Number of parliamentary constituencies

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 25 June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Is it not a pleasure that we can do our work without the bells being quite so loud as they were earlier? I will keep my remarks on clause 5 extremely short because the clause is very simple. It amends the existing legislation to ensure that we continue to have 650 parliamentary constituencies, as we do now. Currently the 1986 Act, as amended by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, sets the number of constituencies at 600.

The reduction has yet to happen in practice. As the recommendations of the commission’s review is based on 600, it had yet to be implemented by the order that would have been laid under previous legislation, which we have discussed mightily already this morning. This is a change of policy from that adopted under the coalition Government. There is nothing to hide. The change takes into account views that have been expressed. Dare I say it demonstrates listening?

I mentioned that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has looked into the matter, and we are grateful for their consideration. On balance, we believe that the move to 600 constituencies, brought into law in 2011 by the coalition Government, is no longer the appropriate move to make because circumstances have changed in two areas. First, in the past decade the UK population has grown by 5% between 2011 and 2019. It is now estimated to be 66.4 million. And—the one hon. Members have all been waiting for—we have left the European Union. Is that not the core argument of the day? It is relevant to the Bill because we have regained significant areas of law making, returned to this Parliament and the other legislatures of the UK. That means that to ensure effective representation for a growing population, it is sensible to maintain 650 constituencies. I note that there was broad consensus on that on Second Reading, so I do not think that any of the chucklings that we have heard from sedentary positions are based on strong arguments. The direction of the argument is in favour of maintaining 650.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 3:00, 25 June 2020

I absolutely understand and accept the Minister’s argument, although other democratic institutions regularly review the number of their elected representatives. My local authority, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, has just implemented new boundaries to reduce the number of councillors from 60 to 54, not only to save the council tax payer money, but to recognise that things change. The Government are right to keep such questions under review.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for that example. My right hon. Friend is correct, particularly about the principle that ought to underpin what we do here. After all, we are looking at public money, in terms of what we might call the cost of politics—the number of salaries multiplied by 600 or 650—and how we ask the boundary commissions to do their work. Those things are underpinned by public money and public time, so we should consider them in Committee . There is nothing more extensive to say about clause 5, so I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

The Opposition welcome clause 5. We have argued to keep the number of MPs at 650. I also welcome the Minister’s explanation of why the Government have U-turned and returned to the idea of having 650 Members of Parliament.

The Minister made the argument that the UK population has grown by 5% since 2011. I ask her, and she is welcome to intervene, whether that is an indication that we should expect the 650 figure to increase in subsequent reviews if the UK population were to increase in that time.

I also ask why the number is fixed. We heard in our evidence sessions that one of the difficulties that commissioners have in drawing seats is that they must finally reach the 650 figure. Is there not a strong case for having a target number of MPs that the commissioners should reach within a percentage range? Overall, the Opposition welcome the clause and the decision to maintain 650 MPs.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Briefly, several of the factors that the Minister outlined were blindingly obviously after 2015 as well. The population in this country was going up and there had been a referendum to leave the European Union. Was it not, frankly, the shallowness of David Cameron and the stubbornness of Mrs May that meant that the Government have had to make the change now that they could have made before? We would then have been here representing different constituencies. There is no shame in saying that the former leadership of the party—it is probably unwise to attack the current leadership—got it wrong and that is why they have done a U-turn.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Can I say what a pleasure it is to see clause 5 in the Bill? I spent about 30 sittings of my life in the last Parliament on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, brought forward by Afzal Khan. On that Committee were me, the Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry North East, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the hon. Member for City of Chester, with whom I have grown incredibly close over this issue and through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a genuine delight to be on the Committee.

I used to trot along the corridor every Wednesday morning to come and argue that there should be 650 seats. At the time, the Minister, only six months ago, was resolutely opposed to that. So it is with a degree of glee that I hear her talk about that 5% population growth. I know that, on the Committee, I, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the Minister have had children, but I can safely say that we have not contributed 5% population growth in the last six months. Therefore, the U-turn is quite remarkable.

There is also an argument based on Britain leaving the European Union. I accept that. It will be a travesty and bad for Scotland, which is probably why people in Scotland voted against it, but if we follow to its logical conclusion the argument about losing 73 MEPs who used to go to Brussels and debate and legislate on our behalf, and all those laws coming back to the UK Parliament—by and large they are coming back to it as a result of a power grab by the UK Government who are not devolving the powers on to institutions such as the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament—presumably we should increase the number of seats, commensurately with MPs’ increased workload. Like the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood I am perplexed that the number remains at 650.

I want to pick up on the Minister’s point about cutting the cost of politics. One of the things that I tried to bring up in those enlightening Wednesday morning Committee sittings—with more ease some weeks than others—was that the Government’s argument that they are cutting the cost of politics is problematic because of the other place.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful that that revolutionary from Yorkshire, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, agrees that we should abolish their lordships. The Government need to be consistent if they make the argument about cutting costs. Even this week we hear that the Prime Minister’s chief aide Eddie Lister is off to join the House of Lords, with £305 a day tax-free for the rest of his life, without ever being subject to a vote.

The House of Lords is an utterly undemocratic institution. There are only two places in the world where hereditary chieftains retain the right to make law. One is the United Kingdom and other is Lesotho. There are only three parts of the world where clerics retain the right to legislate. We have 26 bishops, the Lords Spiritual, who legislate by virtue of their religion. The other countries, of course, are Iran and the Isle of Man. If the Minister, therefore, wants, as she has said today, to talk about cutting the cost of politics, may I gently suggest that in the previous Parliament the Bill was starting at the wrong end, with the election of MPs? Perhaps if we want to cut the cost of politics we should end the circus down the other side of the building.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

The hon. Gentleman picks up where I was cut off by the time limit in my Second Reading speech, and I could not agree with him more. When I was preparing my Second Reading speech I looked at the Hansard report of the debate from the late 1990s on reform of the House of Lords under Tony Blair. I was struck to see such familiar names as Ted Heath. Giants of the British political scene made arguments that we make in exactly the same form today. I looked into the cost of the House of Lords, and it is not the same as the cost of House of Commons, but it is not far off. There is no right of removal, and we avert our eyes from what is inappropriately still a hereditary principle, when we all know that is not a good enough reason for anyone to hold status in public life any more. I hope that a bold, reforming one nation Government will have, at some point in the next five to 10 years, an eye on that, because it is the elephant in the Palace.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I have watched the hon. Lady in the last couple of weeks in the Chamber and she has been incredibly thoughtful. I suspect that the Government Whip is probably wincing slightly but the House is all the richer for people who are willing to stand up and say, “If we are going to talk about the future of the UK constitution we need to address the fact that in 2020 we still have people who have been there many years and have never been subject to a vote.” She is right to say that.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

As the hon. Gentleman has picked up, there is quite a lot of agreement about the other place. However, I do not think it is particularly fair on the Minister to be talking about it when we are trying to deal with a constitutional Bill on the House of Commons, and on how we vote. I say to him gently that I understand the arguments that he makes, and there is merit in them. He has some cross-party agreement. Voting on the other place has always tended to be a free vote, and it has always fallen at the last hurdle. I would be more than happy to have discussions with the hon. Gentleman if he could find positive ways to move forward on the subject. I am just not sure today is the right moment.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. I have been biding by time about when to intervene. We have now had two interventions that were long speeches. Can we stick to the Bill? The Bill has nothing to do with reform of the House of Lords.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Thank you very much, Sir David. I do not want to challenge the establishment too much when you are in the Chair, so I will avoid being taken down the path that these unruly Conservatives would have me go down—of course, I was so much in order. Perhaps my remarks in the last few minutes have been slightly cheekie-chappie, but I want to say that I am delighted to see the clause in the Bill. It would be remiss of us not to put on the record our thanks to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, who tried to keep this issue alive in the previous Parliament and, as a result, we find ourselves with a Bill that is by no means perfect, but the clause is one of the better things in it. With that, and I am sure to everyone’s relief, I bring my remarks to a close.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The Bill gets more and more curious. The Minister argued consistently on previous clauses for a position that would have prevented us from getting to the clause, had we been in that position of automaticity and the previous boundary reviews had gone through. If it were not for Parliament’s ability to have a second look at what had been set in train, we would not have the clause to have 650 MPs.

It is curious for the Minister to stand up and say that is the right decision and what we should do when she has also argued for something that would have prevented us from getting to this position. That is the argument in favour of Parliament giving the final approval on whatever the boundary commission proposes. It is clear that going down to 600 MPs was a schism imposed on us by two ambitious young politicians who got together in a rose garden and completely fell in love. It was the wrong decision, and when Parliament got the chance to take a second look, it came to a conclusion that both sides of the House support. With the situation we are in, which we have been in for a long time—MPs represent greater numbers of constituents than ever before, and in some of our inner-city areas that involves many people who cannot go on the electoral register—it has been obvious that we should not cut the number of MPs. We are where we are, but that highlights how the Government are arguing for a position that would have resulted in us making a huge error, had it been in place at the time of the last boundary review.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will speak only briefly. In fact, I only sought to catch your eye, Sir David, after my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley gave advice to the Minister, based on his years of experience, that she was entitled to criticise previous leaders who may no longer be with us. I thought I would therefore take the opportunity to do what I promised earlier and compliment the Minister on changing her position. I said how she would prove to be flexible, and this is what I was talking about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, the reversion to 650 is the right decision, and I very much welcome it. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham just said, is it not great that we are in a position to do that, because automaticity was not in the Bill? I will leave it at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.