HC Deb 28 February 1995 vol 255 cc853-8 4.13 pm
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make new provision for the distribution of seats at parliamentary elections. Such matters are always of keen interest to hon. Members, and the Bill is timely for several reasons, the first of which is a practical matter. Quite simply, with 651 UK constituencies and seven more planned by the Boundary Commission, there are too many Members of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster for the facilities available. Although it is true that new buildings can be provided, they are ever further away. Although many hon. Members are known to be quick on their feet in debate, only accomplished runners such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Cambome (Mr. Coe) are quick enough to get here to the Division Lobbies consistently within eight minutes from offices in the nether regions of Millbank. The time has come to halt and reverse the inexorable growth in the number of Members of Parliament. If the United States Senate can manage with 100 members and the House of Representatives with 435, surely we could manage with fewer than 651.

My Bill is designed to reduce the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom by the application of fair and consistent principles. The opportunity to achieve that now arises, because the Pandora's box of constitutional reform has been opened by the Labour party, with its fear of the Scottish National party. A recent briefing note from the Labour party states, in plain federalist terms, that Labour is committed to a Parliament in Scotland within a decentralised and democratic European Union. I strongly believe that Britain's future in the European Union should be as a unitary nation state, but I think it only fair to those who believe in the Balkanisation of Britain to spell out clearly, in advance, the consequences of Labour's policies in terms of representation at Westminster.

My Bill sets out a formula to do that. It comes in two parts. The first part recognises that the inherent unfairness to England and Northern Ireland of the present arrangements cannot be sustained, irrespective of other constitutional developments. The average constituency in England consists of 69,534 electors; in Northern Ireland the figure is 67,145, but in Wales it is 58,383 and in Scotland it is only 54,741.

That is an arbitrary and outdated judgment, arising from the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958 rather than from any reasonable reflection of our times. Before the Act, there was a common electoral quota for the whole United Kingdom; so why do we not return to that eminently sensible arrangement? Are the Scots today so much more difficult to represent that they need a 27 per cent. advantage in the size of their constituencies? I suspect that the Member of Parliament's postbag from Dover is every bit as daunting as that from Dundee, that Falmouth's is as full as Falkirk's and Harrogate's as heavy as Hamilton's.

Can it be, then, that Scottish Members of Parliament are inherently less active than their English counterparts? Perish the thought. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—who in an earlier manifestation bequeathed us the West Lothian question—is one of the most active Members in the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) one of the most vocal.

Is it that Scottish constituencies are more geographically challenged than English ones? I feel some sympathy in regard to the travel arrangements of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), and the problems of others who represent diverse island communities should also be recognised. That aside, however, the physical size of Skipton and Ripon, and of Richmond in Yorkshire, is the same as that of most rural seats in Scotland—and how can that argument be stretched to the cities, where the bulk of the population lives?

At the last election Glasgow had a total electorate of 518,716, for which it had 11 constituencies. That is an average per constituency of 47,156. Leeds had a larger electorate, at 529,127, but only eight constituencies, with an average of 66,141 electors. Where is the justice in that? Can it be justified on historic grounds? Should former independent kingdoms be given special consideration? Here I must admit an interest: my constituency, Elmet, is an ancient kingdom. Admittedly it existed for only 60 years in the seventh century, but, as we are constantly hearing, sovereignty is an elusive and enduring concept. On a Scottish model, perhaps we should have two Members of Parliament for Elmet; attractive as the thought may be, however, I do not think that it will commend itself to the House.

My Bill therefore restores the standard electoral quota for all parts of the UK, such as we enjoyed before 1958, without any guaranteed minimum number of seats. In doing that, we should not lose the opportunity to reduce the size of Parliament. I would therefore fix the standard electoral quota for the UK at the largest present individual quota: the English figure of just over 69,000. That would have the effect of reducing the overall number of Members of Parliament from 651 to 629. Henceforth, that should be the maximum number of Members. Future increases in population should increase the standard electoral quota rather than the number of Members.

Under those proposals, the representation of England and Northern Ireland would remain unchanged. Welsh Members would be reduced from 38 to 32, and Scottish Members from 72 to 56. That removes the unfairness in our present arrangements, while providing for equal representation for equal votes.

It is not, however, the end of the matter. The second part of my proposals is an attempt to answer the West Lothian question. An hon. Member, whose strong and logical opposition to a Scottish Parliament I share, asked how, if areas of policy were devolved, he as a Scottish Member at Westminster could be party to collective decision making on education in Accrington but be precluded from such matters in Armadale in Scotland, housing in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian. As recently as February 1992, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) took it further. He said: Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling Scottish home affairs in Scotland, it is not possible for me to act as Minister of Health, administering health in England and Wales. Quite so. The subterfuge of foisting unwanted regional assemblies on England will not make the problem go away.

There is, however, a practical solution for any part of the UK that seeks and is given an elected assembly with legislative and tax-raising powers. It is to raise that region's electoral quota by an appropriate percentage over the standard electoral quota for the UK as a whole. By way of guidance, my Bill proposes that, if the powers of such a devolved Parliament were to cover the whole range of domestic affairs, its electoral quota would be doubled, and pro rata for any lesser devolution of powers. Its duly elected Westminster Members of Parliament would then be fewer in number, but they would be free to vote on all issues and to hold all offices. We should also reduce still further the overall number of Members at Westminster, which would be a step for the better. Of course, we should have to brace ourselves for the loss of some respected colleagues who would wish, no doubt, to make their futures in Scotland.

Some people, however, would argue that the Bill would be unattractive to those who seek devolution. I respond by saying simply that the downside is not of my making. It is inherent in the concept of devolution. There is not a sustainable halfway house between a unitary UK and full independence. People who do not like the destination should not start down the slippery slope.

4.22 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I wish to oppose the Bill. There is no doubt that it is inherently anti-Scottish. As a Scots Member of this Parliament, I represent a Scottish constituency in the Parliament of a multi-national state. With the creation of a legislature in Northern Ireland, that multi-national state will be restructured—I would have thought that that was the inevitable result of the creation of a legislature in one part of the United Kingdom. In that sense alone, the Bill of the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) is precipitous. Change will have to take place in a careful way, based on a rigorous analysis of what is likely to happen as a result of the restructuring that follows that brave document—the framework document.

What the hon. Gentleman says about Scottish constituencies does not stand up to examination. In a multi-national state's Parliament, there must be, as it were, a conglomeration of unevenness, and constituencies where there are more electors than in others.

For a whole raft of reasons, which I do not have time to mention now—I am sure that I would earn your displeasure, Madam Speaker, if I attempted to mention them—I object to this ill-advised and unpleasant measure.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 53, Noes 162.

Division No. 88] [4.24 pm
Alexander, Richard Carrington, Matthew
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Carttiss, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Congdon, David
Booth, Hartley Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Dover, Den
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Duncan, Alan
Butcher, John Elletson, Harold
Butterfill, John Fabricant, Michael
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fry, Sir Peter Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Gorst, Sir John Pawsey, James
Greenway, Harry (Eating N) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hamilton, Neil (Tattan) Powell, William (Corby)
Hannam, Sir John Riddick, Graham
Harris, David Robathan, Andrew
Hawkins, Nick Shaw, David (Dover)
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Stewart, Allan
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Hunter, Andrew Townend, John (Bridlington)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Tracey, Richard
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Twinn, Dr Ian
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Whitney, Ray
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Lord, Michael
Maitland, Lady Olga Tellers for the Ayes:
Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants) Mr. P. Nicholls and
Neubert, Sir Michael Mr. J. Brazier.
Adams, Mrs Irene Flynn, Paul
Ainger, Nick Foster, Don (Bath)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Fyfe, Maria
Afton, David Gallie, Phil
Armstrong, Hilary George, Bruce
Austin-Walker, John Godman, Dr Norman A
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Golding, Mrs Llin
Bayley, Hugh Graham, Thomas
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Beggs, Roy Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Grocott, Bruce
Berry, Roger Gunnell, John
Betts, Clive Hall, Mike
Blunkett, David Hanson, David
Bradley, Keith Hardy, Peter
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Harvey, Nick
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Burden, Richard Hodge, Margaret
Byers, Stephen Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Callaghan, Jim Hoon, Geoffrey
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hutton, John
Campbell-Savours, D N Illsley, Eric
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery) Ingram, Adam
Chidgey, David Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Chisholm, Malcolm Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Clapham, Michael Janner, Greville
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Jenkin, Bernard
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Johnston, Sir Russell
Clelland, David Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Mon)
Coffey, Ann Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Cohen, Harry Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Comarty, Michael Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Colston, Jean Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Cousins, Jim Khabra, Piara S
Cummings, John Kilfedder, Sir James
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Kilfoyle, Peter
Dafis, Cynog Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Dalyell, Tam Lewis, Terry
Davidson, Ian Liddell, Mrs Helen
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Litherland, Robert
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Llwyd, Elfyn
Denham, John Lynne, Ms Liz
Dewar, Donald McAllion, John
Dixon, Don McCartney, Ian
Donohoe, Brian H McFall, John
Dunnachie, Jimmy McKelvey, William
Eagle, Ms Angela Mackinlay, Andrew
Eastern, Ken McMaster, Gordon
Etherington, Bill MacShane, Denis
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Maddock, Diana
Mahon, Alice Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Mandelson, Peter Skinner, Dennis
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Martiew, Eric Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Maxtor, John Soley, Clive
Michael, Alun Spellar, John
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Stevenson, George
Milburn, Alan Strang, Dr. Gavin
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Straw, Jack
Moonie, Dr Lewis Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morley, Elliot Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Mullin, Chris Timms, Stephen
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Tipping, Paddy
O'Hara, Edward Touhig, Don
Olner, Bill Trimble, David
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Tyler, Paul
Patchett, Terry Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Pearson, Ian Welsh, Andrew
Powei, Ray (Ogmore) Wicks, Malcolm
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E) Wigley, Dafydd
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Purchase, Ken Wise, Audrey
Reid, Dr John Wray, Jimmy
Rendel, David
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Tellers for the Noes
Roche, Mrs Barbara Mr. Jeremy Corbyn and
Rooney, Terry Mr. Andrew Miller.

Question accordingly negatived.