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It might be thought that I have dropped into a fairly severe partisan contribution at this stage and I want to avoid that. After all, we are talking about constitutional change and should, if we possibly can, avoid partisanship. I want to offer my congratulations to a Conservative Member of Parliament in the other place. He happens to be my Member of Parliament, because he represents the constituency in which I live. He is Charles Walker, the Member for Broxbourne. His concern, in the Chamber in the other place, was straightforward. He wanted to ensure that the House of Commons maintained, or perhaps increased, the capacity to hold the Executive to account when, as we all know, that capacity has been reducing over time.

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There is no doubt that the Bill significantly reduces that capacity. It reduces the number of Members of Parliament and says absolutely nothing about the number of Ministers. The payroll position increases in proportion to the Commons and, crucially, affects its capacity to hold the Executive to account. I am pleased to agree with a Conservative Member of Parliament who tabled an amendment at the other end that got short shrift. What did not get short shrift were the guillotines on a constitutional Bill at the other end and the Government using their whipped majority to ram it through.

We are a revising Chamber: no more than that. We ought not to appropriate to ourselves any greater responsibility, particularly with regard to how the other place is elected and how it organises itself. Therefore I suggest that in the course of the Bill's proceedings we merely give the other place the chance to think again, that we look at the size of the Executive-unchanged, of course, under the proposals that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is about to defend-and that we provide opportunity for further consideration. I have no doubt that the principle on our side will be quite clear. I have hopes that we will get support elsewhere in the House, and I do not have the slightest doubt that there are enthusiastic advocates at the other end for that change to the Bill, including my own Member of Parliament. Lest it be thought that in my fulsome praise to him I automatically pledge him my vote at the next election, I will remind him that I do not vote in general elections.

8.45 pm

Lord Bach: My Lords, from the Opposition Front Bench, I thank all those who have spoken during Second Reading. Of course, a large number have been from my side, and I am very grateful to them, but there have been very worthwhile contributions from all sides of the House which have also been illuminating. As my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham just said, one cannot help being struck by the lack of support for the Government's position. From all sides of the House, there has been pretty outright opposition. Occasionally, a Peer has had a good word to say for the Bill; and, very occasionally, one or two have even shown signs of enthusiasm for it.

Indeed, the only noble Lord who showed great enthusiasm for the Bill-I am so sorry that he is not in his place, but I am sure that he will be in a moment-was the noble Lord the Leader of the House. He seemed in favour of his Bill-and quite right too-but I am not even sure about him. I admire him very much, and I very much regret that he is not sitting opposite me at present. I admire him for many reasons, but above all I admire him-

Noble Lords: Here he is!

Lord Bach: It is funny; I was just talking about the noble Lord. I admire him so much for his many qualities, but, above all, for what can only be described as his chutzpah. Anyone fortunate enough to hear him on the subject of Lords reform will know exactly what I mean-perhaps even those who saw him earlier

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today. For those who have not much experience of the noble Lord's repertoire, we saw a pretty good example yesterday.

How could the noble Lord argue with a straight face that this is a proper constitutional Bill, one that has gone through all the procedures that he has so often told us-or, at least, he used to tell us when he was in opposition-are necessary for such a Bill? They are: extensive public consultation; pre-legislative scrutiny; a search for consensus; and perhaps above all, fairness and a lack of political partisanship. His speech yesterday was as good an example of both cheek and nerve as can be found.

The truth is that the Bill is rotten at its heart. It is rotten because it puts the party interests of the two parties that make up the coalition before fairness. It is rotten because no attempt has been made to consult the public or have pre-legislative scrutiny of its contents. It is rotten, too, because it seeks to decimate the role of the independent boundary commissions in determining appropriate parliamentary boundaries. It is, in effect, two Bills, and depends on a third yet to pass the other place.

Why are measures to set up a referendum on the electoral system in the same Bill as measures to set up new parliamentary constituencies? If it is appropriate to join them together, why is not the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill included as well? I am afraid that the answer is obvious: this is a Bill that is not primarily based on principle. If it were, how could either coalition partner press for a referendum that asked a question about, of all things, the alternative vote, but not about proportional representation? As has been said so often in the debate over two days, the Bill is based on a political deal. Of course it is. I would describe it as a kind of Faustian pact. The Helen of Troy in this Faustian pact is a share of political power. I must admit that I am not sure who at this stage is playing Doctor Faustus-the good Doctor Faustus-and who is playing the devil, but I think I can make a shrewd guess.

Part 1 is the offer for the Liberal Democrats although, frankly, to have settled for a referendum on AV-described by the Deputy Prime Minister in the phrase, almost now a cliché, that we have heard so often, "a miserable little compromise"-does not seem a great result, more a 0-0 draw, at least for the time being, rather than a win. Part 2 is the Conservatives' prize as part of the deal: an unthought-out proposal to cut the number of Members of Parliament to a certain, fixed, strict, unbending, inflexible, unalterable figure of 600 to cause the coalition's political opponents the maximum damage. All this low politics is hidden under the cover of political principle. It is described as a "new politics", while the Deputy Prime Minister claims it is the most important political reform since 1832 and that he is the greatest reformer of them all. Stand aside Disraeli; stand aside Gladstone; stand aside Lloyd George, Churchill, Macmillan and Attlee. Bring forward the new hero of the hour, the new kid on the block, the Deputy Prime Minister. It is not unusual to hide motives under the cover of high-sounding principle, but here we see the art form at its most blatant and it

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needs, I would have thought, a great political writer to catch the flavour of it. Trollope! You should be living at this hour.

As to Part 1, one question stands out from many others and has been asked many times. Why the rush? Why the haste? We are to have a referendum as early as 5 May. Why combine the referendum with other elections in a large part of the United Kingdom but not everywhere? Why have the rules for the referendum been shoved into the Bill at the last moment and not been dealt with in the usual way? Why so little consultation? I ask again: why the hurry? I suspect that the answer is depressingly party political yet again: the Liberal Democrats desperately need an early sign that they actually matter in the Government. Perhaps they feel that they have more chance of winning the vote for AV if the referendum is held early, but perhaps they should listen rather more closely to my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is a strong supporter of AV and who believes that a positive vote has much more chance if the referendum is held on another date. So often have we been told in this debate, and so often has the question been asked: is this really the way to change something as important as the electoral system of one of the oldest and most respected democracies in the world? I think the answer has to be no.

When we come to Part 2, I believe that we see the deeply partisan nature of this rushed legislation. We have heard of distinguished Conservative MPs during the course of this debate. We heard twice about the honourable Member for where we are tonight, the Cities of London and Westminster, who said:

It was not some idiot or some fool saying that, but a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Indeed, I am sorry to quote the Member of Parliament of my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, who is an independent-minded, respected MP, but it is important. He said:

"When introducing this Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister dressed it up as the beginning of new politics ... it is old politics exercised at its very best or its very worst, according to one's disposition. It is about the Executive-the Government of the day-seizing more power for themselves. Let us not be coy about this ... The arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 are nothing more than very flimsy. We are told that cutting 50 Members of Parliament will save £12 million. Well ... that is what 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy adds up to-we are going to save £12 million. Why stop there? Let us get rid of 300 Members of Parliament and save £72 million. There may be many good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons, but saving £12 million is not one of them".-[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 98.]

Finally, I remind the House of the words quoted by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark from the Liberal Democrat MP, Greg Mulholland. He said:

"Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of ... introducing boundary changes".-[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 882.]

Hear, hear, to that. Greater equalisation is a good thing, but at what cost?

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With this Bill we know that something is wrong. This does not look or sound like serious, well thought-out constitutional reform. It lacks that thought-through quality and that achieved consensus that come from proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and the reason is not hard to find. This is a constitutional measure that breaks the long-established and fundamental convention that such measures should not be taken for party gain.

I want to test this view by putting a number of questions to the Minister. First, why is there the need to undertake such an enormous boundary review by the next election? We have just been through the fifth periodical review, and new and important changes were made for this year's general election. Why is there the rush? Secondly, crucially and without apologies, I come back to why should there be 600 seats. This is the first time in modern history that a Government have sought to set down a number that cannot be altered. Rule 1(1) of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 states:

"The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613".

That gives the boundary commissions the opportunity to use their independent judgment, balancing the need for equality of electors and other proper considerations, such as geography and community ties, before coming to a fair conclusion. This system has worked. It has almost universal support.

A convenient myth has grown up that the number of MPs has risen greatly since 1945. As Professor King argued, in Sunday's Observer, this is just not true. He went on to say that, at a time when the number of people each MP represents and the workload of MPs have been greatly increased, the number of MPs has risen by 10 over 65 years. So why should we have 600 seats? We have not had a satisfactory answer from the Government. Neither Mr Harper in another place, nor our own Constitutional Committee, nor, with great respect, the Leader of the House has given a satisfactory answer. For him to say that 600 seats strikes him as "a nice round figure" is humorous and well meaning. We know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who will be answering, can be a cheeky chappie. But I would ask him tonight to take this question seriously and to give the House an answer. Why should the figure be 600? Why not 585, as in the Tory manifesto? Why not 500, as in the Lib Dem manifesto? Was it picked out of the air? Is it random? Is it some kind of magic number?

It is not a bad rule in politics that no decision or choice about a particular number or form of words happens by chance. There is always a motive of some sort-good, bad or in-between-behind it. It is not chance that the number that has been chosen is 600. Let me put forward a possible reason. At 600 seats, the main opposition party stands to lose many more seats than its opponents. At 585 and even at 500 seats, the party advantage evens itself out. Psephologists, I am told, agree on this. Is the Minister denying that conclusion, and if he is, what convincing reason can he give for the figure of 600? If we are right, and this is being done for political partisan reasons, is it not a constitutional

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outrage? Are not the Government using their majority in both Houses of Parliament to usurp the role of the independent boundary commissions?

In many ways, of course, the final clue to what we argue is a partisan Bill is to be found in the abolition of public inquiries. Why are the Government proposing this? For many years they have been a vital and integral part of the difficult and sensitive process, and it is that, of redrawing parliamentary boundaries. To abolish them is to remove at a stroke the key benefit of having the original proposals of the boundary commissions tested and argued in an open public hearing before an assistant commissioner with legal qualifications. Worse than that, it removes local involvement, the opportunity for ordinary people from the area under consideration to put forward their points of view. I reject entirely the argument that public inquiries are merely a vehicle for political parties. In any event, political parties are actually made up of local people. I want to let the House into a secret. It is not that unusual for members of the same political party to put forward different proposals to the same Boundary Commission.

In my experience, and I have appeared at quite a number of these public inquiries, many years ago now and for nothing-pro bono, because I thought I saw that look in the noble Lord's face-there are always many other citizens who put their views across. Those views may be absurd or they may be brilliant, but that is not the point. The point is that local people have the opportunity to be seen and heard, to be agreed with or contradicted, and above all to be active citizens. Is not that what, as I understand it, the big society is supposed to be all about?

The alternative proposal set out in the Bill that there should be a written consultation is, frankly, an insult. What I do not understand is how two parties which both speak about localism and the need for greater influence to be given to local people can consider abolishing public inquiries, particularly when the boundary review that is planned in this Bill is going to be the largest and most wide-ranging for a very long time. The painful answer, of course, is that all these arguments come a poor second to the Government's need for a quick fix, a radical redrawing of the boundaries by 2015, a cutting of corners and established well-proved practices, in order to give them an advantage over the opposition party. That is the uncomfortable truth about this Bill-not so much a con trick as a Con/Dem trick. If a Labour Government had brought forward these proposals, we would have been ridiculed and savaged, and what is more, we would have deserved it.

One of the roles of this House is to help Governments to avoid the follies and mistakes of their proposals. Let me tell noble Lords that if you are in Government, it can be a fairly uncomfortable sort of help. In fact, it does not seem much like help at all. I have been there. In our view, this is a Bill where the Government need assistance from this House-and not just from our side, but from all sides, to move away from proposals that, frankly, are not worthy of the great traditions of the two parties that make up the coalition. They are traditions which accept that constitutional changes should be made, but always under two guiding principles: caution and consensus.

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The Bill is deeply unsatisfactory in many ways, as our own Constitutional Committee said in its withering report last week. It represents a genuine abuse of power. I cannot believe that the Government want to gain a reputation so soon after they have come to office. For what it is worth, my advice to them is to listen to what has been said, loud and clear, by the House in this Second Reading debate; otherwise they will deserve the reputation they will undoubtedly get.

I return to the proposition that the argument for bringing the number of MPs down to 600 is to save £12 million. The reputation the Government will get is that they will be accused of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

9.05 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bach. I know how thoroughly he has prepared his speech and I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House will read it, and we will listen.

Before I turn to the main thrust of my speech I should say to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that I was extremely touched by the warmth with which he spoke of the House of Lords. It usually takes a left-wing Labour MP, although he is now denying that he is one-I am sorry, I forgot who I was talking about but I wonder how long it has been since you have been called that, Tommy-a little longer than three months before they fall completely in love with this place and adopt a "No change I like it" attitude. It is called the "I've got the foreman's job at last" syndrome, and he has been quick to get it. It was also good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in a passionate speech, advocating change with all the subtlety of one of Baldrick's cunning plots. We will watch him for that.

It has been an interesting debate. As I look around, I see that I have more Labour Members listening to me than I used to have when I was a member of the Labour Party. We have had the benefit of some old, nostalgic, vaudevillian performances. Last night the noble Lord, Lord Snape, gave his Max Miller impression, which is always good for the show; the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in his place but Rab C Nesbitt would not go far with the noble Lord intervening; and I have always considered the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to be a genuine small 'c' conservative on constitutional reform. I suspect that if he had been around in 1832, not only would he have defended the retention of Old Sarum, he would probably have been the Member for Old Sarum.

It is good to have gone through this debate. Certainly the Labour Party cannot claim that the Bill has not had a thorough examination. It has had two days in this House -

Noble Lords: It has not even started yet.

Lord McNally: It has not even started yet and already we have had over 40 interventions. So any complaints about thoroughness go awry.

Time is running on and so let me deal quickly with some of the points that have been raised. On timing and speed-an issue referred to by the noble Lords,

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Lord Stevenson and Lord Davies, and a number of other contributors-as anyone who has studied our history will know, there has always been a battle and a discussion in terms of constitutional change between consensus and leadership. On balance, people who believe in constitutional reform and fight for it have at least as much success as the consensus builders.

Whether it is on Lords reform or voting reform, the same arguments are trotted out: "Well, this is a shock. We've never had time to deal with this. This should really go to a Royal Commission or through some further stage". As has been pointed out, AV was first offered by the Labour Government in 1931, some 80 years ago, so it is hardly a shocking introduction.

I say to those who talk about consensus that I was on the Cook-Maclennan committee that looked at constitutional reform before 1997. From that report emerged a Labour Government commitment to a referendum on voting reform. That, we believed; that, we followed through. But it was quietly buried by the Labour Government, sitting on their 180-plus majority. I say to those who advise consensus that there are some of us who can remember other things.

As a coalition, we have put together a Bill which has been given very thorough examination, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, rather grudgingly accepted. Eight days on the Floor of the House of Commons, as noble Lords-particularly those with experience-will know, is a pretty good run. It will be given a similar run here.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, expressed shock and horror at the Government's objective, but it is no secret that the Government want the boundary review completed before the next general election. There is nothing unusual about a Government wanting to see their programme implemented. Faster and more frequent reviews are more accurate and fair. I have listened carefully to descriptions of experiences of the Boundary Commission's work. It is barmy to have general elections on the basis of boundary reviews that, by the time they come to be tested, are nine years out of date. It has been said before, and it bears repetition, that the boundaries that were used in England at the last general election were based on electoral register data that were almost 10 years out of date.

Let us look at speed. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Wills, have pointed out that it is now less than six months until the proposed referendum date and questioned whether it will be possible for the poll to be run effectively to those timescales. I believe that it is, not least because we tabled all the legislation, including the detailed rules for combining the referendum with the elections for the devolved legislatures, more than six months before the date of the poll. We have been working with the Electoral Commission and administrators to draft the Bill. The commission has confirmed that it is "broadly satisfied" with the discussion and scrutiny that the Bill has received. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, said that not a single opposition or Back-Bench amendment was accepted by the Government. That is not true. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place proposed amendments in Committee which prevented modifications to the

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boundary commissions' recommendations without the consent of the relevant commission and determined how the media should be regulated for the referendum. The Electoral Commission suggested a different wording for the question. The Government listened carefully to all the arguments in the other place and, when convinced, brought forward their own amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talked about the lack of constitutional overview, claiming that that Government had failed to take an overview of the constitutional reform structure. That is simply not true. The Government have made a number of proposals for constitutional reform in the first Session. Indeed, Members in the other place are today debating the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but there is no compelling argument that needs to be all contained in one piece of legislation. We need to go back to Cook-Maclennan-

Lord Grocott: The argument is not about whether it should all be contained in one piece of legislation. It is about whether there is any consistency between the three or four separate constitutional Bills. Can the noble Lord answer one specific point? Why does he think that it is right to have a referendum on the voting system in the House of Commons, but no referendum whatever on the abolition in its current form of the House of Lords?

Lord McNally: Well, I seek not to see the distant sea. We have not seen the legislation on the House of Lords yet.

Lord Grocott: Just tell us whether there will be a referendum.

Lord McNally: I seek not to see the distant sea. This is absurd. This is going on all night. You are afraid to discuss the central pillars of the Bill and every few minutes you pick up something else. Now we are off running on Lords reform. You will get the Bill on Lords reform, as we promised, in the new year, and we will have the opportunity to discuss that matter.

Lord Grocott: I know that the noble Lord comes from Blackpool, but could he move away from the music hall act and try and answer the questions? Could he answer the specific question, which is why on the narrow issue of Commons voting he thinks there should be a referendum? Clearly, there should, but he will not answer me the very straight, simple question whether he agrees that there should be a referendum on any move to abolish the Lords in its present form.

Lord McNally: We will have the debate on the future of the Lords in due time. Whether I come from Blackpool or not, I would prefer to debate this Bill, whose central issues the Labour Party is obviously petrified to debate, or we would not have had the collection of red herrings that are being paraded around this Chamber.

Noble Lords: We are all here.

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Lord McNally: Oh, you have all turned out-but we shall get later to what this Bill is really about and what you are really afraid of. It is about fairness. I did not hear any discussion of fairness when the Labour Government were elected by 36 per cent of the vote in 2005.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: The noble Lord most certainly did hear that in the course of this debate from these Benches. But it was also pointed out that, although there was unfairness, there was a possibility that this Bill might add to that unfairness because it is so ill considered.

Lord McNally: The Bill is being considered, and considered on the basis of fairness. I know that the noble Baroness is often a lone voice on those Benches. My point, which is central to the issue of first past the post, is whether we are to continue to have the kind of distortion that produces majorities of 66 on 36 per cent and then no majority at all on 36 per cent. With those kinds of distortions with first past the post, the rot sets into people's respect for the electoral system.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: The noble Lord said a few minutes ago that Members on this side of the House were afraid of debating this Bill. I sat through most of the debate yesterday and have listened to most of it today and I have heard innumerable contributions from my noble friends debating the very essence of this Bill, while his Bench has been empty. Is it not an insult to suggest that it has not been debated by Members on this side?

Lord McNally: Let me give one example. The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, shed crocodile tears over the missing 7 per cent on the election. Where was the action from the Labour Government in 13 years to deal with those very issues?

Lord Wills: I will tell him exactly what action we took, and I want to bring him back to a question that he has avoided answering so far, about the action put on the statute book by the last Labour Government, which placed on the Electoral Commission a duty to ensure that the register was comprehensive and accurate. It was given new powers to achieve that end, which I noticed the Deputy Prime Minister boasting today he is going to bring forward. That was the action that we took.

I should now like to ask him about one of the distortions that he is so keen to avoid addressing. That is the distortion of a wholesale revision of constituency boundaries on the basis of a register which everyone knows is neither comprehensive nor accurate. If the Government waited just a few months, we have every likelihood of having a register that is comprehensive and accurate. Why will he not wait until the register is comprehensive and accurate? Why not?

Lord McNally: Because we have put the legislation before the House and are taking it through the House. Just to go back to-

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Baroness McDonagh: With respect to the noble Lord, his argument does not hold together intellectually. He is chastising us for a first past the post system when this party had in its manifesto a referendum on the alternative vote. He is repeating a falsehood: that the current make-up of constituencies leads to Labour getting elected on fewer votes than the Conservatives. It is not true. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is back because I asked earlier if he would send around to the House the psephological evidence that that is the case, because it is not. Yet the noble Lords keep repeating this falsehood.

Lord McNally: All that I am repeating is the cold fact that 36 per cent of the vote delivered Labour an overall majority of 66. That is the only point I am making. As for the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, we have had this debate before. First, 93 per cent on a register is not a bad outcome. Anybody-and by God, I can see so many ex-party apparatchiks around this place and I am one as well, so-

Lord Martin of Springburn: In the 30 years that I was in the other House, there was a time when all I had to look up where my constituents were was one register which was renewed every year. Now in recent years, in fairness, every month a new register came in with additional names going in and names coming off. That was surely better than the register that was only updated once per annum.

Lord McNally: Of course it was. I remember at Transport House the calculations of whether Harold should go in March when there was a new register or in October when it got old. Again, that has nothing to do with the Bill. As for the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I can see that the previous Labour Government, rather late in the day, brought in reforms. We intend to carry through some of those reforms to keep the register up to date but, again, it really is not central to the Bill.

On the question of the 600, if your Lordships would let me have a go and not try to work it out as if they were going to have constituents-I have not asked on this so it is just me working it out-if you are going to have constituencies of around about 75,000 with our electorate, I suspect that that comes to somewhere around 600. Perhaps one of your Lordships will get your slide rules out and tell me whether that is true. But what, in God's name, was so important about 650, 640 or any of the other numbers? It is an obsession and, quite frankly, with the theories of the noble Lord, Lord Bach-

Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: The noble Lord is very considerate but was it not the case that in the manifesto of the party that he supports, its figure was 500, while in that of the party he is in coalition with the figure was 585? Normally, the compromise is somewhere in the middle. How did it come out at 600?

Lord McNally: Again, the coalition came to an agreement on a reform programme and it came to a figure which is entirely defensible, and which-

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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Wills: I actually want to help the noble Lord, I really do. He is in a lot of trouble and here is my suggestion to him. Rightly or wrongly, there is a great deal of suspicion here, which he will recognise, that that figure of 600 was chosen because it was the figure of maximum advantage to the coalition parties. Now, he can remove that suspicion immediately by answering the question that I asked him in my speech yesterday. Did the Government-the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative Party-do any modelling of the different effects on their representation in the House of Commons of its size being 600, 585 and 500? If they did, what were the results? He can answer that question now and remove all discussion about this.

Lord McNally: I have absolutely no idea whether such modelling has taken place. If someone tells me afterwards that it has and I can get my hands on it, I will send it to the noble Lord, but it really is-

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords-

Lord McNally: Oh, come on.

Lord Campbell-Savours: If the Minister has no idea, will he answer the Written Question that I tabled yesterday on that very matter? He will then be able to trawl the department and talk to his special advisers to establish the truth.

Lord McNally: For goodness' sake, here we are, with everyone telling me that this is a constitutional Bill of the greatest importance, and the Labour Party gets obsessed with some conspiracy theory about the number 600. Perhaps we should have chosen 666; that would really have frightened them. Let us have the debate-we are certainly going to have a good debate and, I suspect, a lengthy one-and I am willing to go through all these points.

If you want to be mentioned in the debate, the key thing is to be either a Liberal Democrat or a Conservative against the Bill or a Labour Member who is speaking helpfully as far as the Government are concerned. On the question of thresholds, Mr Chris Bryant, spokesman in the other place, said that they are not a good idea:

"We should have a straightforward system where people fight to win their side of the argument. They win that side of the argument by getting people past the ballot box to vote either yes or no".-[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/10; col. 850.]

The amendment to have a threshold was defeated by 549 votes to 31. Again, we can discuss this, and I am sure that amendments will be tabled.

On the number of Ministers in the Executive-

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: Will the Minister answer the specific point: would a threshold that related to turnout, as opposed to people voting yes, be consistent with the coalition agreement?

Lord McNally: I do not think so, and I do not think that we are going down that road.

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On the boundaries, the Bill corrects the flaws in the current legislation that not only has seen the number of MPs creep up-by only a small number, I admit-but leads to the unfairness of constituencies with vastly unequal electoral sizes. As both my noble friends Lord Norton and Lord Oakeshott quoted a British Academy report, let me quote from it:

On the question of exceptions-

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I apologise for interrupting, but my noble friend asked a question that he raised in his speech yesterday. It is an important point because our understanding is that the coalition agreement rules out having a threshold that is based on outcome as opposed to being based on turnout. It would be helpful for us to have a specific answer to that question so that we know which amendments would be within the terms of the coalition agreement.

Lord McNally: We will certainly look forward to the amendments but we take guidance from the House of Commons, which seems to have pretty comprehensively rejected thresholds-not the coalition agreement, but thresholds.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: The Minister was given 24 hours' notice of the question.

Lord McNally: We are not going to have thresholds. Put the amendments down and, at the appropriate time, I will oppose them. Okay?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: Well, noble Lords can put their amendments down and I will debate them too. I know which way we are going on that issue, and we know which way the House of Commons is going.

Lord Tyler: This is a helpful one. My noble friend, in opposing any thresholds, will have the support of the Constitution Committee of this House. He will not have to rely simply on the votes at the other end of the building.

Lord McNally: As so often in my career, my noble friend comes over the hill like the seventh cavalry.

I turn again to the British Academy report. We heard a lot about local inquiries. It is interesting that the British Academy report says that these,

The Bill proposes a two-stage process, with 12 weeks, instead of the current four, in which the public may make representation to the commission, and another 12 weeks for the commission to revise its recommendations.

I will deal quickly with a point made by my noble friend Lord Phillips about expenses. There will be reimbursement of all reasonable expenses. We are

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committed to ensuring a high level of participation but we are unlikely to change the £600,000 basis for the two campaigns. On the two campaigns, several noble Lords will remember the yes/no campaign for the EU referendum. Whatever else may be said about that, the system of two groupings to fight the campaign worked. I have absolute confidence that it will work again. Therefore, I look forward to the Committee stage. I say to my noble friends behind me that I have seen redistributions and psephological calculations but I do not know who will win this referendum. I have heard people say that we are bound to lose it. I am willing to trust the people. I am willing to see this in place and then take our case to the people.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Is one of the problems with the referendum now not the Deputy Prime Minister's statement that this is a "miserable little compromise"? Have we not effectively got that around our neck now? It will be used constantly throughout the campaign against those who are in favour of electoral reform. Does that worry the Minister?

Lord McNally: As we all know, there is an absolute industry in dragging up politicians' past statements.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is too pessimistic. At the heart of the Bill-and this is why the Labour Party, tonight and last night, have been so ingenious in trawling for red herrings-are two basic principles. We will have fair votes in fair constituencies. That proposal for fairly drawn constituencies takes out the distortions that we have seen previously; and gives us an opportunity to get rid of tactical voting and wasted voting, and give people a vote that carries real weight.

Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: The noble Lord stresses fair votes and fair constituencies. Why, then, will he not allow people in those constituencies to put their arguments in a public inquiry?

Lord McNally: I have just explained. They will have weeks of opportunities-massive opportunities. The Labour Party has suddenly resurrected the public inquiry to be some massive issue of principle when it knows as well as I do that public inquiries were often the cause of delays that left us with boundary commissions that were nine or 10 years out of date. But, as I say, we shall have plenty of time to-

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I intervene as I detect that my noble friend is about to finish. I noticed that a little earlier he was about to touch on the number of Ministers but was interrupted and did not come back to that. Will he deal with that point quickly as it is important?

Lord McNally: As I have said before-I think that this has been put on record in the other place-if the general opinion is that the 8 per cent cut in the number

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of Members of Parliament is such a distortion of our constitution that the payroll vote should be trimmed, we will look at that. We will have plenty of time to do that, and we are on record as saying that we will do it. I will give way but we will have lots of time to discuss the issues.

Lord Touhig: I would hate the Minister, as a Liberal Democrat, to miss the opportunity to explain to the people of Wales why it is right that they should have a 25 per cent reduction in their representation in the UK Parliament. I am sure that all the Liberals in Wales are eager to hear that.

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Lord McNally: The Liberals in Wales will hear those arguments when they are discussed in Committee. It is not a case of my not answering that question; we can all go on discussing these matters until a quarter to one but it is clear that the Labour Party is not willing to face up to the distortions in our present system. This measure is a fair way of approaching that.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 9.36 pm.

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