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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 10:00 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with scholarship, erudition and experience has made an extraordinarily powerful case for a reduction in the number of Ministers. But there are two matters before your Lordships' House on these two amendments. The first is whether to maintain, as the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton would do, the number of Ministers at least proportionate to the number of MPs. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, would go further.

I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend to the extent that that amendment at least ought to be accepted. The Government have come with great and, in many ways, worthy protestations of a desire to reform politics, in particular to reduce the power of the Executive-I look particularly at those on the Liberal Democrat part of the Government Benches. I do not understand how they can be content when that is not what will happen under this Bill. Indeed, it will be quite the opposite, as my noble and learned friend has said.

Lest there be any misunderstanding outside this Chamber as to the significance of the payroll vote, let me try to spell it out. First, if you are on the payroll vote, which means those who are paid or unpaid for these purposes, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries as well as full Ministers, you cannot vote against the Government without resigning. It is as simple as that. If a piece of legislation is put forward that a number of Ministers do not like, they cannot stay as Ministers and vote against it. That automatically means that the Government have a greater number of Members of Parliament able and willing to support what they want.

Secondly, as noble Lords have said, the Government cannot be held to account. When I was a Minister I could not ask questions of the Government through the mechanisms which exist in this House, let alone those in the other place. One can do what one can behind the scenes, but one cannot in an open way hold the Government to account.

On 17 January, I drew attention to the statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, that the unambiguous judgment on the part of the Government was,

"that reducing the power of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature, making the legislatures more accountable to people ... collectively introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians".

I will listen intently to what the Minister-if it be the Leader of the House-says as to how that statement can be reconciled with a position which does not accept that at the very least the number of Ministers must be reduced proportionately to the number of Back-Benchers. Otherwise, the power of the Executive will not be reduced. The power of the legislature will not be boosted. Quite the opposite will take place.