Afzal Khan: The Conservative government’s abuse of Parliament must be stopped
The government’s undemocratic attempt to block my constituency boundary bill seriously undermines the rights of this House – and shows why reform is sorely needed, writes Afzal Khan
The government is using procedure to block my Private Member’s Bill on constituency boundaries. They are making a mockery of the Private Member’s Bill process and pursing their electoral interests over the interests of our democracy.
Any Bill that involves spending money requires a money resolution, which can only be tabled by the government. The precedent for private member’s bills has always been that a money resolution follows second reading ‘as night follows day’. However in this case, the government has refused to bring one forward. Our committee has so far met three times to twiddle our thumbs without being able to discuss a single line of the Bill.
My Private Member’s Bill would fix the number of MPs at 650, and make sure that boundary changes include the two million people who registered to vote since 2015. The government is trying to reduce the number of MPs and disenfranchise (largely young) new electors because it gives them a better chance of winning the next election.
MPs on all sides of the House are agreed on two things. A boundary review is long overdue, and the current boundary proposals have no chance of succeeding. My Bill is a serious attempt at reaching cross-parties, to provide a sensible way out of the deadlock.
In an extraordinary debate last week, Conservative backbenchers were lining up to attack a minister of their own party. They accused the government of behaving undemocratically, carrying out an abuse of parliament, denying the democratic right of members of the House, and sending out Andrea Leadsom to defend the indefensible, or as Tory MP Peter Bone put it, sending her “to the wicket not only without a bat, but without pads or a helmet”.
The government has no good defence. After a certain point, Leadsom stopped attempting to answer the questions MPs put to her, and resorted to repeating the same two or three sentences over and over again. The proper role of the Leader of the House is to be the House’s representative in the cabinet, not the other way around. I don’t think she has in any way represented the clear view of MPs that they should have the chance to debate and scrutinise the Bill.
The result is a serious undermining of the rights and privileges of the House by the Executive. My Private Member’s Bill passed Second Reading unanimously. The government on the other hand did not win a parliamentary majority at the last election.
There are already relatively few ways for a backbench MP to make legislative changes in Parliament. Cutting the number of MPs without reducing the number of ministers will only increase the power of the executive, and make it more difficult for backbenchers to challenge the government. For a government that already loathes challenge and scrutiny, this is a real danger.
The question of how many MPs should represent the country is of fundamental constitutional importance. Clearly, it should be debated in the House of Commons, between members of Parliament and in front of the public, not in the back rooms of government offices.
The government’s actions are profoundly undemocratic, it is trampling parliamentary procedure, to put its own electoral interest above the will of the House. I will continue to press it to bring a money resolution forward, but the fact is that the Private Member’s Bill process is sorely in need of reform.
Afzal Khan is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton