!8th November 2016
- Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab)
- (Pat Glass) referred to this place as the mother of Parliaments. In the past that would be said with pride, but we can no longer claim to other countries, particularly those with newly minted democracies, that we are the example to be followed. Now, sadly, the mother of Parliaments is a dissolute, degraded hag. There are major weaknesses in our arrangements, and the public are losing confidence in them. The number of constituencies is a matter of some importance, but it has nothing to do with the main doubts, the main injustices, and the main unfairnesses in our system. We see in America a sense of outrage that the person who won the largest number of votes lost the election because of the distortions of the electoral college, but we have an extraordinary system here. When the ambition should be to make every vote count and be of equal value, elections are decided by a tiny number of people, namely the swing voters in marginal constituencies. How people vote in Blaenau Gwent or Eastbourne does not matter; what matter are the votes in the constituencies where changes take place.
- I want to be brief, and I want to make this point, because it has not been made so far. The Government’s proposal will make things worse. According to an analysis by the Electoral Reform Society, reducing the number of MPs will reduce the number of marginal constituencies, and will make the House less representative than it is now.
- Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab) Does my hon. Friend agree that what is really going on here is that the Executive are reducing the House’s ability to hold them to account, while at the same time creating extra peers so that they can get their own way? That cannot be right.
- Paul Flynn My hon. Friend refers to the crisis of scrutiny in this place. That is another major scandal. We should also remember that the Government’s proposal is a pre-Brexit proposal. There will be a huge amount of extra work to be done here. How can it make any sense to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in those circumstances? The Government’s proposal will make Parliament less representative, and it will no longer be a model for those in other countries. The Brexit proposal will impose a huge burden of legislation on the House.
- Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP) When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the electorate will have 73 fewer elected parliamentarians to represent their interests, and if the number of Members here is reduced as well, a shocking 57% of our lawmakers will be unelected peers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that reform needs to happen next door before any further changes are made in this place?
Paul Flynn A range of reforms must be made. We are losing the Members of the European Parliament, and we have a crisis in Wales. The Welsh Assembly has only 60 members and their work has trebled, but it is impossible to argue in isolation for more Assembly Members, although virtually every member of the ruling party is a Minister, a deputy Minister, or the Chair of a Committee. The problems that exist in many areas can be dealt with only by a comprehensive and balanced Bill that takes account of the need for more Members of the Welsh Assembly and the need for fewer peers, and that will require a constitutional convention involving give and take and balanced decision-making. But at the moment we have the extraordinary situation of the Executive becoming immensely more powerful. That is bad government as far as scrutiny is concerned. In the 1920s, 10% of the governing party was on the Government payroll vote. Under the Government’s current proposals to reduce the number of MPs, the Electoral Reform Society says that up to 43% of Government Members will have their mouths bandaged by the discipline of their party, through which they are inhibited from taking a full part in the scrutiny of matters considered by the House. That is a retrograde step. I urge the House to look at the problems before us.
Wales will be particularly hard hit by this. My constituency—my city—offers an excellent example of what will happen and the damage that will be done. There are two marginal seats now; one was won by a Conservative in the past. Those two seats will be merged into one and it will become not a marginal seat, but a rock-solid safe Labour seat, which will be to the advantage of the successor MPs. The effect is similar throughout the country; this is a diminution in the value of our democracy.
People are unhappy that they are not being represented, and the only way we can make sure votes count is with a proportional representation element. Otherwise, politics will be distorted, as always, by the system we have inherited. If the Government are serious about reforming democracy, they should of course take the boundaries into consideration. The boundaries are an element of the reforms that are needed, but only a relatively small one. In the last Parliament we had a Committee on constitutional reform that produced a long document urging overall reform.
At the moment the public are right to be cynical, but the only reform the Government are interested in is the one that will give them maximum political advantage. This is a party political stunt by them, ignoring the problems of the House and the ludicrous situation in the House of Lords where it is still possible to buy a place in our legislature by giving a big enough contribution to a major party. They are ignoring that scandal. Some 261 peers were added by David Cameron, which is outrageous. What has that done to the cost of democracy? The other place does great work in scrutinising this House, but it is hopelessly illogical that its membership is larger than that of this House, which has the role of creating legislation and scrutinising it. Nothing has been done about that; nothing has come from the Government, but that is essential. We need a constitutional convention; we need root-and-branch reform. We are losing public confidence in our democracy, and rightly so. We have institutions here for discipline, which are very permissive. We also have an Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is totally futile and has no powers. It is not a watchdog; it is a pussycat without teeth or claws. There is rising resentment and cynicism among the public about the level of our democracy. That ends up in an obscenity like Trump taking over. We must defend our democracy and the quality of our democracy. That is crucial, and we do not do it by a tiny move by one party to gain political advantage for itself. We ought to come together as representatives and seize the opportunity for a major, massive, overhaul reform.
- Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) It is a great honour and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn); I spent 13 years living in his constituency trying to get rid of him with absolutely no success whatsoever. While we hardly agree on anything, he is undoubtedly a leading parliamentarian, and I am pleased, in the best possible sense, that he is now back on the Back Benches and not constrained by being on the Labour Front Bench.
This issue goes back, therefore, to something the hon. Member for Newport West touched upon: the balance between the Executive and Parliament. Since what we might loosely call the expenses scandal, Parliament has been getting more powers back. We have had a Speaker who has put Parliament first and championed it, we have had Select Committees, and we have had other movements in that direction, including the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee. All the moves have been to take power away from the Executive and give it to Parliament. This move, however, completely reverses that trend.
I am all in favour of broadly equal-sized seats. That is fair, within a threshold, and I would be happy for the Committee scrutinising this Bill to look at that issue. The hon. Member for Newport West made the point that there were exceptions for certain geographical areas. The previous proposals referred to the Isle of Wight and to what I call the Western Isles, which had two constituencies. I think that that makes sense, and we should consider whether that could be expanded for certain constituencies—but I want to get back to the Executive.
I want finally to address the interesting point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), whose argument was different in kind from that of the hon. Member for North West Durham and the other speakers. I hope he would agree that I am not doing his argument any injustice if I say that he was arguing, first, that there are many large constitutional deficiencies in Britain today—a proposition with which I abundantly agree—and secondly, that it makes no sense to try to change one particular element of the whole picture, though he admitted that it was an element that probably did require change, in the absence of an overall and thoroughgoing change of the whole system.
That is a very serious argument, but it is also very seriously wrong. I think it is wrong for two reasons: first, practically, and secondly, theoretically. Of course, in the end, the practical argument matters more than the theoretical one. The practical truth is that we are not going to get the kind of constitutional change that I think he, and certainly I, want any time in the near future. I personally was partly responsible for the total failure to secure the reform of the House of Lords. The House of Lords, in its current structure, is a wholly indefensible object. No rational human being could possibly argue that it is a good idea to have a legislature constituted in the way that the House of Lords is constituted. Indeed, I never heard anybody, in the whole of that debate, make an argument in favour of the House of Lords as currently constituted, except that they thought it was the lesser evil.