Author Topic: Committee (7th Day) | Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill | Lords debates  (Read 2129 times)

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Committee (7th Day) | Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill | Lords debates
10 January 2011, 4:25 pm

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his courtesy.

Rather curiously for this House, I support the Bill's objectives. I support a referendum on the alternative vote system and I support any attempt to make the process of boundary revisions fairer and more efficient. Who could possibly be against any reasonable attempt to cut the cost of politics? However, as I and many other noble Lords have already argued, there are profound flaws in how the Bill proposes to achieve those objectives. The amendment is designed to remedy some of the worst of those flaws in Part 2. It is lengthier than I would have wished, because it sets out to provide a comprehensive solution to those problems, but I would be happy to withdraw it if the Government could give an assurance today that they will find a better way to secure such a solution.

At the heart of Part 2 lie assumptions about the optimum size of the House of Commons, the optimum size of a parliamentary constituency and the process of altering constituency boundaries. Those issues are central to the machinery of our democracy, yet the Government have conceded that the assumptions that they have made are arbitrary. They are not subject to any governing principle and they have not been subject to adequate consultation and scrutiny by the people whom they are meant to serve. Those issues are all the subject of vigorous debate.

Our electoral arrangements should never become the subject of partisan dispute, as that corrodes public trust and undermines the foundations of our democracy. Therefore, for many years, all political parties have sought consensus on such issues and, for the most part, they have succeeded in finding it. The Bill is a deplorable exception to that good practice, to which the amendment attempts to return. The amendment would not substitute my judgment for that of the Government in addressing these issues. Instead, it sets up a process for an independent, fair and principled set of judgments to be made. In doing so, it is intended to restore faith in the impartiality of the process for changing our electoral arrangements by requiring the Government to set up a committee of inquiry, such as a royal commission, to investigate and make recommendations on all those key and contentious issues.

The royal commission is a tried and tested mechanism for addressing such important, complex and contentious issues. It has worked well in the past and is generally accepted as a fair mechanism for dealing with such contested issues. Its composition would be for the Government to decide, but it should include Members of both Houses of Parliament, including representatives of the principal parties in the House of Commons, as those with most direct experience of such issues, as well as individuals with no party attachment, and others.

It would be for the Government to decide the process of such a committee of inquiry, but I draw Ministers' attention to the Liberal Democrat conference resolution of 2008, which pledged to set up a constitutional assembly or citizens' summit as a deliberative mechanism for the people of this country to pronounce on precisely such important issues as this. I am profoundly sorry that the Government have not followed the recommendation of that Liberal Democrat conference of 2008. It may be that they will now seize on this amendment as an opportunity to do so. They could even vote with us on this.

The remit for the commission would include consideration of how best to equalise constituencies, particularly taking into account all those issues of local identity and character about which such widespread concerns were expressed at Second Reading, which I think all Members of this House have had expressed to them in correspondence since Second Reading. The amendment proposes that the commission examine the optimum size for a constituency. This is a crucial consideration in creating a principled approach to the equalisation of constituencies. I am not against equalising constituencies, but I want to see it being done according to a fair, impartial and principled process.

What is the appropriate relationship between a Member of Parliament and their constituency and what size of constituency best sustains that relationship? The United States, with a population approximately six times that of the United Kingdom, has 435 Members of the House of Representatives and 100 Members of the Senate. A proportionate adjustment for the United Kingdom would result in a House of Commons of around 90 MPs.

Source: Lord Wills's recent appearances (TheyWorkForYou)