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Rarely in the history of manifesto betrayals can there have been such a quick retreat from the position taken in the manifesto to the practice adopted by the Government in their handling of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Commons. The coalition, in the metaphorical smoke-filled room-metaphorical because I do not suppose for a second that there was any real smoke in it-devised a scheme, which we see expressed in this Bill, to seize yet more power for the Executive over the House of Commons. Bogus justifications were produced. It was noted that Members of Parliament were unpopular as a consequence of the expenses scandal; it was noted that there was a deficit that needed to be corrected; so the justification was contrived for reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons.
One of the justifications offered was on the grounds of saving public expenditure. We are told that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 Members of Parliament, you will save £12 million. On that basis, if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 100 Members of Parliament, you will save £24 million. A reduction of 200 Members will save £48 million. But what price an effective House of Commons, and what price a representative democracy that enables the people of this country, through their representatives, to hold their Government to account? I think that that is worth more than £12 million.
The result of this legislation, if we fail to amend it with one or other of these amendments or something on Report, will be an even smaller proportion of Back-Benchers who are even less capable, in an already enfeebled House of Commons, of holding the Executive to account. One of the consequences of the enfeeblement of the House of Commons is that Members of your
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However, if we start to scrutinise more vigorously the actions and legislative proposals of the Executive, we begin to be threatened with the introduction of a guillotine in your Lordships' House. Indeed, the extreme threat is that your Lordships' House will be abolished and replaced by an elected House in which the Whips will have far greater power than is exercised by our genial, moderate, pragmatic and sensible Whips at the moment. It is all an illusion anyway, because if we were to have an elected second Chamber, the Government of the day would almost certainly find that it would be far more recalcitrant and cause far more trouble than even we do in our own modest way.
It is bad for the House of Commons that the proportion of Back-Bench Members has been reduced and might yet be reduced further because the House of Commons needs to be able to populate its committees -its select committees, its legislative committees, the Speaker's Panel and all the other committees and organisations in that House that enable it to do the job it has to do.
The powers of a British Prime Minister are already enormous within our political system. They are far greater than the powers of the President of the United States within the American political system. Thomas Jefferson noted the dangers of an "elective despotism". The argument was developed and accepted in the convention by the founding fathers of the American constitution that there must be checks and balances and a separation of powers. When Lord Hailsham used the phrase "elective dictatorship", borrowing, I assume-subconsciously, no doubt-from Thomas Jefferson's wording a long time earlier, he rang a bell very loudly in the political consciousness of this country. That phrase seemed extraordinarily apt, and ever since he uttered it 20 or 30 years ago-I forget when it was; it was sometime in the 1970s, I believe-it has become part of the common currency of our political discussion. This Bill threatens to make the elective dictatorship yet worse, and makes what is already a disreputable feature of our House of Commons an even greater stain.
Ministers acknowledge the issue; they recognise that there is a problem that will be exacerbated by this legislation as it is. However, they are vague about the remedy, and I do not think we can rely on the weak assurances that we have so far been given. There is legislation to limit the number of paid Ministers; there also needs to be legislation to limit the number of unpaid members of the payroll vote. I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, and I am also tempted to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The House is always happy to sit at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and be instructed by him. In fact, we have gone into seminar mode since we had dinner, with the very significant and interesting amendment spoken to by my noble friend Lady McDonagh. It would be useful from time
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Lord Soley: I rise not only to support my noble friend with or without the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton-I think there is an interesting debate to be had there-but to say above all that I regard this as a very important proposed new clause, which I hope and expect the Government to indicate some degree of willingness to move on. The reality is that, like the figure of 600, this discussion takes us back quite a few years. That discussion, as I have said in previous debates, has been around at least since 2004, when Andrew Tyrie MP wrote about it in his pamphlet, but it goes further back than that. Some noble Lords may have heard the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on the Conservative side, and me saying that we had discussed the reduction in the size of the House of Commons in the 1980s or possibly the early 1990s. We always said-this was said on both sides of the House by people who took this view-that if you reduced the size of the House of Commons, two things had to be at the forefront of our minds. First, it should be by all-party agreement; and, secondly, there must be a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons.
There were two reasons for that predominantly. One has been well spelled out. I shall not dwell on it in great detail, but it is glaringly obvious that if you keep the same number of Ministers and the payroll vote is exactly the same, you reduce the number of MPs, give greater power and influence to the Executive, and reduce the power and influence of the legislature. That is why this is so important.
I had not thought of the other reason until I heard Professor King of Essex University explain it. He is right that if you reduce what he calls the gene pool from which Ministers are pulled-the Back-Benchers-the gene pool that is available for new Ministers will be reduced. That is important, too. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the importance of the quality of Ministers. If you do not reduce the number of Ministers but simply reduce the number of Back-Benchers, that will inevitably affect the quality as well as the quantity available to a Prime Minister from which to draw.
As I say, the argument goes back many years. I am frustrated and angry about our current position because we have been crying out for these reforms for some years, but they can be done only in a consensual and thoughtful manner. The Bill leaves bits out, rushes things and tries to do it without all-party agreement, which makes it difficult. Many on the Conservative Front Bench, when in opposition or in government, have said that they recognise the importance of dealing with the number of Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have said, "We must wait for House of Lords reform", but that is a very dangerous philosophy. Reform of the House of Lords will not be easy, not least because of strong feelings on the government Benches. Even if they think it will be easier than I do,
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Lord Goldsmith: I wonder whether my noble friend with his great experience in the other place can help the House. I have been puzzling about the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, since he made it. I do not understand how changes in this House will increase the ability of Back-Benchers in the other place to hold the Government to account. Can my noble friend tell us whether it has anything at all to do with holding the Government to account in the democratically elected House of Commons?
Lord Soley: My noble and learned friend anticipates me to some extent. He is exactly right. I recognise the political reality that the two parties-the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives-have formed a coalition and have to agree to somehow stitch the Bill together. Of course, things get left out or it is difficult to change it. However, even the Liberal Democrats were arguing-and arguing strongly as I understand it-for a reduction in the number of Ministers, which makes it very hard to understand why it is not in this Bill now. It is not impossible. Instead, it is somehow being left to a change in the House of Lords; you get the feeling that one party or the other in the coalition is hoping that this will not happen or that will not happen and that then maybe they can get another part of the deal, and so on. If the coalition is that unstable, it is not going to last. My advice would be to try and get this in the Bill now or get a very strong commitment from the Government that it will be brought forward in another form before the House of Commons is reduced.
I want to go back to something that has already been said which is also very important. We tend to look at this simply in terms of the number of people on the government Front Bench. My noble friend Lord Howarth made the very important point that you have Front Benches in the other parties. All the other parties have Front-Bench speakers. All of them are thinking to their future to some extent. Inevitably, again, this reduces the power of the legislature to hold the Executive to account.
It will probably alarm some of my friends, but I considered at one stage that there was quite a strong case for having Ministers drawn from outside the House who could be brought into the House and cross-examined and questioned. That would really put the cat among the pigeons-an almost presidential system. You can make a number of interesting innovations with our constitution, although I certainly would not go too far down this road right now. I want to say and emphasise as strongly as I can that to reduce the size of the House of Commons without simultaneously reducing the size of the Government is an invitation to
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We have to bite on this bullet. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, recognises the importance of this argument because, when I was talking about where the figure of 600 came from in the previous debates about this, he indicated that we would come to this under this proposed new clause. I am waiting with anticipation for him to say, "Yes, you're all right, I'll accept it". There is no reason why ideally he could not accept the proposed new clause or redraft it in some way, maybe coming back to the House with some variation which we would all look at, and there is absolutely no reason why he should not stand up and say, "I guarantee that we will bring in a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons before the figure of 600 is imposed on the House of Commons". That is what this House is waiting to hear. It is what, as other people have said, has been promised all along about reducing the power of the Executive and so on, and it will not be delivered without a very strong commitment that the number of Ministers will be reduced before the figure of 600 is brought into the House of Commons.
I have been saying for some time that the two reasons given by a number of people from the Conservative Party over the years for the reduction to 600 has been, first, saving money and, secondly, the belief that the Labour Party gets too many seats in Parliament and the Conservative Party would get more. This is in a number of speeches, press statements and booklets written by Conservative Members which I quoted the other week. Andrew Tyrie wrote a good document back in 2004 for the Conservative Party-although, as I say, I did not agree with his statistics-saying that the figure should be reduced to either 600 or 550 over a period of five to 10 years. He had the good grace-as did most of the Conservative commentators-to say that this should be done in co-operation with the Labour Party, although the phrase I would prefer to see used is "after all-party agreement", probably in a Speaker's Conference. However, Andrew Tyrie also made the point, as have other Members on the Conservative side as well as the Labour side, that any reduction in the size of the House of Commons had to be matched by a reduction in the size of the payroll vote. In our new-found spirit of co-operation, I hope that the Minister-we have not quite got round to the negotiations yet, but I know that he is thinking about it-will indicate very strongly that everybody wants this measure really. To put it off until some hopeful date when the House of Lords is reformed is, frankly, at best the triumph of hope over experience and at worst disruptive and will not achieve the aim that most of us want.
Lord Myners: My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and the direction of the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I look forward with
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First, I have no doubt that the briefing note of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, says "Resist"; there is an automatic response produced by officials which says "Resist". From my own experience as a Minister, I am absolutely sure that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be advised to do. However, we know that he is a man of great wisdom and experience and I hope that he will not necessarily follow the advice, if I am correct in my supposition.
Secondly, in my 18-month experience as a Minister in the Treasury, I was surprised by the number of Ministers that we had. Indeed, the Permanent Secretary always had great difficulty remembering the name of one of the Ministers. He used to wave his hands and say, "The one down at the end of the corridor". I thought that was a pretty telling admission that even officials in the Civil Service thought that we had too many Ministers. Therefore, in the context of what was said in the pre-election period by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, I am very disappointed that there are the same number of Ministers in the Treasury now as there were when I was a Minister.
The consequence of there being too many Ministers is that they get in the way and take decisions which are, frankly, too small. I say this from the perspective of chairing Marks & Spencer and other large companies. Ministers take minute decisions compared with the decisions taken by the leaders of our major corporations. I could not believe some of the small matters that came to me as a Minister to authorise, and the time that one had to take reading the material through fear that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would spot a lacuna and put down a Written or Oral Question which would catch me out. I found it quite extraordinary that the average junior Minister-at least this was the case when I was an average junior Minister-spent the first 45 minutes of a day topping and tailing letters. I used to top and tail 200 to 300 letters. Those letters were originally sent to the Prime Minister, or to even more powerful people such as the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson. They were passed on to the Prime Minister, who passed them on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who passed them on to Mr Liam Byrne and Ms Yvette Cooper and various other people until they came to me. I looked desperately for somebody else to whom I could pass the letters but there was nobody so I had to sign them. This was the starting point of my ministerial day. I lived in constant fear that one evening I would appear in front of Paxman and he would say, "I ask you again, Lord Myners, is this your signature on the letter?".
Lord Myners: I said "in great detail". I knew how to spot the tricky words. I tended to skip over the salutations at the beginning and the end but I read the meaty bit
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My final observation relates to the role of this House. When I was first appointed, I was terrified-I really was-and I made a complete fool of myself at my first debate when I was given a speech by my officials which I should, in all honesty, have reviewed more carefully. It was clearly a cut-and-paste job from the other place; it had numerous references to "the honourable Member" and "the Speaker" and so it did not take long before the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, rose to his feet from the Benches to my left. I had no idea what I was meant to do; nobody had briefed me, but I had watched it on television so I thought I ought to sit down. I think I was intervened on about eight times in five minutes before the Chief Whip came to my protection.
In my preparation for the ordeal of the House, whenever there was a Statement, I tried to go to the other place in order to see how it was handled there and then scuttle back here. What I observed from that experience was that the challenge for Ministers in the other place was simply of a much lower order than in this place. I think that that is an observable and unchallengeable truth. The questions that I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who is not in his place, but who was an excellent spokesman on Treasury matters for the Liberal Democrat Party and, I believe, continues to perform that role, were of a different order. I look across now and I see the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. There are very few people in the other place who can ask a penetrating, focused, accurate and informed question with the degree of precision and understanding that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, can. There is a question of accountability. We have too many Ministers and they do not seem to be sufficiently accountable.
Finally-I said that I would cover four points and I believe that this is the fourth-I think that this is evident in the work of some Select Committees. The Treasury Select Committee, to which I had to report on numerous occasions, was mixed in its understanding of the issues. There were a number of good members-Mr Andrew Tyrie has already been mentioned; let me mention him again, an excellent chairman of that committee with a very good understanding of the issues-but I cannot say that about every member of the committee, nor can I say that they always showed evidence that they had thoroughly studied and understood the issues. Again, accountability is at the heart of this-it is an issue that stands apart from the Bill and needs to be addressed. There are too many Ministers making too much work, doing too many modest things and not subject to appropriate scrutiny, particularly by the other place.
I see the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about to spring to his feet. I seem to produce a Pavlovian reaction in the noble Lord, who is, no doubt, about to tell me that some ancestor of his, several generations ago, had
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Lord Tyler: I am extremely grateful to my fellow Cornishman. I was going to say that the past few minutes have given us a fascinating insight into the workings of government and have actually proved the point that we should have more Ministers in this House and fewer in the other.
Lord Rea: It may interest your Lordships that, while I was listening to this extremely interesting exchange, I have done a little calculation on the back of the amendment list. The amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton would reduce the number of Ministers from 95 in the same proportions as the reduction of Members from 650 to 600. If that were to happen we would get 87, which is a lot more generous than what was proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, whose arguments were impeccable. I do not think there will be a choice of voting for one against the other but I would favour the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am delighted to have been encouraged to leap to my feet. I was so enjoying the noble Lord, Lord Myners, who was in danger of slipping into his anecdotage, but it was great fun and he made some good, serious points as well, which I enjoyed. Some of what he said about his time in government should be taken up as a specialist seminar in itself, which some noble Lords wanted to encourage. The noble Lord demonstrated his experience and knowledge of Government because of course my brief says "resist". But noble Lords should not be too disappointed by that because I hope to demonstrate that although it says "resist" what it means is "resist but", and I shall get to the "but" in a moment.
This issue was substantially debated in another place, but the noble and learned Lord who introduced the amendment here has given us an opportunity to have another fine debate in this House. Therein lies the point, because as some noble Lords have spotted, the Government have never objected to the spirit behind the amendment. As the noble and learned Lord said and others such as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, spotted, this Government are committed to passing power from the Executive to Parliament. That much was witnessed by the swift moves to implement the Wright committee's recommendations for the other place to establish the Back-Bench Business Committee passing control of much more parliamentary time to Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the power to elect the chairs and members of Select Committees. That is not letting any grass grow under the feet of the Government-fast action straight away.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also become the first Prime Minister in history to give up the power to call a general election at the time of his choosing, so noble Lords will know that this Government are not looking to extend their own influence. This Government believe on principle that power should be dispersed.
In this particular instance, we do not see the need to rush to legislate. There are four and a half years until the provisions of the Bill will take effect. If we want to have new boundaries based on smaller number of seats at the next general election, we have to legislate now to give the boundary commissions the time to carry out their reviews and the parties time to prepare for the election. If we want to have fewer Ministers after the next election, we do not have to legislate now. In fact, we do not necessarily have to legislate at all. In any case, the heart of the matter appears to be not the number of Ministers in the House of Commons but the size of the Government's payroll vote in the House of Commons. That includes Parliamentary Private Secretaries who are not covered by the current legislation and would not be covered by the amendment that we are discussing. As my honourable friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has said, it is only by "self-denying ordinance" that the number of PPSs is limited.
Clearly, the Government have been capable of self-restraint. That self-restraint will still be necessary should the amendment be adopted. So if the intention of the amendment is to try to limit that influence and bind future Governments, it would fail on that count alone. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, realised, the legislation would not cover the number of opposition Front-Benchers. Although they are of a different type of influence and a different type of patronage, it is also relevant if the concern is that there are too few independent voices from the Back-Benches. The Government's position is that it is not-
Lord Goldsmith: I am very interested in the noble Lord's observation about the defect in my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer's amendment. Can we look forward to a government amendment on Report which will correct that by making sure that it controls the number of PPSs as well as that of Ministers in the same proportionate manner?
Lord Strathclyde: I am going to come to that but the noble and learned Lord should not hold his breath for me making a commitment to return on Report, because we need to look at the ramifications of doing all of this. The Government's position is that it is not desirable that the payroll vote should be expanded as a proportion of the House's membership. We have said that we will look at how to address this, and we will do so. I wonder whether that was the ringing and unconditional commitment that the noble and learned Lord was looking for. I think that it probably was not-I think that he wanted a bit more than that-but it was pretty good.
What about the ramifications of all of this? For example, it might seem an odd consequence if we were to reduce the number of Ministers in one House by increasing the number in the other, which is this House. That is the point that my noble friend Lord Tyler made and was right to make. He put it extremely well. In fact, there was an echo of what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said about his experience in Government. Currently, of course, there are far fewer Ministers in the House of Lords than in the Commons but we ought to think carefully about how the distribution of Ministers might be affected by any changes to the size of the second Chamber or by the introduction of elected Members. That is something which the Government, in conjunction with the Opposition, are putting their mind to at the moment. There is also an argument about the separation of powers but I shall not make a case for that now.
It is possible that arguments might then be made for a smaller ministerial presence in the second Chamber, to allow for more Back-Bench voices. Equally, it is possible that arguments might be made for a greater ministerial presence to help the House to hold the Executive to account. Both arguments can be made-or neither-and we should wait for another opportunity before coming to a firm view on all of this. Ultimately, we want to be governed by the principle that the number of Ministers must be a function of need.
Lord Soley: The Minister has set the alarm bells ringing in my mind with his earlier phrase that we might not need to legislate at all. He then started talking about other options. He must know, from all his long experience, that the longer a Government are in power, the more the Prime Minister and that Government rely on the payroll vote because there are more disaffected people on the Back Benches. If he leaves this, it will not happen; we all know that. We need either to legislate on this or to give a very firm commitment that it is going to happen before the 600 figure is reached.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I would not necessarily compare all Governments with the standard of the previous one. My noble friend has made the case for a reduction in Ministers from the current number. It is most interesting but not one that we find entirely convincing. However, we do find it convincing to reduce the size of the Executive when we get to 600.
We should not forget the purpose of a ministerial presence in Parliament. We need sufficient Ministers to support the essential business of both Houses, to make Statements and answer Questions in both Houses, to introduce Bills and to contribute to debates. In fact, my noble friend Lord Norton made an interesting point when he said that no study has been made of whether there has been an increased workload for Ministers. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, spoke rather well about how unnecessary many of the things that Ministers do actually are. Perhaps there should be a study. I look to my noble friend Lord Norton for that. He will know the kind of people who ought to be able to make that study. I am sure the noble and learned Lord would not wish to rush to legislate until we had at least seen a little evidence from such a report.
There are some entertaining examples in all of this and it is amusing to look at the role of Ministers in each House. But there is a very serious underlying point and that is the fear that the proportion of the Executive will increase as the number of Members of Parliament falls. I understand that there is an impatience in this Committee to know how the Government will address that fact. I am trying to be as helpful as I can but there is a limit to the helpfulness. We have said that we will address this issue and we will, but there is plenty of time to legislate before 2015 if we need to. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform told the Constitution Committee, of which my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord are members, that we will bring forward proposals during this Parliament. That is in good time as the reduction in the size of the other place will not yet have taken effect. I hope that is a sufficient reassurance, repeated here, and that it will satisfy the noble and learned Lord enough to feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, if the Leader of the House is prepared to study the behaviour of different Ministers during the past 10 years, can I commend to him the experience I had as a government Whip with my noble friend Lord Rooker who, on occasion, took his own decision rather than the decision on the paper before him that was prepared by the civil servants?
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I was tempted by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who suggested that we were in seminar mode. In that case I might feel the need to start allocating marks, and one or two people might not come out of it too well. I was initially encouraged by my noble friend's "but", although it was not as big a "but" as I would have liked. I hope between now and Report that he will go away and reflect on it so that if there are to be proposals, he can put a bit more flesh on the bone so that we know what they are going to be. I regard this to be as important as reducing the number of MPs. There is an extraordinarily important constitutional point about the relationship between the House of Commons and the part of it that forms the Government.
My noble friend made the legitimate point that the amendment cannot take into account the number of PPSs in the Commons. I understand that it cannot really be dealt with by statute. However, I hope that we might address it separately because there is an issue about PPSs, not just in quantity but in their role. Over time their latitude to vote against the Government has been constricted, and I am concerned now by how they are dealt with in the Ministerial Code, in which they are essentially members of the Government for the purpose of voting but Back-Benchers for the purpose of sitting on Select Committees. That is an issue to be pursued. The obvious point in the context of what my noble friend was saying is that if you reduce the number of Ministers, you reduce the number of people
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This is an extraordinarily important issue, so I hope my noble friend will reflect on what he has heard. I am grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the Chamber, not least from the noble Lord opposite. The only point that I will make is that my amendment has an advantage over that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in that it comes up with a whole number. If one reduces the number proportionately, one ends up with a reduction of something like seven and a half Ministers. An incredibly important issue is at stake here, and I hope that my noble friend will reflect very seriously on it. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful for all the support around the House for Amendment 91. It was an amusing and vintage speech from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. However, it is worth analysing two parts of it. First, he accepted the importance of the issue that the Bill proportionately increases the size of the Executive and decreases the number of those able to hold them to account. He said that we should not rush. No one is asking the Government to rush, because the reduction would occur precisely when the reduction in the number of MPs would occur.
Secondly, the noble Lord said that we could get round this by the PPS route. In the light of what the Government, and in particular Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, have said, I would have thought that they would not do this because they are committed to the measure. He said that there was a "but", and we thought that there would be something bankable. My noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith asked what the Government were going to do about it. In this House, as in the other place, something is being looked for that would bring the thing forward. I have written down, "We will look at it", and, "We will address the issue and do something". It is very difficult to regard those assurances as having any reality.
As my noble friend Lord Rea said, our amendment would reduce the number of Ministers by eight. That is not many. It is hard to believe that it would affect the conduct of government-and my goodness, it would send a signal consistent with what has been said by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. It would be a very good thing for trust in politics if that could be done. I think that both the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I will return to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"( ) of all written representations made to the Boundary Commission by publishing them online within 24 hours of receipt"
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I will not detain the House long. My amendment inserts a new paragraph into new Section 5(1) that requires the Boundary Commission to make public and in a timely manner all the representations that it has received.
I very much hope that the Government will accept the amendment. It is sensible, clear and concise, and it places an unambiguous duty on the commission to make public the representations that it has received in respect of its proposals.
The amendment states that the representations should be published online. This is modern and green. It saves trees, it is good for the environment and it quickly gets into the public domain for all to see what has been received.
All noble Lords who have been involved in boundary inquiries will be aware that representations are made available at the inquiries. The Government propose to take away those inquiries, so the amendment places a duty on the Boundary Commission to put what has been received into the public domain.
One of the most regrettable things about the Bill is the way in which it restricts-some would say strangles-public engagement on a crucial aspect of how they are represented. My amendment tries in a small way to offset that. If the amendment is not agreed, representations that are received could be kept secret. That cannot be right.
I feel strongly that this is another example of a bad Bill that has been handled in a very poor way by the Government. As I said before, there was no Green Paper, no White Paper and no draft Bill. It was railroaded through the Commons, leaving it to your Lordships' House to provide scrutiny, to make it better and to stand up for citizens and their rights, as it has done on so many occasions before.
Lord Lipsey: I can be even briefer. My amendment, Amendment 91B, reflects a suggestion made in the British Academy study to which the Minister has referred with great favour on a number of occasions, which is that the Boundary Commission should be bound to publish not just representations but comments. It is a small point, but the leading experts in the academic world regard it as an improvement. I therefore hope that the Minister will accept it.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): Amendments 91AA and 91B would change the process of consultation as set out in the Bill. The Government believe that it is important that there should be a good flow of information between the Boundary Commissions and the public so that people can be informed about the review and have their say. That is why we have extended the period for representations to 12 weeks from the four weeks currently provided for.
Amendment 91B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, would, as he said, require the commissions to take into consideration any comments that they receive
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I reassure the noble Lord that our thoughts are very similar to those during yesterday's debate on the issue of wards-yesterday or the day before; anyway, earlier this week-and their use in making recommendations for constituency boundaries. That is that we are open to considering improvements to the process of public consultation on recommendations for boundary changes that do not compromise the key principles of the Bill. Adding an opportunity for counter-representations would not compromise the key principles, particularly that of dealing with boundaries that are as up to date as possible. We will consider the details of how the process set out in the amendment might function and come forward with our amendments at Report.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would require the Boundary Commissions to publish all written representations received as part of the consultation process online, in a very environmentally friendly way, within 24 hours of receipt. That is a helpful and useful suggestion which we will certainly want to consider carefully before Report. We question one element. The commissions made extensive use of the internet in the course of the previous general review and, although it is for them to decide, I am confident that they would do likewise this time.
The practical problem with the noble Lord's amendment is the requirement to publish those representations within 24 hours of receipt. Our experience of consultations is that many people submit their representations very shortly before the deadline. If the commissions have received thousands of representations just before the end of the period, they might find themselves overwhelmed if they are then required to publish them online within 24 hours, especially if a number of representations were received in paper form that had to be turned into a version that was electronically presentable. The secretaries to the respective Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that they have sufficient resources. I do not doubt that the commissions will act to publish the representations in good time following the end of the consultation period, but I fear that there may be occasions when it would be impractical to do so within 24 hours.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Kennedy, for highlighting these issues by way of their amendments and reassure them that we will bring our proposals to the House at the next stage of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his response and look forward to what comes back at Report. If it would be helpful, I am happy to move amendments for a period of 48 hours or 72 hours.
"(2) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receive any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(a) raises no substantive issues that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals;
(b) makes counter proposals which are prima facie out with the stipulations of the Rules for the distribution of seats contained in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act.
(5) Where a local inquiry had been held under subsection (2), a Boundary Commission may, after considering the matters discussed at a local inquiry, the nature of the representations received under subsection (1) and any other relevant circumstances, decide that a further local inquiry is not justified.
(7) In subsection (2) above, "interested authority" and "elector" respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.""
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this is an important amendment about public inquiries. It is well known throughout this House and the other place what the Act does: it does not simply abolish the entitlement to a public inquiry; it prohibits a public inquiry, even though the Boundary Commission might consider that the most appropriate way in which to deal with issues that arise in relation to a proposed new setting of a boundary. Clause 12(1) inserts a new Section 5(2) into the 1986 Act which states that:
We submit that this is damaging to the process and reduces its legitimacy in setting constituency boundaries. In our original amendment, we proposed to delete the subsection prohibiting public inquiries and to insert the wording relating to inquiries contained in the existing legislation. That would have put the Government at one end of the spectrum with their proposal to prohibit public inquiries and us at the other with a proposal to preserve completely the status quo. However, I believe your Lordships' House has expressed a very clear desire in recent days for both sides to work constructively for compromise on this Bill where there are differences of view. In that spirit of compromise
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"The Bill abolishes them for three major reasons. First, we simply must speed up reviews ... The second reason why we are abolishing the public inquiries is that they do not achieve their purpose. They do not provide the boundary commissions with a good indication of local opinion to aid them in the process of drawing up constituencies ... The third reason for abolishing inquiries is that they rarely lead to significant changes in recommendations ... The changes are frequently minor. For example, at the time of the fifth general review in England, only 2% of wards in counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result".-[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; cols. 729-30.]
I shall deal with the three points in reverse order. I submit that the weakest argument in favour of abolishing public inquiries at this time is that they rarely lead to significant changes. If we look at the last review in England, it is true that alterations were made in only just over a quarter of all parliamentary constituencies, but the context is all important. In every case where the Boundary Commission was proposing an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry. In many cases, such as Derbyshire, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made, and many times the Boundary Commission commented in the report that the recommendations of the assistant commissioner-the judicial officer who presided over the public inquiry-were improvements on their own.
The same is true in Scotland. A review of Scottish Parliament-not national Parliament-constituencies in 2007 based on very similar rules to those being proposed in this Bill led to the Boundary Commission recommending substantial changes to the electoral map. Your Lordships will recall the quote that I gave on the previous occasion from Sheriff Principal Kerr, who referred to the 10 substantial public inquiries that had had a significant effect on the drawing of the map of the Scottish Parliament constituencies. Thousands of objections and a rash of local inquiries resulted in major alterations being made to the original recommendations. As your Lordships have already heard, if the next UK boundary review takes place on the basis of the proposed new rules, alongside a reduction of 50 constituencies there will inevitably be widespread disruption to the electoral map of the UK. That prospect prompted Robin Gray, who was the former chair of the Boundary Commission for England, to say to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:
"Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested,
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There is then a powerful, principled argument for retaining public inquiries, especially in the context of a proposal fundamentally to alter the composition of the constituencies that make up the other place.
None the less, it is plain that we should recognise that there is an argument for controlling properly the extent to which public inquiries are used. We have therefore revised our previous amendment and now propose that the Boundary Commission should not be obliged to hold a public inquiry even where the threshold for triggering an inquiry has been met and that threshold is either a representation from an interested authority-essentially, a local authority-objecting to the proposed recommendation or electors numbering 100 or more. Even if the Boundary Commission received those objections which satisfied the condition for holding a public inquiry, if it judged that the issues raised were not substantive or constituted counter proposals which would infringe the general rules on the distribution of seats-that is, if it was plain that there was no real issue or if there was a strict rule that prevented any change-it could conclude that there should not be a public inquiry. The Boundary Commission would therefore have the power to say that it would grant an inquiry only when the representation was of real value and the condition was satisfied. That would go a long way towards dealing with the concern that inquiries would be used unnecessarily.
I shall address the second of Mr Heath's criticisms, the charge that inquiries do not provide a good indication of local public opinion. The allegation here is that they engage only political parties. That charge loses a great deal of its weight in the context of the next review, which, as has been repeatedly mentioned, is so significant. We have already witnessed huge-I use "huge" advisedly-numbers of representations made; for example, in relation to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. Strong public interest was aroused in both those areas, in part because it was already known that the new rules would have a particular effect either on the Isle of Wight-the island would be split into two and joined in part to the mainland-or on Cornwall, where there is very strong feeling about crossing a boundary.
Once the provisional recommendations for boundary changes are published, we are likely to see very considerable objection to them. I remind your Lordships
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We do not deny that political parties have tended very often to be the major participants in inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions. It would be surprising if they were not, but the engagement of political parties is a positive thing, provided that they are not somehow abusing the process. Inquiries are chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, and there has never been any allegation that they are anything other than independent, unbiased and effective. They are regarded as vital to imbuing the process with legitimacy, both in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of the parties. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Political parties are not a malign force; they are vital to our system of representative parliamentary democracy and they need to be both involved and assured that the process for drawing the electoral map is open, inclusive and above board. Their acceptance of those facts is important to the legitimacy of our democracy. If that assurance is lacking, then the result-according to innumerable experts who gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, including those who I have already quoted-will be an increase in the use of judicial review, which is not something any of us would welcome. Were this to be the case, it is difficult to see how the timetable for completing the boundary review could be achieved.
This brings me to the first of the Government's reasons for abolishing inquiries- and it may be the primary reason. The Government are worried that public inquiries would delay the process to such an extent as to prevent a boundary review being completed before the next general election, which is currently stated by the Government to be in 2015. Your Lordships are aware that we on this side of the House have grave concerns about a timetable for the review which will result in excluding many millions of eligible voters from the calculations. We recognise, however, the political reality that the Government will not agree to permit public inquiries to operate if they believe their operation would prevent a boundary review being completed before the next election, or in time for the next election. The relevant date set in the Bill in order for it to be okay for the next election is 31 October 2013.
We are entirely open to a compromise that retains public inquiries, chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, with the possibility of oral hearing and the ability to see and comment on other oral and written representations, but with a time limit on their duration. It should not be beyond the wit of man to identify what the appropriate time limit should be. It ought to be possible to achieve this without recourse to legislation, but I wait to hear what the Minister has to say about this.
For example, one of the reasons why the last review took so long was not due to public inquiries, but because the Boundary Commission had to wait for a
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Our amendment therefore stipulates that any public inquiry must be completed within six months of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Furthermore, it also stipulates that if a second local inquiry is deemed necessary, it must be completed within nine months-that is, an additional three months only-of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Nine months would be the maximum period of delay that a public inquiry could cause. With extra resources and planning, that should pose no danger to the Government's specified timetable of completing the review by the end of 2013.
I conclude by returning to the important democratic principle which I highlighted at the beginning of this debate-legitimacy. In its report on this Bill, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place observed:
The abolition of public inquiries, come what may, will undermine the ability of the public to participate and in so doing will undermine the quality of the conclusions and the legitimacy of the boundary review process.
Our amendment is, I hope, regarded as a genuine attempt-that is what it is-to reach a proposal that the Government will find satisfactory. It does not undermine any of the principles of the Bill. At the same time, it guards against the unnecessary use of such inquiries and ensures that the Government are able to review constituency boundaries in time for the next election. I urge the Government to accept this amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Woolf: My Lords, I support this amendment on the grounds already put before the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in opening this debate. My main concern is the effects on the courts of the removal of inquiries and the consequences that that could have for the proper workings of the Boundary Commission. I should acknowledge that that point was drawn to my attention by the right honourable Mr Straw in the other place who, of course, has been recently the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. As I understand it, he shares the same concerns as I will advance.
Before I do that, I feel that I should advise the House, on the basis of my general experience and my responsibility at one stage of my career at the Bar, of when I appeared quite regularly for the Government in inquiries which were going wrong. The problem was that the public felt that those inquiries, although they were local inquiries, did not give them the opportunity to express the strength of feeling that they had on a governmental proposal. In considering this amendment,
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The first matter was delay. I hope that the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for dealing with that will be considered to be satisfactory. Certainly, it seemed to me to be a constructive proposal. However, the most important reason for preserving this power for the Boundary Commission to hold a local inquiry in the form that will exist in law if this amendment is accepted is the fact that the Boundary Commission is given the key to the door as to whether there should be a local inquiry. It would have a discretion and, although there are thresholds, those thresholds do not bite on the discretion. The only situation when there would be an inquiry is where the Boundary Commission thinks that it is necessary, which, surely, is an important point that is made in this amendment.
If there is no provision for an inquiry I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review. Applications for judicial review are a plague so far as the Government of the day are concerned. They are also a problem for the courts, albeit that the courts take great pride in the way, over the past decade and more, they have developed the ability of the public to seek the aid of the courts where they think their rights are being infringed. If this amendment is not accepted, the issues that will be sought to be raised on applications for judicial reviews are ones which the courts will find peculiar difficulty in dealing with. It is a very important part of our constitution-unwritten though it be-that there should be a relationship between the courts and Parliament which avoids Parliament trespassing on the proper province of the courts and avoids the courts trespassing on the proper province of Parliament. Matters dealing with constituency boundaries, it seems to me, are the very sorts of matters which the courts should not be required to deal with if there is a way of avoiding it. The best way of giving the public the ability to express their views is by public inquiries being held whenever the Boundary Commission considers it is appropriate.
On the basis of those two points, I urgently encourage the Government to look with sympathy on this amendment, which has so carefully been drafted to meet possible objections but achieve a very valuable safeguard for the public. It is in accord with the Government's policy, as I understand it, of allowing the public to have a say on matters of such importance.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said, we trust that the Government will be prepared to look on it with some sympathy.
I was very surprised indeed when I saw that, particularly from our Liberal Democratic friends, there was support for a change of this nature. I will say a few words about what I would class as being one of the most democratic exercises in which I have ever participated. I was on the Select Committee dealing with the hybrid Bill on Crossrail. We spent six months meeting four days a week with hundreds of businesses, taxpayers,
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I was surprised when we saw that, effectively, this major part of the process of our democracy is scheduled to be quite unilaterally guillotined. There has been no public consultation whatever, no Green Paper and no scrutiny across the two Houses, but we have a major change before us. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has bent over backwards in crafting the amendment to try to meet all the problems that were enumerated when this was debated in the other place. It is a pity that we do not have many people present in the Chamber, given that we have been told that we are filibustering and that we are not dealing sensibly and reasonably with the issues before us. If the Chamber had been full, I am sure that no one could have raised any criticisms about the way that this side of the House has endeavoured to try to meet the needs that have been expressed by the coalition Government. I hope that a very careful ear will be given to the arguments that have been advanced, and more particularly that, for the first time, there will be an indication of some movement in negotiations, which would go some way towards what we are looking for.
The other side of the coin is that if this is forced through so that public inquiries are abolished and prohibited, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, indicated, there is the distinct possibility that a very substantial number of calls for judicial review will be made in due course to try to counter the fact that people have not been given an opportunity to input their views into the way that the legislation has been developed. I should also like to hear, particularly from the Minister, a response to the point about judicial reviews: whether it is anticipated that they will arise if the Government go ahead, the scale of what may take place and how that in turn might interfere with the programme that has been set out. But I hope that the Minister will not have to address those points because he will, very sensibly indeed I trust, give a much more positive response to the amendment.
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I was going to support this amendment even before hearing the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, but his point, which I had not considered before, is one that the Minister really ought to consider. Speaking from experience of having to deal with inquiries and judicial review against
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I would have supported the amendment in any event on the basis of the effect on the population and on localism. He and I have heard much about that in our debates, and rightly so. I look across to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. We come from the same city of Liverpool, where localism for his party might have been born. Certainly I saw it in operation there. It is therefore surprising to see that a critical part of that-the ability of local people to say what they think about this issue-is being removed entirely. Is it not plain, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, that the real reason the Government are doing this is not because they think it will give more power to the people, which is what their programme is about, but because they are worried about delay? However, my noble and learned friend's amendment deals with that. If the Government think that they can tighten it a little more but accept the principle, no doubt they can say so.
The really important point is this, and I support the noble and learned Lord in saying it: do not remove all opportunity to have a form of local inquiry that enables people not only to say what they think, but often to provide information and advice that, when it is heard by those who are making the final decision about boundaries, makes a difference. Therefore, I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord will be positive about this amendment. If he tinkers with it and brings back slightly different time limits, those on the Front Bench on this side will no doubt consider those carefully. However, the principle is important.
Lord Goldsmith: I really must object to that comment from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who, as far as I can see, has been in the Chamber for only the past five minutes. I have been speaking for less than that. That really was an unhelpful comment. He should know better than that.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for introducing this amendment and for the very helpful and constructive spirit in which he proposed it. I also thank the other noble Lords who made important contributions to this relatively short but important debate.
The amendment seeks to introduce a public inquiry stage into the boundary review process, allowing the Boundary Commissions to hold a public inquiry where representations are received from any interested local authority or from 100 or more interested electors.
As we made clear in our response to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in the previous debate, and in our responses on local government ward boundaries and existing parliamentary constituencies, the Government's position has been that we are open
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It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries. The decision to end the process of oral inquiries, which appears in this Bill, was in fact taken on the basis of the evidence before us, when we came to consider the most effective consultation process for boundary reviews, which is what we are all trying to achieve.
Among the many contributions that we have heard not just this evening but over a number of Committee sittings, the case has been made tonight that local inquiries are an important safety valve because they allow everyone, as we might put it, to have their day in court. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, made that very point. It allows people to have their say. My view is that this is perhaps the only objective of local inquiries: for which any credible argument can be mounted in their favour. Evidence and academic opinion indicate that local inquiries are perhaps far more effective in principle than in practice.
Local inquiries do not as a rule consist of the general public having their say on boundary proposals. Professor Ron Johnston-whose namechecks in these debates are now getting quite considerable; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer quoted him-and his colleagues have concluded that the public inquiry process is "dominated by political parties", describing the process as,
Of course, he is perfectly right; political parties play a vital role in our democracy, and there is nothing wrong with parties contributing fully to the boundary review process. It is inevitable that they are going to do that, but if we are considering what would be gained by the noble and learned Lord's amendment, which would restore oral inquiries in some form, we should not imagine that we would necessarily be giving the public a better chance to have their say. We would be looking to restore a potentially long process to which parties will send Queen's Counsel in their attempts to secure the most favourable outcome for their electoral prospects, certainly if history is anything to go by. It may be that the quasi-judicial nature of the local inquiry process could act as a disincentive to public participation by ordinary people who hope to have their say.
Our intention is that a written consultation process, with the existing period for representations extended from one month to three, will actually amount to a much more effective way to allow a level playing field for the general public who wish to have their say. Whatever the merits of the cases that are made for exceptions in this Bill-for example, for the Isle of Wight-I do not think that anyone could doubt that the people involved were very successful in making their voices heard through petitions, campaigns and websites.
There is little evidence, too, that local inquiries bring to light evidence that would not otherwise be considered. In an earlier debate in Committee, the
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That is why changes that are made following local inquiries are often minor. At the fifth general review in England, for example, only 2 per cent of wards in English counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result. Robin Gray, a former boundary commissioner already quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that Professor Ron Johnston was,
The evidence given by the Boundary Commission for Wales to the Welsh Affairs Committee is also instructive on this point. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, the secretary of the Welsh commission said that,
That brings me to the evidence of Ron Johnston before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Professor Johnston, as we have acknowledged, has been much quoted in these debates. I think that anyone reading his evidence and his previous work will reach the same conclusion that the committee reached in its report that the result of Professor Johnston's extensive research into the topic, and oral inquiries in particular, led him to,
I stress that, not because somehow Professor Johnston's view is the only one that counts, but because it dispels the theory that only we on the government Benches somehow hold the view that oral inquiries are not necessarily the best way to achieve the objective that we all want, which is a robust consultation process at which everyone, including those who are not able to appoint legal counsel on their behalf, can have their say on a commission's proposals.
One charge that cannot be laid against oral inquiries in the past is that they were anything less than thorough in this regard. This lengthy process, however, goes to the heart of one of the key principles in the Bill, which
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It is also important that we listen carefully and reflect on what was said by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf and Lord Goldsmith, not least on the question of judicial review-judicial review if you do not have oral inquiries and judicial review if you do have oral inquiries. There is an argument that the proposal in the amendment to give the Boundary Commission the decision on whether to hold an inquiry in each constituency where the requirements in the amendment are met would also lead to a risk of judicial reviews of the Boundary Commission's decisions on that point.
Important issues have been raised. I have indicated not just in this debate but in others that the principle should be that reviews must be conducted more quickly so that the pattern of representation in the other place represents the reality of where electors live now, not of history. That goes to the heart of fairer and more equally weighted votes throughout the United Kingdom, which is a core objective of the Bill. We will obviously want to consider the noble and learned Lord's concerns on the issue of judicial reviews-as I have said, if you have them or if you do not have them. Subject to meeting the key principle, which I have indicated, I am content to take the noble and learned Lord's amendment and consider the thinking behind it to see whether it offers a way in which the advantage that I acknowledge an inquiry can provide-a sense of "a day in court"-can be retained. On that basis, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
First, the noble and learned Lord is right to say that Professor Johnston, who is an expert in this field, has expressed scepticism from time to time about the public inquiries in some contexts, but he has said that the scale of the proposed changes in the first boundary review is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map. Without being unfair, or selecting out of context, Professor Johnston is in favour in this context. He also referred to Robin Gray, the former chairman of a Boundary Commission, who has a rounded view of public inquiries and recognises problems with them. Robin Gray says:
Secondly, the way that this amendment is put is not as an alternative to written submissions, because it accepts that in the appropriate case written submissions would be sufficient. I draw attention to subsection (3) in the amendment, which says that the Boundary Commission can say no to a public inquiry if it raises no substantive issue that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals. So the Boundary Commission would have to decide that there is some specific benefit in an inquiry. In relation to the timing, we have dealt with that already.
It is, with respect to the noble and learned Lord, difficult to see-and I am not going to press this too hard-why an inquiry should not be in the armoury in the appropriate case. He mentioned the fact that it is often about political parties vying in their own political
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I very much hope that when the noble and learned Lord considers it, he will come back and either suggest how it might be improved or accept the amendment. On the basis of the helpful and constructive commitment to consider the amendment, I beg leave to withdraw it.
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