Author Topic: Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Committee (9th Day) | Lords debates  (Read 814 times)

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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Committee (9th Day) | Lords debates
17 January 2011, 5:30 pm

I support the amendment, in the sense that I understand it to be a probing amendment about the Government's decision to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 Members. I do not have a problem about reducing the size of the House of Commons, but I have a problem when it is not done on the basis of principle and when the process by which the new figure is arrived at has been opaque. That is precisely what we have seen here. In this context, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maples, on a thoughtful and analytical attempt to pursue precisely that sort of argument on the basis of principle. I do not agree with everything that he said but, for the first time that I can recall from the government Benches, we had an analytical approach based on principles, which the noble Lord set out very persuasively in many cases. What I want to know from the Government-and I shall come to this in a moment-is why we have not heard that sort of quality of speech from them on this issue.

I hope that I am not misrepresenting Ministers when I say that, in previous discussions on this issue, they have rather airily waved aside the question of the size of the House of Commons, as if it was a piffling matter. It needed to be reduced and whether it was reduced by a bit or a bit more did not matter very much. But it really does matter, because the size of the House of Commons shapes the size of each constituency, even more so when we are looking to equalise the size of these constituencies, as this Bill seeks to do, and with certain qualifications. Most Members of both Houses of Parliament would support that aim. The size of the constituency crucially determines the nature of the relationship between the Member of Parliament and their constituents. That lies at the very heart of our democratic arrangements. I have touched on this issue in previous debates and Ministers have more or less ignored what I have said, so I hope that they will forgive me if I spell it out in just a little bit more detail now in the hope that they will now engage with this issue, even if they do not particularly agree with the view that I take on it.

When I was the Member of Parliament for Swindon North, I used to deal with about 200 to 300 e-mails and letters every week. I was helped by outstanding staff, but I had to deal with those letters and e-mails, as they were on issues of such importance to my constituents that they were not delegated to staff. I was helped, but I dealt with each of them. Most of those letters-around three-quarters, on one estimate that I took about three years ago-came about because of the problems that my constituents had with Swindon Borough Council. Most of the rest were on problems that constituents had with various agencies of central government. Most MPs, including former Members of the other place in this House, will probably have had similar, if not identical, experiences. That casework is detailed and complex, which is why, in the end, I felt that I had to take responsibility and be directly engaged with it.

It follows logically from that that if any constituency were to be increased significantly in size it would be that much more difficult for any conscientious MP to deal with that casework in exactly the same way. It would be equally hard if further decentralisation of power to local authorities increased the workload of MPs trying to sort out constituents' problems with local authorities, such as Swindon Borough Council. Those facts may argue for even smaller constituencies and therefore more of them. On the other hand, it could be argued that, should decentralisation result in more powerful, effective and competent local authorities-and, indeed, local councillors-it would lighten the casework of Members of Parliament, leaving MPs freer to concentrate on work at Westminster. That might argue for fewer constituencies; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was arguing for that. These are important issues and he made the case for having a significant reduction in the number of constituencies perfectly well. I do not altogether agree with him, as the work that MPs do for their constituencies is profoundly important in a healthy democracy, but he made a cogent case.

The crucial point is that we have had no realistic, sensible discussion about how far the ability of an MP to manage their casework effectively and personally matters. This is an important issue for debate. We may come to different conclusions, but proper public debate on this is surely important. Even the Government could not deny it, yet they have denied the public and both Houses of Parliament any proper opportunity to debate it. Moreover, as I have said, there is no question but that the increasingly plural levels of government, with a complex and constantly evolving mix of local authorities, devolved Administrations and national and European institutions, are reshaping the nature of the MP's relationship with their constituents. That must have significant implications for the appropriate size of the constituency and so for the size of the House of Commons.

I discussed all those issues in the amendment that I put forward last week. I hope that the House will forgive me, but earlier in today's debate a noble Baroness from the Cross Benches-I am afraid that I did not catch who she was-made some comments about that amendment. I fear that she was in danger of misrepresenting my position, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I put on record what my exact position was. She concluded her remarks by asking why we had had that lengthy debate on my amendment, which was then not put to the vote. That was my decision as a Back-Bencher. She then said that Cross-Benchers could be forgiven for wondering what was going on. I will catch up with Hansard tomorrow and perhaps write to that Cross-Bencher as well about this, but perhaps I might inform the Committee what was going on.

I spent nearly three years as the Minister for Constitutional Reform in the previous Government. I spent a great deal of that time looking at all these issues in great depth-rather more time than the Ministers have collectively had available to them in government to look at them. I thought that it would help this House and its business of revising and scrutinising legislation if I put down an amendment summarising my experience as a Minister in looking at those complex issues. I thought that that would be of service to the House. I hope that the noble Baroness, when she looks in Hansard for my remarks, will agree that putting down such an amendment was helpful. I have no responsibility for the length of time that it took, but it was a long and complex debate because this is a difficult and complex issue. I sat throughout the three and a half hours of that debate and I heard no repetition from any of the noble Lords who took part. My only regret is that there was only one substantive contribution from the Benches opposite. The debate on the amendment could easily have taken longer and it would have been valuable if it had. The fact that it did not is a matter of regret to me.

Why did I not push that amendment to a vote? I am afraid that I am still fairly innocent in the ways of this House. Various views were being expressed to me, quite vigorously and from all sides, about whether to push it to a vote but I understood quite clearly that, if I put it to a vote and that was lost, there was no opportunity to return to this issue on Report. When I announced that I was not going to push it to a vote-and I hope that the noble Baroness from the Cross Benches, who is still anonymous to me, at least, will look at what I said-I quite clearly said why. I said that, to me, the case for my amendment was still so strong and so much in the Government's own interest-their long-term strategic interest, not narrow, tactical or partisan manoeuvring-that I hoped that they would look again at it and that I would bring it forward again at Report, when I hoped to have a more constructive response from the Government. I still believe that and hope that that will happen.

I do not think that that was unreasonable. I hope that the noble Baroness will look at those remarks and understand then that what was going on was not, as I fear she was trying to insinuate, that I was plotting in some nefarious way to filibuster and to derail this legislation. I am not, because, as I have said, I am perhaps unusual in this House-on both sides of this Chamber-in supporting the Government's broad objectives in both parts of the Bill. I have no wish to see the referendum on AV derailed. I know that many of my colleagues disagree but I want to support it and, again, have expressed before my broad support for it. I am afraid that I take exception to being accused of somehow trying to derail and filibuster this legislation.

Source: Lord Wills's recent appearances (TheyWorkForYou)