Valerie opens Opposition Day debate

I opened the Opposition Day debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill on Tuesday 19 June 2018.

Below is my speech in full:

Valerie Vaz: I beg to move, That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 48 and the practice of the House relating to the authorisation of charges upon the public revenue, the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee has leave to consider the Clauses of the Bill and any new Clauses that may be proposed to it; but the Bill may not be reported from the Committee before this House has passed a Money Resolution, for which the Queen’s Recommendation has been signified, in relation to the Bill.

Here we are again, debating the same issue: by all accounts, according to custom and practice and convention in Standing Orders, the position is, quite simply, that a money resolution follows a private Member’s Bill, but my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) has still not been given a money resolution for his Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2017-19. However, the motion makes a slightly different proposal, so I hope that the House can agree to it. It proposes that we can debate the Bill before the Report stage, at which point it will be given its money resolution.

Let me deal first with the Bill itself, and then with some of the objections that have been expressed by the Leader of the House and others. I hope that by the end of my speech, I shall have persuaded Members that the motion should be passed. The Bill fixes the size of Parliament at 650 MPs, it fixes the allocation in Northern Ireland at 18, and it keeps the areas as allocated in 2011. It allows for a 7.5% variation in the electorate. A report must be submitted before 1 October 2020 and every 10 years. It uses the register of electors from 2017, or the most up to date. How can anyone who believes in democracy not support that?

Mr Mark Harper: Perhaps I can give the hon. Lady a very good reason. She may be familiar with the e-mail that Members received on 14 June from the Boundary Commission for England, in which it confirms that it will report to the Leader of the House on or before 5 September, so that the Leader will have an opportunity to lay the orders in the House during that month. It plans to report in just four full sitting weeks’ time. I say to the hon. Lady: what is the hurry?

Valerie Vaz: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his speech. I will address that point later in my own speech. The Bill had the support of the House, so it proceeded to its next stage; but then it was thwarted—not once, not twice, not thrice, but six times. The first issue raised was that of costs. The Leader of the House said that it would cost £12 million, but, as I have said before, the instructions to the Boundary Commission were flawed. It was instructed to make the electorate numbers fit the figure of 600, without being given any explanation or evidence for the use of that figure. To save costs, the Bill proposes that the commission should report every 10 years, but the Government want to scrub that and require it to report every five years. I want to know why the Government consider 600 to be an appropriate figure on the basis of an old electoral register.

Peter Kyle: Obviously Ministers are drawn from Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the number of MPs is reduced but the number of Ministers is not, a considerable amount of power will shift from Parliament to Government? If the Government’s proposal were even-handed, the number of Ministers would be reduced so that power would not be transferred from Parliament to the Government.

Valerie Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will be drawing on it. Let me add, however, that as early as tomorrow we will see the effect of an overbearing Executive, and will see why it is so important for Members to be able to hold the Government to account.

If the Bill were allowed a Committee stage as a result of the motion, the debate on my hon. Friend’s Bill could explore the reasons for it. The Government could table new clauses and vote against clauses in the Bill, as many Conservative Members have suggested. Amendments could be tabled, too. This motion would allow that to take place so that hon. Members on both sides would be aware of why the Government object.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) must be psychic as I am now going to touch on the point he made. I have asked this previously, but will the Leader of the House confirm in relation to the payroll vote whether there will be a reduction in the number of Ministers and what costs will be saved by a reduction in the payroll vote? There is more work to be done as we leave the European Union and post-Brexit both for Parliament and for the Executive, but this means that the Executive will dominate Parliament, and if costs were an issue, ministerial numbers would also be reduced. However, the Government are incurring more costs in Parliament. What are the costs of the peers? In the last seven years, 260 have been appointed.

My second point—[Interruption.] I do not know if that was an intervention. The Leader of the House refers to things being done on a case-by-case basis. What is that, and since when do the Government decide which Bills ought to be progressed? She seems to have come up with a new case-by-case basis Standing Order. I have checked the latest edition of the Blue Book—May 2018—and there is no entry for “case-by-case basis.” This means that the Government are twisting convention by saying they will decide which Bills are worthy of a money resolution. All Bills should be treated fairly, which is the basis of the convention.

Gareth Johnson: Why is there this sudden interest in money resolutions from the Labour party? I cannot find a single instance of the Labour party in government looking to change the rules surrounding money resolutions, so is it simply for political expedience that this motion has been introduced today?

Valerie Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous lawyer so he will know we are talking about the present. We are talking about money resolutions and about other Bills that are also stacked up, and it is a convention of the House, here and now, that the Government should provide money resolutions.

How can the Government justify picking and choosing which Bill gets a money resolution? This is not an elected dictatorship. It appears that the Government are acting in the same way here, by thwarting the will of the House, as in the abusive process that we saw last Friday on the upskirting Bill. I hope I can help: it is a bit like England finishing its qualifying round having won its league and FIFA saying, “I’m sorry, but we won’t allow you to go through; we’re going to deal with this on a case-by-case basis.” That would be an outrage: if England are at the top of the league, England should go through.

This is a serious issue because it goes to the very heart of our democracy. Some 2.1 million people have been left off the register and have not been included in the Boundary Commission’s dealings. This is an especially serious issue as the boundary changes appear to favour one party. We must remember that the current Government are a minority Government governing only with a confidence and supply agreement.

Khalid Mahmood: The Government have wilfully plucked a figure out of the air, have manipulated the electoral register and taken 2.5 million people off it. The constituencies have no basis, so the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan)—[Interruption.] If the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), Conservative Members wants to make a contribution, she can do so when I am not on my feet.

Mr Mahmood: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I have gained further knowledge. My hon. Friend’s Bill tries to address this issue. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) agree that this is not about gerrymandering or taking powers away from this House, but about restoring those powers?

Valerie Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and he is right. This is about democracy, about using the old register and about fettering the Boundary Commission.

Rachel Maclean: Does the hon. Lady not agree that the Boundary Commission is an independent body that is completely separate from any political considerations? It is not run by politicians. It is carrying out a thorough review, on the instructions of this House, in order to do the right thing for our constituents and for taxpayers. How can she suggest that there is any political consideration involved in the body’s work?

Valerie Vaz: No one is talking about political interference. We are talking about the initial instructions that were given to the Boundary Commission, which were based on flawed instructions.

Ms Karen Buck: While we are still on the issue of the size of constituencies, does my hon. Friend recognise that there are a number of constituencies—mostly, though not entirely, inner-city ones—in which the population is far greater than the registered population? I declare an interest here, because my own constituency has a population twice the size of the registered population. This is only going to get worse with the arbitrary reduction to 600 Members, further reducing the connection between Members of Parliament and those they serve.

Valerie Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We deal with cases that go beyond those on the electoral register. For example, we deal with whole families, including children, following the cutbacks in advice services. We still have to deal with those cases.

Siobhain McDonagh: Does my hon. Friend also agree that there are variations in the propensity of certain groups in the population to appear on the electoral register? For example, there is an 80% propensity for older women from the home counties to be on the register, compared with only a 20% likelihood for young black men in inner cities to be on it.

Valerie Vaz: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

Emma Hardy: Further to those last two points, would my hon. Friend acknowledge that the amount of constituency work required from a Member often bears no relation to the number of people on the electoral register? I dare say that about a third of the people who come to my surgeries for advice and support are not registered to vote.

Valerie Vaz: I absolutely agree. All hon. Members know that we deal with such issues and cases, and that we cannot turn people away, because we are often the last resort.

Vicky Ford: I believe that the hon. Lady is complaining that reducing the number of Members of Parliament will create an unacceptable workload, but when I look at the statistics, I see that British MPs each represent about 90,000 people, whereas Spanish MPs represent about 133,000, German MPs represent 116,000 and French and Dutch MPs represent 114,000. Why should we not be able to do at least as good a job as the MPs in other leading European democracies?

Valerie Vaz: I am not saying that this is just about an increase in workload. I am saying that the Boundary Commission’s ability to look at everything should be unfettered. My third point is that this is not another argument about not receiving an email. In the last debate on this matter, the Leader of the House said that an email had not been received and that this was just a matter for the Westminster bubble. This is not just about responsive democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton is proactive, and he saw a sense of unfairness. As with any Bill, we try to do something when we see something that is unfair or when we want to close a loophole. That was exactly the reason for my hon. Friend’s Bill. Yes, some constituencies should be equalised —some rural constituencies might not have the same numbers as inner-city ones—but that must involve a proper analysis, and the Boundary Commission’s ability to use the numbers in local areas in a way that fits must be unfettered.

Nigel Dodds: I am listening with interest to what the hon. Lady is saying. Will she clarify something for me? Under the current instructions to the Boundary Commission and the principal legislation, a new review is carried out every five years and the number of seats allocated to each constituent part of the United Kingdom is adjusted according to the number of people on the register. Is it the purpose of her hon. Friend’s Bill to fix in perpetuity—or until such time as the legislation may be amended—the number of seats for Northern Ireland at 18?

Valerie Vaz: Under the Bill, the number would be fixed at 18. The seats would be allocated on the basis of the 2011 instructions, but nothing would be in perpetuity. No Parliament can bind another Parliament, so that could all change. The instructions could change.

Fourthly, what about the procedures of the House? I am sure you will agree that they are important, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Procedure Committee recommended in its 2013-14 report on private Members’ Bills
“that the Government be required to make a written Ministerial statement on the reasons for the delay if a money or ways and means resolution, where required, has not been put to the House within three weeks of a bill being given a second reading.”

The Government response stated: “It is the responsibility of the Member in charge of the bill to make a request to Government to table any money or ways and means motions that may be required. It is the practice of the Government to accede to such requests… The Committee has not produced any clear evidence to suggest that current arrangements are not working or that a new rule is needed.”

However, the Government have not acceded to the request for a money resolution, and the current arrangements are clearly now not working. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton has been thwarted six times. Will the Leader of the House join me in writing to the Procedure Committee to inform it that the Government are not following the procedure laid down by the Committee and rules of the House?

Mr Robert Goodwill: I was elected on a manifesto that called for a reduction in the number of MPs to 600. How can I look my constituents in the eye and spend the equivalent of 600 nurses’ salaries on something for which they did not vote?

Valerie Vaz: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will write to him and place in the Library the list of things that the Government have reneged on since their manifesto. More importantly, this matter is pressing because hon. Members will have received an email from the Boundary Commission, which says that it wants to report before the conference recess, so this is not about the Westminster bubble. Hon. Members were elected to be the guardians of democracy. Now more than ever, we need to stand as beacons of fairness, upholding democratic values and doing what is right. I hope that hon. Members will support the motion