HC Deb 15 October 2003 vol 411 cc117-238 12.34 pm
Andrew George (St. Ives)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament; to make provision for referendums on regional assemblies; and for connected purposes. I am sure that I would be high on the list of Members whom certain people would like to cull from this honourable establishment, but it would cause me considerable grief even to contemplate anyone leaving it. For reasons that I shall explain, however, I believe that some tough choices need to be made as a consequence of the programme of devolution in this country.

Why am I proposing that we should significantly reduce the number of MPs in this House? I am not the first person to make the suggestion. I do so, first, because of a dislocation of the public from the political process and a disregard for politicians that is increasing over time; secondly, because there are more MPs in the United Kingdom than in any other European Union country, and certainly more than in any other comparable western democracy, because of the consequences of the process of devolution; and, thirdly, because we can make considerable savings by reducing the number of MPs. I am sure that the public would rather see those resources spent on front-line public services than on maintaining an unfeasible and inappropriate number of MPs in this House. I also believe that there would be operational improvements in the way in which the House operates.

Although I would have introduced a Bill of this nature in any case, I have to declare an interest, in that I currently face a boundary commission review in my constituency. With a population of 500,000, the five constituencies in Cornwall have an electorate per constituency of 77,000, which the boundary commission has decided is 7,000 over the national electoral quota. It has therefore decided that the number of MPs should be increased from five to six. We welcome the decision, of course, but it means that we face some difficult choices.

In my constituency, for example, the boundary commission has proposed that I should lose the whole of the Lizard, which is where I was born and brought up, but clandestine proposals have also been made by another political party to gerrymander the constituency's boundaries in another area, which would take out the town of Hayle, in which I live. That is not a choice that I welcome. The issue of under-representation in Cornwall should clearly be addressed, but we should do so in a quite different way—namely, by reducing the number of Members of Parliament coming to this House altogether.

I want to go through the points that I made earlier in more detail. The often-repeated claim that there is a dislocation of the electorate from the political process and a public disenchantment with politicians is often accompanied by the recognisable sound of hand-wringing and swift, energetic and urgent efforts to do absolutely nothing about the problem. The public have a perception that we vote ourselves generous pay rises and allowances and more favourable pensions than we offer to them. Of course, we need to address those issues as well. There is also a perception—I think that it is right—that we lead a relatively charmed and luxurious life in the House, in comparison with the majority of our constituents. Failing to face up to the tough choices will result in our continuing to lose respect, when we need to regain the respect that I believe that the majority of hard-working right hon. and hon. Members richly deserve.

With regard to the comparison with other countries, the House of Commons Library has provided me with some figures. The United Kingdom has more MPs than other European countries, and a smaller electorate than comparable democracies. For example, the UK has a population of nearly 59 million and 659 Members of Parliament, giving each constituency an average population size of 89,410. In Germany, the average constituency population size is 136,000. Spain has a population of 40 million, and 350 Members of Parliament, making the average constituency population size 115,000. In France, the average population size is 102,000. In the Netherlands, which has a population of only 16 million, there are 150 Members and an average population size of 107,000. In the United States, the average population size for Congress is 658,000; in Japan, the figure is 264,500. We need to address that matter and compare ourselves with other countries.

Issues clearly arise as a consequence of devolution, but it is not the intention of the Bill to focus on one country or place that has been the subject of devolution. We should spread the pain—or, rather, the opportunity—of this process. I believe that we should introduce these measures across the country, whether a process of devolution is in place or not.

On savings, the House of Commons Commission's annual report recognised that Members of Parliament cost the equivalent of about £211,000 per annum, which covers pay, allowances, office costs and so on, but there are other costs in respect of running this place. If we were to reduce the number of Members to 500, my estimate is that we would make savings of £40 million per annum. We should ask the electorate what they would rather we spent that money on; hospitals, schools, and other public services, or maintaining an inappropriate number of Members of Parliament in this House?

There are other operational reasons concerning the efficiency of the House that I do not have the time to go into. However, our debates are oversubscribed and there is the fundamental issue of comfort; not, perhaps, for the present debate, but certainly for others when we do not have enough room.

The second part of the Bill is to aid the process of moving towards referendums so that devolution can be accelerated. Currently, a referendum decision is entirely within the gift of the Government. Devolution is about letting go, not holding on. We have a void at the centre of Government policy that is based on a flimsy tautology, which basically says that a region is a region because it is a region. We must question the way in which the Government approach the matter and allow communities, a proportion of the population and local authorities to be able to call their own referendums.

The House might expect me to say that because I very much favour a referendum for Cornwall, where more than 50,000 people—10 per cent. of the population of Cornwall—have signed a petition in favour of such a proposal. The people need to be listened to.

I do not believe or expect that I will succeed today because parliamentary time is running away from me, but the Government must take heed of the issues. I know from speaking to many hon. Members that there is widespread support for the measure and concern about the dislocation between the political process and the electorate. We must address that point and the issue of savings, and we need to make a comparison with other countries. We must make efforts to ensure that we resurrect a better engagement between this House and the electorate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by

Mr. Andrew George, Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. Anthony Steen, Mr. Colin Breed, Nick Harvey, Sue Doughty, Mr. Paul Tyler and Matthew Taylor.

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