Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 15th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 10:45 pm, 15th November 2010

My Lords, at this late hour I shall avoid the temptation to repeat many of the arguments that we have already heard, but I should perhaps declare one interest. When I was in the other place it was as Member of Parliament for Stirling, having been elected in 1983. Leaving aside the birth of my children, my marriage and other personal events, arriving at the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament was my proudest day. I think that I did so with about 35 per cent of the vote when we had four parties fighting that election, so getting 50 per cent of the vote would have been quite an achievement.

At subsequent elections, without the split in the Labour Party and the SDP, it became harder for me to hang on and my majority dropped to around 700 and then to 500. By then, I was Secretary of State and I had to sign the order produced by the Boundary Commission to take Bridge of Allan out of my constituency and put it into another; that was probably about 4,000 Conservative votes. I did so without any concern at all, other than for me, because it was a fair process with a proper adjudication and inquiry. By the way, it was not just the political parties which put forward their views: views were expressed by the local community and, in the end, the right decision was taken. The result was that I got kicked out of Parliament -there were one or two other factors in that as well-and I found myself in this place.

This place has a very important role to play. It is the backstop; that is our whole purpose. A Question was asked in the House the other day of my noble friend Lord McNally as to the purpose of the House of Lords. If nothing else, it is to protect the constitution. I feel that the Bill is not Parliament's finest hour. There has always been an understanding and a convention that on constitutional matters we should try to proceed with consensus and by agreement and, if we cannot do that, we should go through a process where matters are properly discussed and evaluated, whether by a Speaker's Conference or something of that kind.

I understand, of course, the deal that was done after the election but I wonder at the reasons being given for this Bill and for some other Bills which are yet to come before us that are being put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister in his new role. One of the things being said is that it is about restoring trust in Parliament. In my opinion, a number of the best speeches tonight have been made by former Members of the other place. I say "best", because they convey that sense of relationship which Members of Parliament have with their constituents, whether they voted for them or not, and which they have with the area that they represent. Even when you have been out of Parliament for a long time-I live in my old constituency -you still go around and remember that that was the place where there was this or that problem, and you have that feeling of identity. You come to Parliament as the champion of your constituents. Yes, you are there as Labour, Conservative or whatever, but you are also there as the man or woman for your area.

That is a real and powerful identity, so if you depart from that principle and if Members of Parliament start to be seen as the representative of the party for this block of population in this part of the country, something disastrous will have gone wrong. Thinking back to 1983, one thing that was very sad was that I was a Tory; a third of my constituency had never had a Tory since the Twenties; a third had never had a Tory since before that; and a third had never had anything else. There were bits of my constituency where Tories, particularly with the miners' strike and so on, were not very popular. Yet you were respected as the Member of Parliament; you had standing and status. The expenses scandal and other things have damaged that, and I find the extraordinary notion that we can repair that damage and restore the status of Members of Parliament with this kind of Bill and this kind of reform a little unnerving.

My experience, going around canvassing during the election, was that people said, "You're all the same. You're in it for yourselves. We only see you at the election. You say one thing at the election and then do another". If we want to counter that kind of cynicism and distrust, one of the things that we might do is keep the promises that we put in our manifestos. The Bill fails miserably on that count. The manifestos made promises about the voting system and the size of Parliament. The Conservatives campaigned for first past the post and against AV. The Liberals campaigned against AV. The Labour Party campaigned in favour of AV. Now we have a Bill that puts forward AV, produced by the Conservatives and the Liberals in coalition, being opposed by the Labour Party, which campaigned on having AV.