Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 4:05 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, first, I hope that I am correct in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, a happy birthday. Secondly, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about the sad death of Professor Ron Johnston, who would have given evidence to the committee in the other place had he not died so tragically only a few days before he was due to do so. He was a man of great and impartial expertise, to whom the political geography of redistribution came so naturally—and so charmingly to everyone he spoke to.

Given the brevity that we are required to maintain in the debate, at this stage I intend to speak on only one aspect of the Bill: Clause 5, on the number of Members of Parliament. No doubt I will return to other more contentious matters at a later stage, such as automaticity, quotas and the like, but I should add that I broadly support the other elements of the Bill as they stand.

We have too large a political class in this country. It has inflated beyond a level that is acceptable in a modern western democracy. I am therefore disappointed to see that we are moving away from 600 MPs, a number which, as far as I was concerned, was far too many. In his opening comments, the Minister justified moving back to 650 MPs in part because of Brexit. I would have sympathy with that argument were it not for the fact that when we went into the EU, no one suggested that we should reduce the number of Members of Parliament.

When we went into the EU, and when the last EU legislation was passed in 1986, we had only two elected bodies in the United Kingdom, one in Stormont and one in Westminster. The 1986 Act states:

“The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613.”

We currently have 19 more MPs than the Act recommended, and since 1986 we have added 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 60 Members of the Senedd Cymru, 12 more Members at Stormont, 25 Members of the GLA, 41 police and crime commissioners, and elected mayors in Merseyside, Manchester, Watford, Bedford, Teesside and the like. Then, of course, we have 792 Members of this House which, sadly, is just about to be heavily inflated, a decision that I greatly regret, particularly given that so many of the people who will be undertaking that process had said themselves that they wanted to reduce the burden of government on individuals.

Where I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is that if we have a certain number of Members of Parliament, we should also have control over the Executive. We have much larger Houses than most other democracies. If we reduce the number of MPs to what I believe to be an acceptable level, there should be some way of acknowledging the control of the Executive. That is the job of both these Houses. But at the same time as we have been adding elected bodies in one form or another, depending on how you make the calculations we currently have 120 Ministers and Whips, a not quite record 42 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and 109 special advisers—a number that in itself is up from 27 in 1987, almost the same point at which the legislation was passed.

We should reduce the number of people who govern this country, not just stabilise the total at 650. Given that I read the Sunday Times yesterday, I hope that soon—possibly in Committee—we might have what one might describe as a Quentin Letts amendment. We should restrict the numbers in this place and the Commons.