Sunday, April 12, 2009

How many MPs do we need?

Kenneth Baker was a leading Conservative Minister during Mrs Thatcher's period as Prime Minister. Because he was so 'smooth' an operator, he was most unkindly satirised as a slug in a popular TV programme. Today, as Lord Baker, he has written an interesting article for the Sunday Telegraph, asking questions about how many MPs we need to represent us. Actually, he's asking a second question as well. Should the size of constituency electorates be equalised - not a straight forward question in a devolved UK. Nick Allen has also written a piece for tomorow's Telegraph, claiming that David Cameron takes a similar view. Whatever, in my opinion, Lord Baker is a man worth listening to.

The assumption on which Lord Baker has based his figures is that the number of MPs would be reduced by 10% from 646 to 579. Each constituency would have an electorate of around 76,000. There would be 486 MPs representing English constituencies, 51 representing Scottish constituencies, 15 representing Northern Irish constituencies, and 29 representing Welsh Constituencies. I don't think any allowance has been made for the fact that much of the work of MPs has already been devolved. I can imagine these proposals not receiving a unanimous welcome.

The Conservative manifesto at the last General Election also included a policy about this issue. It was linked to the holding of a referendum on full law making powers in those policy areas which had been devolved by the 1998 Government of Wales Act. If the Welsh electorate voted yes, the number of MPs would fall to 26 (I think); if the position remained as it was the number of MPs would only fall to 33 (I think), and if the Assembly were to be abolished, the number of MPs would remain at 40 (I think). If I'm wrong here, I hope someone will let me know. All the current media comment I see emanating from my party in Wales tells us that any change would still be linked to a referendum. So I'm not at all sure where Lord Baker is coming from with his article. The bit of it that did catch my eye was "It is now official Conservative policy". Anyway, I found it an interesting read.


Anonymous said...

Well, the House of Commons is only designed to hold a figure around 400.

Due to the large numeber of MPs, the actaul roles of the back-benchers are lost e.g. scrutiny.

Jeff Jones said...

We also probably have too mnay councillors in Wales. Unlike in Scotland no attempt was made to create new wards for the new unitary authorities in 1996. With the result most adopted the number of councillors that existed in the pre 1996 district councils. Pre 1974 the Llynfi valley where I live had just 2 councillors on the old Glamorgan CC which was responsible for 85% of council services. In 1974 this was increased to 3 for the new Mid Glamorgan CC as Maesteg the main town was split into 2. I represented Maesteg East for years with an electorate of over 4000. I could easily have managed twice that number. Today the Valley has 7 councillors each having an allowance of £12700.This is an increase of over £2300 on the allowance figure in 2004. If Bridgend CBC was a Scottish authority it would probably have less than 30 councillors. Dundee which is slightly larger than Bridgend has 29. The cost saving of this reform would be about £337,500 and it would not effect either service provision or accountablity.This money could be spent on direct service provision or reducing the council tax by nearly 1% depending on your political viewpoint. Before anyone talks about the above argument as an attack on democracy perhaps they should read my own local newspaper where 3 opposition councillors have decided for soem reason that they don't have to sit on any scrutiny committee even though it could be argued that under the new system this is the most important aspect of any councillor's work load. One of them I was also told last week has attended just 1 meeting in the last 6 months. Of course unlike under the old attendance allowance system he still receives his flat rate councillor's allowance!

Glyn Davies said...

Anon - I've always thought that an MP has so many different ways that they can do their job that they can choose what suits them best. It can be a full-time job just helping constituents. One MP has never employed any staff, resticting his role to what he can physically do himself. Some need the limelight to self-satisfy. And some prefer to concentrate on omething like 'scrutiny'.

Jeff - One consequence of rewarding councillors at a higher level is that more attention will be paid to how many of them there are. I believe that my council in Powys is due a reduction in the number of councillors from the current 73 to below 60 - and by the next election. That's going to cause some ructions when the boundaries are redrawn.

Unknown said...

I agree with Jeff (possibly a first) that we have too many councillors - and agree with Glyn that we have too many MPs

But I am very wary when any one party proposes soemthing like this, as it is usually done for party advantage. We should have some form of Constitutional Commission (independent like the boundary commissions) who can look at this impartially, based on objective criteria.

Sarah said...


I have read the comments, in particular I drawn reference to something Jeff says "3 opposition councillors have decided for some reason that they don't have to sit on any scrutiny committee even though it could be argued that under the new system this is the most important aspect of any councillor's work load. One of them I was also told last week has attended just 1 meeting in the last 6 months."
This is shocking, honestly. We certainly wouldn't get away with that here in Powys, further more we wouldn't attempt it, we all attend as many meetings(scrutiny and full council)as possible as well as dealing with individual residents casework.
It can and is a full time job for some of us!

We will have to wait and see what the Boundary Commission gives us in 2012. I believe they want the average ward to be around 1750.

Glyn Davies said...

Penddu - Agreed. Its important that constitutional change is based on what's right for the country - not whats right for the party. We would not be in such a shockingly biased position if this had been the position in the past.

Sarah - Regrettably, similar poor attendance records have happened in Powys. Increasing the average population to councillor ratio to 1750 will have a huge impact, as will any move towards multi-member constituencies. I'm not sure Councillors have yet realised what is going to happen.