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Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, August 20th, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee put before the House of Commons its report on the current hot topic in Parliament, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

The report is enormous – 255 pages thick.  The committee, chaired by Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, deserves an enormous amount of kudos for doing what it could in the time allocated.  Because frankly, one of the biggest shames of this Bill is that it’s being shoved through the parliamentary process in the worst possible fashion.

The report criticises the fast pace of the progress of the Bill, and notes that the Bill, presented for First Reading on July 22nd 2010 with practically zero consultation with any interested parties.  Parliament went into recess shortly after, meaning that Parliament has had precious little opportunity to scrutinise the Bill properly.  While the Bill was paraded by the government as a ‘major step’ towards restoring people’s faith in Parliament:

“the Government’s failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risk undermining that laudable intention.”

and

“it is always regrettable, and generally leads to poorer legislation, when such an approach to timetabling legislation becomes a characteristic of any government’s political reforms.”

The Bill is, essentially, two Bills in one: a Bill to establish a referendum on adopting a new electoral system, and another on reducing the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600.  For some, (arguably Labour supporters), the Bill is largely a politically-motivated fix, not a principled attempt to correct flaws in the Constitution.  However it makes sense to combine these two issues, but, the missed opportunity for the committee is adding Lords reform – meaning constitutional reform will continue to be dealt with piecemeal and not comprehensively.

The Referendum

The committee welcomed the government’s decision to put the electoral system change to a public vote.  The report is silent on the merits of either FPTP or AV (makes sense – as the paper is long enough already!).

The Bill’s present question for the referendum is:

“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘fire past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

However the Electoral Commission proposed something a bit friendlier:

‘”At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons.  Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

The committee saw the merits and drawbacks of holding the vote on May 5th 2011, at the same time as elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.  The Scottish and Welsh legislatures claim it will overshadow their own elections and confuse the electorate, but Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit in University College, London (UCL), disagreed:

“the likelihood is that the referendum is the second order poll, and that it will be overshadowed by the elections rather than vice versa.  That has been the experience in other countries which have had referendums at the same time as elections.  In Canada, and in New Zealand in 1993, the political parties remained silent on the referendum issue, not least because they were concentrating their efforts on fighting the election, not the referendum campaign.”

Pairing the elections and the referendum would save about £30 million in administrative costs, increase turnout, and minimise voter fatigue, which can only be to the good.  If the referendum were held on its own, the turnout for the poll would likely be very low.  The Hansard Society noted the low priority for the public of the issue, saying “only one in five (19%) report having discussed ‘the electoral system’ in the last year”.

So it makes sense ultimately for the referendum to buddy up with the devolved elections; but in order for everything to be ready in time, the Bill must become law 6 months before the vote – November 5th, 2011.  This means there’s been a phenomenal rush to get the Bill onto the Statute Books.  As it stands, the Lords will hardly have a moment to scrutinise the Bill within that deadline.  Given the huge number of amendments being proposed to the Bill and the ambivalent nature of all the parties to it, I would be surprised if it’s met.

Constituency Redrawing

While this section of the Bill is principally the Conservative Party’s baby, the Liberal Democrats also pledged in their manifesto to reduce the number of MPs to 500 but only if the UK adopted Single Transferable Vote (STV).  The Tories themselves wanted a 10% drop to 585.  600, then, is clearly a compromise.

The committee reported general surprise from its witnesses about the decision to cut the number of MPs.  Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy (a pro-electoral reform body) felt that, without a debate with the public on what MPs are for, this decision is putting “the cart before the horse”, and Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit added that there has been no input from the public on this decision.

The Rt Hon. Paul Murphy, MP, argued that larger constituencies would make MPs still more remote from their constituents.  The Deputy Prime Minister argued that the priority should be to ensure each vote carries the same weight.  But the committee questioned the wisdom of this approach:

“there is an argument…that the point of a constituency-based system, rather than a system of proportional representation, is to prioritise representation  of the views of local communities over absolute equality of votes for individuals.  It is important that the equalisation requirement is not drawn so tightly, that new constituencies lack a sense of local identity as a result”.

Therefore, if equal votes is our priority, rather than representation of communities, then the government should not have picked AV as their replacement voting system, but have gone straight to PR.

The Hansard Society felt a reduction of 50 MPs was simply “plucked from thin air – 600 simply being a neat number”.  Prof. Ron Johnston and Prof. Justin Fisher felt that it was largely “a rather populist response to the expenses scandal”, allowing the government to facetiously tell the country ‘we’re proving to the country we can work harder with less money’.   The committee concluded that while it felt there could be a justification for reducing the size of the Commons, the government simply hasn’t presented it.

Nor would the reduction make Parliament work any better or more cheaply.  According to the Hansard Society, increasing the average size of constituencies expand MPs’ casework, and require them to deal with even more local stakeholders and local authorities, implicating more time consumed and costs generated.  No savings were demonstrated by the government – indeed, the report points out it would be about a millionth of the budget of the NHS.

International comparisons show the House of Commons is not that much larger than the German or Italian lower Houses (with 622 and 630 representatives respectively).  More important than international comparisons is the uniqueness of the UK’s political structure – we are a unitary state, unlike Germany or America which are federal, and being parliamentary, unlike the US or France.  Here, the executive sits in the legislature, requiring a larger legislature to ensure separation of powers.

The Boundary Commissions

The committee’s report was unhappy with the government’s attitude to constituency redrawing, describing it as ‘mathematical’, and that insufficient consideration of local views was being provided.    The Committee has tabled an amendment to the Bill (which will be dealt with in the House’s committee stage) which would make it easier for members of the public to influence the redrawing process, and to have more of an impact.  Let’s hope the House accepts it.

The committee was also unhappy with the concentration of power the Bill grants the government in clause 8(6), allowing the government to amend a Boundary Commission report at will.  The government tried to assure the committee that this power would only be used to amend obvious errors in the reports, but as the boundary appeals are dominated by political parties, the committee wasn’t convinced.   The committee therefore insisted on statutory limitations on these powers, namely that amendments to the Boundary Commission’s report only be made with the Commission’s consent.

By not attempting to reach a consensus on its boundary reform proposals, the government is leaving itself exposed to claims that the Bill is purely partisan, and it will set a precedent for future governments to tinker with constituency drawing more aggressively.  The question of course is whether consensus on such a hot potato as constituency boundaries is at all possible, of course.

The Payroll Vote

The committee observed that the cuts threaten to make the ‘payroll vote’ – the number of MPs working for the government – proportionately larger, and threatening Britain’s separation of powers.

The number of ministers in the Commons is limited to just 95, as per the House of Commons Disqualification Act (1975), and each of these can have a Parliamentary Private Secretary, meaning the maximum potential number on the ‘payroll vote’ can be 190 MPs.

It’s likely that the 50 constituencies abolished would be backbenchers, meaning the government would grow in size in the House.  In the government’s defence, reducing the size of the Executive in the House isn’t a simple mathematical affair, as the ministerial  workloads would intensify.  The side-effect may be an increase in the number of ministers sitting in the House of Lords.  The committee wasn’t impressed by this, describing it as ‘ironic’ that the government would make excuses for this, given their haste and lack of concern about the impact of reducing the size of the House overall.  Therefore, the committee tabled an amendment which would limit the payroll vote to 15% of the House.

All in all, the committee’s report appears to be quite constructive.  It’s supportive of the Bill in principle, but critical of the spirit of its passage through Parliament.  The arbitrary constituency boundary redrawings resembles not a little the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The House of Commons is coming to the end of its own committee stage for the Bill, and very shortly will be before the House of Lords.

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