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Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:35 am on 18th November 2016.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 11:35 am, 18th November 2016

I agree that at a time when, regrettably, there is a rather weak Opposition, and when there are, as it happens, many very enterprising Government Back Benchers, not all of whom are willing to go along with everything, we will get cases in which the Government Back Benchers do perform a very important role in holding the Government to account. However, that is due to the quality and not the quantity of the contributions that are made by my hon. Friends on the Back Benches. We could have hundreds of lemons sitting here and not having the slightest effect on the Government of the day, or we could have five, or three, very effective Back Benchers who could cause very considerable trouble for the Government of the day. It is about quality, not quantity.

I want finally to address the interesting point made by Paul Flynn, whose argument was different in kind from that of the hon. Member for North West Durham and the other speakers. I hope he would agree that I am not doing his argument any injustice if I say that he was arguing, first, that there are many large constitutional deficiencies in Britain today—a proposition with which I abundantly agree—and secondly, that it makes no sense to try to change one particular element of the whole picture, though he admitted that it was an element that probably did require change, in the absence of an overall and thoroughgoing change of the whole system.

That is a very serious argument, but it is also very seriously wrong. I think it is wrong for two reasons: first, practically, and secondly, theoretically. Of course, in the end, the practical argument matters more than the theoretical one. The practical truth is that we are not going to get the kind of constitutional change that I think he, and certainly I, want any time in the near future. I personally was partly responsible for the total failure to secure the reform of the House of Lords. The House of Lords, in its current structure, is a wholly indefensible object. No rational human being could possibly argue that it is a good idea to have a legislature constituted in the way that the House of Lords is constituted. Indeed, I never heard anybody, in the whole of that debate, make an argument in favour of the House of Lords as currently constituted, except that they thought it was the lesser evil. What they meant by that varied. Some of the people I failed to convince said that what is better about the House of Lords is that it is totally useless, so it cannot do anything, and so the House of Commons reigns supreme. Some said that what is better about it is that it is not another House of Commons. Some said that what is better about it is that it cannot intervene in such a way as to prevent the Government of the day having their will, or create the kinds of checks and balances that I suspect that the hon. Gentleman wants, and certainly I want, to see in our constitution.

There were many reasons why people defended the House of Lords, all of which were of the character that things as they are indefensible, but less bad than they would be if we had a properly elected Chamber at the other end of the building. They were a rainbow coalition of people with different points of view on just that one point about the reform of the House of Lords, which made it quite impossible. There was a fascinating interchange between my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and Opposition Members, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, about whether we had to withdraw the proposal. By golly, we had to withdraw it, because we had done the sums and we knew perfectly well that we were going to get nowhere near being able to carry it through. This was something that had been in the manifestos of both the two largest parties, and was the primary goal, once AV—the alternative vote—had bitten the dust, of the minor party in the coalition. All three parties had it in their manifestos, and one of them really cared about it, yet we could not even get that through.

Therefore, the chances of getting through major constitutional reform to create a system of checks and balances based on the separation of powers in a written constitution, which are things this country certainly needs, are very dim indeed. In fact, my guess is that some decades—possibly some centuries—from now, people will still be standing in this place talking about those issues. If we were to wait for that before making incremental change, we would have registers that are 50, 100 or 200 years out of date. That would not, practically speaking, be a sensible way to proceed.