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With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s proposals for parliamentary reform.
Mr Speaker, every member of this House was elected knowing that this parliament must be unlike any other; that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times.
And, if anything was clear at the General Election, it was that more and more people realised that our political system is broken and needs to be fixed. They want us to clean up politics. They want to be able to hold us properly to account.
So the government has set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the executive to empower parliament, and away from parliament to empower people.
That programme includes introducing a power of recall for MPs guilty of serious wrongdoing, tackling the influence of big money as we look again at party funding, taking forward long overdue reform of the other place, implementing the Wright Committee recommendations, and taking steps to give people more power to shape parliamentary business, speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration, and increasing transparency in lobbying, including through a statutory register.
Today I am announcing the details of a number of major elements of the government’s proposals for political reform.
First, we are introducing legislation to fix parliamentary terms. The date of the next General Election will be 7 May 2015.
This is a hugely significant constitutional innovation. It is simply not right that General Elections can be called according to a Prime Minister’s whims. So, this Prime Minister will be the first Prime Minister to give up that right.
I know that when the coalition agreement was published there was some concern at these proposals. We have listened carefully to those, and I can announce today how we will proceed, in a Bill that will be introduced before the summer recess:
First – traditional powers of no confidence will be put into law, and a vote of no confidence will still require only a simple majority.
Second – if, after a vote of no confidence, a government cannot be formed for 14 days, Parliament will be dissolved and a General Election will be held.
Let me be clear: these steps will strengthen parliament’s power over the executive.
Third – there will be an additional power for parliament to vote for an early and immediate dissolution. We have decided that a majority of two thirds will be needed to carry the vote, as opposed to the 55% first suggested, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament. These changes will make it impossible for any government to force a dissolution for its own purposes.
These proposals should make it absolutely clear to the House that votes of no confidence and votes for early dissolution are entirely separate. And that we are putting in place safeguards against a lame duck government being left in limbo if the House passes a vote of no confidence but does not vote for early dissolution.
I am also announcing today the details of the government’s proposals for a referendum on the Alternative Vote system and for a review of constituency boundaries in order to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies, cutting the cost of politics and reducing the number of MPs from the 650 we have today to a House of 600 MPs.
Together these proposals help correct the deep unfairness in the way we hold elections in this country. Under the current set up, votes count more in some parts of the country than others, and millions feel that their votes don’t count at all. Elections are won and lost in a small minority of seats. We have a fractured democracy: where some people’s votes count and other people’s votes don’t count; where some people are listened to, and others are ignored.
By equalising the size of constituencies we ensure that people’s votes carry the same weight, no matter where they live. Only months ago the electorate of Islington North stood at 66,472, while ten miles away, in East Ham, the figure was 87,809. In effect that means a person voting in East Ham has a vote that is worth much less than a vote in Islington North. That cannot be right. These imbalances are found right across the United Kingdom.
Reducing the number of MPs allows us to bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world. The House of Commons is the largest directly elected chamber in the European Union, and it’s half as big again as the US House of Representatives.
It was never intended that the overall size of the House should keep rising, yet that is precisely the effect of the current legislation – the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Capping the number of MPs corrects that, and it saves money too. 50 fewer MPs saves £12m a year on pay, pensions and allowances alone.
On the referendum, by giving people a choice over their electoral system, we give that system a new legitimacy. Surely when dissatisfaction with politics is so great, one of our first acts must be to give people their own say over something as fundamental as how they elect their MPs?
The question will be simple – asking people whether they want to adopt the Alternative Vote, yes or no. And the precise wording will be tested by the Electoral Commission.
As for the date of the referendum, in making that decision we have been driven by three key considerations:
That all parties fought the General Election on an absolute pledge to move fast to fix our political system, so we must get on and do that without delay.
That it is important to avoid asking people to keep traipsing to the ballot box.
And, finally, that in these straitened times we must keep costs as low as possible.
That is why the Prime Minister and I have decided that the referendum will be held on 5 May 2011, the same day as the elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and local elections in England. That will save an estimated £17m. I know that some Honourable Members have concerns over that date, but I believe that people will be able to distinguish between the different issues on which they will be asked to vote on on the same day.
Our Bill will make explicit provision for the Boundary Commissions to report on more equally sized constituencies for the process to be completed by the end of 2013, allowing enough time for candidates to be selected ahead of the 2015 election, and we will ensure the Boundary Commissions have what they need to do that. That means that, in the event of a vote in favour of AV, the 2015 General Election will be held on the new system, and according to new boundaries. Let me be clear: these are complementary changes - the outcome of the referendum is put in place as the new boundaries are put in place.
The Bill will require the Boundary Commissions to set new constituencies within 5% of a target quota of registered electors, with just two exceptions: Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, uniquely placed given their locations. We have listened, also, to those who have very large constituencies – so the Bill will provide that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now. And we intend that, in the future, boundary reviews will be more frequent to ensure that constituencies continue to meet the requirements we will set out in our Bill.
I understand that this announcement will raise questions on all sides of this House – these are profound changes. But let me just say this: yes there are technical issues that will need to be scrutinized and approached with care as these Bills pass through Parliament. But ensuring that elections are as fair and democratic as possible is a matter of principle above all else. These are big, fundamental reforms we are proposing, but we are all duty bound to respond to public demand for political reform. That is how we restore people’s faith in their politics once again. I commend this statement to the House.