Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I speak to the House today not out of personal interest, as much of what I say and propose will not affect my future in this House. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and many other Members will know that I have no intention of standing at the next election. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I will be standing down, so my motivation today is not personal; rather, I am introducing this Bill because I want what is best for our democracy and believe that what is best for our democracy is best for all the people of this country.
The events of the past few months have shown us more than ever that politics is constantly changing, and in a changing world we need a democratic system that is fit for purpose. Conservative Members, in particular, are fond of quoting Churchill in this House. While I have never done so before, that does not mean that he did not occasionally say something worth listening to. Churchill told us that the democracy we have is not the best, but it is the best we have. There is a lot of sense in that. However, in order to have a democratic system that is suitable for the 21st century, we need to look at ways in which we can preserve the best of what we have while looking to improve engagement wherever we can.
That is why I propose that in agreeing to this Bill, the House will endeavour to keep what is best about our current system—things like the MP-constituency link, which is envied in democracies across the world—while ensuring that we do not lock out 2 million voters who have registered to vote since 2015.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech and looked at some of the stuff she said before the debate. Given that the House decided, quite clearly, to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, to what question facing us today in politics does she think the answer is more politicians?
Clearly the right hon. Gentleman was not listening very carefully to what I said, because I started by saying that the world is changing and politics is changing. What happened in the previous Parliament is not necessarily right for what is happening now. I also point out that the current Government have created 250 additional peers just down the corridor. Is that what he means by fewer politicians?
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
The hon. Lady is starting a most powerful speech on a very important subject. Does she agree that the answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who was of course at the heart of Government, is that we want more MPs and less government?
I do not think Shakespeare could have put it better. [Hon. Members: “Or Churchill.”] Or Churchill.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a long-standing custom in this Parliament that no Parliament can bind a successor Parliament, so the point made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is complete nonsense. Just because the coalition voted for and railroaded through some changes a few years ago, there is no need for this Parliament to carry on with that stupid policy.
I will give way later if the right hon. Gentleman will let me continue a little.
What I am proposing is that we keep what is best in our current system, such as the MP-constituency link, which is envied in democracies across the world, while ensuring that we do not lock out 2 million voters who have registered to vote since 2015. Under the current system, they are not counted, and therefore they effectively have no voice in this place. Surely no sensible Government would deliberately discount 2 million voters simply because they do not suit their political fortunes.
Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con)
The Bill’s proposition is to increase the number of MPs from 600 to 650. The hon. Lady has twice said that the constituency link is important. Surely, whether we have 650, 600, 500 or 400 MPs, there will still be a constituency link.
I will talk about that later when I address the size of constituencies and the way in which communities are being split by the current proposals.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
I want to cut to the chase. Does the hon. Lady agree that the current proposals are a travesty to many constituencies across the entire United Kingdom, and are an attempt to silence Scotland, destabilise Northern Ireland and keep an over-bloated House of Lords in business? I welcome her debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. One of the really good things about the Bill is the number of people from right across the country who have contacted me. People from all parts of the United Kingdom are getting in touch with me as they begin to realise that their communities are going to be divided.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has mentioned Scotland and Northern Ireland. The impact of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 will be greatest on Wales, because we will lose a higher percentage—11 seats—of MPs. That is wrong. It also includes three of four island communities, but does not give exemption to the principal island of the United Kingdom, namely the Isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s very strong point about the island communities.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
My hon. Friend has made a very strong point about the difference in the registers and under-registration. Is she aware that that will be magnified in places such as Cardiff, which is among the fastest growing cities in the UK? We are already under-registered and we are going to grow very fast. The reality is that, within a year or two, the proposals will be so out of date and people will be so disfranchised. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a double whammy for places such as Cardiff?
I do, and that situation is reflected right across the country.
Fewer and fewer people are bothering to vote in general and local elections, because they do not see it as relevant to their lives. We live in a time when many of our people see a divide between themselves and the establishment. That means us, by the way—even people like me, and I was born in a council house in a mining community and went to a comprehensive school. They see huge divides between us, the political elite—or the metropolitan elite, as the red tops like to call us—and anyone who seems to have a vested interest in parliamentary democracy, and the people, as the red tops like to call everyone else.
Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con)
Does not the hon. Lady acknowledge that we have periodic boundary reviews to take account of changes in population? Her point about people being missed will be picked up by a future boundary review.
I do acknowledge that point and I will come on to talk about why it is important that we conduct a review every 10 years rather than every five years. One of the communities from which I have heard most is Cornwall. Lots of people have been in touch with me, saying that they are unhappy that their own MPs are not dealing with the issue.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab)
I may be metropolitan, but I have seldom been described as elite. Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the major problems in our capital city is that whole swathes of central London are now dark, because people do not live in the properties, and that the electoral roll has, therefore, collapsed? We also have constituencies with 19 wards, rather than the usual eight or nine. Does my hon. Friend agree that her Bill exposes far more than the dreadful dichotomy between the other place and this place? In fact, it exposes a dark heart in our democracy.
Yes, I accept that entirely. One of the really good things about the Bill is that it shines a light on an awful lot of the problems with the current system.
Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
I am amazed that Government Members are talking just about population and not ascribing any importance to geography. Islands have been mentioned. My constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber includes seven inhabited islands. Many of them will end up in the new seat of Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, which would have more than 30 inhabited islands. How is a Member of Parliament supposed to represent people from so many island communities? It is a disgrace.
The proposed system does not take account of people and communities. I hope that we will be able to address that through the Bill.
Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the 2 million people who are being left out equate to at least 25 MPs? To reduce us by 50 MPs seems nonsensical.
I looked at those figures last night. Effectively, the proposals will reduce this place not by 50, but by 75 MPs.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
I am a lot more sympathetic than some of my colleagues to the hon. Lady’s Bill. How can she guarantee that the Boundary Commission will be able to implement its changes by October 2018, in time for the next general election? Is that practical?
Politics is the art of the possible, is it not? If the Government want this to happen, it will happen. It is important that the Bill is in place by 2018, in time for the 2020 general election.
Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the exclusion of 2 million voters, whom we know to exist, from the electoral register goes against the very principles of representation, and that for a Government to knowingly under-represent citizens who register for elections goes against their interests as well as ours in this House? Does she also agree that those citizens who are late to register are more likely to be transient and poor, and that they are often the most in need of representation?
The issue of the under-representation of 2 million people goes to the heart of our democracy.
Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
Do the 2 million missing people include overseas voters? What assessment has the hon. Lady made of them?
The figure does not include overseas voters. They are not part of the Bill. That issue is for a different debate at a later time.
We have seen anti-establishment politics at its worst in the recent US elections, when Donald Trump courted voters by portraying himself as the anti-establishment candidate and by saying the most outrageous things he could think of, irrespective of the offence he caused. We have also seen it here, with the emergence of far-right parties. Many of us saw and heard it during and following the referendum, both on the doorsteps and on social media. Ugly things were said about refugees, immigrants, migrants and pretty much anyone who is not like us.
Huge swathes of people living in both towns and cities have lost confidence in the parliamentary system. They feel that they have nothing vested in it and nothing to gain or to lose. We hear it all the time on the doorstep: “You’re all the same. You’re all in it for what you can get out of it.” Instead of ensuring that we reach out, engage with and listen to people when they do bother to register to vote, this Government are refusing to count them or to give them a voice, so that they have an excuse to cut the number of MPs, thereby making constituencies bigger and MPs more remote from their constituents. In doing so, they endanger what is best and unique about our parliamentary system. However people talk about MPs in general—however cynical they are—we all know that they view their MP as different.
Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
On the referendum, the number of peers is going up and the number of MPs will go down, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is the MPs who will have to take on the additional work of MEPs when we leave Europe?
That is a good point, which I will come on to.
Under the current proposals, my constituency of North West Durham will become West Durham and Teesdale. It is already a large rural constituency, but it will become huge. It will stretch from the banks of the Tyne to the banks of the Tees, taking in all manner of the vastly different communities in between, and there will be one MP—thankfully not me—who will cover all that, provide the unique and valued MP-constituency link, and try to make that link real for all those people in all those communities. That will be replicated throughout the country if the changes go ahead.
My constituency is already huge. It will become unmanageable for the person who takes over from me. If someone from the north of my constituency wanted to see me at a surgery in the south, given that lines of communication go from east to west in that part of the country, it would take them all day on public transport and they would need an overnight stay. That cannot be acceptable.
Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab)
The point about geography is critical in Cumbria, where my constituency is. Under the proposals, we will end up with the largest constituency in England, Penrith and Solway. I have Solway at the moment, and my constituents are deeply worried, because they think they will lose representation. Cumbria not only is large in square mileage, but has mountains, lakes and difficult weather. A lot of the time, we cannot get from one part of it to another, and people on the Solway would lose their representation.
I absolutely agree.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), in Northern Ireland the proposals will sever political stability? There is a need for special consideration for Northern Ireland and for proper recognition of social, economic and geographical cohesion, which does not exist in the new proposals.
Absolutely. The Bill will go some way to making that happen.
Mrs Sheryll Murray
The hon. Lady and I share something similar in our constituencies. My constituency stretches from the banks of the Tamar to the banks of the River Fowey. The difference, however, is that because my constituents would not find it possible to travel from one end of the constituency to another by public transport, I go to them, which I consider to be my job as a Member of Parliament.
The hon. Lady misses the point completely.
Dr Paul Monaghan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (SNP)
On size, is the hon. Lady aware that the Boundary Commission for Scotland has proposed the notion that my constituency will be incorporated into a larger constituency called Highland North, covering 13,000 sq km, the same size as Northern Ireland? No one would seriously suggest that Northern Ireland should be covered by one MP, but that is what the proposals for Scotland suggest.
The hon. Gentleman makes the case clearly.
The proposed system not only seeks to reduce the number of MPs, thereby making them more remote from their electorate, and to cut out 2 million registered voters, thereby giving them no vote, but seeks to create constituencies of equal size, irrespective of what that does to communities, and to include a review of the boundaries every five years, which will ensure that practically every constituency will change every five years. We will weaken MP accountability to our constituency and voters, because every five years the voters will be different people. In a sense, that will strengthen MPs’ accountability to their party, on whom they rely to be reselected, and will weaken their accountability to our constituents.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab)
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s detailed speech. The Boundary Commission proposals for Stoke-on-Trent will have two effects, certainly as far as my constituency is concerned. First, a number of my constituents who live within the city of Stoke-on-Trent will find themselves represented in the county—in the rural area—which will break their existing link with the city. They will still live in the city and pay rates to city, but they will find themselves represented by an MP out of the city. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, my constituents and others who live in the city are represented by three MPs, who happen to be Labour but could be anyone in future. That will be downgraded to only two. What message does that send to the people of Stoke-on-Trent?
That exemplifies how nonsensical the system will be. If we move ahead with the proposals, we run the risk of making MPs more accountable to their party, on whom they depend to be reselected, and less accountable to their constituents, who may well not be their constituents five years from now. I cannot believe that any of us want that. Like many in the House, I pride myself on serving every person in my constituency, whether they voted for me or not, whether they voted or not, and whether they have lived in the constituency for five minutes or five years.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
As a fellow north-easterner and as someone who worked in Sunderland, my hon. Friend knows Sunderland well. Under the proposals, Sunderland will be split between six constituencies—parts of six, from the current three—and my fabulous constituency will be split into three. As a Member who has served three terms and has had two seats already, if I was by some miracle lucky enough to retain a seat next time around, I would have had three constituencies in four terms, which must be a record.
That exemplifies what I am saying about the proposals: they will break the MP’s link with their constituents.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab)
I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider standing again for this House, because it deserves Members of her high calibre. Are we not getting to the crux of the debate? It is not really about geography, the electorate, the size of the House or even the cost of politics; it is a continuation of this Conservative Government’s gerrymandering of the constitution. They have gagged charities, they have neutered trade unions and now they want to gerrymander boundaries for their own reasons.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)
As we are getting to the nub of why the Bill has been introduced, is it not the case that we have the Bill because so many Opposition Members are frightened of reselection, because of the threat of Momentum taking their seats?
That unfortunate intervention was not helpful and exemplifies why people out there get so angry about people in here. This is about something bigger than ourselves.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
The anger goes beyond political parties. In my constituency, the nonsense of putting two wards from Sheffield South East in with wards from Rother Valley will create a constituency where we cannot drive from one side of it to the other without going through a second constituency. Indeed, one of the roads goes through a third council area and another region. As a result, 2,500 local people have already signed a petition against the proposal, because they see a constituency being created with no community of interest at all involved in that creation.
That is what we are hearing in the debate today—cities being split, communities being split, and that is not good for our democracy.
We in Britain pride ourselves on being the home of democracy. However, can we really talk about democracy when we have an antiquated system in which the larger House in Parliament is made up of people who are unelected? The unelected House is large and growing, and can be enlarged further at the political will of a retiring Prime Minister.
I have huge respect for the other place, where sensible decisions are often made and where many bring their lifelong experience to bear, but we cannot get away from the fact that it is unelected, significantly bigger than the elected House and subject to patronage. Is that what we mean by democracy in the 21st century? If we are the mother of Parliaments, I respectfully suggest that many of the children of this mother of Parliaments have outgrown us and are now showing how it is done.
Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)
On community connections and synergies, does the hon. Lady accept that in the time from when the drafts of the last boundary review proposals were produced to when the final proposal was made by the Boundary Commission for England, two thirds of the seats were changed in response to the concerns that were raised?
The initial proposals were never implemented, so the constituencies remained the same.
The Government are even trying to sell us the idea that the proposed boundary changes are an attempt to save the taxpayer money. Granted that removing 50 MPs will save some money; the total amount is questionable but reasonably estimated to be in the region of £12 million. At the same time, the Government have massively increased the unelected House at a cost of £46 million. Whatever the Government say, this is not about saving money for the taxpayer or cutting the cost of politics.
We are in the process of leaving the European Union, so each and every one of us will no longer have access to a Member of the European Parliament. In counties such as mine, local government reform has created more and more unitary authorities. The reforms have removed our district councils and replaced them with, in some cases, very large unitary authorities, which can appear remote from people’s lives. I and my constituents used to have access to a parish council, district councillors, county councillors, an MP and MEPs. Some may say that that was too many representatives, but in the space of nine years, we have in effect lost two layers of representation. I believe that democracy is not served in this country by further reducing our representation.
It is blindingly obvious that the Government are not intent on reducing the cost of democracy. If the purpose of reducing the number of MPs is to save money, why is the number of unelected Lords constantly being increased at a cost that far outweighs the savings from reducing the number of MPs? Actions speak louder than words, and no matter how much the Government spin their actions, their attempt to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, while at the same time massively increasing the number and the costs of the House of Lords, should be seen for what it is—a poor attempt at trying to hold on to power for as long as possible at the expense of our democracy.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s points about the House of Lords. I am hugely in favour of House of Lords reform, which was in the Conservative party manifesto. During the last Parliament, I voted for House of Lords reform, unlike many Opposition Members. May I gently point out, however, that the cost of the House of Lords has fallen by 14% since 2010? Its operating costs were £112 million in 2009-10, as opposed to £96 million in 2015-16.
The Lord Speaker of the House of Lords has described this situation—the Government seeking to reduce the number of MPs, while the size the House of Lords remains the same or grows—as “untenable”. If the House of Lords is saying that something needs to be done about the size of its membership, why are we—or rather, the Government—reluctant to listen?
I believe that the time has come for us to have a proper, inclusive and open review of our system of democracy. The alternative may be that fewer and fewer people vote, as well as the further disengagement of large parts of our country from the democratic purpose, the rise of parties far less interested than we are in democracy and the threat that parts of our communities will see the state as illegitimate.
I want us to go forward, strengthening and reviewing our democratic processes as we go. My Bill seeks to retain 650 MPs, which will continue our unique and much admired link between the MP and the constituency. I want to ensure that we engage more and more of the potential electorate, and the first step is to include the 2 million people who have registered to vote since 2015 but are not counted in the current boundary review. Through the Bill, I want to give those 2 million people a voice.
I agree that MPs should broadly represent an equal number of voters, but my Bill seeks to safeguard communities and to avoid some of the stupidities that a 5% margin throws up. I therefore propose that there should be a margin of 10%. I also propose that we should review constituency boundaries every 10 years, not every five years, which will strengthen the accountability of MPs to their constituency, not weaken it.
The democracy we have is precious. It was hard fought for and hard won over many centuries. Arguably, we have done everything wrong along the way—we have had a civil war and civil unrest; we have seen many injustices and abuses; we even cut off the head of a king—but over the centuries we have inched our way towards the democracy we have now. We need to appreciate that our democracy is both precious and fragile, and we cannot allow one party or one Government to endanger what we have for the purposes of narrow party interest, irrespective of which party it is.