Rumours began to circulate last week that the Government was going to introduce a guillotine on House of Lords business for the first time in its history. I still don’t know how serious or real the threat was but it is now virtually certain that they will force through a constitutional Bill (the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituency Bill) with three consecutive days of scrutiny possibly including all night sittings. This is new and is clearly uncharted territory for a House that normally works in a much more consensual way.
The House authorities are laying on extra facilities in the form of all night refreshments so at least some of the staff will get overtime payments!
The Bill is a constitutional measure where the Government are taking the power to reduce the number of MP’s by 60. Decisions like this would normally be taken by agreement between the political Parties because it will significantly affect the majority a party can win at future elections. You would also expect a Government to agree to a reduction in the number of the pay roll vote otherwise the power of the Executive is increased over the power of the legislature.
The first part of the Bill deals with the referendum on the Alternative Vote. If this was dealt with as a separate Bill it could go through relatively quickly because although some Peers have very strong views about voting systems it is not as powerful a constitutional change as changing the number of MP’s.
I have an amendment down for debate on Monday that will require an independent report on what the number of MP’s should be. This whole issue will be hard fought. I think the government should also bear in mind that if we begin changing the number of MP’s in Parliament without all party agreement then other governments will do it in future – this is a slippery slope we are on.
Why is the Government doing this? Essentially it is the political agreement between the coalition Parties. The Liberal Democrats want to change the voting system and the Conservatives want to reduce the number of MP’s – so it derives from the coalition agreement and is therefore very important for the two parties. Sadly it is also a divisive constitutional measure so we are in for some very real and probably negative changes in the way the House works.