the comments of Robin Gray, a former boundary commissioner, in evidence to the Select Committee of the other place. He made the point that having the review system and the opportunity to hold public inquiries enhanced the legitimacy of the changes. He also said that even when representations were minor, that reassured the commissioners that they had got right the changes made. He made it clear that even when, as we have heard, the political parties played the major and sometimes the only role,
I have to ask this because I do not understand it at all: why the haste? This issue is huge and significant, and it deserves to be given the opportunity to be undertaken properly. For all the talk we hear from the Government about the big society, about engaging the public and about the public having their say, this Bill does exactly the opposite. Reducing the number of Members of Parliament takes democracy just that little bit further away from the public, and the Bill then denies the public the right to be heard at an independent public inquiry. So although the Government talk about giving power back to the people, on a fundamental issue that strikes at the heart of our democracy-that of redrawing the entire constituency map of the country-the public are to be denied even the opportunity of a public inquiry.
It does not matter if people choose not to avail themselves of that right, but it does matter if they are not given the opportunity to do so. If they have concerns later and there is no legitimate route to address them, that undermines the legitimacy of the entire process. This legislation will mean that the legal process does not even allow for the legitimacy of the proposed changes to be tested in a public inquiry. That is fundamentally unfair to the commissioners themselves, who will see their work and their efforts undermined by a lack of belief in their independence through no fault of their own. It could also mean legal challenges against the proposals.
My final point concerns the implications for the Executive in reducing the number of Members of Parliament. It seems illogical, if the size of the House of Commons is reduced, not to reduce the number of Ministers. The Minister, Mark Harper, when asked about this by the Commons Select Committee, said that to reduce the number of Ministers in the Commons would increase the number of Ministers in the Lords. Some of us may not think that that is a terribly bad thing, but did he not understand what the committee was saying to him? In his article yesterday in the Observer, Professor King raised his concerns that, if the Bill was to go through, Ministers would be selected from a smaller gene pool of MPs. To reduce the number of MPs but maintain the number of Ministers would significantly rebalance the role of government and the Executive, which goes against everything the Government have said about enhancing parliamentary democracy. It will shift the balance of power further towards the Government and erode accountability.
The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, with the Division today I would not have wanted to see jeopardised that part of the Bill that I, with reservations, support. On the other hand, I have various concerns about the other part of the Bill. This is two Bills-or perhaps, more accurately, bits of two Bills. My approach is to take the point of view, for the first part, of the voter; and, for the second, of the constituent-two distinct political roles of the individual member of the public.
The first half of the Bill is like being taken to a wonderful expensive restaurant-possibly a once in a lifetime experience-and being offered a starter, the alternative vote system, but only one out of numerous main courses available, that dish being first past the post. It is ludicrous that proper proportional representation in any form is not on the menu. I realise, of course, that what we have before us is a political compromise, but it is nevertheless insulting to the public, given this
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Like other noble Lords, I voted in the general election this year. In past elections I have voted for larger parties and for smaller ones, but I have always maintained the belief that it is unfair that voters for a smaller party are so heavily discriminated against by our current system to the extent that one can consider some votes to be almost worthless before they are cast. It is because of this that, whatever would be the political consequences of the introduction of true proportional representation, I believe such a system to be inherently more democratic.
Under the first past the post system, the voter suffers a difficult internal conflict, often torn over the choice between personality, political party and pragmatism. A good voting system should take all three of these elements into account. The additional member system used all over the world, and now in the UK in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, is not an option within the Bill, although it should be, as indeed should be the single transferable vote. AMS is a system that would go a long way towards solving these problems as the voter can vote for both the political party of their choice and for their constituency MP. It also preserves the geographical link to a single constituency MP, to which the British public are attached.
It is true, of course, that we would not be having this referendum if the Liberal Democrats did not themselves want PR in the first place. AV is better, arguably, than first past the post on the basis that it is more proportional, although the fact that it is also more of a consensual system means that you would probably have fewer mavericks in Parliament, which is a shame.
I would support an amendment to this Bill so that the public can make their own choice from the alternative voting systems available. I am fully in favour of a referendum, but as it stands the public are forced to play political games. Does a voter who might prefer what is in my view the real alternative-a true PR system-therefore vote against AV or does he vote for it, hoping that AV will be a stepping stone towards that? We know, of course, that this is the political reality, but it is ultimately disrespectful to the public that they are put in this position of limited choice.
The second half of the Bill is also a part of another Bill. I believe in principle that it is a good aim to equalise the size of the electorate for every constituency, but the problem with decreasing the number of MPs at this stage is that we do not know what our end point is likely to be in the overall reform of the other place and, indeed, of Parliament as a whole. For example, if we kept first past the post or opted for AV in the long term, I would say that, no, I am not in favour of decreasing the number of MPs, simply because the larger the number of constituents, the less your MP is going to be your MP, and the larger the constituency, the larger the workload and the less the local work accomplished. That is as long as there are no other kinds of MPs, but if one believed that at some stage the MPs would be topped up and we would have stronger regional government across the whole of Britain, it would be a different matter.
If we had true PR, there would be no more political manoeuvring through boundary changes, which we seem to get with every change of government and whose administration no doubt costs the country unnecessary money. Neither would a Government see fit inflexibly to clamp down on appeals to such changes. This wrangling would simply stop, because it would become politically irrelevant. We might then concentrate our minds solely on how a constituency might be defined in ways other than by the thought of potential political advantage.
Finally, I share the concern of many others about whether the number of Ministers should not be reduced alongside a reduction in the number of MPs and whether there should not be an agreed formula for this. This Government have already shown in the Public Bodies Bill that they are not afraid to try to increase the power of the Executive at the expense of wider, properly democratic scrutiny and consultation.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, for the second time in seven days I am speaking in your Lordships' House as one of a long list of over 50 speakers to talk against a Bill with whose principles I more or less agree. In both cases, the Government face a very critical report from the Constitution Committee. I think that, as with the Public Bodies Bill, this is bad Bill because of process.
I favour a fairer voting system for the House of Commons, as I favour a voting system for your Lordships' House. I am therefore very happy to support the principle of a referendum on moving from first past the post to the alternative vote. Similarly, I cannot disagree with the principle of equalisation, although, like my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, I would favour a figure of give or take 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. Also like my noble and learned friend, I believe that these historic changes could be much more easily taken forward on the basis of consensus over process.
What has happened on process? Why this ridiculous rush, which is now causing such opposition? Why, yet again, so little consultation? Why no consultation with the devolved Administrations? Why not listen to them and avoid the problems attached to holding the referendum on the same day as elections to the devolved legislatures? Perhaps the Minister can tell us, when he winds up tomorrow, what estimate has been made of the differential turnout in different parts of the UK as a result of that, beyond the confusions that rightly the Scottish Parliament recently legislated to reduce by moving the local elections.
There are some who argue that this House should not concern itself with these matters of how the other place is elected. Indeed, the noble Lord the Leader of the House pretty much argued as such in his opening speech. I beg to differ. This Bill is part of a wider parliamentary reform to try to restore confidence in Parliament as a whole. In that endeavour, we should all work together, particularly given the events of the past couple of years. As a Member of your Lordships' House, I am after the bigger picture before we are asked to legislate on these elements, or bits of a Bill, as the noble Earl just said. We should not pluck out bits of wider parliamentary reform and have to consider
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With a mandate from a referendum on a voting system, we can then determine whether we have fixed-term Parliaments, how long the term should be and how regularly the constituency boundaries should be reviewed. Finally, we can then commission the review of new constituency boundaries, with public inquiries at least in the first instance given the scale of change. Given that we are talking about 600 brand new constituencies, I cannot see any argument for not holding proper public inquiries, at least in the first instance. I accept that that would take time, but with such huge constitutional change we should attempt consensus at least on process. The current rush seems to be driven by a political deadline that would allow the Liberal Democrats the iconic achievement of electoral reform within a year of forming the coalition, and give the Conservatives the prize of cutting the number of Members of Parliament in Labour cities and in Wales and Scotland.
The other substantive point I should like to make tonight is around reducing the number of MPs to 600. I was intrigued by the Leader's explanation that it was a "nice round figure". While he is the embodiment of a nice round figure, that is not good enough to persuade me. Why reduce the number at all? I note that the number of MPs has increased by 25 since 1950. That is 3 per cent increase in 60 years. In the same time, the size of constituencies has increased by 25 per cent and the volume of correspondence, especially in this age of e-mails, has exploded exponentially for Members of Parliament. That is in part why the 3.5 million unregistered voters are important. When I was a Member of Parliament, until my contract was cut short by the electors of south Dorset earlier this year, I did not check the electoral roll to see whether a constituent was registered. I confess that one of my staff obsessively did, and would make sure she told me whether the person had a vote. If she is listening, I am sorry, Lena, that I completely ignored that information. I am absolutely certain that if any MP is approached by someone in housing crisis, with immigration problems, as a victim of bureaucratic incompetence in respect of tax credits or benefits, in any of the bread and butter pieces of casework, all MPs will try to help regardless of whether they are electors. The sense of public service is strong in Parliament and we should acknowledge that.
In my former constituency, I had pockets of significant deprivation in the west, in Weymouth and Portland, and in much more affluent areas in the east, in the
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The Bill's current position of working off the electoral roll as of December this year is untenable, and I cannot support a review every Parliament. Like others, I believe in the importance of the community link with MPs, and as someone who lives 400 yards from the constituency boundary, I do not want to do the hokey-cokey-to use the phrase of my noble friend Lady Liddell-out of west Dorset.
Finally, why is there such a hurry? I can only think that it is for political gain. Your Lordships' House adds value by being less political and by ensuring constitutional rigour and, on that basis, I urge that Part 1 be separated from Part 2 to make two Bills. I also urge proper time for boundary reviews, with public inquiries on these 600 new constituencies. Ideally, I urge a proper road map of parliamentary reform that defines the roles of both Chambers before legislating on their size and how their Members get there.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, at this late hour I shall avoid the temptation to repeat many of the arguments that we have already heard, but I should perhaps declare one interest. When I was in the other place it was as Member of Parliament for Stirling, having been elected in 1983. Leaving aside the birth of my children, my marriage and other personal events, arriving at the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament was my proudest day. I think that I did so with about 35 per cent of the vote when we had four parties fighting that election, so getting 50 per cent of the vote would have been quite an achievement.
At subsequent elections, without the split in the Labour Party and the SDP, it became harder for me to hang on and my majority dropped to around 700 and then to 500. By then, I was Secretary of State and I had to sign the order produced by the Boundary Commission to take Bridge of Allan out of my constituency and put it into another; that was probably about 4,000 Conservative votes. I did so without any concern at all, other than for me, because it was a fair process with a proper adjudication and inquiry. By the way, it was not just the political parties which put forward their views: views were expressed by the local community and, in the end, the right decision was taken. The result was that I got kicked out of Parliament -there were one or two other factors in that as well-and I found myself in this place.
This place has a very important role to play. It is the backstop; that is our whole purpose. A Question was asked in the House the other day of my noble friend Lord McNally as to the purpose of the House of Lords. If nothing else, it is to protect the constitution. I feel that the Bill is not Parliament's finest hour. There has always been an understanding and a convention that on constitutional matters we should try to proceed with consensus and by agreement and, if we cannot do
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I understand, of course, the deal that was done after the election but I wonder at the reasons being given for this Bill and for some other Bills which are yet to come before us that are being put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister in his new role. One of the things being said is that it is about restoring trust in Parliament. In my opinion, a number of the best speeches tonight have been made by former Members of the other place. I say "best", because they convey that sense of relationship which Members of Parliament have with their constituents, whether they voted for them or not, and which they have with the area that they represent. Even when you have been out of Parliament for a long time-I live in my old constituency -you still go around and remember that that was the place where there was this or that problem, and you have that feeling of identity. You come to Parliament as the champion of your constituents. Yes, you are there as Labour, Conservative or whatever, but you are also there as the man or woman for your area.
That is a real and powerful identity, so if you depart from that principle and if Members of Parliament start to be seen as the representative of the party for this block of population in this part of the country, something disastrous will have gone wrong. Thinking back to 1983, one thing that was very sad was that I was a Tory; a third of my constituency had never had a Tory since the Twenties; a third had never had a Tory since before that; and a third had never had anything else. There were bits of my constituency where Tories, particularly with the miners' strike and so on, were not very popular. Yet you were respected as the Member of Parliament; you had standing and status. The expenses scandal and other things have damaged that, and I find the extraordinary notion that we can repair that damage and restore the status of Members of Parliament with this kind of Bill and this kind of reform a little unnerving.
My experience, going around canvassing during the election, was that people said, "You're all the same. You're in it for yourselves. We only see you at the election. You say one thing at the election and then do another". If we want to counter that kind of cynicism and distrust, one of the things that we might do is keep the promises that we put in our manifestos. The Bill fails miserably on that count. The manifestos made promises about the voting system and the size of Parliament. The Conservatives campaigned for first past the post and against AV. The Liberals campaigned against AV. The Labour Party campaigned in favour of AV. Now we have a Bill that puts forward AV, produced by the Conservatives and the Liberals in coalition, being opposed by the Labour Party, which campaigned on having AV.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: A pre-legislative referendum, rather than the post-legislative referendum that is proposed in the Bill. The ordinary voter being faced with the clips that will be shown during the referendum campaign of the Deputy Prime Minister describing AV as "a miserable little compromise", while at the same time he is promoting the Bill, will do nothing to restore trust in Parliament.
If trust in Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean trusting the voters. The noble Earl spoke eloquently in favour of giving the voters a choice. I would prefer to have the status quo; first past the post seems to work perfectly well. If you are going to open up the issue of changing the voting system and consult the people, however, it seems strange to choose one system and not allow the voters to express a view on it. I look forward to amendments to the question in the referendum that will enable the inclusion of STV.
The Deputy Prime Minister, as part of this exercise in increasing trust and the accountability of the Executive, set up the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. It was specifically set up to look at the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of the constitutional reforms. Its first report repudiates the Bill and the process by which it is being carried out. How does that help to restore trust in Parliament?
The coalition Government have resolutely refused to reduce the size of the Executive in line with the proposed reductions in the size of the House of Commons. I have put down a Written Question, which I have not had an Answer to, asking how many people are now members of the Government or Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and what the size of the payroll is. I have the feeling that it has gone up substantially. That is not increasing the authority and standing of Parliament.
In a number of speeches today, people have made the point that it seems bizarre that we have Members of this House sitting in the Gallery that is meant for the public because there are not enough seats to accommodate us, but we are increasing the size of this House while at the same time justifying a reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the grounds of expenditure.
There is another thing: it was my party's policy to reduce the size of the Scottish Parliament. That has 129 Members. It is hard to believe that you need 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament if you are proceeding on the basis of having 55 Members at Westminster. The public will find it difficult to understand why, having previously been in favour of reducing the size of the Scottish Parliament, we now want to keep the Scottish Parliament at its present size while reducing the size of Westminster.
I am conscious of the time. It has been suggested that this is all being done for political advantage. I have a cautionary tale. The Members opposite may not recognise this view of events. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who I am sorry is not in his place, telling me that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead. I remember people believing that, if they had a Scottish Parliament, Labour would dominate Scotland's politics for ever. It did not quite work out that way. Constitutional change to secure party advantage seldom does. The unexpected has a habit of happening.
On AV itself, I thought that the 1997 defeat for us was an absolutely catastrophic rout. However, the information I have seen suggests that if we had had AV it would have been even worse. AV tends to reinforce the big shifts of the kind that have taken place. We should be very careful about making huge changes to a system that works perfectly well. It is true that there are anomalies in the system. However, the Bill has not been properly discussed in the country. It is the product of a political deal and that is no basis on which to amend the constitution of our country.
Baroness Adams of Craigielea: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I am quite depressed about the Bill but I am also now very confused, as I find for the first time, sitting opposite the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that I completely agree with him. That certainly did not happen often in the other place. On the other hand, there were elements of my noble friend Lord Knight's speech that I completely disagreed with. I do not support AV-I support first past the post-and I certainly do not support elections to this House. It would be ludicrous if, while we are reducing elected representation to the other place, we start to increase it in this House.
However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Knight that the Bill should be two Bills, not one. It seems that it has simply been cobbled together for convenience. The two parts of the Bill bear no relation to each other and were made not in a coalition but in an unholy alliance. The noble Lord the Leader of the House told us that this coalition was what the country wanted. How do we know this? We know that the country did not want the Government that were in place. It did not want the Conservative Party; it certainly did not want the Liberal party. What did we get? Everybody got what nobody wanted-not a consensus but a coalition. The electorate might have been telling us that they wanted some consensus but what they got was a cobbled- together coalition, rather like this cobbled-together Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, told us that he did not support AV but it was a price worth paying. I am sorry he is not in his place now because I would tell him about a price that the Labour Party thought was worth paying in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Before the legislation for the Scottish Parliament there was something called the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which the Labour Party, the Liberal party, several other parties and parts of civic Scotland-such as churches and trade unions-took part. We came to an agreement before the legislation that we, the Labour Party, would support a system of PR for the Scottish Parliament if the Liberal party supported a gender balance for the Scottish Parliament. Subsequent to the legislation, the Labour Party tried to deliver a gender balance within its own rules. I am sorry to say that the Liberal party at no time tried to deliver that gender balance. So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, be careful what you wish for here as you might get something completely different from what you set out to achieve.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was right again; the Labour Party did go forward with AV in our manifesto, but we lost the election with that in our manifesto. I
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Lord Rennard: The noble Baroness has explained that some people in the Labour Party might now abandon their commitment to AV because they lost the election, but why did they abandon their commitment to a referendum on PR given that they won the elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005?
Baroness Adams of Craigielea: I personally was never committed to AV but we are not abandoning it. Many on this side still support it. I happen to be one of those who do not. The noble Lord did not support AV before the election. It was not in the Liberal manifesto. It certainly was not in the Conservative manifesto, so why is he supporting it now? He should explain that to me rather than the other way round.
First past the post appeals to me, as it does to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, because the electorate know where they are with it. They know that the first person past the post has won the race, like the horse that he told us about, and that we do not end up with the third horse wearing the rosette at the end of the night.
The first election for the other place in which I stood was a by-election. I got 42 per cent of the vote. In three subsequent elections, I got 61 per cent of the vote. I was very fortunate indeed, no doubt, but I was part of the community. What really concerns me about the second part of the Bill is the loss of community. I am surprised at the Conservatives going forward with this because they consistently tell us that the family is paramount to society. But where does the family fit, if not into a community? I came from a community where I can trace one side of my family back as far as records go. I was very much part of that community and was fortunate to represent it.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Baker, any time that I attended a boundaries inquiry the place was full, and not just with political parties. Given that the Conservative Party came fourth in my constituency and had only about 12 members, it would have taken a lot of them to fill the hall. The 1,500 or so people who were there were not just political parties, agents, sitting Members, candidates and councillors but came from all parts of the community. Community cohesion was very important to them-and so it should be. People do not want to become just another brick in the wall-a numbers game whereby we draw a square and say, "You 76,000 over here; you 76,000 over there". Again unlike the noble Lord, Lord Baker, I never went to a Boundary Commission where there was not substantial change in the outcome of the original boundaries, and I gave evidence to three Boundary Commissions. Only recently as regards the Scottish parliamentary boundaries it was proposed that my former constituency should span the River Clyde with Renfrew on one side and Clydebank on the other. Those areas are only a river apart but are very different with very different local ties. The local communities gave evidence to that commission and their evidence was accepted but later rejected.
I agree that Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles should be excluded because of their geographical position but am astounded that Argyll is not included.
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When we are drawing up these boundaries, we should ask ourselves: why are people disinterested in politics? If we tell them that they are just a number, just another brick in the wall, and we really do not want to go to inquiries, find out what their constituency links are and what their community ties are, then no wonder they say to us, "You are all the same", because that is what we are doing. We are totally discarding the electorate when we tell them that their communities no longer matter-that it is just the number that matters.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, that was a very thoughtful and honest speech, which I am sure the House followed with interest. However, I found the beginning of it and the previous speech rather interesting examples of the cross-dressing that seems to be going on in this House. There have been some very powerful speeches against the Bill, but none more so than that of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I am sure that, with friends like him, my noble friend Lord McNally will feel when he winds up that he does not need enemies.
I, too, want to talk a little about islands. I cannot believe that the Isle of Wight has ever been mentioned so often in one day in this House before. I should start by admitting that I am not an islander but an overner-as they are called on the Isle of Wight-although I am Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay. However, we have happily had a holiday cottage on this beautiful bay for many years, and my wife's family has had connections there for nearly a century. The Isle of Wight Liberal Democrats and many local people of all parties and none have asked me to help their campaign to keep the island as one seat.
If it is kept as one seat, the Isle of Wight's electorate of 110,000 will be 34,000 more than the new quota of 76,000. That is much closer to the quota than either of the two constituencies preserved in the Bill as it stands. Orkney and Shetland, with 33,100 electors, is nearly 43,000 below the quota, while the Western Isles, with
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I support the exceptions made for the two Scottish island seats, but there is an even stronger argument for adding the Isle of Wight as a third preserved seat. I intend to move an amendment to that effect in Committee. The island, as local people call it, has a strong sense of identity and is clearly divided from the mainland, physically and psychologically, by the Solent. If a third of the island had to be joined to a mainland constituency, those islanders would consider themselves to be second-class citizens. There are three main ferry crossings, so either Ryde would be joined to part of Portsmouth, the Cowes area would have to link up to Southampton Water, or West Wight would be linked to the New Forest. What would be the names of these seats? I suppose that you would probably have to name them after ferries. You might be the MP for Solent Hovercraft, Solent Red Funnel or Solent Wightlink, but those would be highly hybrid constituencies.
All the main political parties on the island support the "One Wight" campaign, led by our excellent weekly paper, the Isle of Wight County Press. The island's MP, Andrew Turner, and the Liberal Democrat candidate at the general election, Jill Wareham, presented a petition to Downing Street with 17,000 names. People of no party feel equally strongly that they should keep a single MP. Last time I had a pint at the Pilot Boat in Bembridge, the customers were all signing the "One Wight" petition on the bar. That must be a first in popular participation in parliamentary redistribution.
The Isle of Wight is nearer the electoral quota than the two Scottish island seats. The other key reason why the Isle of Wight has an even stronger claim to preserve its status is that it is asking not for special treatment, through extra representation at the expense of other constituencies, but quite the reverse. The island wants fewer MPs, not more, than it is entitled to. Although the mood of most islanders is clear, that could raise a theoretical problem if some people were to argue that petitions do not prove what voters want and that they should not be deprived of extra representation by having just one MP serving 110,000 constituents.
However, there is a simple and cheap answer to that. The Bill provides for an AV referendum to be held everywhere on 5 May. Why not have a second, local referendum on the Isle of Wight on the same day to ask electors whether they want the island to stay as a single seat? The extra cost of printing and counting the second set of ballot papers would be very modest as the polling stations would all be open anyway. I have no doubt that the vote would be overwhelmingly for one Wight, but it would be only fair to let that be confirmed if electors were being asked to give up some theoretical representation. Island people feel different. They want one clear island voice in Parliament, not mixed messages from an MP with divided loyalties across the Solent. I hope that the anomaly of the Isle of Wight will be sorted out sensibly.
This is a fair Bill that is long overdue for our democracy. For many years past, Britain's electoral system has been skewed in Labour's favour. First past
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Our hopelessly slow system of boundary reviews also has the effect of loading the dice in Labour's favour. As Balinski, Johnston, McLean and Young point out in their very useful report for the Royal Academy, Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom, if Labour and the Conservatives had received the same number of votes nationally, Labour would have had 185 more seats than the Tories in 1997, 142 more in 2001, 111 more in 2005 and 54 more in 2010, even on the new boundaries. That cannot be right.
We must move now to a fairer voting system. As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, to be fair to Labour, it did at the end of its term at least open up to that-and thank goodness for that. We must now move both to a fairer voting system and to fair and much more frequently updated parliamentary boundaries.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I recall a veteran US Congressman stating that we have reached the stage of the debate where everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it and I propose to make what I hope are one or two new points.
I start with a confession. I have a considerable degree of sympathy for the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, I am sorry for them because I feel that they have reached, with the Conservatives and the coalition, a sort of Faustian pact, but in my judgment the result will be a tragedy for them of Greek proportions and one of their own making.
AV is an orphan concept-it is unloved by all and cherished by none. No one wants it, and the Conservatives, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said very well, prefer first past the post. They do not want any change. Many of my Labour colleagues, like me, were rather unwillingly led to accept it as part of a pre-election matter, but after the general election defeat they no longer feel any obligation to support it. The Liberal Democrats do not want it; they prefer a full multi-member system. For them, therefore, AV is second best and of course ultimately the electorate will reject it.
The debate is, in part, about the Liberal Democrats' towering obsession with constitutional reform. It is, for them, an all-pervading priority and they are willing to dump long-held principles for it, whether it be tuition fees, where their leader was going to die in a ditch, or welfare reform and housing benefit. If one were asked to say which policy has been most distinctive for the Liberals over the past decades, it has surely
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However, now we come to the Greek tragedy element of this-that the Liberal Democrats will not achieve their aim. They will be left with nothing because, in my judgment, the public will vote against AV. Therefore, all these concessions and the dropping of long-held principles will be in vain, and equally the public will punish them because of the unpopular policies and cuts that they have accepted. That is bound to lead to conflict within their ranks: those in government will wish to keep the trappings of office; the rank and file will feel betrayed. I think there is an old US saying that a platform is something to run on, not to stand on. That is perhaps what has happened with many of the promises made prior to the election.
I have one further thought on AV. There is a real danger that there will be a low turnout in the referendum. The public do not share the obsession with constitutional reform; it is very difficult to motivate people in such areas, as former Members of the other place will confirm; and the Electoral Commission found very low levels of public understanding about voting systems. This does therefore back the argument for at least a threshold in the referendum.
So far as concerns the reduction in the number of constituencies, the Government are determined to press ahead. No amendments were made to the Bill in the other place and there is a whiff of gerrymandering. The number of 600 has clearly been chosen deliberately as the most disadvantageous to the Labour Party. What is the aim if not party advantage? In one sense, the Government have sold the pass in terms of community by recognising the special nature of the two island constituencies. As has just been said very well, what about the Isle of Wight, what about Ynys Mon, and what about other areas with clear community identification? The boundary commissioners will, inevitably, have to divide communities and the disparity should be 10 per cent and not 5 per cent. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that there will be only one central Boundary Commission. The joy of these local inquiries, as I have witnessed, is that the views of the boundary commissioners can be tested and challenged by local opinion because a central body will not understand the intricacies of local identity. All will be sacrificed on the altar of mathematical correctness and precision. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said, there is a danger of in-and-out communities.
I wish to make two brief points on Wales and they were made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. My old constituency, Swansea East, I know very well. I like to think that I share the prejudices of my community. I was born there, went to school there
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On broader Welsh issues, I adopt the concerns of the Select Committee which I quoted earlier and which I shall not quote again, but England will lose about 5 per cent of its seats; Scotland about 16 per cent; and Wales 25 per cent, probably falling from 40 seats to 30. In the past there has been a compact-even in 1832-which meant that Wales was somewhat over represented with 35 Members, but that compact has now been broken. Welsh weight at Westminster will be reduced and very possibly encouragement will be given to separatists by the so-called unionist party.
Finally, the government juggernaut has moved on from the other place to the House of Lords. There has been no amendment. When I lecture to schools about this place, I talk about the traditional role of this Chamber as being a chamber for second thoughts and for thinking again, based on the fact that no one party holds a majority. The fact of the coalition has overturned that presumption-a safe majority now, as we saw in last week's debate, which is to be increased within a few weeks by the new coalition appointments. In my judgment, this is a bad day for democracy.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, this Bill is a serious disappointment to me too. I think there is a need for constitutional reform and I have campaigned for such reform over many years. It needs more careful consideration than that which has produced this Bill. I have always believed that the public should play an active part in choosing the kind of reform they want when dealing with the architecture of the political system. This Bill does not trust the general public.
If you believe in representative democracy, it follows that you believe that Parliament should be representative. Yet it is remarkable how efficient our political system has been in placing individuals in key positions of power who simply do not accept that argument or come up with convoluted arguments for how, magically, first past the post delivers representative democracy.
You can look at any election over the past 30 years and see the distortions at work. With only a third of the votes, a political party can win an overwhelming majority in this country. To make it clear that I am not being partisan, I shall use an example where it was my party that was the beneficiary, but it can work in different directions. In 2005, six voters in 10 supported parties other than Labour, yet Labour won six in 10 of the seats in the House of Commons. My party was the beneficiary on that occasion, but was it fair? Only 35 per cent of those who voted cast their ballot for Labour. More people abstained than voted for the party that came to govern with a majority of 60. A system which can deliver such a result cannot be described as rational or fair.
What shocks me is that members of the Conservative Party still refuse to see the urgency of changing the voting system, because they hope that, next time, the unfairness of the system will work in their favour. I say to the Liberal Democrats across the way that they may at the moment be enjoying their period in the sun, but the reforms in the Bill will not work to their advantage in the long run.
When research was conducted into why people are not voting in the numbers that they once did-we should not be happy that only 60 per cent, and sometimes less, of the people who could vote do vote-the reasons were not about apathy, or about people feeling contented with their lot, as some people will tell you. Those explanations are wide of the mark. The explanations are much more complex. When you are gathering evidence on this, people say that they do not feel that there is any point in voting because, in their constituency, the same party always wins, so what is the point of voting? That is a constant refrain. They also feel that they are not being listened to; they have little choice; and they distrust a political system where politicians say one thing but do the opposite. I urge that on the Liberal Democrats at this moment, where people are feeling strongly about student fees and other things. People are becoming increasingly aware of the unfairness of the system. It is not, as one of my noble friends has suggested, that people know where they are with the system as it is. They do not, and that is one of the reasons why many are not voting.
The membership of our House of Commons should in some way reflect the way that votes are cast, so that people feel that there is a purpose in voting, even in a safe seat. Indeed, the very idea of a safe seat should be rattled. In the 21st century, we should be moving from majoritarian to pluralist democracy. It has been mentioned already that we get only one chance for certain kinds of reform in a generation, and we could easily be missing a very important opportunity here. The alternative vote system is not proportionate, as so many people have said. Indeed, the reason why it is being promoted is because it is the least voting reform possible. I support a much more radical change and would like to see a proportionate system. I strongly support the position presented by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Alton, that AV+ or STV would be a far better reform.
I also believe that we are incredibly patronising about the general public, believing that they are incapable of making sensible decisions. They make sensible decisions when they are given good evidence and information. I would be happy for a number of choices to be presented in a referendum, but I would like deliberative processes enriching the discussion, consultation and debate before any such referendum took place.
I recommend that the House look at the work of Helen Margetts, Stuart Weir and Patrick Dunleavy, a group of political scientists already mentioned, who have examined the workings of AV over a long period. They conducted simulations, one in 1992 and another in 1997. In the 1992 simulation, the outcome is changed in 28 constituencies, creating improved proportionality of only 3 per cent, so it will not improve proportionality. In 1992, though, it would have denied John Major his majority. In 1997, Labour would have had an even
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However, it is still better than first past the post, and if push comes to shove I will end up voting for it. I think that it might concentrate political minds on the importance of getting the vote out, and I think it will stop many candidates falling into complacency and overconfidence about winning, which is no bad thing. But I am not sure that we can say that this is the start of a journey towards a better system. I hope it will be.
Constitutional change has to be holistic. Consideration of any reform of the electoral system of the House of Commons has to be part of a bigger picture. If the House of Commons is being looked at with regard to constituency boundaries, should we not have considered reducing the size much more considerably than is being done here, down to 600? If we had gone down to a lower figure, we might have found that it did not have that whiff of the numbers being chosen to advantage particular parties.
The other factor which has been raised by many other speakers is the concern about holding the Executive to account. This is one of the concerns expressed generally about recent failures in our political system. The payroll vote is now far too large, and it will be even more disproportionate when the size of the House is reduced as recommended here. We should be concerned about that. It is an important element that we should have in mind in any period of reform.
I also think that we should be concerned about this business of reforming the constituencies without communities having the opportunity to argue their case for keeping things as they are. It is an issue of principle that people should be involved in that. People in an area may well feel that they value their community of interest more than they do having a greater voice. It is important that we should have that in mind. A failure to give people the opportunity to be heard on this would disappoint many across the country. I also think that we are risking the disfranchising of large numbers of poor people in our inner cities. I hope that there will be some rethinking in the weeks to come.
This reform has all the hallmarks of a reform that consolidates old inequities and could add new unfairness. Constitutional reform is important. It is too important to be gone at in a way that will ultimately undermine trust. That is the risk that we are currently taking.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I agree very much with my noble friend Lady Kennedy about the importance of being deliberate in approaching constitutional reform and not rushing at it pell-mell. I think that we are making a lot of mistakes. I do not disagree on some of
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I think there is widespread agreement on the importance of the constituency link, which is fundamental. One of the key challenges in our politics is to improve the relationship between MPs and the people they represent. I judge this Bill, at least partly, in terms of whether it succeeds in improving that position, and I contend that it does not.
I do not want to spend my time talking about the merits or demerits of AV except to say that AV does keep the constituency link. In assessing the effect of AV or any other change, it is no good looking at it statically; one has to look at the dynamic effects of a change in our voting system as well. I believe that some of the issues to do with AV are a result of the fact that there will be a dynamic effect which is harder to calculate, but which I am sure will be there.
However, to go back to the heart of the Bill, as other noble Lords have said, it is very difficult to reconcile reducing the number of MPs in the Commons with increasing the membership in this place. We will have other chances to debate that, but it seems to me that it is an indication of how badly things have been thought out.
Let me turn to the referendum in particular. I am concerned, as are other noble Lords, that the referendum is to be held on the same day as local or devolved elections. It is difficult to see how the campaigns will go. If all the attention in, say, Scotland, is on getting a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the arguments in favour of the referendum taking place at all and its content will be swept aside. However, there is another difficulty that has not been mentioned which is that it is likely that where there is a hotly contested election-I think it will be in Scotland-turnout will be higher, which will pull up the turnout in the referendum, even if people have no particular interest in it. Contrast that with what will happen in areas where there are no local elections-I believe London is one of them-where the turnout will be lower. We will have a very skewed result for the referendum. There will be a high turnout in some parts of the country and a low turnout in others, which will make a nonsense of trying to evaluate the result. It is not right as an approach.
I agree that the timing is far too tight. The Electoral Commission has said that it is just about okay, but if there is any slippage, it will spell doom for having a properly conducted referendum. I therefore agree with those who have suggested splitting the Bill in two and dealing with one part first and then the other. I fear that it has not been thought through very well and all the signs are that we are going to get ourselves into some difficulties.
I am very concerned that there has been no consultation on these proposals, especially with the devolved Administrations. Nobody has mentioned Northern Ireland yet. If the devolved Administrations are all unhappy about the referendum being on the same day, they should be listened to. It is important because they are the people who know what is going on on the ground.
There is something anomalous in the fact that Members of this House can vote in a referendum that will determine how the next general election is to be conducted, even though we do not have a vote in that general election. It is ridiculous. I think there is a way of moving an amendment to the Bill that will sort that out, and I trust it will have widespread support. However, people have died for the right to vote. The suffragettes campaigned for years for the right to vote. Some Members of this House say, "Oh, it's not important whether we have the right to vote or not". Since I have been in this House-and it is a privilege to be here-every time there has been a general election, I have felt a real twinge of unhappiness that I could not vote, even though I was shepherding voters to the polling stations in the constituencies where I was helping. I think there is something wrong in principle. If we are going to give prisoners a vote, it will leave us even more out on a limb. The people of this country are not going to demonstrate in Parliament Square to give us the right to vote, but I think it matters and represents an important point of principle.
I move on to the plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. I made a gesture earlier on that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, thought was a comment but, frankly, there has been no argument at all about why it is 600, except the view that looking at it, it will damage the Labour Party and the Conservatives will gain. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is shaking his head, but the fact is that if one took an average between the Conservative plans to reduce the Commons and the Lib Dem plans, we would have had an even lower figure. There is no logic to this, except that 600 is a figure that somebody thought of. It is too arbitrary for us to be happy about it, and unless there is a reduction in the size of the Executive, it will simply mean that an even larger proportion of the Commons will be on the payroll.
The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, mentioned the Isle of Wight. My mother lived there for a time, so I know it fairly well. However, it is not just the Isle of Wight; there are also serious concerns in Cornwall, Cumbria and many other parts of the country that the sense of local community will be damaged. I think that that is absolutely crucial. Anyone who has represented people, whether at a parliamentary level or at local government level, will know that the local community is crucial. It is the bedrock of our political system, and the bedrock of the relationship between elected politicians and local people. I contend that under the Government's timetable, there would be very little time at a local level for the parties to prepare for boundary changes. Anyone who has been a constituency MP and has gone through the agony of boundary changes will know how everything gets upset. The local parties have to be reorganised. One's whole political sense of who one represents is altered if there are significant boundary changes. In 1983, I went through it in Battersea and I had to contest the seat against a candidate from the other part of the constituency. There is a lot of turmoil and difficulty.
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