Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 7:04 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I have a special reason for welcoming this Bill. It puts the final nail in the coffin of the unlamented Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which was passed by the coalition Government. It was the most fiercely opposed Bill in the House of Lords for the past decade, including at least one all-night sitting. It contained two distinct and unrelated measures. One provided for a referendum on the voting system and the other provided for a reduction of MPs from 650 to 600. The Conservatives wanted to reduce the number of MPs but did not want the referendum; the Lib Dems wanted the referendum but did not want to reduce the number of MPs. The history lesson is this: coalition deals affecting our constitution, made behind closed doors with no effective consultation, are castles built on sand, which deserve to collapse—as, thankfully, the 2011 Act now has.

I welcome the fact that the Bill maintains the size of the Commons at 650. That is particularly important at a time when there are huge and increasing demands on MPs from their constituents. If we reduce the number of MPs, we automatically increase the size of constituencies, which in turn increases the workload of MPs—not the workload of noble Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, seemed to think; he omitted the obvious point that Members of the Commons have constituents to represent. Also, as my noble friend Lord Adonis said, if we reduced the number of MPs without reducing the number of Ministers, there would be proportionately fewer Back-Benchers to hold the Government to account.

I also welcome another part of the Bill, which is another rejection of the 2011 Act. Clause 1(3) changes the frequency of reviews from every five years to every eight years. The five-year review was always ridiculous, coupled as it was with another failed piece of coalition Government constitutional meddling—namely, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which decreed that general elections should take place every five years. That meant that there would be brand-new constituency boundaries at every general election: neither MPs nor their constituents would know who represented them from one general election to the next. Eight years seems to me a sensible compromise, ensuring that constituency electorates are kept reasonably up to date, and in normal times would operate for at least two general elections.

That brings me to a problem with the size of constituencies. There is an inherent contradiction in the Bill, which provides for five protected constituencies. I support that: inflexible, rigidly defined rules on population size do not make sense. Yet in the same Bill we are told that in no circumstances whatever must the remaining 645 constituencies deviate from the diktat of plus or minus 5%—leading to all the problems that various contributors to the debate have mentioned. I hope that the Minister—he knows a bit about fighting elections, and I am sure he would not like such changes to affect local government elections—will consider the 5% and increase it to at least 7.5%; I would prefer 10%.

These are all issues that we will deal with in Committee. My overall feeling is one of absolute relief that we are back to 650 MPs, and that the dreadful Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is now dead and buried. If only the coalition Government of the time had listened to the arguments of those in opposition, so much time, money and energy would have been saved.