Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 12:05 am on 15th November 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 12:05 am, 15th November 2010

My Lords, in a few hours I am catching a train back to Hull because I am teaching in the morning before returning tomorrow afternoon. I mention that because I have just worked out that I will have a bigger audience in my seminar in the morning than I have here this evening.

As various speakers have noted, this measure is two Bills in one. I deprecated the practice of the previous Government of bringing forward omnibus Bills and I do not endorse its continuation under the present one. I shall address the two parts of the Bill. I start with two overarching concerns, the first of which has been variously mentioned this evening. Unrelated to the merits of the particular proposals, it is the speed with which the Bill has been brought forward. As the Constitution Committee has noted in its report on the Bill, and I declare an interest as a member of that committee, it is to be regretted that there was not time for consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. I know there are reasons why Bills cannot always be subject to such scrutiny, not least in the first Session of a new Parliament under a new Government, but Bills in such a situation have usually been contemplated and worked on prior to the general election. In this case, because the government manifesto or programme was a post-election product, there is a somewhat greater case for rigorous scrutiny.

The second concern is the relationship of the Bill, primarily Part 1, to the stated aims of the Government. I am uncertain about how a referendum confined to the alternative vote relates to the principles enunciated by Ministers as underpinning proposals for constitutional change. Voters are to be offered a referendum but on a restricted choice, which derives from a compromise; I understand the politics. My concern is how electors will feel about being offered such a choice. It does not necessarily deliver on the Government's stated aims, and I have problems with the premise that underpins the proposals for change. Like my noble friend Lord Lamont of Lerwick, I do not accept that our political system is broken. There has been a crisis of confidence, but it has been in politicians rather than the political system. Electing the same people by somewhat different means will not restore confidence. The answer lies in behaviour and not in institutional change. I regard what we are engaged in here as a form of displacement activity.

On Part 1, I have a principled objection to referendums. However, the Government, like their predecessor, do not. As the Constitution Committee notes, if there are to be referendums then reform of the voting system is a constitutional issue that merits being subject to one. However, the proposal raises two basic problems. Reform of or, as is proposed, abolition of the House of Lords is also a major constitutional issue. Why a referendum on one but not the other? The other problem is the provision to give effect to change if more electors vote yes than no. If there is a turnout of only 20 per cent of electors and they split 51 per cent to 49 per cent in favour of change, to what extent can one claim that the change enjoys legitimacy through endorsement by the people? I appreciate that there are problems with thresholds. One has a choice between having some form of threshold, be it in terms of turnout or the proportion of those voting yes, or omitting or amending Clause 8 so that the implementation of a yes vote is not automatic but instead is left to Parliament to determine what to do in the light of the turnout and outcome.

On the second part of the Bill, I shall focus on the reduction in the number of MPs rather than on constituency boundaries. On the provisions for boundary changes, I confine myself to endorsing some of the proposals embodied in the report by the British Academy Policy Centre entitled Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom. In particular, I see the case for providing for an extra period of consultation, following publication of representations received in the initial 12-week period, in order for counterobjections to be made, thus following the practice of New Zealand and Australia. I also endorse the proposal for more assistant commissioners to be appointed, not least for dealing with the representations made on boundary proposals.

I turn to Clause 11 and the provision that the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600. I support a reduction in the size of the House of Commons. I chaired the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000; my noble friend Lord Forsyth was a member. We were more radical than what is proposed here in terms of numbers, though less ambitious in terms of timing. We favoured a staggered reduction in the number of constituencies. That would give time for not only the Boundary Commission to prepare, but also the parties and the Members themselves.

My noble friend the Marquess of Salisbury introduced a Parliamentary Government Bill in 1999 providing for a staggered reduction over a 20-year period. At the end of that period there would be a House of 400 members. We recommended a staggered reduction resulting in a House of 500. In our view, that would leave us with constituencies that were still quite viable-some MPs already serve their constituents well in seats with electorates in excess of 90,000-and not damage the capacity of the House of Commons to fulfil its functions effectively. Indeed, we believed it could enhance the efficiency of the House, given that we identified the current number as contributing to the strain on the House's resources. Better resources for fewer Members would, in our view, aid rather than hinder the efficiency of the House. We also took the view, though it may seem counterintuitive, that larger constituencies may facilitate a closer, longer-term relationship between Member and constituents, in that less radical changes would be required to constituency boundaries to take effect of demographic changes.

I accept that there is no magic number. As I say, our view was that a House of 500 could deliver efficiently what is expected of the House of Commons, but one could make a case for a smaller or even a greater reduction. The principal point is that there is a case for reducing the size of the House. However, there is a necessary corollary to such a reduction-that there must be a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. Indeed, in our report we argued that there was a case for having fewer Ministers, even if the size of the House of Commons remained unchanged. Various people who gave evidence to our commission, including former Ministers, argued that there were too many Ministers. We recognised that Ministers were seen to be busy people but, as Frank Field put it to us, the amount of work increased to occupy the time made available by Ministers. The case for a reduction in numbers was well put to us by my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell, who told us that,

"a decision by an incoming Prime Minister to abolish twenty ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload. The Whips and those who enjoy exercising or receiving patronage would be dismayed, but the benefits would be great".

A reduction is not only desirable but also essential if the number of MPs is reduced. So far, the Government have resisted attempts to amend the Bill to provide for a reduction proportionate to the reduction in the size of the House. The Minister in the other place, David Heath, argued that the demands of government necessitated the number of Ministers. If my noble friend wishes to argue that when the debate finishes, I will be interested to see what empirical support he is able to provide.

The other argument advanced is that the issue could be considered later and does not need to be addressed in the Bill. I do not accept that argument. I do not regard reducing the size of the House of Commons by almost 10 per cent to be a matter of greater importance than the fundamental relationship between Parliament and the Executive-in this case, between the House of Commons and the part of it that forms the Government. I do not wish to see the Government strengthened through a reduction in the number of MPs. The so-called payroll vote-or rather the jobsworth vote, as it includes unpaid PPSs-is already too large. It will be even more so if the Bill is enacted. I know that providing for a reduction in the number of Ministers in the other place does not then deal with the number of Ministers in this House or with PPSs but that is not an argument for not amending the Bill. There is a compelling case for reducing the number of Ministers and for doing so now, and then for addressing the other elements of patronage. There are too many PPSs, for example, and their independence has been eroded over time, but that fact is not a reason not to move now in respect of the number of Ministers.

When we published our report, the then party leader, William Hague, described it as a route map for a future Conservative Government. I hope the Government will now revisit this issue with some urgency. It is a matter of constitutional significance.