I beg to move,
That, notwithstanding the provisions of
but the Bill may not be reported from the Committee before this House has passed a Money Resolution, for which the Queen’s Recommendation has been signified, in relation to the Bill.
Here we are again, debating the same issue: by all accounts, according to custom and practice and convention in Standing Orders, the position is, quite simply, that a money resolution follows a private Member’s Bill, but my hon. Friend Afzal Khan has still not been given a money resolution for his Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2017-19. However, the motion makes a slightly different proposal, so I hope that the House can agree to it. It proposes that we can debate the Bill before the Report stage, at which point it will be given its money resolution.
Let me deal first with the Bill itself, and then with some of the objections that have been expressed by the Leader of the House and others. I hope that by the end of my speech, I shall have persuaded Members that the motion should be passed. The Bill fixes the size of Parliament at 650 MPs, it fixes the allocation in Northern Ireland at 18, and it keeps the areas as allocated in 2011. It allows for a 7.5% variation in the electorate. A report must be submitted before
Perhaps I can give the hon. Lady a very good reason. She may be familiar with the e-mail that Members received on
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his speech. I will address that point later in my own speech.
The Bill had the support of the House, so it proceeded to its next stage; but then it was thwarted—not once, not twice, not thrice, but six times. The first issue raised was that of costs. The Leader of the House said that it would cost £12 million, but, as I have said before, the instructions to the Boundary Commission were flawed. It was instructed to make the electorate numbers fit the figure of 600, without being given any explanation or evidence for the use of that figure. To save costs, the Bill proposes that the commission should report every 10 years, but the Government want to scrub that and require it to report every five years.
I want to know why the Government consider 600 to be an appropriate figure on the basis of an old electoral register.
Obviously Ministers are drawn from Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the number of MPs is reduced but the number of Ministers is not, a considerable amount of power will shift from Parliament to Government? If the Government’s proposal were even-handed, the number of Ministers would be reduced so that power would not be transferred from Parliament to the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will be drawing on it. Let me add, however, that as early as tomorrow we will see the effect of an overbearing Executive, and will see why it is so important for Members to be able to hold the Government to account.
If the Bill were allowed a Committee stage as a result of the motion, the debate on my hon. Friend’s Bill could explore the reasons for it. The Government could table new clauses and vote against clauses in the Bill, as many Conservative Members have suggested. Amendments could be tabled, too. This motion would allow that to take place so that hon. Members on both sides would be aware of why the Government object.
My hon. Friend Peter Kyle must be psychic as I am now going to touch on the point he made. I have asked this previously, but will the Leader of the House confirm in relation to the payroll vote whether there will be a reduction in the number of Ministers and what costs will be saved by a reduction in the payroll vote? There is more work to be done as we leave the European Union and post-Brexit both for Parliament and for the Executive, but this means that the Executive will dominate Parliament, and if costs were an issue, ministerial numbers would also be reduced. However, the Government are incurring more costs in Parliament. What are the costs of the peers? In the last seven years, 260 have been appointed.
My second point—[Interruption.] I do not know if that was an intervention. The Leader of the House refers to things being done on a case-by-case basis. What is that, and since when do the Government decide which Bills ought to be progressed? She seems to have come up with a new case-by-case basis Standing Order. I have checked the latest edition of the Blue Book—May 2018—and there is no entry for “case-by-case basis.” This means that the Government are twisting convention by saying they will decide which Bills are worthy of a money resolution. All Bills should be treated fairly, which is the basis of the convention.
Why is there this sudden interest in money resolutions from the Labour party? I cannot find a single instance of the Labour party in government looking to change the rules surrounding money resolutions, so is it simply for political expedience that this motion has been introduced today?
The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous lawyer so he will know we are talking about the present. We are talking about money resolutions and about other Bills that are also stacked up, and it is a convention of the House, here and now, that the Government should provide money resolutions.
How can the Government justify picking and choosing which Bill gets a money resolution? This is not an elected dictatorship. It appears that the Government are acting in the same way here, by thwarting the will of the House, as in the abusive process that we saw last Friday on the upskirting Bill. I hope I can help: it is a bit like England finishing its qualifying round having won its league and FIFA saying, “I’m sorry, but we won’t allow you to go through; we’re going to deal with this on a case-by-case basis.” That would be an outrage: if England are at the top of the league, England should go through.
This is a serious issue because it goes to the very heart of our democracy. Some 2.1 million people have been left off the register and have not been included in the Boundary Commission’s dealings. This is an especially serious issue as the boundary changes appear to favour one party. We must remember that the current Government are a minority Government governing only with a confidence and supply agreement.
The Government have wilfully plucked a figure out of the air, have manipulated the electoral register and taken 2.5 million people off it. The constituencies have no basis, so the Bill of my hon. Friend Afzal Khan—[Interruption.] If the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith, Conservative Members wants to make a contribution, she can do so when I am not on my feet.
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot interrupt himself when making an intervention while referring to a sedentary comment from the Conservative Benches, but I will allow him to finish his perfectly reasonable intervention.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that the Boundary Commission is an independent body that is completely separate from any political considerations? It is not run by politicians. It is carrying out a thorough review, on the instructions of this House, in order to do the right thing for our constituents and for taxpayers. How can she suggest that there is any political consideration involved in the body’s work?
No one is talking about political interference. We are talking about the initial instructions that were given to the Boundary Commission, which were based on flawed instructions.
While we are still on the issue of the size of constituencies, does my hon. Friend recognise that there are a number of constituencies—mostly, though not entirely, inner-city ones—in which the population is far greater than the registered population? I declare an interest here, because my own constituency has a population twice the size of the registered population. This is only going to get worse with the arbitrary reduction to 600 Members, further reducing the connection between Members of Parliament and those they serve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We deal with cases that go beyond those on the electoral register. For example, we deal with whole families, including children, following the cutbacks in advice services. We still have to deal with those cases.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that there are variations in the propensity of certain groups in the population to appear on the electoral register? For example, there is an 80% propensity for older women from the home counties to be on the register, compared with only a 20% likelihood for young black men in inner cities to be on it.
Further to those last two points, would my hon. Friend acknowledge that the amount of constituency work required from a Member often bears no relation to the number of people on the electoral register? I dare say that about a third of the people who come to my surgeries for advice and support are not registered to vote.
I absolutely agree. All hon. Members know that we deal with such issues and cases, and that we cannot turn people away, because we are often the last resort.
I believe that the hon. Lady is complaining that reducing the number of Members of Parliament will create an unacceptable workload, but when I look at the statistics, I see that British MPs each represent about 90,000 people, whereas Spanish MPs represent about 133,000, German MPs represent 116,000 and French and Dutch MPs represent 114,000. Why should we not be able to do at least as good a job as the MPs in other leading European democracies?
I am not saying that this is just about an increase in workload. I am saying that the Boundary Commission’s ability to look at everything should be unfettered.
My third point is that this is not another argument about not receiving an email. In the last debate on this matter, the Leader of the House said that an email had not been received and that this was just a matter for the Westminster bubble. This is not just about responsive democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton is proactive, and he saw a sense of unfairness. As with any Bill, we try to do something when we see something that is unfair or when we want to close a loophole. That was exactly the reason for my hon. Friend’s Bill. Yes, some constituencies should be equalised —some rural constituencies might not have the same numbers as inner-city ones—but that must involve a proper analysis, and the Boundary Commission’s ability to use the numbers in local areas in a way that fits must be unfettered.
I am listening with interest to what the hon. Lady is saying. Will she clarify something for me? Under the current instructions to the Boundary Commission and the principal legislation, a new review is carried out every five years and the number of seats allocated to each constituent part of the United Kingdom is adjusted according to the number of people on the register. Is it the purpose of her hon. Friend’s Bill to fix in perpetuity—or until such time as the legislation may be amended—the number of seats for Northern Ireland at 18?
Under the Bill, the number would be fixed at 18. The seats would be allocated on the basis of the 2011 instructions, but nothing would be in perpetuity. No Parliament can bind another Parliament, so that could all change. The instructions could change.
Fourthly, what about the procedures of the House? I am sure you will agree that they are important, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Procedure Committee recommended in its 2013-14 report on private Members’ Bills
“that the Government be required to make a written Ministerial statement on the reasons for the delay if a money or ways and means resolution, where required, has not been put to the House within three weeks of a bill being given a second reading.”
The Government response stated:
“It is the responsibility of the Member in charge of the bill to make a request to Government to table any money or ways and means motions that may be required. It is the practice of the Government to accede to such requests… The Committee has not produced any clear evidence to suggest that current arrangements are not working or that a new rule is needed.”
However, the Government have not acceded to the request for a money resolution, and the current arrangements are clearly now not working. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton has been thwarted six times. Will the Leader of the House join me in writing to the Procedure Committee to inform it that the Government are not following the procedure laid down by the Committee and rules of the House?
I was elected on a manifesto that called for a reduction in the number of MPs to 600. How can I look my constituents in the eye and spend the equivalent of 600 nurses’ salaries on something for which they did not vote?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will write to him and place in the Library the list of things that the Government have reneged on since their manifesto.
More importantly, this matter is pressing because hon. Members will have received an email from the Boundary Commission, which says that it wants to report before the conference recess, so this is not about the Westminster bubble. Hon. Members were elected to be the guardians of democracy. Now more than ever, we need to stand as beacons of fairness, upholding democratic values and doing what is right. I hope that hon. Members will support the motion.
I welcome the chance to respond, yet again, on the subject of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. The House will be aware that I have already responded to both an urgent question and an emergency debate about the Government’s approach to the private Member’s Bill introduced by Afzal Khan, in addition to responding to questions at business questions. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to outline, once again, our approach to private Members’ Bills, and to the hon. Gentleman’s Bill in particular, before turning to the specific terms of the motion.
The boundary commissions began the 2018 parliamentary boundary review in 2016 and are due to report the final recommendations to the Government later this year—within just a few sitting weeks. This Government have made a commitment to continue with that boundary review, which was voted for by this House, and it would be inappropriate to proceed with the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill at this time by providing it with a money resolution. The Government have committed to keeping this private Member’s Bill under review, but it is right that we allow the boundary commissions to report their recommendations before carefully considering how to proceed.
As I said in the emergency debate on
I will repeat it if the hon. Gentleman did not hear it, but I just carefully explained that the Government bring forward money resolutions for private Members’ Bill on a case-by-case basis. It is precisely because this House voted for the 2018 boundary review that we must wait until that work is finished before deciding how to progress with this private Member’s Bill.
With one review under way, plus an incomplete review from a previous Parliament, the review proposed by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton would be the third review of boundaries and would push the total cost of reviewing boundaries towards £18 million. The Opposition may not have a problem with unnecessarily spending £18 million of taxpayers’ money, but the Government certainly do. That is our position, and we look forward to seeing the boundary commissions’ recommendations in the coming months.
The Leader of the House seems to be saying that one of the reasons why the Government will not table a money resolution is the amount of money the Bill would cost. I do not know whether she is inadvertently misleading the House, but the reality is that tabling a money resolution does not mean the law will pass. What then happens is that the Bill can be considered in Committee, on Report and by their lordships. The issue here is that the Government are running scared because they know a majority of Members of this House support the Bill introduced by Afzal Khan, so they are trying to kill it in Committee. This is not about money; it is about parliamentary procedure being subverted.
I will come on to procedure, but the hon. Gentleman simply is not right. The Government are not killing this private Member’s Bill; we are saying that, until the boundary commissions have completed their work, which will be in a matter of a few weeks—the House voted for the review to take place—the Government will not take further action on a money resolution.
For the clarification of all hon. Members, this is not without precedent. During the 2014-15 Session, the coalition Government did not table money resolutions on two private Members’ Bills. At the time, the then Leader of the House said:
“it is unusual but not unprecedented for the Government not to move a money resolution. There have been previous instances of that under Governments of different parties.”—[Official Report,
On procedure, there is a wider point than just the money. The boundary commissions, as part of their review, have carried out a very democratic process. They have listened to thousands of responses, not just from Members of this House and political parties but from thousands of members of the public. Would it not be an abuse just to throw all that away and start all over again?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. That is the whole point. The Government are saying we will not table a money resolution until we have had a chance to consider the review, which is currently under way and due to report soon. However, this debate is not about the merits of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, and it is not even about the merits of the Government tabling a money resolution on the Bill. This debate is about whether a Committee may have leave to disregard the rules and conventions of this House. This motion seeks to undermine a fundamental principle that is a cornerstone of our constitutional settlement.
The financial initiative of the Crown is a long-standing constitutional principle that allows the Government of the day to initiate financial resolutions. Chapter 32 of “Erskine May” explains:
“It was a central factor in the historical development of parliamentary influence and power that the Sovereign was obliged to obtain the consent of Parliament…to the levying of taxes to meet the expenditure of the State. But the role of Parliament in respect of…expenditure and taxation has never been one of initiation… The development of responsible government and the assumption by the Government of the day of the traditional role and powers of the Crown in relation to public finance have not altered this basic constitutional principle”.
Either the Government of the day have the right to initiate financial proceedings or they do not. The Crown initiative is a binary issue, and this motion seeks to overturn it.
There have been references to the boundary commission review as though there is just one review, but of course there are reviews in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. On a point of process, does the Leader of the House intend to table separate resolutions on each of those Boundary Commission reviews, or will they be taken together?
That is to be confirmed, but the right hon. Gentleman is correct that the boundary commissions of all four nations will be reporting imminently. It has been a huge and very expensive undertaking that absolutely upholds the principles of democracy.
Let us get back to what is under discussion today. The motion seeks to erode the fundamental principle that it is the Crown, through its Ministers, that has the exclusive right of demanding money and of defining the purposes for which that money is required. The core responsibility of the Government is accountability to the taxpayer. The Opposition may not understand that, but we on this side of the House most certainly do.
The motion would allow the Bill Committee to consider the substantive clauses of the Bill, amend the Bill and potentially introduce new material into the Bill. The conventions of the House are very clearly set out in “Erskine May”, which states that
“any financial provisions which”— a Bill—
“may contain must be authorised by a resolution of the House, i.e. a money resolution, before they can be considered by the committee on the bill.”
The financial provisions contained in a Bill—in this case the money clause, which is clause 5—are there on First Reading to indicate that the Crown initiative is needed. The existence of these money clauses, or in other cases the existence of italicised provisions, is the practice by which it is indicated that Second Reading is contingent on a financial recommendation from the Government. This financial recommendation must come before the House or its Committees can proceed with detailed consideration of the Bill’s contents.
If a Committee is allowed to consider the substance of the Bill in the absence of a money resolution, the Crown, through its Ministers, loses its centuries-old right to initiate and define the purposes for which that money is required; putting the power of the Executive into the hands of the legislature.
The Leader of the House is trying to blow this issue out of proportion slightly by making it sound as though we are trying to overturn a years-old, decades-old, centuries-old convention. Is this motion not merely asking to allow a Committee to consider a Bill? If the money resolution did not come by the end of it, the Bill would not be passed. We are seeking to allow Parliament to get on with it. Is the point of an unwritten constitution not to allow flexibility and to understand that in times of need we can change procedure?
The hon. Gentleman walked in late and did not hear the start of the debate. If he read his own motion, he would realise that it seeks to overturn not years or decades but centuries of a very clear convention: that the Government initiate financial resolutions. It could not be clearer, and this Opposition motion, for purely party political reasons, is utterly irresponsible. May I ask: where are the previous Cabinet members from the Opposition? Clearly, they are not in this place because they, having been in government, recognise the constitutional settlement, where Governments decide on the money and Parliament consents to it and scrutinises it.
As I was saying, if a Committee is allowed to consider the substance of the Bill in the absence of a money resolution, the Crown, through its Ministers, loses its centuries-old right to initiate and define the purposes for which that money is required, putting the power of the Executive into the hands of the legislature. This questions the role of the Executive, whichever party is in power. The fundamentals of having a Government—of having any Government—are that they are there to take decisions and to be accountable for those decisions. Taxpayers want and require the Government to be accountable for the way in which public money is spent. That is what it means to be a responsible Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is about a fundamental principle upon which our general elections are run: we set out our manifesto and the public vote on how they want their money spent? The attempt to change that is a fundamental undermining of our democracy in this country.
My hon. Friend is exactly right on that. This Government are responsible for initiating financial transaction resolutions, and the Opposition and Parliament are responsible for scrutinising, amending and reviewing; they are not responsible for initiating resolutions. It is disappointing to waste parliamentary time today explaining this point to an Opposition who really should know better and who, in their actions today, are showing no signs that they would act as a responsible Government.
The motion would set a dangerous precedent, but there would also be further potential consequences of allowing it to pass. First, the scope of any money resolution is one of the factors in determining whether amendments are within the scope of a Bill. The change in practice that the motion seeks to introduce would remove that restriction on what can be considered and voted on in Committee. The Committee would be pointlessly wandering through the Bill, agreeing to clauses —with or without amendments—that may not actually be permitted by any money resolution that may or may not be forthcoming in future. Why should the House foot the bill for whatever the Committee decides?
The House must first provide financial authorisation, if and when the Government are ready to initiate it, and the Committee must then work to agree or amend the Bill in the light of that authorisation. The Committee should not be asking for the House’s retrospective forgiveness; it has to wait for the House’s permission for its money resolution. Ultimately, I would be very concerned with the situation in which the approval of this motion would leave the Bill Committee itself. It would make discussions in Committee theoretical at best, and at worst it would make the whole process farcical.
Secondly, it is worth remembering that once the Committee has been through the Bill, agreeing its provisions clause by clause, the Committee cannot refine those decisions. The motion would not empower the Committee, as the Opposition might seek to argue; it would actually disempower the Committee, giving it a false sense of making progress while in fact damaging its ability to amend the Bill in the light of any developing circumstances that may in future give rise to a money resolution. I question whether all the members of the Bill Committee are fully aware of the terrible damage that the Opposition Front-Bench team are trying to impose on them.
This House runs on its conventions and on the assurance that centuries-old practice and procedure is there to protect the rights of all parliamentarians. The Government absolutely respect the right of the House to establish its own practices and procedures, but that respect must work both ways. A responsible Parliament must also respect the constitutional settlement, the relationship between Government and Parliament and the conventions that underpin the Crown initiative. By undermining all that for party political reasons by tabling this motion, the Opposition show how poorly they understand what it means to be responsible parliamentarians, let alone a responsible Government.
Financial responsibility is at the core of responsible government. Taxpayers have the right to see their Government held to account for how public money is handled, and it is Parliament’s legitimate right to hold the Government to account on that. However, Parliament —in the form of the Opposition or Back Benchers—does not have the right to undermine the Crown initiative on financial matters. Parliament does not have the right to propose taxation; that is a matter for the Government. Nor does Parliament have the right to bypass the need for the Government initiation of tax measures through, for example, Ways and Means resolutions. Parliament does not have the right to impose public spending; it is the Crown’s exclusive right, through Ministers, to propose increases in expenditure in a fiscally responsible way for which the Government are then held to account.
I am gravely concerned about the motion’s longer-term unintended consequences for the separation of powers between the Government and Parliament. Once the lines are blurred on decision making, the role of Parliament in scrutinising and holding the Government to account is put into jeopardy. Ultimately, a line does have to be drawn, and it is drawn under the historic practices of this House, under the constitutional rights of the Crown and under the long-established relationship between Government and Parliament. The line is there whether Opposition Members like it or not.
The Government are elected by the people, and the Government alone have the constitutional right and duty to initiate financial proceedings that are in the taxpayers’ interests, because it is the Government who are accountable to the taxpayer for their decisions and for defining the use of public money. Today, the Opposition are doing nothing more than abusing long-standing constitutional principles and seeking to manipulate the procedures of the House for political ends. At last year’s general election, the people of this great country had the opportunity to give the Leader of the Opposition the chance to be in charge of public spending. They did not take that opportunity. This Government will not allow the Opposition to take that opportunity by stealth, which is what is being attempted through this motion.
Here we go again. Yet another debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill and yet another attempt from the Government to thwart it and stop any sort of progress. I listened carefully to the speech of the Leader of the House, and it was extraordinary. It was a sort of “Know your place, Parliament” assertion of the rights of the Crown, making the distinction somehow that this Government are not going to be accountable to Parliament in whatever this Parliament chooses to do. I have never heard a speech quite like it, and I hope that when the Leader of the House has a look at it in Hansard she will reflect on what she said. I have never known the House to be lectured in such a way about its rights and responsibilities. We are Members of Parliament, elected directly by our constituents, and we come here to make sure that their interest is properly and effectively represented. To be told just to know our place in the House and allow the Government to do whatever they want was quite disgraceful. I hope that the Leader of the House reflects on what she said today.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that providing a money resolution does not spend the money? All it does is allow Members to discuss the Bill line by line. That is what the Government are not allowing.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend David Linden made that point to the Leader of the House. The money resolution does not commit the Government to anything in money terms. It allows the Bill to progress. At any point during that process the Government can come along with new clauses, and might have legitimate grounds for making sure that the Bill is delayed. I accept and respect that, but let the Bill progress for goodness’ sake.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Leader of the House said that the Opposition were given a chance last year to become the Government and did not get it from the electorate, but she should be reminded that she did not get it either. She mentioned the Crown and ancient conventions a lot in her speech. She should remember what happened to a king who defied Parliament.
That is a salutary lesson from the hon. Gentleman. He knows and respects his history, and knows exactly what is being debated here and the impact that that type of speech has.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that he is not an expert on this particular issue; he has just demonstrated that by what he said. There is no obligation on the Government to commit money in a money resolution. A money resolution would allow the Committee stage of the Bill to be given the authority that the Leader of the House suggests this motion would not allow. I looked today at some of the proceedings of the Committee. It is like “Alice in Wonderland” meets “Groundhog Day”, without any progress. The Committee seems to come together and adjourn; as quickly as it sits to consider some of the issues, proceedings are abandoned because there is nothing for the Committee to do. What an absolute and utter waste of time.
The key point is not Parliament’s responsibilities and the distinction between Government’s and Parliament’s roles in the House. The key issue is that the private Member’s Bills system is broken. It may be broken beyond repair. This is the fifth Parliament I have been involved in, and I have never known a Parliament to obsess so constantly and continually about private Members’ Bills. Usually they go through without any real issue or difficulty. The Leader of the House mentioned a couple of Bills under the coalition Government for which money resolutions were withheld. In the periphery of my memory, I remember those Bills, but that was about the first time in my 17 years in this place that the Government withheld money resolutions. We are entering a new sort of territory with this Government weapon to stop the progress of Bills that they do not particularly like. The House should consider deeply the increasing use of this method as a blocking tactic for private Members’ Bills before we continue down such an avenue.
I think I can help the hon. Gentleman a little by explaining why there have been several such examples. It is because private Members’ Bills have started to be used inappropriately by people trying to deliver significant constitutional change, which should properly be done in detail on the Floor of the House. Perhaps that is why the Government have reflected carefully on whether they should allow money resolutions at every stage.
I have a reasonably neat solution in response to the right hon. Gentleman. If the Government do not like private Members’ Bills—if they object to them on constitutional grounds or for whatever reason—they should get up, tell the House and put their case on the Floor of the House. If the House agrees with the Government and finds particular issues and difficulties with a private Member’s Bill, the House can vote against it. If the House says, “No, we do not accept the Government’s arguments”, Members can vote for the Bill so that it passes. That is called democracy. The right hon. Gentleman used to believe in that principle. It is certainly something that I still value.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Mr Harper is underestimating the power of private Members’ Bills historically in this House? They have paved the way for very big social change. For example, the Abortion Act 1967 and the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 by Lord Morris—both very powerful pieces of legislation —came via private Members’ Bills. They have always had a huge and significant impact, so what the right hon. Gentleman says is just nonsense.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to remind us of some of the really important private Members’ Bills in the history of the House. She will remember her colleague, Tom Clarke, who got two private Members’ Bills through Parliament: one on international development and another on disability. We owe a great deal of credit to Tom Clarke for what he did to ensure that those Bills were brought before Parliament. The Governments of the day were not prepared to consider those Bills, but Members of Parliament thought they were important enough to bring to the House, and to spend time and effort on getting them through. There are also really important private Members’ Bills in this Session. My hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil is not here, but his Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill is really important. Again, that Bill has been stalled by this Government refusing to provide a money resolution.
The hon. Gentleman accused the Government of having an aversion to private Members’ Bills, but he also said that he has been here for five Parliaments. In fact, 22 private Members’ Bills were passed in the 2005 Parliament and 31 were passed in the 2010 Parliament. If we include the 2015 and 2017 Parliaments together, more than double the number of private Members’ Bills have been passed than in 2005. That is hardly an aversion to private Members’ Bills.
I do not think that I ever made the charge that this Government have an aversion to private Members’ Bills. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to be accusatory, I will accuse the Government of blocking Bills that they do not like. That is what we are getting to here. There are lots of Government-sponsored private Members’ Bills, a couple of which I have personally sponsored and that I want to see progress, so I am not saying that they have an aversion to them. I think that they value them as much as possible, but the system is broken just now. The current way in which we do this business is not satisfactory, and every Member of this House should be concerned about that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons that the Government, under the current regime, are putting through so many private Members’ Bills is because they skip over the ones that they do not like. In the case of Afzal Khan, his Bill was 13th in the queue. The Government just decided that they did not like it, so they went to the Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Bill of Mr Bone, which was 92nd in the queue. We cannot have a situation whereby the Government decide just to skip over Bills. The Leader of the House spoke about overriding centuries-old tradition, but the centuries-old tradition is that we go to the next available Bill, so it is the Government who are riding roughshod over the procedures of the House.
That is right. I am trying to be helpful to the House, as always. You know me, Madam Deputy Speaker; if I can think of a way in which to bring the House together so that we can try to make satisfactory process, I will offer it to the House. I see it as part of my job, obligation and responsibility as a Member of Parliament to see whether we can broker a solution. I suggest to the Leader of the House that the system is not working. I think that she and I would agree on that. She can nod her head if she wants.
She is not nodding her head; she thinks that it is working satisfactorily. Okay, I may be on my own. In my view, and probably in that of most Members on the Opposition Benches, something is wrong. Something is not working with the system of dealing with private Members’ Bills. There is real disappointment and anger in this House about how all this is working out. This is the third time we have debated it, as the Leader of the House said, and it is not getting any better—if anything, it is getting worse. After her lecture to the House today, it feels a lot worse to Opposition Members.
If money resolutions are a sticking point, how about we try to design some sort of solution? I have tried to suggest this notion to Conservative Members: if they do not like something, they should come here on a Friday to oppose it and get their way; and if they do not get their way, they should accept the role of the House. We are going to have to try to find a way round this. We cannot continually come back to the point where Members secure support for their Bill from this House, believe that they are making progress with it, and then are ultimately blocked by a Government who do not like it and so are not prepared to give it a money resolution.
I do not know how we might do this, but may I suggest to the Leader of the House that we try to get a cross-party solution? I know that it has been suggested that the matter should be put to the Procedure Committee. That has happened twice in my time in this House. We have had the Procedure Committee consider private Members’ Bills, and maybe it should do so again. How about if all the parties got together and tried to see what we could do to ensure that we get round some of these very tricky issues? The current situation is not good enough.
I was out in my constituency campaigning over the weekend. Our constituents look at these sorts of issues and get more and more concerned. We have a particular issue in Scotland. People in Scotland are furious about the disrespect that this Government have shown to our nation in taking about 15 minutes to turn the devolution settlement on its head. However, they are also seeing some of these issues about private Members’ Bill going through. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members do not like it, but this perception is building up. I saw over the weekend that there is bewilderment more than hostility. What is the House of Commons doing? Why cannot we properly debate issues that are really important? Why cannot we consider private Members’ Bills?
What my constituents and most people in Scotland, I think, got frustrated with and annoyed by was the pantomime performance we saw last week of SNP Members storming out of the House, not representing the interests of their constituents or of Scotland. The Leader of the House spoke very well about the importance of the Government keeping control of financial resolutions. I would be interested to know if the right hon. Gentleman would advocate the same proposal for the Scottish Parliament with regard to how the Scottish Government manage similar matters.
First of all, I am not a right hon. Member. For some reason, Scottish National party Members are not made Privy Counsellors, regardless of how long we have served in this House. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the promotion, but I have never actually secured that position.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman had been on the streets in Perth, as I was, on Saturday. He would have seen the deep frustration and anger that there was with this House after the massive disrespect demonstrated to our Parliament—the Scottish Parliament—which secured 15 minutes of debate before its devolution settlement was turned on its head. There is a growing frustration with this House as more and more people, particularly in Scotland, are seeing—because they like watching us speak—how this House is treated. There is real bewilderment about what is going on.
I hesitate to move the hon. Gentleman off one of his favourite topics, but does he agree that there is another fundamental point that is being missed? The current boundary review is inaccurate because its formulations do not include the many extra voters who have gone on to the electoral rolls since the Boundary Commission did its basic analysis. This needs to be done again, and that would strengthen our democracy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that a lot of people want to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will try to make a bit of progress if I could be allowed to do so.
I hear what the Government are saying. Of course, there is the news that we will have the report of the Boundary Commission before we come back in September. However, my feeling—perhaps it is just me again—is that what the House decided on the Bill introduced by Afzal Khan trumps what the Boundary Commission is about to deliver, because it was a democratic decision of the House that favoured his Bill and wanted to see it progress. My understanding is that that should come first. I think that outcomes decided on the Floor of the House—
I believe that outcomes decided on the Floor of the House take precedence over anything that the Boundary Commission review will conclude. As hon. Members have said, there is not a majority for what the Boundary Commission is proposing. At some point, that will have to be tested in the House. The House will either have to agree that we should cut the number of our constituencies to 600 or say to the Government that we need 650 Members.
There are good reasons why the number should stay at 650, and they have been outlined. We will lose our 73 Members of the European Parliament in March next year, so all their responsibilities and duties will have to be prosecuted by Members of this Parliament. The point was also made about the relative imbalance that there would be between Members of Parliament and the Executive if there were 600 MPs, with more Ministers per Member of Parliament. That is a real point. Then there is the absurd circus down the corridor—the House of Lords. We are talking about reducing the size of Parliament, while there is new Member of the House of Lords after new Member of the House of Lords. We have to be very careful about all those things.
The key point that the Leader of the House made today was that this is all about precedent, because it is in “Erskine May” and the Standing Orders of the House that the Government have the right to introduce money resolutions. Let us take that out of their hands. Another solution that the Leader of the House might want to consider is that once a private Member’s Bill passes its Second Reading, a money resolution should be put forthwith to the House. If the Government disagree with the money resolution, they should put forward their reservation at that point, which would allow the House to make a decision. What is the point of this private Member’s Bill purgatory that the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is experiencing? It is not fair to him, for a start. Why can we not do that at the outset of the process?
Lastly, this is about the democratic outcomes of the House and how we do our business. We dispense with that at our peril. We have to look carefully at how we are organised in this House and how it is being observed. Private Members’ Bills are a feature of this House that our constituents like. Siobhain McDonagh mentioned the big, important pieces of legislation that have been passed as private Members’ Bills. We mess with them at our peril. They are broken just now; they are not working. Let us see if we can work together to find a solution that will allow us to continue to enjoy bringing pieces of legislation to the House as ordinary Members and make sure that they are not obstructed by Government. For goodness’ sake, surely we can achieve that.
Order. This is a well-subscribed debate. If colleagues stick to a maximum of nine minutes, we should be able to get everybody in. I call Mark Harper.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be mindful of your injunction and try hard to stick to it.
I am going to do something radical—I will try to stick to the motion—but first, since this is a debate, I want to deal with a number of points that Members have made. I should declare my interest as a member of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Public Bill Committee. We spend very pleasant Wednesday mornings in Committee Room 11, where civilised discussions take place between Afzal Khan, myself and David Linden for the Scottish National party. We gambol around the issues as far as we are able to, staying in order of the motion to adjourn. It is certainly not purgatory.
I will repeat, albeit at greater length, what I said in an intervention on the shadow Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz. We have received a message from the Boundary Commission for England. I received it as a Member representing an English seat, and I presume that the other boundary commissions will write to Members who represent other parts of the United Kingdom, if they have not already, to confirm the process that they have undertaken. The Boundary Commission for England carried out a consultation that was widely publicised. It received more than 35,000 individual responses, which represents a great deal of interest from members of the public. The commission has confirmed that it will report its recommendations to the Leader of the House on or shortly before
I listened carefully to Pete Wishart, but I have to confess that even when I was the Minister taking through the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, I was not overrun by constituents grabbing me to discuss the finer details of that legislation. Clearly his constituents are different, taking a massive interest in these constitutional matters, but it was not my experience that people were hanging on to every detail of such matters.
I thank my near neighbour for giving way. If his constituency was emasculated, as mine was, a different number of issues might have been raised by those said constituents.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the point about the Boundary Commission review is that there has been clear public consultation, with 35,000 responses from participants, meaning that this was a democratic process. The Boundary Commission has undertaken a clear process in coming to its conclusions.
People outside the House may think that September is a long way away, but it is only four full sitting weeks away, so it is sensible that we do what the Government suggest and wait for the Boundary Commission reports to be produced, for the Government to have an opportunity to introduces Orders in Council, and for the House to make a decision. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who did not take an intervention from me, but he was factually wrong in saying that a motion in the House should trump what the boundary commissions are doing. I fundamentally disagree, because the commissions obey an Act of Parliament—the law of the land passed by both Houses of Parliament. I know that he does not accept the other end of the building as a legitimate part of Parliament, but it is until that is changed. Parliament passed an Act and that is the law of the land. That is what the boundary commissions are following, and a motion of the House does not trump an Act of Parliament; only another Act of Parliament can trump it. Fundamentally, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise.
Is not the point that a previous Parliament, which does not bind this Parliament, passed a set of guidelines for the Boundary Commission that this Parliament thinks were not accurate and do not take in the right detail, and that that has bound the hands of the Boundary Commission? We are not complaining about the work of the Boundary Commission but, unfortunately, about the work of a previous Parliament. This Parliament, which is not bound by that Parliament, has agreed that a Bill that would change those requirements should go into Committee. All that we are asking for is a consideration of this Parliament’s views.
I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but he is not right. The previous Parliament passed an Act that remains the law until another piece of legislation changes it. That has not happened. A motion in the House has not in itself changed the law. I shall come on to the point about process.
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will make a little process because I am mindful of Madam Deputy Speaker’s injunction about trying to keep our remarks to nine minutes.
I want to gambol through some of the points made by the shadow Leader of the House, including what she said about numbers. As the Minister who introduced the original legislation, may I say that there is nothing magical about 600? I was asked the question at the time, and it was a manifesto commitment when we were elected in 2010 that we would reduce the size of the House to save money. It was a reduction of about 10%, but we settled on a sensible number rather than a random one. There was nothing magical about it. There was a huge suspicion among Opposition Members that that was some magical number with magical properties. It was not—it was a round number that was significantly lower than 650. The reduction would save a significant amount of money, but there was nothing particularly suspicious about the number.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Opposition’s wish to move from boundary reviews every five years to every 10 years. There was a specific reason why we went for five. There is a choice to be made. My own view is that we can either have infrequent boundary reviews, which will be significant, because there will be a lot of population movement in between, or we can have more frequent boundary reviews which, by virtue of that fact, will be less disruptive because they take lesser population shifts into account. The decision made by the last but one Parliament was to have more frequent boundary reviews that individually would be less disruptive. Of course, the first one—particularly if moving from 650 Members to 600, and if there has not been one for 20 years—is clearly disruptive, but once that has taken place, subsequent reviews will be less disruptive. There is much to recommend in that approach.
I took a lengthy intervention from the hon. Gentleman, so I will make a little progress.
The issue of the so-called missing voters was raised by the hon. Member for Walsall South and in a couple of interventions, including from Nick Smith. Matt Singh from Number Cruncher Politics has done a significant piece of work on this, which was also validated by the Library. There would be an issue if the distribution of new voters who are not on the register used for the current boundary review was significantly different across the country. However, analysis shows that the distribution of new voters on the electoral roll is broadly consistent with the distribution of those on the existing registers. In other words, although the absolute number of voters is different, those voters are not significantly differently distributed across the country, which means that they will not make a material difference to the distribution of constituencies.
It is worth pointing out that we have to carry out a review and draw a line somewhere, and that as soon as we start a review, it will effectively be out of date. The Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton refers to the register for the 2017 general election. That is already out of date because there has been another one. If we take his logic, we will never have a boundary review, because every time we start, a new register arrives and is out of date.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the new legislation to which he referred made it far more difficult for young people to register? That legislation was passed under a coalition Government. One party in that coalition supported an increase in tuition fees having promised that there would be no fees, and the other party knew that its support among young people was minimal to say the least.
I do not agree with that at all. I would argue that the individual electoral registration system that we introduced, which addressed the accuracy and completeness of the register, as well as the fact that we enabled online registration made it much easier for people to register to vote. The vast majority of people who register now do so online, using a very straightforward piece of software that is particularly attractive to younger people. Before each of the last significant electoral events—the European Union referendum and the 2017 general election—significant numbers of people, particularly young people, seemed to have no trouble registering to vote.
I am mindful of your injunction, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that I have taken a number of interventions, let me make my final argument for why the House should reject the motion and what we should do instead. The right way to proceed would be to allow the boundary commissioners to report. The Leader of the House could then consider those reports, bring forward Orders in Council and allow the House to take a decision. If the House decides to accept the Orders in Council, we are done. The boundary review will have been accepted, we will have new boundaries and the problem will be sorted out.
If, for some reason, the House chooses not to do that, there will be a debate about those Orders in Council and the Leader of the House will be able to reflect on that debate. If the Government decide to table a money resolution, we can then consider the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton in the light of that debate, but with one significant change. This is a constitutional measure. When the original legislation was taken through Parliament, it was considered in Committee on the Floor of the House, rather than by a Bill Committee upstairs, meaning that every Member from every part of the United Kingdom could take part.
We should allow such a debate to take place. If the House does not support the boundary reviews and decides that it wants a money resolution and to proceed with the Bill, it should be considered on the Floor of the House so that every Member can contribute, rather than in Public Bill Committee. That is why we should wait. We should look at the results of the boundary review and allow the Government to reflect on the debate that will take place, and if the House chooses not to adopt the proposals, we can then proceed on a more sensible basis. That is why it makes sense to follow the Leader of the House’s arguments, to reject the motion, and to allow the House to consider the boundary commissions’ reports in the usual way.
Order. Just before I call the next speaker, let me be clear. When I said everybody could take nine minutes, that does include interventions. Otherwise, I will have to impose a time limit.
We can all agree that boundary changes are needed. Our current boundaries are based on an electoral register that is 18 years old. There is, however, a question as to how we go about it. We have a boundary review going on at the moment, which is due to report to Parliament in September. The 2017 election gave us a minority Government who have spent the past year hobbling from week to week trying to keep themselves together. This weak Government do not have the support to win a vote in the autumn and push through controversial constitutional changes. The Tory-dominated Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said as much in its recent report. It concluded that the Government “cannot be confident” that the House of Commons will support the implementation of the Boundary Commission’s proposals when they come before us in the autumn.
The question we are faced with now is this: do we let the Government continue in their delusion that if they put off addressing the issue until the autumn the enormous opposition to the current review will magically melt away, or do we deal with reality and put in place a realistic cross-party compromise that delivers new boundaries before the next election? My private Member’s Bill is a serious attempt at the second option, but it has been frustrated by the Government’s procedural manoeuvrings.
My Bill does three major things. First, it retains the 650 MPs we have at the moment. Secondly, it provides for boundary reviews every 10 years. Thirdly, it ensures that the 2 million people who have registered to vote since 2015 have their voices heard in the boundary review. The referendum and 2017 general election saw huge surges in voter participation, primarily among young people. I am passionate that they should be represented in the boundaries that will shape the result of future elections, but the Government are not interested in encouraging participation in our democracy. Recent voter ID pilots disenfranchised legitimate voters, many of whom already faced barriers to democratic engagement. All the while, the Government have been padding out the unelected House of Lords to avoid defeat on proposed Brexit legislation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill. I think it does have some good points. First, on voter ID, in my Woking constituency the turnout actually increased and we had very strict voter ID in place. Secondly, I would like to ask him a question. During all the years the Labour party was in power over the past 40 or 50 years, was there any occasion when it supported a private Member’s Bill on a constitutional or parliamentary boundary issue from a Member of the main Opposition, or, if it passed Second Reading, gave it a money resolution? Any Bill at all over the past 50 years?
I am not sure how relevant that is to this discussion, but I am a new Member and I do not know the whole history.
The Government are happy to increase the size of the unelected Chamber, at greater cost to the public purse, while cutting the elected side and discouraging participation in what goes on here.
On the money resolution, many people are put off getting involved in politics and Parliament because it is so difficult to understand what goes on here. The private Members’ Bill process is arguably the worst culprit. The process is clearly broken. The public were rightly outraged by how easily the upskirting Bill was blocked last week, even when it had the support of the Government. Similarly outrageous is how easily the Government can block a private Member’s Bill, even when it commands overwhelming cross-party support. Today marks 200 days since my Bill passed its Second Reading unanimously. Our Committee has so far met five times. We have had discussions about money resolutions, the financial sovereignty of the Crown, “Erskine May” and the Bishop of Chester, but we have not yet discussed a single line of the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the difficulty of getting private Members’ Bills through. I will have a private Member’s Bill on
I would be quite happy if the House decided to have more Friday sittings.
I never expected to become an expert in such a narrow aspect of parliamentary procedure, but unfortunately I have spent the last few months reading up on money resolutions, rather than working towards a compromise on boundaries. I have learned that there is a clear parliamentary convention that the Government bring a money resolution after Second Reading of a private member’s Bill. In 2015, a Government Minister reaffirmed this, saying that
“once the House has given a private Member’s Bill a Second Reading, the convention is that the Government, even when they robustly oppose it, always table a money resolution”.—[Official Report,
Since their devastating failure at the general election, the Government have gone against their words. Despite money resolutions having been tabled for many Bills further behind in the queue, none has been forthcoming for this Bill. Too weak to defeat my Bill on a vote, the Government are hiding behind procedure. With complete disregard for democracy, this minority Government are abusing their Executive power to defy the will of the House. We have had business questions, points of order, an urgent question and an emergency debate on this already. These have surprised even me by the extent of cross-party agreement. Opposition parties were united in calling on the Government to table a money resolution. Conservative Back Benchers were lining up to condemn their own Ministers.
It is a shame that we have been pushed to table this motion today. It would be much better for the Government to respect procedure, the will of the House and the will of their party, and bring forward a money resolution, but, given the Government’s continued refusal, we have been forced into this position. The Government’s time is up; we must make progress on this important Bill. To honour the conventions of the House and the will of Parliament, Members must support this motion.
I find myself in an unusual position today, because it is a matter of record that I very much support the aims of this private Member’s Bill, but I am very concerned that the motion before the House sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the role of the Government and the Executive. We have heard a lot today about the respective roles of Parliament and the Executive, and it is very important that we understand and uphold the convention of that separation of powers and that those roles are understood and maintained. I may return to that point in a minute.
I do not believe that now is the right time to be cutting 50 Members of this House. I understand the reasons why the coalition Government made that decision. At the time, I was not a Member and I did not think that it was the right thing to do, but I understood why the decision was made. However, the fact is that the world has changed since that Bill was passed. We are leaving the EU. We will be losing 73 Members of the European Parliament and all their work—I understand that we could have a debate about how much work MEPs actually do—will be coming to this place. Therefore, I do not believe that it is a sensible move to reduce the democratic representation in this House by cutting the number of MPs. That is my position.
If we want to cut the size of Parliament, let us start by cutting the number of Members of the upper Chamber. That is where I would begin.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has jumped straight to the conclusion of my speech. I will come to that point in a moment.
This is very much a local issue for me as a Cornish Member.
I want to take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Gloucester West when he said the then Government were trying to bring down the cost of politics by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that argument is undermined by the fact that since 2010 more than 200 new peers have been created?
I understand that point.
In Cornwall, the proposed new boundaries will result in a cross-border seat between Cornwall and Devon. In many parts of the country, people might not understand why that is such a big deal, but it is felt very strongly in Cornwall, and is felt even more strongly now, because in 2014 the Government recognised the Cornish as a national minority under the framework convention of the Council of Europe, saying that doing so would afford the Cornish the same recognition as that enjoyed by the other Celtic peoples of the United Kingdom—the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish—and no one would entertain a cross-border seat between Wales and England or Scotland and England.
Given the protection the Cornish now enjoy under the framework convention, I believe it was fundamentally wrong to have proposed this cross-border seat. If his Bill proceeds, I would ask Afzal Khan to consider a protection for Cornwall like that provided for Northern Ireland, so that the six Cornish seats might be protected and maintained in recognition of the minority status the Cornish now enjoy.
I wish to make a public service announcement, Madam Deputy Speaker. In case other hon. Members wish to make interventions referring to me, I wish to let them know that my constituency is the Forest of Dean, not West Gloucestershire. It could possibly become West Gloucestershire if the current Boundary Commission proposals are voted in, but at the moment it is the Forest of Dean, and very proudly so.
The hon. Gentleman has my full sympathy when he talks about constituencies crossing boundaries. It might sound like a joke to Members, but the fact that the new constituency boundaries would cross over from east Hull into west Hull is felt very deeply by people in my area. There is a strong and long-standing division between the east and the west, yet the new boundaries would take a lump out of west Hull and add it to east Hull. The proposals do not respect the traditional areas.
I would not dare to comment on the sensitivities of Hull, but the hon. Lady has made her point very well.
As I said earlier, we have today discussed the role of the Executive in Parliament, but fundamentally it is the responsibility of Parliament to decide how many Members there should be. It would be wrong for the Executive to try to force through a cut when the new number does not enjoy the support of a majority in the House. It would be undemocratic. I accept the point that a Bill was passed in a previous Parliament to cut the number, but that should not be imposed on the House in the current circumstances. I ask the Government to consider allowing Members a free vote when the boundary proposals are brought before the House, so that we can express our views free from the Whips and look to our consciences in deciding whether this is right for our nation. It would be the right thing for the Government do.
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that his point about Cornwall is shared in Wales, where the proposals is to reduce the number of seats from 40 to 29, which arguably would shift power from Westminster to Cardiff and so have significant consequences for devolution. The situation in Wales is similar to that in the constituency of Emma Hardy. Under the new proposals, there are seats where people cannot get from one end of the constituency to the other without driving through two others on route. Does he accept that this is not a desirable proposition?
The boundary proposals throw up many anomalies in various parts of the country, which, in my view, are very unhelpful and, in certain cases, unacceptable. That is why I think that it would be right to reconsider the proposals.
I will not support the motion, because I believe that it is the wrong way to address this issue. Although I support the Bill, I believe that passing the motion would undermine the Government’s role, for all the reasons that have already been given today. I am content to wait, as the Government propose, to allow the new boundaries to be discussed in the House and for us then to take a view.
If there is a majority in favour of the boundaries, so be it—I will have to accept that—but my hunch is that there will not be. If the House accordingly rejects them, one way to deal with that is to pass the money resolution, and we can then consider the Bill on that basis. I would prefer us not to have to go through all that, but I accept that the right way for the House to address the issue is to allow matters to take their course on that basis. Let us see what people’s views are at the time, and then decide how to proceed. If the private Member’s Bill does make progress, however, it will have my wholehearted support.
Before addressing the specifics of the motion, let me make a general point. I have no problem at all with the argument that constituencies should be of equal size. My concern relates far more to the fact that the Government are proposing that we reduce the number from 650 to 600, which is a completely arbitrary figure pulled, essentially, out of thin air.
Let us get one thing straight. The Government’s arguments for that reduction are completely spurious. They talk about the cost of politics, but we are already set to lose 73 Members of the European Parliament, which will deprive the public of the representation that they provide; and, of course, they are more than happy to continue stuffing the House of Lords to the brim. The whole process is, in essence, a bare-faced gerrymander.
Has my hon. Friend observed that there has been absolutely no word from the Government that they intend to cut the number of Ministers? What they are actually doing is proportionately increasing the size of the Executive as well.
My hon. Friend is clearly psychic, because that is precisely the point that I was about to make. The ratio between Front-Bench and Back-Bench MPs is, in terms of balance, vital to the way in which our democracy works. Back Benchers play a critical role in holding the Government to account. The fewer of them we have, in whichever party happens to be in power, the fewer are able to fulfil their public duty, and that will reduce, critically, the amount of scrutiny that is given to vitally important issues. Arguably the most important issue that our country has faced since the second world war is coming towards us, so the House will have an increased workload, and the role of Back Benchers in holding the Executive to account will become even more important. Workloads will increase for not only for Westminster, but for Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.
There is also a compelling constituency reason to undermine the argument for reducing the number from 650 to 600. There is real concern about the impact of the reduction on the social and cultural dynamics of each constituency. It is crucial for MPs to represent areas with natural communities and shared interests.
I made a point earlier about Hull East and Hull West. There is also a proud fishing tradition among the Hessle Road community in Hull, which goes back for years. The new boundary will divide that community—a community that has existed for hundreds of years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that should be looked at again?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Some absurd things are being thrown up by this review. For example, in my constituency the proposal was to have a boundary line which separated the shopping centre from the high street. It is utterly absurd and ludicrous.
The fact is that wherever we draw the line on a map when driven by a rigid mathematical equation we carve up communities, force unnatural alliances and throw communities together in ways that do not make sense and that end up deeply alienating the people we are elected to represent.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify these critical issues that affect communities all over the country, as Members on both sides of the House have done, but does he not agree that this is precisely why the Boundary Commission is doing its work, during which he and all of us, and members of the public, have had the opportunity to put forward precisely such views, which the commission will consider and then produce proposals?
The fundamental problem with the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument is that this is about the terms of reference that the commission was given: it was given terms of reference based on 600 and on a very narrow quota of 5%. Based on that, the Boundary Commission had its hands tied and inevitably was going to end up with some of the completely absurd proposals we have seen.
Does my hon. Friend also agree with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament, which said that the changes every five years will mean there is great disruption for communities meaning that they never settle down? It will also cost the Exchequer more because there is a five-year rotation. The Bill’s proposal would change that to 10 years, provide safety and security for communities to build, and save the Exchequer money.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It provides that stability and continuity and also, given the 7.5% quota, the changes would not be that radical even on a 10-year basis, so it is an incremental change.
Why are the Government ploughing ahead? The bottom line is that the entire boundary review process has been a bare-faced gerrymander, and that is combined with the use of procedural devices and backstairs manoeuvring to block the will of the House. That is further evidence of the Government’s willingness to abuse the power vested in the them. The Procedure Committee’s 2013 report concluded:
“Government policy is not to refuse a money or ways and means resolution to a bill which has passed second reading.”
The view of the Procedure Committee must be paramount in this case.
The Government clearly have no respect for this House or our democracy more widely: first, there was their £1 billion bribe to the Democratic Unionist party and now there is this. My hon. Friend Afzal Khan, who unfortunately is not in his place now, is therefore absolutely right to push the Government to do right by our democracy and to bring forward his Bill.
It is essential that 2.1 million new voters are heard. It is essential that my constituents and many of the constituents across this House are fairly and properly represented. And it is essential that this Government are prevented from riding roughshod over our democracy.
It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Kinnock, although I will be taking issue with some of the more lurid assertions he made in his speech.
I recognise the importance of this issue. I started my political career canvassing in 2009-10 and I vividly remember the expenses scandal and the anger of our constituents and voters on the doorstep. I remember, too, the calls at that time to reform this House and to look at some of these very important issues. It is therefore right that the Government at that time kicked off this process: they appointed the Boundary Commission and set about this important work as part of the wider work to reform politics and cut the cost of politics and bring transparency and decency back into this place. However, I have trouble with, and cannot agree with, some of the arguments that have been advanced in today’s debate. The debate seems to be based on a suggestion that the Boundary Commission’s original terms of reference were flawed—
We have heard that a few times. Of course, I was not here at that time, but in my opinion, the arguments that have been brought forward today do not stack up. Did someone want to intervene on me?
I’ll have a go! The issue before us is that private Members’ Bills are determined by a queue which is the result of a ballot. The Government are accused of manipulating the queue by withholding money resolutions. Interestingly, what happened last Friday was an attempt by the Government to manipulate the queue by taking a Bill that was No. 8 and getting it a Second Reading on the nod, and my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope has attracted universal opprobrium for preventing that. That is the irony.
Well, I think “Follow that if you dare” is an apposite comment. I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will proceed with my remarks.
Afzal Khan is not in his place at the moment, but he is an honourable man and I respect his campaign on this issue. Of course he has garnered a lot of sympathy across the House. We have heard about the issues that our constituents have with boundaries, and they are valid concerns. It is right that we should be airing them in this House. However, the assertion seems to be that this private Member’s Bill is the best way of dealing with those issues, and I do not agree with that.
The hon. Lady says that she does not understand the flaws of the previous Bill. The only way to correct the flaws of a previous Bill is to bring forward an alternative Bill. Surely, taking figures not from an election but from a lull period in the electoral register, reducing the number of seats and not allowing the Boundary Commission to take into account census figures, demographics, community boundaries and county boundaries are all reasons why—
Order. Interventions need to be brief. There are plenty of people waiting to speak, and it is not fair if interventions are too long.
We have here an assertion that a private Member’s Bill, which was debated on a Friday, can better reflect this very serious issue than the Boundary Commission itself. The Boundary Commission has carried out thousands of hours of investigation and heard submissions from members of the public up and down the country. It has given all our constituents an opportunity to have an input on these important issues. That is the way to do democracy, and that is the way to deal with this important issue.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, and she is making some very good points. On that last point, the overwhelming majority of the thousands of people in Cornwall who submitted representations to the Boundary Commission do not want a cross-border seat. However, the legislation as it stands does not allow for there not to be such a seat; there has to be one. The views of local people cannot be taken into consideration because the legislation does not allow it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would not dare to comment on the sensitivities of Cornwall and Devon, but I am sure that his comments have been heard and that they are very valid. He made some good suggestions in his speech about how to proceed—or possibly it was my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. There have been some very good suggestions from people who are much more expert on this topic than me, and I think we should go further with those.
I would like to address the point about the lack of an ability for voters to register. That argument seems to have been used several times to suggest that we should stop the Boundary Commission’s work or that it is flawed, but this issue is always going to exist. However, we have recently seen some excellent work by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, who has brought forward a number of successful initiatives. Government money has been committed in order to get more voters on to the register, with hugely successful results. Surely this is the right way to tackle this issue. We need to look carefully at what is preventing voters from registering, and to make it easier for them. It is now possible to register online, for example, and I welcome that.
The work is bearing fruit, and it is the way to tackle the issue, rather than bringing forward private Members’ Bills to undermine something that has been going through Parliament for some considerable time. It seems that we are tying ourselves up in knots. My constituents would be surprised to hear that the Government are accused of gerrymandering or trying to undermine democracy when they have seen, week after week, attempts by Opposition Members to undermine Brexit—the biggest democratic expression of will that this country has ever seen.
I reject the assertion that has been levelled at the Government and the Conservative Members. Democracy needs to work through this process. Members have made many sensible suggestions as to how sensible concerns can be taken on board, but if we allowed today’s motion to pass, that would be an abuse of process and would set a dangerous precedent that I do not support. I will therefore not be voting for the motion today.
I hear what Rachel Maclean says, but I do not agree with her. However, I do agree with Steve Double. The problem is that the House needs an early indication from the Government of what they propose to do with the boundary review’s proposal, as laid by the Government, to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
I know that enough Conservatives feel unhappy with what the proposal implies. It was always going to be controversial, notwithstanding the fact that the Government thought that they had the majority of the House behind them. My contribution will be short, because I just want the Government to test the will of the House to see whether they have the support to reduce the number of MPs to 600. I do not believe that they have that support. It would be much better to clear that matter out of the way and avoid the boundary commissions ending up in a stramash, with them feeling that they have wasted a lot of time in trying to take forward something that is unacceptable to the House. I hope that they will be able to start again and carry out a process that they would find a lot easier without being under the imprimatur of having to reduce the number of MPs by a ridiculous amount.
The boundary review could not achieve the 600 figure without doing things to my seat and to that of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay whereby we would end up with something that is fundamentally flawed. The House has always understood that the constituencies are based on not just number, but location.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I used to feel very much like him, but does he agree that we are now so close to the boundary commissions’ reports—only four sitting weeks—that we as may well wait? Voting on the commissions’ submissions will be the test that he talks about.
That might well be true but, to be fair, the boundary commissions must to some extent try to pre-empt things and read into what has happened in successive debates and discussions—not necessarily just in the Chamber, but as result of what has happened in the Chamber. We should have an early vote and clear away some of the unnecessary disagreement.
As my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock said, this is entirely based on the idea that we can just chop 50 people out of this House without making a difference, but that is fundamentally flawed. This is either gerrymandering for party political advantage or it is just about cost saving. As I said on Monday, the easiest way to save costs would be to get rid of the other place. That might be controversial, but it would be more democratically acceptable to many of our constituents who feel that this primary Chamber should be protected. Some of our constituents will unfairly end up in a constituency that they do not know, despite coming from one in which they had at least some idea of what the location meant, with the knowledge of who their MP was and that they could feel some confidence in them.
Let us get on with it and have an early vote, let us dump the notion that we can just chop 50 MPs, and let us go back to 650 MPs. We can then move forward. Whether we do that through the Bill of my hon. Friend Afzal Khan or some other device, let us do it. That is the fair approach, and I think it is what the vast majority of our constituents want.
I hope that the Government will take notice and that we can have a clear system in which we stick to 650 MPs, with constituency boundaries that mean something, rather than what we would end up with if we went to 600 MPs. I think that everyone would be largely satisfied with that.
It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate and to follow Dr Drew. He said that he agreed with my hon. Friend Steve Double. If he follows my hon. Friend’s arguments exactly, he will be voting with the Government in the Lobby, so I look forward to seeing whether he agrees or not.
I have taken a keen interest in private Members’ Bills in my short time in the House. Some have accused me of taking a rather curious interest, but I blame my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), neither of whom is able to speak in the debate because of their other duties.
My hon. Friend
I entirely understand the passion of Afzal Khan and his concern for piloting his Bill through this place. Taking legislation through the House is a difficult and treacherous business, and perhaps it should be, because surely it should not be easy to place legislation on the statute book. The one consolation of losing my private Member’s Bill was that it would not have succeeded in any event, because a general election got in the way, although of course that is rather cold comfort.
The motion does not touch on the merits of the boundary changes, but it is important that I express my view, as other hon. Members have done, because it seems beyond argument that there should be an equalisation of the number of constituents in each constituency. Doubtless there will be exceptions from the south to the north, and both my hon. Friend Mr Seely and Angus Brendan MacNeil would argue passionately for why their constituency should be of a different size.
At the moment, for example, we have Arfon, a constituency of about 41,000, whereas North West Cambridgeshire has more than 93,000 electors. I have an electorate of 65,000, and also in my county is the constituency of my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin, which has an electorate of over 82,000. My other hon. Friends in Dorset have electorates ranging between 72,000 and 75,000. They may well think that I have an easy time of it and am slightly less busy than they are. I, of course, would argue that that is not the case, but there is a point about reorganising the boundaries to equalise the electorates.
Dorset, not unlike Cornwall and other areas, presents challenges. On the current iteration of the proposals, there will be a cross-county seat and we will lose a Member of Parliament. Be that as it may, I firmly believe that reorganisation and the equalisation of constituencies is beyond argument.
I have a novel point to make, which is not always possible for the last Government Back Bencher to speak. G. K. Chesterton is not quoted often enough in this place, and I think that I have time to read out the full principle of Chesterton’s fence—the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is properly understood. I will quote this section in full:
“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law;
let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this;
let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it…Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
We would be well advised to take advice from that principle in this case, in two respects. The first is in relation to private Members’ Bills when one Member objects; the second is in relation to the financial privilege afforded to the Government of the day.
I was bitterly disappointed, of course, when my Bill was objected to by just one Member—I repeat that it was not my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. When that procedure was raised in a point of order by my hon. Friend Philip Davies, Mr Speaker rightly noted that a single voice objecting to a Bill does not count just on a Friday. He said:
“I should point out, in fairness and for accuracy, so that no one is misled, that the rule about a single objection applies similarly to any other business before the House after the moment of interruption. —[Official Report,
He then referred to
Before we look at procedures and say, “Let’s just get rid of that,” we should first look at what their purpose is, and then at whether they serve that purpose and, if not, how we should reform them. On reform, the second area to which all this applies is the financial privilege afforded to the Government of the day, whereby there is a clear constitutional right to initiate financial resolutions. That is my novel point: Chesterton’s fence, which should be spoken about more often. Perhaps Chesterton should also be quoted more widely in such debates.
My hon. Friend’s point about objections relates to my point about the proper consideration of the Bill. One reason why we should not accept the motion is because this is a constitutional matter. If we were to proceed with the Bill’s Committee stage, that should be done not upstairs, where only a relatively small number of Members are able to participate, but on the Floor of the House. However, that should not happen until we have had chance to consider the boundary review proposals.
As so often, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. What he says is right, and it links to my initial point that it should not be easy for us to make laws in this place—there should be challenge and full debate, both on Second Reading and in Committee.
We should look forward to the Boundary Commission bringing back its proposals. My right hon. Friend made another astute point when he said that that is only four sitting weeks away. We can wait that long for the commission to bring back its proposals so that they can be introduced and debated in this place. Let us then see what the consequences of that are. It would be rash and foolish—it is too soon—to support the motion today, and I will not be doing so.
It is an honour to follow Michael Tomlinson, who recited G. K. Chesterton —that is a new one and I might try it tomorrow in the Public Bill Committee. I have the distinct pleasure of leading on this Bill for the Scottish National party. Although I am thoroughly enjoying our standing engagement to meet on a Wednesday morning to discuss a motion to adjourn, I really think it would be better for the Committee to move on to discuss the substance of the Bill brought forward by Afzal Khan.
The House will recall that this Bill was given a Second Reading, unanimously, on
As I set out on
“To my knowledge, Government has provided the money resolutions…whenever we have been asked to do so.”
A 2013 report by the Procedure Committee, of which I am a proud member, concluded:
“Government policy is not to refuse a money or ways and means resolution to a bill which has passed second reading.”
I understand that Conservative party policy is to cut the number of MPs to 600, and I am not questioning the Conservatives’ entitlement to hold that legitimate view, but we all know that there is a parliamentary majority in the House for retaining 650 MPs while committing to review what I accept are old boundaries. The current boundaries came into force when I was 11 years old and I am now 28. I do not think any of us contest the need to look at the boundaries again, but we do contest the concept of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
Trying to kill the Bill in Committee by grinding Members into submission or holding up the parliamentary process is not clever, and nor do I believe that it will actually work.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government are not trying to kill the Bill? As the Leader of the House set out clearly in her speech, we are waiting for the boundary commissions to come back in four short weeks. Thereafter, we will consider the Bill’s position. We are not trying to kill the Bill; we are waiting.
No, the Government have essentially treated the Bill like the bins: they have put it outside and are waiting for it to fester. We all believe that Parliament is taking back control—that we are leaving the European Union and this is going to be a sovereign Parliament. On
I serve on the Procedure Committee with the hon. Gentleman and am always interested in what he has to say. He is making an interesting case, but is he against the idea of reducing the House’s size from 650 to 600 MPs? That is one of the two issues that really ought to be considered today.
I fundamentally object to the number of MPs being cut from 650 to 600. My view is that we could cut 59 MPs from this Chamber by Scotland being independent, but until such a time as the people of Scotland vote for that in a democratic referendum, I believe that this House, which is taking back lots of powers from the European Union, should have MPs who are able to scrutinise the Government.
I am mindful that the terms of the motion do not allow for a rehash of last year’s Second Reading debate, and nor is it about the general principles of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. The motion before us seeks the leave of the House to permit the Bill Committee to move from parliamentary purgatory to legislative scrutiny. Arguably, the motion is perhaps not the sexiest that the House has ever considered, although perhaps I think it is: right hon. and hon. Members will see that it is largely procedural. I must confess that when I saw the motion on the Order Paper, my initial reaction was to lament how disappointing it is that rarely allocated Opposition slots are being taken up to unblock the logjam of Back-Bench Bills, but the reality is that the Government have caused this problem.
Now, more than ever, Westminster has become a place of limited democracy, as perhaps best exemplified by the utterly broken private Member’s Bill system. On a point of principle, I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the main way for Back-Bench MPs to introduce Bills is via a lottery or a ballot. I have more chance of winning a raffle at the Garrowhill Primary School fair than I do of being able to introduce a private Member’s Bill through the route available.
The hon. Gentleman could always do what I did and queue up for the chance to introduce a presentation Bill. He would then have the opportunity to get his own Bill on the statute, as well. Many Members from different parties have followed the procedure.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but the presentation Bill that he queued to introduce under
I do not agree with some of the tactics deployed, when it suits them, by what some in this place have dubbed “the awkward squad”. Over the weekend, Sir Christopher Chope rightly found himself the centre of what I can only presume was much wanted public attention, after he objected to necessary English legislation introduced by Wera Hobhouse that would stop perverts taking photos up ladies’ skirts. The hon. Member for Christchurch appears to have a long-standing, albeit selective, view that private Members’ Bills should not receive parliamentary approval. I must confess that I was somewhat surprised when the House considered the Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Bill introduced by Mr Bone. During exceptionally short proceedings, the hon. Member for Christchurch did not object to the money resolution that evening, and I see that the Bill, which was 92nd in the queue for this Session, has now reached Report stage.
Perversely, Bills that have passed Second Reading on sitting Fridays but do not have the support of the Government have been kicked into the parliamentary purgatory that is Public Bill Committees. Indeed, some have not even got that far. The UK Government have failed to heed calls for reforms of the private Member’s Bill process, and now they break their own conventions and ignore the will of Parliament. The Procedure Committee issued reports calling for major changes to the process in September 2013, March 2014, September 2015, April 2016 and October 2016. I certainly hope that the Procedure Committee will hold another inquiry very soon. Their changes have largely been ignored by the Government. They have noted that the procedures
“disenfranchise Members who may wish to support a bill being promoted by a colleague and are misleading to the public and to the interest groups who seek to use it to advance legislative change”.
The problem is that this is a Government who are still acting as though they have a parliamentary majority. They do not appear to engage properly in Opposition day debates, and they certainly do not vote in the vast majority of them. If the House divides this evening, I will be very interested to see whether the Government take part. They have stuffed the Standing Committees of this House with a majority of their Members, even though they are a minority Government. They have done their level best to ensure that the Democratic Unionist party has been given £1 billion to ensure that some of their legislation gets through; and they have dealt with private Members’ Bills in a way that is exactly consistent with that approach.
The hon. Gentleman and I enjoy our sparring on Wednesday mornings, and I look forward to doing so again tomorrow. I have just a couple of points to make. First, the Democratic Unionist party has not been given a single penny. That money is for the people of Northern Ireland, and it is important to make that point. Secondly, the House decided the composition of Public Bill Committees, not the Government.
We all remember the photographs of the former Government Chief Whip, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. I don’t know; maybe it was a coincidence that it was announced that £1 billion was going to Northern Ireland on the same day that the confidence and supply agreement was signed. I am no expert.
The way in which the Government continue to deal with private Members’ Bills makes a mockery of this place. In essence, the Government are treating the House with sheer contempt. The Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill is, I am afraid, probably just the tip of the ice berg. The Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil is also still awaiting a money resolution. Indeed, it has not even gone into Committee. His Bill has not even got to the pleasurable stage of meeting on a Wednesday morning to consider a motion to adjourn, yet my hon. Friend has cross-party support. I think that the reason why the Government are stonewalling that Bill is that, again, they realise that there is a majority for it in the House of Commons.
I am mindful of time, and I will close by saying that the Government are playing fast and loose with the procedures of this House. They might think they are being big and clever, but they must remember that one day—perhaps sooner rather than later—they will be on the Opposition Benches and they could be subject to the same type of behaviour. The Government risk setting a precedent that may just one day come back to bite them on the bottom.
I am not one of the awkward squad, I trust, in the Chamber today. I hope that I am a paragon of reasonableness, but today I really must protest because my constituency is the elephant in the room. It is one of the two largest constituencies in the United Kingdom. I have the honour to represent the counties of Caithness, Sutherland—a vast county—and part of Ross and Cromarty. It is a gargantuan, gigantic constituency. I would like to share some facts about it with the House.
The journey from Evanton in the south-east to John O’Groats is 103 miles; it takes me two hours and 21 minutes. It takes two hours and 49 minutes to drive the 115 miles from Lochinver in the south-west to Wick in the north-east. My constituency covers 3,675 square miles. To give hon. Members an idea of just how big that is—although I know that some already understand —we could fit all 73 London constituencies in my constituency, and have room left over around the sides.
Members might think that, although I am not in the awkward squad, I am mumping and moaning today. But I get about. I am young, fit and enthusiastic, but with the best will in the world, it is very hard to cover the communities within my constituency, even when driving hither and thither at maximum speed. The point is that constituencies and communities have a right of access to their elected Member. Despite doing what I hope is my best, if there is a shortfall in what I can do in terms of reaching out, why would I not suggest that there is a slight democratic deficit?
Stephen Kinnock, who is no longer in his place, said that the identification and identity of communities is colossally important. I can tell hon. Members that somebody speaking Gaelic in the south-west of my constituency and somebody living in Caithness not only do not speak the same language; the cultures are also very different indeed. It makes as much sense as putting Aberdeen city with Argyllshire. It just does not make sense.
The proposal of the Boundary Commission for Scotland would make my constituency even larger—massively larger. We can talk in this place until the cows comes home about money resolutions and private Members’ Bill, but when an idea is stark raving bonkers, like this one, it just has to be said loud and clear. We have heard a quotation from G. K. Chesterton, so let me give the House a famous quotation by P. G. Wodehouse, who said:
“It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”
Well, today I do have a bit of a grievance.
In closing, I take comfort from the words of Mr Harper and others on both sides of the Chamber. I do hope that some sense can prevail. My constituents talk about many things, and one of them is the prospect of making my constituency even bigger. I may not hold the seat, as I may be voted out, but whoever represents the seat will have a very difficult time representing those good people if the constituency gets any bigger.
It has been the honour of my life to represent the constituency in which I was born for the last 21 years. For all but a brief and unheralded period as a Whip, I have been a Back-Bench MP. I do not regard my job as second rate to any shadow Minister or Minister, as the role of constituency MP is a vital one in our democracy and political discourse. Everything that has happened over the past 20 years has made me feel that even more. Whether on Brexit, austerity and the huge effects of significant cutbacks in public expenditure that have fallen on the poorest in our constituencies, people who have had hard times finding work, people who cannot find homes or people who feel that the NHS is not meeting their needs, it is our job to represent those voices. Reducing the number of constituencies would make that job harder. It would make it more difficult to represent the voiceless and therefore to keep our political show on the road.
Under the first proposals from the Boundary Commission, my constituency of Mitcham and Morden was to be split across five different parliamentary constituencies. That is the fault not of the Boundary Commission, but of the rules that it was required to enforce. One fairly moderately sized London constituency was to be split between Streatham, Wimbledon, Tooting, Sutton and Cheam, and Carshalton and Wallington—a total of four different London boroughs. Whether I continue to be the MP for Mitcham and Morden or not is not the point. My constituency has deep and abiding ties that bind it, including hundreds of years of history in the parishes of Morden and Mitcham. People believe that they live in an area, that they are part of a community and that they know who to blame when things go wrong.
So why do it? Why reduce the number to 600? Why not 700? Why not 550? Why 600? People talk about equalisation. What do we mean by equalisation? We mean the numbers in the parliamentary constituency. But what about the people who live in my constituency, some 11,000 of them, who cannot vote in a parliamentary election but can vote in a local election? When somebody comes to my advice surgery, I—like, I am sure, all Members of this House—do not ask them, “Are you an EU citizen? Can you vote in a parliamentary election? Are you on the electoral register?” That is not my job. It is my job to represent my constituents, whatever their status, to the best of my ability.
Equalisation—what equalisation? What list, what community, and what factors? We know that young people are less likely to be registered than older people. We know that certain ethnic minorities are less likely to be registered. We know that private renters are less likely to be registered. We know all those things but we wish to exclude those people and have more of them living in some urban constituencies. Is a poor black boy not as entitled to be represented as an older woman from the home counties? Equalisation—what equalisation?
We hear about saving money. I have a suggestion: if we want to save public money, which is a perfectly laudable suggestion, why not introduce automatic electoral registration? Victoria state in Australia, with a population of 3.5 million, managed to get 95% accuracy on its register by employing five people. In my borough of Merton, there are currently 155,841 people on a register of some sort, and we employ more than five people to get that number of people on to it. So if we want to save money, we could get a better form of electoral registration.
But this is not about any of those things. It is not about representation. It is not about saving money. It is not about equalisation. It is about the profound effect of the American Republican party on the Conservative party. It is about issues of electoral registration, presenting ID at polling stations, gerrymandering boundaries and breaking up communities. I have had the absolute honour to fight for President Barack Obama, as candidate and President, in two elections. I have been to Ohio; I have been to Virginia; and I have seen where they deregister people, taking away their right to vote, and gerrymander their boundaries. That provokes anger and discontent, and people feel that they are not a part of legitimate society.
I urge one nation Conservatives to think about the impact of these reforms on our society at a time of great turbulence. Some things matter more than small issues of political expediency. This is about the way we run our democracy. The fact that our boundaries are determined by rules and not by party political preference is really important to us. We need to have a cold, hard look at what the impact of these boundary changes will be and what this says about us and our democracy.
We have heard today from G. K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse, which is of course a pleasure. Nevertheless, it is a matter of regret that we have had to hold this debate because the Government should long ago have respected the wishes of this House and proceeded to move the necessary money resolution. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Afzal Khan for persevering in holding the Government to account.
The Public Bill Committee, of which I am a member, has now had six sittings to try to scrutinise this important Bill, which passed its Second Reading in this Chamber by 229 to 44 votes. However, we have been unable to consider a single clause because of the highly unusual step taken by the Government to refuse to table a money resolution.
I think it is in fact better than the hon. Gentleman stated, because those were the votes on the closure motion. I believe the House voted unanimously for the Bill’s Second Reading.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me, and he is absolutely right.
This has not only become a routine drain on parliamentary time and resources for everyone involved, but is deeply disrespectful to Members across the House who sent a strong message to the Government last December that they wanted the Bill to be considered in Committee. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton that it is now 200 days since that vote took place. It is vital that we uphold parliamentary sovereignty, which is why I am pleading for all Members across the House to support the motion.
We are where we are, and I pay tribute to hon. Members for their participation in the debate. Mr Harper—or, dare I say it, West Gloucestershire?—talked about the fact that his constituency might become West Gloucestershire. Of course, he would also have to be adopted by the association to be the candidate, but I am sure that it would have no problem adopting him. He mentioned the 35,000 responses to the Boundary Commission’s review. I will hazard a guess that most of those responses were complaining about how daft the review was, based on the parameters set by the Government. I will say one thing about him: he has been an assiduous attender of the Bill Committee, even when only a motion to adjourn was moved, and I pay tribute to him for being one of the few Conservative Members who has taken that procedure seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, who is an old friend, told us that he has become an expert in parliamentary procedure. With that expertise, he reminded us that the convention is that the Government always table a money resolution on Second Reading.
Steve Double gave a brave speech and said that the circumstances in the world have changed. He talked about the motion setting a dangerous precedent, but I put it to him that the dangerous precedent is surely the Government ignoring the will of the House by ignoring the Second Reading vote.
Rachel Maclean talked about her introduction to politics in 2009-10 and all the demands for parliamentary reform at that time. I suggest that those demands were for reform of the expenses system, which is what was causing all the difficulties around this place, not of parliamentary boundaries.
My hon. Friend Dr Drew presented us with an easy solution to the problem: an early vote, so that the Government could test the will of the House on a reduction from 650 to 600 seats, which would save time and resources. He made the important point that we need to remember that we represent place as well as simply numbers.
Then we come to the G. K. Chesterton fan, Michael Tomlinson, who talked about the difficult and treacherous business of taking forward legislation. He is right that legislation should be difficult and should be tested, but if there is any treachery, dare I say it?—I hope I am not being unparliamentary—it might lie on the Government’s side of the House, with Ministers not respecting the will of the House on Second Reading.
David Linden reflected on his experiences on the Procedure Committee and reminded us that money resolutions are always provided. Jamie Stone said that his constituency is 103 miles one way by 115 the other—as big as London—and that the new boundaries would make it even more impossible to manage.
Finally, my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who represents the constituency of her birth, talked about the history of those parishes providing a real sense of community. She reminded us that our role here is to represent the voiceless, and she spoke of the 11,000 residents of her constituency who are not on the register but nevertheless need representation. It has been an excellent debate.
People not being on the electoral register is not just an urban issue. In constituencies such as mine, many people have second homes and are not on the electoral register. They vote in local elections in many cases, but they require help from their MP if they have problems concerning the local authority. It is not just in inner-city constituencies that there are more constituents than the number on the register.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, someone who has a second home is perhaps registered elsewhere, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden was making a particular point about those who are not on any register but still require representation.
The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton seeks to resolve a controversial 5% variation in the size of constituencies. As we all know, under the new rules outlined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, all constituencies are required to have a quota between 95% and 100% of the national quota. The consequences of that rigid 5% threshold are that some communities will be split up, while others are merged and dragged into other communities. My hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock discussed that and spoke about the crazy effect on his high street, which would be split, with the shopping centre on one side and other shops on the other.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that that constraint be relaxed to 10%—a proposal rejected by the then Government in 2015—so I welcome the flexibility that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton has shown. He has listened to Conservative Members who believe that the 10% quota is too large, and he has taken their views into consideration. Relaxing the quota to 7.5% would mean that a majority of constituencies would not change at each election, which would strike the right balance and mean that each boundary review would be less disruptive.
The reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 runs contrary to good sense in many ways. At a time when we are planning to leave the EU—hon. Members made this point—and supposedly return control to the UK, we need to maintain numbers in the House. All that the reduction in numbers would achieve is a reduction in the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the Government—another point made in the debate. At the same time, the Government have appointed more unelected peers to the other place than any other Government, so it is absurd that they should reduce numbers in the elected Chamber.
The Hansard Society did not find any rationale for the Government’s decision, noting that there was
“real concern” that the number had been
“plucked from thin air—600 simply being a neat number.”
Cutting 50 MPs represents a crisis of scrutiny—a concern expressed by the Electoral Reform Society and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon. Finally, it is vital that constituencies represent the communities that they serve.
There is no better example of that than my constituency and the number of people I represent. Thirteen thousand people registered to vote in the 2017 general election, increasing the size of the electorate by nearly 10,000. Under the Government’s proposals, that community would be decimated because of the arbitrary point about numbers. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Afzal Khan absolutely rectifies that and puts the registration date at the right point.
My hon. Friend gives an example of communities that are not reflected in parliamentary constituencies. My fear is that there are plenty of examples across the House, not simply in Leeds, where that would happen. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden and plenty of others that that link would be broken.
A major flaw with the boundary reviews is that they were based on the December 2015 electoral register. Since then, as we have heard, over 2 million people have been added to the electoral roll, following the increase in registration for the EU referendum and the 2017 general election. Some Government Members argue that the date for any boundary review is inevitably a snapshot. However, 2015 was not just any year. It was the year 600,000 people dropped off the electoral register after the Government’s decision to rush through the introduction of individual electoral registration, against the advice of the Electoral Commission.
It is absolutely right that a significant number of entries were removed from the register, but the point was that many of them were not legitimate. Individual electoral registration was introduced to deal with accuracy and completeness. Having lots of people on the register who do not really exist is not a good thing—it is a bad thing—and it is good that we fixed it.
I have no doubt that electoral registers have to be cleaned up, but I cannot believe that there were 2 million people on the electoral register who simply did not exist. Mr Goodwill discussed people with second homes. I am on two electoral registers, as I have a place in London because of this job, but the numbers are few and far between, and I do not believe that 2 million have dropped off for any reason other than that when IER was introduced it made it more difficult to register.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden referred to Republican party tactics that I would describe as voter suppression. I am not suggesting this of the Government, but I would be concerned if those tactics found their way to this side of the Atlantic and it became harder for people to vote and take part in the democratic process.
I feel that I need to put it on the record that I completely refute any assertion that I, as a Member of this House, have been influenced by the tactics of the Republican party on the other side of the Atlantic.
I consider that point to have been put on the record.
London lost almost 100,000 voters, despite experiencing a rise in population. However, the bigger issue—bigger than the details of the flawed boundary review—is the relationship between the Government and this House. This House gave the Bill a Second Reading with a hefty majority; indeed, it did so unanimously, as Michael Tomlinson reminded us. It should not be for the Government to ignore the wishes of the House, which were expressed so clearly on Second Reading. If we are taking back control, that control should reside in this House, not with the Executive. Running away from debate by using procedural chicanery gives a dreadful impression of the Government, so our proposal tonight is to allow the Bill to continue its detailed consideration in Committee.
I know that, like me, many hon. Members across the House cherish the status of this House and its sovereignty. They might not agree with the aims of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, but they will understand that it is wrong to block its passage by anything other than a vote in this House. For that reason, and to stand up for the primacy of the House of Commons, I invite all hon. Members to join me tonight in supporting the motion and allowing democracy to thrive—not to vote against the Government, but to vote for this House.
It is a pleasure to close this Opposition day debate. I welcome the contributions from hon. and right hon. Members from across the House. May I take this opportunity to welcome Janet Daby, who I can see in her place? I hope she has enjoyed this afternoon’s debate, in the first of many weeks in which she will be participating in the House’s business. It is a pleasure to see her in her place. As a fellow by-election winner, I can sympathise with her, given her no doubt frenetic first week. I wish her every success in her work, as does the whole House.
We heard from the inimitable hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who gave us a tour of his views on many things and who likes to paint himself as a peacemaker. I for one in the Government would welcome that role from him. I look forward to spending many more pleasurable hours in his company, talking about, for example, the frameworks that we will put in place on our departure from the European Union and how they will add to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and a future Northern Ireland Assembly.
I also welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend Mr Harper, who helpfully reminded the House that the debate on the order relating to the current boundary review is but four sitting weeks away. Like him, I think that that is a reasonable period to be able to anticipate.
I thank Afzal Khan, who rightfully spoke on his Bill. May I say what a pleasure it is to spend time with him and David Linden every Wednesday morning? We are endlessly entertained by the hon. Member for Glasgow East, who most recently did his best to list every single Member of the House of Lords. As you will know, Mr Speaker, it is not in order in any debate in this House simply to read out a list, so he was gently guided back towards a better form of debate.
I thank my hon. Friend Steve Double, who reminded us that Cornwall and the issues of the Cornish must never be shared and must never be split asunder. Only a few nights ago, we had a debate I remember very clearly, relating to another part of my portfolio, on the representation of the Cornish national identity, which I look forward to reprising with him.
We heard from Stephen Kinnock, who I cannot see in his place at this moment and from my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean. She reminded us of the height of public opinion in 2009 and 2010, which was when I entered the House, arguably as a result of the expenses scandal, in the by-election I had the great privilege to win. We also heard from Dr Drew, who put on record some very serious points, and from my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson. He was extremely helpful in enlightening the House about the rule of GK Chesterton.
Let me add to this list the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow East, who I have already mentioned, and the hon. Member for Stone, who reminded us of what it means to fulfil constituency duties in a considerably larger geographical constituency than many of the rest of us. I thank Siobhain McDonagh, who put some issues on the record with passion. I admire and respect that passion, and I am glad she came here today to do that.
Let me address some of the issues raised in the debate before returning to the motion. A number of points were made about the procedures of the House for private Members’ Bills. I will not go into that in detail, because it is not my place to do so. It is a matter of procedure. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made a few remarks about that earlier on, but I think it is a matter for another day.
Remarks were made about reform of the House of Lords. The hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Stroud and I, with others, had a debate on this matter only yesterday in Westminster Hall—what a long time ago that already seems. In that debate, I had cause to remind Members, and I will do so again now, that the size of the House of Lords is smaller than when the current Prime Minister took office. To all those hon. Members who have said that the House of Lords has grown, I say in fact it has not; it has become smaller.
What is the Conservative party’s position in relation to the upper House? Why are you stuffing it with the unelected when you are trying to cut the elected?
I have not been stuffing the upper House for anybody. I am not doing that. The Government can answer for their own position, of course.
And nor are the Government. The key point, as I have just said, is that the other place is now smaller than when the Prime Minister took office. That is as a result of a policy of restraint, which she is showing in appointments, and of the Government policy, which the hon. Gentleman invites me to set out. I will take just a minute on it, Mr Speaker.
I am just in the middle of setting out the Government’s policy, which I have been asked to do.
We do not believe that reform of the House of Lords is the correct priority at this moment. There are many other things that the two Houses are being asked to consider. The House of Lords itself has set out a number of ways to reform without the need for primary legislation. We seek to support it in that.
The hon. Gentleman will remember from our debate only yesterday that the number of the most recent appointments made is 13. Let me repeat one more time, should it be needed, that the number of Lords has reduced since the Prime Minister came into office. In part, that is due to a culture and a new policy of retirement, which I welcome and which we did go into in some detail yesterday, so I will leave that there.
I want to respond to a couple of points that were made about the policy of individual electoral registration. I welcome Christian Matheson to his relatively new position on the Front Bench—it has already been very good to serve with him on Bill and statutory instrument Committees—but I am afraid that he is wrong in his remarks about IER. He spoke about a drop in the register that he thinks occurred after it was introduced. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean explained, what we saw after the introduction of IER was that both accuracy and completeness were maintained. The crucial point is this: we expect the accuracy of the register to be able to be maintained at a higher level with the introduction of IER, because it encourages individuals to register themselves, individually—the clue is in the name. It is about accuracy.
The hon. Member for City of Chester conflated it with a second, separate issue, which is whether more have joined the register since. That is indeed the case. As the register currently stands, it is larger than it was in December 2015. That is a good thing. That is because our reforms to open up online registration, for example, and the occurrence of several major elections have encouraged many people to register. That is an unmitigated good thing. This Government are committed to helping more people to register to vote. That is what I stand for as the Minister responsible for electoral registration and other matters. I want to see it done with the security and integrity of the register foremost in mind. We have had debates in this place and elsewhere that suggest that the Labour party is not quite so committed to those principles. That is what we saw in some of the desperate slurs that have been made this afternoon. We have heard words such as “gerrymandering” and about the “manipulation” of the register from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. I think that is outrageous. I said so early on in the debate and I say it again: it is an outrageous calumny to say that the Government are gerrymandering or trying to manipulate the register. I am not. The Government are not—does he think we are, really?
I stand corrected, and I thank the hon. Gentleman. Let me move on to the ways in which this debate has been important this afternoon and deal directly with the motion in front of us.
I thank the Minister for her gracious reference to me a few minutes ago. I point out in passing that Sir William Cash and I are two exceedingly different people, and we would both be equally embarrassed to be confused. Does the Minister recognise my point that distance and geography have to be taken into consideration by the Boundary Commission for Scotland?
I stand corrected twice in a row on hon. Members’ constituency names—perhaps I need the help of the Boundary Commission to rearrange constituencies and thus learn them better. In all seriousness, I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Boundary Commissions are independent. This is crucially important, and he would not expect me in this debate to be able to prejudge their reviews, and nor would I try to do so. Although I respect the points that he came here today to make, it is not for me to answer the question that he just posed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sensible point about the geographical size of constituencies. That was indeed considered when we looked at the rules that the Boundary Commissions were set. I accept that he may not feel that there was sufficient flexibility, but there are rules that govern the maximum geographical size of constituencies, thus giving the Boundary Commissions some scope to reflect the issues that he raised in the House today.
I very much welcome that reminder from my right hon. Friend.
Turning to the motion, the debate has been about a fundamental principle of how this House functions, but this is not about the Bill from the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. It is about whether a Committee—any Committee—can be permitted by the House to disregard this place’s rules and conventions.
The Opposition motion seeks to undermine a fundamental principle and cornerstone of our constitutional settlement: the financial initiative of the Crown. It is a long-standing constitutional principle that the Government of the day initiate financial resolutions. I can only apologise to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire if he thinks this another lecture—perhaps in his day students walked out of lectures if they did not like them. It would be regrettable if he felt the need to walk out of this discussion. The Government have to be responsible and accountable to taxpayers for the money they spend. The motion seeks to erode the fundamental principle that the Crown, through its Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament, has the exclusive right of initiation and of defining the purposes for which the money is required.
I welcome the opportunity to add to this discussion, but the question of whether we can learn from the mechanisms of other Parliaments and Governments might have to be a debate for another day.
The mechanisms of this Parliament are that a Committee requires a money resolution to go through the substance of a Bill. If a Committee is allowed to consider the substance of a Bill in the absence of such a resolution, the Crown, through its Ministers, loses its important constitutional right to define the purposes for which that money is required. That is not just about being able to make progress; it is not just about saying, “Don’t worry about the money. It’ll come later”; as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out earlier, to do this to a Committee would strip it of the ability to consider matters properly. As she set out, without such a resolution, a Committee would just be aimlessly wandering through a Bill with or without amendments but not properly guided by a money resolution. At best, it would be theoretical, at worst farcical, and that is not what our constituents expect of us.
The motion questions the role of the Executive—that is regardless of what party is in power. The fundamentals of any Government are that they take decisions and are accountable for them—to taxpayers where it is about how public money is spent. That is what it means to be a responsible Government. From what I see on the Order Paper today, I do not think the Opposition believe in responsible government; they believe in political points scoring. The House runs on its conventions and the assurance that centuries-old practice and procedure is there to protect the rights of all parliamentarians. The Government respect those rights of the House, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out earlier. To undermine that for party political reasons by tabling such a motion compromises the idea of the Opposition ever being a responsible Government. The Government are elected by the people and have the right and duty to initiate financial proceedings in the interests of the taxpayer.
As my right hon. Friend made absolutely clear at the start of the debate, the motion has nothing to do with the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. I am sorry about that. I am sorry that he has come here today, as he does every Wednesday morning, to talk about a Bill for which the House has not granted him financial authority. I am sorry about that because he is a lovely man—we get on well on Wednesday mornings—and clearly has the support of his friends around him in the Chamber, but I am afraid that his party is letting him down with the motion on the Order Paper tonight. They are suggesting a huge move in the procedures of the House, all hung around his Bill. His Bill has merits, and those could be discussed, but there is not the time to do so.
I thank the Minister for her kind words. For me, this is not the fault of the Labour party. Every week for five weeks we have come here, only for nothing to be done. Not a single word in the Bill has been dealt with. That is the issue. That is where time is being wasted.
If that is the issue, the hon. Gentleman should have had a word with his Front-Bench team about laying a better Opposition day motion. This motion did not allow him to have those issues out today, although many hon. Members have enjoyed going through related subjects.
claimed to move the closure (
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.
The House divided:
Ayes 284, Noes 299.