Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)
I was elected on the Conservative party manifesto, which states on page 67:
"We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with."
That is the very opportunity that the Australians have been denied in their recent general election. An article in The Times about 10 days ago suggested that if a first-past-the-post system had been operating in Australia, the Liberal party-effectively, the conservative party-would have been able to regain power in Australia, thereby demonstrating the wisdom contained in the Conservative party manifesto. I regard the AV referendum as an expensive and unnecessary distraction from the Government's main job, which should be to get the economy back on track. To spend £80 million to £100 million on the referendum is absurd.
I am also concerned that other aspects of the Conservative party manifesto are being disregarded in the Bill. Page 63 of our manifesto states that
"we plan to change Britain with a sweeping redistribution of power...from the government to Parliament".
Sadly, the Bill does exactly the reverse. As my hon. Friend Mr Walker pointed out, the proposal is that we reduce the number of MPs but not have a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. This Government have a record number of Ministers-more than at any time since the 1975 legislation was passed. When I was first elected in 1983, there were about 83 House of Commons Ministers in Margaret Thatcher's Government. We now have 95, five more than we had at the height of the last Labour Government. If this Government are intent on saving money, why has one of their first acts been to increase the number of Ministers?
It will not surprise you to learn, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the category of Minister that has been increased above all others is the Whip. The number of Government Whips is now at an all-time high. People outside the House may well find it extraordinary that we have so many Ministers, given that we have devolved Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and therefore need fewer Ministers here to represent those areas. That, in my view, shows that we are entirely in breach of what is set out on page 63 of the Conservative manifesto.
I also object to the fact that the debate has been guillotined. Page 67 of our manifesto states:
"Because we are serious about redistributing power, we will restore the balance between the government and Parliament, by... allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively".
That is exactly what is not being allowed. Why cannot the House decide for itself how much time is needed to discuss all that is in the Bill?
Addressing the Conservative party faithful in February this year, the current Prime Minister ridiculed the lack of effective parliamentary scrutiny that existed at the time. He asked:
"How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child? If we are serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it is time to strengthen Parliament so it can properly hold the Government to account on behalf of voters".
I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister has read what the Prime Minister said in that speech, but I have found no consistency between what he said then and the attitude being taken by the Government Front Bench today, and I find that extremely depressing.
Why the big rush? It is, of course, because the Government want to push through the change in the boundaries and reduce the number of Members of Parliament. They realise that there is a justification for wanting to get on with that quickly. How can they find a justification for introducing an AV referendum quickly? By linking the two issues. I consider it a cynical exercise to link two separate Bills, and I think that the restriction in the guillotine motion is much too tight. Such an amount of time would probably have been sufficient for each separate part of this Bill. As the Prime Minister suggested back in February, why should we not look at the detail of the Bill and then decide how much time should be allowed for discussion?
I have many other concerns about the contents of both Bills. That is why I shall vote against Second Reading and also against the guillotine motion. I shall not do so with a heavy heart, because I believe that we must stand up in the House and vote according to what we believe in. I believe in strengthening the House and reducing the size of government, and I do not think that the Bill does that.