Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:11 pm on 16th November 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Labour 6:11 pm, 16th November 2010

I understand that, given that numerical considerations will be paramount in the Boundary Commission's decisions, what I am describing is very possible. I fear that we will create more anomalies, not reduce them.

All sides of the House have agreed that to proceed at such break-neck speed, and to compound that by insisting that a tolerance of only 5 per cent greater or smaller than the average constituency size should take precedence over all other factors to be considered, is to court disaster. The proposals will cut links between MPs and their constituencies and further alienate voters. I was struck by the evidence that the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place received from Democratic Audit, which argued that, if the figure of 10 per cent had been adopted, county boundaries, community identity and the practicality of representation could all have been taken into account. Indeed, the previous constituency review found that nearly 90 per cent of constituencies were within 10 per cent of what they should be. That caused the electoral systems expert Lewis Baston to ask whether it was worth the disruption that the adoption of 5 per cent would assuredly produce. That is exactly the sort of question that pre-legislative scrutiny would have explored in a very helpful way. I hope that the figure will be the subject of an amendment in Committee.

Just as the 5 per cent figure is arbitrary, so is the figure of 600 constituencies. Where has that come from? Such a figure is not in the election manifesto of either coalition party but is, as the Leader of the House told us yesterday, "a nice, round figure". I can see that response being analysed and dissected to destruction in the future by constitutional historians puzzling over the motivation for this proposal.

One thing that I do know is that the burden of work on MPs has grown enormously over the past 40 to 50 years, while the number of MPs has scarcely grown-up by 3 per cent at most-over the same period. Whereas each MP had around 66,000 constituents at the end of the last war, each MP now has close to 96,000 constituents and informed estimates suggest that the number will increase to 105,000 by 2015. I know how hard the average MP works. I know how difficult it is for MPs to keep up with the ever-increasing flow, or tide, of e-mails, calls, letters and surgeries. To increase that burden yet further by cutting the number of constituencies without reviewing the workload or role of MPs-while at the same time increasing the size of the House of Lords to more than 800 Members-reveals pretty blatantly to me that there are no great constitutional principles involved in the Bill. As far as I can discern, there are only the rather basic political calculations that some noble Lords referred to yesterday.

Some apologists for the coalition have deployed the argument that other countries have fewer elected representatives, but such an argument considers only the national level, which is only one part of the picture. Countries such as France, Germany and the United States have many more elected representatives at local or town level and at regional or state level than we have in the United Kingdom. If you look at our councillor numbers and the number of MPs relative to population, we lag far behind other comparable democracies. Cutting the number of MPs to 600 would make the disparity worse.

I am aware that there was a debate in the other place about whether ministerial posts should be reduced along with the number of MPs because, otherwise, the effect of the Bill would be to reduce the influence of Parliament in holding the Executive to account. That is clearly very worrying. However, I do not want to comment further on that aspect of the proposed changes, because my final point relates to the large number of people-estimated at more than 3 million-whose names will not be on this year's electoral register. We know that many young people, in particular those between the ages of 18 to 25, are missing from the register because they move fairly frequently around the country. That is certainly a big issue in my part of the world. To ignore that factor and to press ahead on the basis of registers that are, in some areas, seriously incomplete is, to my mind, totally unsatisfactory. Why not wait until a much clearer picture of population distribution after next year's census enables the Boundary Commission to do a more thorough and accurate job? That would be a principled approach, but I suppose that it would not meet the political objectives of the coalition.

In conclusion, this is a bad Bill that will have profound constitutional effects. I would like to believe that the Bill will be thoroughly revised as a result of the renowned detailed scrutiny of noble Lords in this Chamber. The Bill certainly deserves to be revised in a number of important respects. However, I fear that the operation of the coalition Government in this Chamber may seriously undermine the capacity of this House to operate as an effective revising chamber. I very much hope that I am wrong and that my fears in this regard will prove to be unfounded.