Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 15th February 2011.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Lords amendments 3 to 7, 9 to 15, 18 and 21 to 26.

Lords amendment 27, and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

Lords amendments 28 to 103.

Lords amendment 104, and amendment (a) thereto.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is no secret that the Bill has received extensive and lengthy debate both in this House and in the other place. It had eight days of debate in this House and the Lords Committee stage took place over the four months from November to February, taking 17 days and more than 110 hours. I think that, with one exception, it was the longest Committee stage of any Bill in my lifetime. I am glad that we finally now have the chance to consider the amendments made in the Lords.

The amendments in this first group encompass a range of changes that were made or accepted by the Government in the other place. I shall set out their effect and the Government's overall approach briefly to make the best use of time available for debate. The Government have been consistently clear about the fact that we are prepared to make changes to the Bill where we believe they will make genuine improvements and will not undermine the key principles underpinning the Bill. Those principles are clear and we believe they are right. [ Interruption. ] Will Chris Bryant just calm down for a moment and let me proceed? The people should be given the chance to vote on the electoral system that is used to elect Members of Parliament and we should have a system for drawing up constituencies which better ensures that voters have an equal say wherever in the United Kingdom they live.

We have made changes to the Bill in response to points that were made in this House. On the referendum, we accepted changes to the wording of the question, and we also accepted amendments from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to clarify the regulation of spending by media outlets during the referendum campaign and to remove the power that has existed since the 1940s for a Minister to modify a boundary commission's recommendations.

In the House of Lords, we accepted or made a number of amendments on both parts of the Bill. We accepted and made technically effective an amendment in part 1, which relates to the holding of the referendum, that would allow the date of the referendum to be moved if practical reasons made it impossible or impracticable to proceed on 5 May. We brought forward an amendment of part 2 on Report to change the consultation process, on the Boundary Commission's recommendation, so that it includes public hearings. The hearings are intended to deal with the concern raised about the need for an oral element in the consultation process. We believe that they will provide an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their views, but in a way that will allow more effective engagement than the old, legalistic inquiry system.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I do not agree with the Minister that there was ample time to discuss the matter in this House; the reason for the prolonged debate in the other House was the insufficient time here. On the oral hearings, will he tell the House how many such hearings will take place and-there is a Welsh dimension to this-whether they will take place in people's local communities or just in large towns?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he knows as well as I do, and the view is shared by everyone in the other place, that there was an organised filibustering campaign, which is unprecedented in the way in which the other place conducts its business and of great concern to all those who value its self-regulating nature. That view is not only held by me, but shared across the other House. On his second point, we propose that there will definitely be some public hearings, and there will be up to five in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and each of the English regions. We will allow the boundary commissions to use their discretion to decide where they hold the hearings so that they can reflect the issues that people will raise.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill, as proposed by the Government and as it left this place, contained no provision for an oral process at all. The Government listened carefully to the proposals made in the other place and brought forward those changes, which were accepted without Division. He will also know that his colleagues in the other place then suggested effectively taking us back to the very legalistic process. A full debate was held and the other place decided that that was not an appropriate method and that it was content with the public hearings that we proposed.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

The Minister has made the outrageous claim that there was filibustering. I attended the debates several times in the early hours of the morning to watch the noble Lords debating the issue and I am surprised that he regards some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place, such as Lord Tyler and others, who tabled amendments which were then accepted in the early hours, as having filibustered. Does he think that it was only Labour peers who filibustered, or does he make that claim just because he was forced to wait for his Bill?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

There is a general acceptance in the other place, not only among Conservative peers and those supporting the Government parties, but from many Cross Benchers, that the behaviour, not of the House of Lords but of a small number of former Labour MPs who have gone to the other end of the building, was unacceptable.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Community councils in my constituency have discussed the removal of the right to make oral representations in public inquiries on parliamentary changes in conjunction with the presentation of information to them from the Boundary Commission on local council boundary changes. It will still be possible to consider local council boundary changes in a local public inquiry, so why is it wrong for a parliamentary constituency to have the right to a public inquiry over the most fundamental changes to boundaries since the 19th century?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people's ability to have their say in person. Such provision was not in the Bill originally, but we listened carefully to the debate in the other place, and there were a number of very good arguments. Among others, Lady de Souza and Lords Pannick and Wolff were of the view that it was important to allow local people to have a say, so we tabled a Government amendment and an associated new schedule enabling an outlet for local opinion, and that was included in the Bill.

The proposed changes were accepted without a Division in the other place, but I have said-I think, accurately-that there was then an attempt effectively to turn that process of public hearings back into the largely discredited legalistic inquiry process. There was a debate, but the other place, having decided that it did not want to accept the idea, was content with our proposal for public hearings.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

I do not agree that the proposals before us are anything like proper inquiries, but let us assume that the Minister is right and they are concessions. Does he not accept that Wales loses 25% of its Members while the rest of the United Kingdom loses 7%? Does he not think, therefore, that there should be more such assurance in Wales than in other parts of the country?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, which is that public hearings are different from the old discredited system of local inquiries, he is spot on. They are designed to be different, because the academic evidence is very clear: the old system of public inquiries did not lead to an improvement in the boundaries.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am happy to take interventions, but let me at least answer the right hon. Gentleman first. Then, of course, I will take the hon. Gentleman's point.

On the right hon. Gentleman's point about Wales, he is quite right that Wales's share of the House of Commons will fall from 6% to 5%, but we debated the issue in this House, the other place debated the representation of Wales, and both Houses decided that the current over-representation of Wales is not acceptable. All parts of the United Kingdom should be treated equally-

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

We will get on to the Isle of Wight in due course, but the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the other place tabled and supported an amendment to treat the Isle of Wight differently, so it is no good him chuntering from a sedentary position.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we heard last week from Professor Ron Johnston, who listed examples of case after case where public inquiries and the voices of local people had changed the results of Boundary Commission studies. Mrs Laing will back that up. There is no argument that the system is somehow discredited; it is a proper voice by which people can have their say.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The Government accept the argument, and accepted it in the other place, that we should have a process in which local people, particularly, can have their say. That is why we brought forward the proposal for public hearings-

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Let me just answer the hon. Gentleman's point first. Then, I shall try to take points from Members according to the order in which they rose.

Having read other contributions from Professor Johnston and his colleagues in their British Academy report on the matter, I note that they made it quite clear that local inquiries resulted in little change, and that those arguments raised at local inquiries which had not already been raised in writing did not have any bearing on the result.

We listened carefully to arguments for allowing people to have their say in person, however, and we particularly wanted a process that was more accessible to the public, not just to political parties and their lawyers. Those in the other place-Cross Benchers in particular-were content with our proposals.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I was also at the Select Committee hearing with Professor Johnston of Bristol university to which Tristram Hunt referred. Professor Johnston actually said that public inquires were usually games for political parties, and that some parties were able to hire expensive barristers. The public were often frustrated by political parties and their barristers, but the hearings that the Bill proposes instead are likely to give the public more say than hitherto over the process.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose argument holds a great deal of water, because that is broadly what the British Academy report said about local inquiries. That report was produced by a team of academics headed up by Professor Ron Johnston, so if that is what he said at the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, it stacks up very well with what he said in writing.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 5:00 pm, 15th February 2011

I strongly welcome these amendments, because it is vital that people's voices are heard, especially those of the people of Cornwall, who mounted a hugely successful campaign about our desire to keep Cornwall whole. I hope that through these opportunities for public meetings, we might yet succeed in achieving that. Does the Minister agree that it would be very desirable to have one such public meeting in Cornwall, given the strength of feeling there?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. It is obviously not for the Government to tell the boundary commissions what to do, but one of the reasons for ensuring that there can be several inquiries in various regions is that the commissions will be mindful of the areas where they suspect there will be considerable public interest. It is fairly obvious to everybody that, in the south-west of England, Cornwall will be one of those places where members of the public, in particular, and of course Members of Parliament, will be very keen to make that case.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

Given that not all of us have been party to all the debates in the other place, can the Minister tell us how local people will have their say? Whatever the Government are saying about localism, I cannot see how, under the new arrangement that he is bringing to the House, people will understand how they are going to have their say. It might be all right for Cornwall, but it might not be for Stoke-on-Trent.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

When the boundary commissions decide to hold their public hearings, they will of course publicise them. We have set out that the commissions will be able at the beginning of those public hearings to lay out the details of the proposals on which they are hearing from local people. I would have thought that the hon. Lady's constituents in Stoke-on-Trent were as capable of participating as those in Cornwall and in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will be happy to take interventions when I have made a little more progress. I think that the House would expect me to do that in a time-limited debate.

We have also amended the Bill to provide that the boundary commissions must publish all the responses to their initial consultation and allow an additional period during which people will be able to make further representations or counter-representations related to the arguments put forward by others. This is the second area where we thought that some good points had been made in the debate, and we acted in response to an amendment tabled by Lord Lipsey on the Opposition Benches. We think that this amendment, in combination with the public hearing proposals, will deliver a consultation process that represents a real improvement not only on the one that was in the Bill originally, but on that in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

We have made other significant amendments to part 2. We have tabled amendments explicitly to empower the boundary commissions to use wards as the building blocks for constituencies-the other place got very exercised about that-and to give the commissions discretion to take account of existing parliamentary boundaries. The amendments respond to concerns about the degree of explicit guidance given to the commissions on what they could take into account. We have accepted an amendment expressly enabling the Boundary Commission for England to take account of the boundaries of the City of London.

In response to an amendment from Lord Williamson, a Cross Bencher, we will require that a review is established after implementation of the new constituencies at the next election to consider the impact of the reduction in the number of seats in this place to 600. There was extensive debate about that in the other place, where we heard all about the fears, largely of those who had been Members of Parliament, that slightly fewer-7.6% fewer-Members of Parliament in this place may place constraints on their ability to do the job. We thought that Lord Williamson's suggestion of a review in the next Parliament to consider the effect of that reduction to see whether there were some lessons that could be learned was very sensible, and we were happy to accept it.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems strange to many Members across the House that we are reducing this House to 600 Members while increasing the size of the unelected House of Lords by 150 peers?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend makes what would be a good point if it were not for the coalition Government's clear commitment to bring forward a draft Bill in the near future-early this year-to reform the other place. If we were not doing that, he would have a solid case, but given that we are proposing to do that, his case falls away and there is just a timing difference.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will give way to my hon. Friend and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Would my hon. Friend be interested to know that some of us are beginning to think, in the light of the forthright position that the House of Lords has taken on the threshold, which we will come to later in the debate, that that House may be more trusted by the electorate than those on the Government Benches?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Mr Deputy Speaker, you would not expect me to be tempted to debate the threshold now, because we will come to it later. I do not agree with my hon. Friend. There is a good case for electing Members to the other place. He knows that the coalition Government have committed to a wholly or mainly elected House. We are in the process of drafting that legislation. From what he says, it is clear that he does not agree with that, but I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you do not want me to go into the case for or against House of Lords reform in this debate.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

There will be an interesting debate on thresholds in due course. On the numbers, is the Minister surprised that it is dawning on people outside the House of Commons that far from being a democratic move, it is pretty anti-democratic, because the Government of the day, whoever they are, will simply have more authority? Given that even the most junior Ministers have a Parliamentary Private Secretary, there will be fewer Back Benchers to scrutinise the Government here and in Select Committees. For Governments, the fewer Back Benchers, the better.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman obliquely raises the issue of the number of Ministers. He knows that we have been clear at this Dispatch Box and in the other place that we know that there is an issue with that. However, we do not think that this Bill is the right place to deal with it, partly because of the issue of House of Lords reform. We will have to tackle how many Ministers there are not only in this place, but in the other place. As well as the number of Ministers, he touched on the number of PPSs, which currently is not regulated. We have made it clear that the Government will deal with this issue, but that this Bill is not the right place to do so.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

This debate also took place in the other place and it was content with our proposals. I do not wish to speculate on the hon. Gentleman's longevity.

Amendment (b) to Lords amendment 27 would require the arrangements for the review into the reduction of constituencies to be put in place between 1 March and 1 November this year. We do not agree with the Opposition's thinking in that amendment, because to assess the effect of the reduction in the number of constituencies we must have seen the effects; we should not speculate about them. We think that the Cross-Bench proposal to have the review after the next election is much more sensible.

We have made a number of more minor, technical amendments, including an amendment to ensure that existing legislative powers to change the date of the poll for Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly elections are not affected by the provisions on the combination of polls on 5 May. That amendment was made in the other place, but in response to concerns raised in this House by Mark Durkan. We have made amendments to apply the Electoral Commission's new civil sanctioning powers for new offences relating to loans; to give the chief counting officer the power to be reimbursed from the public purse for expenses that she incurs because it is economically beneficial to the public for her to do so-that is the debate that we had on the money resolution; to ensure that a single definition of registration officer applies throughout part 1; to place an explicit obligation on the chief counting officer for the referendum to take steps to facilitate co-operation between regional counting officers, counting officers and registration officers; and finally, to provide that an elector who registers or who is already registered for a postal vote at one of the polls combined with the referendum, and who is entitled to vote in the referendum, is automatically registered for a postal vote for the referendum.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

Going back to the point that the Minister made as he rattled through that list, and to the debate that we had a short time ago, will he now confirm, as he did not take the opportunity before, that the Secretary of State will write to returning officers in Scotland to instruct them to begin the count for the Scottish Parliament election as soon as the polls close, and not to delay it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

In response to that debate, which-from memory-was about whether to include in the Bill a power to direct those counting the votes, I said that that would be out of scope and I confirmed that that was the case. If the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about some returning officers in Scotland, there is nothing in the Bill that has caused them to take that decision. It is a decision that they have taken of their own volition. Some returning officers in Scotland have confirmed that they will count overnight and that there is no problem in doing so. Some returning officers have said that they do not propose to do so, but that is nothing to do with the combination of the polls. It is to do with their judgment about how they want to conduct the count.

As I was saying, similar provision about the combination of polls and postal votes has been made for those registered for other forms of absent vote. I believe that the raft of changes made to the Bill, which the Government have accepted, demonstrate that we have been willing to listen and engage constructively with both Houses of Parliament and to agree to all proposed changes to our proposals which we believe were merited.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am afraid I completely disagree with the Minister's interpretation of events over the past few months. I wholeheartedly congratulate their lordships on the process they have engaged in, and I make no apologies for the fact that Labour MPs have been holding the Government to account in this House, or for the fact that in the House of Lords there are people who were elected previously and who are able to bring a degree of expertise to the debates when discussing elections.

I note that yesterday Sky News was reporting that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, would take revenge on Labour peers. Bring it on. In legislation on the reform of the national health service, the reform of schools and public services that everybody depends on, Labour peers down the other end will do as robust a job as they have done on the Bill. If there was anything that showed that the Government have not been acting entirely in good faith, it is today's programme motion, which allows only four hours for 104 amendments to be considered, including the time taken for votes.

I am not sure that my interpretation of what has happened is the same as the Government's. I say to all hon. Members in all seriousness that I fear that many Members who end up voting for the Bill will regret the day that they did so. The Government have bulldozed their way through every convention so far, ludicrously combining two pieces of legislation that should never have been in one Bill-only because that was a way of keeping the coalition together-pushing forward with no pre-legislative scrutiny of a measure that had no electoral mandate, curtailing debate in this House, for the first time ever threatening the guillotine in the House of Lords, then packing the Lords with pliant new Conservative and Lib Dem Members every day and suspending all the normal rules in the House of Lords.

We will rue the way in which the Bill was pushed through and the legislation itself, because we are not legislating on the basis of long-term democratic health for this country, or on the basis of sound principle, but solely so as to meet the partisan needs of the coalition.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suffering from a certain amount of amnesia. When his party was in office in the previous Parliament, there was guillotining all over the place.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

The hon. Gentleman sometimes suffers from amnesia himself. I was talking about guillotines in the Lords. It has been a fundamental principle of the constitutional settlement in this country that the House of Lords is a self-governing House and never has a programme motion.

When there was a Labour Government of just one political party, we never had a majority in the House of Lords. By virtue of how the Government are progressing at the moment, with a large number of new peers being appointed-117 since the general election-they are approaching the point at which they will have an absolutely majority in this House and the other House.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am not going to give way to the Minister on that point, because I know what he is going to say-that it will not give the Government a majority. However, the coalition's statement says that they intend to keep on appointing Members of the House of Lords until the percentage share of the vote in the general election is matched there. That will give a majority to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. If the Minister wants to intervene now, I am happy to give way.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I want to make it clear that we have appointed a number of peers, but that a number of them in the resignation honours list of the former Prime Minister were, of course, Labour peers. Even with the new peers who have been appointed, the coalition Government have 40% of peers, well away from a majority.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

The Minister knows perfectly well that the Government are getting very close to the stage at which they will end up having an absolute majority in both Houses. The vast majority of peers who take part in the daily business of the House and vote with the most regularity are those who take a party Whip. Among those, there is already a majority for the governing coalition. The Labour party never had that when in government. My main point is that we have to have some brake on the Government, especially if we go forward and have an elected second Chamber. Otherwise, government becomes autocracy.

Lords amendment 104, so the Minister would have us think, effectively introduces a real opportunity for local people to have their say on proposals from the Boundary Commission. It was a Government amendment tabled in the Lords, but it was introduced in a way that was not quite as the Minister suggests. In fact, Lord Falconer had tabled an amendment and was prepared to waive it because the Government said that they would return on Report with a full process that would embody the ideas behind public inquiries. In fact, Lord Wallace of Tankerness said specifically that

"the Government's position has been that we are open to considering reasonable improvements to the process, provided that they do not compromise the fundamental principles of the Bill, and that still remains our position."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 26 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. 1069-1070.]

I do not know what fundamental principles of the Bill might mean that local people cannot have an effective voice, but that is what we have ended up with.

Let us be absolutely clear that what the Government propose does not meet the objections made by the Cross Benchers, Labour peers or many others who believe that local people should be able to have a proportionate say after the Boundary Commission has made proposals. For a start, the inquiries will not be local. There will be five at most across the whole of Wales and five in each region. I look forward to going to one of the five in the south-west, covering an enormous region with wide diversity. Each hearing will probably cover about 10 constituencies. I say to Sarah Newton, who spoke earlier about Cornwall, that I do not think there is a chance in hell of local people in Cornwall having their views heard properly in the process. In addition, because of how the Bill is constructed, it will be impossible for the Boundary Commission to do anything about it even if it says that Cornwall should not be split up. The principle of the Bill to which the Minister is so adherent in some parts of the country, but not in all, is that parliamentary constituencies should be equalised-too aggressively, I believe.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Will the hon. Gentleman define "local people"? Is he talking about unelected local people, local councillors or everybody?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I mean all those. There is an important distinction, which, as my hon. Friend Tristram Hunt, who is not in his place, said earlier, was discussed in the evidence that was given to the Select Committee last week. Political parties have their views to express-in the past, some have employed a barrister to express it for them, and that is perfectly legitimate. Sometimes, local councils want to take a view because they have a role in electoral registration and so on, but often local people in a small village, such as Much Marcle or Midsomer-if anyone is still alive in Midsomer-who are independent of any political affiliation, want their voice to be heard. They want to say, "No, frankly, we in Acton Burnell don't"-or do-"want to be in Shrewsbury constituency." We need a process whereby the people of Acton Burnell, where Parliament was held at Michaelmas in 1283, can express their view, and that will be impossible if there are only five hearings across the whole region. There will not be a hearing for each constituency. It is not each constituency that will be considered right or wrong. That is one of the problems.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The hon. Gentleman is being cynical. If the people of Acton Burnell, who are in my constituency, wish to remain there, they can feed that information through to me and I will put that view at the public meeting.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am impressed by the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that all views expressed by anybody in his constituency should undoubtedly, at all times, be expressed solely through him. However, there is another version of democracy, whereby sometimes people disagree with their local Member of Parliament and might want to adopt a different position.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The Minister said that public inquiries are discredited-we obviously disagree with that. However, is not it interesting that in previous Parliaments, we heard no such condemnation of public inquiries from the Conservatives, whether in government or in opposition? It is the first time that that has happened.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Much as I would love to agree with my hon. Friend, I recall previous comments: when people lost the argument at a public inquiry, they tended to hold forth against them; when they won the argument at a public inquiry, they tended to support them. However, in many cases, the Boundary Commission's original proposals were overturned through public inquiries because of the voices of local people, such as the people of Acton Burnell, of Much Marcle and so on. Sometimes it happened because of the intervention of political parties. None the less, the end result has been constituency boundaries that, in the main, are accepted by the people who are represented.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for boundary inquiries. My constituency was preserved 27 years ago by a long public inquiry. However, I am not sure whether the Minister grasped my earlier point. In Wales, there will be a 25% reduction in seats-I was not arguing about the principle, but making the point that the disruption to the political and constitutional landscape in Wales is hugely greater than in other parts of the country. We should therefore have more public hearings in lieu of the public inquiries.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, there are some specific concerns. For example, it is possible that, as a result of the boundary changes, we would end up with no single constituency in Wales with a Welsh-speaking majority. That is not of particular concern to my constituents in the Rhondda, but it is of concern to the British Parliament that that voice could be lost.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

One of the reasons for my losing faith in the old system of public inquiries is that, for all the arguments that the Conservative party presented for a fairer distribution of constituencies, we finished up with a manifestly unfair distribution. We need a speedier system, which can use fresher and more up-to-date data to deliver a fairer distribution of constituencies. That should happen.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

It might be that the Conservative party lost because it did not advance good arguments, which goes back to my earlier point.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

If the hon. Lady does not mind, I ought to make a little progress.

One other significant problem with the Government amendment on hearings and inquiries is that there will be no process of resolution. There will be two days of hearings to consider some 10 constituencies, and a rush of people will come, make their case and leave. At the end, there will be only a verbatim transcript of what was said. There will be no process by which somebody weighs the arguments on different constituencies or the whole area, no summing up, and no report written for the Boundary Commission.

That will give the Government two problems. First, it will almost certainly lead to a much higher number and greater frequency of judicial reviews, which was raised in the House of Lords by two noble peers. Lord Woolf said:

"If there is no provision for an inquiry"- by which he meant a proper inquiry, not just a hearing-

"I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review...If this amendment is not accepted, the issues that will be sought to be raised on applications for judicial reviews are ones which the courts will find peculiar difficulty in dealing with."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 26 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. 1067.]

The real danger, therefore, is that we will end up with a slower, more complicated process, because instead of taking their argument to the public inquiry, people will simply take it to court. That will be expensive, so those who can afford it will do better out of the system, and the process will be delayed, which the Government are keen to avoid on principle.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 5:30 pm, 15th February 2011

The hon. Gentleman just said something that simply is not true. He said that no one will weigh up the arguments that are put at the public hearing, but that will happen. The boundary commissioners will look at the oral evidence and the written representations, weigh them up and make a judgment. Mr Speaker is of course the ex-officio chair, but the deputy chairman of the commissions is a High Court judge-someone who is legally qualified and perfectly able to chair a process that makes such decisions.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Lord Pannick made similar points to the ones I just made. He said:

"It is absolutely inevitable that the introduction of such a procedure will exacerbate rather than diminish the sense of grievance that has led people to make representations in the first place."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 8 February 2011; Vol. 725, c. 143.]

People's sense of grievance will be exacerbated because they will make their arguments not to an independent person who weighs them up and submits a report to Boundary Commission, but third hand to the Boundary Commission, which, as the Minister says, will then make the decision. That will lead to a greater sense of grievance about the structure of parliamentary constituencies. I say this to Government Members: every single one of you will go through that process, and you will rue the day if you do not change the proposed system.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises that his answer to my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin exactly explains why the old system was dominated by clever lawyers and barristers, and clever political argument, and why it must be changed-it had nothing to do with local people. The hon. Gentleman just admitted as much.

The hon. Gentleman's point on judicial review is a strong one. Does he agree that judicial review, and therefore delay and uncertainty, will be stopped if the Bill is certain and precise? That is why we cannot allow, for example, Lords amendment 19, which mentions circumstances of "an exceptionally compelling nature". That is imprecise, but it is our duty to produce precise legislation, and thereby to obviate the necessity for judicial review.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Large parts of the Bill are not sufficiently precise, and the Opposition have tabled amendments to improve the quality of the legislation. She is a member of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, but I am not sure whether she heard Professor Johnston's evidence last week- [ Interruption. ] I see that she is brandishing a document, like Excalibur. My reading of his evidence is that he felt that, in certain situations, the Acton Burnells of this world could effect change. We want that to be possible under the new system. We want the people of Cornwall, if they want to, to say categorically, "We do not want to cross the Tamar in the creation of a constituency." However, there is no provision in the Government's Bill, either for that voice to be heard effectively and transmitted to the Boundary Commission, or for the commission to act upon it. The commission can do absolutely nothing to act upon it because it is bound by the 5% rule, which is why I hope that the hon. Lady will support the 7.5% rule. If she has a way of improving the provision so that it is more precise, I would be delighted to sit down with her later and draft a new version.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Is not the problem with the process that, in principle, after the public hearing, the High Court judge chairing the original boundary commission is effectively the appeal judge to his own decision? I cannot think of any other process in administrative or public law in such an unsatisfactory situation.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My hon. Friend makes a perfect point. He is absolutely right. Someone cannot be judge, jury and appeal judge of their own decision. The danger is that people will go to court to try to resolve the problem. That is inevitable. All the Cross-Bench lawyers who spoke in the Lords debate made that precise point. That is why we have tabled an amendment to a Lords amendment-I hope that we can divide the House on it, unless the Government are minded to accept it-that would make it clear that public inquiries are intended not just to allow somebody to make a representation, but to effect change if necessary.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because we are on a time-limited debate and I have already given way to him once. He knows that I nearly always give way to everybody.

We have also tabled amendments to Lords amendment 27, which would allow for the creation of a committee after the next general election in June 2015 to consider the effects of the reduction of seats from 650 to 600. It is our fundamental assertion that it would make far more logical sense first to consider the role of MPs, what their job is and therefore how many MPs we need, and then to draw up the boundaries, rather than the other way around. That is why we have tabled amendments to that effect. As we have suggested many times before-Conservative Members have said this as well-there is no electoral mandate for the reduction from 650 to 600. There is no logic behind it and no Minister has ever been able to come up with a reason that figure has been chosen, other than, we suspect, the fact that if we went down to the original Conservative manifesto proposition of 585, we would lose another wodge of Liberal Democrat seats, and consequently- [Interruption.] I merely suggest to hon. Members that they might choose to table amendments to take us down to 585. However, we do not accept the way in which the motion has been advanced.

I want to refer briefly to two other issues. One is the matter to which the Minister referred in his swift run-through of minor amendments made: the issue of postal voters raised when we discussed the matter in Committee of the whole House. If someone is registered for a postal vote for an election in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland, will they automatically get a postal vote for the referendum? As I understand it, that is now to happen- [Interruption.] Actually, I know because I read the Electoral Commission's report on it. Some people are concerned that others will by dint of that receive two postal votes for the referendum, because some people are registered in two places, including many MPs, who might be registered at their flat in London as well as in their constituency. They might be registered in both of those for postal votes and might then get two referendum ballot papers. That is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed. It was discussed in Committee.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That is no different from the existing system, in which those on two electoral registers might get two ballot papers, but it is very clear-Members of Parliament will be as aware of this as anyone else-that voting twice in the referendum would be a criminal offence, as would voting twice in a general election, and I am sure that no Member of this House would want to do such a thing.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

The Minister is being querulous. I was not suggesting that anybody wanted to do that, but there are some unscrupulous people out there who are not Members of this House who might want to do such a thing. The danger is that we will open ourselves up to an element of fraud.

My final point is about Lords amendment 18, tabled by Lord Tyler, which adds a criterion that the Boundary Commission can look at when considering the new boundaries that it draws up, namely the boundaries of existing constituencies. I am sure that all hon. Members think it a sensible idea for the boundaries of existing constituencies to be borne in mind when drawing up new constituency boundaries. I am delighted that on that, if nothing else, we agree with the Government.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There are about 11 minutes left, so brief speeches would be welcome.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I will be extremely brief, because I come here naked, without a formal speech to give. All I would say in response to the two Front-Bench speeches that we have heard is that I think that the Lords did an absolutely magnificent job. The Bill has been rushed through this House in haste, and the Lords did exactly what they are meant to do, which is to act as a reforming and revising House. We will ignore some of their recommendations this evening at our peril.

The Prime Minister is not one for taking revenge against those who disagree with him, or perhaps delay his ambitions. I therefore disagreed with the shadow Minister when he quoted Sky News and said that the Prime Minister was gearing up great armies to swoop down on the House of Lords and duff them up a bit. However, I am concerned about the vague promises made by those on my side of the House about setting up a commission to review whether reducing the number of Members of Parliament to 600 is a good idea. This really should have been done by now, as part of the work of a far wider cross-party commission, bringing together all parts of the House to look at the proposals, because we are talking about fundamental constitutional reform. If such reform is to be successful, it will need to carry the support not just of Members of Parliament but of our constituents.

Our constituents will be concerned about what they are seeing, because in essence we propose to reduce the size of the House of Commons by roughly 10%. We do not propose to reduce the number of Ministers, and we are increasing the number of peers by 150. I am sure that some proposal or other will be made to address the question of the House of Lords-there might be a proposal for an elected upper House-but that could be kicked into the long grass and become a third-term aspiration for this coalition Government.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will be brief in my intervention, given the time limit. As my hon. Friend has said that he thought that the House of Lords did a good job, he should know that the proposal for a review after the next election was made by Lord Williamson, a Cross Bencher. It is a proposal that we agree with, and it had broad appeal in the House of Lords, not just for those who take a party Whip, but for Cross Benchers. I hope that on that basis my hon. Friend will welcome the proposal, which the Government accepted, and which we propose to accept in this House.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I would say to the Minister that we should have shown more foresight in this House, and addressed those issues here before passing them over to the House of Lords.

I conclude by saying that I support any movement and organisation in this House that is difficult, and makes some attempt to resist the will of the Executive.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Of all the appalling aspects of this piece of legislation, for me the abolition of local public inquiries is quite the worst. No party ever proposed to abolish them before the general election. If the parties now in government had a particular concern about public inquiries, I would have expected them to express it in manifesto commitments on which the electorate could have given their verdict in the general election. However, it is only since the general election that the issue has been raised.

When the idea was raised, I was anxious to obtain the views of local people in my constituency. I highlighted to community councils-the equivalent of parish councils in my constituency-the fact that the right to deliver oral representations to a public inquiry was about to be abolished. My letter to those community councils was considered at the same time as a report from a boundary commission relating to local councils. Representations had been made by councillors of all political parties objecting to boundary commission proposals for local councils. The community councils were most concerned about the local council provisions. They then saw my letter, and became aware that the right to make representations about a parliamentary boundary change was to be taken away from them.

In Wales, public inquiries will continue to be held on matters relating to local councils and Assembly seats, but they will be removed for matters relating to parliamentary seats. The only reason why they are being removed is the electoral deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who want to remove those public inquiries because they need to get the changes through by the next general election. That is why this huge constitutional Bill was not delivered in draft; it is also why many of us on both the Opposition and the Government Benches had our right to make speeches on important issues removed through the use of the guillotine when these matters were considered before Christmas.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

My hon. Friend is rightly highlighting the implications of this provision for Wales. In the context of Northern Ireland, the Bill still ignores the fact that constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly are exactly co-terminous with parliamentary constituencies. The Boundary Commission's terms of reference do not allow it to address Assembly considerations, but it will be the implications of the Bill for the Assembly that will prompt people to call for local inquiries. Villages will be cut off from their hinterland, which will raised geo-sectarian issues. Those are the controversies that people will want to put in front of a local inquiry, but the Bill will remove their right to do so.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point about Northern Ireland, and I can speak for my constituency in Wales. The Bill will have profound implications for communities across the United Kingdom. In due course, the Boundary Commission will reveal the proposals and people will see what they are. Only at that stage will people will realise the true horror of the Government's proposals. They represent the antithesis of any form of localism, and they will take away responsibility from local communities.

The dripping sanctimony that we used to hear from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives about localism is in marked contrast to their appalling unreadiness to listen to any arguments about the Bill. They should be deeply ashamed of this legislation. All legislation should be made for the long term, and should carry as much cross-party consensus as possible. Members who support the Bill will have to explain to their constituents why they will no longer have the right to make oral representations on any proposed changes to their local constituency. Those Members will rue the day that they voted for this legislation.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Walker that this whole matter is being rushed. If there is one thing that should not be rushed, it is the prospect of constitutional change. The pressure of time on our proceedings on the Bill arises solely from the Government's desire to achieve the date of 5 May for the referendum. That date is cemented into the bit of the coalition agreement that was not published, and it exists purely for political purposes. This is a purely political device, perhaps to try to get a yes vote, or to try to boost the Liberal Democrat turnout at the local elections being held on the same day. Let me be absolutely blunt: there will be barely 11 weeks between the Bill receiving Royal Assent and the referendum, even though the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 stipulates that there should be a period of six months in which to prepare for a referendum.

This referendum is being indecently rushed. Unfortunately, Lords amendment 2, which proposes that the date should be changed, does not do the trick. It does not require the date to be changed. I do not know whether the Government intend to accept that amendment, but it would have no practical effect. The House of Lords has made clear its discomfort with the fact that the referendum was to be held on the same date as the local elections and the Assembly elections. I will not detain the House on that Lords amendment if there is no Division, but I wish to draw attention to the fact that this is a shoddy way to conduct a referendum. It is unconstitutional, it is political-deeply political-and it is not an objective way to address this issue. It will undermine the value of any referendum result, and I shall certainly support a later Lords amendment to address the problem.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 5:45 pm, 15th February 2011

It is worth putting on the record the fact that, as my hon. Friend Stephen Williams said, the evidence from academics such as Professor Ron Johnston is clear. They said that in most cases inquiries made little impact, and they clearly saw them largely as an exercise in allowing parties to seek influence over the Electoral Commission's recommendations. They also said that it would be "a major error" to assume that all inquiries of the past largely involved the public having their say. They were very clear about that, and they welcomed what the Government were doing.

On the question of how many public hearings there will be, we have trebled the time for written representations and we have added a four-week period for counter-representations, which we think will be a more effective process than the legal process that existed-

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day ).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 2.

Question agreed to .

Lords amendment 2 accordingly agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F ).

Lords amendments 3 to 7, 9 to 15, 18 and 21 to 104 agreed to , with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendment 31 .