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Amendment made: 181, page 289, leave out lines 29 and 30 and insert-
(a) there are-
(i) two or more candidates with fewer votes than the others but an equal number to each other, or
(ii) three or more candidates, or remaining candidates, all with the same number of votes, and'.- (Mr Harper.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
First, let me welcome the scrutiny that the Bill has now undergone. I know that there has been vigorous debate on all the Bill's provisions, which is only right for a measure of such importance not just to this House but to the people whom we represent. It was also right that we should spend eight days on the Floor of the House debating the Bill, and that the House should have the opportunity, which it has taken, to divide on the key provisions before it goes for consideration to the other place.
I should like to make a bit of progress.
The Bill has been amended during its passage through this House. The Government accepted the Electoral Commission's findings on the question-something that found support right across the House. The Bill also now includes detailed provision for the combination of the referendum with the other elections on
Many Members have drawn attention to the constitutional importance of the changes that we propose: changes to deliver more equal constituencies, a House of Commons of reasonable size, and a referendum to give people a choice over their voting system. The Government recognise the significance of these measures. We also recognise that Members are not simply being asked to vote on these matters in the abstract, but that the changes have real consequences for Members of this House and for their constituents.
I read reports of the Gould report. I did not read every single word of the Gould report itself, but I read enough to tell me that it conclusively showed that the problem with the combination of votes in Scotland arose because of the unique nature of the ballot papers in those local elections, which were extremely confusing to voters who were voting in two elections at the same time. By contrast, next May I think it will be uncomplicated for people to vote in devolved elections, in local elections in England, and on a simple yes or no answer to the referendum question.
I would like to make a little progress.
At the heart of this Bill are some simple principles. It is right that constituencies are more fairly sized, so that the weight of a person's vote does not depend on where they live. It is right that we reverse the unintended trend that has seen this House grow in size and cap its membership at a more reasonable number. It is right for people to have their say on the extremely important question of which system voters use to elect MPs, and crucially, it is right that, at a time when people's trust in Parliament has been tested to destruction, we act to renew our institutions.
I am most grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way and hope not to detach him too long from his speech. Would he be good enough to explain to me, in the light of the announcement earlier today on votes for prisoners, whether under the Bill prisoners who are currently disqualified from voting in parliamentary elections will be unable to vote in the referendum? Do the Government propose to change that to bring it in line with today's announcement?
As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper, explained this afternoon, we have made no decision on the matter other than to state the obvious point, which was first stated by the previous Government, that we will need to act in accordance with the law. We are still debating exactly how and when to do that, and we will make announcements as soon as we can.
I am sure I do not need to remind Members of the damage that was done by the expenses scandal, which lifted the lid on a culture of secrecy, arrogance and remoteness right at the heart of the democracy. The coalition Government are determined to turn the page on that political culture and give people a political system that they can trust. That is why we have set out a programme for wholesale political reform. We are starting with this Bill, which, through its commitment to fairness and choice, corrects fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs.
The Deputy Prime Minister makes the important point that we need to ensure that we reconnect with communities. How will the removal of public inquiries, and therefore of the right of individuals and communities to make oral representations on the most profound boundary changes for 150 years, reconnect Parliament with individuals and communities?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill provides for a significant extension-actually a tripling-of the time during which people can make written representations.
The hon. Gentleman might shake his head and dismiss the idea of people making written representations, but they will not end up in the bin. They are an effective means by which people can make their views heard, and I am sure he will take up that opportunity if he wishes to.
Combined with our other reforms-fixed-term Parliaments, a new power of recall, and reform of the other place-the Bill will help us close the gap between people and politics, ensuring that our institutions meet expectations and are fit for a modern 21st-century democracy.
There may well be a case for looking at the number of Ministers when the size of the House of Commons is reduced, but that is not happening now. It would happen only in the next Parliament. We would need to keep it under constant review, and-dare I say it?-future Governments might wish to act upon that idea. I do not dispute at all the principle that as the Commons is reduced in size, so should the number of Ministers be reduced.
I understand that some Members continue to have specific concerns about the detail of the Bill. That was clear, for example, during the thorough debate on the date of the referendum. I know that Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in particular continue to worry about the implications of combining different polls on
One of the major concerns about having elections on the same day is that the media, rather than the voters, may be unable to cope. We have all accepted, both in Committee and on Report, that that is where the difficulty lies. There is a problem with the registration of the yes and no sides of the campaign. How will that affect access to the media, particularly in the run-up to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections? That is an important consideration.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, registered and designated organisations in the referendum campaign will have access to broadcast time. I do not see why that should make it in any way impossible for voters-they are the ones who count-to distinguish between their choices in the devolved elections and in the referendum contest.
Members are jumping up with great excitement, but if I can make a little headway I will give way in a minute.
On the boundary review, I recognise that some Members are nervous about the implications for the areas that they represent. We have taken those concerns seriously. For example, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, visited the Isle of Wight to meet people with views on both sides of the argument. However, the Government's view, and the position that has withstood sustained debate, is simple. Fairness demands constituencies that are basically equal in size. Of course the Boundary Commissions must have some discretion to vary from absolute equality to take account of local factors, and the rules set out in the Bill provide flexibility in that regard, but there can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country.
I entirely agree, of course, with the principle that we should have more equal constituencies, but not the regimentally and statistically equalised ones proposed in the Bill. That will create homogenised, pasteurised constituencies of bland uniformity. If the Bill returns from the Lords with amendments to establish a reasonable balance between equalisation and a recognition of tradition, culture and local authority boundaries, will the Government resist the changes?
I admire my hon. Friend's commitment to his constituency, of course, and he argues his case with great conviction, but I disagree with the characterisation of the Bill as an attempt to "pasteurise" constituencies. After all, one third of the Members in the House already represent constituencies within the size quota that we are setting down, so it is hardly a revolution. It is very much an evolution, building on arrangements that are already in place.
My hon. Friend talks about the rigidity of the constituency size set out, but there will actually be a 5% margin either side of an ideal size. As he also knows-I have discussed it with him previously-it builds on a provision already present in existing legislation. The Bill merely prioritises the matter in a way that is not currently the case. So no, we would not be minded to accept amendments that reopened the fundamental question of fairness and equality in how constituencies are drawn up.
I urge Members to remember that if the Bill passes, as I hope it does, it will be then that the real decisions on constituency boundaries begin. They will be up to the independent Boundary Commissions, and Members and communities will have plenty of opportunity to have their say.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister not think his argument would be stronger if he did not make an exception for a certain number of seats in Scotland, to his own political advantage? They are being treated completely differently, and without the equal value that he pretends to believe in.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, two constituencies are treated differently from others. One is held by the Scottish National party. [ Interruption . ] No, two. The other one is a Liberal Democrat constituency. Both constituencies have been recognised in previous regulations and legislation as having a unique status. I know that the hon. Gentleman has about 60,000 people in his constituency. [ Interruption . ] The Prime Minister himself has looked up the statistic, so we are talking about a very good authority. Other colleagues represent 20,000 more voters. Surely that cannot be right.
Before apoplexy breaks out on the Opposition Benches, let me try to bring this to a close.
Where there has been a reasoned case for amendment, we have accepted the arguments and acted. The Bill is almost ready to go to the other place for further scrutiny, which will undoubtedly add to the debates that we have been having here. Before that, the Commons will have its final say tonight.
I will not give way, because I want to conclude.
The elected Chamber will, I hope, agree these extremely important changes to the very elections that put us here. Fair constituencies and choice for people over their voting system will prove unambiguously that the House of Commons is dedicated to real and meaningful reform, including of the very system that put us here.
I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He may have missed the contribution made by Mrs Laing, who reminded us that the first and only time that he graced the Chamber with his presence was on Second Reading on
Ironically, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was so keen on this Bill and who directed it, has made no attempt to play a role in it. The real reason, of course, is that he is not the architect. The architect is his chum the Prime Minister, who has just walked out, now that he has seen that his friend is safe.
As the right hon. Gentleman is less than overwhelmed by the prospect of this Bill, would he care to say which Hitchcock film he has most in mind? Is it "Vertigo", "Sabotage" or "Psycho"?
It is all the films that have a bad ending. Most right hon. and hon. Members will agree-some publicly and others privately-that as things stand, this is a deeply unsatisfactory piece of legislation. It has its genesis in the party political horse-trading that characterised the coalition talks and which is all too evident. I remind the House and those in the other place of what this Bill means unless the other place overturns some of the clauses passed here: a referendum on AV on
We will soon have before us a new Bill that will set in stone the date of the next general election-
"the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office."--[ Hansard, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 47.]
I know that the Whips have kept the hon. Gentleman out of the Chamber this evening.
This Bill is the product of a straightforward political bargain. In exchange for a referendum on the alternative vote, which the Conservatives opposed, the Liberal Democrats signed up to a review of constituency boundaries that the Conservatives favoured. As such, it has come to be regarded by the leadership as an unalterable document that must be accepted totally and unquestioningly.
The hon. Gentleman, who is a friend, has been absent for the past few days, and I am not quite sure what point he makes.
Sensible, neutral suggestions that have commanded support on both sides of the House, such as the proposal to ensure that the Executive do not grow disproportionately powerful as the legislature is reduced in size, have been dismissed. As any independent observer who has followed the passage of the Bill to date will readily admit, that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.
The scrutiny process has suffered from being rushed. It is a convention that major constitutional matters are debated here, but it is also a convention that they are given sufficient time.
On constitutional conventions, is it not the case that in many countries, including ours, Bills of this kind are subject to thresholds because they ensure that enough people have voted? On the abstention argument, do the Opposition believe that people have a right not to vote? Otherwise, do they believe that voting ought to be compulsory?
The problem with the hon. Gentleman's propositions is that the manifestos of neither coalition party contained any of the ingredients of the Bill, let alone thresholds. That is one reason why, like sheep, they have voted against proposals for more accountability, both in Committee and on Report. Any independent observer who has followed the passage of this legislation, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who might have had a chance to read some of the Hansard reports, will readily admit that that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.
Let me give some examples of Bills that have gone through the House with proper debate and scrutiny. The Government of Wales Act 1998 was taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 69 hours of debate. The Scotland Act 1998 was also taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 121 hours of debate before it left for the other place.
We also did a novel thing in those days-Labour still does this now-of putting the things that we stand for in an election manifesto. Even if someone wins a popular mandate for that manifesto, they should ensure that there is proper debate and scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The coalition Government have a smaller majority than the previous Labour Government, but they have rushed the Bill through.
The Bill is more far-reaching than the Acts to which I referred, but there have been fewer than 40 hours of debate on it in the House before it goes to the other place. Day after day, colleagues on both sides of the House have been denied their wish to speak and deprived of the opportunity to make important points, and their speeches have been truncated when in full flow. The Liberal MPs on the Front Bench below the Gangway have had their mouths zipped because of the way in which the coalition Government have rushed the Bill through.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously has not quite understood that in a coalition, more than one party must be accommodated. The Labour party is not in the coalition. Can he be very clear whether Labour party policy is the same as it was at the election, which is to support the alternative vote? I am referring not only to the Leader of the Opposition, but the shadow Cabinet, Labour Members and the party as a whole.
The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats wants to start a new convention-have a manifesto, not win the election, get involved for five days in a shabby deal with the Conservative party, and reach an agreement for the sake of power rather than principle.
I am always happy to come to the aid of the Liberal Democrats when they, once again, get their facts wrong. The policy of the Labour party at the last election was to have a referendum on the alternative vote and to allow the people of this country to have a say, with Labour MPs campaigning on both sides of the argument.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is what these arrogant Ministers have come to, after just five months, in this mother of all Parliaments. At a time when we are helping emerging democracies understand how democracy should work, we have a Bill that will change the voting system, reduce the number of MPs and change the way in which seats are distributed, all for the sake of political expediency and the coalition's calculations, rather than for principle.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Labour party supports the principle of more equal seats, but that objective could be met in a more balanced and practical way than proposed in the Bill. As things stand, the requirement for every seat to fit within 5% of a UK-wide electoral quota would see dramatic changes to long-established patterns of representation, but take no proper account of geography, history or community ties. The boundary commission secretaries said in evidence-I know that the Deputy Prime Minister does not like evidence, but I will give him some this evening-that
"the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies...and will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries."
We will see the creation of seats that cross the Mersey, a "Devonwall" constituency that straddles the Tamar is inevitable, and then there is the Isle of Wight-a problem that called for the wisdom of Solomon has received the attention of the absent Hitchcock in the last few weeks. Against everyone's wishes, the island will be split in two, with 35,000 electors merged with constituencies in Hampshire, producing a ripple effect that will distort the composition of neighbouring seats for miles around.
We have suggested that several areas, including Cornwall, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight, should be allocated whole constituencies, to avoid these perverse outcomes. The Government have not listened. We advocated the compromise of a 10% absolute limit on disparity, which would provide more equal-sized seats while enabling factors such as geography and community to be taken into account. The Government have not listened.
The indecent haste of the changes will also create problems. To complete a review by October 2013, the boundary commissions have been instructed to use the December 2010 electoral register, from which more than 3.5 million eligible voters are missing, as the foundation for the constituencies redesign. As the missing millions are mostly younger, poorer people predominantly located in urban areas, the calculations are bound to produce a distorted electoral map.
To compound everything, the Bill abolishes the right to hold local inquiries into boundary commission recommendations. Even critics of the inquiry process have questioned that decision, asserting that if there was ever a boundary review for which inquiries will be needed, this is it. But the Government will not listen, because consulting the public would mean delaying their politically driven timetable, designed to damage Labour's electoral standing.
Combining the referendum with other polls next May is also clearly wrong. It increases the risk of administrative chaos and the potential for spoiled ballots. It will also cause problems with expenses, the media and the electoral rules, as other hon. Members have pointed out.
On the issue of corrupting the democracy of the Welsh Assembly and the evidence of the Select Committee, does my hon. Friend accept that Wales is a nation of 3 million people set alongside a nation 17 times its size? Wales is also exclusively reliant on a funding stream from England. The Select Committee essentially said that there will be profound constitutional consequences for the whole of the UK if this Bill is railroaded through and the democratic mandate from Wales is reduced by a quarter. We are here to be the voice of Wales, and this is a slap in the face for the Union and for Wales.
If my hon. Friend thinks that the Deputy Prime Minister-the great reformer-has read the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am afraid that he is mistaken. The Deputy Prime Minister has not even read Ron Gould's report or been present in the Chamber since
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Gould report. The problems in the Scottish elections in 2007 were caused because the Labour Government decided to have a ballot paper on which people had to put two crosses in two separate columns. If he had read the Gould report, he would know that that was what caused the problem. In this case, there will be three ballot papers and people will have to put an X on each of them. That is far simpler. Clearly he has not read the Gould report.
The hon. Gentleman is making the same mistake that the Deputy Prime Minister made, which is not to have heard the comments made just an hour ago by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on the same point. What the hon. Gentleman has described is not the reason why we object to the referendum and the elections being held on the same day. He really must do a service to his constituents, bearing in mind that they will suffer huge consequences, by listening to the evidence and listening to the debate. The other problem with having a referendum on the same day as national elections and council elections outside London is the differential turnout. Irrespective of the result on
Labour supports a referendum on AV and agrees with the principle of creating more equal seats, but this Bill is a bad means of delivering both objectives. It is too inflexible and too hasty, and it will lead to great and ongoing political instability. This House has failed to improve the Bill because it has not been allowed to do so. To our shame, that task now falls to unelected peers in the other place, whom we must now rely on to inject some democratic principles into what, to date, has been an inglorious episode in recent parliamentary history.
We have had many, many hours of debate on this Bill- not enough, some would argue. Unfortunately, there are parts of the Bill that have not been reached and not been examined, for various reasons. The other day I found a quotation in one of those amusing books that said: "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made."
I believe it probably was Bismarck. If ever that were true, it is true of this Bill. However, this is also a necessary Bill. I said at the beginning that I appreciated why we had to have it and that I would support it, and I will continue to do so.
The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform did its best, on a rushed timetable, to perform what legislative scrutiny of the Bill we could. On behalf of the Committee, let me say that I hope that our reports and investigations, and the evidence that we have made available to Members has been useful in informing some of the debates that have taken place. While mentioning the Committee, let me say that the Chairman, Mr Allen, will be sad to have missed this part of the proceedings on the Bill, just as he has had to miss many of the Committee's sittings, because he has been unwell. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery, although he is not seriously ill, so I believe that he will be back soon-it is okay, I should tell Opposition Members that he will not be missed for too long. The Committee has done its best to help the House to consider this Bill properly.
The second part of the Bill is excellent-Chris Bryant will not be surprised to hear me say that. It is correct that we should at last grasp the difficult nettle of the composition of the House of Commons. It is correct that we should reduce the number of Members of Parliament to the perfectly round and reasonable figure of 600. It is correct that this House and this Parliament should make that decision, as it is doing this evening. It is also correct and inarguable that every constituency in the United Kingdom, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, that sends a Member to this United Kingdom Parliament should be of equal size.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that historically there has always been a weighting in favour of the Celtic nations to ensure that we do not have an England-dominated Parliament?
No, I certainly do not. The hon. Gentleman's point has no validity whatever. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom-of the whole United Kingdom-and every constituency in this United Kingdom should be of equal size and should have an equal number of voters. Every Member who is elected to this Parliament should come here with an equal weight of electorate behind them.
Mr Deputy Speaker might say that that point is not relevant to this Bill. It is not for me to argue the matter. I do not want prisoners to have the vote, but that is not the point at issue. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper gave perfectly good responses to that this afternoon.
Labour Members have produced all the little arguments they can possibly think of to try to preserve the current unfair imbalance in constituency structures that gives the Labour party an unfair electoral advantage. Every statistic shows that, and it cannot be argued against because it is a matter of simple arithmetic. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact - [ Interruption. ]
Does the hon. Lady think a system that is not subject to a public inquiry is more or less likely to lead to gerrymandering?
No. I think the point is incompetent. We debated it at great length last night, and the fact is that public inquiries are not necessary. It is necessary to have a certain amount of time for consultation, and that is provided in the Bill. We do not need long, drawn out public inquiries when political parties spend weeks and months arguing spuriously about old fashioned boundaries and traditions, and about hills, mountains and rivers, when they are concerned only about the number of Labour voters or Conservative voters who are likely to be in a constituency. Labour Members should have the courage to face up to a fair democratic system, and that is what the Bill will introduce.
Yes, I am aware of that, but it does not change my argument one tiny bit. The fact is that the Bill provides for a much fairer and equal system with one vote, one value. Equality is all that matters.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the acts of the last-but-one Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who packed more members of the Labour party into the House of Lords than any previous Prime Minister had done. And no, I do not think it is fair, but that is not relevant. I am sure that his party will be pleased to hear his criticism of its hero, Mr Blair.
I have had more difficulty in supporting the first part of the Bill, although it is obvious that we have to have a referendum because it is part of the deal done between the two parties in order to form the coalition agreement. We need a coalition Government in order to give the country the stability that we require to deal with the horrific economic circumstances left behind by the last Labour Government.
I am sorry to make an unhelpful intervention on my hon. Friend, whom I greatly admire, but my understanding of a deal for a coalition Government is that when a bargain is made, both sides stick to it. That is why I voted for this Bill on Second Reading, despite my objections to it. Subsequently, however, the part of the bargain that induced me to endorse the deal-namely, the fact that we were told that the Liberals would accept the renewal of the Trident strategic nuclear deterrent-was dishonoured. That is why I shall be voting against the Bill on Third Reading.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but it does not change my arguments about the Bill. I appreciate his point, but I still say that we should have a coalition in order to provide the stability that the country needs in the aftermath of Labour's economic disasters. It is therefore necessary to have this Bill and to have a referendum.
It is a great pity that the referendum is to be held on the same day as other elections. We have heard many very well put arguments, particularly from Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, about why the referendum should not take place on the same day as their national elections. Nor should a referendum go ahead without a threshold. That could result in a vote on a derisory turnout of some 15% changing our constitution. That is quite simply wrong, but I realise that the Government are not going to accept that argument because, once again, these provisions are in the coalition agreement, by which we are bound.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the date of the referendum is not set in stone in the coalition agreement, and that it is simply a part of the Bill? Does she also agree that the Deputy Prime Minister's desire to maximise the chances of winning the referendum by holding it on that date could well backfire on him, because of the manner in which the Bill is demotivating many of us who are in favour of electoral reform but who have consistently been appalled by the way in which it has been railroaded through, against the wishes of the devolved Administrations?
Yes, I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point. He is totally correct. The fact is that some of us have tried, in all good faith, to improve the Bill, but we have failed to do so. On those matters of principle, we now have a Bill in more or less the state that it was in when it first came to the House. I must not presume what might happen in another place, but let us assume that we will now have to go ahead with a referendum on the same day as the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and some local elections in England. The turnout for the referendum could be derisory, so it would not have much validity. However, I am now sure of one thing, and Kevin Brennan has just reinforced my point. As this argument has gone on in the country and the media over the last few months, it has become clear-and it will become even clearer-that the British people will not be duped into voting for a voting system that is representative neither of a fair first-past-the-post system, nor of the sort of proportional representation seen in some countries, which I do not like, although I agree it has some validity. The system we will be voting on will be neither one nor the other-and I do not believe that the British people with their good sense will vote for it.
Is the hon. Lady- [Interruption.] Wonderful? Yes, she is wonderful, but is she aware that there is no popular mandate for this referendum? It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto-the Liberal Democrats wanted to push this through without a popular referendum and to impose this on the British people-and it was not in the Conservative manifesto either. Does the hon. Lady think that the other place might well regard this commitment as having no validity in terms of a democratic mandate?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: there is no democratic mandate for this referendum-none whatever. If the proportion of votes cast for the Liberal Democrats in the UK as a whole during the general election in May this year were mirrored in the referendum, there would be no problem defeating the yes vote. The referendum would fail and we would be able to continue with our good, historic, solid, decent first-past-the-post system, which has served us so well for centuries.
No, I must not; I have already taken up too much of the House's time and there is not much of it left this evening.
This Bill could have been better, but it goes some way to improving our democracy, so I encourage hon. Members to support it.
I will be brief, as other Members want to contribute. The speeches this evening and other speeches in Committee and on Report have shown that this is a highly politicised issue and a highly politicised debate. When we debate changes to the voting system, major constitutional change and changes that affect the boundaries of constituencies, an attempt is usually made at least to reach some cross-party consensus. It is sometimes done through the procedure of a Speaker's convention, for example.
Given the rhetoric of the Government parties before the election, one would also have hoped for some pre-legislative scrutiny and the proper involvement of the parties representing all regions and areas of the United Kingdom. Instead, a Bill has been cobbled together, and elements of it have received no mandate-and no mandate has even been sought in respect of them. As a result, we are in this divisive situation, in which the Government are ramming the Bill through without agreement and without consensus. That is no way to deliberate and it provides no basis for making decisions on the future composition of this House-or indeed for deciding how people should vote for Members of this House in the future.
Despite what the Deputy Prime Minister has said and despite what other Ministers-they have struggled manfully to deal with these issues-have done, it is clear that a lot of the opposition to the Bill has come from Conservative Members behind the Government Front Bench, not just from Opposition Members. From a Northern Ireland perspective, I have to say that the respect agenda that has been much talked about has not been much in evidence on this issue. Eloquent words on Wales and Scotland have already been spoken, but as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the alteration of the Northern Ireland parliamentary boundaries has a direct impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries-they are one and the same. Those changes will happen every five years. The Deputy Prime Minister seemed to suggest that they will not happen, but given that there will be a boundary revision every five years, and given the changes in registration and the number of votes allocated to different countries and regions, it is inevitable that there will be changes in the boundaries. That will have a direct impact on the make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has multi-Member constituencies.
We have all gone through an long period during which we tried to reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, we have made enormous progress. We have a reasonably, or relatively, stable political set-up, although of course challenges and difficulties remain. However, we risk upsetting that political equilibrium-that consensus-with this measure, which, as I have said, will have a direct impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly. Moreover, all this has happened without any prior consultation with the parties or the Executive in Northern Ireland. I believe, and any objective observer would believe, that that consultation should have taken place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed boundary changes, and the continual changes that will follow, will lead to instability and uncertainty, and that that in itself does not augur well for the political process in Northern Ireland?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He has experience of these matters, having been a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly until recently.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that, as well as the changes in the Bill, the Government would introduce reforms of the House of Lords. While I welcome the proposals for House of Lords reform, I am mystified by the fact that the Bill is being rushed through without our seeing any of the details of those proposals. If the Government wish to make changes to the political system and make democracy more accountable and transparent, why do they not introduce all their reforms at once? Why can we not see the details of what will happen to the other place, as well as what will happen to the voting system and membership of the House of Commons? We have been given no explanation, other than the obvious explanation that this is being done entirely for reasons of political expediency and-as suggested by Mrs Laing-to keep the coalition agreement alive.
It is outrageous that the Government have done away with the proposals for local public inquiries taking oral evidence. That would have allowed people to become involved in the process, to be interrogated on their evidence, and to be cross-examined. It would have enabled communities to have an input. We will experience the most sweeping changes in boundaries that we have experienced for decades, and Northern Ireland in particular will experience the impact of those changes. That is outrageous and wrong, it should be reviewed, and, at the very least, people should be allowed to have their say at local level.
Like other Members, I sincerely hope that if the Bill is railroaded through in the absence of cross-party consensus, another place will consider it extremely carefully, and will reach some wiser and more sensible decisions.
I shall be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I could have just about brought myself to vote for the Bill, but for the fact that once again it plays into the hands of the Executive. Once again, we see the Executive seizing more powers at the expense of Parliament. The House will be reduced to 600 Members of Parliament, while the Executive will remain as large as it is now.
I really did think that we had learned our lesson in the last Parliament. I really thought that, after 100 years of giving powers away, we might do things differently in this Parliament. I now wonder what on earth is the point of being a Member of Parliament in this place. Only three hours ago, we were informed that prisoners would be given the vote. We would not have a say in it; it would be done over our heads.
Tonight, my constituents have every right to ask, "What is the point of Charles Walker? What is the point of having elected representatives?" This is an appalling state of affairs. Once again, we are increasing the powers of the Executive at the cost of Parliament, and we deserve absolutely no sympathy. Whatever befalls us over the next four years as Back Benchers, we will have brought it on ourselves. However, I say to new parliamentary colleagues in particular that it is very difficult to vote against this Bill, because their political virility will be measured by whether or not they become a Minister, and if they do not become a Minister they do not get the extra money, the car or the red box, and when they leave this place as a humble Back Bencher there will not be people queuing up to offer them jobs as companies want only politicians who have had the red box to serve on their boards. I therefore say to any Back Bencher who votes against this Bill tonight, "You are extremely brave, and if you do vote against the Bill you, like me, won't have a career going forward, but you will have my undying admiration."
I thank the hon. Member for that clarification, but it was not a point of order. Have you finished Mr Walker?
I will abide by your dictum, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It is a great privilege to follow Mr Walker and Mr Dodds. Mark Durkan and many other Members both from England and the regions have spoken extensively in the debates in opposition to the Bill for various reasons.
Let me say at the outset that I commend the Minister. I say to the Deputy Prime Minister that he should be proud of a Minister who, under fire, has completely resisted any suggestions, alternative ideas or possibility that there might be any other logic to adopt for the way forward. The Minister has done very well in that respect.
There is a difficulty in that position, however, and it involves a fundamental point of principle. I agree that equalisation is a real issue, but I honestly thought that Liberals and Conservatives understood not only this Parliament and the Union, but also the slow evolution of the Union. Issues to do with the Union have been approached incrementally by and large. Successive Government of Wales settlements, and Northern Ireland and other settlements, have been very sensitively engineered and calibrated in order that the Union is strengthened.
I am a strong Unionist, and my fear in respect of this Bill is not as the Member for Ogmore, although I know that under the maps for these proposals my constituency disappears-and I am sure it is only a coincidence that it has the biggest absolute majority of any constituency in Wales. I can take that on the chin, however.
The hon. Gentleman says I have a certain number of voters. What he and his Government colleagues are doing in the Bill is reductively defining parliamentary democracy as
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"In this Schedule the 'United Kingdom electoral quota' means-
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I say to the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues that this is the ultimate constitutional fetishism, because all those individuals are people who have an identity with the community.
As people in Cornwall and Devon have recognised, one of the defining characteristics of this whole debate is that there are areas where people strongly identify not only with their region, but the locality. There is a Welsh word that Roger Williams, but not many other Members, will recognise. "Hiraeth" is difficult to translate, but it means longing and identity with a place, a people, a community. My constituents will be deliriously happy to know that that can be dissolved down to the formula
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A Member on the Government Benches asked what was the point of his being here in Parliament and what was the point of his identifying with his area, and he is right to ask those questions. Why is one of the key figures decided on in the Bill 95% to 100% with no variation? Why do the Bill's provisions display a singular inability to recognise the diverse nature of the United Kingdom, except in two or three specific instances?
Disraeli has been mentioned in our debate. When Disraeli was in a heated discussion with Gladstone across that Dispatch Box and was being defeated by the incessant logic being deployed he told him not to desist in the fanatical application of his sterile logic. That is what we are confronted with here, and I genuinely hope that when this Bill goes to the other place they who have a respect for our constitution, our devolution settlement, and the role of this Parliament and of elected representatives will stop this in its tracks, because our electorate-the people whom we represent-deserve a lot more.
The Bill is a compromise brought about by the coalition agreement and it contains two different parts: the AV part, which I wholeheartedly support; and the part about reducing the number of MPs and imposing the 5% straitjacket. I am perfectly supportive of reducing the number of MPs, but I have difficulties with the 5% straitjacket.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto's proposal for 500 Members was based on the assumption that the single transferable vote system would be used-our proposal was combined with that. Coalition involves compromise, and I was not present at Chequers when the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister negotiated the fine points of this Bill. The coalition agreement said that there would be
"fewer and more equal sized constituencies."
So there was no need to go for this 5% straitjacket.
This country is fortunate in having an independent Boundary Commission, which in the past has always acted truly independently and has never been subject to political influence. We should be grateful for that and we should give more powers for flexibility to our independent boundary commissions. In the Bill, the 5% straitjacket is not an absolute principle because, as has been pointed out, there are some exceptions. There is an exception for islands, and I support that. It is perfectly right that Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have their own constituencies. However, I also draw the Government's attention to the fact that other constituencies contain islands, for example, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey. My constituency contains 13 islands that can be accessed only by ferry or air, which compares with the three in the Western Isles. My constituency has four times as many islands as the Western Isles, twice the land area and three times the size of electorate, so I would hope that we could have some more flexibility.
Elsewhere, on the highland mainland, the Government have introduced the 13,000 square kilometre rule. It will not result in the creation of any constituency that is more than 5% under the quota. What it will do is create three strange constituencies, because in order to get both within the quota and under the 13,000 square kilometre rule the Boundary Commission will have to create three strange constituencies, each containing a part of Inverness. One will comprise one part of Inverness and will go all the way up to Cape Wrath. Another will contain a part of Inverness and will go all the way west to Skye. A third will contain a part of Inverness and will go south and east. Those will be three strange constituencies and there is little community interest for them. We are supposed to be representing communities, but there is very little community link between somebody on the north-west of Sutherland and somebody in Inverness. I hope that this part of the Bill will be re-examined in the House of Lords and the Government will be amenable to accepting amendments that will give the Boundary Commission a bit more discretion. We are fortunate in having an independent Boundary Commission, and we should give it more discretion.
It has been a long seven-and-a-half-hour wait and I did have a 10-minute speech, but I shall cut that down as much as possible. It is obvious to anybody of independent mind that this legislation is being pushed through with unseemly haste, although perhaps not so quickly that the manifold flaws, inconsistencies and illogicalities in part 2, with its utterly arbitrary "reduce and equalise" agenda, have not been suitably identified and exposed.
I would write it all off as incompetence, were it not for the Government's wilful refusal to make improved voter registration a priority and precondition for reform, their reluctance to make a commitment to an appropriate and proportionate reduction in Cabinet posts and their determination to leave common sense out of the boundary review process, which will reduce constituencies to little more than arithmetical units.
As always-I make no apologies for this-I am particularly concerned about the ramifications for Merseyside. The sub-region has coped well in the face of the recession, but analysts suggest that it is likely to be extremely and disproportionately hard hit by the Government's slash-and-burn policies. However, at a time when the people of Merseyside will increasingly be looking towards their MPs to fight their corner, the sub-region looks set to lose at least two parliamentary seats. That puts paid to the myth that lofty ideals, social conscience and progressive thinking underpin the Government's electoral reform agenda.
Let me, if I may, jump on the number-crunching bandwagon for a couple of minutes. Currently, my constituency-Liverpool, Walton-has one MP for 89,732 citizens or 62,612 registered voters. In the year- [ Interruption. ] Someone is questioning the figures, but I live there. In the year of the constituency's creation, 1885, the population of Liverpool stood at about 614,000 and the city was split into no fewer than nine parliamentary divisions. That equates to one MP for every 68,228 citizens, but-note-for far fewer registered voters, given that, among other things, women had not yet achieved suffrage. Had the registered electorate in Walton represented 69.8% of the constituency population, as it does now, John George Gibson MP, the first Member for Liverpool, Walton-a Tory, no less-would have represented only around 47,000 registered voters. In reality, the electorate minus women represents a smaller percentage of the Walton population, and thus the figure would have been considerably lower-perhaps 24,000.
This is not just about numbers. It is true that the composition of parliamentary seats back in the 19th century was arguably as arbitrary as it is now, so I am not for a minute suggesting we use any point in history as a blueprint, but let me tell the House why that example from our local history is important and matters. The Government intend every MP to represent an electorate of at least 72,000. Leaving aside the issue of non-registration, which further skews the figures, what equips a 21st-century MP, in these complex times, to represent three times as many individuals as his or her Victorian predecessor? What is progressive about a modern-day voter having approximately a third of the democratic clout of his or her ancestor?
Equally illogical and disingenuous is the so-called "equalise" agenda. I struggle to understand how numerically homogenising seats has anything to do with "fairness" or "equality"-those much vaunted and abused buzz words of the coalition Government. On the face of it, my constituency would appear to be pretty evenly matched with that of the Bill's chief flag bearer, the Deputy Prime Minister. Their populations are similar and their registered electorates both stand around the 60,000-plus mark, falling short of the 72,000 lower limit proposed by the Government, but that is where the similarity ends. In my constituency fewer than 9% of the population are graduates, whereas in Sheffield, Hallam 35.6% of the populace have graduated from university. In my constituency, 32% of households have no central heating or private bathroom; in Sheffield, Hallam the figure is 4%. In my constituency, 45% of adults have no qualifications at all, whereas in Sheffield, Hallam only 17% of adults are disadvantaged in that way.
I have another major concern. In the most recent periodic boundary review there were absurd suggestions about Merseyside, including one for a constituency straddling the River Mersey. Fortunately, that did not come to pass, but an expert recently concluded that
"the spectre of a cross-Mersey seat would rise again" under the proposed legislation. In July I asked the Deputy Prime Minister for assurances that the River Mersey would be recognised as a natural boundary, to which the Minister responsible for political and constitutional reform, Mr Harper, gave a decidedly evasive reply. He passed the buck to the Boundary Commission but stressed that the "electoral quota" requirement would take precedence. That paves the way for all manner of insensitive, inappropriate and impractical boundary changes on Merseyside and elsewhere that will result in even greater political confusion and disaffection than already prevails.
Part 2 of the Bill is based on a version of reality that is quite at odds with the reality on the ground. It presumes a politically engaged electorate, and that the average voter is indignant that his or her vote might be statistically worth a fraction less than the vote of a counterpart elsewhere in the country. It implies that granting votes parity and thus achieving democratic equality will somehow render life in Britain more equitable and fair. But the "Animal Farm" argument that we are all equal, but some are more equal than others, will not wash. More than 3.5 million people in England and Wales alone are not even registered to vote, and most people do not fret about the statistical weighting of individual votes.
No; I am short of time and I am being encouraged to hurry up, so I am trying to speak as fast as I can.
The reality is that millions of voters in many constituencies do not have the luxury of dwelling on their democratic parity with their peers elsewhere: they are too busy simply trying to stay afloat. They approach their MPs for practical support, guidance and intervention more than they do for high-minded ideological representation. There is nothing equal or fair about this reality, and the proposed constituency changes, which are unwarranted, ill-conceived, poorly evidenced and politically pernicious, will do nothing to address it.
The only question that has really worried me in the middle phase of my parliamentary career is the extent to which the constitution has changed in my time in this place. This Bill represents the old politics as we know them, and it is extraordinary for those whom we represent to hear the expression "new politics" while the same old methods, the same old tricks, the same old imposition of will and the same number of guillotines pour out of the Executive. That is rich, because it happens each time the House changes. Sadiq Khan has made the most important point of all in the old discourse: all this has no mandate. No one in the electorate has expressed a view on it, and no one has even raised it with many of us during the course of the general election.
I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper for carrying this Bill. I have never been present during deliberations on a Bill when its protagonist or originator does not deign to attend the Commons-[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] No, let us get to the point: not only that, but he is incapable of making the argument for it. We have been left with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary having to refer to the coalition agreement-the image of gold. There will be some in the house who remember the story of Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They created an image of gold. And what is the image of gold? It is the coalition agreement. It did not serve them right, and it does not serve us right.
My question is, as always on constitutional matters: in what way does the Bill enhance the position of the electorate vis-à-vis representation in the Commons and the Executive? I do not find that the Bill enhances that in any way. In fact, it goes out of its way to ensure that that is not enhanced. It reduces the number of elected representatives, for a start. That, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing, means that the influence of the Executive vis-à-vis the Commons as a whole is increased.
Behind that, as we know, there are more captured people than merely those who aspire to the Executive. There is the Opposition, with their regiment of Whips and those who are expected to follow their own parties into the Lobby. There are very few independent souls in the House, and we have heard them in the course of the discussion of the Bill. That is the one good thing about the Bill.
I do not recall a Minister who has so cavalierly dismissed his responsibilities to the House- [Interruption.] I do not want to over-emphasise that point, but the country should know that we have never had such a poor demonstration on a major constitutional Bill. Furthermore, this was as guillotined a Bill as we could arrive at. We had what we now politely call a timetable motion-No. 4, only yesterday. That is the way the passage of the Bill has been run.
Hundreds of amendments have been pushed in because the Bill was incomplete and not thought through. The consequences were not weighed. How could they be weighed? The Minister leading on the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister, is unaware of the arguments that take place here. The Bill will be sent down to the House of Lords, and there is an argument that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest-what business is it of the Lords, the electoral rules and regulations of the House of Commons?
Yet I am on my knees, and freethinkers in the House are on their knees, hoping that the Lords will have a view on whether there was propriety in the purposes behind the Bill. That is why I want to see-I hope to see-that House rise up and say, "This coalition image of gold is rubbish. The Bill does not reflect the settled will of the House of Commons"-that is what it amounts to-"nor does it reflect the needs of our people to have their own distinctive form of representation."
These islands, these countries that form this Great Britain, have different traditions, different allegiances. My father said a long time ago that there are many Englands, just as there are many Scotlands, many Waleses, and so on. Each is particular. I represent the west midlands, which was the manufacturing heartland of the United Kingdom. For a brief moment this was the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth. Those are the same people whom we represent. Have we enhanced their rights, their power over the decisions of Government, their influence in the House? The Bill has not done that; in fact it diminishes those. I shall gladly vote against it, and I hope the House will join me in the No Lobby.
It is a great privilege to follow Mr Shepherd, who has demonstrated two things about his character and his political principles: first, he is a man of great independence; and secondly, he is a greatly passionate politician. He has made a great speech, and I am proud to follow it.
The Deputy Prime Minister, in opening this Third Reading debate, said that he thought that in the wake of the expenses scandals of the previous Parliament, it was important to bridge the gap between the remoteness of Members of Parliament and the electorate. I think that those were the words that he used. That is a laudable objective, and there cannot be any Member who would not agree with it, but, before we decide how we vote on Third Reading, we have to judge the extent to which the measures in the Bill make us less remote from the voters.
Let us take three important issues that have not been addressed satisfactorily, if at all. First, what does the Bill do about the 3.5 million people who are not even on the register, and even though we know that they qualify for it? [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members laugh, but it is a serious issue. How could one be more remote than not even being on the electoral register? Yet nothing in the Bill will bridge that gap.
Secondly, there is the issue of the alternative vote system or, as Government Members somewhat misleadingly refer to it, "making the voting system fairer". I listened with great care to Simon Hughes.
I will not, because I do not have much time and I need to allow others to speak.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is a long-standing supporter of proportional representation, and I respect that but do not agree with him. Now, I do not intend to get into an argument about the merits of PR and first past the post, but I think that he said, "It's a coalition. There has to be give and take." Mr Reid made the point slightly differently, saying that there has to be compromise. However, I ask the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark: who is giving and who is taking? It amazes me that he, as a supporter of proportional representation, feels able to support the Bill, because it does not include proportional representation, as he well knows. It does not even include the corrective of top-up seats, so we will end up with a system scarcely more proportional-and in some circumstances even less proportional-than our current system.
Finally, I ask the Deputy Prime Minister, how does taking away the right of people to appear at a public inquiry and argue the case for a different set of boundaries from those that have been proposed make this Parliament or any other less remote from the people? It does not at all. In fact, it makes Parliament even more remote. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this Bill is a complete mess. I have to ask those on the Liberal Democrat Benches: how can you support this system? It is not a compromise; it is give and take: they are taking everything and you are giving everything. I say to the Liberal Democrats, you have sold yourselves very short on this legislation. This is a Bill that you will come to regret, and I hope that the House will vote it down tonight.
I will deal straight away with the remarks of Mr Howarth. This is not a perfect Bill-I am not pretending that it is-but it is a good Bill, and the two things that it does needed to be done.
First, we needed to give the British people a chance to improve the electoral system. The alternative vote is not a proportional system-I have never claimed that it is-but it has two advantages that our current system does not have. I appeal to anybody who is a progressive politician in any party to come to the view that we should support a system that, yes, keeps single-Member representation, but sends us here with a majority of support from those of our electorate who vote-
Yes it does, compared with the current system. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman will just calm down-he is far too overexcited most of the time.
Secondly, the system allows people to express preferences-it is positive, not negative, voting that allows them to say what they really want politically as opposed to being forced to say what they do not want politically. That is definitely progress.
There is another practical consideration, as the right hon. Member for Knowsley knows. This House does not have a majority in favour of a proportional system at the moment-I accept that. I want a proportional system. Personally, I prefer alternative vote plus, because it has the balance of a single-Member seat plus top-up. But there is not a majority for those things. This measure allows Parliament to come to a view, as put forward by the Labour party in the general election, that the British people should be given the option of moving to a better system. It is not the perfect system-there is no such thing as a perfect system-and not the best system, but it is a better system. I hope that this House and the other place will allow the great British public to decide on this. Then, if the referendum comes up with a yes vote, as I hope it will, we will have a better political system and a better democracy.
I share one of the views of Steve Rotheram. It is a scandal and a shame that in this country, throughout the time of the Labour Government and now, 3 million or more people are not on the electoral register when they should be. I have made it clear to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and colleagues that there is a duty on our Government, just as there was a duty on the Labour Government that they did not discharge, to work across parties and outside parties to ensure that we get all those registered who should be registered.
No, I am trying to be very quick.
I will go on arguing from these Benches that the Government need to do more to increase electoral registration. Yesterday, with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I urged our party members to do more, and I hope that the Labour party and the other parties will do more as well. I hope that the Government will assist in every way-this month, before the December register comes into force-to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the electoral register. There are all sorts of ways of doing that, and the sooner we can start sharing our wisdom, the better.
I want to make one more substantial point. There is an absolutely overwhelming argument for more equally sized constituencies. The disparity between the number of voters per constituency is scandalous. I speak as somebody with Welsh, Scottish and English roots. It is no longer justifiable for Wales or Scotland to be over-represented in this place when England does not have any devolved government at all and is therefore already relatively under-represented.
No, I am not giving way.
Nobody argues that there should not be exceptions in extreme cases, which is why two seats have been singled out. That has never been in dispute. There is an argument, which has been tested, as to whether there should be other exceptions, such as other island communities. That is an argument that will not go away in the debates up the corridor, and nor should it, because there are reasonable arguments for an extension down that road. However, I hope that we accept the principle that, wherever humanly possible, the number of electors should be similar, because that is the only way to ensure that this place can proportionately reflect the views of the electorate and that we can all be elected in a similar way.
What possible justification can there be for the boundary changes taking place without any public inquiry at all? Is that not a travesty of democracy? The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of defending and justifying what is intended.
I will give the hon. Gentleman the answer, having appeared at inquiries in the past. The justification is that the job will be done by an independent set of boundary commissions, which are no more or less likely to treat people and arguments fairly by receiving representations in writing than in oral evidence. Often, the main argument at public inquiries has been not among real people about their communities, but among political parties' paid officers.
One argument that has been made is that we cannot reform one part of the constitution without reforming the others. I say gently to colleagues in the Labour party that unlike them, we will secure a predominantly elected House of Lords, which they did not do. Unlike them, we have on our agenda a reduction of the number of Ministers in future. [Hon. Members: "No you don't."] Yes, we do. We have it on the agenda- [Interruption.]
Order. I have never known a situation in which Simon Hughes is virtually shouted down. It is not only unprecedented, it is unacceptable. We must hear the hon. Gentleman, notwithstanding the strong feelings.
This is the first of a series of radical constitutional reforms that Labour never delivered, and that the coalition is willing to deliver. I hope that the House is radical enough to support it, and that the House of Lords does a proper job of ensuring that we have the best possible form for the two proposals that I have mentioned. It does Labour no good to argue against changes none of which it introduced in 13 years.
When Labour came to power in 1997, it began a major programme of constitutional reform. At its heart was devolution in Scotland and Wales. Labour's proposals in Scotland were based on the cross-party constitutional convention. In both Scotland and Wales, after referendums, it introduced voting systems that guaranteed representation for the Tories in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales at a time when they had no representation there in Parliament. The political system also ensured that the Liberal Democrats had representation.
We may contrast that with the approach that we have seen from the Tories and their Liberal Democrat lapdogs in this disgraceful Bill. It has no basis in manifestos, and there was no draft legislation, no consultation with Opposition parties and no discussion with the elected representatives of devolved institutions. It removes the right of constituents to make representations on the biggest ever change in the boundaries relating to their communities. That is an absolute disgrace and a catalogue of decisions that the coalition parties should be ashamed of. Fundamental constitutional change is being imposed for partisan political reasons, with a timetable devised to secure maximum political advantage for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
The consideration of the Bill has been a cynical outrage. We have had Liberal Democrats voting against the single transferable vote and Tories voting in favour of taking away the right of local people to speak out in public inquiries when fundamental changes are made to their boundaries and communities. What does that say about Tories and Liberal Democrats empowering individuals and communities? As an MP from Wales, albeit an English one, I have seen the contempt for Wales that drives Welsh people into the arms of nationalists.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, and the Deputy Leader of the House have no understanding of the constitution of the United Kingdom. They ignore the asymmetric devolution that we have in the United Kingdom, and they take no account of the views of the peoples of the devolved nations who have voted in different referendums-in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales-to establish our constitution and they are now being ridden roughshod over without any electoral mandate.
What is even worse is that the supine Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, yet again, the Welsh Ministers do not care. Where are they? The reason they do not care is that Wales and Scotland are irrelevant to the Tories. The Tories do not care what Welsh MPs think. This Bill will be pressed through. It does not matter what MPs, Assembly Members or Members of the Scottish Parliament say.
This Bill is contemptuous. It is designed to secure partisan advantage for the Tories and their allies. It has been railroaded through on a timetable constructed to maximise political advantage, and to ensure that it gets through before the next general election, and that is all that the Government care about. It changes the constitution for short-term political gain, without the consent of the peoples of the UK. The coalition parties will rue the day that this Bill was ever passed. It is the antithesis of everything that good legislation should be about. It shows this Government for what they are-dissembling, self-serving and dictatorial. Those who support them should be ashamed of themselves.
I have opposed this Bill from the beginning because I do not believe that it is based on any sensible constitutional principle whatever. It is in defiance of our own manifesto. It supports the process of a coalition, which, given how this Bill came to be part of the coalition agreement, is itself subject to questioning. We have heard from Mr Straw and others as to the manner in which this Bill, or this proposal for this Bill through the coalition agreement, was devised. I do not need to rehearse all that. This is something that is a matter of grave concern to many of us. The question of principle and conviction, which ought to underlie any major constitutional issue, is wholly lacking in respect of this Bill.
I heard many of the arguments from the Labour party. I have to say that irrespective of what Labour Members do in the vote tonight, I cannot honestly say that I believe that they stand on any principle that is worth considering. They have not had any mandate for their vote as far as this Bill is concerned. The idea that a threshold should not be inserted as being the only protection for the people of this country, who are being taken to a referendum-a poll-largely because this Bill is being so heavily whipped, is in itself a matter of the gravest concern. This Bill violates constitutional principle. It violates the manner in which for 150 years we have conducted our parliamentary processes by first past the post. That is a principle that was upheld by people such as Disraeli and Gladstone, and even Lloyd George until the Liberal party decided, under his leadership or his influence at the time, that it might not be so convenient because the votes would not follow what he had to say.
In a nutshell, this Bill is unacceptable, which is why I, and I hope as many colleagues as possible, will vote against it. It is unprincipled. It is without a mandate and it is wrong.
I wanted to make a number of points, but with the shortage of time, I will keep my comments brief. Like many other hon. Members, I have tried to make points before, but because of the conduct and timetabling of the Bill, I have been unable to speak on my deeply held beliefs.
Let me take just one element of the Bill and try to correct some of the errant nonsense on independent inquiries. In 2005, an inquiry was held into the boundaries in Greater Manchester, because it was decided that after the application of the electoral quota, there should be 27.25 MPs rather than 28. However, because nobody could have the spare quarter of an MP, the number went down to 27 MPs, and something similar may happen in the near future. There were 384 written submissions before the decision to hold an independent inquiry. Once the inquiry was called, there were more than 600 written submissions and 190 people spoke to the inquiry. Sixteen alternative proposals were made.
I do not know of 190 political parties in Greater Manchester, so I would conclude that those submissions were from ordinary citizens. As I said, the inquiry took three weeks, not the many months that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members would like us to believe inquiries take. Constituents individually or collectively put forward their views on how they wanted to be represented.
The Bill is deeply flawed on many levels. Not only does it reduce the number of MPs, potentially ignoring historical links, splitting wards and removing the right of people who are affected by changes to have their say, and not only is it gerrymandering of the worst kind, but it runs counter to all the Government's grand statements on the big society, local decision making and empowering local people. The Bill shows that those are simply words, and that the Government have no intention of localising power. The Bill may be cost saving, but at what cost? It should not pass.
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but she must be heard.
I have but three minutes and I regret that I cannot give way.
We have heard arguments over valleys and rivers, but never have we heard arguments in favour of people. The Bill seeks to remedy an ancient wrong.
I say this to my hon. Friends who are worried about the AV referendum: take heart. I believe that the referendum is something of a miscalculation by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party, but I am quite happy and content to trust the people. Let us lay it before the people and let them decide.
Opposition Members have become convinced of the doctrine that what is traditional is therefore right. I welcome their eleventh-hour conversion to that doctrine, but they cannot get away from the fact that the boundaries in this country are incredibly unfair. The votes of those in Corby and east Northamptonshire should be worth exactly the same as those in the constituency of Chris Bryant. No matter how they run and no matter how they hide, they cannot make the argument that equality is bad for democracy.
That sums up Opposition Members' arguments. I hope that the House supports the Bill in numbers, as it deserves.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today I received two letters about transferring parliamentary questions. One was from the Solicitor-General's office telling me that my question on human trafficking had to go to the Home Office. The other was from the Home Office and said:
"The Home Secretary has asked me to let you know that he has arranged for the Question" to be transferred. That is a different question, but it is about human trafficking and has been transferred away from the Home Office. Will you advise me, Mr Speaker, on who the new Home Secretary is, and what I can do about my questions being messed around with?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's point of order. On the first matter, his sense of humour never deserts him, and I do not think he requires any advice on that matter. However, the Home Secretary may want to have a word with her officials about this important issue. She has some reason to feel aggrieved.
On the second point, the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would not be right for me to comment on the detail of the matter. Suffice it to say that he is an ingenious parliamentarian, and he has put his views on the record very clearly and forcefully. They will be heard by the people whom I know he adores-the Whips on the Treasury Bench. I hope that that is helpful.