The House of Commons in the early 19th century by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson.
Last week we saw the first proposals for the new constituency boundaries, drawn up by the Boundary Commission. It’s certainly caused a stir – with allegations flying around about which parties it will hit harder, whether it will even happen, and who stands to lose their seats in the shakeup.
But less commented on was the fact that this is all taking place as part of a cut in the number of MPs – from 650 to 600.
That’s an 8% reduction, which while it may not sound like a lot, could have a worrying side-effect: a corresponding cut in Parliamentary scrutiny.
There are a few reasons for this – and it matters.
Firstly, MPs jobs are going to get harder. The cut in the number of MPs means many of their constituencies will get larger – with each now having to represent up to 79,000 registers electors (and that’s excluding all the unregistered voters, under-18s and non-Commonwealth citizens they also have to be there for). That means many will have to weigh up their priorities – spending more time working for their increased numbers of constituents, or holding the government to account. Indeed, many MPs already feel like they don’t have enough time to do parliamentary business – we are in the most demanding era in terms of constituency workloads, and that’s only going to increase.
This job doesn’t get higher equally for all MPs either – the boundary redrawing is being done on the basis of only registered voters. That means those in areas with lower registration rates could have much more casework – areas with lower registration rates are typically more deprived or have a higher number of residents who are marginalised and excluded from politics. After all, everyone can knock on an MP’s surgery door, email them, call them, or need their help and advice – regardless of whether they are registered to vote. There is already an imbalance between workloads of MPs in areas of deprivation compared to those representing more affluent areas. This is only going to be exacerbated by the boundary review done on the basis of an incomplete register.
With fewer MPs, the job of scrutinising the government gets harder too: there is still the same amount of work and legislation to keep an eye on.
And it’s about to get harder after Brexit too. There are going to be a huge number of negotiations and deals to be made over the next few years – including sorting trade agreements with around 50 countries. That will require a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny. That’s on top of legislative powers coming back ‘in house’ – into parliament – once we’re out of the EU within the next few years. While EU regulations do have to go through parliament, currently most of this is done through Statutory Instruments without debate. Those directives and regulations may now have to be debated. But with fewer MPs to scrutinise all of this this work, all sorts of concerning stuff could slip through the net.
The elephant in the room though is this fact: while backbench MP numbers will be cut, there is unlikely to be a corresponding cut in the number of ‘pay-roll MPs’ – those who have to toe the party line as they are in government. If they speak out, they lose their jobs by breaking ‘collective responsibility’ – so we could see the voice of relatively free MPs reduced while the power of the executive proportionally rises. This is a dangerous position that needs talking about – particularly with the numbers on the pay-roll vote rising significantly as a proportion of MPs in recent years. It’s an issue that Nick Clegg raised while the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was going through, but was never enshrined into the final Act.
But legislation could now be introduced to safeguard against this problem – including rules/caps to maintain a healthy balance between executive and parliament – that is, not too many ministers, whips and private secretaries in proportion to backbenchers. It’s essential in order to safeguard scrutiny and the freedom of MPs to speak out – unhindered by fear of losing their government posts.
Finally, we need to look at how the cut in MPs will affect diversity in politics. There’s a risk that female MPs in (generally) more marginal seats will be disproportionately hit by the reduction in members of parliament. Parties need to be vigilant about this and ensure the hard work done so far in improving the representativeness of the Commons isn’t reversed. Why don’t parties consider, as some have suggested, having an ambassador in each party to ensure no woman is left behind in this shakeup.
Whatever the case, we need to keep a close eye on this as the boundary review goes forward. With more scrutiny to be done after Brexit, the role of backbenchers is more essential than ever. It would be a cruel irony for that to be undermined without anyone noticing.