Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 4:14 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Tyler, but I had difficulty following some of their points.

On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, about the size of the House of Commons, it has historically always had about 650 Members. A century ago, it was larger at 707 Members; it has come down in size over that period. I do not think it excessively large for exactly the reasons my noble friend gave: we have an unusually large Executive in this country, partly because we are a unitary state. We do not have devolved government in England. Maybe we should have a smaller Government than 100-odd members, but as long as such a large proportion of the governing party are members of the Executive—about a third of the Members of the governing party in the House of Commons are members of the Executive—I see no alternative to a House of Commons about the same size we have at the moment.

As for the House of Lords, I think the noble Lord’s memory is somewhat short. It was the last Labour Government who dramatically decreased the size of the House of Lords by removing most of the hereditary Peers. The House of Lords is now much smaller than it has been for most of recent history.

As for what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, I am a supporter of electoral reform. I support the mixed member system that Britain introduced into Germany after 1945 to get the best balance between directly elected constituency MPs and a proportional top-up—but we have had a referendum on that. We had a referendum in 2011, and whereas I was very open to exploring the results of the 2016 referendum, which was close and not on a precise proposition, the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote was on a very precise proposition and has been enacted by Parliament—and it was decisive; 69% voted against it.

My strong advice to my friends on the Lib Dem Benches is: do not go there. The way the progressive parties in this country will come to power in future is not by chimera ideas of electoral reform but by winning an election under the existing system. That is what we should devote our attention to doing.

My noble friend’s points were all well made and I agreed with them all. I amplify her final point about votes at 16. It is not clear to me what the Government’s policy is in respect of allowing the House of Commons a free vote; perhaps he could elucidate that for us in his reply. It looks as if on a free vote there probably is a majority now in the House of Commons for a voting age of 16.

Not only has the time clearly come for votes at 16— the group that wants representation and has a democratic right to it that is most unrepresented in our institutions at the moment is young people, particularly 16 and 17 year-olds—but it should go hand in hand with two other reforms. First, young people should be automatically registered at their place of study, which used to happen when I was a student. Then, all universities would automatically register all their students. The move towards individual registration has served to keep a lot of young people off the electoral roll. If we are to reduce the voting age to 16, the other change I would make is to have a polling station in every place of study—every school with a sixth form, every college and every university. The combination of those three reforms—votes at 16, automatic registration and a polling booth in every place of study—would transform the representation of young people and we would be a healthier society for it.