In the committee room corridors at the Palace of Westminster, the government’s conduct around the ongoing review of constituency boundaries is drawing cross-party criticism.
The government’s official response to Parliament’s concerns fails to address any of the key issues – and Ministers look determined to plough ahead with a risky cut in backbench MPs.
At the same time, Afzal Khan’s Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) private member’s bill has stalled, despite having passed its second reading in the House of Commons chamber unanimously.
The bill would keep the number of MPs at 650, instead of reducing it to 600, as is the current intention of the Government.
There is also the risk that women and other underrepresented groups may make up more than a fair share of the 50 MPs who lose out.
Mr Khan’s bill also proposes allowing constituency populations to vary by 7.5% instead of the 5% currently being put forward. This would be an improvement on the current boundaries in terms of levelling out representation and it would result in constituencies likelier to reflect coherent communities and local government boundaries than with a 5% variant limit.
What is farcical about the current situation is how Mr Khan’s bill is being stalled. The government argues that having 650 MPs instead of 600 would cost money (despite evidence suggesting that more representatives often results in less public spending, because of improvements in scrutiny).
When private member’s bills cost money, ministers need to table a ‘money resolution’ for them to advance to the bit of committee stage where MPs can start tabling amendments.
The public bill committee for the bill assembled earlier this month, where Mr Khan spoke about his bill, followed by the Labour frontbencher on these issues Cat Smith, followed by the SNP’s David Linden.
Despite cross-party support for the bill, Chloe Smith said the government would not be giving it the money resolution needed to advance, citing the current boundary review being undertaken and their manifesto commitment.
Fast forward a week, to Monday 14th, and once again Nadine Dorries said MPs could remove their jackets but not have a cup of tea. Then Mr Khan opened the sitting by moving that it be adjourned.
There was no money resolution, no amendments, and ultimately no progress.
At a time when Parliament is set to gain more powers after Brexit, can we really afford to be cutting the amount of scrutineers in Parliament?
ERS research in 2016 showed that in a smaller, 600-seat Commons, nearly one in four (23%) MPs would be on the government payroll if the parties’ proportion of MPs – and the total number of ministers and whips – stayed the same – an all-time high, and up from the 21% at present (figures as of November 2016).
On the surface this debate appears to be about lines on a map but in truth the decisions made will impact the very heart of our democracy.