HC Deb 24 April 1970 vol 800 cc838-44

Order for Second Reading read.

2.2 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Following the invitation of the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill is very different from that which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has steered into harbour. Not only that, but it is a long way from harbour. I do not expect for it anything like the general approbation in which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans has just been asking.

The Bill raises a question which, though narrow in the sense that it applies only to the constitution of the House of Commons, is wide in the sense that it proposes a change in the size and, therefore, to that extent, the character of the House which obviously is of general importance.

I do not suppose that a matter like this can be decided in principle on a Friday afternoon on the first occasion that it is put before the House. However, I should like to think that the Joint Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office would commend the Bill warmly to anyone who might happen to hear, but I do not expect that to occur. It is probably not correct to ask the House to reach a decision on a matter of this kind in view of the sort of debate which we can have on it today. I am, however, glad of the opportunity to bring my proposal forward in a specific legislative form—the only useful way of bringing it forward.

The purpose of the Bill is to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 630 to 500 Members. The House of Commons is almost the largest parliamentary body in the world. It is matched by one assembly only, namely, the Italian Chamber of Deputies, which also has 630 Members. The consequences of its size expressed in terms of the number of people represented by each Member are that in the United Kingdom there is one seat in the elected House of Parliament for every 87,750 people. In the United States the ratio is one member of Congress to 467,000 people; in Japan, one to about 216,000 people; in France, one to 103,000 people; and, in Western Germany, one to 116,000 people.

I mention those figures, which are not central to my theme, only to show that what I am proposing would not be out of line with the situation in other countries. However, the number of people we represent is not the main point. The purpose of the Bill is to reduce the number in this deliberative assembly. The Preamble to the Bill recites that the House of Commons is now too large to be effective as a deliberative assembly, and no changes of procedure can remedy this defect. If the provisions in the Bill were to be accepted the House of Commons would still be the largest deliberative assembly in the world apart from the Italian Chamber of Deputies. The number of people each Member here represented would still be among the smallest in the world. Therefore, on the representational side, we should not experience any great difficulty.

Before coming to the reasons for what I am proposing, I should like to describe the Bill's mechanics. The House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1949, prescribes a number of 625 for the United Kingdom Parliament. The number is not to be greatly in excess of or less than 625. In fact, it is 630. The 1949 Act prescribes a minimum number of 71 seats for Scotland and 35 for Wales. The number for England is a residual number arrived at by subtracting the minimum for Scotland and Wales from the recommended number for the United Kingdom, which comes out at 507.

That is the pattern of the 1949 Act. The composition is slightly in excess of the recommended number, because there are 630 seats for the United Kingdom—12 for Ulster, fixed by Statute; 511 for England, which is four more than the number in the Schedule to the 1949 Act; 71 for Scotland, the minimum that it can have; and 36 for Wales, more than the minimum, making a total of 618 for Great Britain which, with the 12 for Ulster, makes 630.

The Bill's proposals would have this result. In these figures I use the 1969 electorate, because that means more in comparative terms to us in the House than the new 1970 figures, which include the 18–21 voters. We have not yet got used to thinking in terms of the new electorate based on the new rolls. Using the size of electorate over 21, if the Bill were passed the average electorate in Britain would be 73,891.

In England, the average electorate would be 74,902, as compared with the quota used by the Boundary Commission, whose recommendations were not accepted, of 58,759. The Boundary Commission, whose ill-fated recommendations we dealt with in this Session, worked on the 1965 electorate and on the provisions of the 1949 Act as to the number of seats. Thus, my proposal in relation to England is an increase on average of 16,000 electors per constituency.

Under the Bill, the average electorate in Scotland would be 67,968, or approximately 7,000 fewer than in England, allowing for a slight degree of overrepresentation because of the geographical extent in relation to population. In Wales, the average electorate would be 70,859, 4,000 fewer than in England because of the lower population density. The Bill reproduces, broadly speaking, the differentials between England, Scotland and Wales in the 1949 Act.

So much for the result of the Bill. Experience, has shown that a House of 630 cannot any longer operate successfully. In the past the House has varied in size. At one time, the United Kingdom included the whole of Ireland, and the number of Members was as high as 700. In more recent times it was 612, then 615, 625 and 630. So the number has been growing for some time.

This scale of number was sensible when only a minority of Members were active participants in debates and when the majority was willing to be the sounding board for the active minority. In those days a House of this size could and did function successfully. There may well have been much merit in having a House of that size, representing a population substantially smaller than the present population; because it provided a sounding board at Westminster which was particularly ample and particularly full.

During the last 20 or 30 years everyone has seen how the House has become increasingly filled by Members who want to take an active and articulate part in our proceedings. Nowadays there are few silent Members. Any Member who is silent for long gets appropriate mention in some appropriate part of a newspaper, possibly a Sunday newspaper.

The result has been that far more hon. Members wish to take part in every major debate than can possibly do so. This is true to a lesser degree of debates which are not major debates, but ordinary debates. It is rare that the principal debate of any day has not sufficient speakers to sustain it until the hour at which Standing Order No. 1 closes the proceedings on it.

This has its effect on hon. Members. On any major occasion an hon. Member who is not a Privy Councillor can have only an odds against chance of catching Mr. Speaker's eye. The odds against his being called may be anything from 3–1 to 10–1.

In those circumstances, many hon. Members will not be willing to give the same attention to preparing their speeches —speeches which, by definition, are unlikely to be delivered. Increasingly, the number actually seeking to speak in a debate does not reflect the number of Members who would like to take part in the debate were it not such a lottery.

This visibly results in poor attendances during the middle of our debates. In my time in the House I have seen how Question Time has become more and more important relatively. When Questions and statements after Questions are over, most hon. Members leave the Chamber and are not seen again for a long time. In the middle of our debates the number present would rarely be sufficient to sustain a quorum if any Member chose to call attention to the fact. Others in the building than the numbers listening to a debate in the middle of a debate are very small. This is because debates have less reality, inasmuch as a Member can no longer feel that if he has something to say on an important subject he can come to the House and say it. He is driven to writing a letter toThe Timesor some other newspaper.

Another result is the proliferation of Committees. As it is clear that our work cannot be got through on the Floor of the House, there has been a practice of setting up Committees and remitting to them matters which ought to be considered in the full House. With a House of 630 Members it is inevitable that all debates take longer, because a sizeable proportion of those Members want to take part in each debate.

This results in extending the business each day; on how many days do we not suspend Standing Order No. 1? It results in the extending of the periodic sittings so that our recesses are now short. There is always a question whether the recess at Whitsun will be two weeks. We come back on Mondays instead of Tuesdays, and still we have tremendous pressure to get through our business.

This is partly because there is far too much Government business these days, but it is also because we are trying to operate a deliberative assembly of an unrealistic size in modern conditions. I believe—I do not know whether my view is shared—that the process of farming out our work to Committees, which increasingly sit while the House is sitting, is a bad development which cannot but diminish the authority and influence of the House.

During our current Session we have had, and probably still have, no fewer than 10 Standing Committees considering legislation, two Grand Committees and an unexampled proliferation of Select Committees. An increasing number of these Committees are sitting while the House is sitting.

What must be the effect of this upon the middle of our debates? When the two opening speakers have finished, not only is there the exodus which might be expected when the two principal spokesmen have had their say, but there is also the very substantial exodus of hon. Members going to carry out their parliamentary duties on Committees in other parts of the building, sometimes sitting until late in the evening.

I have heard it argued against my proposed change that if there were fewer Members we should not be able to man all the Committees we need to carry out the work of the House. This is an error. First, I think that the House is trying to pass too much legislation anyway. It would be a very good thing if we passed less, but it is the very size of the House—

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

On a point of order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has been talking about quorums and the small numbers of Mem- bers present at certain times. There hardly seems to be a quorum present now.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present:

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past Two o'clock till Monday next.

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