|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
As the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, observed, the perception is deeply important, and perception can lead to other things. It has been done in a thoughtless and casual way. We look forward to what the Minister will say, but so far there has been no compromise, no consideration or alternative views. We had the rejection of an idea of a Speaker's Conference. There is no suggestion that we might have the kind of Boundary
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1001
I dread the thought of some of these new constituencies coming into play. We have already had aberrations in the reorganisation of Welsh local government. I well recall when I was at Aberystwyth dealing with a monstrous aberration called Dyfed, and confronting the councillors in Llanelli and Burry Port, trying on occasion perhaps to play the Labour Party card and totally failing because they did not really regard that area of the frozen north, as they saw it, as a part of Dyfed at all.
We must have a formula for the size of constituencies that is flexible. I find the irrational process in which this change has been conducted deeply distasteful. It is a result, as with so many of the policies we currently have, of secret backstairs private discussions within the coalition. But we have not had them within Parliament so far. The House of Lords is doing, as it so often does, what the House of Commons was not enabled to do. There was no debate on these dramatic changes in Wales that occurred because of the use of the guillotine. I regard these proposals as a throwback to the cultural imperialism of the 19th century, with a coalition claiming, in effect, that there is no such place as Wales; that they really do not care about it and they are not prepared to listen. That is, unless their policy changes, very deeply to their discredit.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is a fellow north Walian. I look forward to hearing his maiden speech, but perhaps not this evening. We have gone on long enough I think.
As we are all aware, under the Bill as it stands, the total of Welsh parliamentary seats will be reduced from 40 to 30, which is an unprecedented figure. Even in 1832 Wales had 32 seats and, of course, the number has grown since then to 35 under the Representation
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1002
How have the present proposals come about? The Government made their views very clear in the evidence that they supplied to the Welsh Affairs Committee, which conducted an inquiry into the implications for Wales of the Government's proposals. It is clear from that evidence that it is the equal value of votes cast at parliamentary elections across the UK that is the overriding principle. Currently they do not have equal value. The Government go on to say in that evidence:
"The electoral quota for Wales's forty constituencies averages around 56,500, the lowest of the four nations in the United Kingdom. Welsh constituencies now have on average some 20% fewer electors than constituencies in England; almost 14% fewer than constituencies in Scotland; and some 13% fewer than constituencies in Northern Ireland".
"For example, the vote of an elector in Arfon, with an electorate of around 41,000, is worth almost twice that of an elector in Cardiff South and Penarth, with an electorate of over 73,000. The votes of electors in Aberconwy, Dwyfor Meirionydd and Montgomeryshire, all with electorates below 50,000, are worth considerably more than those in the Vale of Glamorgan, with an electorate of over 70,000 ... The Government believes that, again, there is strong justification for ending this manifest inequality".
Some would think that the Government's proposals are among the consequentials of devolution and the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales with its 60 representatives. They would recall that Scottish representation was reduced in 2005 from 72 to 59. The Government's evidence appears to deny that in the case of Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, was absolutely right on that. In their evidence the Government deal with the view,
There we have the Government's reasoned justification for their proposals. We are all aware of the factors that the Boundary Commission may take into account in deciding boundaries. We would all probably agree that a 10 per cent variation on either side of the quota would probably make life easier without mortally injuring the basic equality principle that lies at the heart of this Bill. As has already been said, Mr Lewis Baston of
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1003
Devolution and the election of 60 National Assembly Members should have reduced the constituency workload of MPs, especially in the areas of devolved government-health, education, housing, and so on. But some MPs tell me that constituents still come to see them rather than their Assembly Members. If so, that is a problem that they should sort out among themselves at ground level. Wales has many problems. Indeed someone asked where Wales would be without its problems. More MPs than average is not the answer in my view. I agree that it is a matter of quality. Better quality MPs might help, but not more.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell has expressed my views very well about the very eloquent arguments that we have heard in the course of this debate. Like him, I shall continue to ponder, but your Lordships may rest assured that there is no doubt that the issue of parliamentary representation of Wales is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has said, Parliament has played a very important part in our history. I hesitate to say it but surely the 16th century Act that was passed requiring the translation of the Bible into Welsh was a unique piece of Welsh legislation. If my memory, which is faulty, nevertheless serves me correct, it was 1563 and it was a fellow countryman from the Conwy valley, where I reside, Richard Davies, who actually pressed that statute in this very House.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I wish to speak very briefly. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, introduced this debate with eloquence and discipline and summarised the points beautifully. I wish to address two aspects only: devolution and Wales's contribution to the UK today.
In the devolution settlement for Scotland, the powers were much clearer. Even if Wales has greater devolution -the Liberal Democrats had always said that they wanted to cut the number of MPs when the Assembly was stronger-and we go down to 35 MPs, we in Wales will still have lost a greater percentage than Scotland will have done. Fairness in devolution needs to be looked at.
What about Wales in the UK today? I refer noble Lords simply to the Armed Forces. We should remember that the population of Wales is just over 5 per cent of that of the UK. There are 37 regular battalions in the British Army, three of which are Welsh and six Scottish. Eleven per cent of recruits come from Wales and more than 7 per cent of casualties in Afghanistan are from Wales. At the height of Operation Panther's Claw in summer 2010, the proportion of Welsh soldiers was between 20 and 25 per cent, as Welsh regiments such as the Welsh Guards were on the front line. An MoD spokesman, Paul Barnard, said in an interview last year:
Indeed, the rest of the UK should be grateful, as Wales does contribute. We have a devolved Assembly, but the role of the MPs in the other place is important.
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1004
Lord Rowlands: My Lords, I had the privilege of representing for 30 years one of the most remarkable constituencies in the country. It cannot be denied that Merthyr Tydfil has played an enormous role in the political, social and cultural developments in Wales, particularly in south Wales. It also has a remarkable sense of continuity. There has been mention of the Reform Act 1832. That Act created Merthyr Tydfil as a constituency, although not until the very last minute. In the last moments of the debates in the Commons and the last stages of the third Reform Bill, the Government eventually gave in to pressure to create the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. In three successive Bills it was proposed that Merthyr should be a contributory borough of Cardiff. Neither Merthyr nor Cardiff thought that that was a good idea. Cardiff believed that it would be swamped by the Merthyr hordes and Merthyr considered that it was-as it was at that time-a more populous and more economically thriving community than the decaying county town of Cardiff. At the very last minute, the boundary change was made, and the concession was made.
When I reread the proceedings of the 1832 Reform Bills, two things struck me. One was that the Government of the day, and Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell, made considerable concessions to gain parliamentary assent. They seem to have accepted that the only way they could get that major Reform Bill through was by building parliamentary assent. They made concessions that some people thought they never should have made, but they were made. You do not create great parliamentary reform of this kind through ministerial macho approaches. It is important to build parliamentary assent. One of the saddest things about our lengthy debates is that no such attempt to build parliamentary assent has been made-not so far, anyway. I hope that at this late stage that process can and should start.
As I say, Merthyr Tydfil was created by the Reform Act 1832. During the 19th century it grew in population and electorate and became a two-Member seat. In 1900, it produced a remarkable dual membership: the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie, who served the constituency alongside one of the richest men in Britain, the mighty coal owner DA Thomas, later Viscount Rhondda. In 1918, it reverted to a single-Member seat. Since 1918 to this very day, the core of the Merthyr constituency is the Merthyr county borough. However, given its remit, I have no guarantee or assurance that the Boundary Commission will respect that core. It may do what a former Boundary Commission once recommended and fracture the core of that constituency-the community-based constituency that I had the privilege of serving. I am fortunate that, in 34 years in the other place, I went through only one parliamentary Boundary Commission.
Listening to these debates has brought back many memories of that experience. One of the first proposals of the Boundary Commission convened before the 1983 election was that Aberfan and the Merthyr Vale
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1005
Secondly, can one imagine the total insensitivity of supposing that Aberfan and Merthyr Vale be removed from the Merthyr constituency at a time when, some years after the Aberfan tragedy, we were still dealing with its long-term consequences at both parliamentary and borough level? That is the kind of insensitivity that I fear will arise time and again if the Boundary Commission's remit stays as it is. It will not respect the community feeling that is such a passionate part of our political and community life. I felt that most forcefully when in 1983 the then Boundary Commission eventually amended the constituency by attaching the Rhymney Valley to Merthyr. This was not thought well of in the Rhymney Valley. There are deep attachments not necessarily to counties but to constituencies. The people of Rhymney Valley were passionately attached to their constituency of Ebbw Vale. It was little wonder that that was the case as they had been represented for more than 30 years by Aneurin Bevan and were represented at that time by Michael Foot. It took a huge effort to try to rebuild and connect communities to make the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney feel as one, and these were communities with identical political and social values.
While Boundary Commissions are impartial, they are certainly not infallible. The great value of local inquiries is that they allow communities to educate the commissioners in what communities are all about. However, communities will be denied that under this Bill if the Boundary Commission makes the absurd proposals that have been made in the past, which happily were quickly rejected because of the outrage that they caused locally. That experience could be repeated over and over again, as they cut across normal communities and move wards around, as is feared will be the consequence of the Bill.
I also want to touch upon the second point about the relationship between the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster and the union. I heard and reread the first attempt by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to defend this argument a week last Monday. He said:
"The important point to remember is that the reform means that a vote in Cardiff will have an equal value to a vote in Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh or London. To me, that does not undermine the union; giving an equal value to a vote in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London will, we hope, bring the union closer together".-[Official Report, 10/01/2011; col. 1227.]
The notion that by cutting 10 constituencies in Wales and reducing representation to the Commons by 25 per cent will somehow create a closer sense of union is an absurd suggestion by the noble and learned Lord, who has made a very good fist of a very poor case throughout most of these debates. I do not think that the kind of cut that is envisaged will create a closer union; I think it will sow seeds of disunion.
I cannot follow the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that numbers do not matter. Besides equality, they matter every now and then in the Lobbies. Among other things, therefore, a proper representation-certainly not 30-is essential for the good maintenance of the union, alongside devolution itself. I might be a bit of an endangered species in this case. My noble friend Professor Lord Morgan was, I think, thinking of me; I am an old-fashioned Labour unionist at heart and in the Bevanite tradition that meant that you had to be where power is. Power is and will remain, very substantially, in Whitehall and Westminster to influence the affairs of Wales. We cannot afford to reduce that representation, or to be perceived to have done so. Never mind being perceived; it will have happened if we cut the numbers by the amount suggested.
I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, feel any affinity to the great Whig/Liberal tradition that created the Reform Act 1832, with Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell. At least during the course of that Bill they made very strategic concessions to create parliamentary assent. Thankfully, as a result of that pressure, they created the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, that they start making strategic concessions tonight by accepting these amendments.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I rise because my name has been mentioned on a number of occasions during this debate and I ought at least to thank noble Lords for the plug. I promise that my contribution really will be brief because all the songs have already been sung so expertly-probably the correct analogy to use in relation to Wales. There is a great deal of pleading for special causes in the Bill and there is, of course, ample justification for Wales to be included. Even if it were argued, as it has been today, that Wales might have been slightly overrepresented in recent years-no one is arguing about that; there is no dispute about it-it does not deserve to lose 10 constituencies at the stroke of a legislator's pen. These amendments, so powerfully moved by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, would address this unfairness.
A number of distinguished former Welsh MPs from all sides of the House have contributed to this debate, and in terms of such practical experience I am indeed a piping voice without substance. However, I can at least claim this; I had a grandfather, father, aunt and uncle, all of whom represented rural Welsh constituencies-for all the parties represented in this House, I have to say. I can testify to the additional burdens that physically large constituencies can impose on their representatives. This is compounded by a road network that has hardly improved over the years-I am sorry, but that is the case-and a rail system that many would argue has actually deteriorated. The personal ties which an MP can establish with constituents fairly easily in a well defined and concentrated urban area must be far harder to achieve over a large and disparate geographical mass. In the case of Wales, any attempt to extend the size of already large constituencies to encompass the 76,000-elector figure could result in the entirely inappropriate solutions referred to so tellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in what I will call the Brecon-Radnor debate earlier in the week.
All these matters should surely be looked at carefully without a ticking clock in the background, which is why I hope that Amendment 102AB, in the name of my noble friend Lord Williamson, will be received favourably by all sides of the House.
Baroness Gale: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be taking part for the first time in this debate tonight. The Welsh Affairs Committee report has been quoted several times tonight. I will quote from it again:
"The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than any other nation of the UK. Wales is projected to lose ten of its forty parliamentary seats, a reduction of 25%. We agree with the principle that all votes should have equal weighting. However, equalisation between constituencies is only one of a number of factors to be taken into account when deciding constituency boundaries. The unique geography, history and communities of Wales must not be ignored when the Boundary Commission undertakes its review".
"In a democracy, it is an important consideration that every effort is made to ensure that votes have equal weight. However, no electoral system genuinely delivers a wholly 'fair' outcome in these terms. Notwithstanding this principle, other factors legitimately weigh in the consideration of where the balance of fairness lies. It is also important that the interests of each region of the United Kingdom are properly heard at Westminster. The Government's proposals would reduce, at a stroke, the number of MPs representing Wales by 25%. By any yardstick, this would be a profound change to the way that Wales is represented".
Tonight, we have heard a lot about having equal weight in voting, but does saying that something is equal mean fairness? Does it mean democracy? One aspect of this is that Welsh Assembly boundaries will be different from Westminster boundaries, and I think that that will cause problems. I know that this has happened in Scotland, but Scotland is not Wales. Scotland has already reduced its numbers because it has much greater devolved powers than we have in Wales. I think that it will cause problems if we have 30 Westminster seats and 40 Assembly seats, especially if we have elections on the same day in May 2015.
We do not know what the result of the referendum on 3 March will be. Most of us will be hoping for a yes vote, but even with that yes vote no greater powers will be devolved to Wales. It will mean that Wales can make primary legislation without coming to Westminster on matters that have already been devolved to Wales.
I am not sure whether the position of women has been mentioned in the 14 days of Committee debate, but with equality and fairness, surely democracy must be mentioned. There are not many women MPs in Wales. We have never had many women MPs. There have been only 13 since 1918. At the moment there are seven. The largest number that we ever had at one time was in 2005 and we are now down to seven. It could be that, throughout the country, with a reduction of 50 and the new boundaries, women will lose out.
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1008
The south Wales valleys have been mentioned several times. My noble friend Lord Rowlands mentioned Merthyr Valley in his former constituency. I have lived for most of my life in the Rhondda Valley, which has an electorate of just over 50,000. We are surrounded by the Cynon Valley, Pontypridd and Ogmore, which would be possible areas where you could expand. Lewis Baston, who has been mentioned several times, suggests that in order to fit in the numbers to get to the magical 75,000, Rhondda and Ogmore could become one constituency. My noble friend Lord Kinnock is smiling because he knows the area, as many noble Lords will as well as I do. We know that Rhondda and Ogmore have no natural links whatever. How on earth can you have a Rhondda and Ogmore constituency when you have a great big mountain between us? You can go over the mountain road, but that is closed the minute there is any fog, ice or snow. It would be extremely difficult and the Rhondda and Ogmore people are totally different communities. The Rhondda Valley is unique, as are all the valleys. There is no other place in the United Kingdom like the south Wales valleys.
It is worrying. Where will you get these extra votes? Wales is taking such a big hit because 22 of the smallest constituencies are in Wales. Was it taken into account when the figures of 50 and 75,000 were decided that Wales would be the hardest hit? I doubt it. I suppose it was done on a piece of paper and someone thought that it was a good formula, but as a result Wales has taken a big hit.
In the Rhondda Valley, the community spirit is still very strong. We people in the Rhondda practised the big society before it was ever heard of. People have a strong community spirit. The miners of the Rhondda built their own hospitals and we had our own libraries, all contributed from the miners' pay packets every week. We had our own doctors before the NHS ever came into being.
I would like to say a little about how strong the Rhondda spirit is and how strongly people feel in the valleys. John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, decided that there would be local government reorganisation and we would have unitary authorities instead of districts and counties. There would be 22 councils. One of them would be made up of Rhondda, Cynon Valley and Pontypridd and it would be called the Glamorgan Valleys, which meant that Rhondda would no longer be in the title of our local government. Two wonderful Rhondda women, Betty Bowen and the late Carys Pugh, who noble Lords will remember, decided that this was not on and that Rhondda would not disappear from local government.
They fought a campaign-just the two of them-and this was before the internet and mobile phones, Facebook or Twitter. They had support from all over the world from ex-Rhondda people who said that Rhondda must not disappear. They secured a meeting with John Redwood and he had the good sense to meet these two
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1009
The Welsh language has been mentioned, which is very important to all of us in Wales. I do not speak Welsh myself, but my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren speak Welsh. The Office for National Statistics states that the increase of people speaking Welsh in Wales in the 2001 census was largely as a result of children being taught the language in schools. This goes way back to the 1950s, when the old Glamorgan County Council, in a non-Welsh speaking area, made sure that Welsh medium schools were started, and they have been a great success. The report said that because of the Welsh medium schools, we now have many more children speaking Welsh. The report states that in all age groups, women are more likely to have Welsh language skills than men, and the,
I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Touhig because we would lose 25 per cent of our MPs, but not gain any more powers. I can see that there might be a case if we had more powers, similar to Scotland, but it is wrong. Stifling the voice and the strength of the Welsh people is wrong. I ask the Minister to think again before allowing this to happen and to take into consideration all that has been said today because Welsh people will be listening to this debate. They did not have a chance to listen to what went on in the House of Commons because of the guillotine, but they will listen closely to what this coalition Government have to say about Wales. I am sure that they would want a really good response and that they will take note when the elections come on 5 May.
Lord Jones: I am glad to follow my noble friend Lady Gale because she has huge insight into Wales and its workings. My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport quoted the poet RS Thomas. I wondered then how he would have responded had this Bill come before him. I think that the Nobel-nominated genius would have responded with a grimace and a frown and with sharp, thunderous, angry denunciations. That leads to what the genius of the south, RS Thomas's cousin Dylan, might have done. Had he encountered this measure, he would, after a glass or two, have presented a laughter-filled satire of English arrogance.
The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts, both shrewdly emphasised the qualities of shrewdness in terms of representation here in Westminster as opposed to numbers. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, instance his argument by reference to James Callaghan, a man of great quality. I studied Leonard James Callaghan in his use of power for
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1010
The coalition is off course. It puts more and more Peers into your Lordships' House yet it legislates to take many Members of Parliament out of the Commons, which does not seem logical. Instead of two Bills, we have one which is disparate and disjointed. It is not good enough. I believe that it is wrong for the coalition to debit 25 per cent of MPs in Wales. That cannot be right; it is unjust. We are talking of something approaching a parliamentary birthright. That is how the Welsh people see their representation here in Westminster. They always have and they would not be pleased if this Bill progresses. I believe Wales to be a very mature democracy. Wales likes its parliamentary politics. It is proud of its political heritage and it gives so much to the body politic here in Britain.
I am not the only noble Lord to say that Britain has gained so much from the Welsh constituencies; our great Mr David Lloyd George, who founded our welfare state; the mighty Mr Bevan-we all know what he contributed to Britain and to Wales; Mr Ness Edwards, who was very much a representative of the Welsh mining constituencies; Mr James Griffiths, a passionate man from the west who gave us national insurance Acts. Here are risks for the future, yet the coalition seems blind to them. Wales deserves better than this. It is a careless measure with more than a hint of a Heath Robinson disjoint.
Welsh people rate their Members of Parliament. They use them and their services with gusto. Now is not the time to denude the Principality of its favoured defenders. The MPs in Wales do a magnificent job of responding to their constituents' concerns. They deploy their staff most effectively. I would say that is the case with all Members of Parliament, whatever their party, in Wales. The service that they give now is instant, devoted and very effective. The measures in the Bill are not a reform; a reform is an advance. These measures are a negative, not a positive-deleterious, in effect. I am not the first to pose the questions, but where was the pre-legislative scrutiny? Where is public consultation? Where is the consideration of our geography and its peculiarities or of our economic and social history?
What is proposed is unjust and we now know that, in the immediate years ahead, there will be economic and social changes of the greatest seriousness. There is the imminent impact of major cuts in local government services. There has been too much legislation, by all Governments-ill considered and careless legislation. The history of our modern Parliaments is littered with examples of hurried, ill judged legislation and for these reasons, I support the amendment.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Touhig on his amendment. I do not want to repeat much of the discussion that has taken place in the Chamber during this debate. I have studiously avoided, during my repeated interventions on this Bill, accusing the Government of gerrymandering, because I do not believe that that is the motivation behind this legislation. However, in Wales the accusation of gerrymandering will stick because removing 25 per cent of Wales's Members of Parliament will create-indeed, it is at this moment creating-great suspicion in the minds of the Welsh people.
I claim a right to speak in this debate by way of my birthright in Swansea. My family is almost entirely Welsh. Due to the somewhat rare nature of the Savours name, which is easily traceable to 1602-a task carried out by a great relative of mine at the beginning of the previous century, before the age of the internet-we have quite a lot of information about my family's activities over several hundred years. In preparing for this debate, I particularly researched the role that my family may have played in setting boundaries in Wales. I had been informed -incorrectly, as it turned out-that sheriffs and high sheriffs had historically had the responsibility of setting boundaries. There are two high sheriffs in my family: Edward Savours in 1747 and Robert Savours in 1845. Both were in south Wales, so I obviously had an interest. It seems that the only influence that they may have had was on parish or county boundaries. Since 1832, sheriffs probably had very little influence, as boundaries appear to have been set by a boundary commission after that.
However, during the research, I turned up some interesting background material on the boundaries in Wales. It seems that in 1944, as has already been alluded to, a Speaker's Conference was established. From a pamphlet written in 1995 by Mr Iain McLean, a notable academic in this area, entitled Are Scotland and Wales Over-represented in the House of Commons?, we learn the lessons of history on the use of mathematical formulae and seat reductions in Wales-and how interesting these lessons are. Mr McLean explains what actually happened during the 1944 Speaker's Conference, which was established to resolve arguments over representation. The conference, he says,
"It was pointed out that a strict application of the quota for the whole of Great Britain would result in a considerable decrease in the existing number of Scottish and Welsh seats, but that in practice, in view of the proposal that the Boundary Commissioners should be permitted to pay special consideration to geographical considerations ... it was ... unlikely that there would be any substantial reduction. It was strongly urged that ... it would be very desirable, on political grounds, to state from the outset quite clearly that the number of Scottish and Welsh seats should not be diminished. The absence of any such assurance might give rise to a good deal of political feeling and would lend support to the separatist movement in both countries".
The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, referred obliquely to that matter. I think that he was suggesting that that
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1012
"Accordingly, the conference resolved not to cut the number of seats in ... Wales and to establish a separate boundary commission ... The 1944 recommendations have provided a template for all subsequent legislation ... There should be no reduction in seat numbers for Scotland, or for Wales ... There should be a Great Britain-wide quota, or target electorate, for each seat ... The maximum deviation of any seat from this target should be 25 per cent ... Boundary Commissions might 'depart from the strict application of these rules' if necessitated by 'special geographical considerations, including the area, shape, and accessibility of a constituency'".
"The Redistribution Act 1944 implemented these rules ... During 1946 and 1947 the Labour Government announced that the 25 per cent rule was too restrictive and was leading the commissioners to break up historic communities. This conservative argument was accepted by the Conservatives; an Act of 1947 removed the explicit 25 per cent rule, and placed equal constituency size below respect for local boundaries in the Commissions' rules".
In other words, no cuts in the number of seats and respect for local boundaries put above a 25 per cent deviation from targets-a lot more than the 5 per cent that is being proposed in this legislation.
As far as I am concerned, this legislation's effect on Wales is utterly absurd. It is unjust. It treats Members of Parliament miserably. It will interfere in family life for many Members of Parliament because the Bill is not even staged-and I heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on the question of staging. It also provides for a great level of disruption in the public service careers of Members of Parliament. Many Members go into Parliament because they believe in public service and the need to contribute to their communities. It is quite unreasonable suddenly to remove 25 per cent of them in the way that is being suggested.
Wales is being punished on the back of a populist response by the coalition Government. The expenses scandal has provoked a backlash against Members of Parliament. The Government's response has been to cut expenses, promise September sittings and cut the number of MPs. It is a kneejerk response and Wales is being appallingly treated. It is absurd that this Parliament should treat the Welsh people and the Welsh nation in this way.
Lord Bach: We have had an extraordinary debate with many outstanding speeches from all sides of the Committee. I say more in sorrow than in anger that I am disappointed that no one from the Liberal Democrat Benches has spoken, particularly with their great tradition as a party in Wales. I cannot believe that they had nothing to say on this issue.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than on any other nation of the United Kingdom. Wales is projected to lose 10 seats of the 40 that it currently has. This represents, as we have heard, a 25 per cent reduction in its Westminster parliamentary representation. It is clearly a very significant proposal. What is so astonishing is that there was no debate in the other place on this matter. The guillotine came down. Does the Minister agree that it is outrageous and hard to understand how the elected House of Parliament could not debate this matter?
But it is worse than that. Many noble Lords who have spoken come from Wales and know how Wales is represented in another place. They will know that the Welsh Grand Committee, comprising all Members of Parliament from Wales, provides a forum for debate relating to Wales. The Grand Committee can meet only when the House directs it to do so. In effect, the Government decide when there is a need for such a meeting. A request was made from a distinguished ex-Secretary of State on 15 September 2010 to the current Secretary of State, the right honourable Mrs Gillan, to convene the Welsh Grand Committee. Unusually, the request was refused. In its report, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee made this comment about that refusal:
As many noble Lords have said, the prospect of this drastic reduction in the number of Members of Parliament has caused great concern in Wales and among those who are interested in Welsh matters. The all-party Welsh Affairs Select Committee of another place, made up of six government supporters and six opposition supporters, produced a report shortly after the Bill began its legislative stages in another place which was highly critical of the proposed changes. It said:
"A decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change".
As the debate in the Committee today has shown, this drastic reduction in the number of MPs has provoked more than considerable concern. For a start, it is a complete departure from the current legal minimum of 35 seats for Wales, enshrined, as we have heard, in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which was passed by a Conservative Government, who should take great credit for that piece of legislation. It is also a significant reduction from the level of Welsh constituencies that was in place at the time when the Welsh people voted for the devolution settlement in 1998. That settlement, as the former Welsh Secretary, my right honourable friend Paul Murphy, noted in debates in the other place, was a package. It was, he explained,
Importantly, that point was echoed by Mr Simon Hart, the Conservative Member for Carmarthen West
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1014
Leaving aside the issue of the referendum, a number of factors suggest that this sudden and deep reduction in Welsh representation goes too far, too fast. The imposition of a UK-wide electoral quota of the kind imposed by the Bill is bound to create one or two enormous Welsh constituencies that will be overwhelmingly rural in nature and will cover wide and in places inaccessible territories. It will force the construction of new constituencies in the Welsh valleys, which will be impractical and injurious to local community ties, as many noble Lords have said.
Previously, these were the sort of concerns that could have been soothed to a degree through the application of common sense and through the forum of public inquiries, which the Bill proposes to abolish. Will the noble and learned Lord clarify whether there will still be a right to hold public inquiries in boundary reviews concerning the constituencies of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not of the mother of Parliaments in Westminster?
I return to the issue of whether a uniform approach is right for the whole of the United Kingdom. In fairness, the Bill contains one rule to override the electoral parity rule, which acknowledges the fact that the United Kingdom is a union of four parts. That rule prohibits Boundary Commissions from creating any constituencies across national borders and recognises that the different parts of the union have their own special characteristics, traditions and administrative structures. My right honourable friend the shadow Welsh Secretary and ex-Secretary of State, Peter Hain, said:
"Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission for Wales, with cross-party support over the generations. For that reason, Parliament first decided in 1947 that there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts between the population over the past 60 years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to 40. As a note from the Commons Library of 28 July 2010 confirms ... during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) rejected the argument that over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long-standing constitutional arrangement".-[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 123.]
We are not arguing that Wales should be protected from any reduction in parliamentary representation. The Committee is made up of political realists and we understand that the Government have some legitimate basic objectives, including the creation of more equal-sized
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1015
We are beginning to see, in debates and votes on amendments that would inject a little more flexibility into the rigid rules set out in the Bill, a growing acceptance around the Committee that the Government should pay more attention to other considerations. Wales is an obvious area where some sensitivity at least should be given to special geographical characteristics, as well as to its status as a nation-this point was made by many noble Lords-within a larger union in which clearly England is the dominant force in wealth, population and political representation. The Welsh Affairs Committee stated that its concern was,
We know that, if the Bill passes, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its MPs, Northern Ireland will lose 17 per cent, Scotland 16 per cent and England 5 per cent. If the Government profess to be interested in fairness, it is important that the interests of each region are properly heard at Westminster.
The Government's proposals would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs representing Wales by 25 per cent. The Select Committee said that by any yardstick this would be a profound change to the way in which Wales is represented in Parliament. Paragraph 51 of the committee's report states:
"No persuasive argument has been presented to justify the haste with which this legislation is being pursued. There is no need for the legislation paving the way to the AV referendum to be linked to that fixing the size and number of parliamentary constituencies. Indeed, there are strong grounds for separating consideration of the two issues in time, both for Parliament and for the electorate ... a decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change".
The vast majority of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have agreed with that conclusion. We on the opposition Front Bench agree with it. If my noble friend seeks to test the opinion of the House, which is a matter entirely for him, we will encourage Labour Peers to support him.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for moving this amendment almost three hours ago, and for the measured and considered way in which he advanced his arguments. He encouraged Members of the Committee to be thoughtful, and triggered a considerable number of thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions to the debate. They ranged widely over parliamentary, cultural and family history, and over the contribution that distinguished Members representing Welsh constituencies have made to the parliamentary democracy of our United Kingdom. I will also refer at the outset to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about Wales being a nation. My noble friend Lord Morgan and the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe,
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1016
The amendment seeks to guarantee a minimum of 35 constituencies in Wales. In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, it is my understanding that when there was a debate on Report in the other place on the provisions of the Bill to equalise the size of constituencies, there were contributions from 16 Welsh MPs. Although the Government did give consideration to a Welsh Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Wales and my honourable friend Mr Mark Harper, the Minister who is responsible for this Bill in the other place, held a meeting to which all Welsh MPs were invited. There was extensive discussion and Mr Harper offered individual follow-up meetings to all Welsh Members. That was the spirit in which the meeting took place.
The amendment stipulates the figure of 35, which-as was said by one or two contributors, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in moving his amendment-reflects the figure set out in the 1986 Act, which stated that there should be no fewer than 35 Members from Wales. I observe that the same Act stated that there would be no fewer than 71 Members for Scotland. That provision was repealed by the Labour Government. I do not complain about that; indeed, I encouraged them to do so. The number of Members of Parliament from Scotland under the Labour Government fell from 72 to 59, and is set to fall again under the Bill to 52, which is about a 26 per cent reduction. That will be relevant when we come to consider issues about devolution raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan.
My noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy gave a clear expression of the Government's position as admitted in evidence. One of the underlying purposes of the Bill is to try to secure fairness-equal vote, equal value-throughout the United Kingdom. The amendment which has been moved and those which have been spoken to would go against that fairness of one vote, one value throughout the United Kingdom. We believe that every elector's vote in elections to the other place should have the same value, regardless of where that vote is cast in the United Kingdom. It is important to emphasise that we are not in any way proposing less representation for Wales than other parts of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the value of a vote in Wales will be the same as the value of a vote in England, the same as the value of a vote in Scotland, the same as the value of a vote in Northern Ireland.
We have allowed for a 10 per cent range of tolerance between the largest and smallest constituency to take account of local and other factors. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, gave the impression-a caricature-that it was simply a matter
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1017
I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Steel is present-I saw him at one point-but he will recall that when he represented the seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, having the rugby teams of Hawick and Gala in the same constituency set up some interesting issues of rivalry between different communities. As I said in response to a debate yesterday evening, Members of Parliament by their nature represent a number of different communities within their constituency. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, made the point about size and accessibility. Brecon and Radnorshire, which is the largest constituency in Wales, is often given as an example. To give a sense of perspective, it is worth stating that at 1,160 square miles, the current Brecon and Radnorshire constituency is considerably smaller than the constituency represented by my honourable friend Lord Thurso in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which is just under three times larger than Brecon and Radnorshire. Then there is the constituency represented by my right honourable friend Mr Charles Kennedy, of 4,909 square miles. Of course, there are geographical limitations which the Government have submitted in the rules.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recall that the late Lord Livsey, who for many years was the Member of Parliament for the then Brecon and Radnor constituency, was one of the most loved Members of Parliament, hard-working and known throughout the whole of that constituency?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I think that that would be accepted and acknowledged on all sides of the Committee. It is not just me standing here saying that it is feasible to represent a constituency of such a size, but the electors of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and of Ross, Skye and Lochaber have returned their respective Members of Parliament on several occasions, which suggests that they have been able to address the genuine needs of a constituency covering many communities.
Lord Kinnock: As we are explicitly discussing Wales, and the issue of Brecon and Radnorshire has been brought up, how does the noble and learned Lord suggest that that most rural constituency in Wales and England, with an electorate of 58,000, can be brought into consistency with the Government's formula of a tolerance of 5 per cent either way and about 75,000 or 76,000 without making the size of the constituency
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1018
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The first thing to note, because it happened very late at night, is that the Government accepted an amendment from my noble friend Lord Tyler with regard to existing constituencies being a factor to which the Boundary Commission may, if it sees fit, have regard. Perhaps that was not widely appreciated because there were not many of us around.
The point I am trying to make is that the two Scottish highland constituencies to which I referred are substantially greater than Brecon and Radnorshire-in the case of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, almost three times as big; in the case of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, more than four times as big. We would have to go a very long way before we got anywhere near constituencies of that size, which have equally challenging geographical issues. Nevertheless, Members of Parliament have successfully represented those constituencies, as can be seen by the fact that they have been returned regularly in elections.
I take on the genuine issue, which several noble Lords have mentioned, of the effect of the interaction with the Union. I express myself as a passionate advocate of the benefits of the United Kingdom, while at the same time as someone who has vociferously argued for devolution. I recognise the sincerity with which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, raised his concern about the Union.
My point, on which the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, picked me up, is not unreasonable. I think that there is an issue of fairness, and I have not yet heard the argument why it is in some way unfair that a vote in Cardiff should have the same value as a vote in Belfast, London and Edinburgh. Indeed, those who argue the contrary must tell us what explanation we give to a voter in Edinburgh that a vote in Cardiff should be worth more. I have not yet heard that explanation. Neither do I believe that in some way that difference in value will cement Wales's place in the Union. In fact, I think there is some merit in saying that if all parts of the Union are treated equally, that is positive. I would have hesitated to say it, because I am not Welsh, but my noble friend Lord Crickhowell made the point that the Welsh nation can have true confidence in itself. It does not need overrepresentation in order to have confidence in itself. That is worth bearing in mind.
I come on to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when he asked about various points I had made in the past about devolution. Points have been raised about the Speaker's Conference. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, much has happened since the 1944 Speaker's Conference, and much has happened since the remarks attributed to my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke in 1992. We cannot hypothetically say, "What would happen to this Bill if we had the Wales Office and had never had devolution?". That is not the situation today. It is the case that on the back of devolution, Scotland reduced its representation from 72 to 59, but devolution is not relevant to the proposals that the Government are putting forward because we are not seeking to make a distinction between Scotland, which has a different form of devolution from Wales, Wales, which may have more powers following the referendum on 3 March, Northern Ireland, which has a different system of devolution again, and England, which has no devolved government.
Noble Lords made the point that the United Kingdom Parliament deals with macroeconomic policies, defence-the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke of the contribution that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom make to the Armed Forces-social security matters and pensions matters. The Government are saying that representation should be fair in all parts of the United Kingdom. There may be some who would argue that because Scotland has its Parliament dealing with a range of domestic issues, there could even be an argument for underrepresentation, but that is not the position of the Government. The Government believe that there should be equal representation in all parts of the United Kingdom, and that is what underlies this. We do not find it particularly acceptable that, for example, the constituency of Arfon, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, has an electorate of just over 40,000 whereas Falkirk has an electorate of 80,000. Indeed, it was pointed out that even within Wales, there are substantial divergences in the number of electors.
I shall pick up the point on the Welsh language. I cannot see why the reduction in the number of Members from Wales would have an impact on the Welsh language. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, some of the great steps forward for the Welsh language were taken by people who were not Welsh-speaking in response to those who made very good, cogent arguments for the Welsh language over many years. It is the case that many Members of Parliament in our inner cities are dealing with constituencies in which a variety of languages are used by people from minority ethnic communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, made an important and valuable contribution when he referred to his manuscript amendment and there will be an opportunity to debate it more fully when-when-we come to Clause 18. The amendment would, as I understand it, mean that the first boundary review would take place as though the new rules were in force; the existing legislation would remain in force in the mean time; the new boundary provisions would be commenced only once the Boundary Commissions had reported; and votes in both Houses on the commencement order
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1020
In conclusion, I repeat that the provisions in this Bill will mean a reduction in the number of Welsh constituencies, just as in the rest of the United Kingdom. In opening this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, pointed out that Wales has 5 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. On the 2009 figures, the overall proportion of Welsh seats in Westminster would go from 6 per cent to 5 per cent. I do not believe that that poses a threat to the Union. If anything, I believe that greater fairness and equality can help strengthen our union, and I beg the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Touhig: My Lords, we have had a first-class debate. Seventeen of your Lordships have taken part. We have had a debate in the unelected House of our Parliament that the Government denied the elected House. In responding, the Minister took an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, who mentioned the late Lord Livsey. I, too, knew, admired and respected Richard Livsey, and if he were here tonight, I have no doubt about which side of the argument he would be on. I hope the House will forgive me if I do not follow the normal courtesy and respond to all the contributions that were made because I do not think that I could match the eloquence and power of the argument. We have spent just over three hours on this debate, and I am not here unnecessarily to take up your Lordships' time.
Those who have spoken in this debate and I have sought to improve this Bill in the interests of the people of Wales. I am disappointed by the Minister's response. We have clearly failed to impress upon the Government our concerns about the adverse impact this Bill will have on Wales. I believe that we have approached the debate in the best traditions of your Lordships' House. We have expressed our view and our concerns about the implications of this Bill on Wales. We have not been prescriptive and said, "Here's a problem; here's an answer; you must take it". Noble Lords who have signed the amendments in this group have put their names to not one but three possible alternatives which the Government might have considered and reflected upon and come back at a later stage with some proposal that might have assuaged our fears. I believe it is in the best traditions of your Lordships' House to give the democratically elected Government time to reflect on the arguments that have been put. We offered an olive branch, but I fear that that olive
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1021
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat as a Statement the Urgent Question that was answered by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place:
"The House will agree that the BBC World Service performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1024
As I set out in a Written Statement earlier today, we are providing £13 million per annum to help with the deficit in BBC pension funds and £10 million per annum for new services in markets that we and the World Service have identified as priorities. Those include TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided to local partners. We have also guaranteed the capital for the move of the World Service to its new offices in W1. That is proper provision for the future of the World Service and will make up for inherited deficits.
The other services provided by the World Service cannot stand still, and those that have become less well used because of the rise of local broadcasters or falling short-wave audiences sometimes have to close. It is the World Service's responsibility to be as efficient as possible while maintaining as many services as possible, something the previous Government recognised when in 2006 they closed 10 separate language services of the World Service. The World Service initially suggested to the Foreign Office the closure of up to 13 language services, but I refused to give permission for that. I have agreed to the closure of five language services, accounting for 3.5 million listeners out of the total audience of 180 million. Withdrawal from short-wave and other services will have a bigger effect, but will rightly allow for concentration on online and mobile services for the future.
The BBC World Service has a viable and promising future, but it is not immune from public spending constraints or the reassessment of its priorities. While any closures might be regretted, they would not be necessary at all were it not for the inherited BBC pension deficit and the vast public deficit inherited from the previous Government".
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. This is a very sad day for all supporters of the BBC World Service-a service that has unrivalled reach across the globe and has a reputation for independence and fair mindedness. The BBC World Service is loved by many people who listen to it every day and is envied by many Governments, who wish they had it. It is known for its authoritative news reporting and relied upon for such reporting by many people. Will the Minister tell us why this uniquely valuable service is being cut so much more savagely than the rest of the FCO?
There were of course cuts and changes under Labour. They were criticised at the time, but these cuts today go much further than a mere realignment of resources. This is not just a realignment of priorities; it is a real and huge cut of 650 jobs out of a workforce of 2,400. The BBC director-general has said that these cuts will,
He also exhorted supporters of the international role of the BBC "not to despair". What a far cry that is-do not despair-from the Foreign Secretary's exhortations on 1 July last year that the Government's new approach to foreign policy would include "cherishing" and "growing" the networks around the world through our language. He said:
Those were high sounding ideals, which of course Mr Hague explicitly said were underlined by the essential importance of the BBC World Service. He said that together with the British Council, the World Service,
He was right. The World Service is the envy of the Americans-of Voice of America. The Americans have nothing that has the reach; nor do the French or any of our international competitors in this field.
Radio programmes in seven languages will cease altogether and one of those languages is Turkish. Does the Minister recall that only two weeks ago he agreed that Turkey has a growing and huge importance around the world? He said:
I am sure that at the time the Minister had no idea that the BBC World Service would cease to broadcast in Turkish shortly. After all, it was only on 1 July 2010 that the Foreign Secretary boasted of a new relationship with Turkey, Europe's biggest emerging economy. Does the Minister recall his right honourable friend saying that there would be a,
The Minister is well known for his steadfast and passionate commitment to the Commonwealth. Again, he is at one with the Foreign Secretary, who castigated the Labour Government as being "oblivious" to the value of the Commonwealth. He said that the Commonwealth was not mentioned in the FCO's strategic plan in 2009. He was right. It was not and it should have been. But in Mr Hague's approach, which has been set out today, many people will see the cut of English for the Caribbean regional service as a bit more of a blow for everyday life in the Caribbean than the lack of a mention in a document in 2009 of which none of them has probably ever heard.
In July, Mr Hague claimed that he was introducing a "distinctive foreign policy". Today, the results are seen in the cuts in FCO funding, which are becoming clearer and clearer. They are very destructive. The director-general, in making the cuts announcements,
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1026
The National Security Forum gave advice to the Labour Government of the crucial importance of the BBC World Service in nation-building and in making the world a safer place. It did that and it does that. What has changed? We have the ready-made vehicle to help us in nation-building, to foster understanding and to make the world a safer place, as the Foreign Secretary exhorted that he wanted to do.
That was his promise and his commitment. Will the Minister tell us how today's announcement fulfils that promise, that commitment? Will he give us concrete examples of how these cuts will enhance the role of the World Service? The Foreign Secretary said:
"The World Service is an immensely powerful network for soft power and for underpinning and promoting the values for which we all stand. Everything that he says is right".-[Official Report, 13/7/10; col. 600.]
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I say straight away that I heartily endorse many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness about the BBC World Service. This is indeed a precious asset and, as the Statement of my right honourable friend says, we wish it to be an articulate and highly effective voice for Britain in the world. There is no disagreement about that.
The noble Baroness first asked about the size of the cut of 16 per cent in real terms over three years and asked why it is, or appears to be, larger than the overall real-terms cut in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a whole during the period of the spending review. It is not the biggest cut-the British Council has been asked to take a 25 per cent cut in real
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1027
Of course, it would be nice to be much further ahead and to have more resources, but we do not have more resources. The outgoing Minister-I forget his name-left a letter behind saying, "There is no more money". We have had to impose on ourselves and in many parts of government inevitable cuts. Not this evening are we going to go into an argument about why those cuts were imposed or why the situation in budget terms was so utterly disastrous, which I know is a huge debate going on in this country. But disastrous it was and repaired it has to be.
As to specific services that were mentioned, five language services have been stopped, which my right honourable friend has outlined. On top of those, there are the effects of the changes in a number of other areas. The noble Baroness mentioned Turkey, for which there will be a stopping of radio programming and a concentration on online, mobile and TV distribution in a number of languages, and a phased reduction in medium and short-wave radio distribution.
That tells us something very important, which I am not sure that the noble Baroness or some other critics fully appreciate. We are dealing with a rapidly changing technology. The short-wave arrangements are not reaching the audiences. Short-wave is being cut out by the development of the technology, and by resistance in some parts of the world. In addition, millions of people are moving to online reception of news and views. They are using mobiles and television as well. This is changing the whole pattern of radio broadcasting across the planet.
Quite aside from these substantial economies, which cannot be denied, there has to be an evolution of the technology and the changes in the BBC World Service. If that is not understood, I am afraid that very little is understood about the world into which we are moving. Of course these are not the sort of things one wants to welcome-there are difficulties, there are challenges and this is the greatest matter for regret, redundancies. However, one has to also accept that we have to move on in the evolution of the World Service. In three years' time it is going to be in a much better position, completely independent of my department or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and therefore reasserting its wonderful independence in the world in its voice and its opinions. This is something for the future which I think deserves some optimism rather than the concentration on what the noble Baroness calls "huge and savage cuts". I believe these are overused as adjectives.
Lord Fowler: I shall ask my noble friend a few short questions. Is there any comparable international broadcasting service which has a higher reputation than the BBC World Service? Is that influence not of immense benefit to this country? Will he therefore understand that there will be serious concern about this announcement on all sides of the House? May I ask him something else which may not have such general support? If we are intent on saving money, why are we cutting only journalists and services yet preserving the costly bureaucracy of the BBC Trust? Even now it is in the process of recruiting a new chairman when even the previous Labour Government wanted to see it go. In that way we could save millions of pounds for broadcasting.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I shall start on my noble friend's second point. We have to leave the design and pattern of the cuts to the administration of the BBC World Service within the confines, of course, of the requirement that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has to approve any cuts in language services. He has approved three. I think he was asked to cut 13 in the first place. I have no quibble with my noble friend regarding the value of the service in the promotion of our cultural diplomacy and soft power in the world. It is immensely valuable and its budget remains substantial. None of us welcomes this application of austerity but it is necessary because that is the position we inherited and we have to work within. Within those parameters the BBC World Service remains, in our minds, an immensely valuable instrument. It is a central part of the promotion of our values and I do not for one moment dispute a single word of what my noble friend said.
Baroness Coussins: Can the Minister explain how the disappearance of various foreign language services from the World Service, and of radio broadcasts in Russian, Mandarin and Turkish, can be reconciled with the Foreign Secretary's recent remarks about the importance of languages in a United Kingdom which needs to engage more energetically with the wider world outside familiar European Union boundaries? Why is there this inconsistency in foreign policy? In view of the strategic importance of these services, at home as well as abroad, should their funding not be ring-fenced and protected?
Lord Howell of Guildford: With respect to the noble Baroness, I think there is a missing point in her concerns. Of course we want to see services, communication, influence and the independent voice of Britain promoted. However, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the English short-wave broadcasts to Russia, the former Soviet Union and China were simply not getting through. What was the point in going on spending money on services that were not getting through? We are moving into a new era of technology in which the way to get our values and the message of the BBC World Service through to the millions in Russia and China for a start is not necessarily best done through trying to push our way through short-wave systems which are being closed down. These people are turning to online information. They are
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1029
Lord Triesman: I declare an interest as the Minister who for several years was responsible, among other things, for the World Service. This is one of the most depressing Statements I think I have heard in the House. One of the answers to my noble friend Lady Symons demonstrated that a major public speech made at the beginning of July by the Foreign Secretary meant absolutely nothing when it came to the practical implementation and the cuts. As the Government knew on 1 July what the extent of the possible cuts would be, the speech should never have been made.
In 2006-and this does lead to the question-I agreed to the cutting of some language services in eastern Europe, mostly in nations which were then part of NATO and had fully independent media of their own, in order to move the money into the Arabic and Farsi language services which were due to make a very fundamental difference to our overseas action. I believe that was the right move. Of course it is right to move away from short-wave where it cannot be received, but we were moving away even in those cases to FM, which could be received. Everybody said, especially the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, that the switch to new platforms would not be an adequate replacement. Is it not the case that, from the report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, onwards, it was understood that the projection of soft power was a good deal more economical than many of the alternatives, brought huge bonuses to this country, and that in fact these savings will turn out to be a fiction?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I really cannot comment on the noble Lord's last point because the administrators of the BBC World Service are serious about operating their budget in a new and more effective way within the limits that have been imposed upon them. However, I should like to lift the noble Lord out of his depression because I believe that he is reading too much into the gloom and pessimism around this. I know that he understands the position because he knows all about these things, but I am not sure that he is accepting enough of the new possibilities and the new patterns. I mentioned that this Statement, among other things within the constrained budget, includes some new services, including TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided by local partners. No doubt other ideas and innovations are also in the pipeline which we will learn about in due course. I have also mentioned that funds are being found to assist the BBC World Service in its immediate pension deficit, which again is an inherited matter although I do not ascribe it to or in any way blame it on the previous Administration.
That said, I think that his words are exaggerated. The very substantial budget over the next three years of the spending round is still a big part of our intentions and expenditure in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When this joins up with the full BBC in 2014 the programmes will continue in a highly vigorous, effective and modern way. So I just do not accept the reasons for the noble Lord's pessimism and depression at this time.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend on the difficult decisions that his department is having to take. At the time I was growing up in a developing country, the only access to free and impartial reporting was through the BBC World Service. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to extend sympathy in this regard other than to say that we are living in difficult times. My questions will be brief because many noble Lords want to come in.
Has the Foreign Secretary considered the proposal put forward in the briefing provided to noble Lords today by Mr Peter Horrocks which suggests that part of the DfID budget might be extended to cover some of the shortfall? DfID has very adequate resources, so it seems to make sense that some of its resources, particularly those dedicated to stability and conflict, should be used for the Urdu language programming and so on.
There is some confusion in the briefing provided by Mr Horrocks apropos the Statement. Can my noble friend confirm that BBC audiences have been falling in any event due to technological changes and the other factors he mentioned? Is it accurate to say that last year the audience was 180 million, which was down 9 million on the previous year, 2009? If he can confirm that, some noble Lords might understand that when audiences are falling because of new technologies, it is inevitable that some of the decisions that are taken will reflect that.
Finally, the Foreign Secretary's Statement says that £10 million per annum will be dedicated to priority areas such as TV programming in Urdu whereas the BBC briefing suggests that that will not be the case and that new money will have to be found for programming in Urdu.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I find it difficult to comment on my noble friend's last point. If that is what she has read in the BBC briefing, which I have not seen, it would appear not to coincide with the position which is as I have stated it. It is not argumentation or opinion, it is fact. I shall have to look into this because there seems to be some misinterpretation here.
My noble friend is absolutely right about falling audiences. This is so because we are moving into a different international landscape in which people's listening habits are changing. The position of radio in all societies across the world is changing, and certainly in my lifetime it has changed in our society absolutely fundamentally. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and I both mentioned the fact that short-wave systems are just not operating in the way they did in the past, and the world is turning to online systems. Every morning some 2 billion people open the world wide web. That is almost a third of the entire population of the world. We have to adjust to these new realities.
My noble friend's first point was very interesting. A certain amount of the expenditure on the World Service is classified as "ODAable"-I think that is the jargon. In other words, it is part of our overseas development budget. I do not want to encourage her that there is more flexibility in that area to be exploited at the moment, but obviously we keep in close touch with DfID on this matter and we will continue to do so. If resources can be mobilised to adapt to a new pattern of soft power projection, of which this is an important part, we will certainly look for them and I hope we will find them.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I join with everyone in saying that it will be a sad day indeed if the BBC World Service ceases to be a beacon for many of the world's poorest and most insecure countries because, above all, they will lose the impartiality and independence of the World Service that we have all come to rely on. I am concerned, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, that the World Service will lose something like 650 out of 2,400 jobs, which is a very large proportion. These are skilled people who would have been available as resources for other services. When these services are transferred back to the BBC, which we all hope will happen in a rather better way, will the BBC be strongly encouraged to see that these specialists are re-employed and made available? No one else is going to provide this sort of independent expertise.
Lord Howell of Guildford: On the last point, I think that that is absolutely right. There ought to be-although this is of course a management decision for both the World Service and the BBC-very adequate provision, as I hope personally that there will be, for the encouragement, redirection and reabsorbing of the redundant people into the media world in various forms. Redundancies are always a personally sad business, although sometimes they open new opportunities as well. The noble Baroness is quite right about that.
As for independence, I emphasise the point that has been put to me many times in recent weeks. The move of the BBC World Service over to the BBC, with the ending of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office being the paymaster of the BBC World Service, is very positive. It emphasises and re-emphasises the independence of a body that has always been regarded as being of great value by most people. However, one did hear, in the past, the occasional query as to how it was so independent if it was paid for by the Foreign Office. That will not be the case in three years' time, so on that score I ask for all who follow these matters closely and value the BBC World Service to feel a glimmer of optimism, despite the pessimism that we have heard in every intervention so far.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in many parts of the world, there is a serious struggle going on for the hearts and minds of people in order
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1032
Lord Howell of Guildford: These are sensible considerations to analyse in seeing how our communications systems on the planet should change. I can only say to the noble Lord, who follows these things closely, that when I was on a visit to China the other day I was told that 330 million people in that country were now online and were looking at a bombardment of media services, not just from the BBC but from a dozen other sources throughout the planet, all of which they were absorbing before turning to the older-fashioned pattern of listening to the radio. I do not deny for a moment that the noble Lord may be right and that there may be areas where the end of these language services will be a real loss. That may be so, but I suspect that there are many more areas where the loss will not be so great because of the alternatives that are developing. Television services that did not exist 10 or 20 years ago are now filling the media in these areas, particularly those that we are concerned with, with a huge new supply of information.
Of course we want to make sure that our message gets through as clearly as it possibly can and we have to use all the methods that we can. However, it would not be a good message to the world if, at the same time as we were putting out our principles by communication, the word was coming over that this country was unable to tackle its debts, that it was losing its international credit status and that its economic recovery was being delayed by the near-bankruptcy, as some experts have said, into which our public finances unfortunately fell. That is where we start from and why we have to take these tough decisions.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right to identify the changes that are necessary as a result of the old-fashioned quality of short-wave radio. It makes me grieve that I can no longer get the BBC World Service while carrying around my little short-wave radio set. The other important point, which is common ground, is the extent to which the BBC World Service plays, as the Foreign Secretary himself has said, a crucial role in our soft power. That becomes all the more so for the reasons just stated by the noble Lord. For example, the Chinese ambassador estimates that in five years' time one-third of the population of China will be learning English. We need to be benefiting from that by maintaining the service, whose quality is agreed on by everyone.
Without being egocentric, I think that during my 10 years of masochism, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Foreign Secretary, we were able to maintain the real value of the World Service even though we were going through substantial periods of
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1033
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble and learned friend has been at the centre of these matters for many years. Even before he held his high offices as Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, some of us in another place were promoting for the first time the concept of cultural diplomacy and the central role that it needed to play in the survival, prosperity and reputation of this country. I do not disagree with anything that he said, but I say simply that, although he talks about English becoming the language of China-indeed, the language of the planet or the lingua franca, if I may distort the phrase-it is the language of cyberspace; the computerised communication revolution of this planet is in English. That is how it has to be and those are the technologies that we have to use. I do not deny for a moment that the radio systems and other ancillary services of the BBC World Service are an immensely important part of that, but they are only a part. We have to be realistic about that.
As for whether a little more could be found, if I may say so to one of the most distinguished Chancellors-in my book anyway-of the post-war period, he knows that if we followed the argument, "We should exempt this, because surely there is enough from the bigger budget", we would end up with the budget not being cut at all. These things have to be done. They are not pleasant. No one likes even having to defend them; I am not particularly enjoying this session now. However, it is a reality that we have to face and we must proceed in an optimistic spirit to make the best of the situation that we have inherited. In the case of the BBC World Service, I hope that we can do so.
"( ) When the average number of eligible voters per constituency exceeds 74,000, the Secretary of State shall introduce legislation to amend the electorate per constituency provisions of the 1986 Act."
Baroness McDonagh: This amendment seeks to provide that when the average size of constituency reaches 74,000 voters, the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation to increase the number of constituencies. This is a probing amendment, as I want to hear the Minister's views on this issue. I am not sure that the Government fully appreciate the enormity of what they are doing and the impact that this Bill will have on our democratic system.
I shall address a few of the arguments briefly. We have a representative, democratic electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is not proportional, nor is it meant to be. In 1979, for example, the Conservative Party gained 42 per cent of the popular vote and 61 per cent of the seats. Fast forward to 1997 and the position was reversed, with Labour gaining 43 per cent of the vote and 63 per cent of the seats. The first election in which I was active was that of 1979, when 58 per cent of the vote was cast for parties other than the Conservatives. Therefore, it was surely not intended that the Conservatives should win. However, it was very clear to me at the time that the electorate wanted the Labour Government out and the Conservative Party in power. By creating such large electoral constituencies with a ceiling of 600, when we know that the population will increase to 70 million over the next 20 years, and by doing away with community links at the same time, the Government will create PR through the back door. We should have a referendum on that in its own right.
In a previous debate on this issue I talked about differential turnout, and the Minister was good enough to say that I had a point, for which I thank him. I do not know whether it will show itself in any change to the legislation, but I mention one statistic to explain this point again, and that is the turnout in Labour and Conservative seats in the 2005 election. The average turnout in Labour seats was 57.5 per cent. In Conservative seats, it was 65.3 per cent. That situation will not change under the current legislation, but it represents tens of thousands of people as we go across the United Kingdom.
One issue that I did not mention causes a problem under the first past the post electoral system. I did not mention it for political reasons; I felt that the Conservative Party might feel that I was doing more than explain: that I was making a political point. I therefore start by using Labour as an example of what psephologists refer to as an inefficient distribution of votes. In my language it means that the first past the post system needs political parties, particularly the main parties, to be broad churches that are largely representative of the public. When parties become narrow in their views, extreme or unappealing, the electorate punishes us through our electoral system. That is what psephologists call an inefficient distribution of votes. If I give the example of 1983, I think the House will understand the point I am making.
In 1983 it took 33,000 votes, on average, to elect a Conservative MP, and 41,000 votes, on average, to elect a Labour one. I am sure the House would not expect me to say that Labour lost the 1983 election because of an unfair electoral system. Indeed, if I did, anyone who was medically qualified on my own Benches would escort me with a firm hand from the Chamber. We lost the 1983 election because we deserved to lose. We were unrepresentative of the population at large and, it pains me to say, of my own party.
Moving on to the Conservative example, the right honourable Theresa May, when she was chairperson of the Conservative Party, referred to the Conservatives, at the annual conference, as "the nasty party". She did not put that view into the voters' minds; it was how they felt at the time. To the public, the Conservative Party had become very narrow and, because of that, built up votes in small areas of the country and no longer had representation in Scotland, Wales or many northern towns. It could no longer command support across the United Kingdom and, because of that, deserved to lose.
Let me give one more recent statistic to show how that shows itself. In the 2005 election, in the south-east region, which is only 12 or 13 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom-just a small proportion of nine English regions and the nations of Scotland and Wales-the Conservative Party had 36 per cent of its vote: over a third. It is impossible to win enough constituencies to form a Government by piling up votes in your hinterland, and that is a product of your politics, not the electoral system.
Let us look at the average sizes of our current seats. To the nearest 500, in England and Scotland, Labour and the Lib Dems have an average of 70,000 voters for every seat. The Conservative Party has 73,000, so that is well within any quota. Obviously at either end there are some larger constituencies that are outwith the quota, and there are some smaller constituencies. We need to change that. I am happy with having a boundary redistribution before the next general election. I agree with the principle, as far as is practical within a reasonable quota, that we should have constituencies of the same size. Indeed, if the same sensitivity were granted in a bipartisan way to my colleagues from Wales as was granted to the two constituencies that we already have in the Bill, I am sure they would also be happy with those arrangements.
The constituencies are not largely different. Where they are very large, the largest is the Isle of Wight, of which we are making an exception-we certainly passed an amendment on it. I believe that the second largest is East Ham, which is a London constituency. In the top 10 largest constituencies, roughly half are Labour. We will find more or less the same at the other end. Indeed, in the 1980s, there was a larger disparity between Labour and Conservative. Labour had much smaller seats, yet for that whole decade the Conservatives remained in power.
I moved this amendment because I want to understand the Government's thinking on the matter. I do not want to see such large constituencies in which, in a small number of years, we will have seats in excess of 100,000 voters. They would hold no community of
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1036
This is also a much bigger problem than we making of it at the moment. The manner in which the Government have introduced this, and their reasons for doing so, are associated with the sort of democracy that we do not want to be associated with. If a country such as Zimbabwe were doing this, we would deplore it.
In a previous debate, one of my noble friends said that we had to be very careful because we do not have a written constitution. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked what difference that would make. I have a huge regard for the noble Lord and all the work that he has done over the years, but having a written constitution would make a huge and significant difference. I have a few examples of how you would have to do this if you had a written constitution.
If you have a written constitution and the method by which you arrive at seats is within that constitution, you generally change it by referendum or you need two-thirds of your Parliament's agreement. In some cases, you cannot change the constitution at all. When we look around at countries, and I have picked a few different ones, I have not yet come across any that could introduce this legislation in the way in which our Government are introducing it-with no debate, no pre-legislative scrutiny and a limited debate in the other place.
I shall go through a few examples. Holland's Parliament cannot interfere with how seats are determined as that is set out in its constitution. To amend that constitution takes a two-thirds majority on First Reading. You then have to have a general election and at Second Reading there has to be a further two-thirds majority. The constitution of Ireland, one of our closest neighbours, sets out that if the Dáil were to change the size, there would have to be a referendum of the Irish people. Latvia's seats are set out in its constitution and for its Parliament to change that it needs three sittings of a two-thirds vote. In addition, many constitutional amendments require a further referendum of the Latvian people.
Slovakia needs a referendum to reduce the size of its Parliament and a majority of the country's vote. It had a referendum on that, and it was lost. Spain has two Chambers that are not allowed to change their own numbers of seats. Again, to amend Sweden's constitution two identical decisions are needed, with a general election in between. Denmark also requires a constitutional amendment. The Cook Islands need non-binding referenda to alter the number of seats; then there has to be a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In Australia, the process is set out in the constitution and Parliament cannot change the principle. It is also not allowed to reject or vary a boundary commission report.
In this last part of my contribution, I really want the Committee to consider the enormity of what we are doing. It is not just that we are creating enormous constituencies that will have no community link. We are also denigrating the esteem in which our democracy is held all around the world. We are also showing as parliamentarians that we can no longer be trusted
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1037
Lord Bach: My Lords, the Committee should be grateful to my noble friend for having raised, with her great experience, this important matter. She seeks a response from the Leader of the House to the points that she has made. From the Front Bench, we have pointed out a considerable number of dangers in the scheme that the Government propose, and we look forward to what the Leader of the House has to say in response to my noble friend.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I, too, am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, spoke to her amendment because my officials were confused as to the intention behind it. Now we are much clearer that it was so as to have a good discussion about the purposes underlying the Bill, the case for a written constitution, more referendums, and so on and so forth, and to say in particular that this part of the Bill is somehow to do with this aching desire by the Conservative Party to fix the electoral system so as to make life more difficult for the Labour Party. The noble Baroness will not believe it but I can assure her it has nothing to do with that whatever.
The proposition under this part of the Bill is the simplest one could possibly imagine. First, it is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600-nothing hugely exceptional in that. It is a drop of 7 per cent which is, I believe, popular with people and should be done. Secondly, it is to make constituencies across the country more or less of equal size. One day noble Lords opposite are going to argue why they should be of unequal size in terms of numbers of voters and perhaps even bring forward legislation to that effect if they ever get back into Government. I look forward to that.
Lord Campbell-Savours: If you have a cap at 600 and the electorate rises in the way that my noble friend is saying, does that mean that the national quota for each constituency will then have to be changed and will also rise every five years? Is that really the Government's position?
Lord Strathclyde: There is a remorseless logic to that fact. To return to the noble Baroness's speech, I did not follow this thing about the written constitution. We have a constitution and we are not operating unconstitutionally. If we wrote down our constitution and it did not have a provision for this, it would not make any difference. It would only make a difference if it had the provision that you cannot change the number
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1038
I would not rely on Irish referendums, much as I have the highest possible respect for the people of Ireland. Whenever they have a referendum and they get the wrong answer, they are told to do it again. So I am not a great fan of that. Incidentally, the fact that the Labour Party, which now thinks we should have referendums on changing the constitution, promised one on Lisbon and then did not provide it must be for ever a reminder. So if that is what it is all about, I am not very keen on it. There was a nice anecdote about the 1980s. The historians will argue about 1983 and all that. What must also be true is that the Labour Party split. My noble friend sitting next to me, part of our coalition partnership, laid out all these figures about Labour and Conservative. How many MPs did it take to vote for a Liberal Democrat, or whatever they were then? I cannot remember. They were not Liberal Democrats then but SDP and Liberals. So that is a factor and I think it laid the seeds for the coalition today.
it is entitled to apply those factors, and in effect downgrade rule 2. What is the thinking behind the Government treating Northern Ireland differently, particularly having regard to the principle, stated and restated, of the need for equality in constituencies? We have not referred to that either at Second Reading or
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1039
The second question relates to the review date. During the debates about electors who are missing from the electoral register, it was said that the date on which the register would be taken was December 2010. I assume that this comes from rule 9(2), which states:
"For this purpose the relevant version of a register is the version that is required by virtue of subsection (1) of section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to be published no later than the review date".
"The 'review date', in relation to a report under section 3(1) of this Act that a Boundary Commission is required ... to submit before a particular date, is two years and ten months before that date".
Is it because the Government assume that the Boundary Commission will submit a report in October 2013 that the relevant register is that of December 2010? If the commission submits a report before October 2013, will the relevant register be a month earlier; and, equally, if it is submits it after October 2013, will it be a month later? The significance of this is that I understood from answers given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that the relevant date of December 2010 was rigidly fixed, whereas I understand that the way that the Act will work is that the register of two years and 10 months before the date of the report will be taken. If I am right in that surmise, how will the Boundary Commission know when it submits its report what the relevant register is? Those are my only questions on Clause 11 stand part.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for raising his questions in the debate on Clause 11 stand part. It is worth reiterating that the clause reforms the arrangements for drawing constituency boundaries for the House of Commons. It provides that in future the Commons will be reduced to 600 seats, and that the rules for the distribution of seats will be recast so that seats will be more equal in size and allocated to each part of the UK in proportion to the electorate.
The noble and learned Lord asked about the role of Northern Ireland. As he pointed out, the rules make special provision for additional flexibility to allow for constituencies outside of the parity range in Northern Ireland in the event that simple rounding effects make it difficult for the Boundary Commission in that part of the UK to recommend seats within the quota. That could arise if Northern Ireland only just missed out on being allocated an extra seat. I hope that that explains the thinking behind that.
It has also been suggested that the provision is flawed and that the Bill should provide for national electoral quotas. However, that approach would give rise to more variation between constituencies. A single UK electoral quota has the advantage of simplicity and clarity, and that provision will be triggered only in the event that rounding causes difficulty. It has also been suggested that the provision ignores a similar issue that may arise in Wales. However, as Wales has
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1040
As the noble and learned Lord pointed out, the boundary review will be based on the electoral register in force at the time of the review, and the first review will be based on the register in force on 1 December 2010. Previous boundary reviews have used the electoral register. The Bill's provision is no different. As we have discussed, the registration rate in the UK is between 91 and 92 per cent. Work is under way to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible-for example, freeing local authorities to identify people not on the register using existing public sector databases. The date of the register to be used is fixed because it is calculated by reference to the date on which the commissions are required to report, not the date on which they actually report, hence the difference.
In summary, these proposals make a modest reduction in the size of the Commons and will ensure that the principle of equality is given its proper weight in the commission's considerations, while ensuring that local factors can still be taken into account.
"(1) The number of holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time, whether paid or unpaid, must not exceed 95 if the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is 650."
"(1A) If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount."
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The amendment would reduce the number of paid ministerial officeholders in proportion to the reduction in the size of the other place. The text of the amendment is identical to an amendment moved in another place by Mr Charles Walker, the Conservative Member for Broxbourne. Before I come to the substance of the amendment, perhaps I may set out the relevant background.
Prior to the general election, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, now the Prime Minister and his deputy, made much of their determination to empower Parliament and enhance scrutiny and accountability of the Executive. In a lecture which many noble Lords will recall, delivered to the Institute for Government on 26 January 2010, Mr Nicholas Clegg declared:
"The Liberal Democrats believe this election is an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government. ... I want to be clear: I am talking about a major
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1041
"We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute ... We've got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again-so they can look at it and say 'yes: those MPs we elect-they're holding the government to account on my behalf'".
I do not want to pretend that Amendment 91 would necessarily deliver our full aim. It is arguable that it is too timid to bring about the radical rebalancing that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had previously advocated. It does not reduce the size of the Executive; it merely stabilises the number of paid Ministers in proportion to the size of the House of Commons, from which the bulk of ministerial officeholders are drawn. It would do so by amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of paid Ministers allowed to sit and vote in the other place at 95. If the House of Commons were to remain at its present size of 650 seats, the limit of 95 Ministers would remain. However, if the Government persist in their objective of reducing the number of MPs to 600, the amendment would ensure a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers to 87.
As everybody knows, in our system the Executive are drawn from within the legislature, predominantly the House of Commons. That House therefore has an important dual function. On the one hand, it exists to sustain an Executive and supply the bulk of Ministers who hold office, and on the other, it exists to hold the Government and those Ministers to account. There is an inherent tension in that dual role, and frequent and increasing criticism is made that the system performs the former role-the drawing of the Executive-much more effectively than the latter. Indeed, the Speaker of the other place gave a lecture last week in which he said:
"The House of Commons needs to be an instrument of scrutiny by examination. It must be the informed critic and not the man or woman in the crowd. We have made progress in that regard, particularly in the past 18 months, but there is more that can still be done".
Cutting the number of MPs without also enacting a proportionate cut in the number of statutory Ministers entitled would not shift power from government to the Commons. It would not enhance scrutiny and examination of the Executive. It would do the opposite, despite the proclaimed aims of Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. Our Amendment 91 would at least prevent the scales of power tilting yet further in the Executive's favour. Indeed, some would argue that the Executive would not feel the impact sufficiently and that a much lower limit on the size of the Executive ought to be imposed, perhaps along the lines that Mr Nicholas Clegg himself proposed in his speech. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who I am glad to see in his place, has tabled an amendment to that effect. I have no doubt that he
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1042
As I have said, our amendment is a more moderate proposal. It ensures that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament does not lead to a proportionate increase in the size of the paid Executive by reference to the size of the House as a whole. Given the force of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg's previous commitments to new politics, it is surprising that a clause along these lines was not included in the Bill in the first place. It was astonishing that the coalition Government still refused to act once the omission had been pointed out. It is not as if the Government have not now had the time or the opportunity to reflect on this. As far back as last year's debate on the Queen's Speech, Mr Nicholas Clegg was asked whether he accepted that there should be a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers and aides in line with the reduction in the number of MPs. He refused to give any commitment.
Since then, the point has been raised in your Lordships' House and in the Commons at every stage of the Bill. On each occasion, the Government have issued the same basic response. It was repeated on 10 January by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who told your Lordships:
"The Government indicated in the other place that we agree that that is indeed an issue to be considered, but we do not believe that it is one that needs to be resolved in the context of the Bill. Reduction in the size of the House will not take effect until 2015, and we should therefore consider that issue in the light of decisions on, among other things, the size and composition of a reformed second Chamber".-[Official Report, 10/1/11; col. 1224.]
I can do no better than respond to that line-let me emphasise that this is a political line, not a real position- by quoting from the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee which was wrestling with exactly the same obfustication from the Government last October. In its third report, the committee stated:
"It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House. That the Government claims that no progress can be made on this issue because no conclusion has yet been reached on the overall size and nature of government is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst, given the Government's readiness to reduce at haste the number of Members in one House without consideration of the number of Members there should be in the other".
This is an obvious opportunity to make good the promise made by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, or at least to give a direction of travel as to their commitment to increase the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account. Instead, they are doing precisely the reverse. Why is that? I beg to move.
91A: After Clause 11, line 12, leave out from "650," to end of line 14 and insert "the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must not exceed 80"
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as he just outlined, is premised on the belief that reducing the number of MPs creates a problem in that the proportion of Ministers in the other place then becomes greater than at present. My starting point is different. My contention is that there are already too many Ministers. Reducing the number of Ministers exacerbates rather than creates a problem.
The size of the so-called payroll vote in the House of Commons, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, has grown over the years. In 1950, it constituted 15 per cent of the House. It now constitutes 21 per cent. Expressed as a proportion of the number of MPs in the coalition parties, it is 38 per cent.
I accept the case for Ministers sitting in Parliament. However, Ministers are members of a body that is expected to subject the Government to critical scrutiny and to hold them to account. The capacity to fulfil that task, both in voice and vote, is limited if the votes at the disposal of the Whips increase. A consequence of the Bill is that the proportion of the House not able to call the Government to account becomes even larger.
I appreciate that there is an argument that the number of ministerial posts has increased in order to meet growing demands of government. However, as I said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee in the other place, I have seen no study to support that contention. There is an alternative explanation: that the growth has been for political reasons, providing a greater pool of patronage appointments available to the Prime Minister. In my evidence to the Public Administration Committee, I quoted Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, in his book, The New Machiavelli, where he wrote:
The patronage explanation has found support from a range of sources. The claim that there are too many Ministers has been supported by, among others, former Prime Minister Sir John Major and my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell. My noble friend in his evidence in 2000 to the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I chaired, argued that the number of Ministers could be reduced without undermining the essential tasks of government. He said that,
A former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, told the Public Administration Committee that some tasks could be carried out by officials. There
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1044
What is required is a greater emphasis on quality, rather than quantity. The emphasis has been on quantity for the sake of patronage, rather than on quality for the sake of good government. The growth of the payroll vote has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Commons. I contend that there is no need for so many Ministers. Ministers are largely amateurs in their roles as Ministers. Providing better training for them, and redistributing some tasks to Whips, as happens in this House, would ensure there was no reduction in efficiency. If anything I would contend the reverse.
"The case for reducing the number of ministers is compelling on its merits. It also has a number of beneficial consequences. Limiting the number of ministers increases the number of MPs who are not committed to government by the doctrine of collective responsibility. Narrowing the route to ministerial office may serve to make attractive the alternative careers in the House of Commons. We believe that these benefits should not be negated by extending patronage through other routes".
We recommended that the number of Ministers in Cabinet should be kept at 20 and the number of other Ministers capped at 50. That is a little more than the number suggested by my noble friend Lord Hurd. Back in 1940-41, the Herbert Committee recommended an even lower figure, believing that government could be carried on by 60 Ministers. My right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith introduced a Private Member's Bill in the 1999-2000 Session to place an absolute limit on the number of Ministers at 82. In 2006, my honourable friend Jeremy Browne introduced a Bill to reduce the number of ministerial salaries payable from 83 to 60.
I conclude by emphasising the constitutional significance of this amendment. When I raised the issue on Second Reading, my noble friend Lord McNally treated it somewhat dismissively, as an issue that could be discussed later, after the passage of the Bill. The constitutional import of the amendment is on a par with that of reducing the number of MPs. If the number of MPs is reduced, then the proportion of the other place that forms the Government increases, to the advantage of government and to the detriment of the House of Commons in being able to call to account that part of it which forms the Government.
My starting point is that there are already too many Ministers and reducing the number of MPs will exacerbate the problem. There has been, as I have indicated, a steady increase in the size of the payroll vote in the other place, and now is the time to reverse the process and to strengthen the House of Commons in its capacity to call the Government to account. I beg to move.
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with scholarship, erudition and experience has made an extraordinarily powerful case for a reduction in the number of Ministers. But there are two matters before your Lordships' House on these two amendments. The first is whether to maintain, as the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton would do, the number of Ministers at least proportionate to the number of MPs. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, would go further.
I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend to the extent that that amendment at least ought to be accepted. The Government have come with great and, in many ways, worthy protestations of a desire to reform politics, in particular to reduce the power of the Executive-I look particularly at those on the Liberal Democrat part of the Government Benches. I do not understand how they can be content when that is not what will happen under this Bill. Indeed, it will be quite the opposite, as my noble and learned friend has said.
Lest there be any misunderstanding outside this Chamber as to the significance of the payroll vote, let me try to spell it out. First, if you are on the payroll vote, which means those who are paid or unpaid for these purposes, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries as well as full Ministers, you cannot vote against the Government without resigning. It is as simple as that. If a piece of legislation is put forward that a number of Ministers do not like, they cannot stay as Ministers and vote against it. That automatically means that the Government have a greater number of Members of Parliament able and willing to support what they want.
Secondly, as noble Lords have said, the Government cannot be held to account. When I was a Minister I could not ask questions of the Government through the mechanisms which exist in this House, let alone those in the other place. One can do what one can behind the scenes, but one cannot in an open way hold the Government to account.
I will listen intently to what the Minister-if it be the Leader of the House-says as to how that statement can be reconciled with a position which does not accept that at the very least the number of Ministers must be reduced proportionately to the number of Back-Benchers. Otherwise, the power of the Executive will not be reduced. The power of the legislature will not be boosted. Quite the opposite will take place.
Lord Tyler: I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord will take his argument a step further. There is a powerful case here for looking at this issue. With his great experience as a very senior member of the previous Administration, but as a Member of this House, he
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1046
In the past, I have heard a powerful argument that, if and when this House is reformed, it may well be that there should be a proper separation of powers and that there should not be any Members of the Executive who are voting Members of this House. Will he acknowledge therefore that there is a good case for this issue to be addressed in the context of the future role of this House, which, as we know, this House and the other place will consider in a matter of weeks? Therefore, it may be premature for this issue to be addressed in this Bill when the relationship of the two Houses and, in particular, the relationship of this House to the Executive will be in front of this House in weeks.
Lord Goldsmith: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention and for his kind remarks, because he makes my point. The problem is that the Government have chosen to introduce in this Bill not only the referendum, which they need as a matter of urgency because of their political deal, and with which I have no difficulty, as I have said before, but also the reduction in the number of MPs.
A part of this change is in this Bill. My concern is that this Bill does not deal with the whole of it. I do not find it acceptable for the Government, with respect to the noble Lord who will answer this point, to say, "Well, don't worry, something will be looked at later". I am going to ask the Minister three questions now and he can think about them. What are the Government going to do about this? I have already drawn attention to the fact that on the Constitution Committee, when we asked Mr Clegg and Mr Mark Harper, the Minister, about the risk of increasing the power of the Executive, Mr Clegg said:
"There is a strong argument that says that you must look at this and adapt the number of people who are on the government payroll so that you do not get a lopsided imbalance between those on the payroll and those holding them to account".
Secondly, when is it going to be done? Vague statements about the boundary changes not coming into effect for some time and having been able to look at this by then are all very well-but when is this going to happen? Thirdly, will the Minister tonight in his reply commit to some method by which the reduction in the number of Members, if this House or Parliament adopts the proposals in the end, does not come into effect until there has been a satisfactory reduction in the number of Ministers, either as suggested in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, or by that of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth? I would prefer to see that being dealt with in this Bill. I do not think it should be put off, which is why I support the amendment. At the very least, the Government should ask themselves what they are going to do, if the new politics are to have any credibility, in their proposals for increasing the power of the legislature, reducing the power of the Executive and giving more power to the people. So long as they do not give a clear, unconditional commitment on this question, that statement will appear just a mirage and a charade.
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1047
The power and size of the Executive vis-à-vis the House of Commons has grown over the years. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested that there might be some justification for that in terms of the growing demands of modern government. On the other hand, one might say that with the appropriation-if I can put it that way-of significant powers of government over this country by the European Union and the devolution of significant responsibilities for government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is an argument that there is a need for fewer Ministers rather than more. The reality is, however, that numbers have grown and grown. One reason in recent times why the numbers of ministerial appointments and members of the payroll vote have grown yet again is because it has been found expedient in the formation of the coalition to provide more jobs for more of the boys and girls.
Mr Christopher Chope, an admirably robust and courageous Member of Parliament and someone who has never had any time for the excuses and the self-justification that big government makes for itself, said:
The payroll has grown and grown, and as my noble and learned friend has just said, it is not paid ministerial positions alone that have grown; the number of parliamentary private secretaries has soared. I understand that in the 1950s only a very small number of extremely senior Cabinet Ministers had a PPS. Nowadays, every member of the Cabinet has at least one PPS, and some have two, while every Minister of State has a PPS. In this way, the House of Commons has been progressively debilitated. Not for nothing is the Chief Whip known as the "patronage secretary". If this Bill is unamended, the patronage exercised by the government Chief Whip in the other place will become more significant still.
Professor Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham has noted that, contrary to the folklore, in recent years there have been increasing numbers of rebellions as more and more Back-Bench Members of the other place have found themselves rebelling from time to time. The Executive's response has been to create more jobs and, through this Bill, to reduce the
26 Jan 2011 : Column 1048
The Executive, via the legitimate day-to-day operations of the Whips-who have a proper job to do, and it is entirely appropriate for them to appeal to their party members for loyalty and support in the Division Lobbies-via the growth of patronage, via the exploitation of the ambitions of an increasingly professional political class, via pressures that can be exerted on Back-Bench Members through their local parties and via the fear, possibly, of deselection, one way or another continue to increase their dominance of the House of Commons.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|