Monday 17 January 2011

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:10 am on 17th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 9:10 am, 17th January 2011

My Lords, there appears to be daylight outside. I think that we have missed the dawn chorus but in here Monday rolls on. I am pleased to move the debate on a little by my amendment, which asks that we should not decide the numbers in the other place until the membership and powers of your Lordships' House have been agreed by both Houses of Parliament.

In putting down this amendment I seek to extract from the government Front Bench something of the bigger picture on how the Bill, particularly this part of it, fits into their wider plans for constitutional reform. We heard my noble friend Lady Armstrong speak earlier today in a similar vein but it would be sensible for us to understand more clearly the Government's thinking on the powers in both Houses. We would then be in a better position to debate and understand where we should go as regards composition, what sort of electoral systems should be used in both Houses and the numbers of Members of both Houses of Parliament.

There is, of course, an obvious link between the two Chambers when we look through the current looking-glass of politics whereby we are debating losing 50 elected Members of the other place while the Government oversee the introduction of more than 100 additional unelected Members into your Lordships' House. By any measure that is somewhat bizarre in a country which prides itself on its democracy and on having the mother of all Parliaments. However, I want to flesh out a more substantial link during this debate. I agree with the amendment grouped with this one, Amendment 63YB in the name of my noble friend Lord Grocott, who argues that we should not agree to the House of Commons having fewer Members than this House. When speaking to noble Lords I have found agreement on all sides of your Lordships' House that we are at present a somewhat bloated House. I am one of those who have added to that corpulent figure. I am not referring to the Leader who has just stood up. I thought that he was going to intervene. I am referring to your Lordships' House being somewhat corpulent. As I say, I am one of the more recently introduced Members. There seems to be agreement on all sides that it has become a little too large. Certainly, when we are thinking about the size of the other place, we should also be thinking about the size of your Lordships' Chamber.

We have debated at some length the fact that the Government want to reduce the number of MPs through this Bill for the two principal reasons of overrepresentation and cost. I will not rehearse again in any great detail all the arguments that we have heard over the past 15 hours. However, I have not yet spoken in the debate on this part at any length, and certainly not today. I do not believe there is any evidence that the other place is overrepresented on any international comparison. I am struck by the Lewis Baston and Stuart Wilks-Heeg analysis. I do not believe there is any evidence that it is overrepresented, particularly if you include representatives from below the national level.

I think it is a shame that we have not heard the bigger picture from the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, particularly given that his party used to be committed to a political restructuring at all levels. We could start to make sense of the notion of over-representation if we looked at all levels of government in this country-or not, because the analysis would suggest that we are not over-represented at all when compared to others of a similar size and a similar era around the world. I also agree with those who have looked at the trend of a rising number of electors, with the proportion of electors per MP having risen alongside a rising workload. I am concerned that there is very little justification for reducing the number of MPs.

I also see no evidence of significant savings. I do not belittle the £12 million that has been discussed over the past hours, when the 50 fewer MPs' salaries and their expenses are set against the cost of boundary reviews. I have seen no analysis of what the continual process of boundary review that the Bill is committing us to will be, but there are marginal savings given that we will still have the same buildings and facilities for Members of the other place-and, of course, we will still have the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which appears to be costing something like an average of £16,000 per Member of Parliament per year. That is an area where some quite sensible savings might be made, but I am sure that is the subject of keener interest at the other end of the building. I would argue that we currently have an incoherent picture and need that bigger picture to be sketched out in more detail, perhaps when the Leader of the House winds up, so that we can properly understand the Government's thinking.

The other place performs three functions, as I have tended to describe it when I, as a Member of it, went around schools trying to explain how it worked. It has an important representative function-in the parallels that I drew, much like a school council-but it also has very important legislative and executive functions, with people being either members of the Executive or scrutinising them. Your Lordships' House, however, is a much prized and valued revising Chamber. It is the secondary Chamber to the primary one and has fewer functions, so we come back to the question: why should it have more Members when it has less to do? I appreciate that, as we have heard when my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer read out the Code of Conduct and referred to this fact, it is not employment to be a Member of your Lordships' House. Many Members, including me, do other work. Nevertheless, it seems strange that we have many more Members than the other place.

The workload has also increased in the other place. We have heard quite a lot of that set of arguments and discussions over the past 15 hours but, from my own experience as a recently defeated Member of the other place, the workload was considerable. In terms of constituency correspondence, I had excellent staff helping me out with that just to keep up with the volume of e-mails and letters-happily, we do not really have faxes any more, but there are tweets and Facebook messages-and all sorts now coming through, particularly in a marginal seat. With the introduction of AV, if that is approved in a referendum, we will see more marginal seats and that pressure will only become more acute. Incidentally, I have some concerns about those Members who take a strong role within the Executive. I was proud to be a Minister of State, serving in the Cabinet up until the last election so I had a large role within the Executive but, equally, for those taking a large role in scrutinising the Executive, either on the Opposition Front Bench or chairing Select Committees, the burdens of doing that alongside a highly contested marginal seat with its increased workload makes reducing the number of MPs highly questionable.

There is a relationship with reform of your Lordships' House. I have been a strong advocate of Lords reform throughout my parliamentary career-and here I may fall out of favour with some of my noble friends, particularly my noble friend who is to follow me and move his own amendment-and I was very active when working with the much-missed Robin Cook, when he was Leader of the other place, in his efforts to move forward on Lords reform. Sadly, we ran aground due to the legendary indecision of my colleagues in the other place.

My preference now would be for this House to be elected in thirds at each general election to ensure that it does not have a rival mandate, on a regional list basis. Members of an elected second Chamber should not be eligible for re-election. In that way we would not have to resource them for looking after constituents they are pandering to in order to get elected, and they could maintain a relative independence from our friends in the Whips Office, which we know is important here.

My views have moderated since I became a Member of your Lordships' House in that I am no longer an advocate of a 100 per cent elected Chamber because I have seen the wisdom and expertise of the independent Cross Benches. I particularly enjoyed the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Low, recently. There is therefore a strong case for a 20 per cent element of independent Cross-Benchers appointed by a statutory appointments commission. That is my vision. I am sure that fairly soon, when the Deputy Prime Minister chooses to publish his proposals, we may have a chance to debate them.

The link with this Bill is that within my own, perhaps weird, preference for how this Chamber should be reformed I also support the notion of a secondary mandate, as put forward by my friend Billy Bragg, who lives down the Dorset coast from me in Burton Bradstock-sometimes known as Burton Billy Braggstock. He advocates that at a general election the votes cast for Members of Parliament should be recycled and used to elect, on the basis of their party allegiance, Members of the second Chamber, thereby enshrining the notion that it is secondary to the primary Chamber and that no one who is a political representative in this House is here by virtue of votes cast for them but by virtue of votes cast for Members of Parliament. It is a fairly ingenious scheme.