Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:37 pm on 15th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:37 pm, 15th November 2010

My Lords, for the second time in seven days I am speaking in your Lordships' House as one of a long list of over 50 speakers to talk against a Bill with whose principles I more or less agree. In both cases, the Government face a very critical report from the Constitution Committee. I think that, as with the Public Bodies Bill, this is bad Bill because of process.

I favour a fairer voting system for the House of Commons, as I favour a voting system for your Lordships' House. I am therefore very happy to support the principle of a referendum on moving from first past the post to the alternative vote. Similarly, I cannot disagree with the principle of equalisation, although, like my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, I would favour a figure of give or take 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. Also like my noble and learned friend, I believe that these historic changes could be much more easily taken forward on the basis of consensus over process.

What has happened on process? Why this ridiculous rush, which is now causing such opposition? Why, yet again, so little consultation? Why no consultation with the devolved Administrations? Why not listen to them and avoid the problems attached to holding the referendum on the same day as elections to the devolved legislatures? Perhaps the Minister can tell us, when he winds up tomorrow, what estimate has been made of the differential turnout in different parts of the UK as a result of that, beyond the confusions that rightly the Scottish Parliament recently legislated to reduce by moving the local elections.

There are some who argue that this House should not concern itself with these matters of how the other place is elected. Indeed, the noble Lord the Leader of the House pretty much argued as such in his opening speech. I beg to differ. This Bill is part of a wider parliamentary reform to try to restore confidence in Parliament as a whole. In that endeavour, we should all work together, particularly given the events of the past couple of years. As a Member of your Lordships' House, I am after the bigger picture before we are asked to legislate on these elements, or bits of a Bill, as the noble Earl just said. We should not pluck out bits of wider parliamentary reform and have to consider them in isolation. To me, the logic would be first to define the role and working practices of both Chambers, including their relationship with the Executive. Then we can better determine their size, especially given that we bizarrely are currently considering reducing the size of the elected Commons while increasing hugely the size of the appointed Lords. We can then consider how each Chamber is elected or appointed. At that point, these principles should be put to the electorate, on a day without the distorting effect of other elections, in a referendum or series of referenda. Indeed, has the Minister considered a referendum on the same day as the one on the voting system, on the principle of whether the Lords should be wholly or substantially elected? Would that not make his job easier in pushing Lords reform through this House, if he had such a mandate?

With a mandate from a referendum on a voting system, we can then determine whether we have fixed-term Parliaments, how long the term should be and how regularly the constituency boundaries should be reviewed. Finally, we can then commission the review of new constituency boundaries, with public inquiries at least in the first instance given the scale of change. Given that we are talking about 600 brand new constituencies, I cannot see any argument for not holding proper public inquiries, at least in the first instance. I accept that that would take time, but with such huge constitutional change we should attempt consensus at least on process. The current rush seems to be driven by a political deadline that would allow the Liberal Democrats the iconic achievement of electoral reform within a year of forming the coalition, and give the Conservatives the prize of cutting the number of Members of Parliament in Labour cities and in Wales and Scotland.

The other substantive point I should like to make tonight is around reducing the number of MPs to 600. I was intrigued by the Leader's explanation that it was a "nice round figure". While he is the embodiment of a nice round figure, that is not good enough to persuade me. Why reduce the number at all? I note that the number of MPs has increased by 25 since 1950. That is 3 per cent increase in 60 years. In the same time, the size of constituencies has increased by 25 per cent and the volume of correspondence, especially in this age of e-mails, has exploded exponentially for Members of Parliament. That is in part why the 3.5 million unregistered voters are important. When I was a Member of Parliament, until my contract was cut short by the electors of south Dorset earlier this year, I did not check the electoral roll to see whether a constituent was registered. I confess that one of my staff obsessively did, and would make sure she told me whether the person had a vote. If she is listening, I am sorry, Lena, that I completely ignored that information. I am absolutely certain that if any MP is approached by someone in housing crisis, with immigration problems, as a victim of bureaucratic incompetence in respect of tax credits or benefits, in any of the bread and butter pieces of casework, all MPs will try to help regardless of whether they are electors. The sense of public service is strong in Parliament and we should acknowledge that.

In my former constituency, I had pockets of significant deprivation in the west, in Weymouth and Portland, and in much more affluent areas in the east, in the Purbecks. There was a great difference in electoral registration and a great difference in workload between the more and less affluent areas. On that basis, we need the Government to do more on electoral registration than the Government that I was a part of managed to do, before we move to such a tight prescription on equalisation.

The Bill's current position of working off the electoral roll as of December this year is untenable, and I cannot support a review every Parliament. Like others, I believe in the importance of the community link with MPs, and as someone who lives 400 yards from the constituency boundary, I do not want to do the hokey-cokey-to use the phrase of my noble friend Lady Liddell-out of west Dorset.

Finally, why is there such a hurry? I can only think that it is for political gain. Your Lordships' House adds value by being less political and by ensuring constitutional rigour and, on that basis, I urge that Part 1 be separated from Part 2 to make two Bills. I also urge proper time for boundary reviews, with public inquiries on these 600 new constituencies. Ideally, I urge a proper road map of parliamentary reform that defines the roles of both Chambers before legislating on their size and how their Members get there.