Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 5:21 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I have three areas of particular concern about the Bill: first, the failure to give equal value to every vote; secondly, the risk that the new directions to the Boundary Commission will further exacerbate the overrepresentation of the most affluent areas at the expense of the most deprived; and, thirdly, the need to view the system for determining representation in the House of Commons in the context of the lack of democratic accountability of this Chamber.

I will not dwell for too long on the disparity in the value of one person’s vote against another’s, which has distorted our politics for so long and which is maintained in this Bill; nor in decrying the Government’s obdurate attachment to first past the post, a system that leaves millions of voters feeling that their votes count for nothing while aiding and abetting the forces of nationalism and disunity—giving the SNP, for example, 48 times the number of MPs of the Green Party with just a 1.2% greater share of the vote. I will just note that the Bill certainly does not meet the Conservative manifesto commitment, already alluded to by my noble friend Lord Tyler, to

“making sure that every vote counts the same”.

The lack of proportionality is by no means the only flaw in the Bill. The constraints that it places on the tolerance that the Boundary Commissions can allow makes the number of registered electors an even more dominant factor than before. This risks natural communities being split in two but it also raises the question of whether eligible electors rather than registered ones would not be a better base for determining constituency boundaries. Given the millions of eligible voters not on the register, it is surely time to look at automatic voter registration so we can ensure that deprived areas, where registration tends to be lower, are not disenfranchised.

Lastly, we cannot view the arrangements for the election of Members of the House of Commons without reflecting on the lack of election to this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in opening for the Labour Party, astonishingly asked Liberal Democrats to explain why this House continued to grow during the coalition while the original coalition proposal was that the number of Members of the Commons should reduce. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness has had a fit of amnesia, but let me help her and her party out: the proposal to reduce the number of constituencies in the Commons was part of the coalition agreement, which included the establishment of an elected House of Lords. If it had been honoured, we would have increased the number of elected representatives in Parliament as a whole and immeasurably improved the legitimacy of this House.

The establishment of an elected House of Lords, which had a massive majority at Second Reading in the Commons, was in the end torpedoed by the Labour and Conservative parties colluding to prevent it. It was a result of the Conservative Party reneging on its coalition agreement, with the assistance of the Labour Party, that led the Liberal Democrats in turn to reject the reduction in the size of the Commons, which was predicated on having elected representatives here. So if the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, wants to know why we continue to sit in a bloated and unelected second Chamber, she need look no further than her own party.

Having said that, my noble friend Lord Greaves is surely wise in his counsel that we should put these matters behind us and seek to work together to improve the Bill.