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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 10:15 pm, 26th January 2011

I rise not only to support my noble friend with or without the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton-I think there is an interesting debate to be had there-but to say above all that I regard this as a very important proposed new clause, which I hope and expect the Government to indicate some degree of willingness to move on. The reality is that, like the figure of 600, this discussion takes us back quite a few years. That discussion, as I have said in previous debates, has been around at least since 2004, when Andrew Tyrie MP wrote about it in his pamphlet, but it goes further back than that. Some noble Lords may have heard the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on the Conservative side, and me saying that we had discussed the reduction in the size of the House of Commons in the 1980s or possibly the early 1990s. We always said-this was said on both sides of the House by people who took this view-that if you reduced the size of the House of Commons, two things had to be at the forefront of our minds. First, it should be by all-party agreement; and, secondly, there must be a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons.

There were two reasons for that predominantly. One has been well spelled out. I shall not dwell on it in great detail, but it is glaringly obvious that if you keep the same number of Ministers and the payroll vote is exactly the same, you reduce the number of MPs, give greater power and influence to the Executive, and reduce the power and influence of the legislature. That is why this is so important.

I had not thought of the other reason until I heard Professor King of Essex University explain it. He is right that if you reduce what he calls the gene pool from which Ministers are pulled-the Back-Benchers-the gene pool that is available for new Ministers will be reduced. That is important, too. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the importance of the quality of Ministers. If you do not reduce the number of Ministers but simply reduce the number of Back-Benchers, that will inevitably affect the quality as well as the quantity available to a Prime Minister from which to draw.

As I say, the argument goes back many years. I am frustrated and angry about our current position because we have been crying out for these reforms for some years, but they can be done only in a consensual and thoughtful manner. The Bill leaves bits out, rushes things and tries to do it without all-party agreement, which makes it difficult. Many on the Conservative Front Bench, when in opposition or in government, have said that they recognise the importance of dealing with the number of Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have said, "We must wait for House of Lords reform", but that is a very dangerous philosophy. Reform of the House of Lords will not be easy, not least because of strong feelings on the government Benches. Even if they think it will be easier than I do, the chances of getting this through at the same time will not necessarily be good. There will be that sort of battle all the time. This is so important that it ought to be linked in a Bill with the reduction in the size of the House of Commons. I do not know anyone either in the House of Commons in the past 20 years or in this House who has not recognised that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons, you ought to reduce the number of Ministers. I do not see how you can argue against that. If you are going to do it you should do it together, and in the same Bill.