Representation of the People (Amendment)

– in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 7th May 1996.

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Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet 4:50 pm, 7th May 1996

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to fix the maximum number of Members of the House of Commons at five hundred. For years, we politicians have been exhorting British industry to increase its productivity, which it has done with spectacular success. We are reducing the size of the civil service to cut the cost of the state to the taxpayer; we have cut whole tiers from local government and the national health service; and we are pressing councils and schools to make themselves more cost-effective. We were absolutely right in all that, but there comes a time when we also have to lead by example.

We all know that there are far more Members of Parliament than is necessary or desirable and, as a consequence, there are more Ministers, more parliamentary private secretaries and more Opposition Front Benchers than we really need. We should have the courage of our convictions and commit ourselves to a substantial reduction in our own numbers.

Before the war, membership of the House was stable at 615, but since 1950 there has been a slow but inexorable rise in the number of Members of Parliament, from 625 to 630 to 635 to the current 651. Indeed, as a result of the current boundary review, our numbers after the next general election will be swelled by a further eight Members, making a total of 659. Rules 5 and 6 of the Boundary Commission permit such increases for geographical or demographic reasons and, by their very nature, encourage continued expansion. We have accepted this conventional wisdom without asking whether it is necessary or whether there are better alternatives. As a consequence, an already oversized House of Commons is growing without contemporary strategic judgment ever further beyond its already overstretched capacity.

Of course, new buildings can be provided for Members of Parliament and their staffs, although being in Westminster they are inevitably very expensive. However, if we reduce the number of Members of Parliament to 500, as I propose, we shall not need new buildings—indeed, we could probably sell some, as well as saving the cost of 159 Members, their staffs and their support infrastructure. That could mean the saving of millions of pounds in revenue and capital. A substantial saving could be made to the public purse, with an increase in the resources available to support the remaining Members of Parliament in the better performance of their jobs. That is what productivity and value for money are all about. We at Westminster should be no more immune to that process than industry, the civil service or local government.

Some journalists and Opposition Members clearly find my proposal strange. With a cynicism that is, sadly, as familiar as it is misplaced, they argue that turkeys would not vote for Christmas. Certainly, when I proposed a similar Bill last year, the Labour party spoke against it and defeated it. This year, we shall see.

In a recent Harris poll, 60 per cent. of those Members of Parliament who were asked said that they considered 659 to be too many, and a reduction to between 450 and 550 was the most popular solution. In a debate last summer on the Boundary Commission, Members from all parties called for a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. The former Speaker, now Lord Weatherill, has argued in the media for large reductions, and the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) is, as ever, more radical than most and suggested only a few weeks ago that the number should be halved.

Such support for change is not surprising when we consider the overwhelming evidence in favour of it. Let us compare the House of Commons with comparable overseas legislatures. The United States, with a population five times our own, manages with 100 Senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives. Japan, with more than twice our population, has only 511 Members of Parliament. In Europe, only Germany has more Members of Parliament than we have—and then only three more—although its population is 23 million greater than ours. France, whose population is nearly identical to ours, has 82 fewer Members of Parliament. Surely we can manage with fewer than 659—there is no magic in that number.

What would be the advantages of reducing our numbers? The first and most apparent advantage is that we would send a signal to people across the country that we are committed to productivity and an example of how to achieve it. The second is that we can save money for the taxpayer. The amount saved may not be enormous, but its impact on public attitudes would be.

The third advantage is that there would be more space for Members of Parliament to do their job, by which I mean not only physical space in the House but the opportunity to participate more in prime time parliamentary proceedings. How often do we try to speak in a debate or ask a question that we believe is of great importance to our constituents but are not called? Indeed, how many Members now in the Chamber tried unsuccessfully to ask a question on the statement a few moments ago? If there were fewer Members of Parliament, we would have a greater opportunity to represent our constituents in that way.

The fourth advantage is that, even after making savings in public expenditure, there would still be enough money to provide more resources for the support of Members in their constituencies and at Westminster and to develop our information technology systems more rapidly.

Last, but by no means least, the electorate might be a little less cynical about our pay if we accepted for ourselves the redundancies that elsewhere have underpinned non-inflationary pay increases.

Some Members may feel that their work load is heavy enough, with an average of just over 69,000 constituents. Adding the demands of 19,000 voters may seem excessive but, with extra staff, an average constituency of nearly 88,000 can be as well and possibly better serviced. After all, 19 of our colleagues already have constituencies that are larger than that and have coped even without extra staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has 101,391 constituents and wants to keep them all.

Another important by-product and beneficial consequence of the Bill is that it would address and correct an unfair imbalance in the size of constituencies across the United Kingdom. I have raised this matter in the House before. It cannot be right that the average constituency in England contains 69,534 electors, while the average constituency in Scotland has only 54,571. That situation has arisen because of the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958 which, for no obvious reason, provided a minimum number of seats for Scotland and Wales, irrespective of subsequent population changes. That democratic deficit means that Glasgow has 11 Members of Parliament while Leeds only eight even though Leeds has a larger electorate.

The simple solution is to return to the pre-1958 position of a common electoral quota for the whole of the United Kingdom. Combined with that, the reduction to 500 Members of Parliament would produce an average constituency with an electoral quota of 87,792 voters which, I believe, is perfectly viable. Leeds and Glasgow would then have six Members of Parliament each, which would be fair. The existing rules on community of interest in setting precise boundaries should be retained in full, and I propose to allow extra flexibility to assist that. I believe that an allowance of plus or minus 10 per cent. of the electoral quota will be more than adequate.

I accept that there may be a need for some exceptions. I recognise that in some sparsely populated areas of the country there would be enormous physical constituencies if they had to accommodate the full quota of constituents. There are also areas with large and cohesive communities that are not big enough for two constituencies and do not want to be split—for example, the Isle of Wight. In exceptional circumstances, I would allow the Boundary Commission discretion to create up to 10 constituencies outside the permitted range.

Clearly, my Bill will have a powerful impact on hon. Members—I am, after all, proposing a reduction of almost 30 per cent. in the number of Members of Parliament. Even after allowing for the normal retirements at elections, there will inevitably be redundancies. I believe that this change is vital for the health of the mother of Parliaments, for our country and for the restoration of public confidence in our national institutions. There is a need for constitutional reform and it should start in the House of Commons. I commend my Bill to the House.

5 pm

Photo of Mr John Butcher Mr John Butcher , Coventry South West

I oppose the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) on the grounds that it does not go far enough. I believe that Members of Parliament should have wider responsibilities, but that we should be less productive of clutter. I declare some form of interest in that 18 months ago I signalled that I will be retiring from the House. Therefore, any comments that I make in relation to the number of Members of Parliament or their salaries will be of a somewhat more distant nature than they might have been. I would, however, be a recipient of the side benefits in the form of an increased pension.

Having cleared that issue with hon. Members, I argue—as animal rights activists sometimes do—that when free-roaming mammals are crowded together in artificial and crowded circumstances it often produces some pretty unhealthy by-products. It is my judgment that the House is getting more and more fevered and therefore demands a culling programme.

I believe that it would be appropriate for there to be 300 Members of Parliament. This raises serious questions. There is an intimate relationship—indeed, a unique relationship—between a Member of Parliament and his constituents, and it is beneficial to the workings of the House. I believe that Members of Parliament could represent 140,000 voters—which would mean approximately 180,000 souls. Members of Parliament would need to spend far more time in their constituencies in surgery work, but they now have the back-up to do so.

As things stand, we are productive of clutter in the House and we tend to generate ephemera far more than we should. One has only to look at the Order Paper to see the immense cost of the wide variety of hobby horses being ridden by hon. Members. I oppose the Bill because I want to increase the status of Members of Parliament. It is our job to represent our constituencies in Westminster, just as much as it is to represent Westminster in our constituencies. However, we should focus on the broader issues where possible—the issues that affect millions of people when it comes to policy formulation and criticism.

Larger constituencies would mean more balanced constituencies—they would probably have a wider cross-section of income and socio-economic groups. In my view, Members of Parliament would regain some of the status that we appear to have lost over recent years. I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind my opposing his Bill—on grounds that I hope he finds more positive than negative.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and negatived.

Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I sought to persuade the House of the need for a Division on my Bill. I believe that I shouted "Aye" to the limit of my voice.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

The Chair has to make a judgment as to the overwhelming preponderance of the view of the House. There was no need for a Division.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Register of Members' Interests has been published today. I have perused it and noted that many hon. Members have registered remunerated interests without providing the detail of how much money they are being paid. Does this not frustrate the decision of the House that any such payments made shall be detailed in the Register?

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Any views on the matter must be referred directly to the Commissioner.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is to wind up the debate on the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill for the Opposition. I see that in the Register of Members' Interests, which was published today, the hon. Member has—quite properly—declared a fee received from chartered surveyors and a research assistant provided by the Building Employers Confederation. May we have your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, as to the hon. Member's participation in the debate after making those declarations of interest?

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

It is quite improper for the Chair to anticipate in that way.