Howard pledges to cut number of MPs

The Tories pledged yesterday to cut the number of MPs, ministers and special advisers by a fifth if they return to power.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, criticised the Government for exempting MPs and ministers from its campaign to cut waste by cutting 84,000 civil service jobs. The Tories believe they could save £20m a year by reducing the number of MPs from 659 to between 525 and 532. They would also cut by 20 per cent the ranks of ministers and their politically appointed advisers, the number of which has doubled from 38 to 76 since Labour came to power.

Mr Howard said: "It's all very well saying that government departments should be reduced, but what about ministers, Parliament and special advisers? We think the same should apply to them."

The Tories are to publish a Smaller Government Bill outlining their plans. It will propose a referendum in Wales on whether to scrap the Welsh Assembly. The Tories also want constituencies of about 85,000 people. At present, the average size of an English constituency is almost 70,000, in Northern Ireland 66,000, in Wales 59,000 and in Scotland 53,000. The Tories will promise to cut the total cost of government by around £30bn. They hope this will allow them to cut tax.

Yesterday there were tensions in Labour over whether it should seek to soften the blow of inheritance tax. Shaun Woodward, a former Tory MP who defected to Labour, said middle class protests over inheritance tax and stamp duty could be a political "hand grenade". But a spokesman for Chancellor Gordon Brown said: "Mr Woodward is wrong. Only 5 per cent of estates attract inheritance tax. Less than one in six home sales attract stamp duty above 1 per cent and we have removed stamp duty entirely from 2000 communities."