This evening in the House of Lords Lib Dem peers voted for an amendment which would delay plans to change constituency boundaries and reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 until after the next election. It was passed by 300 votes to 231. Lord Rennard, who put his name to the amendment, explains here why Lib Dem peers marched through a different lobby to their Conservative coalition colleagues.
The four members from different parts of the House who signed this amendment may all have had slightly different arguments to make about why we each supported it.
But we were all agreed that the electoral register on which the current boundary review is taking place is not really fit for that purpose and that the current review of boundaries should be postponed.
This issue was a subject of fierce debate during our lengthy passage of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, with many peers saying that it was not fit for purpose then.
Most of us relied on the best evidence available at the time that the electoral register contained the details of 92% of the people who should be included in it. Since then, however, work done by the Electoral Commission and commissioned by the Cabinet Office shows that across the country only about 82% of the names that should be included on the register are presently on it.
And there are wide variations between different areas with – for example, Lambeth only having about 73% of the names on the register that it should have. The electoral register provides the basis for boundary reviews. And it is now clear that if we want to have equal sized constituencies, then we must have an electoral register for which every possible effort has been made to make it as complete as possible, and that special efforts must be made to tackle under-registration in some areas if that objective is to be achieved.
Another argument is also very important. In those long deliberations on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, we considered the relative effects on the power of the executive and the power of Parliament of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
The Liberal Democrats have always considered the need to reduce the number of MPs in the context of issues such as greater devolution and decentralisation and the reform the House of Lords. We all want to see an effective second chamber able to hold a Government of any party to account. The failure to achieve any measure of reform here means that the hoped for increased ability to hold the executive to account will not happen – and it may even decline as the Prime Minister prepares to make many more nominations to this House.
With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the Government side of the House of Commons, the power of Government to control Parliament is effectively increased – when the opposite should be the case. This is therefore not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.
There are no signs that the size of the payroll vote will be reduced and coalition government probably makes it less likely. Many in my party take the view that the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the current boundary review should not take place without reform that would strengthen the legitimacy of this House.
Too much will be made by the media of two coalition parties going in to two different lobbies today. In countries across Europe where coalition is more the norm, this is not so unusual and people understand that different parties vote different ways on some issues whilst agreeing on packages of measures where they can find agreement on what they both consider to be in the national interest.
On the whole package of constitutional reform set out in the coalition agreement, it was not possible to deliver what was promised in the gracious speech following the General Election. So my noble friends in the Conservative benches should not be surprised that we are where we are today.
Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.