Commons resist moves to be cut down to size

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With the predictability of turkeys refusing to vote for Christmas, members of the House of Commons yesterday shouted down a proposal to cut their numbers from the present 651 to 500.

Spencer Batiste, Tory MP for Elmet, had wanted his reformist Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill put to a vote. But when the deputy speaker, Dame Janet Fookes, asked if Mr Batiste had leave to introduce the Bill, the shout of "No" was so overwhelming she judged a division to be pointless.

Mr Batiste acknowledged that, even after retirements, a reduction of nearly 30 per cent in the number of MPs would mean redundancies. But he said the change was "vital to the health of the mother of Parliaments".

There had been a slow but inexorable rise in the number of MPs from 620 in 1950 to the current 651, he explained. Boundary changes would add another eight members after the general election.

Yet the United States, with five times the UK's population, manages with 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives, and, in Europe, only Germany has more legislators - three more than the UK but with 23 million more people.

Mr Batiste said a reduction would be a signal of MPs' commitment to productivity. There would be a saving for the taxpayer and more opportunity for MPs to get into debates.

Last but not least: "Perhaps the electorate would be a little less cynical about MPs' pay if we accepted for ourselves the redundancies that elsewhere have underpinned non-inflationary pay increases."

Though most of the MPs present seemed to resent any idea of cuts, the member who spoke against the 10-minute rule Bill - only one MP is allowed to - did so on the grounds that it did not go far enough.

John Butcher, Conservative MP for Coventry SW, thought about 300 MPs was appropriate. The slimmed-down House would produce less "clutter and ephemera" he said, but there was also an animal welfare argument.

"When free-roaming mammals are crowded together in artificial circumstances, it often produces some pretty unhealthy by-products. It is my judgement that this House is getting more and more fevered and therefore demands a culling programme." Mr Butcher announced some 18 months ago that he is retiring at the general election.

John Major had earlier made no attempt to deny reports that the Conservative manifesto for the election will include a pledge to privatise the Post Office.

Challenged by Tony Blair at Question Time, the Prime Minister said it was "astonishing" that the Labour leader appeared not to know that many rural post offices were already in private hands.

But he went on: "I can confirm that we are looking to make sure the Post Office gives customers the efficient and effective service they deserve."

A previous attempt to sell off of the Post Office crumbled two years ago in the face of a vociferous minority of Conservatives with rural seats.

Mr Blair said the Conservatives' "obsession" with privatising public services was one reason, among many, for their humiliation last Thursday.