The government needs to act quickly over constituency redrawing and AV Bill if it is to avoid what Lord Harris has described as a ‘constitutional car crash’.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg is the Executive Director of Democratic Audit
It is now a virtual certainty that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, in its current form, will not receive Royal Assent in time for the referendum on the Alternative Vote to take place on May 5th 2011. Despite having debated further aspects of the Bill in committee stage until 3am this morning, Peers still have pages and pages of amendments to discuss. At the current rate of progress, the Bill could remain in the Lords for at least another month.
None of this should particularly surprise us. This Bill was always going to be controversial, and there are good reasons for its previously rapid passage through Parliament now slowing to a snail’s pace.
The origins of the controversy go back to the key political compromise forged during the coalition negotiations – a referendum on electoral reform in return for a smaller House of Commons and new rules for boundary changes.
The political calculus behind the compromise has always been obvious; while the Liberal Democrats would be the principal beneficiaries of AV, the redrawing of the political map was assumed to boost Conservative representation in Parliament at the expense of Labour.
As it turns out, both sides may have seriously misjudged their likely partisan gains, but that is another story.
Having instructed civil servants to combine these substantial provisions in a single Bill, the deputy prime minister then set about rushing the legislation through Parliament. The Bill was first presented to the Commons just days before the summer recess, and received its second reading on the day the Commons reconvened in September 2010.
There was effectively no scope for pre-legislative scrutiny, despite the obvious constitutional significance of the proposals.
Both the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons and the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords subsequently raised serious concerns about both the substance of the Bill and the speed with which it was being pushed through Parliament.
The failure of the government to deal with many of the issues raised in these reports has clearly come back to haunt it. Time after time, their Lordships have returned to issues highlighted in the select committee reports and which, ideally, should have been addressed before the Bill was even drafted.
To take but one example, a key issue raised in both reports was the absence of either a clear government rationale for a 600-seat House of Commons or any assessment of the implications of reducing the number of MPs, particularly with regard to the relationship between the executive and Parliament.
The Lords’ Constitution Committee described this as ‘an unsatisfactory basis on which to embark on fundamental reform of the legislature’. On Tuesday, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took the unprecedented step of expressing similar concerns to an audience at the Institute of Government.
Evidence of Labour filibustering notwithstanding, this Bill really does warrant detailed scrutiny. The committee stage in the Lords is the only remaining stage in the legislative process at which this can now happen. The relevance of this scrutiny is also becoming obvious.
Having yesterday voted to allow the Isle of Wight to remain a single constituency, the government has suffered its second defeat on the Bill. In doing so, Peers may have set a precedent for further exceptions to be added to the list when they are discussed next week. In many ways, the debate has only just begun.
So, how should the government respond? A guillotine motion bringing an end to the debate in the Lords has been mooted, but would be hugely controversial. Not only would this ‘nuclear option’ be likely to create significant problems for the government with the passage of subsequent legislation through the Lords, it would also fail to address obvious problems with the Bill which has prompted the impasse. Reports that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have begun private talks to find a solution suggests that such an option remains one of last resort for the government.
Given the state of play in the Lords, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will surely have identified that there are now two realistic options. First, the government could agree to a number of specific compromises which would recognise the validity of the issues being raised by their Lordships and render the Bill more workable. A recent Democratic Audit paper suggests what the key changes would need to be.
If the government remains determined not to back down, the second way forward is the one which Left Foot Forward has proposed – split the Bill. Section 1, which makes provisions for the referendum, could still receive Royal Assent as a stand-alone Bill in time for a referendum in May. Labour Peers have made it clear that they are happy to cooperate fully with such an approach. A separate boundaries Bill, quite probably with further amendments, could easily be passed in sufficient time for the new constituencies to be in place before the 2015 General Election.
Either way, the government needs to act quickly if it is to avoid what Lord Harris has described as a ‘constitutional car crash’.
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