This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

A bill that would reduce the number of MPs and change constituency boundaries deserves a good going-over in the Lords The government really only has itself to blame for the problems its parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill has been encountering in the House of Lords. As its name suggests, the bill combines two separate enterprises and provides both for a referendum on changing the voting system to the alternative vote and measures to “reduce and equalise” the number of MPs. The problem is that the AV referendum is legislatively pretty straightforward and – once the Conservatives had signed up to it in the coalition agreement – not very controversial. But the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and rewriting the rules by which parliamentary constituencies are drawn up is legislatively complicated and deeply controversial. Yoking together a simple, time-sensitive measure like the referendum and a complicated proposal like the boundary changes was asking for trouble. The “reduce and equalise” policy deserves intense scrutiny. The all-party political and constitutional reform select committee expressed its “regret that it is being pushed through parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact”: “While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.” In terms of reducing numbers of MPs, the government has plucked a number from the air rather than starting with an assessment of what MPs do and how many of them are needed to do it. The workload of MPs within Westminster has gone up considerably over the years, particularly since the select committee system was created in 1979. There are now 467 places on the committees that run the business of the house and scrutinise the executive. Particularly if the number of ministers and PPS posts remains the same, there will be fewer people to hold the government to account.MPs also work harder than ever in their constituencies. In the 1960s MPs received about 15 letters a week; now it is 300, plus huge numbers of emails. By September, newly elected MPs were saying they had already received 20,000 emails to their parliamentary address. The standard of constituency service that electors expect has gone up steadily, and the evidence shows that MPs who have good reputations for constituency work do well electorally (such as Grant Shapps, Tim Farron and Gisela Stuart). The number of people they represent has gone up steadily – from 55,000 electors in 1950 to...

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