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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

October 20, 2010

Competition: The Ultimate Consumer

Mark made the following interventions during the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The legislation provides for the next General Election to be held under the Alternative Vote system, provided this change is endorsed in a referendum on 5 May 2011 and boundary changes have been made to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 rather than the current 650.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I must confess that I totally accept the need to equalise electorates, which is why I have tabled amendments in a later group, which I suspect we will not get to, suggesting that we leave out of the Bill the gerrymandering-there is no other word to use-of three Scottish seats. That has occurred through a limit of 13,000 sq km being plucked out of the sky to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and probably also Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, to be seen as exceptional. If we equalise constituencies it could be regrettable for such communities, but we want electorates of a similar size.

In fairness to Chris Bryant, I think that equal constituencies will mean that we divide the country up into 10 or 15 different areas, from which we can draw up the 600 seats, rather than suddenly realising when we get to the middle of Scotland that we are 10 or 15 seats short. I fully accept the need to equalise electorates, and it is greatly to be regretted that we are not doing that for all seats. It seems that a rather grubby little compromise has been put in place. In the modern, technological era, I disagree with the idea that the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, the two smallest seats in the UK, should be protected. Orkney and Shetland was part of the Wick Burghs constituency at one time during the last century, and the Western Isles were part of the Ross and Cromarty and Inverness-shire constituencies. It is a bogus argument that those constituencies somehow have great historical relevance.

Wayne David (Caerphilly, Labour) The hon. Gentleman said that in his view there had been a grubby little compromise. That is quite a statement to make. Would he like to explain and elaborate on exactly what he means?

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I believe that the compromise was perhaps made to keep the Scottish nationalists happy- [Interruption.] Well, Mr MacNeil represents virtually no constituents in this House. I respect that, but we are living in a technological age of e-mails and so on, and I do not agree with the notion that he should maintain the privileged position of representing just 23,000 constituents, when many of us have to represent not only our statutory 70,000 or so but a significant number of non-UK nationals. There is a perfectly good case to be made, but it should not override the idea of equalising communities.

Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Scottish National Party) In one respect I would love to help the hon. Gentleman, of course, because I would be quite happy for there to be no MPs from Scotland in this House at all. In the meantime, while we have to have that situation, I remind him that my constituency is the length of Wales. He is very welcome to come with me to the Western Isles and explain his views to all my constituents whom he might meet on his visit.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I shall certainly take the hon. Gentleman up on that. On the first part of what he said-he and I both.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside, Labour) I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about the three seats in Scotland. In Wales, there could be a seat in the middle of the country that, as I said earlier, could stretch from one side of Wales to the other with a very sparse population. Why is it okay for that to be taken into account of in the case of Scotland, but not Wales?

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I entirely agree, and I am not defending that element of the Bill.

Neither can I see any justification for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. The somewhat bogus argument that it will save £12 million a year is certainly outweighed by the fact that the alternative vote referendum will cost some £80 million to £100 million. It is also argued that our House is one of the largest legislatures, but that argument is destroyed by the fact that this Government alone have already massively increased the size of the House of Lords, by some 56 Members since May. They are now looking to stuff a whole lot more unelected Lords in there, and the proposals to make the other House even larger are an absolute disgrace, at least before there is any reform. It is entirely regrettable that there is not to be reform of the House of Commons and the House of Lords as part of the same package.

I fear, given the comments that a number of colleagues have made, that we have not been able to scrutinise the Bill properly because we have run out of time under the programme motion. It will therefore be the House of Lords that takes up the important work of examining the constitutional impact of what is being suggested. The hon. Member for Rhondda is right that nowhere in any manifesto was there a commitment to 600 seats, and all three parties committed to move to a wholly or largely elected House of Lords at the earliest possible opportunity. That now seems a long way off. I particularly regret that because it has always been the Liberal Democrats’ position to democratise, and to make the House of Lords accountable to the electorate. They now hold the novel constitutional principle that the House of Lords should somehow reflect the voting at the last election. That suggests that 200 or so peers will be added to the House of Lords-a significant number of whom will come from the Liberal Democrat party.

I hope that, in so far as more people are to be added to the House of Lords, close scrutiny will be paid to ensure that former Members of the Commons who were caught up in the expenses scandal are not rewarded with a life peerage. As we have seen from the difficulty with the three peers who have been suspended and the two Conservative peers who face the courts in the next few months, there is no mechanism for getting rid of people from the House of Lords. Yet, as part of the constitutional reform, we are introducing some concept of giving our constituents a recall mechanism to get rid of Members of the Commons. The position is incongruous. Until the House of Lords has been sorted out-and certainly for so long as we stuff yet more unelected peers into the other place, which we have already done since May and will continue to do-it would be wrong to reduce the size of the Commons.