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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 10:30 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I am delighted to have been encouraged to leap to my feet. I was so enjoying the noble Lord, Lord Myners, who was in danger of slipping into his anecdotage, but it was great fun and he made some good, serious points as well, which I enjoyed. Some of what he said about his time in Government should be taken up as a specialist seminar in itself, which some noble Lords wanted to encourage. The noble Lord demonstrated his experience and knowledge of Government because of course my brief says "resist". But noble Lords should not be too disappointed by that because I hope to demonstrate that although it says "resist" what it means is "resist but", and I shall get to the "but" in a moment.

This issue was substantially debated in another place, but the noble and learned Lord who introduced the amendment here has given us an opportunity to have another fine debate in this House. Therein lies the point, because as some noble Lords have spotted, the Government have never objected to the spirit behind the amendment. As the noble and learned Lord said and others such as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, spotted, this Government are committed to passing power from the Executive to Parliament. That much was witnessed by the swift moves to implement the Wright committee's recommendations for the other place to establish the Back-Bench Business Committee passing control of much more parliamentary time to Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the power to elect the chairs and members of Select Committees. That is not letting any grass grow under the feet of the Government-fast action straight away.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also become the first Prime Minister in history to give up the power to call a general election at the time of his choosing, so noble Lords will know that this Government are not looking to extend their own influence. This Government believe on principle that power should be dispersed.

In this particular instance, we do not see the need to rush to legislate. There are four and a half years until the provisions of the Bill will take effect. If we want to have new boundaries based on smaller number of seats at the next general election, we have to legislate now to give the boundary commissions the time to carry out their reviews and the parties time to prepare for the election. If we want to have fewer Ministers after the next election, we do not have to legislate now. In fact, we do not necessarily have to legislate at all. In any case, the heart of the matter appears to be not the number of Ministers in the House of Commons but the size of the Government's payroll vote in the House of Commons. That includes Parliamentary Private Secretaries who are not covered by the current legislation and would not be covered by the amendment that we are discussing. As my honourable friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has said, it is only by "self-denying ordinance" that the number of PPSs is limited.

Clearly, the Government have been capable of self-restraint. That self-restraint will still be necessary should the amendment be adopted. So if the intention of the amendment is to try to limit that influence and bind future Governments, it would fail on that count alone. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, realised, the legislation would not cover the number of opposition Front-Benchers. Although they are of a different type of influence and a different type of patronage, it is also relevant if the concern is that there are too few independent voices from the Back-Benches. The Government's position is that it is not-