Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Charles Walker reproaches the Government for rushing through this Bill which will see the number of backbench MPs reduced by 10%, while the number of Government Ministers remains the same and the number of unelected Lords is increased. He is also concerned at the reported £250 million cost of holding the referendum on alternative voting.

Mr Walker: I will be extremely brief, because I come here naked, without a formal speech to give. All I would say in response to the two Front-Bench speeches that we have heard is that I think that the Lords did an absolutely magnificent job. The Bill has been rushed through this House in haste, and the Lords did exactly what they are meant to do, which is to act as a reforming and revising House. We will ignore some of their recommendations this evening at our peril.

The Prime Minister is not one for taking revenge against those who disagree with him, or perhaps delay his ambitions. I therefore disagreed with the shadow Minister when he quoted Sky News and said that the Prime Minister was gearing up great armies to swoop down on the House of Lords and duff them up a bit. However, I am concerned about the vague promises made by those on my side of the House about setting up a commission to review whether reducing the number of Members of Parliament to 600 is a good idea. This really should have been done by now, as part of the work of a far wider cross-party commission, bringing together all parts of the House to look at the proposals, because we are talking about fundamental constitutional reform. If such reform is to be successful, it will need to carry the support not just of Members of Parliament but of our constituents.

Our constituents will be concerned about what they are seeing, because in essence we propose to reduce the size of the House of Commons by roughly 10%. We do not propose to reduce the number of Ministers, and we are increasing the number of peers by 150. I am sure that some proposal or other will be made to address the question of the House of Lords-there might be a proposal for an elected upper House-but that could be kicked into the long grass and become a third-term aspiration for this coalition Government.

Mr Harper: I will be brief in my intervention, given the time limit. As my hon. Friend has said that he thought that the House of Lords did a good job, he should know that the proposal for a review after the next election was made by Lord Williamson, a Cross Bencher. It is a proposal that we agree with, and it had broad appeal in the House of Lords, not just for those who take a party Whip, but for Cross Benchers. I hope that on that basis my hon. Friend will welcome the proposal, which the Government accepted, and which we propose to accept in this House.

Mr Walker: I would say to the Minister that we should have shown more foresight in this House, and addressed those issues here before passing them over to the House of Lords.

I conclude by saying that I support any movement and organisation in this House that is difficult, and makes some attempt to resist the will of the Executive.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems strange to many Members across the House that we are reducing this House to 600 Members while increasing the size of the unelected House of Lords by 150 peers?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes what would be a good point if it were not for the coalition Government's clear commitment to bring forward a draft Bill in the near future-early this year-to reform the other place. If we were not doing that, he would have a solid case, but given that we are proposing to do that, his case falls away and there is just a timing difference.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). My Broxbourne constituents are horrified at the cost of this referendum, which some commentators have said could be as high as £250 million. I dare to say that this money would be far better spent on employing doctors, nurses, teachers and soldiers.

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