Report (3rd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 9th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 7:15 pm, 9th February 2011

I entirely deprecate this tendency and I am delighted that the noble Lord has drawn our attention to a continuation of a baleful tendency that has persisted for many years. In 1900, there were just 60 salaried government posts, of which only 33 were filled by Members of Parliament. In addition, there were nine Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The total payroll vote in 1900 was 42. One hundred years later, in the year 2000, which was during the period of the previous Labour Government, the payroll consisted of 129 out of 659 Members of Parliament. We should also bear in mind that other legislatures-for example, the legislatures in the United States of America and in France-do not have to supply the ministerial Bench. We should not forget that when considering the Government's claims that we are overrepresented in Parliament by comparison to other nations.

As a result of the exercise of patronage by Mr Cameron, possibly advised by Mr Clegg, there are now 95 Ministers in the House of Commons and 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Constitution Unit tells me that that represents more Parliamentary Private Secretaries than there have ever been. The payroll vote is 141 out of 650 Members of Parliament. A year ago, Mr Cameron, addressing the Conservative Party asked:

"How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?"

The answer is that it has done so on the basis of thorough, systematic and unscrupulous use of Prime Ministerial patronage. The Prime Minister is now able to answer that question he posed a year ago. Ministers in the coalition Government profess to repent themselves of this; but, like Saint Augustine, they do not intend virtue just yet. This Bill provides an opportunity for them to embark on a reformed life, but they hesitate-indeed, decline-to take that opportunity.

This is a very important constitutional issue. It is about the capacity of the House of Commons to debate with some measure of freedom, to scrutinise with some independence and to hold the Executive to account. The capacity of your Lordships' House to do that is under threat, in consequence of the coalition having a political majority in this country. The plight of both Houses of Parliament must now be a matter of intense concern. The proposed new clauses provide the opportunity to assist the House of Commons to recover its capacity to perform the function within our constitution that the people expect of it.