Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:53 pm on 15th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 9:53 pm, 15th November 2010

My Lords, I can think of a number of very good books that are to be recommended, some of which are currently in circulation and more are due out, which will explain the fallacy of that argument. From personal experience of the 1990s, I know there were clear commitments from the party which the noble Lord now represents to hold a referendum on proportional representation and to support the outcome of that referendum. In 13 years of trying, no progress was made. More progress has been made in the past six months at least in allowing the voters to have some say on this key issue of how representatives who serve them should be chosen than was made in the 13 years the Labour Party was in office with three good majorities and a manifesto in 1997 pledging to give people the choice between proportional representation and first past the post. I am grateful now that at least some progress is being made and a precedent is being set to allow people some say in how their representatives are chosen.

Let me briefly address the question of the boundary review, because it is a very important part of the Bill. I think that the consequences of the reduced and equalised proposals are greatly exaggerated by many people. Most of the academic research on the issue confirms that marginally reducing the number of MPs; increasing slightly the size of the average electorate; and making the number of the electors in each seat close to the average, will not have much benefit or disbenefit.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is not in his place, but he made the most effective points psephologically in our debate so far. He pointed to a number of factors as to why there is the apparent advantage-it has been described as an 8 per cent advantage-that the Labour Party holds over the Conservatives in the present voting system. He highlighted a number of reasons why, of that apparent 8 per cent advantage, very little is to do with the different sizes of electorates in Labour and Conservative-held constituencies.

The highly respected psephologist, Lewis Baston, was also prayed in aid by noble Lords opposite a few hours ago. He has made calculations suggesting that perhaps eight or 10 seats may be varied between what the Conservative Party or the Labour Party might have as a result of these reviews. Those are figures in line with all the previous Boundary Commission reviews-and there have been three in the past 27 years. There is no big change out of this.

To some of those whom I must now call my noble friends, I must say that the enthusiasm in their party for making these changes-although I note a little lack of enthusiasm looking at their Benches at the moment-is misguided, but so is the opposition on the Labour Benches to the changes, because they will not actually have a big outcome in the general election. Of course, changing boundaries is never an easy process for MPs, candidates or parties, but the principle that MPs should generally have the same number of electors must generally be a sound one. It is the same principle for which the rotten boroughs were eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act 1832. It is not a principle that is unusual, unfair or undemocratic, and it has been at the heart of all the previous boundary reviews-perhaps in a less rigid way-conducted under previous Governments.

I close on what is a very important point for me about the process of the boundary reviews. I think that the Bill may make the problem of redrawing the boundaries a little more problematic than it needs to be. All the previous Boundary Commission reviews have had a guideline asking them to respect the need to minimise inconvenience among other logical factors when redrawing boundaries. The Bill provides for that provision to apply in reviews for the 2020 general election and in subsequent reviews, but it does not do so for the next review to be published in September 2013 for a general election in 2015. There will, of course, be significant changes to constituency boundaries when there are significant reductions in the number of MPs.

Of course, it would be much easier for the staff in the Boundary Commission to start with clean maps that do not have existing boundaries marked on them which must be considered as part of the new configuration, but I believe that it would be much better to allow the commission to take into account the existing boundaries-at least as far as it sees fit. This would go a little way, at least, to addressing the many concerns raised in the debate about the consequences of the review in many areas.