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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 Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 10:00 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election stated on page 63 said that,

"we plan to change Britain with a sweeping redistribution of power ... from the government to Parliament".

The power and size of the Executive vis-à-vis the House of Commons has grown over the years. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested that there might be some justification for that in terms of the growing demands of modern government. On the other hand, one might say that with the appropriation-if I can put it that way-of significant powers of government over this country by the European Union and the devolution of significant responsibilities for government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is an argument that there is a need for fewer Ministers rather than more. The reality is, however, that numbers have grown and grown. One reason in recent times why the numbers of ministerial appointments and members of the payroll vote have grown yet again is because it has been found expedient in the formation of the coalition to provide more jobs for more of the boys and girls.

Mr Christopher Chope, an admirably robust and courageous Member of Parliament and someone who has never had any time for the excuses and the self-justification that big government makes for itself, said:

"This Government have a record number of Ministers-more than at any time since the 1975 legislation was passed. When I was first elected in 1983"- that is the year in which I was also first elected to the other place-

"there were about 83 House of Commons Ministers in Margaret Thatcher's Government. We now have 95, five more than we had at the height of the last Labour Government".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 103.]

He went on to observe that the number of government Whips is now at an all-time high.

The payroll has grown and grown, and as my noble and learned friend has just said, it is not paid ministerial positions alone that have grown; the number of parliamentary private secretaries has soared. I understand that in the 1950s only a very small number of extremely senior Cabinet Ministers had a PPS. Nowadays, every member of the Cabinet has at least one PPS, and some have two, while every Minister of State has a PPS. In this way, the House of Commons has been progressively debilitated. Not for nothing is the Chief Whip known as the "patronage secretary". If this Bill is unamended, the patronage exercised by the government Chief Whip in the other place will become more significant still.

Professor Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham has noted that, contrary to the folklore, in recent years there have been increasing numbers of rebellions as more and more Back-Bench Members of the other place have found themselves rebelling from time to time. The Executive's response has been to create more jobs and, through this Bill, to reduce the number of Back-Benchers in proportion to the size of the House of Commons. Not only the Government do this. The Opposition and other parties have to do it as well, or at least they persuade themselves that they, too, must stock their Front Benches with increasingly numerous appointments. We have reached the point where approaching half the membership of the House of Commons is on one Front Bench or another. What proportion of independent Back-Benchers does that leave? By the time you discount the ambitious who are not truly independent and the disappointed whose votes are not as independent as they might suppose, how many Back-Benchers enjoy in every sense of the term the freedom of the Back Benches? Not very many.

The Executive, via the legitimate day-to-day operations of the Whips-who have a proper job to do, and it is entirely appropriate for them to appeal to their party members for loyalty and support in the Division Lobbies-via the growth of patronage, via the exploitation of the ambitions of an increasingly professional political class, via pressures that can be exerted on Back-Bench Members through their local parties and via the fear, possibly, of deselection, one way or another continue to increase their dominance of the House of Commons.

I shall quote again from the Conservative Party manifesto for the last election, this time from page 67:

"Because we are serious about redistributing power, we will restore the balance between the government and Parliament by ... allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively".

Rarely in the history of manifesto betrayals can there have been such a quick retreat from the position taken in the manifesto to the practice adopted by the Government in their handling of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Commons. The coalition, in the metaphorical smoke-filled room-metaphorical because I do not suppose for a second that there was any real smoke in it-devised a scheme, which we see expressed in this Bill, to seize yet more power for the Executive over the House of Commons. Bogus justifications were produced. It was noted that Members of Parliament were unpopular as a consequence of the expenses scandal; it was noted that there was a deficit that needed to be corrected; so the justification was contrived for reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons.

One of the justifications offered was on the grounds of saving public expenditure. We are told that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 Members of Parliament, you will save £12 million. On that basis, if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 100 Members of Parliament, you will save £24 million. A reduction of 200 Members will save £48 million. But what price an effective House of Commons, and what price a representative democracy that enables the people of this country, through their representatives, to hold their Government to account? I think that that is worth more than £12 million.

The result of this legislation, if we fail to amend it with one or other of these amendments or something on Report, will be an even smaller proportion of Back-Benchers who are even less capable, in an already enfeebled House of Commons, of holding the Executive to account. One of the consequences of the enfeeblement of the House of Commons is that Members of your Lordships' House feel that they have an increased responsibility to step in where the House of Commons has emasculated itself and denied itself the capacity to do the job that those who elected it expected it to do.

However, if we start to scrutinise more vigorously the actions and legislative proposals of the Executive, we begin to be threatened with the introduction of a guillotine in your Lordships' House. Indeed, the extreme threat is that your Lordships' House will be abolished and replaced by an elected House in which the Whips will have far greater power than is exercised by our genial, moderate, pragmatic and sensible Whips at the moment. It is all an illusion anyway, because if we were to have an elected second Chamber, the Government of the day would almost certainly find that it would be far more recalcitrant and cause far more trouble than even we do in our own modest way.

It is bad for the House of Commons that the proportion of Back-Bench Members has been reduced and might yet be reduced further because the House of Commons needs to be able to populate its committees -its select committees, its legislative committees, the Speaker's Panel and all the other committees and organisations in that House that enable it to do the job it has to do.

The powers of a British Prime Minister are already enormous within our political system. They are far greater than the powers of the President of the United States within the American political system. Thomas Jefferson noted the dangers of an "elective despotism". The argument was developed and accepted in the convention by the founding fathers of the American constitution that there must be checks and balances and a separation of powers. When Lord Hailsham used the phrase "elective dictatorship", borrowing, I assume-subconsciously, no doubt-from Thomas Jefferson's wording a long time earlier, he rang a bell very loudly in the political consciousness of this country. That phrase seemed extraordinarily apt, and ever since he uttered it 20 or 30 years ago-I forget when it was; it was sometime in the 1970s, I believe-it has become part of the common currency of our political discussion. This Bill threatens to make the elective dictatorship yet worse, and makes what is already a disreputable feature of our House of Commons an even greater stain.

Ministers acknowledge the issue; they recognise that there is a problem that will be exacerbated by this legislation as it is. However, they are vague about the remedy, and I do not think we can rely on the weak assurances that we have so far been given. There is legislation to limit the number of paid Ministers; there also needs to be legislation to limit the number of unpaid members of the payroll vote. I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, and I am also tempted to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The House is always happy to sit at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and be instructed by him. In fact, we have gone into seminar mode since we had dinner, with the very significant and interesting amendment spoken to by my noble friend Lady McDonagh. It would be useful from time to time if we were to suspend our Committee proceedings and enjoy a seminar taught by my noble friend Lady McDonagh and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard-because they both really understand what happens in elections and in Parliament-and by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I hope very much that one or the other of these amendments will find favour with the House.