Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 2nd June 2020.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare 6:44 pm, 2nd June 2020

I must confess that when I heard the Labour Front-Bench spokesman begin her remarks my heart soared. It sounded as though there had been an outbreak of agreement and peace across both sides of the aisle that we have to get on with this; that was wonderful. We all agree on the number of MPs we are going to have. That is also wonderful. Then, rather like my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson, I started to think, “Hang on a second, if we agree on so much, how come there is a reasoned amendment?” I come back to a point that I made earlier in an intervention. I just worry that people looking into this place from outside will see a bunch of MPs arguing their own book and not being honest about it. It is the point that the Father of the House made when he said that it is very difficult for any Parliament—this one or any previous one—to talk about boundaries without seeming to be mired in self-interest. It is extremely difficult to do and it is noticeable that the process comes unstuck when either the proposals of the independent boundary commission are so contrary to the views of the Government of the day that they start looking for excuses not to pass them, or the Government of the day do not have enough of a majority, as happened repeatedly in the past couple of years, to get the proposals through and the majority of the House’s self-interest beyond the Government operates to stop a statutory instrument going through. None of that makes our democracy, MPs or Parliament look good.

There is an old saying about the difference between a hedgehog and a fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many small things. We need to be more like the hedgehog and remember that there is one big thing that matters above all: fairness and equal weight of votes. It is all very well to say, “Yes, but there are all these other technical problems”, and there are—there are definitely technical problems with getting enough people to register on time and stay registered and we need to fix those—but it is not good enough for us to stand here and claim that as an excuse for not having fairness and equal votes. To use that as an excuse is like the prayer of St Augustine:

“Give me chastity and continency—but not yet.”

It is time—it is past time. We need to do this now. We need to lock it in to ensure that future Parliaments, no matter who is in Government, cannot act out of self-interest to scupper this fundamental point about our democracy. If we do not get this right, our democracy’s credibility, fundamental fairness and underpinnings are fatally weakened and undermined.

We have gone on too long without fixing the problem. I will therefore support Second Reading. I urge Labour Members to reconsider their position and cleave to this idea, while at the same time, as the Father of the House said, it is up to Government Members to accept that there are other—less important but still crucial—points about trying to ensure that we get our registration process right and better voting rolls. If we can do both those things, we will have a democracy that works and of which we can proud. We do not accept that there is a trade-off between security and accuracy when we do online banking. We should not do it when we vote at the polling booth.