Despatches from the legislative front-line III: exploring the numerological implications of the number MPs during the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

The Bill proposes to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600.  So far, no real explanation has been given as to why the number of 600 has been chosen.  One of the amendments we have debated in the last few hours suggested that the number of seats in the Commons should be 630 instead.

Here is my contribution:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, when I saw the amendment on the Marshalled List, I thought that we would have a very different debate from the one that has emerged. Until the speeches of my noble friends Lady Nye and Lord Brooke, I thought that we were not going to touch on what I understood was the essence of the amendment that my noble friend Lady McDonagh has moved.

I had assumed that the amendment represented not a real belief on the part of my noble friend that 630 should be the proper size of the House of Commons but what, in a traditional Committee stage of a Bill, we would regard as a probing amendment. The reality is that we have yet to have exposed to us any rationale for the size of the House of Commons that the Bill proposes. My noble friend Lord Brooke referred to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who talked about plucking a nice round number out of the air. I remember also the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, telling us with enormous earnestness—and, I assume, absolute honesty—that no political considerations were contained in the figure that emerged. So what were the reasons for choosing 600 as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585?

I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology about this. Noble Lords will be aware that 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squaredand 13; 630 is of course the product of four prime numbers: two, three squared, five and seven. I defy anyone to find a similar formulation or number that involves five prime numbers. Maybe my noble friend Lord Winston, or some such person could come up with something.

Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: Perhaps I could postulate another figure, given the nature of the debate. Could we maybe go for 666?

Lord Harris of Haringey: It is interesting that the noble Baroness suggests that. When I looked in more detail at the combinations of prime numbers, I was going to say that perhaps the figure of 600 was chosen because it was a round number and that it would be very different from choosing 666, which is the mark of the beast, which no doubt noble Lords opposite would not have wished to use.

Lord Snape: As the mover of the next amendment, let me just assure my noble friend that there will be no fancy mathematics from me.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I would expect nothing less.

However, 640 has the virtue of being the product of only two prime numbers: two to the power of seven and five, as I am sure the noble Lord is well aware. Actually, it is interesting that you could choose a number that is simply one prime number—I have not done the analysis of to which they will be—but there is a comparatively small number of options that we have considered that are the product of two prime numbers.

I do not believe that that was the motivating factor in the Government choosing that figure, but the people of this country have a right to know what were the determining factors for the choice. Essentially, we have two options. One is that it is a political fix, as a number of noble Lords have suggested, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has assured us that that is not the case. What is the answer? Has the number been entirely been plucked out of the air, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally perhaps suggested? If so, that is an extraordinary way of choosing the size of the elected House of Commons. It is bizarre. Are we being told that the only two possible reasons why 600 has emerged as the figure is either a crude political fix or a random number plucked out of the air?

I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would not be party to a crude political fix, nor do I believe that he would treat the country with such contempt as simply to allow a number to be plucked out of the air. There must be a rationale, so why is that not being shared with your Lordships in this House or with the country? What exactly are the arguments? In the absence of being given a convincing explanation that is not numerology or a number that seemed nice—a number that is less than 650 but a bit more than any number that we have previously mentioned in the run-up to the election, which may be the way that these things were done—I begin to believe that perhaps there was some political undercurrent in choosing the number 600.

I want to hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reaffirm that there have been no political calculations of that sort. I want him to say that none of the special advisers supporting Ministers involved in the decision have been exchanging e-mails on the subject of what will be the political consequence of choosing 600 as opposed to 585 or 650. Let the noble Lord make the assurance that there are no e-mails between special advisers, that there have been no conversations with Ministers and that work in the political parties has not been done—or, if it has been done, that it has not been shared with those who have been making the decisions.

It cuts no ice if we are being told that the number of 600 has been arrived at for no reason whatsoever. Frankly, we will believe that it was political chicanery. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will have to work very hard to convince us otherwise and that there are not smoking e-mails or smoking correspondence somewhere that demonstrate that that was the motivation driving the Government to the figure that has been chosen.”

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