Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Charles Walker calls for any reduction in the number of MPs to be part of a wider reform package which includes the separation of powers by removing the Executive from Parliament. Reducing the number of MPs without such reform saves relatively little money yet increases the power of the Executive by leaving fewer backbenchers free to hold the Government to account.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): When introducing this Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister dressed it up as the beginning of new politics. Well, this is not new politics; it is old politics exercised at its very best or its very worst, according to one's disposition. It is about the Executive-the Government of the day-seizing more power for themselves. Let us not be coy about this. That is what Governments do. Let us not be afraid of admitting that.

The arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 are nothing more than very flimsy. We are told that cutting 50 Members of Parliament will save £12 million. Well, colleagues, that is what 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy adds up to-we are going to save £12 million. Why stop there? Let us get rid of 300 Members of Parliament and save £72 million. There may be many good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons, but saving £12 million is not one of them. We trot out this ridiculous figure to appease the headline writers in the Daily Mail and the tabloid press, and those journalists who work for The Daily Telegraph, which is just a tabloid in a bow tie.

What really concerns me about this Bill is the fact that the Government talk about reducing the number of MPs to 600, but there is no mention of reducing the number of Ministers. What the Bill does, then, is to increase the patronage of the Executive. There will be yet more incentive for my colleagues to be good little boys and good little girls. That is what drives the public mad-seeing MPs say one thing in their constituency and doing another thing here in the hope of securing ministerial preferment.

I would personally like to see 450 MPs in the House of Commons, but only as part of the separation of powers where we remove the Executive from Parliament. The reason we have 650 Members of Parliament, colleagues, is so that at any given time-in the last Parliament, for example-300 of our number have either Front-Bench or shadow Front-Bench duties. As three hundred of our colleagues were taking their orders either from the Prime Minister or from the leader of their party, it left a mere 300 to 350 of us to hold the Government to account. I am all for reducing the number of MPs, but only as part of a far wider package of proper political reform.

To colleagues on all sides of the House, but particularly to my colleagues on the Government Benches, I say that there is a danger of politicising the issue of boundaries, as this reduction in the number of MPs so nakedly favours my party. I know that the system up to now, by an accident of design, has favoured the Labour party, but if this reform is to carry weight and legitimacy, it must be seen to be fair to all parties, not to the naked advantage of one party.

I have already mentioned what the public hate. They hate patronage; they hate politicians doing deals in smoke-filled rooms. Now, I support the coalition because it was the least worst of the options before us after the May general election, but let us be in no doubt that the coalition was agreed in a smoke-filled room by a few very powerful politicians at the head of two parties. I did not have a great deal of say in the formation of that coalition. I had no say in what policies were included or what policies were discarded. What happened actually transferred power further into the hands of a political elite.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman must make it clear to the House that he is speaking for his own party. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, the coalition was approved by a vote of the parliamentary party and the federal executive, and then by democratic vote of the representatives of every local party in conference assembled-and by a large majority.

Mr Walker: I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats had such a frank and open discussion and perhaps we can learn from that, as we are in the age of lessons learned.

Mr Jenkin: If my hon. Friend will allow me, let me say, with the greatest respect to the Liberal party, that members of the Liberal party and Liberal MPs are not the people. I believe that my hon. Friend is referring to the people of this country as being those who were excluded from the coalition deal.

Mr Walker: What I am saying to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is that under the AV system, party negotiating teams will more often decide the outcome of a general election than will the public or the electorate, which will not increase confidence in democracy, but further erode confidence in it. "Are we to believe these manifestos?" is what people will say, as they see politicians saying one thing in the manifesto and then doing something different among themselves in a smoke-filled room.

Let us remind ourselves, colleagues, that the second part of the Bill, which is concerned with AV, is purely there to appease less than 10% of the House. That is the future of permanent coalition Government-deals to appease minority parties. I am extremely nervous about this Bill, which I do not think has been properly thought through. It has been presented, brought forward and debated in haste.

I will say this, however. I am extremely pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) is the Prime Minister. I could not think of a better one. That is why on this one occasion-I say this particularly to my Whip-out of loyalty to the Prime Minister and for no other reason, I shall support this Bill on Second Reading. After that, however, every vote that I enter into, for the rest of the Parliament, will be a free vote. The Whip need not concern himself too much, because I am a Conservative to my core. Every fibre in me is Conservative. On most occasions, therefore, I will happily walk through the Division Lobby with my party. However, there will be occasions when I exercise my right, as the elected representative of Broxbourne, to disagree with my party. In essence, that is what I am, and it is what we all are: representatives coming from constituencies, to use our judgment on the great issues of the day.

I am representative of neither the Whips Office nor No. 10. More than anything, people in this country are crying out for independent-minded, honest, brave Members of Parliament, who put being a legislator and sitting in this place above all else. Too often, we are viewed as coming to this place with an aspiration to become a Minister. I say to my constituents that there is no greater honour than being the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne; there is no greater honour than being a Member of Parliament. If we begin to focus on our constituencies and remember why we are put here, we restore confidence in politics.

We have had a difficult few years, but if colleagues genuinely feel that they do not have the character to represent their constituents bravely in this place, they should stand down now and let someone else take their place.

8.12 pm

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