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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (14th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 9:30 pm, 26th January 2011

The amendment would reduce the number of paid ministerial officeholders in proportion to the reduction in the size of the other place. The text of the amendment is identical to an amendment moved in another place by Mr Charles Walker, the Conservative Member for Broxbourne. Before I come to the substance of the amendment, perhaps I may set out the relevant background.

Prior to the general election, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, now the Prime Minister and his deputy, made much of their determination to empower Parliament and enhance scrutiny and accountability of the Executive. In a lecture which many noble Lords will recall, delivered to the Institute for Government on 26 January 2010, Mr Nicholas Clegg declared:

"The Liberal Democrats believe this election is an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government. ... I want to be clear: I am talking about a major reorganisation of Whitehall ... As a result of our restructure the number of Ministers and government whips would be reduced from 119 to 73".

Less than a fortnight later, on 8 February 2010, Mr David Cameron gave a lecture entitled "Rebuilding Trust in Politics" in which he said:

"We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute ... We've got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again-so they can look at it and say 'yes: those MPs we elect-they're holding the government to account on my behalf'".

I do not want to pretend that Amendment 91 would necessarily deliver our full aim. It is arguable that it is too timid to bring about the radical rebalancing that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had previously advocated. It does not reduce the size of the Executive; it merely stabilises the number of paid Ministers in proportion to the size of the House of Commons, from which the bulk of ministerial officeholders are drawn. It would do so by amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of paid Ministers allowed to sit and vote in the other place at 95. If the House of Commons were to remain at its present size of 650 seats, the limit of 95 Ministers would remain. However, if the Government persist in their objective of reducing the number of MPs to 600, the amendment would ensure a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers to 87.

As everybody knows, in our system the Executive are drawn from within the legislature, predominantly the House of Commons. That House therefore has an important dual function. On the one hand, it exists to sustain an Executive and supply the bulk of Ministers who hold office, and on the other, it exists to hold the Government and those Ministers to account. There is an inherent tension in that dual role, and frequent and increasing criticism is made that the system performs the former role-the drawing of the Executive-much more effectively than the latter. Indeed, the Speaker of the other place gave a lecture last week in which he said:

"The House of Commons needs to be an instrument of scrutiny by examination. It must be the informed critic and not the man or woman in the crowd. We have made progress in that regard, particularly in the past 18 months, but there is more that can still be done".

Cutting the number of MPs without also enacting a proportionate cut in the number of statutory Ministers entitled would not shift power from government to the Commons. It would not enhance scrutiny and examination of the Executive. It would do the opposite, despite the proclaimed aims of Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. Our Amendment 91 would at least prevent the scales of power tilting yet further in the Executive's favour. Indeed, some would argue that the Executive would not feel the impact sufficiently and that a much lower limit on the size of the Executive ought to be imposed, perhaps along the lines that Mr Nicholas Clegg himself proposed in his speech. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who I am glad to see in his place, has tabled an amendment to that effect. I have no doubt that he will highlight the report of the Public Administration Select Committee, which last year held an inquiry into the size of the Executive. It heard many distinguished figures argue for a substantial reduction in the number of Ministers. Your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate that proposition, and we will see whether that significant reduction finds favour.

As I have said, our amendment is a more moderate proposal. It ensures that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament does not lead to a proportionate increase in the size of the paid Executive by reference to the size of the House as a whole. Given the force of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg's previous commitments to new politics, it is surprising that a clause along these lines was not included in the Bill in the first place. It was astonishing that the coalition Government still refused to act once the omission had been pointed out. It is not as if the Government have not now had the time or the opportunity to reflect on this. As far back as last year's debate on the Queen's Speech, Mr Nicholas Clegg was asked whether he accepted that there should be a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers and aides in line with the reduction in the number of MPs. He refused to give any commitment.

Since then, the point has been raised in your Lordships' House and in the Commons at every stage of the Bill. On each occasion, the Government have issued the same basic response. It was repeated on 10 January by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who told your Lordships:

"The Government indicated in the other place that we agree that that is indeed an issue to be considered, but we do not believe that it is one that needs to be resolved in the context of the Bill. Reduction in the size of the House will not take effect until 2015, and we should therefore consider that issue in the light of decisions on, among other things, the size and composition of a reformed second Chamber".-[Hansard, 10/1/11; col. 1224.]

I can do no better than respond to that line. Let me emphasise that this is a political line, not a real position, by quoting from the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee which was wrestling with exactly the same obfustication from the Government last October. In its third report, the committee stated:

"It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House. That the Government claims that no progress can be made on this issue because no conclusion has yet been reached on the overall size and nature of government is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst, given the Government's readiness to reduce at haste the number of Members in one House without consideration of the number of Members there should be in the other".

The constitutional committee was too kind to point out that 114 extra Members of House of Lords have already been introduced.

This is an obvious opportunity to make good the promise made by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, or at least to give a direction of travel as to their commitment to increase the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account. Instead, they are doing precisely the reverse. Why is that? I beg to move.

Amendment 91A (to Amendment 91)

Moved by Lord Norton of Louth

91A: After Clause 11, line 12, leave out from "650," to end of line 14 and insert "the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must not exceed 80"