Relevant document: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee
1A: Because the Commons consider that eight years is a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly.
My Lords, in moving Motion A, I will also speak to Amendments 2, 6, 7 and 8, on which I shall also beg to move that the House do not insist on those amendments, to which the Commons have disagreed.
Amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. The Commons have opted to disagree to these amendments, as eight years is deemed a better balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly without disruption to local communities and their representatives.
The Commons disagree to Amendment 6, which proposes a bespoke appointment system for boundary commissioners. The Commons consider that the existing public appointments system and the requirements of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are sufficient. The public appointment system used to recruit commissioners is robust and has led to the appointment of impartial and effective candidates for decades.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has since tabled an amendment in lieu on this topic, which we will return to in more detail later. However, I wanted to take the opportunity at this point to thank the noble and learned Lord for his constructive and positive approach to engaging with me and officials, and indeed other senior Ministers in the Government, on his amendment throughout the passage of the Bill. It was a model of the approach for a revising Chamber.
We have had many conversations at every stage since this Bill entered the Lords and have thoroughly debated the aspects of the amendment. Even though the Government were unable to accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendments, I hope he has found our exchanges of a good nature and believes that they have resulted in reassurances that made them worth while.
Under Amendment 7, the number of voters in each constituency would be permitted to vary from the UK average by plus or minus 7.5%, which equates to a total tolerance range of 15%. The Commons—the elected House—consider that the existing law on this matter, that of a tolerance range of 10%, is sufficient to ensure equal parliamentary constituency boundaries.
Finally, turning to Lords Amendment 8, this required the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers. The Commons consider that the Government have provided sufficient explanation of action they have taken and are taking to improve the completeness of the electoral registers.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who so sadly passed away and who tabled the original amendment. It was a privilege to call him my noble friend when he was my Deputy Chief Whip during the years of coalition. In those Quaker values which have so enriched the Liberal party—as it was—and the Liberal Democrats over generations were rooted his principles of straight talking and straight dealing, which we all remember, as we remember his passion for his work and his good humour. He will be sorely missed, particularly by colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Since then, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who had not previously taken part in the Bill, has tabled a new amendment in lieu. The Government cannot accept this amendment for reasons I have privately explained to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, but we will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss this further.
As is quite proper, this House asked the Commons to re-examine the detail of this Bill. The House of Commons did so and have returned a Bill to us that is now ready to go to Her Majesty for Royal Assent. The elected Chamber, to which this Bill directly relates, has considered your Lordships’ amendments, and indeed accepted three in relation to the automaticity provisions, and has made its will now known. I therefore urge noble Lords not to insist upon these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister for the courtesy and pleasure, if I may say so, of being able to debate the issues that lay behind the original amendment I put forward. I am extremely grateful to him for the courtesy and the trouble to which he has gone, and to his officials, who went beyond their ordinary tasks even in these most difficult times to help me.
I have put forward today an amendment to the original clause that was carried by this House. It is plain that the original clause would have brought about a better appointment system, but the decision has been made by the other place that they do not agree. As regards the amendment I have tabled today, it deals with a narrow and specific point of some constitutional importance. That is why I have put the amendment forward: to amend the clause on a very narrow basis.
However, I wish to make it clear now that I do not intend to press this amendment to a Division because, in the ultimate analysis, it must be for the other place to accept it. However, given the times in which we live, I think it is important to record the matter formally, because it may turn out to be of great importance in the future. As regards the more general points, they are of very considerable relevance at the present time. Although in what I have to say I will be a little critical of the Government, I wish to make it abundantly clear that anything I say in no way criticises the present Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor. This is a more general point, directed at the Government as a whole, now and for the future.
The amendment today, on this narrow point, has the objective of bringing the provisions for the appointment of the deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission into line with the principles of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which changed the position of the Lord Chancellor. Noble Lords may recall that the debate on the position of the Lord Chancellor was an extensive one. There were very detailed discussions between the judiciary, at that time led by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs led by the Lord Chancellor— as he then truly was—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton.
A concordat was reached in 2004, which sets out very clear principles that were embodied in the Bill. Those principles were that the deployment and appointments to posts of judges were for the Lord Chief Justice. In respect of some, the Lord Chief Justice was obliged to consult the Lord Chancellor and, in the case of one or two, obtain his concurrence, but the important point is that the decision was that of the Lord Chief Justice. That was because the Lord Chancellor ceased to have any judicial functions and to be head of the judiciary. That is a basic and fundamental constitutional position. The Lord Chief Justice became head of the judiciary and responsible for judicial deployment and the allocation of responsibilities and—importantly—of cases.
The power of appointment to the post of deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission dates from a time when the Lord Chancellor was a judge and head of the judiciary. It is noticeable in the Act that the powers of the Lord Chancellor did not extend to the appointment of the deputy chairman in Scotland or Northern Ireland, because the Lord Chancellor was not head of the judiciary there. Unfortunately, though I think it is hardly surprising, having been involved myself at the time, this provision was overlooked. There were literally hundreds of posts and duties that the Lord Chancellor had accreted over the centuries; that one or two slipped by is not surprising. It is essential to rectify the position now for two reasons: first, to correct an error and, secondly—far more importantly—because the position of the Boundary Commission has changed. It is no longer advisory and its decisions are not subject to any review by Parliament; it decides and Parliament and the Executive Government carry out the decision. The position, as I made clear on the last occasion, is no different to the selection of someone to decide a case. When a judge decides a case, the matter must be enforced by the Executive and adhered to by Parliament. It is quite clear that the Lord Chancellor could not pick a judge to decide a particular case; it would be wrong.
As I could not understand why the Government were opposing this change, I asked three question that I hoped would elucidate the reasons for the decision. I asked if the Lord Chancellor was satisfied that a decision by him as Lord Chancellor, or by any successor, personally to appoint the deputy chairman would be in accordance with legal principles, given that it would be a decision in which the Lord Chancellor—unless he were a peer, which was of course the case prior to 2005—had an actual interest, as the Commission would be determining the boundaries of the Lord Chancellor’s own constituency. The answer I got was that, in making such an appointment, the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established law principles. It seems clear that the Government accept that there is a personal interest in this matter. My second question was whether it would be susceptible to a legal challenge. To that I got the answer that in making such an appointment the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established public law principles. Thirdly, I asked whether it was consistent with the duty placed on the Lord Chancellor to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. The answer was that is not inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, because the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments, it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent for the judicial appointment system. The same could be said of these appointments.
I am afraid that—as I shall explain in a moment—I must disagree with that last answer. Having received those answers drafted by his officials, I considered the matter of such constitutional importance that I asked the Lord Chancellor to confirm that he agreed with those answers, and that confirmation was given. I was told that he wanted it noted that the role of a constituency MP and Lord Chancellor were separate, and that the Lord Chancellor would always have to act consistently with public law principles.
To turn to an analysis of those answers, it seems quite clear that it is accepted—as the Government had to accept—that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor had an interest in the decision to appoint a deputy chair, as a decision is being made about his own constituency. The position is plainly different. This is a decision in which the person selecting the chairman has a direct interest. It seems quite clear, therefore, that the decision of the Lord Chancellor to appoint a particular judge is susceptible to judicial review. Obviously, one cannot predict what will happen in the future, but there must be a real risk that an appointment could be challenged, either when made or, more seriously, subsequently. It would be said that it was impossible for someone who had such a conflict of interest to make a fair and impartial decision and, as importantly, to be seen to make a fair and impartial decision. The real risk here is for the future. Let us just assume that the Lord Chancellor does this: the Boundary Commission is appointed, someone is disappointed or unhappy with the result, the decision of the Government that it is for the Lord Chancellor to make this decision would provide a perfect means of bringing a judicial review of the appointment of the deputy chairman. This would risk—to my mind a matter of great regret—leaving the decision of the Boundary Commission open to challenge by an attack on its deputy chairman. That would be a very serious inroad into this new system, with which otherwise I entirely agree.
The decision to proceed on the basis is justified by the reason that the Lord Chancellor has an role in the appointment of judges but, as the parts of the amendment that I am not speaking about today make clear—because those parts were modelled exactly upon the way in which judges are appointed—the role of the Lord Chancellor is extraordinarily limited. He can ask the appointers to think again or he can give reasons for rejection, but those reasons must be in writing. Of course, if the Lord Chancellor had any role whatever in the future career of a judge who he would be entitled to appoint to be deputy chairman, there would be a serious risk of impropriety. Some would be able to say, “He appointed Judge X; Judge X knows what may happen in the future and knows the Lord Chancellor could advance him” and therefore his decision would not be an acceptable one.
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has been kind enough to write to me to confirm one matter on which the Government have relied—the practice that has hitherto existed of the Lord Chief Justice being consulted. I shall return in a moment to the way in which this is put. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for confirming that, although there is no statutory requirement, he gives an assurance,
“that I will commit to the Lord Chancellor formally consulting the Lord Chief Justice on all future appointments.”
However, that does not deal with the question of principle, which is clear in the Constitutional Reform Act that it is for the Lord Chief Justice, as head of the judiciary and the person responsible for the allocation of responsibilities in deployment, to make the decision. The consultation should be the other way around. This course of action that the Government are taking is in flagrant contradiction of well-established constitutional principles laid down in the Constitutional Reform Act.
I do not understand that, because the reasons given so far in this House and the other place, and by the Lord Chancellor, do not explain why there is to be this departure from principle. One inference could be that there is something to be gained from it. I do not understand what that could be, but of course I am not really involved in politics, so I am not sure why this is being insisted on. Possibly it could be said that the principles in the Constitutional Reform Act are somehow inapplicable. I do not understand that either. Or, more seriously, there may not be a commitment to the principles of the Constitutional Reform Act that underpin the independence of the judiciary and, as I shall explain in a moment, the rule of law. By insisting on retaining the position and not following the clear constitutional principles, Her Majesty’s Government are wrong in what they seek to do. It is a potential attack on the independence of the judiciary and thus corrosive of the rule of law.
I need not say much about that, because this House is well familiar with the attitude to the rule of law, having only recently had to consider Part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which, I will just add, has damaged the position of the judiciary in the UK. In the position I have, I am in at least weekly contact—possibly more frequently—with lawyers and judges across the world, and it ought to be clear that very substantial damage has been done by Part 5 of that Bill. People who had always highly respected our system were deeply shocked at the Government’s decision to abnegate the rule of law.
Now, apart from the question of the views that others take of us, it is also quite important to realise how damaging it is when we turn away from the rule of law.
I will be a moment longer. I just want to add one final point—and it is this. One can see the damage done when a country such as China criticises Her Majesty’s Government for going back on a treaty. Its comments speak for themselves.
I will conclude by saying that we should be vigilant for the future. The threat to the rule of law is still there, and there are more matters to come. I hope very much that on future occasions this Government will be much more careful about the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.
My Lords, I first apologise to the House and my fellow noble Lords for coming to this debate very late in the day. I am new to the Chamber, as many noble Lords will know, and I would argue that I and many others were thrown off track by the pandemic. I apologise, and for that reason I will not be putting my amendment to a vote—because I respect noble Lords and I respect this House.
However, I will not apologise for wanting to ensure that hundreds of thousands of young people are registered to vote and have a voice in our society. I have dedicated most of my adult life to ensuring that young people and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can be part of our society—and without a vote, you do not have a voice.
Before I go into that, I pay tribute to David, Lord Shutt, who, as the Minister said, was our friend. I knew David more than 20 years ago when I was an activist, just starting out with Operation Black Vote. We had no money—and no money any time soon. I was asked by Stephen Pittam, who was the social and racial justice director of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, to put in an application. So I did, and I was called to a panel, and David Shutt was the chair. I said to him, “You and I know that Martin Luther King had a dream. But he had more than a dream. He had a plan. And step one of that plan was to politically empower African Americans and white poor people to be in a situation where they are not asking for justice and equality but demanding it. And they demand it by voter registration, by having a strong voice”. In typical Yorkshire fashion, David turned around and said—I hope noble Lords will excuse my language—“You’ve convinced me. Give him the bloody money, and good luck”. And we then began a journey, going out the length and breadth of our nation to register our communities to vote.
Our focus has been on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities where, as many noble Lords will know, the deficit is the greatest. We laid bare about 10 years ago the fact that more than 50% of young Africans in London were not registered to vote. The average for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is 25%-plus, when the average across the board is around 15% to 17%. The problem that we are facing is not that there is a neutrality in some of our communities towards registering to vote and voting—there is antipathy towards it. People say, “Why should I vote when I do not see our institutions, locally or nationally, looking like us? There is no representation. How are they going to speak for me?” Too many say, “Why should I vote when policies are not addressing the deep-seated racial inequalities and disparities that affect our lives—in housing, education, health and many other areas? Why should I bother?” We as activists tell our communities and young people across the board, “That’s precisely why you should vote—because if you don’t have a voice, you can’t change anything”.
Twenty-five years later, from activist to one of your own as a fellow Peer, I come into this place and, once again, I bump into my old friend David, the late Lord Shutt. He says to me, “Young man, great to see you. We’ve got work to do. Your first step is to come and make a presentation to our committee”—which I did. He said, “Give us chapter and verse on how we can turn this round. Give us the tools to empower black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and young people across the board.” I said to him, “Look, it’s a no-brainer. At the very first instance, we should have automatic voter registration. You give them the insurance number and you make sure they’re registered. At least then our challenge to get them to vote is halfway done; we just need to give them the tools to do it.”
When I was presented with a proposition to come to the House and move this amendment, I jumped at the opportunity because, in terms of advising people when you give them their national insurance number on how they register to vote, this amendment is about the lowest-hanging fruit that there could be. In fact, it is so low, it is practically on the floor. Of course, I want us not just to take this low-hanging fruit. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord True; I would like to think that we have become good friends since this conversation began. He said to me—I take you true to your word, sir—that not only will we look at this, but we must look at other areas of political empowerment for our young people, including in schools, colleges and universities. We have to bridge this in full citizenship mode. We must ensure that our communities are empowered.
Noble Lords know as well as I do that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our society, particularly on elderly people, too many of whom have died, but also right across the piece. The pandemic has also had a particularly devastating effect on young people. Many will lose their jobs, as has been said. Many will be from black and minority ethnic communities, who are disproportionately losing their jobs. Given that they are dramatically affected, it is incumbent on us to give them the tools to put things right. That cannot happen unless they have a political voice to make demands on us. As parliamentarians, it is our job to make it as easy as possible for them to play a role in our society—including through registering to vote and voting—by forging a future pathway that will give them the opportunities that they deserve.
My Lords, the following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Lords, Lord Rennard, Lord Beith and Lord Lexden. I will call each in turn, then if anyone else in the Chamber wishes to speak, they too can be called—[Interruption.] I beg noble Lords’ pardon; they are quite right. The noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Blencathra, both told me that they wished to speak; I just left them off the list because I did not write it down properly. I will call each noble Lord in turn then I will seek any other speakers in the Chamber. To begin with, I call the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
My Lords, the last words in this House of my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland helped to carry an amendment to this Bill by 293 votes to 215. The majority for that amendment was 78 in a vote in which more than 500 Peers took part and which was supported by more than 80% of the Cross-Bench Peers who voted—but it was not accepted. The whole House should now be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for having tabled a compromise amendment on a subject with which he has a long history of involvement and about which he spoke so powerfully and persuasively.
The suggested compromise is based on one of the key recommendations of the Select Committee, which studied electoral registration issues over many months and received evidence from more than 60 people, many of whom are experts in the field. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, was one of those experts. As he said, he has many years’ experience of campaigning with Operation Black Vote on the underrepresentation of black people on electoral registers. He pointed out in his evidence that he has been talking to such committees for more than 10 years; he said that the questions remain the same but there remains a lack of political will to deal with them. He also explained that the introduction of individual voter registration has had a huge impact in reducing the levels of registration from diverse communities.
The noble Lord’s amendment today is not the same as that of Lord Shutt and his colleagues. The Government are not asked in this amendment to consider the introduction of any form of automatic voter registration. In fact, they are not asked to do anything at all except tell us what proposals they have to do what they say they want to do anyway. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, it is the softest amendment possible. Ministers claim repeatedly that the Government want to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers. The noble Lord’s amendment simply asks them to consider inviting young people to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. Such a notification would cost nothing. The easiest way of registering to vote is with a national insurance number, so the best time to register is when you get your national insurance number.
Young people about to attain the age of 18 are all supposed to be registered and included in the calculations of the Boundary Commissions; their absence, and that of others, makes those boundaries unfair and, many would suggest, gerrymandered. These young people need to be registered in order to vote, obtain credit and be summoned for jury service. However, the latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that 75% of them are not registered to vote, as against only 6% of those aged over 65. This is an enormous disparity. The Government talk about their efforts in relation to registering young people, but if only 25% of those about to turn 18 are registered compared with 45% five years ago, those efforts are clearly failing—unless, that is, their real efforts are to reduce the number of young people registered to vote. If so, they should be honest about voter suppression, which might come from the Donald Trump playbook. Or, if this is not their aim, they should say why they have been unable to provide a single reason for not registering young people in this way. They have not been able to do so at any point in the four months that we have been considering this Bill.
As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, the figures for registering young black people are even worse than they are for young people generally. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently raised concerns that 25% of black people are not registered to vote, compared with 17% of the total population. If these figures are correct, they would mean that more than 80% of young black people about to attain the age of 18 are not registered to vote—and the danger is that they may never be, and that they may never take part in our democratic society.
This issue affects our democracy. It affects social mobility, as those not registered may not be able to obtain credit when they apply for it. It affects justice, as juries drawn from the electoral registers may be unrepresentative. The criminal sub-committee of Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges recently described problems with jury service, saying that
“there are currently many who are eligible but are not registered to vote and are not called for jury service.”
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is a compromise. It does not go as far as the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended, with cross-party support. The principle of registering young people automatically, or in this way, was supported by the senior Conservative election strategist the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in that Select Committee and in the Grand Committee considering the Bill.
The same principles were strongly supported by the Conservative Party’s official historian, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in the Select Committee and on Report. I am pleased that he is again supporting the principle of the amendment today. The last Labour Minister responsible for handling such issues, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is sadly unable to attend, but he is a strong supporter of the principles of the amendment. All 133 of the 133 Labour Peers who voted on Lord Shutt’s original amendment voted for something that went far further than the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, seeks today.
I recently reread the House of Commons debate on Lord Shutt’s amendment. The principle of automatic voter registration was strongly attacked by Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg. He spoke knowing that he had vetoed MPs voting electronically in the same way that we do in this House, so he was speaking in the knowledge that the Conservative Whips could cast around 200 votes as proxies without MPs being allowed even to press a button for themselves. Even from this House we can say that that is an affront to democracy. Even with all his debating skills, Mr Rees-Mogg could voice no argument against notifying young people about how to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. That is because there is no democratic argument against it.
The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, skilfully suggested a compromise of the kind that this House should be proud to support. My noble friend Lord Tyler will ensure that there is an opportunity for Members to vote on this issue. Please use your vote today to make sure that young people can vote in future.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, for his generous and kind words about Lord Shutt of Greetland—our friend David Shutt. They were very accurate and true. I knew David for over 50 years. He was a liberal to his fingertips, a democrat in every way, a proud upholder of nonconformist and Quaker values, and a proud Yorkshireman. He was a larger than life figure in this place and we will miss him enormously. If there is anything that I can do today by casting a vote that would further the cause in which he so profoundly believed—that young people must be drawn into our democratic system—I will do so with enthusiasm.
I refer to the amendment in lieu from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. He has worked assiduously on the Bill to try to safeguard the important principles at stake. It was obvious to me and everybody else that, the moment that Parliament could not delay or block Boundary Commission proposals, attention in some political quarters would shift to those who draw up those proposals. The pressure would be on who is appointed as boundary commissioners. It therefore became important to look at that carefully. We have done so over the course of the Bill, but I do not think we have reached an ideal solution.
We are in an anomalous situation on the position of Lord Chancellor, as was pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, by detailed reference to the debates on changes to the post, which I remember vividly. I have great respect for the present Lord Chancellor, who served on the Justice Committee when I chaired it. I know that he is committed to the most important principles of our legal system, but this is not an ad hominem case; we cannot make it depend on one individual. It is about the system we have for the future. When many other changes were made, powers previously held by the Lord Chancellor shifted to the Lord Chief Justice, as head of the judiciary. This power should have gone the same way.
We are no longer in an era in which we can safely rely on people to do the right thing, if we ever could. The political context has changed significantly, and we have had some examples of that, including the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the Prorogation row. Things that people assumed would not happen happened. Positions that people assumed would not be taken up were taken up. We are no longer in an era in which we can safely assume that the holder of a political office will always put the integrity of the system ahead of pressing political concerns or matters that might seem important and high priority, but which should not be achieved by damaging the system and its fairness in the application of the rule of law.
That is why we should free the Lord Chancellor from any suggestion of political involvement in the appointment of the deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission. Put that safely in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, who is not a political officeholder and is not subject to the same pressures. I wait with interest, but not, I am afraid, a great deal of optimism, to hear what the noble Lord, Lord True, says about the position. Expressions of confidence that people would never do things that they have not done in the past can no longer be relied on.
My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford. Like him and other noble Lords on all sides of the House, I deeply regret that the amendment cannot be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who so effectively made the case for action to get more young people on the electoral registers just a few weeks ago on Report. Lord Shutt of Greetland will be remembered vividly and affectionately by all his colleagues, of whom I was one, who worked with him on the all-party Select Committee that considered the state of our country’s electoral system in detail, seven years after the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. It would be a fine tribute to his memory if what might be termed the Shutt-Woolley amendment was incorporated in the Bill. If it is not, I hope that something like it wins parliamentary approval before too long.
When I spoke on the earlier Shutt amendment, I asked Members of the House to bear in mind that it provided two alternative routes by which tomorrow’s voters could be brought on to the electoral registers, at the ages of 16 and 17, in readiness to cast their votes when they turn 18. The first, as we have heard, proposed automatic registration if electoral registration officers were satisfied of their eligibility when national insurance numbers were issued. The Shutt amendment offered a second way to the goal, which all supporters of democracy surely must share—that of ending the grave under- participation of young people aged 18 and over in our country’s elections. The second method, as we have heard, involved no more than providing them with information about the process by which the precious right to vote can be acquired.
In responding to the amendment, the Government chose to ignore the second part altogether. Not one word was said about it from the Government Front Bench. Its supporters were called on to vote against it, on the grounds that automatic registration was objectionable in principle—an objection that many Conservatives do not share. The same thing happened when the Shutt amendment was debated in the Commons.
The new version before us omits the provision for automatic registration on which the Government based their entire opposition to the original amendment. The amendment proposes, in modest terms, that it should be permissible for young people, on whom the future success of our country depends, to be notified of what they should do to gain the right to cast a vote and play their part in our democracy. Can there really be a serious argument for not informing our country’s youngsters, who stand at the gateway of democracy, about what they need to do to pass through it, when information can be supplied to them readily and at very little cost as a result of today’s electronic miracles?
For noble Lords’ information, the next three speakers will be the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Blencathra and Lord Cormack.
My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has said, with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and with the very eloquent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. The Minister said that the House of Commons had given a view on this, but it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to ask it to think a second time on issues where we believe that there is a very strong public interest, particularly constitutional issues, since we are a constitutional safeguard. There are not many others in our system. One is the courts, and we have heard from a former Lord Chief Justice, who also spoke extremely eloquently about the composition of the Boundary Commissions. When a former Lord Chief Justice raises concerns about possible gerrymandering of the Boundary Commissions, we should take note.
For all the reasons that have been given so far, the issue of engagement of young people in our democratic system is fundamental. It is not a peripheral issue for the future of this country, and it is all the more fundamental because of the current evidence of massive underregistration of young people. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, spoke with great passion about how ethnic minority groups are even more underrepresented than young people at large. The evidence is that in the 2017 election, only 64%—not even two-thirds—of 18 to 24 year-olds were even on the electoral register, so the rest were not even able to participate unless they went through the laborious process of registering themselves during the election. Many would then have missed the deadline, and I had not even thought about the very powerful point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that if they are not on the electoral register, they are not available for jury service either. All these attributes of citizenship, which are fundamental to the future of our democracy, they are not engaged in.
Only 64% being registered is a huge condemnation of the status quo. The Minister cannot say that the system works and therefore, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The system is fundamentally broken, and not because of changes that go back a long time and which are hard to tackle but because of the introduction of individual registration, a reform introduced only six years ago, and which was itself, in respect of young people, unnecessary because, as the second aspect of this amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to, makes clear, we know who all the 16 year- olds in the country are. It is not a mystery. They all get a national insurance card. The state thinks that it is important for them to be registered for taxation, but not to be registered to vote. These are fundamental issues, and if we have any role in our constitutional development as a country, we should be drawing them further to the attention of the House of Commons, and we should certainly be putting on the record, as emphatically as we can, that the status quo does not work satisfactorily at the moment.
In the previous two elections, since we have had individual registration playing through, there has been a fundamental underrepresentation of young people, particularly in minority and poorer groups. Also, young people are becoming increasingly politicised because of the scale of the issues affecting them—Brexit, Covid-19 and so on—and as soon as elections come, they suddenly and frantically seek to register. The figures from the Electoral Commission are that in the general election in 2019, 1.4 million young people registered after the calling of the election, and apparently most of the new registrations on 10 of the 15 days with the highest number of new registrations were of young people at that general election.
The Minister might say that this shows that the system is, to some extent, working, but I do not think that it shows that at all. It shows a massive crisis in registration. When young people realise that they are not registered, some, but only a proportion, take the active steps necessary to correct that in that very short window between the calling of the election and the final date for being able to register. This is not a system that is working, it is one that is fundamentally broken, and one where the remedies are very straight- forward. Automatic registration is very straightforward to implement. It could be done immediately and should have been done under this Bill, but the Government rejected it. The further amendment on the paper today, which I absolutely believe that we should carry, would simply draw to the attention of young people that they should be registered.
When there is a fundamental problem of this kind, one does not need to look for the motivation behind it because, in the time that I have been in this House, this is the fourth occasion on which we have addressed the issue of individual registration. It looks very straight- forward and clear to me. Not all members of the Conservative Party, but the electoral advisers of the Conservative Party think they have a direct political interest in voter suppression in general and in the underregistration of young people in particular. Looking at the tactics in this populist movement that has been sweeping the United States and Britain, unfortunately the Prime Minister, who is a representative of it—not as bad as Donald Trump but still pretty bad—is perfectly content to resort to such methods so that fewer young people are registered and vote. On all the evidence, that appears to be the case. This makes me, and, I hope, other noble Lords who take these issues to heart, all the more determined that these issues should be aired, not suppressed, and that we should send this issue back to the House of Commons a second time.
My Lords, I just popped in today to see this Bill put safety to bed, having participated extensively in Committee and on Report—speaking on it for far too long, noble Lords may wish to shout. I was therefore surprised to see the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and to hear his speech. I congratulate him on a passionate and thorough speech, but one which should have been made at Second Reading. It was a perfect example of a Second Reading speech, and it would also have gone down perfectly well in Committee.
The noble Lord has apologised to the House for coming to the matter late in the day, as he put it, for which he blamed the pandemic. We have all had to change our modus operandi because of the pandemic, but I cannot imagine why, over the past four months, he was unable to participate in any stage of this Bill, online or in the Chamber. While I participated upstairs in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, participated from somewhere in the south-west—Devon, I presume—and many other noble Lords participated online. As a new Member, I made mistakes on the procedures, etiquette and courtesies of this House and had to apologise. I know he has apologised today, but the procedure that he has adopted, coming in with this amendment out of the blue at this late stage, is not the right thing to do in this House. I hope that he has not been used as a Trojan horse by the Liberal Democrats, because this has all the smell of a Liberal Democrat ploy. Someone else moves an amendment, the noble Lord has said that he will not vote on it, but it looks as though the Liberal Democrats will force a vote on ping-pong at this stage.
Irrespective of the merits of the arguments and the passionate speech by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we should follow the usual customs and courtesies of this House at ping-pong.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blencathra makes a very important point, one that was acknowledged in his speech by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, when he said that he would not be pressing his amendment to a Division. That is right. Reversing that famous quote from TS Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”, he was doing the wrong thing for the right reason, rather than the right thing for the wrong reason. I have great sympathy with him. We should move on with this Bill now, but we cannot escape facing up to the realities of compulsory registration.
Some of your Lordships may recall the phrase, “no taxation without representation”. If you are obliged to have your national insurance number and to pay tax, you should be obliged to be on the electoral register. I would go one step further: I believe in compulsory voting. That does not mean you cannot destroy your ballot paper or write, “A plague on both your houses” on it. I believe it is a civic duty to take part in the electoral process whether by casting or spoiling your vote.
I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, will not move his amendment to the Motion. A little bird tells me that it might be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I would not support that because it would not be appropriate.
I join in paying tribute to the late and delightful Lord Shutt of Greetland. I had the honour of dining opposite him on the long table in the week before he died. He brought a rumbustious good sense and good humour to our proceedings. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, he will be sorely missed in all parts of the House.
It is important to move on. This is the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. The other place has considered our amendments. While we should not refrain from playing ping-pong for quite a long time on certain Bills, such as the infernal market Bill, as I call it, in this case we should take heed of what the Commons has said and move on.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, also said that he would not put his amendment to the Motion to the vote. However, he raised a very important point on which we should all reflect at some length. The Lord Chancellor is now not really a judicial figure at all, but a political one. The Lord Chief Justice is not. The fundamental point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made at some length and with great eloquence is valid and should be taken on board. However, for today, we should move on.
Are there any noble Lords present who were here at the beginning of this debate who would like to take part at this stage? No? In which case, I return to the list and call the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
My Lords, before I concentrate on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, I will make some general comments about the Bill. The Government’s response to the improvements made by your Lordships to the Bill, with large majorities, has been profoundly disappointing. However, my disappointment will pale into insignificance when many Conservative MPs discover in a couple of years’ time just how they have been fooled into thinking that their seats will be unaffected by boundary changes. The most careful independent analysis has demonstrated that the Government’s insistence on sticking to the narrow 5% variance in the electoral quota means that some two-thirds of all seats will be changed—all for no real correction of the perceived imbalance. Those MPs will not merely be disappointed; hundreds of Conservative MPs and their constituents will suffer unnecessary disruption. Even more significantly, there will be many blue-on-blue contests for the more winnable new seats in the mid-term of the Parliament, just when the Government is least popular.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, Mr Rees-Mogg made no reference to that when, during an inevitably sparsely attended debate, he managed to overturn the improvements passed with large cross-party majorities in your Lordships House. It will be interesting to witness the reaction of his fellow MPs when they realise what he has let them in for. There would be an element of wry amusement for the rest of us if it were not for the avoidable impact on historic, natural and well-established communities. All being well, the political integrity of Cornwall will be protected, but such a desirable outcome will not be guaranteed elsewhere.
This was perhaps the major issue during our debates on the Bill. However, removing some of the other improvements may in due course also be recognised as counterproductive and constitutionally defective. I fear we may live to regret that the House could not endorse the proper concerns expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Beith.
I and my colleagues are especially pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, from the Cross Benches, has tabled his amendment to the Motion on the vital issue of electoral registration. Had this been at a different stage of the Bill, a quartet of senior Members from all parts of the House would have signed it. This is underlined by the strength of supporting speeches on all sides this afternoon. It is particularly appropriate that the noble Lord should lead on this. He has been a powerful champion and campaigner in non-party efforts to get more young people—especially from BAME communities and through Operation Black Vote—to take up their civic responsibilities and rights by registering. He gave evidence on the registration issue to the Select Committee of this House, chaired by our much-missed colleague Lord Shutt of Greetland.
At this point I should say how much I and my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches appreciate the tributes to David from all sides during the Commons debate and again this afternoon in your Lordships’ House. After a lifetime of principled devotion to this cause, his sincerity and clear advocacy of these practical steps towards a more comprehensive democracy shone through during his successful speech on Report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others have emphasised, this modest proposal would give practical effect to the aims to which Ministers have committed themselves. Without this kind of simple administrative adjustment, there is a real danger that the missing millions of unregistered young citizens will remain outside the system.
Ministers have reminded us that registering to vote is a civic duty. Unlike voting, which is entirely voluntary in Britain, co-operating with the registration process is a legal obligation unless the eligible citizen has a specific reason to be exempted. As my noble friend Lord Rennard reminded the House, the register is used to select for jury service. That is an important civic responsibility, which is not entirely voluntary. Failure to co-operate can lead to a fine of £1,000.
This proposal is not a form of automatic registration. Despite the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, it is not on the table for decision today. However, if the Government continue to block sensible ways to maximise registration, it could be argued that they are in a sense condoning law-breaking.
It has been clearly indicated that many of your Lordships on all sides of House wish to support this simple improvement. Therefore, if the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is not able to move his Motion E1 to propose Amendment 8B in lieu, I should be happy to do so and to seek the opinion of the House at the appropriate moment.
I again pay tribute to all who have helped to ensure that your Lordships’ House has fulfilled its proper scrutiny function. This includes the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True. As I have said previously, that is the fundamental right and responsibility of this House, not least when MPs and the governing party may need the corrective of relatively dispassionate, non-partisan and independent scrutiny on electoral law. We do not have the same special interests to declare as they have, which could take them into very unfortunate realm of special pleading, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made apparent.
Finally, I put on record on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, particularly all those who have worked on the Bill, our thanks and admiration for all those who have assisted the House, not least our excellent legislation adviser, Sarah Pughe. I thank the two Ministers and their team, the Public Bill Office and other officials of the House, as well as Members from all sides who value the integrity of the democratic process. I add thanks to those academic experts who gave us all such well-researched, non-partisan advice through all stages of the Bill.
My Lords, this has been a useful debate on some important amendments, which were agreed by your Lordships’ House but which, in their complete lack of wisdom, the Government chose to overturn in the Commons—and two of which, rightly, have merited special attention today.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for tabling their counter- propositions. The former made a persuasive and constitutionally important case, to which I will return.
Before doing so, I would like to add my tribute to the late Lord Shutt of Greetland. His contributions on 8 October were, sadly, his last in this Chamber. His untimely death was of course a shock, but it is somehow fitting that that last speech was on expanding voter registration and encouraging people to engage in the democratic process—a cause which, as we have heard, he had championed for years, and one which the Government should take up with more than just warm words. If the future of our democracy is to mean anything, it will be through the full involvement of all our citizens in elections, be they at local, regional or national level.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made reference to “no representation without taxation”. I very gently point out that his party wants to extend representation without taxation by extending the right to vote to people who left this country maybe 40 or 50 years ago and have long since ceased to pay tax. But that is not on the agenda today.
I am saddened, although not surprised, by the Government’s rejection of all five amendments. Far from making the Government’s life difficult, they sought to address genuine concerns in a constructive manner. I particularly regret the lack of a bit of greater tolerance, which would, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, have helped even Conservative MPs—but it would particularly have helped those who are drawing lines round the valleys and mountains of Wales to have seats that had coherence for the Member seeking to represent them.
However, it is clear that there is not a mood for compromise, regardless of the merit of our arguments. To borrow a famous phrase, you can lead the Minister towards a sensible position but, unfortunately, you cannot make him adopt it—or, at least, not now.
One of the major arguments that we had with the coalition Government, which of course included the Liberal Democrats as well as the Minister’s own party, was over the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600, despite the population having grown and despite almost the same number being put into your Lordships’ unelected House at the same time. We warned the two parties then and we voted against them, but they were determined. So I am delighted that they have now seen the sense of our arguments. Welcome to our viewpoint—and perhaps in due course they will see the good sense behind Amendments 1, 2 and 7.
In particular, given the cogent arguments, and the concern of this House, we had hoped in all sincerity to see some movement on the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Given that Parliament will no longer have any backstop role over boundaries, the independence of commissions —which will no longer be advisory; they will effectively be law-makers—is even more vital. The noble and learned Lord sought to depoliticise, and therefore legitimise, the appointments process.
The Government’s position is a little concerning. It is true that some might be comforted by the departure of certain personnel from No. 10; nevertheless, the only true guarantee of independence is a transparent process guaranteed in law. Indeed, dealing, as we are, with this issue just at this moment, or, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in the times in which we live, when others such as Peter Riddell and the noble Lord, Lord Evans, have questioned how supposedly independent appointments are actually made, a very clear signal in this Motion that no elected politician would have any say would have been warmly welcomed.
The noble and learned Lord’s proposal—that appointments should be made by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, rather than by the Lord Chancellor —is an obvious way of ensuring and demonstrating the required independence. As he set out, given that the old rules were made when the Lord Chancellor was a Peer—and thus had absolutely no personal interest in the boundary of any seat—and a senior lawyer with other roles in judicial appointments, bringing today’s Boundary Commission appointments in line with other such appointments would have made absolute sense. The involvement of an elected MP, possibly a non-lawyer, in a role historically held by a non-elected senior lawyer simply does not make sense.
Again, sadly, we have to recall that the Government’s record in the vow of their recent Lord Chancellor—nothing to do with today’s—to uphold the rule of law was somewhat undermined when the judges were attacked over Brexit and the then incumbent failed to rally to their support. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, the current Lord Chancellor has stated that
“the roles of constituency MP and Lord Chancellor are separate and the Lord Chancellor will always have to act consistently with public law principles”.
I hope that that will indeed be the case when the new appointments are made, but I still regret the Government’s failure to accept Motion C1.
The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is surely sensible, and is hardly in conflict with any government policy. It aims to provide information on voter registration to new recipients of a national insurance number. It could not be easier and, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, it is the right thing to do. Further, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, it is cheap—in fact, it is probably free. The text drops the original provision for automatic registration but would achieve some of that by “catch them early and then keep them”.
As has been said, participation is the lifeblood of any democracy. The Prime Minister may have struggled in recent weeks to say that every vote in a certain election should be counted, but I think that the overwhelming majority of the public takes that for granted. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, regardless of age, ethnicity or any other circumstances, everyone deserves a voice. I go further: we need to hear those voices. We should all be worried that there are groups in society, predominantly of course the young and BAME people, whose voices are not heard. They are disproportionately absent from our elections and then, I fear, sometimes from the policies that shape their lives.
There really is no reason why the Government should not accede to this amendment, unless they have some very good new initiatives that are about to be announced, or a more suitable way of achieving the same end. This would be just one step towards increasing registration but it would be helpful and, as we have said, could be done at no cost.
As I have said on other amendments and other ping-pongs, it is actually the Government, not the House of Commons, whom we are seeking to persuade. I am certain, by the way, that on a free vote this amendment would have been passed overwhelmingly in the other House, although of course on a whipped vote the original amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. So sending it back, when the whip in the Commons remains, would, I fear, achieve absolutely nothing, except perhaps some publicity for Liberal Democrat newsletters—but, seriously, no more than that. They know it and we know it—it would be back here tomorrow afternoon if we are sitting, and, if not, presumably on Monday: that sort of timing.
My plea to the Minister is to take up the suggestion, if not in legislation then in actuality, because it does not need an Act of Parliament to do what the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked. Ultimately, progress can be secured only with the support of the Government. Passing an amendment today that would be overturned in hours would simply give false hope to those who seek this change. However, more worryingly, it would be defeated down there, and that would be the worst thing to happen. For this suggestion—that all people getting their NI number should be told about how to vote—to be rejected by the House of Commons would not further the cause, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said; it would make it look as though it might be stopped. That would be regrettable for those who support the cause—we all want this to happen—and it would not help.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. My brief rather optimistically said “this short debate”. In fact, it has not been a short debate because it has been an important one. Perhaps at times, as someone said, it has strayed a little closer to Second Reading than consideration of Commons Reasons, but I fully understand the passion and commitment with which all noble Lords have spoken on the amendments they are concerned with, including, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley.
Not to waste time, I turn to the two amendments before us. They are in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As we know, the amendment in lieu tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, relates to the role of the Lord Chancellor in appointing deputy chairs of the Boundary Commissions and proposes that the Lord Chief Justice appoints them rather than the Lord Chancellor. Some people have expressed concern about the nature of the Lord Chancellor, including the noble Baroness opposite, but I must remind her that it was her party which so sadly removed the Law Lords from your Lordships’ House, to its great detriment. Indeed, that created the nature of the Lord Chancellor about which she complains today. It was a creation at the back of a press release by the Labour Government. This is something that we have to deal with and people with the integrity of my right honourable friend the current Lord Chancellor are seeking to deal with it.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, provided us with some questions and I undertook to answer them. However, the noble Lord read out the questions and the answers that we had provided. I shall not go through them all. The record is there in Hansard, but I will repeat that the Lord Chancellor has confirmed that the roles of constituency MP and Lord Chancellor—and indeed any other Minister—are separate and that the Lord Chancellor will always have to act consistently with public law principles in making this or any appointment.
As for whether it is susceptible to legal challenge, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, speculated, the Lord Chancellor’s role in making such an appointment is subject to established public law principles and could be challenged by way of judicial review. The noble and learned Lord lamented that. On other occasions I have been urged in this House not to press proposals and propositions that do not allow for judicial review. That is the position and your Lordships must draw your own conclusions.
I was also asked whether it was inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that could involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord spoke at some length on this question. It is, however, the process currently for the appointment of High Court judges. The reason the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments is that it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent. Ultimately, for something so important, ministerial accountability to Parliament is of great importance. The same could be said of these appointments.
The noble and learned Lord referred to a letter that he had received from the Lord Chancellor, part of which he quoted. Perhaps with the authority of a Minister speaking from the Dispatch Box, I can read it out as binding on the Government:
“I would like to assure you”,
wrote the Lord Chancellor,
“that I will commit to the Lord Chancellor formally conducting the Lord Chief Justice on all future appointments.”
My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor said that he hoped that would provide the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the House with the assurance they seek. For that reason, I am pleased to hear that the noble and learned Lord is minded to withdraw his amendment and I hope he will do so.
I return to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As many noble Lords have said, it is an amendment in lieu to Lord Shutt’s original amendment. I will not repeat what I said about Lord Shutt at the start. I offered that spontaneously and I do not think I can do better than that, so I will not reiterate the fine, warm and justified words from other noble Lords in this debate. However, respect for an individual does not necessarily make a case for making law. Respect for an individual and their life’s work imposes a sense to remember the witness of that individual and to reflect on the things that they said.
My noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook and the Leader of the House in another place spoke at length in Grand Committee, on Report and in Commons consideration of your Lordships’ amendments. The Government have taken and continue to take action in great detail in this important space of increasing voter registration. Noble Lords who been taking part in these debates will know that I have said that the House will have the opportunity to return to debate electoral issues such as this again when parliamentary time allows. I cannot make any promises, but it is legislation that I hope will come sooner rather than later.
We do not see this amendment as necessary. While the Government agree that the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers is critical and have set out on numerous occasions the work we are doing, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary. We have introduced online registration, which has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register to vote. It can take as little as five minutes. We are liberating more time for EROs, on whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies, to have more time to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, including making changes to the annual canvass. Improvements have been made and will be made in legislation in future Sessions. Scepticism was expressed about that sentiment but it is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers.
Although I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, I told him at a meeting we had on Tuesday—which I greatly appreciated and the Government look forward to working with him in future, as he asked for in his speech—that when a national insurance number is issued, the individual receiving it is informed that they can use the number to register to vote. That happens now. Could this wording be made clearer? I am sure it could. I can confirm that officials are already working with their counterparts across government in DWP and HMRC to see what can be done.
However, I do not believe that this requires a statutory amendment at this late stage; it can be done through non-legislative means. Obviously, the Government will report back on the progress of that consideration: if not, we will no doubt be probed in future electoral registration in this matter. I hope, in answer to the noble Baroness opposite, many of whose remarks towards the end of her speech I agreed with, that it is possible to take this forward through non-statutory means. I hope we will do so, having put that on the record in your Lordships’ House.
I hope we will not have a Division on this. As my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Blencathra reminded us, it is not the manner in which your Lordships normally operate at this late stage. I was surprised, therefore, to hear the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who had not had the kindness to inform me, as Minister responsible, that he was proposing to do this—I use the word “kindness” rather than another. I wonder whether the noble Lord had an IT problem when it came to tabling his own amendment. I am not following my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s speculations, but it is interesting that this action is coming from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is an unusual action in this House to deny permission to a noble Lord wishing to withdraw his amendment. Surely, it is all the more unusual at this very late stage on a new amendment.
The House is facing great difficulties in conducting business in a hybrid way during the coronavirus crisis. It appears that all sides are behaving with great patience and restraint and deserve the highest praise. I believe that this is surely an occasion for restraint. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked to withdraw his amendment, and in all respect to him, I believe that he should be allowed to do so. The Boundary Commissions, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, need to start their work; the elected House wishes them to start their work. The last review was delayed by the Liberal Democrat Party, as we know, and I hope it is not going to be a case of “Here we go again.”
I do not believe that there is any reason for further delay and I remind the House that, under the Bill, the review that we in this House and the other place are endorsing will be based on the number of electors, including attainers, on the electoral registers as at 2 March 2020, so it will not be possible for the Boundary Commissions to take into account any changes to registration levels after that date for the purpose of the 2023 review. Therefore, the amendment would, in any case, be ineffective in acting on the review before us. I sincerely hope, in these circumstances, saying as I do that we will give the highest respect, now and in future, to the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will not take the exceptional action he proposes in denying permission to withdraw.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, noble Lords from all sides of the House have provided invaluable scrutiny and, in one respect at least, a major improvement through the amendment pressed by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. They have provided invaluable scrutiny and expertise, which we will carry forward when we consider electoral legislation in Sessions to come. The Government have listened to that advice and the Bill has been amended, as I said.
While we have not always agreed on the detail, this has been a novel experience for me: it is the first Bill that I have had the opportunity—the honour, I should say—of taking through your Lordships’ House. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part and tabled amendments for the brilliance and, often, the brio with which their arguments have been put. The word “passion” has been used, and I accept that word. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his team for the constructive and courteous way we have gone about things. It has meant a lot to me personally, and it has been extraordinarily helpful, productive and reflexive in carrying our public debate forward. Like others, of course I thank all the officials involved, and particularly my own Bill team for the prompt service they have given us all.
The legislation will allow the Government to deliver a manifesto commitment to updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counts the same. Current boundaries are horribly out of date and there is no time for delay. It is surely time, as my noble friend Lord Cormack wisely urged, that the Bill now passes and the Boundary Commissions will be able to begin their next review without further delay and finally have constituencies that are updated and reflective of the past two decades of demographic change.
Motion A agreed.
2A: Because the Commons consider that eight years is a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly.
Motion B agreed.
6A: Because the Commons consider that the existing public appointments system and the requirements of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are sufficient.
Motion C1 (as an amendment to Motion C) not moved.
Motion C agreed.
7A: Because the Commons consider that the existing law on this matter is sufficient to ensure equal parliamentary constituency boundaries.
Motion D agreed.
8A: Because the Commons consider the Government has provided sufficient explanation of appropriate action the Government has taken and is taking to improve the completeness of the electoral registers.
Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)
8B: Insert the following new Clause—
“Improving completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews
(1) Within a year of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews.
(2) The proposals in subsection (1) may include requirements for the Department for Work and Pensions to notify individuals of the criteria for eligibility to vote and of the process for making an application to join the register when they are issued with a new National Insurance number, and to encourage them to do so.””
Motion E agreed.
Consideration of Lords amendments
Reports of the Boundary Commissions
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 3 to 5.
Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 8, and Government motion to disagree.
The Government’s commitment to ensure that the House has updated and equal parliamentary constituencies has been reflected in the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution. I apologise to the House that I am a mere stand-in for her today, because her efforts to legislate to that effect have been unstinting throughout this Parliament.
Yes; my hon. Friend has momentarily pre-empted me, because that is exactly what I was about to do. The whole House has noted our hon. Friend’s positive approach to the challenge that prevents her from being here today. She is a wonderfully popular and singularly effective Minister, and I know that Members across the House wish her the speediest of recoveries. None the less, she is continuing to work very hard, and I have therefore had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with her. I am pleased to report to the House that she is delighted, as am I, that the principle of updated and equal constituencies is shared by both Houses and across parties. That is in no small part down to the efforts of my noble Friends Lord True and Baroness Scott of Bybrook, and I extend our thanks for their sterling efforts in taking the Bill through the other place.
It is of course right that this short but important Bill has enjoyed extensive debate and scrutiny in both Houses, and we will always welcome the thoughts of their lordships, but it is important to remember that this is a Commons Bill about the composition of the House of Commons based on the mandate of the elected Government. This is an area in which I have taken a great interest during my years as a Member of Parliament, so it is with a spirit of gusto that I now roll up my sleeves and prepare to delve into the detail of their lordships’ amendments. I will speak to each amendment in turn.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. This is a significant change from the current legal requirement for a review every five years. The Government’s approach, as in the Bill before it was amended, is to mandate a boundary review every eight years. The Government’s aim, as set out in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly, but without the disruption to local communities and their representatives that might occur with the current five-year reviews.
While developing this Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution discussed the Government’s proposal for an eight-year cycle with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators and shared with them our broad plans for the Bill. Concerns were expressed about the importance of up-to-date data—particularly local government boundary data, hence clause 8—but the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party representatives from the parliamentary parties panel were among those content with our approach.
If reviews were to happen only every 10 years, as these amendments propose, the data used in boundary reviews would be older and less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic change. That would also create an unfair situation for electors, because where boundaries were not regularly updated to ensure that they more accurately represented changing demographics, there is a risk that some would feel that their vote was not of equal value to the votes cast in a neighbouring constituency. We believe that the middle ground of eight-year cycles, as proposed in the unamended Bill, is the right way forward. It removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but as not too much time will pass between reviews, it also delivers boundaries that are up to date and fair. I therefore trust that the House will disagree with these Lords amendments.
Under Lords amendment 6, members of the Boundary Commission would be chosen using a bespoke appointments procedure that would sit entirely outside the existing public appointments process. The Bill as originally drafted did not make changes to the current processes, and there has been no dispute or controversy to date with the manner in which the commissioners have been appointed. The automatic implementation of the boundary commissioners’ final recommendations is crucial to achieving regular and effective boundary reviews.
Automatic implementation also shines a light on the boundary commissioners themselves. As parliamentary scrutiny is not involved in the process, we must be able to trust that the commissions are effective and independent. We need to be able to satisfy ourselves that the process of appointing all Boundary Commission members is thorough, independent and fair and that there is no room for any undue influence of any kind. I can reassure the House that our current processes fulfil all those criteria. Let me first outline how the deputy chairman and the ordinary members of the commission are appointed at present and then look at how the amendment would change the status quo.
The deputy chairman position in each Boundary Commission must be filled by a High Court judge. The amendment is unnecessary for two reasons. First, the judges appointed to the Boundary Commission have already undergone a rigorous recruitment procedure that gives reassurance that they are able to act independently and impartially. Secondly, the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice over these appointments in any case. This provides the views of the head of the English and Welsh judiciary. The appointment of ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The four commissions are listed alongside many other public bodies and independent offices in the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019. The order is the legal basis for the governance code on public appointments and the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who regulates appointments processes.
The governance code and oversight of the commissioner ensure that appointments are made openly, fairly and on merit to the Boundary Commission and many hundreds of other public bodies. The governance code includes robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of the two ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions. These members are appointed by Ministers, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel that includes a representative of the organisation in question. For Boundary Commissions, the representative is the deputy chairman or an ordinary member if the deputy chairman cannot attend. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity over the previous five years. Future advisory assessment panel decisions should not be prejudged, but it would seem likely that recent significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with the panel finding a candidate appointable as a boundary commissioner.
The Bill, as amended, creates a bespoke system for Boundary Commission appointments in primary legislation. There are three main reasons to oppose that amendment. First, the existing public appointments system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commission for decades; in simple terms, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Secondly, a separate appointments regime could cast doubt on those appointed to public office under the current system. That doubt would be unjustified, as the current system is independently regulated and ensures that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government to carry out vital public work. We should use it wherever possible and resist the urge to create new, niche systems.
Thirdly, I have already mentioned that the deputy chairman’s previous appointment as a High Court judge will have been sufficiently robust to ensure their ability to act impartially. The Government are also unconvinced by the argument that the Lord Chancellor cannot be trusted to act impartially when making such appointments. The role of the Lord Chancellor—the Lord High Chancellor—occupies a unique and significant position in our constitutional firmament, defending the judiciary and its independence through a duty to rise above party politics where required.
I think it is of fundamental importance; the Lord Chancellor is there to say to Ministers that they should not criticise judges. That is one of his roles, to ensure that proper application of the separation of powers. The current Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend, carries out his job with absolute aplomb, but he is not alone in this; Labour Lord Chancellors have done exactly the same.
Unfortunately, now that the Lord Chancellor is, rightly or wrongly, in the House of Commons, can they not be subjected to political pressures? Indeed, has a previous Lord Chancellor not been expelled from his party and therefore, in effect, expelled from Parliament?
The Lord Chancellor being in the House of Commons is something that happened earlier in our history, too. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Thomas More was Lord Chancellor in the House of Commons, so it is hardly unprecedented for this to happen, although there may be quibbles about the constitutional reforms that took place under the Government headed by Tony Blair. I think that the ability of the Lord Chancellor to be the voice of judicial independence and of the rule of law in the highest councils of government is one of fundamental constitutional importance.
Where I draw different conclusions from those of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman is that I think the role should be enhanced, protected and recognised as being one of exceptionality and above the cut and thrust of day-to-day party politics. I would mention distinguished Lord Chancellors from other parties here. Jack Straw and Lord Irvine of Lairg were two particularly distinguished Lord Chancellors, as were Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Hailsham. They were great figures who all recognised that they had a political affiliation but that their solemn responsibility required them to rise above the fray. We should defend this as something precious about our constitution.
The gravity of the responsibility placed upon their shoulders means I have no doubt that future Lord Chancellors, one of whom could one day come from the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish nationalists—[Interruption.] The Scottish National party may be pushing it a bit, and one from the Lib Dems is not much more likely, but the principle is that the gravity of the responsibilities placed upon their shoulders means that Lord Chancellors will continue to uphold the highest traditions and respect for the judiciary. The notion that they would seek to undermine or compromise this through appointments to the commission is anathema to us all and would certainly be unconscionable to all past and present keepers of the Queen’s conscience—one of the roles of the Lord High Chancellor.
The amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term for boundary commissioners as a way to avoid any potential for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by their desire for re-appointment. If an individual were to serve only one term, it would need to be for 10 years to align with the current cycle of 10-year reviews—or eight years if the House agrees to overturn their lordships’ change to 10 years—which is a long term of office. We are not aware of any similar examples for non-executive style roles such as this. It could be off-putting to some worthy candidates from an inevitably not limitless pool of applicants for such positions. It may also be beneficial to retain the experience of a commissioner after their initial term, which is a principle that applies across public appointments. Not prescribing a non-renewable term in law would retain flexibility in the event that a commissioner did or did not wish to serve longer than the current norm of a four or five-year term.
As appointments are based on the current robust system that would prevent partisan candidates from being appointed in the first place, the risk of appointing candidates who might not act impartially would be very low. Indeed, that is reflected by reappointments to the commissions. To take but one recent example, a commissioner of the Boundary Commission for Scotland was appointed by a Liberal Democrat during the coalition and subsequently reappointed under a Conservative Government. Quite simply, the system works as it is.
In conclusion—[Interruption.]. Do not get too excited as this is merely the conclusion on this set of amendments. I see the breath being bated around the House as hon. Members think I am going to finish, but I am afraid I have a bit more to get through. It is appropriate that the boundary commissioners, as well as for many other important public appointments, remain as they are and stay in place. I urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendment.
Under amendment 7, the number of voters in each constituency proposed by the boundary commission would be permitted to vary from the UK average by plus or minus 7.5% or a total tolerance range of 15%. The Bill as originally drafted made no change to the current permitted variation from the UK average—also known as the electoral quota—of plus or minus 5% or a total tolerance range of 10%.
Let us remind ourselves of the numbers involved. Using electoral figures from 2019, a 15% tolerance range would allow one constituency to have 78,000 electors—actually, 78,059—and its neighbour to have 67,167, or almost 11,000 fewer. I cannot think of any arguments that justify the manifestly unfair situation of constituencies varying by 11,000 electors at the point at which a review is done. That is simply not just. More important than numbers is the principle of equality on which our manifesto commitment is based. The Government have been clear from the outset on that point. Equal and updated constituencies are a cornerstone of our democratic system and it is a matter of fundamental fairness that all votes should count the same regardless of where the elector lives. A 10% tolerance range achieves that aim. It allows the boundary commissioners to take into account factors such as geography and community ties, but it also puts equality and fairness centre stage. For something as important as our right to choose the Government of the day, that is the right order of priorities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be the aim of the boundary commissions to try to hit the electoral quota number as closely as they can and that the tolerance is, as he outlined, merely for circumstances that may be out of their control? The message from the House to the boundary commissions should be true equality and please try to hit the number as well as they can.
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. We all recognise that the numbers will diverge from the moment the commission finishes its work as people move around the country. Therefore, the tolerance of 5% either way—10% in total—gets the balance about right in the knowledge that, by the time of an election, it will inevitably have changed regardless A 15% tolerance range has been thoroughly debated in both Houses and twice rejected by this one—in Committee and on Report—so the settled view of the elected Chamber, to which, after all, the Bill relates most directly, should prevail. I therefore urge the House to disagree with the amendment.
As I turn to amendment 8, I will first pay tribute to Lord Shutt of Greetland, who tabled the amendment in the other place and sadly died recently. Lord Shutt was a stalwart campaigner and advocate on electoral issues, as reflected in his recent excellent chairmanship of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say he will be much missed and offer my condolences to his family on behalf of the House. The amendment would require the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for the purposes of boundary reviews. It suggests two possible ways in which the issuing of national insurance numbers could trigger 16 and 17-year-olds being included on the registers. I will look first at the completeness of the registers and then discuss how the amendment proposes to register 16 and 17-year-olds. It is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers, despite the removal of 1 million ghost entries from the register when the transition from household registration to individual registration was completed in December 2015. People who want and are eligible to register to vote find it easy to do so.
The Government believe that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be on the electoral register, but that it should be up to each individual to decide whether to engage with the democratic process. The Government seek to make registration as easy as possible and to work with many others to reduce any barriers to registration. For example, we introduced online registration. As a result, it became simpler and faster to register to vote; it now takes as little as five minutes to register. Similarly, we are focused on ensuring that electoral registration officers—with whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies—have the tools they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. For example, the Government have made many resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration freely available on gov.uk. Furthermore, our changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain will improve its overall efficiency considerably. The data-matching element of the initiative allows electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups. This is the first year of the reformed canvass, and anecdotal reports so far suggest that administrators have found the new processes much less bureaucratic.
The amendment makes two suggestions on what the Government may include in the proposals they would be required to lay before Parliament to improve the completeness of the registers. The first would see a form of automatic registration introduced for attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who can register to vote in preparation for attaining voting age—and their inclusion in the electorate data used in boundary reviews. We are opposed to automatic registration for attainers or any other group, in both principle and practice, as we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties. People should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. That was one reason why we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. The evidence shows that an individual system drives up registration figures. After individual registration was launched, the registers for the 2017 and 2019 general elections were the largest ever. Electoral registration has worked.
There are a number of practical concerns about automatic registration. Among others, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on the grounds of the significant security and privacy implications of holding that much personal data in one place, as well as the significant cost that such a system would impose.
But surely the electoral registers are held by the local electoral registration officers and the local councils, and if they are provided with that information, they can automatically register people. That is what is in the amendment. A virtual national database would be a good idea, but it is not inherent in the proposition. It would mean that we did not have to spend a lot of money chasing those people up. Will the Minister explain why he thinks it desirable that we have such low registration rates of youngsters when we should surely want to engage them in the democratic process at an early stage?
I point out that we have record levels of registration. The right hon. Gentleman undermines his own argument, because as soon as the Government have all that information, they have it. If they send it out to electoral registration officers, that does not mean that they have lost, forgotten or abandoned it; it might do under a Labour Government, but it would not under a Conservative Government. I seem to remember some Inland Revenue figures were lost under the last Labour Government, but that is all ancient history and a long time ago. If the Government have that information, they have it; if has not been forgotten or wiped from the central mind just because they have sent it out to local officers. The risk of having a large, centralised system is that it would be expensive, and there would be risks in terms of security and privacy implications.
National insurance already has a national database—that is inherent to that system. That information would not be distributed to every local authority; information would be distributed on those who are resident within the postcodes in the local authority. What the Leader of the House is saying makes no sense at all. There is already a national database of national insurance numbers; logically, that has nothing whatsoever to do with telling local councils who is in their particular area so that they can chase them up.
That is not actually accurate. The national insurance database does not consist purely of voters; it consists of people who have national insurance numbers because they are eligible for tax in this country, and they may be foreign nationals. That is another problem: we would be trying to match together a database that is held for an entirely different purpose. It would have to be scrubbed to turn it into an electoral database, at which point we would have an electoral database held centrally, which is exactly the problem we are trying to avoid. I think we are on strong ground on this one.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although we want to encourage mass participation in the democratic process among the young, old and everybody in between, it is an inherent right in our democracy that people get to choose whether they partake in that democracy? If someone chooses not to register to vote, that is up to that individual, and that is something that we respect.
Freedom of the individual in participation is of fundamental importance. People have to decide whether they wish to vote—whether they wish to be actively involved. It is worth saying, again, that individual electoral registration has increased the number of people who are registered and increased the accuracy of the database. As I said, a million ghosts—phantom voters—were removed, and that is important. The integrity of the electoral register is of fundamental importance to the confidence that people have in the honesty of our system, and we have a very robust system.
I note that the Leader of the House has not yet made any reference to Wales, where we are extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. We value the voice of young people—16 year-olds—in Wales, and I have long supported that idea for the whole of the UK. Will the Leader of the House set out what steps the UK Government are taking to support the Welsh Government in the democratic process of ensuring that 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to vote in the Senedd elections in May?
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Devolved matters are for the devolved authorities to take care of, not for Her Majesty’s national Government to take care of. The Welsh Government have made that decision and will be able to implement it. If they cannot implement the decision, one has to ask why they made it.
The Leader of the House is trying to have it both ways as well. The reality is that the UK Government hold sources of information—whether it is the national insurance database or one of many others—that can assist in ensuring accurate electoral registration in all parts of the UK. Would it not be better for the UK Government to co-operate with the Welsh Government? They might take a different view for England, but they should co-operate with the Welsh Government to ensure that that democratic mandate is fulfilled.
It is a matter for the Welsh Government to decide how they draw up their register. If they want help from HM Government, I am sure they will have ways and means of getting in touch to ask for it, but it would be disrespectful of HMG to involve themselves, without being invited, in decisions that have been made by the Welsh Government. If we were doing something like that in Scotland, the fury of the Scottish National party would know no bounds—but then it has to be said that the fury of the SNP usually knows no bounds.
Let us take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration: the point that I was trying to make in response to interventions is that registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. Automatic voter registration would lead to less accurate electoral registers, especially if people had recently moved homes. Computers and—dare I say it—algorithms might add to electoral rolls people who did not live in the area, because of out-of-date entries held on other databases. They might also add people who had a residence but were not eligible to vote.
The Government are not prepared to undo all the benefits of our individual registration system by introducing the errors and inaccuracies that automatic registration would make more likely. After all, inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud and undermine faith in the integrity of our democratic processes. [Interruption.] The one point at which those on the somnolent Opposition Benches wake up is when I say that inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud.
They clearly want inaccurate and phantom voters. The only thing that seems to excite them is phantom voters. That is why I urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendment.
However, Mr Speaker, sometimes this House is agreeable. [Interruption.] Oh, it is Madam Deputy Speaker; the flowers bloom, if I may say so. I turn to amendments 3, 4 and 5, which we commend to the House. I am grateful to Lord Young of Cookham—particularly as he was a previous Leader of the House, and a very distinguished one at that—for engaging with us so that we could agree on amendments that the Government can support. With the amendments, the Bill sets out a clear deadline by which the Government must submit the draft boundary Order to Her Majesty in Council. Any opportunity for the Government to delay unreasonably after the Boundary Commission’s final recommendation is therefore also removed. This adds further strength to the independence of the review process.
The Bill sets out that the draft Order in Council must be submitted
“as soon as reasonably practicable”
after all four reports have been laid before Parliament. As amended, the Bill also requires that “in any case” this must happen
“no later than the end of the four month period unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
We believe that a deadline of four months is reasonable, as it allows sufficient time to draft the boundary order and associated orders, and to submit the draft boundary order.
There is significant policy and legal work involved in the drafting of a boundary order, the associated orders that designate returning officers for all new constituencies in Great Britain, and the charges orders, which set out the fees and expenses payable to returning officers at an election. The returning officers order also require some consultation with existing returning officers, local authorities and the Electoral Commission. As my noble friend Lord True emphasised in the other place, the words
“as soon as reasonably practicable”
remain in the Bill under these amendments. While I cannot bind future Governments to commit resources to contingent preparations, automaticity in this regard is a Government policy. I intended to set four months as the very last deadline, rather than it being an ambition to take that long. Regardless, we will of course work to ensure that the draft boundary order is submitted to Her Majesty as soon as reasonably practicable.
I hope that these Government-backed amendments bring additional certainty that the recommendations of the Boundary Commission will be implemented without political interference or unnecessary delay. I therefore trust that the House will agree to these particular Lords amendments, and commend them to the House.
I welcome the Leader of the House to his place this afternoon. He is, of course, standing in for the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who, given her recent health diagnosis, is taking some time away from this House, but not from her work. I want to put on the record how much the Labour party wishes her a speedy recovery, because I agree with the Leader of the House that he is a poor substitute for the formidable Minister!
The Labour party supports a boundary review in time for the next general election. Throughout all stages of the Bill, Opposition Members and their noble lordships have worked constructively to use this opportunity as a chance to improve and enhance the UK’s democracy. I thank the noble Lords for the constructive amendments that we are considering, and urge all Members to support them. The amendments all have the same central aim, which is to ensure that our parliamentary constituencies are drawn using data that is as complete and accurate as possible.
As I watched the US election unfold last week, I was reminded that our democracy and strong constituency links should not be taken for granted, and that we should be working constantly to improve and defend our system of parliamentary governance in this country. At every stage of the Bill, the Government have had ample opportunity to improve democratic representation— from filling the gaps in our electoral register to ensuring that our constituency boundaries properly reflect the communities within them. Sadly, though, the missing 9 million people from our electoral roll will now not be included in next constituency map of the UK.
Turning to the Lords amendments before us, I want to begin by addressing Lords amendment 6, which ensures that the appointment of members of the Boundary Commissions is made and seen to be made independently of Executive influence. This amendment is important because of the significant change of removing parliamentary oversight. In the past, Parliament has always played a democratic role in the boundary review process. This Bill will remove the very backstop that secured the existence of the 650 constituencies we all represent in this House today.
The passage of this amendment would ensure that, much like the appointment of judges, the appointment of boundary commissioners was wholly independent. Deputy chairs of the boundary commissions for England and Wales would be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor. Commissioners would be appointed by a selection panel comprising the deputy chair of the relevant commission and two others appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. A report would be submitted to the Secretary of State saying whom the panel had recommended. As it stands, this Bill allows Government Ministers to have undue influence over their appointments, and the Government’s track record on appointing their close friends to positions of public authority speaks for itself. I simply do not trust a Government who have shamelessly appointed their mates to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS Test and Trace and other major bodies.
I would also like to address Lords amendment 7, which seeks to alleviate the inevitable break-up of communities resulting from a too narrow 5% quota. While this might seem dry, at its heart the change has a real consequence for communities in the UK. Constituencies must be of broadly equal size in a fair and representative democracy—and on that point, I hope we all agree—but international best practice recommends that flexibility should be baked into the system to allow for consideration of geography and community ties. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission code of good practice in electoral matters recommends allowing a standard permissible tolerance from the electoral quota of plus or minus 10%.
UK experts who gave evidence to the Bill Committee recognised that the tight 5% quota will force constituency boundaries to cut across communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and of course motorways to engineer the right mathematical numbers. Indeed, the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England admitted that a smaller tolerance makes it
“much harder to have regard to…factors…such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7, Q3.]
When the 5% variance was first introduced in 2011, the Government at that time were committed to having a 600-seat Chamber. The average number of electors per constituency therefore would have been much higher, meaning that the 5% that the boundary commissioners would be working with would actually include more electors to work with in the margins of these seats. This is an important point, because by failing to widen the tolerance while increasing the size of the Chamber back up to 650, the commissions actually have far fewer electors to work with—roughly in the region of just 3,000 electors. If we consider that the average urban ward in England is about 8,000 electors, we can appreciate the significance of needing at least 4,000 electors either side of the quota to prevent the breaking up of wards and communities.
Does the hon. Member agree with me that, arguably, having such a narrow tolerance could create a butterfly effect, whereby a housing development in one constituency might then tip it over the edge? In fact, we are looking at two thirds of the current constituencies being changed as a result of this strict limit.
Indeed. The hon. Member is right about the butterfly effect, because of course we cannot change one parliamentary constituency without having a knock-on effect on all the neighbouring constituencies too.
The truth is that constituencies should look like communities. I thought that point was made very effectively on Second Reading by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I hope she does not mind if I quote what she said then:
“Constituencies should not just be numerical constructs; they should be constructed for communities first and foremost”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 804.]
I completely agree.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was quoted. Does the hon. Lady agree, though, that a variance of up to 10,000 voters will actually give the Boundary Commission more than ample flexibility to be able to accommodate communities? The figures she was citing earlier were not, I think, entirely accurate.
I hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to expand on that in her contribution; she is next on the call list to speak. However, I do not quite understand the point that she is trying to make, because there is always going to be a balance between—[Interruption.] If she would like to listen, there will always have to be a balance between hitting the quota and getting as close as we can to 0% from the quota—it would be desirable if every constituency had the exactly the same number of electors—while keeping communities together. I do not think that the idea of dividing a street or a housing estate arbitrarily to create exactly the same size constituency boundaries would cut the mustard with the public. The 5% rule runs a coach and horses through those community ties. It creates a kind of painting-by-numbers approach to the boundary review, and it will lead to long-established communities being split from one another and will erode local identities and divide neighbourhoods. Quite simply, we cannot have it both ways; we cannot protect local ties and enforce a strict quota.
Throughout the Bill, the Government have argued that a 5% tolerance will make every vote count equally, but I would argue that even a 0% quota would not make every vote carry the same weight. Leaving aside the fact that millions of voters are effectively disenfranchised every election owing to the existence of so-called safe seats, it is simply not true that every vote would count equally as a result of this Bill, because at any election we now know that in the region of 9 million eligible electors are incorrectly registered and are losing out on their chance to vote. Millions more will potentially join them if the Government’s plans to roll out voter ID come into force, as we have seen, similarly, in US elections.
I turn to Lords amendment 8, which was tabled by Lord Shutt, who, very sadly, died two weeks ago. He was passionately committed to improving our democracy and it is quite fitting that his last contribution was in support of this amendment. I was speaking to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) earlier today and he told me that he was a down-to-earth, humble, funny and genuinely nice bloke. I would like to put on record the Opposition’s condolences to his family at this sad time.
Lord Shutt’s amendment would represent a significant step forward in voter registration and, hopefully, participation among young voters. As we all know, electoral registers are the fundamental building blocks for constituency boundaries. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can register as attainers head of their 18th birthday. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who have been registered has fallen from around 45% in 2015 to just 25% last year. This amendment would enable the Government to ask local authorities’ registration officers to add 16-year-olds to the electoral register when they get their national insurance number or, alternatively, ensure that 16-year-olds would be provided with information on how to apply to join the electoral register on receiving their national insurance number.
This sensible arrangement could radically improve the number of young people registering to vote, hopefully helping them to develop a habit of a lifetime of voting, and—more relevant to this legislation—mean that our constituency boundaries are representative of younger voters. The 16 and 17-year-olds that are considered when it comes to drawing constituency boundaries are likely to be the electors at a subsequent general election. For that reason alone, the Minister should give the amendment great consideration.
In conclusion, the Labour party fundamentally rejects the Government’s attempt to end the parliamentary approval of the new constituency boundaries, and we ask that Members think hard about the impact of the restrictive 5% quota. Ministers know very well exactly what needs to be done to enable greater democratic engagement, and the fact that they have consistently failed to take any action tells us all we need to know.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). We also seem to have a number of Members of the Public Bill Committee in the Chamber today. It was a vigorous and very compelling Committee and I am sure that the debate today will follow that.
The hon. Lady chose to quote me from the Committee. Perhaps I could make the quote more complete. I also pointed out that constituencies such as Basingstoke, which now has almost 83,000 voters, could ask the Boundary Commission to consider splitting it into two instead of its continual desire to “doughnut” constituencies. Although I believe that constituencies should represent a community, there are many – Reading, Swindon and others – that enjoy being two separate constituencies because then Members can work together. We know that teamwork is an important part of the job we do.
I join other right hon. and hon. Members in sending very good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). Her attention to detail on this important constitutional change has been second to none and we miss her in this debate. She would not want a better stand-in than my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I hope that he has done as much homework as I know she would have done. From his comments today, it looks as though that is the case. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend back at the Dispatch Box very soon. We miss her.
There has been much deliberation of the Bill in the other place because it is an important set of changes. Hon. Members will find it particularly interesting to see members of the House of Lords paying such close attention to how democratic elections work. Of course, many of them have expertise in standing for election and I hope that that is something about which they will think more in the future. Let us be clear. This debate relates to a manifesto pledge of the Government. Less than 12 months ago, we on the Government Benches stood on a platform to update our constitutional legislation to ensure that we have equal boundaries so that every vote counts the same in each constituency, with some important exceptions.
As one of my hon. Friends says from a sedentary position, it was a different manifesto. Even more importantly, one fundamental change that the hon. Gentleman will know more about is that we are choosing to leave the EU and, as a result, Members will have more work to do.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me not to give way, this is not a debate between the two of us. The Leader of the House has set out important responses to these amendments which deserve a great deal of consideration. He has given a comprehensive analysis of these Lords amendments. Taking into account the fact that the Government have accepted amendments 3, 4 and 5 already, I would like to confine my comments to amendment 7 but also join him in agreeing that all the other amendments are manifestly unnecessary. Indeed, the Committee considered those issues in detail and found that the Bill should remain as it is.
Amendment 7 would undermine the essence of the Bill because it increases, not reduces, the opportunity for differences between constituencies. I referred to Basingstoke during my intervention on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Currently we have almost 83,000 voters in Basingstoke, whereas a constituency such as Rhondda has just over 50,000. That shows starkly the necessity for change and for us to take this opportunity to make that change work as well as it can. It is as much to do with the way the current system works, in terms of Parliament being able to intervene in these measures. The difference between those constituencies is stark. But it is incumbent on us to ensure that any changes we put in place do not build another raft of problems for the future.
The right hon. Lady’s example of the Rhondda does not hold, I am afraid, because the allocation of seats to Wales will be based on the number of registered electors. Therefore, there may be some variations within Wales, but her seat in Basingstoke and constituencies in Wales are covered by another part of the Bill. Yet again, why have this dislocation when it does not actually impact in the way that she is describing?
I think my voters, and I am sure others, would want to be aware of the difference between constituencies, and whether they are in Wales or Hampshire, each voter should have the same ability to be represented in this place. That is manifestly not the case at the moment.
We had no end of evidence from experts on that point, and I think we should all thank those who took the time, not only to give written evidence to the Committee, but to appear before the Committee in person too. It was clear from that evidence to the Committee that there was no compelling reason to deviate from the Government’s proposals; it is important to put that on the record today.
Dr Alan Renwick from University College London said in oral evidence that no academic expert would be able to decide that what was on the face of the Bill should be changed. It is clear also from the evidence that there is room for accommodating those rules that we discussed at length, that there is sufficient flexibility in practice, and that the Boundary Commission will still be able to adhere to community ties.
I now come to the main point that I want to make to the Leader of the House, because it really perturbed the Committee. I absolutely agree that the amendment should not be made, but I want to be opportunistic and take the opportunity to land this point once more with the Government. We were concerned about the evidence that we saw from the Boundary Commission for England, and its ability to work within the way that the Bill sets out.
The oral evidence from Mr Tony Bellringer from the Boundary Commission for England very much underlined the commission’s current approach of working with wards as “building blocks”, and emphasised that currently that organisation does not hold a system or a dataset that could allow it to work in any other way. Yet, on the other hand, we heard—I think on the same day—that the Boundary Commission for Scotland does just that: it holds datasets that allow it to work at a sub-ward level. It is important that my right hon. Friend addresses that point, so that we may send a very loud message to the Boundary Commission for England that our democracy is important to us, that the Bill is all about equally sized constituencies, and that the commission needs to work with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) reminded us in Committee that it was the chartists who, in the people’s charter of 1838, called for the principle of electoral equality, and said that that should remain the cornerstone of our democracy now and in future. I hope that the Leader of the House will reassure the House that no historical approach by the Boundary Commission for England will stand in the way of that organisation’s creating equal constituencies following the coming into force of this legislation, so that a vote in whichever part of the United Kingdom we live, from here to Ynys Môn and beyond, can count equally.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to be the person from the Labour Benches to tell the people of Ynys Môn that Labour does not believe that theirs should be a unique constituency.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker and I hope the Leader of the House can answer my questions.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller).
I start by sending my best wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who has been a formidable but good-natured opponent on the Bill. Naturally, there is much for me to disagree about when it comes to my dealings with Britain’s Constitution Minister, but personal health always transcends politics, and I know I speak for us all when I wish her all the very best for her treatment in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to seeing her back at the Dispatch Box.
I also welcome the Leader of the House to our proceedings on the Bill. He is always incredibly entertaining and I have certainly enjoyed watching his transition from a robust and consistent Back Bencher to a member of the Cabinet having to participate in the parliamentary gymnastics of Government U-turns that have become a hallmark of this Government.
The particular U-turn that this Bill legislates for is in reference to clause 5. That undoes the 2011 legislation, which I think the right hon. Gentleman voted for and which would have reduced the number of constituencies in the House from 650 to 600. With new legislative powers coming back from Brussels post Brexit, it would surely have been bonkers to reduce the number of MPs while increasing the legislative power of the Executive. Let me respond to the point of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke. I know that she did not want to have a debate about it, but her point was that the Government changed their position as a result of Britain’s exit from the European Union. In actual fact, as someone who served on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, a Bill brought forward by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), I know that, until December last year, the Government opposed that Bill every single way by withholding the money resolution. By that point, Britain was already leaving the European Union, so I am afraid that the right hon. Lady’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny on that part.
The fact that, under new calculations, Scotland will lose out on two to three constituency seats is making a mockery of the promises made after the 2014 independence referendum. In fact, it seems that all the devolved nations will now stand to lose out on constituency seats under the new calculations. The nation, of course, that is due to lose the most seats under these proposals is Wales, with all witnesses in Committee, including the CCHQ representative, Mr Pratt, saying that Wales would, in his own words, “take a hit”. I am sure that Welsh Conservative MPs were delighted about that being placed in Hansard. Again, it has been widely acknowledged that, under the current formula, Wales would lose seats to the benefit of the south-east of England. But this is not the only UK nation that stands to have diminished representation in the House of Commons.
Scotland is currently represented by 59 MPs and although I continue to work every single day of the week to ensure that Scotland is no longer governed by Westminster, until that day comes, I will fight to ensure that Scotland’s voice is fairly heard in this Chamber. Based on the proposed electoral quotas, we would see Scotland losing two or three seats to the advantage of England, which strikes me as being wholly unfair and flies in the face of the rallying calls that Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, rather than leave it. After the 2014 referendum, Scotland was promised that it would be considered an equal partner in this Union. However, the fact that Scotland is now set to lose three constituency seats should continue to highlight the promises made post 2014 that have been proven to be empty again.
I welcome all the amendments made in the House of Lords and commit my party to voting for them when the Division bells ring tonight, but there were some real missed opportunities for their lordships to dramatically improve the Bill. First, I am bitterly disappointed that their lordships did not remove the provisions of clause 2, which deals with the issue of automaticity or parliamentary approval of commission recommendations. Too often in earlier debates, the Government got away with suggesting that MPs should not be marking their own homework when it came to the approval of new boundaries, but I am genuinely surprised that the other House, which has a role in approving recommendations as well, has also relinquished that right. When it comes to Scottish peers—most if not all of them have never been elected—there was a hugely missed opportunity to try to protect the voices of devolved nations in future Parliaments. It should have been a priority for Members of the House of Lords to protect Scotland’s 59 seats in this Parliament and to protect our ability to represent our constituents and not to diminish Scotland’s voice. I see that some Conservative Members look quite perplexed at this idea of protecting seats, but of course it was 1980s legislation under Margaret Thatcher that protected Scotland initially at 73 seats and then they were reduced to 59 under devolution. Therefore, for those who look a bit perplexed about this, it was actually something that was advocated by a Conservative Government.
Having set out our position in the Bill, I will confine my remarks to the amendments for consideration from the other place. I turn to amendments 1 and 2. My party supports the amendments to review the boundaries every 10 years, as opposed to the shorter timeframe of eight years, mainly due to the increased certainty that it gives to constituents and representatives alike. Moving from eight to 10 years does not strike me as being an unreasonable compromise and I am therefore content to offer my party’s support for the amendment being made permanent to the Bill.
On amendment 6, I also support the change to have an independent appointment process. Earlier in my remarks, I made reference to authenticity and the Government’s argument that MPs should not have a role in approving the commissioner’s recommendations. If we follow the logic of the argument about removing perceived self-interest, then the same is surely true for Ministers—in this case, the Lord Chancellor appointing boundary commissioners. Amendment 6 would see the power to appoint commissioners transferred from a politician to the Lord Chief Justice. That would, in effect, stop future Tory Ministers from appointing their chums to the Boundary Commission. By keeping clause 2(2) in the Bill but voting against Lords amendment 6, the Government would, in effect, be having their cake and eating it, and be charged with rank hypocrisy. I know the Leader of the House is a good man, and I am sure he would not want to be portrayed as a hypocrite by voting for such a fundamentally contradictory proposition.
I now move on to Lords amendment 7. A 5% tolerance is not appropriate, and I want to offer my support to this amendment calling for a modest increase to 7.5%. In our evidence session in Committee, Mr Bellringer of the Boundary Commission for England spoke about the difficulty caused by a smaller tolerance, which makes it
“much harder to have regard to the other factors that you specify in the legislation, such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography. Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have.”
Indeed, Mr Bellringer, who was quoted by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), went on to say:
“The only real way to mitigate it is to make the tolerance figure slightly larger. The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7.]
I thus again urge the Government to increase the tolerance to give the commissioners wider discretion.
I thank my hon. Friend—and he is a friend. Does he not agree that what we are trying to achieve is ensuring that each vote in this country is, as far as possible, equal to the next one? The more that we increase the tolerance, the less equal everybody’s vote becomes, and so we move further and further away from what we are trying to achieve by going through this process in the first place.
What I am trying to make sure is that I and my hon. Friend are made unemployed fairly soon—but that is a separate matter. The point is that it was previously enshrined in legislation that Scotland would have 73 seats and then it would rightly be reduced to 59 in the light of devolution. Government Members cannot have their cake and eat it; in one respect they are enshrining in legislation a certain number of seats, but locking that down in legislation means that there will be a degree of difference. However, I have a huge amount of respect for my hon. Friend, and he has put his point on the record.
I return to the point made by Mr Bellringer in the evidence session that there is a need to move towards a tolerance rate of, say, 7.5%. That is why I urge the Government to increase it to give commissioners the wider discretion that they asked for when they gave us that evidence. I know that the Government are not particularly fond of listening to experts these days, but I am very hopeful that this afternoon they could just make a wee exception for the Boundary Commission for England.
Finally, I want to make reference to Lords amendment 8. Before doing so, I offer my sincere condolences, on behalf of my party, to the family of Lord Shutt, who, as we have heard, passed away only in the past couple of weeks, but was responsible for securing this amendment in the other place. By using the electoral registers as the data source to draw parliamentary constituencies, the Bill also seeks to disadvantage young people, as the data is less likely to include the names of young people than it is older people, since young people are often not registered to vote. Registration rates for eligible 16 and 17-year-olds were estimated to be 25% in 2018—a drop from 45% in 2015. In contrast, 94% of those aged 65-plus were estimated to be registered. The SNP therefore supports this amendment, which requires the Government to bring forward proposals to improve the completeness of the electoral register in relation to attainers. Only then can we ensure that we are not disadvantaging young people in the electoral process.
The Leader of the House has spent the majority of his time in this House on the Back Benches advocating Brexit and talking about Parliament taking back control from an all-powerful Executive—something this Bill makes worse. I therefore want to finish by paraphrasing something a wise man once said in this House many years ago about standing up for democracy:
“’Stiffen your sinews, summon up the blood and imitate the action of a tiger, for that is how you should behave towards our European partners, not like Bagpuss.’” —[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 109.]
I would like to start by commenting on Lords amendment 7 and the flexibility. We keep hearing this mathematical argument, but we seem to be getting away from the overarching principle. Already this afternoon, we have heard that it is difficult to keep local communities together unless we move to a tolerance of 7.5%, which strikes me as odd when it would mean going from a difference of roughly 7,500 voters to one of 11,000. Many electoral wards in this country have fewer than 7,500 voters, so are we now making the argument that wards themselves split communities and that they are wrong as well? There is a fundamental principle: if we went to 7.5%, one vote could be worth one 67,000th and another could be worth one 77,000th. That is quite a significant difference.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I very much enjoyed working with him in Committee and having the debates that we had, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. He made a very important point about equal representation. He said that by losing seats, Scotland will not have equal representation. I would argue that the exact opposite is true: it is equal representation—and of course there are two protected seats in Scotland; recognition has been made of the geographical reasons why the Outer Hebrides and Orkney and Shetland are separate. It is not fair to say that Scotland is getting less representation and that it needs to be equally represented, because there will be equal United Kingdom representation. That is what this is about: the United Kingdom’s Government.
The hon. Gentleman and I are never going to agree on his nationalistic views and my Union views—that is why I sit on the Conservative Benches and he sits on the SNP Benches—but we just seem to be plucking figures out of the air for the 7.5% and the 5%. Again, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and I have a huge deal of respect for her. She made an argument about the 600 seats and how that changed the number of voters when dealing with the 5%. However, away from the numbers, the fundamental principle must be to get as close as possible.
I made the point in intervening on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about trying to get as close to the quota as possible. It should be possible to do that if the Boundary Commission for England, especially, takes the approach that the Boundary Commission for Scotland takes and decides that it does not have to draw some very strange shapes and lines using ward boundaries, but that it can work with smaller electoral segments.
We heard the argument in Committee that polling districts can be changed by local authorities and can lose that representation—that they could be gerrymandered —but of course there will come a point when the Electoral Commission looks at where they are today. It has already said that it will go on where they are today; it is using the March 2020 register and those units as they exist today. If, in eight years’ time, there have been changes to those polling districts, for whatever reason, that can be taken into account at that time, and the Electoral Commission is an independent body.
I will happily support the Government in disagreeing with Lords amendment 7. Fundamentally, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are trying to give equality of vote. In my mind, the tolerance is there not to try to draw the most convenient shape using wards, but purely to allow the flexibility for which a need will inevitably build up over the eight years, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, with new housing developments and so on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has made the point many times that development, especially in certain parts of the country, is huge, and it leads to such housing developments. That is what the tolerance should be about; it should not be about trying to draw the shapes to have one just creeping in at the bottom end and one just meeting the higher end. The flexibility should allow a 5% tolerance of the share of that vote over the eight years; it should not get there straight away. If a constituency is made at the higher end, within eight years, it will almost certainly be above that number and we will be back in the same situation.
My constituency of Elmet and Rothwell has 79,316 electors. The neighbouring constituency of Leeds East has 65,693. The neighbouring constituency to that of Leeds Central has 82,211. It simply cannot be right to have such variation within less than 10 miles as the crow flies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) is in his place and cannot speak in the debate. [Interruption.] I can still smell and taste; it’s all right. He and I have represented Leeds electors since the early 2000s. We have seen great differences in the city and how it is set up. His constituency is on the higher side of the number of electors in Leeds. My voters are getting almost one 80,000th of a vote, whereas in the neighbouring seat they are getting one 65,000th of a vote. It is right to reject Lords amendment 7 simply because we should see it not as a way to fill the gap and make constituencies work, but purely as a way to give people a vote that will change plus or minus 5% over the eight-year period to try to keep things roughly similar.
Lords amendment 1 is about moving from eight to 10 years. The reality is that that means we would probably go through three general elections on those boundaries. We have heard a lot in these debates about how big the boundary changes are probably going to be when they come through, but that is because nothing has happened for a quarter of a century. The changes will be of that size; they will be disruptive.
It is better to go in a cycle of two general elections so that, hopefully, from this point on, with the Government amendments to try to make the whole system more robust and far less open to political shenanigans in the House, we will not see such major changes in future. It is better that the system can be, for want of a better word, tinkered with to make sure that we get back to roughly within those tolerances. We all accept that there will be demographic change and housing change. Big things are happening, including the ambition to build so many houses, which will cause change.
What seems like a small amendment would have a huge impact. Very large changes would have to be made simply by adding those two years and getting into a three-general-election cycle.
Lords amendment 8 is about registrations. It is a fundamental right of people in this country to choose whether they want to register for a vote or not.
Well, the right hon. Gentleman has made a point there that I stand to be corrected on.
I also stand to be corrected on this point. I do not want to mislead the House; these figures can be checked. For the European referendum, in my constituency, 1,500 extra people went on the register and have now come off. They chose to register to take part in that ballot, which meant a lot to them, but they do not want to take part in other ballots. They worked out how to register; they registered; they legally took part in the ballot; they have not registered going forward. It has to be right that people have that choice. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the amendments would lead to a far greater complication of the system, and centralised data, which has not exactly worked well in other areas—including, quite frankly, some of the things that people are trying to achieve at the moment in this crisis. We have seen some of the problems and weaknesses that can occur.
The system works, and it works better than it ever did. We have seen millions of phantom registrations come off through individual voter registration, and that gives it robustness. Where does it go next? Are we going to move to the Australian system of fining people if they do not vote? That is a tax on choice, and it is not right. People can choose to opt out of taking part in the system. When it does matter to people—when something big happens, such as the referendum—we get a huge turnout, like in the American election. We have just seen a record turnout of voters in the American election.
My final point is about the boundary commissions. Many of the points about how schemes are built and put together were discussed in Committee. It is important that the boundary commissions work in the regions. That works very well, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and I now have a famous quote between us about Lancashire and Yorkshire not mixing. I hope the Boundary Commission for England picked up on the point during the debate that it must be more creative than just doing some squiggly lines trying to get wards to work, and looking at splitting wards.
For those reasons, coming back to Lords amendment 7, it is important that we do not change the tolerance level. There should be flexibility for the changes that occur over the period, and rather than trying to get to either the bottom end or the top end, we should try to get it in the middle.
I join others in paying tribute to and sending condolences to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). There is, however, one upside to her absence, which is that, with the Leader of the House, we have the Conservative Trumpist philosophy, red in tooth and claw, absolutely out there in the open. We had it again just now on ghost voters on the register. At the same time, the Government reject any attempt to make a more rational, accurate and comprehensive registration process. We have seen that all the way through, with attempts on voter suppression and attempts to make things more difficult at the polling station, in spite of the complete lack of evidence—in the same way that Donald Trump has been trying to discredit the American election, claiming that there are fraudulent voters, particularly in postal voting. It is the same old song. For those on the Government Benches, here is a breaking news story: Donald Trump has lost the election.
I do not think anybody on these Benches will disagree that Donald Trump has lost the election.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which many of us have taken part in, produced its report. It is not fair of the right hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on the Government about suppressing voter registration. The changes that were made to the postal voting system in this country were made as a direct result of OSCE reports on previous elections. I have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman —I consider him a friend—and I know he would not wish to cast such an aspersion. I hope he will reflect on that.
It was not so long ago that Richard Mawrey, QC, the electoral commissioner, in a case in Birmingham—Birmingham in the west midlands, not Alabama—said that he had heard evidence of electoral fraud
“that would disgrace a banana republic”.
Furthermore, I suggest that Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in Slough, where convictions for electoral fraud were made, and Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where a further conviction on electoral fraud was made.
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that in Slough it was Conservative party members who were convicted, but we can always check that. There has been very, very little evidence of fraud from either postal votes or votes in person. We repeatedly challenged Ministers to come up with the data. When the Electoral Commission reports on election after election, when tens of millions of people are voting, we end up with one or two cases each year.
Moving on to constituency size, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) rightly points out the disparities between seats in the Leeds area. Basically, the fundamental reason for that was David Cameron’s proposals to try to get electoral advantage out of reducing the number of seats and making a very tight margin of difference. To be quite clear, the reason they were not carried was that they impacted on many Conservative Members of Parliament as well. Many of the newer Members here probably think, “It don’t apply to me, it’ll be all right” but it is the butterfly effect mentioned by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). When we have such tight margins, and if we are not going to be disrupting wards as the building blocks, then we will find that there will be gratuitous disruption.
Everyone understands that movement of population results in some disruption to constituencies and Members of Parliament. That happened in 1997 when I had my seat carved three ways, with part of it going to the then Speaker, Madam Boothroyd—it was not a good option to try to run there—so I fully understand how disruptive that can be. The reason why the proposals did not go through, and why we have had such a long delay, is precisely because, stubbornly, two Prime Ministers insisted on trying to go ahead. It was not just Members on the Opposition Benches who were opposed to it, but many Government Members who can understand when population change sometimes leads to disruption, but really do not understand it when it gratuitously causes great disruption to communities, Members of Parliament and their electorates.
The other thing about the proposals and very tight margins is that we very often lose a sense of identity and place. Even within urban areas, there is very often a great sense of identity in parts of a city. They are not all homogeneous. Herbert Morrison described London as a collection of villages. There is a great sense of identity. Again, everyone understands that there will be some difficulties at the margins, but to impose arbitrary lines on far more constituencies than necessary to achieve equalisation is resented, and rightly so.
I come to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) comparing Basingstoke and Wales. The Boundary Commission, when it gets the national registration figures, divides them up to create a quota. It then allocates the number of seats to a region based on that quota. The changes to the situation in Wales have nothing whatever to do with Basingstoke or what happens in the Rhondda, whether it is 5% or 10%, because the number of seats in Wales—that region’s share—will be fixed by the national quota. Incidentally, I would gently point out that in the previous Parliament the Conservatives opposed our attempts to have Ynys Môn as a separate constituency when our good friend Albert Owen was the Member of Parliament. Albert retired and the Conservatives unfortunately won the seat. Lo and behold! Suddenly, their interest in the concerns of Ynys Môn rocketed up. I am sure Conservative Members can explain why that change took place.
Finally, I find strange, and to a degree reprehensible, this opposition to trying to get the most complete register. We know that, not just in the UK but around the world, those who are under-represented on the register are those such as teenagers and people in their early 20s. We know that those who live in private rented accommodation are under-registered, and that many of those in our BME communities and in our inner cities are under-represented on the register. We urge councils to spend large sums of money to try to track those people down and get them to register. Why not take a course of action that is straightforward, cost-effective and cheap to ensure that they are registered? Please do not wrap this up in some great constitutional issue about the divine right to register. Whether people choose to vote is another matter, but on registration this is about naked party political advantage. It is the same in the US, and it is the same here. It is time for this Trumpery to end.
May I add my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)?
In life, theory and practice can often be two separate things, and in my relatively short time in Parliament I have found that to be the case. In theory, all Members of Parliament are equal and have the same basic duties, and while I accept that some Members of the House are perhaps more equal than others, it is a reasonable assumption that we ought to have some of the same basic responsibilities, including the number of constituents we represent. I appreciate that there will be certain geographical challenges to that, such as with island constituencies, but I believe that general principle should hold firm. I suggest that the existing system does not do that. To give an extreme example, Milton Keynes South has 97,000 electors, compared with Newcastle upon Tyne Central’s 54,000.
As originally drafted, the Bill would ensure a broad equality, subject to some tolerance, in the number of electors in each constituency, so that they are more or less of equal weight. Equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle on a matter such as this.
I agree that we need equality. On that basis, and given that all Members should be equal in this House, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the system of English votes for English laws is currently suspended. Will he call on the Government to ensure that that system does not come back, so that his hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) can cast his vote in exact same way as him in a Division?
I had not realised that EVEL had been cancelled for the moment, but I look forward to its reinstatement shortly.
Lords amendment 7 would increase the tolerance from the proposed plus or minus 5%. I appreciate that that may have been guided by a desire to help maintain a sense of place and distinct locality when drawing constituency boundaries, but I submit that the Government’s proposals are enough to draw fair and equal constituency boundaries. Secondly, equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle, but as with any review, there will be scope for communities to have their say, and for local ties and considerations to be taken into account as part of that process. I note that the tolerance proposed by the Government is in line with international guidance from the Venice Commission and the OSCE.
Lords amendment 8 proposes two ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved, and it is important that as many people who are entitled to vote register to do so.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Venice Commission and the OSCE, and that came up during our deliberations. They said:
“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10% and never 15%”.
That is the departure, which implies 10% either way. We are not even asking for that.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for confirming my recollection. Lords amendment 8 proposes ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved. It is important that one registers to vote and does so. That should be encouraged; it is one’s civic duty. However, underpinning any civic duty is the notion that one takes some steps to actually engage with the process. Registering to vote is now very straightforward: one can, as we have heard, log on to one’s council’s website and do it in a matter of minutes. While it is good that registration should be easy, it should require some degree of citizen participation, which amendment 8 would remove. The amendment also fails to recognise the introduction of individual voter registration.
I have some practical concerns about what is proposed by amendment 8. Department for Work and Pensions data has been compiled for an entirely different purpose than proposed here, and it is not clear whether that data would translate easily to electoral purposes. Indeed, has consent been given for data given to the DWP to be used for an entirely different purpose? Might data protection issues arise if that data is used by an entirely different body? There are also concerns about how up to date any data would be. The amendment would task registration officers with deciding whether a would-be elector should be automatically included on an electoral roll, but there is a danger that people could be added on the basis of out-of-date information. Those registered but not eligible to vote might also be added by mistake.
If automatic voter registration leads to less accurate electoral registers, confidence in the electoral system will be diminished, not strengthened. Unsolicited poll cards sent to households with the highest turnover, such as student accommodation, could lead to greater voter fraud. Indeed, I submit that it could be a gold mine for potential electoral fraudsters in certain areas. I propose that individual voter registration, which helped to create the largest ever register for the 2017 election, and which is a relatively new concept, continues to be monitored and, if necessary, finessed.
I also do not accept Lords amendment 6, which would amend the provisions for appointing boundary commissioners. Across Government, many public appointments are made, and they are made under the governance code on public appointments, regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, whom I had the pleasure to hear from shortly after my election to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. These public appointments are made in a fair and trusted way, and it is unclear to me why boundary commissioners should be treated entirely separately from any other public body, with a conflicting appointments system. In any event, the deputy chairman of the commission will be a High Court judge who will have been through a rigorous process to achieve that position.
Finally, on Lords amendments 1 and 2, I believe that regular reviews are important. In urban areas particularly, the number of people living in a neighbourhood can change considerably over a short period of time, and constituency boundaries must reflect that. However, there is a competing need for some continuity. Constantly shifting boundaries are confusing for the average voter, who might not be an assiduous follower of politics. Assuming a general election every five years—I appreciate that that is rather a large assumption these days—an eight-year review will generally mean that updated constituencies are in place for two general elections and are then reviewed for the third. I understand that it has been said that that has some support from parliamentary parties. I am unclear on what an increase of the review time to 10 years will meaningfully achieve. Based on recent history, it would not cause a neat alignment between boundary reviews and election dates, even with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which might not be with us for very long. While I cannot support these amendments, I look forward to the Bill proceeding and to the fairer Parliament that will result.
I stand to speak to the amendments and to a number of the points raised in relation to them. It is vital that we have this debate, not least in the light of the events of the past few days in the United States and elsewhere but also because the security and sanctity of our democracy and ensuring that it thrives is important not only for our own country, but is vital for the example that we set a globally. When democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under threat around the world, as we have tragically seen in a number of instances in Africa and elsewhere in recent weeks, it is all the more important that we are seen to be leading the way with a strong democracy and strong representation for people.
Indeed, that view is shared by President-elect Biden, who has been clear about the need for a coming together of global democracies to defend democracy and democratic systems and the rule of law around the world. He called for a global summit for democracy, and he rightly said in his speech in Copenhagen in 2018 that “Democracy demands diligence”. That is why it is all the more important that we are scrutinising the Government on these measures.
The comments from the Foreign Secretary the other day were deeply disappointing when he refused to agree with the importance of counting all the votes. It was extraordinary that he had to be asked that question multiple times by Sophy Ridge at the weekend. That was an extraordinary example to set. It was particularly disappointing to hear the comments today from the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) about fraud and so-called ghost votes. As hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), have said, that is Trumpian language and it has no place in our democracy. It is also not borne out by the clear facts and the evidence in the Electoral Commission’s report of 30 September this year, which stated:
“The UK has low levels of proven electoral fraud.”
It reported that in all the elections that took place in 2019, including many local elections and, of course, the general election, there were just three instances of proven electoral fraud and just one caution out of all of those. The report went on to state:
“There remains no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud in 2019.”
I would therefore caution the Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and others who seek to use those words to stir up the idea that there is fraud or ghost voting, that this is deeply concerning and does not reflect the facts on the ground. It is very much the type of language and the sort of nonsense we hear from Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and others, and I am afraid that their time is coming to an end.
I want to turn to some of the specific points in the Lords amendments. First, on the question about the commissioners, it is crucial that the independence and integrity of the process is respected by individual citizens across the country, and that we do not have the Lord Chancellor appointing the commissioners. We have already seen that the Lord Chancellor was willing to put his principles to one side when it came to the rule of law over the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and I therefore do not have much confidence in him or other members of the Executive having oversight of that process, particularly when the other parliamentary safeguards are being removed from the process. It is crucial that we have boundary commissioners who are independent and who maintain the confidence not only of the public but of all those who stand for elected office, whatever their political party and whatever legislature, including this House, they are standing for.
Secondly, I want to refer to the questions about electoral registration. I have to say that we again heard some erroneous information from the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell on this. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said earlier. I like the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but he was simply wrong. He asked to be corrected, and I will correct him: there have been fines for the non-return of electoral canvass forms since the Representation of the People Act 1918. Whether or not those fines are enforced is another matter, but the law is very clear. I have just had my electoral registration canvass form come through. The Welsh Government and our councils are doing their job before the crucial Senedd elections in May, and a big caution is set out clearly on the front saying that we must return the form and not ignore it. It is also made clear that we must not provide false information, and that there will be penalties for those who do so. We ought to be taking steps to strengthen and enhance our electoral registration systems in whatever way is possible.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that not returning a form that has been sent to someone is an offence that they can be fined for. However, it is not an offence not to voluntarily register to be on the electoral register, which is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell was making earlier.
But surely the whole point is that we should be encouraging people to take part in the democratic system, particularly our younger people. I have mentioned 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales, and I welcome the fact that the Senedd has passed our Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which makes amendments to the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to bring in that right. It is right that young people should have a voice in our democracy. I have supported amendments on that in relation to this place on many occasions.
I would just point out to my hon. Friend that when a council is not sure who is living at a particular address, or if it knows that someone has moved, it will send the form to “the occupier”, which will still have the same legal effect. Assuming that councils are doing their job and sending forms to all residences, that covers the point.
I am not going to put assertions in the mouth of the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell—that would not be right for me to do—but the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has made his point.
Let me turn briefly to Wales, which will lose out in terms of the number of constituencies. We all support the principle of bringing greater equality among constituencies, but the point about Wales is really important. I think the Leader of the House misinterprets the guidance from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. I have read it and it is clear that departure from the specified point should seldom be 10% and definitely should not be over 15%. We are talking about 7.5%.
Evidence has been heard not only in respect of this Bill—I looked at that—but in previous Committee hearings in the House. For example, in 2014-15 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was clear on this issue, as was the evidence from the Boundary Commission for England itself about the difficulties for the boundary commissioners. I put on the record my thanks to all the staff who are involved in what is a very difficult process. They do an excellent job that is not easy—it is extremely complex and complicated—and I praise them for the work that they do.
There are specific issues in relation to Wales and geography, as indeed there are in certain other parts of the UK. It is absolutely right that distinct geographical exemptions are made for Ynys Môn, the Isle of Wight and Na h-Eileanan an Iar—I do not know whether I have pronounced that correctly; my Welsh pronunciation is a lot better than my Gaelic—because of water boundaries and islands, but distinctions also need to be made in relation to, for example, valley boundaries and mountains, which really do split constituencies.
We can end up with some very odd circumstances. We are not saying that the tolerances should be used as a matter course, just that the allowance should be there when it is a common-sense decision for the benefit and integrity of communities. I think of the circumstance in my own constituency in respect of the boundary review that was not put into place: the Cardiff bay barrage was split between three constituencies, thereby splitting apart the docks communities of Cardiff bay that sit together. A person would literally have passed through three communities as they walked along the barrage, which is only about 1 km long. It was absurd. We have to allow the boundary commissioners to take such things into account.
I have made the points that I wanted to make on the Lords amendments, so let me return to what President-elect Biden said:
“Democracy is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal. It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity.”
Those are words that I completely endorse and that we should have in our minds as we consider these important matters relating to our democracy. I support the position that we are taking on the Lords amendments.
I add my well-wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She was an integral part of the process in the Bill Committee and will be sadly missed during this process, but we look forward to seeing her again soon.
At the beginning of October, the NHS Track and Trace app told me that I had to self-isolate for 12 days. It was inconvenient, yes, but it did mean that on 8 October I was at home, glued to BBC Parliament as their lordships considered the Bill on Report in the other place, my psephological exuberance undiminished—possibly even enhanced—by my isolation.
I shall speak to their lordships’ amendments in turn. Some are predictably partisan and an attempt to achieve what their colleagues were unable to do in this place; others are genuine attempts to improve the workings of the Bill, although I do not believe that they would all actually manage that goal.
As we have heard, Lords amendments 1 and 2 seek to change the proposed cycle of reviews to once every 10 years rather than once every eight. The rationale offered by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock was that this is to enable MPs to
“get to know their constituency”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 October 2020; Vol. 806, c. 714.]
Quite what Lord Foulkes thinks we have been doing in the interim is a mystery to me. I humbly suggest that if a Member has not managed to establish themselves in a constituency after eight years, an extra 24 months will not make much difference. I chuckled when Lord Rennard began his oration in support of that amendment by saying:
“I would like you to imagine the position of a newly elected MP in a general election in 2025.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 October 2020; Vol. 806, c. 714.]
Of course, the noble gentleman would have to imagine, wouldn’t he? He set out a scenario whereby a newly elected MP would have won their seat on one set of boundaries, and just four years later, they would be engaged in a two-year process to reset those boundaries, which would define the seat they contested next time. Lord Rennard made an impassioned entreaty on behalf of these poor, doe-eyed freshman MPs: how would they cope? Well, I am just 11 months into the job and engaging in that very process right now. I can assure our noble friends that my colleagues and I are quite capable of keeping pace without their assistance.
The quality of our democracy should not be tempered for the convenience of hon. Members who might not be putting in the hard work. In most cases, eight years will enable a review in every other Parliament and will reduce the chances of radical change by keeping on top of the figures. Although seemingly simple, the addition of two years to the process could see some sets of boundaries in place over three Parliaments, leading us back to the situation we have now, with a 57,000-voter disparity between the smallest and largest mainland electorates.
Lords amendments 3 and 5 are simple and sensible, setting out a revised timescale for reports to the commission. As I understand that the Government will accept these amendments, I shall not labour the point beyond thanking their lordships for this improvement.
Lords amendment 6 is one of those species of amendments to which I referred earlier—that is, well-intentioned, but ultimately not an improvement. I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward, who I know is watching, for an extremely engaging discussion on this amendment that helped to clarify my thinking. He and I both have real trouble with the idea of members of a selection panel for commissioners being appointed by the Speaker. Although I think that we can all agree that the current holder of that office is a fair and honourable man who is capable of discharging his role in an even-handed and dispassionate way, one need not look too far back in time to find an example of someone who used the office to promote their own ideology and contorted every convention in this place to frustrate the settled will of the British people. This kind of patronage is not appropriate. Although Ministers currently formally appoint commissioners, that is only done after a rigorous, fair and open recruitment process that is conducted under the Government’s code and is regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Lords amendment 6 would remove that safeguard, so I will not support it.
I am also far from satisfied that limiting commissioners to a single non-renewable term is a wise move. Boundary reviews are highly technical, and it strikes me as somewhat bizarre that their lordships are pushing for in-built obsolescence. Surely institutional memory is an advantage.
Lords amendment 7 is an example of that other species of amendment—the partisan. We rejected a similar Opposition amendment in Committee, and we articulated quite properly the reason that 5% variance from the mean was appropriate, fair and practical. I reiterate the belief among Government Members that splitting wards in England, as the commission in Scotland does there, will address the challenges around the larger ward sizes in metropolitan boroughs—what I have called the martini paradox. I encourage the English commission to prepare postcode-level data to enable this as a matter of priority.
The hon. Gentleman can find out my views over a glass of wine once the Smoking Room reopens.
I am afraid that the argument that a wider variance will minimise disruption is entirely specious. We know that regions will differ in the number of seats necessitating significant change across the piece, and I demonstrated in Committee that even if there had been a 15% variance—the maximum allowed under the Venice Commission—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and I would still have been representing seats outwith the permitted tolerance. Such is the outdated nature of the current constituencies that I was not eligible to vote when the boundaries of my seat were last approved.
That brings me neatly to Lords amendment 8. There is a marvellous American expression: “Decisions are made by the people who show up.” However well-intentioned this amendment might be, I fear that it misses the point. We would all like to see greater participation in our democracy, but the right way to do that is not simply to add everyone’s name to the register. Individual electoral registration was brought in to combat electoral fraud, and I fully support that. I appreciate Opposition Members say that there have only been nine instances of fraud, but that is nine too many.
Quite right. Someone’s choice to exercise their franchise should be a positive affirmation and a conscious choice. If we want more people to vote, we should be increasing awareness and improving education. Simply adding names to a register will not increase participation and could lead to a form of stealth malapportionment, whereby certain constituencies would appear on paper to have an on-quota electorate, only for the number of people actively voting to be akin to a rotten borough.
Extrapolating, estimating or automatically registering people is not an answer. We know from countries such as Canada—which, by any measure, we must consider a mature democracy and one with which we would like to be compared—that automatic registration has not been effective and there are high levels of dissatisfaction with the accuracy of preliminary lists.
I have no doubt that their lordships have sent us back a Bill that they consider to be improved. Some of them will be drawing on their own experiences as Members of this place, and I must thank them for their time and consideration, while politely disagreeing with all but new clause 2. The Bill will enable a much-needed review of constituencies, some of which are 20 years out of date, and it will do so in a fair and robust way. The next general election should take place on the basis of boundaries that lend equal weight to every voter, and we have the means before us to enable that now.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and his passionate defence of the Government position and opposition to the majority of the Lords amendments. It is also a pleasure to join so many of my colleagues in sending best wishes to one of the most liked Members of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). We send her our best wishes for a speedy recovery and we cannot wait to see her back at the Dispatch Box. I will not start to compare the performances of Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government, but I am sure that the Leader of the House would agree that she would have given a stellar performance at the Dispatch Box today to which he could only aspire.
What we are trying to do today is based on two fundamental principles, those of fairness and equality. This Government and the Conservative party believe that every vote in this one nation, this United Kingdom, should, as far as is possible, count as much as the next. It is essential if we are to stand here with any semblance of respectability in the eyes of the public that they know that we are here with as much right as the next Member of Parliament, representing, as closely as is possible, the same number of electors as the next person in here. That is the aim of the Bill and it is why we are driving towards a new boundary review.
In Scotland’s case, such a review is nearly 20 years overdue. My beautiful West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency came about as a result of the 2004 boundary review Scotland process. My constituency’s population has increased from 81,000 in 2004 to 97,000 today, with the electorate increasing from about 61,500 to 72,000. Although that places it slap bang in the middle of the range the Bill proposes, it shows the difference between where we are now and where we were 20 years ago and how out of date the current boundary proposals are. The situation in my constituency is nowhere near that of Linlithgow and East Falkirk, which now has 86,000 electors, whereas Glasgow East has about 54,000. [Interruption.] Sorry, I meant Glasgow North, and I apologise deeply to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). We can therefore see that this Bill is much-needed.
As I say, the Bill is about equality and fairness. On Lords amendment 7, although the difference between 95% and 97% might not seem much on the face of it, it poses a huge difference in the size of constituencies. We are talking about a 15% tolerance; it would not be just 7.5%, but 7.5% either way, and so the difference would be 15%. That could allow some constituencies to have up to 78,000 electors, which is slightly above where mine is, and others to have as few as 67,000. Surely, any Member of this House would see that as unpalatable and unfair, and something we should combat.
I am going to move on quickly to Lords amendment 8, as I know we have a lot of speakers and we need to get through this. Everybody in this House who is involved in the democratic process, at whatever level, wants to see higher turnouts in elections and more engagement in the political process, but it is also a right of any citizen in this country to choose not to take part in the political process. Although the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) might have been right to say that it is an offence for someone not to return an electoral registration form if they have been sent one, it is not an offence not to volunteer to go on to the electoral register. It is up to us all to encourage people across this country to get involved, to register, to vote or to join a political party, but it is surely not incumbent on this Government or any Government—in fact, I think that it would be a rather dangerous path to go down—to insist that every single citizen in this country is automatically put on the electoral roll. I think that would be dangerous and damaging, and as I have said, it is a fundamental principle that people get to choose whether or not they engage.
I will finish where I began. This is about fairness and about equality. This Government are determined to make sure that every voter in this country counts for the same as the next one, and that is why I oppose the Lords amendments, with the exception of Lords amendment 2. I support the Government’s position in trying to get this Bill through as quickly as possible. It is a simple and necessary Bill, and one that is very much overdue.
May I start by re-echoing the comments of Members from across the House in wishing the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution well at this difficult time? I hope her treatment progresses well.
I would like to speak in favour of all eight Lords amendments. The Bill has been much improved since it left the House back in July, and I am pleased the Government have supported Lords amendments 3 to 5, but I am particularly keen, in the time I have, to touch on Lords amendments 7 and 8.
On the flexibility quota, all the evidence suggests that a 5% quota will lead to huge upheaval. Just one in five constituencies will remain the same and about two thirds risk being changed completely. That presents a huge change to our parliamentary map, as we head into 2024, which we all know is just over three years away. An end to the pandemic might be in sight, given yesterday’s good news, but the economic damage will still be being felt in two years’ time, so I ask whether it is responsible to unleash a wave of reselection battles between Members of Parliament—although likely to be on the Government side of the House—once the new boundaries have been unveiled and many MPs find that their constituency has been significantly changed. The 2013 boundary review caused such disquiet that it was rejected by this House for exactly that reason, and the report from 2018 was not even laid before the House because there was no chance it would have been passed.
On the automaticity conditions in the Bill, Members must realise that this is really the last chance to scrutinise the Bill as it stands. Once the touch paper is lit, that is the end of our role in this process.
Today, on Report and on Second Reading, I think proponents of both the 7.5% and 5% flexibility conditions have been mischaracterised. Some Members are talking as though 5% is the ideal of electoral equality, while 7.5% is at exactly the other end of the scale, but the truth is that they are variations on a theme: 5% will not mean complete equality between voters, and 7.5% will not mean that voters in one constituency have far more of a say than those in another.
On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is no longer in her place, pointed out that her constituency has 83,000 electors, while mine has 61,000. There is significant variability in my own constituency related to the University of Saint Andrews and the registration of students at their term-time addresses, but it is right that inequity should be addressed, and there are many more examples across the country of similar cases.
It is important to remember that whether we adopt 5% or 7.5%, the constituencies I have mentioned, including my own, become more equal, but there will still be variation under either quota, and we account for that variation because we accept that strict numerical equality is not the only basis on which to draw up constituencies. We recognise that other factors are important and should be taken into consideration, such as language, geography, cultural ties, and these are all on the statute book. For a small handful of constituencies, we judge these factors to be so important that we have decided that numerical equality should not apply to them at all.
One of the arguments regularly put forward in relation to first past the post is the politics of place. Strict numerical equality arguably makes that much harder to achieve. I would argue—I know you are conscious of time, Madam Deputy Speaker—that if we want to achieve politics of place and equality of voters, we should look for a more representative voting system in the first place. I find it strange that the Government are insisting that, for the rest of the country, we should impose numerical equality so strict that it will be difficult for the Boundary Commission properly to take these factors of geography and cultural ties into account. That is not just the view of Opposition Members. I note that the 7.5% condition is included in the Private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir Peter Bone), no doubt because he recognises the disruption that 5% will cause to such a high proportion of existing boundaries.
We must ask how important those ties are compared with the goal of numerical equality. Not only will 7.5% prevent excessive disruption, but it will allow the boundary commissioners better to account for those other factors. Given the arguably small difference, which is within the norms mentioned by the Leader of the House, that seems like a reasonable compromise.
Secondly, I wish to discuss Lords amendment 8, a cross-party amendment tabled by Lord Shutt of Greetland, which received significant support in the other place. As hon. Members have mentioned and are aware, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Shutt sadly passed away at the end of October, just a few weeks after steering this amendment through the House of Lords. David was a no-nonsense politician and a proud Yorkshireman and was passionate about democracy and electoral reform—displayed through his excellent chairmanship of the committee that considered the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. Its report originally recommended this amendment. It is fitting that, as a Liberal Democrat, his last political act was championing the representation of young people. His friends and family, including many people across the Houses and parties, will miss him dearly.
It is disappointing that the Government want to remove this amendment. They say that they want to register attainers. In fact, the Government’s stated aim is a complete register and I would argue that it is up to people whether they choose to vote, not whether they are registered to do so. The Government place much emphasis on doing their civic duty and one example is that electoral registers are used to identify people for jury service. Yet registrations for attainers have declined from a rate of 45% in 2015 to only 25% in 2019. Additional measures are taken in other parts of the UK, most notably—supported by the Government—in Northern Ireland. In the United States, young people have turned out in much bigger proportions for the first time and that can only be a good thing for democracy. We should all be determined to increase the franchise commitment to our young people.
During Report stage I tabled an amendment designed to capture all eligible voters in the boundary review. I was not satisfied with the Government’s response that they were doing all they can to ensure that the electoral register is complete. Eight million people are missing. Just 66% of 18 and 19-year-olds are registered, compared with more than 94% of over-65s. As the late Lord Shutt pointed out, the Minister is desperate for near-precision in prescribing all boundaries to be within 5% of the average size, but the baseline and building blocks are in danger of being wildly imprecise if the bulk of young people is omitted from the registers.
This amendment requires the Government to lay proposals to improve the completeness of the register—one of their stated aims. That is something to which the Government are committed and they have a chance to prove that today. As a Member of Parliament, I represent and support everyone who lives in North East Fife, not simply those registered to vote there.
Like many hon. Members I send my best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She has been a friend for many years and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with her and wishing for her swift recovery.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) have all made excellent points, echoing many of the points that I wish to make. On Lords amendment 1, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton. I cannot understand, when we are seeing huge population growth and massive development in some constituencies, why one would want to have 10 years rather than eight. When I stood for the council in Tower Hamlets in 2008, I remember looking at the huge differences in population growth in east London that had occurred as a result of massive regeneration. That threw out not only council wards but some parliamentary constituencies by tens of thousands.
Most of my comments today relate to Lords amendment 7—or, for reasons that will become self-evident, what I call the Borat amendment. As the Venice Commission outlines in its core principle, the equality of voting power is a crucial standard of the concept of electoral integrity. That is important. There has been much talk about tolerance today, but it is a tolerance around a mean. Seven and a half per cent on either side makes a difference of 15% and that is a significant change from 10%. Page 21 of the Venice Commission’s 2017 report highlights two nations. One is Malta, whose constitution allows no more than 5% departure on either side of the average in order to take account of geographical vicinity. However, Kazakhstan allows 15% tolerance. Britain is in exactly the right place when it is more aligned to Maltese rules on different constituency sizes than it is to Kazakhstan’s rules.
What we all want is simple: equal representation as far as possible, but taking into account reasonable geographical changes.
I am speaking only briefly, so I am afraid not. Finally, I am glad that the Government have accepted Lords amendment 3, because we all know what happened in the late 1960s when Harold Wilson delayed and delayed in an attempt to deny democracy and hold Britain back in the 1950s—it did not serve him well. I am glad the Government are moving forwards and I urge all hon. Members to support the Government tonight.
I welcome the Government’s decision to agree to Labour’s call to scrap plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. The pandemic has shown us that strong and constructive scrutiny of the Government has never been more important, and the plans to remove 50 seats would have weakened our democracy to the advantage of the Executive. I stood in this place four or five months ago to stress my concerns about how the original proposals would have impacted heavily on the Jarrow constituency, which would have gained more wards from neighbouring Gateshead and lost the Cleadon and East Boldon ward to the neighbouring constituency of South Shields.
I fully support Lords amendment 7, with my reasoning very different from that of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who I see is no longer in his place. It would widen the deviation from the quota for constituency electorates from 5% to 7.5%—not 10%. During the Bill’s evidence session, the secretariat of the Boundary Commission for England stated that it makes it
“much harder to have regard to the other factors…such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography. Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have…The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7, Q3.]
I am a firm believer that constituency boundaries should mirror the communities they represent. We know that boundaries that cut across several councils and geographical borders, including valleys, mountains and rivers, do not fit local people’s community ties and make it difficult for us to represent our areas effectively.
An increase in the tolerance size is supported by international best practice, which recommends that flexibility should be worked into the system to allow for consideration of geography and community ties. Based on an algorithm prediction by Electoral Calculus—I know it is a prediction—my seat would be redrawn to have a ridiculous divide between parts of Jarrow south of the River Tyne and parts of North Tyneside north of the River Tyne. That would affect not just my constituency but neighbouring constituencies as well. Those predictions aim to satisfy the main legislative constraints of 250 parliamentary seats, with each of those seats having an electorate within 5% of the national average. That is a prime example of what the secretariat of the Boundary Commission for England meant when it stated
“the smaller…the tolerance, the fewer options we have”.
I will also support Lords amendment 8, which, while not giving 16 and 17-year-olds a vote, would take a big step towards improving registration rates among young people, increasing electoral engagement and hopefully ensuring that more young voices are heard. It would also increase the likelihood that young people participate in political life from an early age because they would be registered to vote, regardless of whether they choose to exercise their right to vote, as many Opposition Members have said.
I will also support Lords amendments 1 and 2, which require a boundary commission report every 10 years rather than the eight envisaged in the unamended Bill. Boundary reviews cause uncertainty for councils, councillors, local organisations, MPs and—of course—their constituents and could mean that most MPs would face a review in every second Parliament. Finally, I will also support Lords amendment 6 as it would put measures in place to mitigate the dangerous consequences of ending parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), and I join Members from all around the House in sending my best wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She is not only a fantastic Minister, but an exceptionally kind Member of the House, and she has been very kind to lots of new Members in particular.
Tragically, I was not on the Bill Committee, but the Whips have seen me right on the Order Paper tonight, as I will be on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, in which I look forward to engaging with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is not in his place, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). However, like the Bill Committee, I have spent the last few weeks studying maps with arbitrary boundaries, straight lines cutting through the middle of cities, districts drawn in extraordinary shapes and parts of marginal areas split up by huge lakes. At the end of all that, we do seem to have a clear result, so I warmly congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris on their triumph and achievement, and particularly Kamala Harris’s achievement as the first woman and first woman of colour to succeed to the vice-presidency.
I do not make this point just as a joke, but because the present US experience demonstrates some of the real concerns about legislating in this area and the politicisation of boundaries and electoral arrangements. Politicising these things undermines the independence of the process. It undermines its integrity, transparency and fairness and, as we have regrettably seen in the States, it also tends to undermine the acceptance of the result, which is absolutely fundamental to any democracy.
Here in the UK we have much to be proud of, but we should not be self-satisfied, because the boundaries on which I, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and many others were elected were set in 2006 for England, and that was based on data that was even older than that. When I was elected last December, the boundaries were already 13 years out of date. Two subsequent reviews have had to be abandoned. The first was abandoned, very clearly, on political grounds, I regret to say—not that it did the Liberal Democrats much good, but there we go.
I strongly welcome the Bill. I particularly welcome its automaticity and Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5, which strengthen that automaticity. I hope that this will be the last time that I need to debate these matters in the Chamber. Parliament is ultimately sovereign and it needs to lay out a framework for elections for parliamentary constituencies, but once we have a framework, I think that process should proceed by clockwork. There should be no parliamentary vote to stop the process that has been put in place.
I shall briefly speak to a couple of amendments with which I and the Government disagree. Amendments 1 and 2 are about the number of years. I think that eight years is a reasonable cycle length, for the reasons that many of my hon. Friends have given today, and it also means that there should be no need for interim reviews. They are a complication of the process that I do not think we need, but given the population growth that we are seeing, eight years allows us to get reviews on a reasonable cycle length.
So many Members have spoken to amendment 7, on tolerance. I am a tolerant man, but I think that 7,000 votes is more than enough tolerance between the smallest and largest constituencies in the country. An 11,000 difference when we have the opportunity to make it less than that seems over the top to me. I fundamentally believe in equal voting power for all Members in this place, as far as possible.
I will try to be brief—I also disagree with the other Lords amendments but I will not elaborate on the reasons why; they are basically the reasons that the Leader of the House set out in his excellent opening speech. Finally, just to reiterate my points on automaticity, let this Bill be the last time for a very long time that this House needs to legislate on these matters. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) said that this is our last chance and that once we pass the Bill, it is done. Well, I say: good, that is how it should be. Let the convention be re-established that boundary changes are a process that should not be interfered with by MPs.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the House not interfering with the Boundary Commission’s process going forward. Why, then, did the Government not table the Orders in Council that allowed the last Parliament to have a vote on those boundary proposals?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There are two points. The one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke about the EU referendum was well made, and I regret to say that the Government—I was not a Member at the time—probably felt that there were not the votes in the House to get the proposals through. That is principally the same reason that the previous review was abandoned. I am trying to make the point that we should not rely on votes in the House to get a boundary review through. A boundary review will undoubtedly be bad news for certain Members and good news for others. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) might get a lovely SNP ward added to his seat, whereas I might lose a lovely rural ward, but it should not be for me to vote on that with my self-interest at heart. We need to create a fair, independent process, which is what the Bill does. I therefore commend it to the House and urge us to reject the Lords amendments, with the exception of the ones on automaticity.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). I send my good wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith).
I listened with great interest and, dare I say it, increasing incredulity to the speech by the Leader of the House, particularly his comments on the appointment of the Boundary Commission, given the context of the vote that we are to have tonight on the Committee on Standards, but also events surrounding the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the appointment of the Chair of the Liaison Committee, the appointment of the chief executive of Track and Trace and the role of Kate Bingham; the list is endless. I appreciate, however, that there is a long-overdue need for us to review the boundaries. The 2011 proposals were made by a coalition Government under the leadership of David Cameron, but I never understood the desire to reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600 while increasing the number of unelected Members in the other place to around 800 to 850—I do not quite get that, in terms of the argument around democracy.
Given the time, I want to focus on Lords amendments 7 and 8. Amendment 7 is about the deviation from quota from 5% to 7%. I would stress—as has been done widely around the House, certainly by Members on the Opposition side of the Chamber—the importance of community and identity, and relations between those communities.
Warwick and Leamington is a very good example. When the previous review was undertaken, there were moves to divide the constituency, so that Warwick would become part of a constituency with Stratford, and Leamington would become part of a constituency with Kenilworth. If you knew the geography, you would say that Warwick and Leamington were twinned; they are close relations. There is a symbiosis between those two towns that makes them mutually dependent. That desire to change the boundaries would have driven those closely linked towns apart.
The Council of Europe, through the Venice Commission, said that the standard permissible tolerance should be plus or minus 10%. I believe that is crucial in understanding the communities that we represent, because that is what it is about—the people, and how they have formed communities. The 5% rule creates too small a tolerance to take account of that. Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry noted that the 5% rule caused huge disruption. It noted that the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 was not a cause of substantial disruption, but it was mostly
“caused by the introduction of the uniform national quota and the 5% tolerance.”
In the study of the 2013 review, the Committee found that the easing of the tolerance to 7% to 9% gave the commissioners much more flexibility.
Looking at Wales, which has perhaps the most constituencies to lose, the topography and the geography are critical. They shape our communities. They shape our economies. It is impossible to understand that when you are looking, perhaps, at the levels of Somerset or at cities such as London—the way in which those community ties are formed. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) cited Rhondda at 50,000, but we really do have to revisit how the communities, say in the valleys, are formed. They face one way. They are discrete, distinct communities. We must not mess with the arbitrary and artificial association. You only have to look at the US congressional districts to see exactly what that means.
Finally, I commend Lords amendment 8, which perhaps we might refer to as the Lord Shutt amendment, and the work that went into it. We must connect with young people. They are so disillusioned by democracy. We must use this opportunity to drive young people’s engagement with the political process, That is why that amendment is fundamentally important, and why I shall vote for it.
I will make a few final comments, because many have been made in the Chamber today. The effectiveness and legitimacy of the democratic process is contingent on the public’s confidence in the processes and the commitment of elected representatives to upholding its principles. So I agree that a boundary review must go ahead, as the current constituency boundaries are two decades old, but it is crucial that the review strengthens the functioning of democracy. Lords amendments 7 and 8 are important steps forward in defending and advancing the key principles of representation and voting rights in our democratic process.
I reiterate the important point that I and many others made on Second and Third Reading of the Bill, and here today, that the Government could still change course on amendment 7, which would widen the variance from quota from 5% to 7.5%. As a boundary geek, having worked for the Local Government Commission on ward boundaries, I have done the work of trying to make good boundaries. A strict 5% inhibits the ability of the Boundary Commission to invoke common sense when devising constituencies that protect local ties, reflect local authority boundaries and recognise natural topography, as has been said. Whether it is hills, valleys and rivers, or motorways, main roads and green space, it is really important that we take all of this into account when creating good constituencies to represent our communities.
From my work experience, I understand how the public respond to well-made and to poor boundaries, but it is not just the boundaries: as I understand it, it is also sensible and coherent constituencies that recognise local ties, as against those that look strange, that are strange and that do not reflect community ties. Giving that little extra leeway will give the Boundary Commission greater scope accurately to group community identities, connections and geographical areas. It is not just to do with the fairness of the vote. We also need to talk about the fairness of the representation when we are elected, recognising, for example, how much more difficult it is for Members in the valleys of Wales to get around their constituencies compared with those in a condensed urban constituency such as my own.
The Government have recognised the principle of flexibility in the arrangements that have been made for Isle of Wight and Ynys Môn. I hope that that could be recognised further in creating good constituencies, so we could adopt that slightly higher flexibility to avoid the ratcheting effect, as I call it—or, as it was nicely put earlier today, “the butterfly effect”—where just one constituency could have that extra tolerance. It is important to avoid a number of constituencies not accurately reflecting their constituents.
I also wish to speak in favour of Lords amendment 8. Much has been said about the fact that turnout is healthy for our democracy, which I agree with, and that the ability to vote is a right, not a privilege. Improving the completeness of electoral registers by enabling the Government to ask local authority registration officers to add 16-year-olds to the electoral register when they get their NI number, or ensuring that they are provided with information on how to apply to join the electoral register would be a significant step forward in expanding voter registration and would enable greater participation among young voters. Although the Government are not willing to do the right thing and introduce votes at 16, which I am in favour of, improving voter registration for young voters is a basic, non-controversial change, which could see a vital increase in the number of young people voting. I hasten to add that, when others tell me not to do something, I often think there must be something in it. So, young people, think about why they do not want to encourage you to be on the electoral register.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins). It is an absolute pleasure to follow her. I used to find that I was very often in agreement with her distinguished father on matters relating to the European Union, though it has to be said not on anything else. I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate on their lordships’ amendments. It has been a pleasure to be part of this important Bill, and I am very grateful for all the kind words that have been said about my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution. I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is sent to her so that she knows how highly respected and valued she is both as a Member of this House and as a Minister.
I also spoke on Second Reading, and both then and now, it has been a genuine pleasure to hear about the constituencies of hon. Members. In particular, I noted the plea from the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who basically said that he loved his constituency and likes it as it is. I think that many Members across the House have huge sympathy with that view. It makes these types of debate extremely difficult for us, because all of us have an enormous affection for the places that we represent and we have incredible ties to them. I did not agree with all of his speech, but I must confess that I sympathised very much with the bit when he was praising his own area. However, this Bill will meet the Government’s manifesto commitment to have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, and I am glad to see that it has broad support across the House, even though there are differences over some of the details.
If I may come to those, I will not try to repeat the points that I covered in my opening remarks, in the interests of time, but the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)¸ made a point about young registration. I would point out that we have seen a significant number of 18 to 24-year-olds register since online registration came in, with 8 million of them taking the opportunity of that.
The hon. Lady referred to the appointment of the deputy chairmen. It is worth reiterating that they are High Court judges anyway, so their independence has already been proved at the earlier appointment. I do not think we need have any worry about their continued independence. The hon. Lady also accused the Government of appointing a crony as the BBC chairman. As the appointment has not yet been made, I am not sure how we can have appointed the crony, unless the hon. Lady is accusing the Government of being Billy No Mates, which may possibly be the case, because no appointment has been made.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), as always, made an extremely charming and well-informed speech, with his one aim clearly in sight. His one aim is, of course, the independence of Scotland. That is his view; that is what he campaigns for. I fundamentally disagree with him, but he always puts his case elegantly and in the best traditions of this House. I just remind him that there are particular protections for Scotland, with the regulations relating to constituencies over 5,000 square miles and, of course, the protection of the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar. I think that should be in entrenched legislation to keep the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) safely in this House, as he is a great figure and contributor to our debates. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I did not notify the hon. Gentleman that I was going to mention him, but I hope he will not mind.
I am also relieved that the hon. Member for Glasgow East, when he read out at the end of his speech my words on an earlier occasion, had not looked through my speeches on the parliamentary constituencies Bill when it was passing through the House in 2010 and 2011 and did not quote those back at me. That might have been rather more embarrassing.
I come to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I am afraid I think they should stand for election to the House of Representatives, because they seem more interested in American politics than in British politics. Fascinating though that is, this House is concerned with the politics of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) is not in her place, but she made the point that there will be an extensive change with the 5% level. That is inevitable because this change has been so long delayed. English constituencies are based on the register for 2000 and therefore are 20 years out of date. She made the very fair point that the difference between 5% and 7.5% is a variation on a theme, which is why I think we can reasonably, as a House, agree on 5%. It is a matter of getting the balance right. I think 5% is reasonable.
If I may come to my hon. and right hon. Friends, a number of them—my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—raised the issue of ward divisions. It is important to note that the Boundary Commission—the independent Boundary Commission—has the ability to use smaller areas, and therefore if it wants to use smaller areas to meet the 5% requirement, it will be able to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked the specific question whether, basically, the Boundary Commission will have to follow the law, to which the answer is of course yes, it will have to follow the law, although in doing so it is independent. She also pointed out that Lords amendment 7 basically seeks to undermine the principle of the Bill by widening it, and if we end up widening it too much, we get away from what we are trying to achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) made a telling point about the different purpose of data that has been collected. Suddenly using it for one thing rather than another raises all sorts of problems. He also kindly pointed out that the deputy chairmen are already impartial judges, which I reiterate because it is fundamental to the fairness of this process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton made, I must confess, both a wise and entertaining speech and noted the partisanship of some of the amendments. I must confess that we have seen through the Opposition’s tricks and noted that the amendments are partisan, and that is why we will have pleasure in voting against them. Let us be honest about it: the Opposition know they are partisan too, but they felt they had to make some complaints on a principle—that we should have equal seats—that most people across the House agree with.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) pointed out the size of his own constituency and the right of people to choose whether they participate in the electoral process or not. Of course that is a freedom that we have.
I loved the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) that we should follow Malta, and we must—what a great thing to do. Malta is a wonderful place, and one thinks of its fantastic history in surviving not one but two sieges, one in the 16th century and one in the 20th century. I will not say the joke about making a Maltese cross, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you might think it out of order, and it is very old and hackneyed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) argued that eight years was about right, and he alludes to a key point that, yes, there will be big changes this time, but if we do it every eight years there will be incremental changes in future, and that will make the whole system better and easier to live with. I think we will find that there is a good deal of comfort in that for us.
My hon. Friend also noted, quite rightly, that there is a conflict of interest for MPs voting on boundary changes, because we all like our constituencies as they are. None of us wishes to lose a bit of our constituency. We do not mind getting new bits—that is quite exciting—but losing bits, even bits that do not have a strong majority for one’s own party, one does not want to do. The relationship between an MP and a constituency is so fundamental, which is why the principle in the Bill of more frequent but incremental changes is right.
I am grateful for this thorough debate, and for the reasons I set out earlier, I encourage Members across the House to support the Government in agreeing to Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5, and disagreeing with their lordships in their amendments 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5 agreed to.
After Clause 4
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.—(Mike Freer.)
Lords amendment 6 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
After Clause 5
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 7.—(Eddie Hughes).
Lords amendment 7 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
After Clause 6
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 8.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Lords amendment 8 disagreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8.
That Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Eddie Hughes, Jane Hunt, Chris Clarkson, Cat Smith, Colleen Fletcher and David Linden be members of the Committee;
That Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
In order to observe social distancing, the Reasons Committee will meet not in the Reasons Room but in Committee Room 12.
Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred under the Act by the Secretary of State. —(Stuart Andrew.)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Reports of the Boundary Commissions
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (2)
Amendment 1 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “2031” and insert “2033”
My Lords, I also speak to Amendment 3 in my name. Amendment 2, if agreed to, would move the next review, beyond 2023, to 2033 instead of 2031, thus making it a 10-year gap. Amendment 3 would make that a permanent arrangement.
As a former MP, I am acutely aware of the disruption caused by reviews, not just for MPs but for their constituents, councils, councillors, local organisations and many others within the constituency. Others who are going to participate in the debate will confirm and testify to that.
Some Members will recall that in Committee, in discussing amendments giving priority to communities over arithmetic and amendments on the percentage variation—which will be covered again today in the debate on Amendments 12, 13, 14 and 18—we discussed the importance of the linkage between the MP and her or his constituency. Good MPs work in their constituency, very hard: helping individuals at surgeries and in other ways; working with organisations of all kinds; and building up a rapport and an understanding to enable them to represent their constituents at Westminster. An MP is a representative, not simply a member of an electoral college to elect a Prime Minister and thereby a Government, as some of the current special advisers seem to believe.
I know well the excitement, or rather the trauma, of boundary reviews. I was first elected in 1979 and experienced my first review very quickly, in 1983, so I know what it is like. Thankfully I survived, but I have seen many good MPs have their careers ended arbitrarily as a result of a review.
We currently have fixed five-year Parliaments—I know some consideration may be given to that—but previously we had four or five-year Parliaments as normal. If that continues, a review every eight years would mean that most MPs would face a review in every second Parliament, which is not much time for them to settle in and get to know their constituency, their constituents and how to represent them effectively. Time would be taken up by MPs preparing for the next review, perhaps even for selection and reselection—all this just in the Government’s wish to get more arithmetic exactitude.
The Government argue that this makes every person’s vote equal—of equal strength and equal value—but that does not take account of other factors, like marginality. If they really wanted every vote to count, they would be moving towards proportional representation, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is following me, and others would like, but I know the Government do not want that and are not going to move in that direction.
My main argument is to minimise disruption, to increase the accountability of MPs to their constituents and to increase their effectiveness—something that is being sidelined in our parliamentary democracy. I beg to move Amendment 2, and I wish to seek the opinion of the House by Division when we come to that point.
My Lords, the Bill sets out a system for reviewing constituency boundaries which will result in changes much more dramatic than those of any previous reviews ever put in place.
I would like you to imagine the position of a newly elected MP in a general election in 2025. They will have won a seat with new boundaries, but just four years later a new boundary revision process will begin. From 2029 they will be engaged, over a two-year period, in arguments about whether the constituency might exist again, or whether it should be redrawn in a very different form. They will not know the decision of the boundary commissioners until the end of September 2031.
Under these rules, Parliament will no longer have a say over whether the proposals are implemented. The new boundaries will therefore take effect in any general election from February 2032. There will be just four months between the Boundary Commissions’ reports being finalised and their proposals automatically taking effect in any general election. All that is certain is that the proposed constituencies will be very different from those at the previous election.
The problem with eight-yearly reviews, a fixed number of seats in each state or region and very limited flexibility from the quota of electors in each seat is that they will involve major changes to more than 300 constituencies every time. Not many more than 100 constituencies are likely to have unchanged boundaries. This is not a one-off problem but is what will happen with every boundary review in future.
The frequency of reviews involving dramatic changes to boundaries does not make sense if the link between MPs and their constituencies is to be valued. Unfortunately, little consideration was allowed in the other place for the question as to how frequently reviews should take place. Over the past 50 years, we have had 14 general elections. That is an average of one every three and a half years. Therefore, with a boundary review every eight years, and with the rules as proposed, we can expect that only one in five constituencies will exist with the same boundaries for two consecutive general elections.
Somebody winning a seat shortly after a boundary review will know that they will get the chance to fight that same seat just one more time. There will then be a 50% chance that it is reorganised in a major way, and an 80% chance of the boundaries being changed in some way. But somebody winning a seat more than four years after a boundary review will immediately face a 50% chance that the constituency boundaries will change in a major way at the very next election, and an 80% chance that the constituency boundaries will be changed. It may be that some people welcome this kind of disruption to constituencies. Internal selection battles may be a great joy for some people but constantly having to engage in them cannot be good for anyone who wants to serve the people of a constituency or to demonstrate that they could do so in future. Party HQs may welcome frequent reorganisations so that awkward MPs might find themselves forced out and without a seat, while more obliging loyalists could be rewarded with new opportunities.
One of my friends on the Cross Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was an excellent constituency MP, but he twice found that a constituency that elected him with large majorities was effectively abolished by the boundary review process. Constituents cannot be well served in a system in which constituencies are likely to exist for only two general elections.
The late and much missed Professor Ron Johnston, has been quoted by all sides many times in our debates on the issue of boundary reviews. In Grand Committee, the Minister, referred to his “respect and appreciation” for him. Professor Johnston felt that a constituency should exist for three general elections before its boundaries could be redrawn. The only way in which to make that more likely while keeping boundaries reasonably up to date is to make the reviews every 10 years, not every eight.
My Lords, I apologise for not participating in Committee, having spoken at Second Reading, but I followed the three days of debate in Committee. I saw the feed on the first day, in which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, raised his proposal for a 10-year cycle for reviews. I was surprised at his persistence in bringing back the issue on Report. Not only has he gathered comrades in arms from the opposition coalition, he has the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as co-signatories to his proposals. However, where are the interests of parliamentary democracy served by another example of foot-dragging on boundaries? I excuse the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I suspect, from listening to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and Lib Dems generally, he would wish to do away with single-member constituencies altogether, in the hope of achieving something more advantageous to the Lib Dem cause of proportional representation.
Where is the radicalism in the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes? No Clydesider he on this issue. He sounds positively reactionary in what he tells us about the relationship of an MP with his constituency. He said in Grand Committee that
“the reason for having 10 years rather than eight is to give some stability for the Member of Parliament to get to know her or his constituency—to become acquainted with it and have the support of their constituents—and to be able to come to the House of Commons as a representative, not a party hack”.—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 165.]
While I would not have supported my noble friend Lord Forsyth in Committee, I believe that the more frequent the review the better. Eight years is a fair balance and keeps as closely as is practical to the perfection of equal electorates at general elections.
In returning to these amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, disappoints me, as do the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for whom I have a high regard. In my experience, candidates should get to know their constituencies before elections, not learn on the job as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, suggests. I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will agree with me on that. In his talk of disruption and the concept of “swings and roundabouts”, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, called it in Committee, he forgets the poor voter and the purpose of the Bill in providing fairness of representation as the registered electorate changes to provide 650 MPs. However, despite his observations, I think that changing boundaries in the pursuit of fairness is not something with which he disagrees. The difference between us is, in practice, between his proposals in the amendment, for reviews every 10 years over three elections, and the Bill clearly stating eight years and the probability of two elections.
I have always seen the noble Lord as an early bird, a personal clock on continental time, not a stop-abed, reluctant to meet the day. Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator, has nothing on him as he seeks to avoid a battle with public opinion. Perhaps he has already achieved that objective by being in this place. He might, however, reflect on how the apparent policy of his party and his amendments will be received by the other place if, as he suggests, he pursues them to a Division and, more importantly, on how that will appear to the voters who they seek to represent.
I have little to add to what I have heard. It is important that changes to constituencies are not too frequent. A Member of Parliament gets close to the local authorities, the electors and all sorts of organisations. I have had the experience of representing a constituency for 23 years and then half of it being taken away from me to the east because the county boundaries changed. The numbers had to be made up by adding two new wards to the west. It was not easy, but we conquered the problem. One had to rebuild new associations, friendships and interests, and people wanted to know you better. It is therefore a very bad thing, in my experience as a Member of Parliament for 41 years, for constituency changes to be too frequent. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I spoke at Second Reading but not in Committee, but I have been following the Bill’s progress with great interest. It is fundamental to our democracy. I want to express my concern about this grouping and to speak against Amendments 2 and 3 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.
The fundamental reason for boundary reviews is to ensure that constituencies of equal size are maintained. To do this, we need the data to be reviewed on a regular basis, balancing this with the need to avoid constant disruption. In a fast-moving world of significant changes in our demographics, which can be through housebuilding or geographical migration, including changes to people’s work patterns and locations, it seems that the Government’s proposal in the Bill to conduct boundary reviews on a cycle of eight years is fair and reasonable. If, as the amendments propose, boundary reviews are held only every 10 years, there will be an even greater risk than there is now that constituency boundaries will become out of date and unequal between the reviews.
Prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years, it was a very unsatisfactory system where interim reviews would take place to consider whether particular constituencies should be updated between the general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in particular areas. Those interim reviews were disruptive. They were made at the discretion of the Boundary Commission and they made it difficult for MPs to develop stable and effective constituency relationships with communities. A balance of eight years should avoid the need to hold interim reviews, which has to be a good thing.
It is right that all parliamentary constituencies should be of equal size and that everyone’s vote carries equal weight. It is a balance between regular reviews and minimal upheaval while ensuring that constituency boundaries accurately represent significant demographic shifts in a fast-moving world. Eight-year reviews strike the right balance.
My Lords, I support the amendment and I want to focus on one particular point. The Minister, in replying to the debate in Committee, put great weight on the support that he alleged his proposals had received from interested parties. I shall quote him:
“Prior to the Bill’s introduction we engaged with all the parliamentary parties and with the electoral administrator representatives, and an eight-year cycle was the one that was supported.”—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 171.]
I had hoped for rather more than that, so I put down a PQ. I did not get a lot more in response; I will come back to that in a moment. It said:
“Ahead of the Bill’s introduction, the Government engaged with parliamentary parties, and electoral administrator representatives, and there was general acceptance of an 8-year cycle.”
In Committee, the Minister said the eight-year cycle was “supported”, but in reply to the PQ he said it was accepted. Those are very different things. Being supportive is, “What a jolly good idea, Minister. How wise you are.” Being accepting is, “Well, Minister, if that is really what you want, I suppose that we will have to go along with it.” That comes perilously close to misleading the House.
I would be inclined to forgive the Minister for that if, when he winds up the debate, he is able to give a clear and concise summary of exactly what the consultation consisted of, who was consulted and exactly what their replies were. If he cannot do that in winding up—I understand that he might be a bit short of time—I would be grateful if he would give a commitment to write to all noble Lords involved in this debate setting out at greater length and in more detail what the consultation was. In doing so, he will make us a great deal more confident that this is not a product of ministerial whim and the justification for it thought up only after the event.
My Lord, I believe that it is sensible to have more frequent boundary reviews than those being proposed in the amendment. Prior to Covid, this country was enjoying very substantial employment figures and people were relocating around the country to where the jobs were to be found. However, the pandemic has changed absolutely everything. The jobs market is dreadful and getting worse, and when we eventually arrive at a new normal, I suggest that it will bear little resemblance to what we knew pre-Covid. Jobs will be extremely difficult to come by, and to find employment people will have to translocate in pursuit of work. This will inevitably change the shape and size of many constituencies and demographics in general. That is one reason that I believe it is vital that boundaries are reviewed on a more frequent basis than that being proposed in this amendment. That is why I shall support the Government.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, not least because of his own and his family’s historic links with the city of Sheffield. However, I have to disagree with him on this occasion. I shall speak briefly in favour of the amendments because I want to speak again on Amendment 12 and the substantive issue around that.
To pick up the point that was just made by the noble Earl, if we are not to have the catastrophe of a major shift in population further away from the north of England, we will have to take the opportunity of the use of social media and more imaginative and creative ways of bringing jobs to people, rather than people having to go to existing jobs; otherwise, we will have an even greater imbalance in the country, both economically and socially, than we have already.
The simple point I want to make is one that I made in Grand Committee. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I do not believe that the issue is about the Member getting to know the constituency before they are elected, if they are lucky enough to be so; it is about the constituents getting to know the elected Member. In the single-member constituency framework that we have and of which I am in favour, it is absolutely fundamental that the constituents know who is representing them, that they know where to contact them and that a constituency Member gets to know the critical areas of the community so that they become a voice for the area, whichever party they start off representing.
I want to make just one additional point in response to the noble Baroness who has spoken against these amendments. I experienced an interim boundary change because of local authority boundary reorganisations. It was nowhere near as disruptive as the major and complete rebanding of constituencies in the period that I experienced otherwise. It added a part of Hillsborough into the Brightside constituency, which has allowed me to take the title of Brightside and Hillsborough—although I spent a lot of time in Hillsborough, not least in the football ground, when we were permitted to do so.
This is all about stability and the arrangements that complement and develop the concept of the citizen knowing who represents them in our system. These amendments are a sensible way of ensuring that we do not have constant disruption. That may be good for numerical equality, which we will come to later, but it has absolutely nothing to do with democratic representation.
My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has just said about the emphasis on people’s interests rather than those of politicians, and I shall come back to that in a moment.
In the interests of brevity, I wish merely to reiterate our support for these two amendments which have been clearly explained by my noble friend Lord Rennard, and to emphasise our approach to the Bill, because we are just starting on this process again. We are concerned to minimise excessive, unnecessary and pointless disruption. Anyone who has had the privilege of serving as a Member of the House of Commons knows that the commitment is to people—the human geography rather than just the physical geography—and for that purpose we are concerned about the way in which this Bill has been drafted. However characterful a constituency may be in its built as well as its natural environment—I challenge anyone to compete with north Cornwall on that score—you represent views rather than vistas. That is why a better electoral system with multi-member constituencies would indeed be much more representative than the present one.
In the context of this Bill, for those reasons, we are determined to maintain a consistent relationship between people and their representatives wherever and whenever there are no overriding reasons to break it. I admit that this is a conservative approach, but it is also the people-friendly one, and I hope that that will appeal to the Minister. It is a matter of appropriate balance, as other noble Lords have said. We support the amendments.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes and all noble Lords who have spoken today on these amendments, the majority making a very good case to have Boundary Commission reviews every 10 years.
Those who have been through boundary changes will know the upheaval that can happen. Former MPs have spoken today on the impact they can have. I have never been a Member of Parliament, but I speak as someone who has had to reorganise constituency boundaries. It is difficult for all concerned, including party members, party organisers and electors, some who can find that they have not moved to a new home but that they have moved into a new constituency.
A change in constituency boundaries takes some time to bed down, with new relationships having to be formed and the sitting Members sometimes having to find new constituencies to represent. In some cases, they find that they do not have a constituency, which will happen when this Bill goes through. I know that these things can happen whenever there are boundary changes, but a 10-year period means less churn and less upheaval and is better for democracy. The MPs have time to build up good relationships with the constituencies that they represent, which provides stability for all involved. Political parties play a big role in our democracy and work closely with the MP or their party’s candidate. It is a crucial role. When boundaries are altered, there can be big changes to make, not only for the Member of Parliament, but for all those who work with them to get them elected. A 10-year period would allow for much more stability.
There is support for this from most Peers who have spoken today on this amendment, as there was in Committee. I ask the Minister to take careful note of the views expressed today in favour of a 10-year review. My noble friend Lord Foulkes said that he will call a vote on this, and we will, of course, be supporting him.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to change the timings of boundary reviews so that a review would be undertaken every 10 years. Currently under the Bill, a boundary review would take place every eight years. This is a change from the current law. I think many noble Lords have forgotten what the current law is: under it, a review should take place every five years.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and many other noble Lords, in supporting this amendment, said that they wanted a lack of disruption to local communities. Many noble Lords also talked about disruption to Members of Parliament, but I am more interested in local communities. Our aim, as committed to in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly but without the disruption to local communities and their representation that might occur with the current five-yearly reviews. I, and the Government, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the Opposition Benches, who said at Second Reading:
“Eight years seems to me a sensible compromise, ensuring that constituency electorates are kept reasonably up to date, and in normal times would operate for at least two general elections.”—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 82.]
We believe that an eight-year review cycle strikes the right balance between ensuring that our constituencies are based on contemporary data and avoiding the disruption of having a review roughly every time an election occurs. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has a lot of experience, for supporting our view on this.
While we were drafting the Bill, we shared our broad plans for the Bill’s contents with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators. We also discussed a range of technical issues with them. During those meetings, we stated that the move from a five-year to an eight-year review cycle was government policy, but that we would be interested to hear from anyone who disagreed with this idea. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that there was general acceptance that the eight-year cycle was the right approach.
Parliamentary parties also raised understandable concerns about ensuring that the data used was as up to date as possible. This was particularly notable regarding the use of local government boundary data. I am surprised that nobody has brought that up today, because it was brought up in Committee. The Boundary Commissions take all that data into account when drawing up proposals for constituencies. This was the rationale behind Clause 6, which allows the Boundary Commissions to consider a more up-to-date picture of local government boundaries and allows them to factor that into their proposals where appropriate and relevant.
When we engaged on this measure—I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that it was an engagement—representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators were supportive of it. They thought that reviews only every 10 years would further undermine the aim of having updated constituencies. It would mean that the data used would be even more out of date, and that over time constituencies would become less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic changes. The parties also told us that they find it helpful, for campaigning purposes, for up-to-date local government wards to be used in constituencies.
With the longer review cycle of 10 years, the question of interim reviews, which has not been mentioned this afternoon, also arises. The representatives of political parties and the electoral administrators with whom we engaged were against the prospect of introducing interim reviews. Let me explain the chain of reasoning here. Prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years, interim reviews also took place to consider whether certain constituencies should be updated in between general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in certain areas. Were we to move to a 10-year review cycle, the rationale for interim reviews would remain strong. Our stakeholders told us clearly—and we agree—that we should not return to this approach. Interim reviews bring further disruption and confusion to constituencies, and uncertainty to sitting MPs. An eight-year cycle removes this problem. It treads the most balanced path between the need for stability and the need for contemporary data.
I will address some of the arguments made in support of the amendment when it was discussed in Grand Committee and which have been repeated this afternoon. Most of the noble Lords who are supporting this amendment—the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Blunkett, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris—argued that eight-year reviews would prevent MPs and constituents building a rapport. There is an assumption in that argument that I find problematic. I agree that it is important for representatives to know their constituents well. However, the realities of the electoral cycle surely mean that MPs must be able to build a rapport with constituents in less than five years. If 10 years is needed to establish good relations, that would seem to take for granted that one will be re-elected.
The argument was also made that a constituent might approve, or disapprove, of their MP’s behaviour, but be unable to express their opinion at the ballot box because a boundary review had now made them part of a different constituency. This is not an argument for reviews to take place every 10 years as opposed to every eight or five, or any other length of time, but an argument never to change constituencies. The Government believe that a far more unfair and frustrating situation to be in as a voter is knowing that the vote one is casting is not of equal value to those cast in a neighbouring constituency. I thank my noble friend Lady Pidding, who has a lot of knowledge of this, for her explanation of this issue.
It was argued that a 10-year cycle would enable reviews to take place at a predictable point before each election and thus ensure that the boundaries used for each poll were fully up to date. Some Lords acknowledged that their reasoning assumed that each Parliament would last for five years. However, we should test the strength of that assumption with care. Since 2010, the law has required Parliaments to last five years, notwithstanding certain exceptions, but in that time only one Parliament did last five years. Therefore, even when terms of Parliaments are fixed, a world in which boundary reviews are conducted at a particular point before a general election has proved impossible. Will it be more possible, however, when terms of Parliaments are not fixed? Neat schedules where boundary reviews and election dates align perfectly are attractive in theory, but this has not proved possible in practical terms and is unlikely to in the future.
I agree with my noble friends Lord Taylor and Lord Shrewsbury: we believe that the middle ground proposed in the Bill today is the right way forward. Eight years removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but it also ensures that boundaries remain up to date and fair by making sure that not too much time elapses between reviews. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate which has served to convince me that we were absolutely right to move this amendment and to pursue it. However, I would like to congratulate the Government Chief Whip, who has done a good job in mobilising the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and above all, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, his predecessor, to speak against this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, says he is surprised at my persistence. As a former Government Chief Whip, he is one of the people who should be least surprised by my persistence, not just on this but on other matters. He said he was surprised because I am normally a radical, and I am making what he sees as a reactionary move. Perhaps he is thinking that there is a Private Member’s Bill along the same lines in the House of Commons, supported by Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. I hope he will look at that; it might convince him to rethink his opposition to my proposal.
It is interesting to note that all the former MPs who have spoken in this debate support this amendment. They have experience on the ground of how these things work, and I am very encouraged by their support. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lipsey for finding out that when the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, who dealt with this issue in Committee, said that the Government’s proposal was “supported” by all those consulted, that was totally wrong. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, confirmed, they “accepted” it, and my noble friend Lord Lipsey pointed out the difference between those two things extremely well.
I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Blunkett for reminding me of one other important aspect of constituency representation that I had forgotten—the football teams in each Member’s constituency. I had a slight problem there, in that I had both Cumnock Juniors and Auchinleck Talbot in my constituency, and they are bitter rivals. I had to be neutral when they played each other, which was not an easy thing to do. However, I understood the respective supporters and their various interests.
I remind the Minister and the House that up to 2011, Boundary Commissions were instructed to hold reviews every 8 to 12 years. On that basis, 10 years seems to strike a sensible balance. I therefore intend to press my amendment and hope the House will support it as a sensible way forward.
Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 6. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 2: Orders in Council giving effect to reports
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out “As soon as reasonably practicable”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendments at page 2, line 26 and line 38 ensure that a draft Order in Council implementing the reports of the Boundary Commissions must be submitted to Her Majesty in Council no later than four months after they have all been laid before Parliament unless there are exceptional circumstances.
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 6 in my name, which is reinforced by the names of my noble friend the Minister and the three noble Lords who supported my original amendment in Committee.
Noble Lords will recall that, as Second Reading, I drew attention to the following words in Clause 2:
“As soon as reasonably practicable”.
This refers to the requirement for Ministers to lay the draft Orders in Council giving effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commission reports. Without repeating those arguments, I will say that this lack of precision could enable the Government to delay implementing those recommendations, thereby negating the objective of the Bill, which is to put this issue out of reach of political mischief.
We debated this further in Committee in relation to my amendment to require the Order to be laid within three months, in my case, and in a more exacting six weeks in a similar amendment from my noble friend Lord Cormack. The principle was supported by all those who spoke, and my noble friend the Minister made an emollient reply while reiterating the Government’s preference to leave the words as originally drafted. We had further discussions, as promised, in the interval between Committee and Report, the outcome of which are Amendments 6, 7 and 8.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for listening and then seeking and ensuring collective agreement to the amendments. They are a compromise and, like all compromises, each side ended up with slightly less that they would have liked but enough to be satisfied with. May the negotiations on the EU treaty have a similar outcome.
Amendments 6 and 7 make changes to Clause 2 and provide that
“a draft Order in Council implementing the reports of the Boundary Commissions must be submitted to Her Majesty in Council no later than four months after they have all been laid before Parliament unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
This is in addition to
“As soon as reasonably practicable”
after the reports have been laid before Parliament, so it is a sort of backstop.
My noble friend persuaded me that there should be some elasticity in my original three months, and this updated amendment provides for a four-month limit. The period of four months is deemed by the Cabinet Office to be sufficient to allow the necessary work in drafting the Order in Council bringing the recommendations of a boundary review into effect to be completed. It also provides a measure of flexibility to ensure that a meeting of the Privy Council is held during the specified period within which the Order must be submitted because, at certain times of the year, it does not meet regularly.
My noble friend also persuaded me that we needed an “exceptional circumstances” clause to deal with, for example, a global pandemic or the death or prolonged illness of the sovereign, when it would not be feasible to submit the Order. Without this clause, if those circumstances arose, it would not be possible, without further primary legislation, to lay the Order once the circumstances returned to normal.
Amendment 7 inserts new provisions into Section 4 of the 1984 Act to provide that
“If the draft of an Order in Council is not submitted … before the end of the four month period, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must lay one or more statements before Parliament … specifying the exceptional circumstances.”
This regular reporting requirement would prevent any delay being quietly swept under the carpet.
Amendment 8 inserts new subsection (7A) into Section 4 to define “sitting day”, which, surprisingly, means:
“a day on which both Houses of Parliament sit; and for that purpose a day is only a day on which a House sits if the House begins to sit on that day.”
I hope I have explained the background to the amendments as well as their key details. My noble friend the Minister, whose DNA is all over the amendments, will be able to answer any detailed questions that arise during the debate. I beg to move Amendment 6.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has withdrawn from this group, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem.
My Lords, I will be brief, taking full advantage of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, whom I wish to congratulate on bringing this matter to the attention of the Committee and, indeed, persevering with it to the extent that we now know that consensus has been achieved. In that respect, it would be only right and proper to thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for being constructive in these discussions. The noble Lord referred to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who certainly deserves a mention in dispatches as having been a very fervent supporter of the principle, albeit with a different figure in mind.
The mischief that this amendment seeks to address is the fact that, under the previous legislation, the Government had what one could reasonably describe as an unfettered discretion, which has now been substantially removed. The consequence is that the onus will rest with the Government to establish whether or not the exception that is contained can be fully supported. I venture to suggest that the Government—any Government—will find it a lot more difficult to defend exceptional circumstances that would have had reasonable practicability.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome this amendment and to add my name to it. I can also be brief because of the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. I strongly supported the three-month provision in Committee, and I welcome this amendment, because it keeps the Conservative Party’s hands absolutely clean and above board. I make no apologies for reminding the House, as I did in Committee, that there have been only two occasions when Boundary Commission reports were abandoned: one was the disgraceful episode involving Jim Callaghan’s Government, who scuppered the report; and the other was a rather grubby move by the Lib Dems in 2011 to scupper the Boundary Commission report then. That was done purely out of spite because they had lost the PR referendum.
Enough of going over old bones: this now means that this Conservative Government will deliver on the commitment to make sure that Boundary Commission reports are presented automatically within four months unless there are these exceptional circumstances. My noble friend Lord Young cited a couple; they do seem to be rather serious and very exceptional circumstances. I will be grateful if my noble friend the Minister has got any more examples, but they do seem to set a standard that it would be very exceptional circumstances indeed before a Boundary Commission report did not proceed. Therefore, I welcome this compromise and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I certainly support this amendment; without it the Bill would have been based on a false prescription
Repeatedly during the passage of the Bill, we heard from Ministers that through it, Boundary Commission proposals can be brought forward without political interference. The dreadful word “automaticity” entered our vocabulary —or was refreshed—repeatedly. Under the system prior to this amendment, which I hope will pass, there certainly was not automaticity; there was automaticity “up to a point, Lord Copper”. An automatic car goes up through the gears without any interference from the driver. In the case of this Bill, the Boundary Commission proposals could move forward seamlessly over the first few hurdles, but at the point where the Order in Council had to be presented, that involved the driver, who, in this case, of course, is the Minister. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young, deals with that problem to a considerable extent—not quite as far as far as I would have liked, but there we are.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young. I reread his Committee stage speech and it really was masterly. The Minister, in fairness, realised this and all but said, “game, set, match and tournament” when he was winding up. Of course, we still do not quite have automaticity, and the part of the amendment that maybe I should have put down an amendment to and do not feel too happy about is that the four-month requirement for the laying of the Order shall proceed
“unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
In his speech today, the noble Lord, Lord Young, was all too aware that the validity and strength of this amendment depends to a degree on what is meant precisely by “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. The Minister said that they would be things like the Covid crisis. No one would deny that that is an exceptional circumstance but of course, as far as I can remember in my political life, whenever there are exceptional circumstances of anything approaching that level, emergency legislation is immediately introduced. Among other things, as with the Covid legislation, this sets asides all sorts of aspects of normal political behaviour. It postpones local elections. You cannot get anything quite as interfering in the normal processes of democracy as postponing local elections.
I am quite certain that if exceptional circumstances of the sort the Minister is envisaging were ever to take place and emergency legislation were required, it would be easy to insert a provision stating that the four-month rule must be overruled. I really see no need to put in the Bill the phrase “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. It may have been one of the compromises that the noble Lord, Lord Young, acknowledged are necessary when parties are involved in discussions, but the Minister really does need to address this point when he winds up. Can he please list the exceptional circumstances the Government have in mind and are worried about? In each case, can he give me an example of when it would not be necessary to introduce emergency legislation? Any emergency legislation could easily deal with this issue—I do not think it is a problem, but it is addressed in the Bill—by allowing this “exceptional circumstances” exemption. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this, because I think it is a weakness in the amendment.
My Lords, not for the first time I find myself very much in sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who always contributes sage and sensible comments to debates on constitutional affairs.
I would like to begin by congratulating and thanking my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. By accident, my amendment went ahead of his in the debate in Committee, but he was the one who did all of the work and he made a most impressive speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said a few minutes ago; he has also been foremost in the negotiations following the debate. It would be churlish—because my noble friend Lord True was effectively replying to my amendment— not to thank him for what he said and what he has subsequently done.
I do not want to enter a discordant note, but I was tempted, as I said to my noble friend Lord Young the other day, to put down an amendment on the timing. I am very disappointed that it is four months. My noble friend Lord Young suggested “three months”, I suggested “six weeks”. I would happily have compromised, but I think four months is a shade long and I would like a brief explanation from my noble friend Lord True as to why he felt he had to go to that far.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talked about exceptional circumstances. Of course, I accept that there are certain very sad and exceptional circumstances—one of which my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham referred to—but “exceptional” really has to be exceptional. I remain, always, suspicious of the Executive, from whichever political party they come, and I am always, first and foremost, a Parliament man. We have at least got a better outcome that we had in the original Bill. I am grateful for that, and I very much echo the words of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who said there is great virtue in compromise. Of course there is, and may this indeed be a lesson to those who are currently conducting the most important negotiations in which our country has been involved for a very long time.
My Lords, before I comment on this amendment, can I pick up on what two noble Lords have said? When I spoke in Committee, I referred to automaticity and its derivation in this particular context. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, pointed out that the trade unions had got there first. I have mentioned to her since that, while we were in Committee, I was doing a search on the word “automaticity”, as was one of my noble friends, who managed to come up with an even earlier use of it. Shall I say, he was “cycling” through the web, which may indicate who found this wonderful piece of information. It is a study of the
“Effect of adenosine on sinoatrial and ventricular automaticity of the guinea pig”.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra talked about the years 1969 and 2011. Of course, he missed out 1983. I know that he, like the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, does not have a direct interest in 1983, but it affected some of us very strikingly and was the third occasion when this occurred.
I welcome this amendment, because in effect it achieves a declaration of full time. When this legislation originated, there were no timescales in it. I pointed out in Committee that the 1986 legislation introduced the first timescale, which was not that useful because it just said when the reviews would start, which was wonderful, but it did not say when they would finish, giving no timescales whatever. In the process of legislation we have now seen, each different process has a timescale of four months.
However, like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I would like to have seen a much briefer timescale, because the amount of work involved is overdone. Here I might correct myself and apologise, because in Grand Committee I said:
“As the noble Lord, Lord Young, has said, it is just 27 lines with vast quantities of pages thereafter. The argument made to me on previous occasions was”—
this is in relation to the need to prepare the orders—
“‘Well, the maps have to be prepared; we have to ensure that we have’”—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 180-81.]
got them complete. I have done some research on these orders since and, in fact, there are no maps, so I apologise for misleading the Committee. I thought you would need laptops, websites, et cetera; in fact, all you need for the orders is a photocopier, because you lift it straight from the reports of the Boundary Commissions, which give the details of the wards.
On the question of returning officers, all you need is a list of them. I can stand here now and say that there will be two constituencies in Richmond borough and therefore who the returning officer will be. Some 90% of all returning officers can be identified now. It is almost the reverse of the game “Pointless”, where in one round they give you a few letters and you have to fill in the blanks. In this process, in relation to returning officers, it is only in those constituencies which cross borough boundaries where you have to wait until the final decision. As I say, I know how many there will be in Richmond, Bristol, Manchester or wherever, give or take one or two constituencies.
There is justification for this and I hope, as my noble friend Lord True has identified, that that is the maximum necessary period. It should be possible to do it in a shorter period. As I think a number of Members know, I had discussions with him because, as well as this issue about the end of the process, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, identified on Second Reading the question of what happens if there is a general election. I tried to find the phraseology for an amendment which would be operable if all the reports had been received. Unfortunately, due to time pressures and other events, I was unable to find a satisfactory amendment, or else I would have done so, because this is another issue that has not been touched on at any point and could apply—and did actually apply in 1983, in those very circumstances.
Therefore, I regret not being able to put down an amendment. I accept and welcome this amendment, but I hope there will be recognition that the vast majority of these processes are not lengthy, complicated and unnecessary post-drafting processes. The vast majority can be undertaken at a much earlier stage.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has brought some very important, practical questions to your Lordships’ House this afternoon. I hope the Minister will be able to reply to them. The noble Lord speaks with a great deal of experience and expertise on these issues. It is significant that he has done the research to spot some potential difficulties.
In the meantime, I am full of admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. We have known each other for many years and I have a huge amount of respect for his experience of the way in which ministries, Whitehall generally and the House of Commons and House of Lords operate. He has almost unique experience. It is interesting that so many distinguished former MPs and Ministers have contributed to the development of this amendment at all stages, some of whom spoke again this afternoon. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Young, who must be one of the best experts to tell us about what happens behind the scenes, is wholly confident that the amendments he is now promoting, as he said, put these matters out of reach of political mischief. If they are totally out of reach of political mischief, we will be all be relieved; if he is confident of that, I take his word as very persuasive.
However, I take seriously the issues originally raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem and then referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Cormack—quite a trio. They were asking what exactly the exceptional circumstances were that would permit any return to a more lackadaisical approach to the timing of the tabling of these proposals from the Boundary Commissions. If the Boundary Commissions are, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, just said, absolutely specific and there is no room for manoeuvre for Ministers or the House of Commons, surely it should be a much smoother operation than is implied here, even in exceptional circumstances. I hope the Minister will explain in his response exactly what he has in mind.
We should pay tribute to the Minister. It is always a mark of a good Minister and a listening Government when there is a move between Committee and Report. There has been a move; the Government have accepted a change here and we should all welcome that. It is a sign of a Government who are prepared to think again, and that must be healthy.
It also indicates that this Bill is being improved in your Lordships’ House. I know there were some Conservative Members who thought it was rather inappropriate for the House of Lords to make any changes to a Bill that dealt specifically with elections to the other place. As a former Member of Parliament, I take exactly the opposite view; after all, there is a degree of self-interest at the other end of the corridor which we hope at this end we are largely able to avoid. We have a greater degree of impartiality in that respect.
As a result of two Divisions and likely support for this amendment, we now have some changes that will undoubtedly have to be considered in the other place. It is very healthy that MPs be asked to think again about these issues. As was mentioned in a previous debate, there is already substantial Conservative Back-Bench rethinking on the important issues of the 7.5% quota tolerance in preference to 5% and on the 10-year review period. I therefore hope that the fact that there is now government support for a government change to their Bill will be taken as an indication that our role in this House is to make sure that this Bill is improved before it goes back to the other place.
My Lords, we do not need to detain the House on an amendment where everything has been said and has been said by everyone. I simply applaud the Government, as we have just heard, for seeing sense on this amendment, which answers one of the two fundamental issues which concerned us about moving from a final parliamentary sign-off towards automaticity—that is, the ability of the Executive to delay the implementation of the Boundary Commissions’ plans, despite having handed effective authority to the commissions to put those plans into law. Without this amendment, no one, neither the commissioners nor Parliament, could have forced the Government’s hand had they chosen to delay.
I retain one concern, which is that retained by the guinea pig—not the guinea pig, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who obviously gets his feeds on automaticity even faster than I can. The issue he raised about what might happen should the Government decide to call an election during that four-month period should continue to concern us.
I had assumed that “exceptional circumstances” meant that, but that in itself is quite worrying. As my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have said, we need more explanation about what exceptional circumstances are—putting aside Covid because, as my noble friend said, that would be dealt with in another way. Given that the Government are committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which puts the decision back into No. 10, there must remain a worry that a difficult boundary review could somehow be circumvented. The Minister needs to allay these fears which, as he has heard, are from across the House.
The issue of the time cap introduced by this amendment was a major concern to us. It was not the major one for the Constitution Committee—we will come on to that shortly in Amendment 11, about moving to automaticity—but it was certainly one of our two major concerns. The fact that the Government have accepted and even put their name to the amendment means that it would be churlish for me not to say that we support it too.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. The House will not object if I say first that I thank and, indeed, congratulate my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. Whenever I hear him speak in your Lordships’ House, I realise how much I have to learn in responding to your Lordships at this Dispatch Box. He has done a service to this House and to the electoral system, along with others who have raised this point. He was also skilful enough to get into a debate about Orders in Council and aperçu on the EU negotiations, which I do not think was strictly germane—my noble friend Lord Cormack followed on that—but I also agree with his sentiments there and hope very much that they will be translated into the languages of all 27 nations of the European Union.
The Government were happy to accept this amendment. The case was clear. The Government’s intention is to put beyond reach the idea that there might be unconscionable delay in laying these orders. It is of the utmost importance to us that it should not be felt by anyone that Parliament or the Government should have the opportunity to interfere politically in that way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to discuss with my noble friend Lord Young, other Members of the House and, indeed, the noble Baroness opposite the points raised. The noble Baroness has been very gracious and I greatly appreciate the courtesy with which she withdrew the first amendment and responded here. We may not be in agreement for all of today, but I appreciate that response.
I think there is widespread agreement and welcome for this. Therefore, I do not need to detain the House at great length. One or two points were raised about a Government calling a general election. Obviously, at the moment the rules around a general election are controlled by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. So long as that obtains, we are legislating in that light. As far as the future is concerned, no doubt points have been put on the table, privately and publicly, which may be considered. There would always be a difficulty if there was suspicion in legislating on the matter. I am here to talk about future legislation, but the example of 1983 shows how difficult it would be to prevent a general election in the period before orders had been laid. That is something that people would have to wrestle with. The Government have no intention of seeking a general election. No Government should seek a general election to frustrate the presentation of these orders to a meeting of the Privy Council. The whole political world would deprecate that action and any Government that sought to do it would not be rewarded by the electorate.
Two other major points were raised. First, why is the time limit so long and why is it four months? My noble friend Lord Cormack suggested six weeks. The original amendment was three months. We believe that there has to be a prudential element in the legislation. There are two elements here. The first is the period of four months. My noble friend Lord Hayward said that things could be done much quicker: you could just photocopy something. I say, with respect, that the legislation is not prepared by photocopying other documents. Even if that were the case, we cannot legislate for the shortest possible time if we are imposing a time requirement. We have to go for a prudential time and that includes, for example, the need to accommodate the potential irregularity of Privy Council meetings, as well as the preparation time. In discussion and reflection and with the wish to place a time limit in the Bill, which the Government agree is the right thing to do this matter having been raised—it was not something that occurred to me before it was raised in Grand Committee—we believe it better to have the prudential element. A four-month period would surely accommodate anything that might arise in normal circumstances. Secondly, there should be a provision for exceptional circumstances. I will come on to this shortly.
I remind the House that there is an implied misunderstanding of how my noble friend’s amendment will operate. The primary legal obligation that remains in this amendment is to submit an order as soon as is reasonably practicable after the four reports are laid. This is certainly not an invitation from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else for anybody to be lackadaisical—to pick up a word used. The four-month period is a deadline to help ensure there is not deliberate, unreasonable delay. The Government would be in breach of a legal obligation if they submitted the order only at the end of four months when it was reasonably practicable to have done it sooner. It is important to put that point on the record. The primary expectation of this Government, all future Governments and this Parliament in passing this legislation is that all those involved should present the material as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly not later than four months.
I believe I said something about “exceptional circumstances” at an earlier stage. In case I did not, I will say it now. If we did not have an exceptional circumstance element in the provision, were it not possible for whatever reason—and my noble friend has given one—to deliver this in the four months then it would need full-scale primary legislation to overcome the failure to meet the four-month time limit. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, invited me to give a full list of the exceptional circumstances envisaged with explanations for each one. The Government do not envisage exceptional circumstances being the norm. I point out that not all circumstances are foreseeable. The noble Lord said that it goes off like an automatic car—you start it and it moves up through the gears. My wife would rather like that her automatic car would move up through the gears at the moment. Not every contingency in life is foreseeable. Some very exceptional things, such as a war—God forbid—could arise.
I am not going to follow that invitation, not because I do not wish to help the House, or assist Parliament further; it is simply that legally I am advised that giving a whole series of examples would risk people in the future erring on the long side as well as the short one. I repeat that our expectation is that this Government and this Parliament—and, I hope future Parliaments—will ensure that they are presented as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly within four months. The exceptional circumstance would arise only in the rarest and most undesirable cases. In those cases, the amendment provides an extra requirement that Ministers would have to come repeatedly to the Dispatch Box, in both Houses, to explain their actions in being dilatory. Were the circumstances not exceptional, and the matter concerned not grave, that would be a humiliating and devastating admission of dereliction of duty. I am sorry that I cannot go further on that, but I hope that the House will accept my assurance on this Government’s intention and my hope that future Governments would operate in the same way.
To conclude, I hope that, in backing the amendment, the Government helped to bring more certainty and confidence to your Lordships’ House, and to electors, that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions will be implemented without political interference or unnecessary or undue delay, as soon as practicable. I hope that noble Lords will, therefore, be able to support the amendment. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in particular my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. I urge noble Lords to support the amendment that he has put before the House.
I have received a request from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to ask a short question for elucidation.
My Lords, this is not a question as such. I want to commend my noble friend Lord Hayward for mentioning the 1983 Boundary Commission review, which I intended to mention but clean forgot. That was implemented by the late, great Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith. He did it, even though it added large swathes of Lib Dem-held wards to his own constituency. In the by-election which followed his elevation to this place, I almost lost the seat because of that. As usual, Willie did the right thing. The Government are doing the right thing now and I commend them.
Does the Minister wish to respond?
My Lords, I can be brief. I join the Minister in thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I suspect it is one of the more consensual debates that the House will have on the Bill. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about my role in the amendment. That approbation needs to be shared with the Minister.
Two issues arose in the debate: four months rather than three, and exceptional circumstances. It would be impossible for me to improve on the excellent explanations on both issues given by my noble friend in his reply to this debate so, without further ado, I beg to move.
Amendment 6 agreed.
Amendments 7 and 8
7: Clause 2, page 2, line 26, at end insert—
“(1A) The draft of an Order in Council must be submitted under subsection (1)—(a) as soon as reasonably practicable after all four reports have been laid before Parliament as mentioned in that subsection, and(b) in any case, no later than the end of the four month period unless there are exceptional circumstances. (1B) “The four month period” means the period of four months beginning with the first date on which all four reports have been laid before Parliament as mentioned in subsection (1).(1C) If the draft of an Order in Council is not submitted under subsection (1) before the end of the four month period, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must lay one or more statements before Parliament in accordance with subsection (1D) specifying the exceptional circumstances.(1D) A statement must be laid—(a) before the end of the period of 10 sitting days beginning with the first sitting day after the end of the four month period, and(b) before the end of each subsequent period of 20 sitting days beginning with the first sitting day after the previous statement was so laid, until the draft of an Order in Council is submitted under subsection (1).”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment at page 2, line 20.
8: Clause 2, page 2, line 38, at end insert—
“(4) After subsection (7) insert—“(7A) In this section, “sitting day” means a day on which both Houses of Parliament sit; and for that purpose a day is only a day on which a House sits if the House begins to sit on that day.””Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment at page 2, line 20.
Amendments 7 and 8 agreed.
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 3: Modifications of recommendations in reports
Amendment 10 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 11. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Any noble Lord wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
11: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“The Boundary Commissions: constitution
(1) Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act (the Boundary Commissions) is amended as follows.(2) At the end of paragraph 2 insert “in accordance with paragraph 3A below”.(3) In paragraph 3(a), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(4) In paragraph 3(c), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(5) After paragraph 3 insert—“3A The two members of each Commission appointed by the Secretary of State shall each be appointed in accordance with the following process— (a) a selection panel shall be convened by the Secretary of State to select the members of the Commission, which shall comprise—(i) the deputy chairman of the Commission, and(ii) two persons appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons;(b) the selection panel shall determine the selection process to be applied and apply that process;(c) the selection panel shall select only one person for recommendation for each appointment as a member of the Commission;(d) the selection panel shall submit to the Secretary of State a report stating who has been selected and any other information required by the Secretary of State;(e) the Secretary of State shall on receipt of the report do one of the following—(i) accept the selection,(ii) reject the selection, or(iii) require the panel to reconsider the selection;(f) the power of the Secretary of State to require the selection panel to reconsider a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, there is not enough evidence that the person selected is suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(g) the power of the Secretary of State to reject a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, the person selected is not suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(h) the Secretary of State shall give the selection panel reasons in writing for requiring the reconsideration of, or rejecting, any selection.”(6) In paragraph 4, at end insert “, but the term for which each member (other than the chairman) is appointed shall be a non-renewable term.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that the appointment of members of the Boundary Commissions is made and is seen to be made independently and without the influence or appearance of influence of the Executive, to remove the possibility of political interference in the process of setting the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies.
My Lords, Amendment 11 seeks to put in place matters essential to dealing with the important consequences of automaticity. As the decision of the Boundary Commission will become final, and there will be no parliamentary veto, it is essential that the commission is, and is seen to be, entirely independent and so is its appointment processes. Although I have taken up the kind invitation of the Minister to discuss this issue with him, and have done so very cordially on two occasions, the Government have made it clear that they consider that no change is necessary to the current position. I do not believe that this accords with constitutional principle, hence I will seek to take the opinion of the House on the amendment.
In many senses, the new role of the Boundary Commission will become very much nearer to that of a judicial tribunal: sitting in a panel of three, gathering and hearing the evidence and coming to a decision. There will be no appeal from that decision and the other two branches of the state must accept it, just as they accept decisions and judgments of judges. The amendment therefore seeks to ensure that, in a manner akin to the appointment of judges, the appointment of the boundary commissioners is wholly independent and that that independence is guaranteed during their period of office. It seeks to do so in three ways, and I will deal with each in turn.
The first of these is the appointment of the deputy chairman. Under the 1986 Act, the deputy chairman must be a High Court judge. In Scotland and in Northern Ireland, that judge is appointed by the head of the judiciary in those jurisdictions—the Lord President and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, for historic reasons, the appointment is made by the Lord Chancellor. That was all very well with the old-style Lord Chancellor in 1986 when the Act was passed. At that time, he was head of the judiciary of England and Wales. There was, therefore, nothing anomalous in him making that appointment, like he appointed all judges. However, that all changed in 2005 with the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor ceased to be a judge and head of the judiciary. He became, in essence, a political Minister. All allocation of judicial responsibilities passed to the Lord Chief Justice and appointments were made independently by the Judicial Appointments Commission. For some reason—no doubt oversight—the position was not changed. Although the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, the time has come when it should now be made clear that the decision is that of the Lord Chief Justice. We should bring this provision into line with constitutional principle. The appointment of a judge who chairs a tribunal which makes the final determination of a series of sensitive issues should be in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, just as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is no reason for England and Wales to be treated differently.
As I understand it, the objection is not grounded in constitutional principle but on the view that, as all judges of the High Court go through a rigorous selection process, they must all be qualified and therefore appointable. It is, therefore, open to a political Minister to select one of them. It could not possibly be disputed that it would be the antithesis of justice if a political Minister could select a judge to try a case, let alone one where there was a party-political consideration. In principle, the position of the Boundary Commission is no different, but there is one further consideration. There is a danger to the independence of the judiciary. A decision of the Boundary Commission is always open to attack on grounds that the chair, although a judge, had been selected by a political Minister because he had shown himself sympathetic to the Government, or had some distant connection with them. We all know how the media can find those connections. We should do all we can to avoid the risk of such an attack, because attacks are so damaging to the rule of law.
I turn to the second part of the amendment on the appointment of the other two commissioners. The Act specifies that the other two members of the Boundary Commission are to be appointed by the Secretary of State, but says nothing about the manner of appointment. As I understand it—I pay tribute to Minister’s officials for their helpful assistance on this—the other two members are appointed under a process set out in the Government’s Code on Public Appointments, promulgated under the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019.
That process, as for any other public appointment, gives the Minister extensive powers: as your Lordships will know, the Minister can appoint the panel that selects the commissioners; he must be consulted at every stage; he can reject names; he can ask for the competition to be rerun; and he can even make an appointment of his own choice, without a competition, or appoint someone whom the selection panel does not think appointable, though he has to make disclosures in respect of that. Furthermore, the code does not bar the candidacy of a person who has had significant political activity, though this must be disclosed and will be investigated by the appointment panel. If those conflicts can be managed, it will not form a bar. I respectfully ask the House to consider that such a method of appointment is no longer appropriate for the new automaticity process.
Amendment 11 seeks to put the appointment on a clear statutory basis. The selection panel must contain a deputy chairman—current practice envisages this, but it should be made statutory—and the other two people who are to form the appointment panel should be appointed independently by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The panel should determine the process and should then select one name for each post. The Minister has a role: he can ask for reconsideration and even reject the name, providing he gives reasons, of course.
The process that the amendment sets out is modelled on the process for the appointment of judges, for, as I said at the outset, the Boundary Commission will be akin to a judicial tribunal. As I understand it, the argument against this part of the amendment is that the present system is entirely adequate, but I do not think that this takes into account the new and distinct position that requires the commission’s independence to be put beyond doubt. Furthermore, it is argued that having a different process for the appointment of the two commissioners might damage confidence in the public appointments system. The answer to that can be put briefly: the fact that judges are appointed by a special process does not call into question the public appointments system. It is a process designed for an office where the officeholder makes decisions to which there is no appeal, and which the other two branches of Government must accept. This process is designed to follow that. In reality, the Boundary Commission is a tribunal that is no different to a judicial tribunal. The process for appointing judges has worked well; it has not affected confidence in the public appointments system, and there is no reason think that the proposed amendment would affect confidence in public appointments in any other way.
I turn to the third part of the amendment on the term for which the appointments are to be made. The amendment does not specify the length of the term and, in light of the proceedings earlier in this debate, I am glad that it does not. All the 1986 Act does is to provide that the two members hold their appointments under the terms and conditions determined by the Secretary of State. My amendment seeks to provide that the appointment be for a non-renewable term. There are two reasons for this, which can be explained briefly. First, as has been pointed out by Professors Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit of University College London, a vital safeguard for independence is that the appointment is for a fixed, non-renewable term. Like judges, commissioners must have security of tenure for the whole period necessary for them to carry out their functions. They cannot be put at risk of being subjected to pressure or undue influence by the prospect of not being reappointed or by being offered reappointment. As they have pointed out, there are numerous posts that are now made on non-renewable fixed terms: the Civil Service Commission, the Commission for Public Appointments, HOLAC and many others.
Amendment 11 simply seeks to import this principle into the terms of the appointment of the two members of the Boundary Commission. The only objection seems to be that having a renewable term will make it easier to attract good candidates and then review their performance to ensure they are doing their job properly. In my view, the second reason is plainly contrary to principle, and the first is untenable, given the new cycle of the work of the Boundary Commission. Let me deal with that point: the move to an eight-year or 10-year cycle for the Boundary Commission—I do not wish to commit myself to either at this stage, but I take it now to be 10—means that the commission will have a period of intense activity for two to three years every 10 years. Thus, appointing a person to the office for a single term, probably for eight or 10 years, will better fit into the new cycle, rather than the shorter-term appointment renewable for a further term. The longer term will not discourage the appointment as any candidate will know of the cycle and the period in which there will be intense activity. When they are not active, they will have time to obtain the necessary skills and experience. Each of these three ways set out in the amendment will ensure that the Boundary Commission, in its new role, is fully independent and seen to be so. I beg to move.
I support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas; I do so because the impartiality and independence of the Boundary Commission assumes greater importance if automaticity of the implementation of the commission’s findings is accepted under this Bill. I readily accept that the Government understand this, as the Minister pointed out so clearly in Committee. If that is so, it surely makes sense to consider ways to strengthen the impartiality and independence of the commission to meet these new circumstances. The three proposals put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in this amendment to achieve this are simple and straightforward and he explained them comprehensively in moving the amendment.
The appointment of the deputy chairman by the head of the judiciary, rather than a political Minister, is a reversion to the practice before 2005, when the nature of the Lord Chancellor’s role changed. It brings England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into line. It would significantly reduce the scope for accusations of political interference, whether real or perceived, in the future.
Changing the appointments process to one more akin to judicial appointments follows the same logic. It is not a criticism of the public appointments system but a recognition that appointing members of the Boundary Commissions must be seen to be in a special and quasi-judicial category. They are crucial arbiters of the integrity of our electoral system. The introduction of non-renewable terms of appointment merely brings these appointments to the Boundary Commissions into line with other constitutional and political watchdogs and regulators.
As has been said, this is about reality and, above all, perception. We are talking about small changes aimed at strengthening the real and perceived impartiality of those who define the framework of our electoral system. We are talking about small changes, but they are changes that might increase trust in elections, politics and the way we are governed. I strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, I was unable to take part in the Second Reading or the Committee stage of the Bill, but I have read Hansard in full. The importance of the issue raised by this amendment is such that I had to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in this debate. What struck me was that the Minister’s reply in Committee was a stout defence of the status quo as regards the appointment of commissioners. It did not recognise the fundamental change to our democracy made by this Bill. The exclusion of any parliamentary procedure to approve the recommendations of the commissioners is presumably designed to prevent any suggestion of gerrymandering. The political party in power, with a sufficient majority, could control the alteration of constituency boundaries. I welcome, therefore, the change.
The fact, however, that the final shape of the boundaries is determined by the commissioners’ recommendations in their report, without any parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, means that they must be—and must be seen to be—completely impartial. I have attended Boundary Commission hearings where I have endeavoured to put forward the case most favourable to my party—and representatives of other parties present did precisely the same. The commissioners, who are not as familiar with the political geography of a constituency as are the party hacks pleading their cases before them, must consider the evidence of population changes and the submissions made to them. In so doing they are obviously acting in a judicial capacity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has made clear.
The boundary change that affected me most personally was in 1983, when I was the candidate in Wrexham and the sitting Labour Member of Parliament, Tom Ellis, joined the SDP. Naturally I stood down in his favour at the next election, and as it approached I thought I was out of the contest. However, the boundary commissioners stepped in and created a new constituency called Clwyd, South-West. Since Tom was born and bred in Rhosllanerchrugog, part of the new constituency, he moved there, and I, born and bred in Wrexham, fought Wrexham. Needless to say, we both lost. In Tom’s constituency, the previous Labour vote was split: 13,000 went to the SDP and Labour’s candidate, Denis Carter—the much-respected Chief Whip in the Lords in 1997—came third, with 11,000. The Tories won with 14,000. A later Conservative candidate for that constituency was an unlikely old Etonian by the name of Boris Johnson. He lost.
I hope that I may be forgiven for this anecdote: I mention it to illustrate how crucial the decisions of the Boundary Commission can be in the lives and careers of individuals and the life of political parties. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has put forward a proposal that ensures the impartiality of the Boundary Commissions. In Committee, the Minister did not explain why there should be a distinction between England and Wales on the one hand, and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other, in making appointments. Why should a political figure with his own constituency to nurse, the Lord Chancellor, appoint the commissioners in England and Wales? The only reason given by the Minister was that it has always been so. However, he knows that the nature of the office has fundamentally changed, and by this Bill so too is the role of the commissioners: they have the final say. That is a clear and obvious distinction, and is very different from the normal run of public appointments.
Secondly, the amendment calls for an independent panel to consider the applications and to put forward to the Secretary of State not a choice but a single name, which may be rejected, but only on the single ground that the candidate is unsuitable. Furthermore, if the candidate is rejected, the Secretary of State must give his reasons, and such reasons could, if necessary, be scrutinised by way of judicial review, which would test the legality and rationality of the decision. That is another safeguard against political bias.
Finally, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, proposes that the appointment should be for a single non-renewable term. That is entirely appropriate, given that the members of the panel have to make a quasi-judicial decision. That is why we give tenure, as other noble Lords have said, to our judges. The decision must be seen to be uninfluenced by the fear that it will upset the political interests of the ruling party, or by the hope of re-appointment. I wholly support this amendment.
My Lords, first I comment on the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, to “party hacks”. I shall disregard that description, given that I spent so many hours, days and weeks at so many inquiries, initially, and then hearings, and I take his comment in the spirit in which I hope it was intended.
This amendment is really divided, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, identified, into three sections—and it is important that we treat them as such. First, there is the historical accident, as I think it probably was, in 2005, when the circumstances changed. The amendment attempts to bring back the position in England and Wales to where it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland, of total impartiality.
The noble and learned Lord touched on the point that it has to be seen to be independent. Today I am wearing the rugby tie of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Many noble Lords will know that I am a fervent rugby supporter and participant; in many ways it is probably more important to me than my membership of this place. The near-neighbour of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Nigel Owens, is not allowed to referee at the Millennium Stadium except at a club match, because he might be accused of bias, if Wales were playing another country. Nobody believes that Nigel Owens would be biased, but there is that risk. Equally, Wayne Barnes, who was voted last year’s Referee of the Year, was not allowed to referee the World Cup Final, for exactly the same reason: England was in the final.
This amendment addresses an exactly parallel situation. Two years ago I went to Zimbabwe to monitor the elections. We all know that elections, if they are fixed, are fixed not on voting day but by the processes beforehand. Sad though I am, I looked at the size of the constituencies in Zimbabwe. Funnily enough, they had not been reformed for years. The most anti-Government constituencies were in Harare and Bulawayo, and they were the largest constituencies. If we Brits had said to the Zimbabweans, “You should deal with the question of boundary redistribution”, the automatic response from the Zimbabwean Government—what I would have said as a member of that Government—would have been, “Well, you have a political Minister making the appointments to your own commission”. That is why it is important that we bring the position back into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, on the second part of his amendment. I have indicated that to him. He refers to appointments by the Speaker. I discussed this with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and he said that I was over-reacting to the previous Speaker. Lindsay Hoyle has made untold improvements in that position, and we are all very pleased that he has taken us back to a traditional Speakership. Long may he continue in those efforts. I would not, however, want to put appointments in the hands of the Speaker, because of what I have seen could happen in recent years.
The third part of the amendment deals with one-off appointments. I had a view for several years—this was touched on in Grand Committee—that when you appoint somebody to a Boundary Commission they sit there for years doing virtually nothing, and then they are under extreme pressure for a period of time. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their local government boundary reviews and parliamentary boundary reviews handled by one body. Surely it would be better to do the same in England and Wales, so that these organisations would not lose the expertise acquired in handling one set of boundary reviews—it would be cumulative, and they would take it to the next review.
I have made three different comments in relation to the three different parts of the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. They tackle the problem in very different ways, but I would have hoped that the Government could have accepted, in particular, the impartiality in the first part of the amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, has withdrawn from the debate on this group, so I call the next speaker, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and I encourage him to press his amendment to a vote. I do not wish to repeat the observations I made in Committee in support of the noble and learned Lord, save to say that, first, as he has outlined, the office of Lord Chancellor is much more political now that it is held in the Commons. Instead of a quasi-judicial figure who sat as a judge in the Supreme Court and usually had no further political aspirations, we now have a highly political and mobile politician as Lord Chancellor in the Commons; these are not personal remarks.
As one who campaigned for the Ministry of Justice to be headed by a Commons Minister, and welcomed that, because it is a spending department, I have no complaint. But a political Minister should not have his hands on the machinery of elections—or, indeed, anywhere near it. The office dealing with elections should be manifestly independent.
There is one point that I wish to repeat: it is a parallel and wider argument. I noted the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, a few moments ago, and in Committee I gave my experience as Secretary of State for Wales in appointing the chairman of the Welsh Local Government Boundary Commission. I certainly was a political Minister, and headed my party’s campaign in Wales for six years in my tenure as Secretary of State.
Local government boundaries are one of the building bricks of parliamentary constituency boundaries. On the previous amendment, the Minister confirmed that. I once lost the eastern part of my constituency because of a new county council boundary, and I had to be compensated by the addition of a number of wards from the same county council area to the rest of my constituency. My submission, therefore, is that not only should a judicial figure appoint the Boundary Commission, but the Government should also consider doing likewise for the Local Government Boundary Commission.
Since the power of appointment might already have gone over to the Government of Wales, it would too late to legislate for Wales. But the Government could certainly legislate for England. Indeed, I believe that they should do so. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s views. Local government boundaries are inextricably linked to parliamentary boundaries, and decisions should be politically distanced on both of them.
My Lords, when the Constitution Committee considered the Bill, we took the view that the removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations was constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome. But we warned that automatic implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations would protect against undue political influence only if the commission itself is genuinely independent. This makes the selection and appointment of impartial boundary commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has, at this stage of the Bill, moved an amendment that incorporates both his own original and entirely appropriate insistence that the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor, should make the appointments, and some of the other suggestions that the Constitution Committee referred to, which have been mentioned, in particular, by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. The Minister should listen carefully to the noble Lord, who knows what he is talking about when it comes to boundary hearings. His insistence that we need to safeguard independence is entirely justified, and I hope that his disagreement with other aspects of the amendment will not deter him from continuing to support the efforts of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, to achieve the kind of independence that the noble Lord has recognised is important.
No assurances the Minister can give could possibly satisfy us that we have guarded against the danger that lurks here. That is because we are talking about any future Government, of whatever political party, who have a majority in the House of Commons, and thus the prospect of using that majority to disrupt the electoral process, or pervert it to their advantage, in ways that will always be defended on the most respectable grounds, beneath which, however, will lie political motives —motives of party advantage and protection.
What is extremely likely to happen is that, at some time in the future, a Government, recognising that they can no longer block Boundary Commission recommendations or delay them until after the next election, will say, “We’d better make sure we don’t get unwelcome recommendations that are disadvantageous to us, and which we might think are wrong in principle. We must stop that from happening by appointing to the Boundary Commission people who have got the political message—people who understand the significance of ensuring that our views remain predominant in any future Parliament.” These things happen; they are part of the reality of political life, and constitutional provisions are there to protect us from their malign influence.
Along with that, of course, goes perceived impartiality, to which the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred. We are in an era when the principle of getting one’s revenge in first seems to apply in the United States. President Trump says, “If I win the election, it’s fine, but if I lose, it’s because the election has been rigged.” So he has already started his attack on the postal ballot provisions in American election procedure. That is an illustration of the fact that the impartiality of the electoral process is easily traduced or complained about, and if there are aspects of it that, on sound authority, can be shown to be at least weak in protecting impartiality, they will be criticised and exploited, and will be used as arguments to question the validity of the democratic process, at least in some individual seats, if not in the election as a whole.
This is an important matter, and I am disappointed, because I thought the Minister had realised that something could be done about it. There is still time for a Third Reading amendment that would at least pick out some of the proposals of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. To fail to act on that is to compromise an otherwise sensible and constitutionally appropriate change, by leaving this matter open to political pressures of a kind that cast doubt on the validity of elections.
My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has argued, the amendment reflects a constitutional principle. In an effective democracy, in which the power of the Executive is limited both by the rule of law and by the scrutiny of Parliament, regulatory authorities independent of undue executive influence play a vital role. Separation of powers between legislature, courts and Executive is central to constitutional democracy —and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, they must be seen to be separate.
We are all painfully aware of the baleful impact of gerrymandering in American politics. The institution of independent Boundary Commissions is there to ensure that political representation in the United Kingdom does not follow any distance down that path. The change in the position of the Lord Chancellor that took place in 2005 makes it entirely appropriate, therefore, that the Lord Chief Justice should now inherit that role in England.
Our current Government have recently demonstrated worrying tendencies towards authoritarian populism. Their attacks on the Supreme Court and on judicial review have uncomfortable echoes of the approaches of the Polish and Hungarian Governments. The Electoral Commission is now under sustained attack, including from a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, for attempting to enforce the rules on campaign spending and political advertising. Calls from some Conservatives for its abolition suggest that they reject regulation of electoral campaigning as such.
In addition, we have seen some recent calls in the Conservative press to throw over the idea that regulatory bodies should be independent of government. The argument is made that future appointments should come from people sympathetic to the Government’s approach, as against the “liberal elite”, who are thought to dominate the BBC, Ofcom and many other regulatory bodies.
I have been sorry on several occasions to hear the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, using the language of right-wing populism to claim that this Government represent “the people” against the elite. His political life has been rooted in Richmond—a place that contains, as he will know well, an unusually high proportion of the liberal elite. I hope that he does not call them “enemies of the people” or he must face difficulties with many of his neighbours.
This amendment is therefore not only valuable in its own right but a precedent in maintaining the autonomy of regulatory bodies, free from executive influence and control. For both those reasons, I hope that the House will give it its full support.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, our Constitution Committee accepted the move from parliamentary sign- off to automaticity, but it stressed that this change would
“only protect against undue political influence”
if the Boundary Commissions were “genuinely independent”. As it said:
“This makes the selection and appointment of impartial Boundary Commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.”
As we have heard, it is hard to see how an appointment by an elected politician—a member of the Cabinet—can look independent, especially, I am sad to say, when this Government seek to appoint their own to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS Test and Trace or other major bodies. Sadly, because we are all here now, we have not been able to watch Peter Riddell appear before the relevant committee in the House of Commons this afternoon, but I gather that he has interesting things to say about the expansion of appointments beyond the normal lines of restriction. As people have said, what looks bad is bad, even if it is not actually the case. However, as a good Welsh girl, I think that we should always have the Welsh to judge our rugby matches, as we would then win every single match.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon said, when the present system was set up, the appointments were overseen by the Lord Chancellor, who at that stage was a Member of your Lordships’ House and the head of the judiciary. The impartiality was guaranteed and outwith the purview of an elected politician.
Given that the recommendations of a boundary commission could affect even the seats of the Secretary of State’s own party, then no matter how much, like Brutus, they were an “honourable man”, or even an honourable woman, it is really hard to see how the appearance of disinterest could be demonstrated. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said, it is perceived impartiality, and that is vital. The solution in this amendment is surely right, in that it would demonstrate that, as the commissions now effectively make law, with no parliamentary role, their decisions were patently free from any political taint. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, now that their decisions cannot be appealed, they effectively make law with the same force as any tribunal.
The second proposal—for non-renewable terms—is equally important to ensure that there is no temptation to curry favour with the reappointing Minister, nor, again, even an appearance of that. Our Constitution Committee, without endorsing the proposal, noted that the Commons committee had discussed ideas to strengthen independence, such as by single, non-renewable terms. However, even more important than any one thing, our Constitution Committee urged us to consider
“what safeguards are required to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and their recommendations.”
Sadly—and, I think, inexplicably—the Government have refused to produce any change in response to that call. Fortunately, however, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has done so, and we are happy to support that.
My Lords, there is a short period in the life of a Minister between being thanked by your Lordships for a response and disappointing your Lordships in a response, so I have enjoyed the last 10 minutes or so.
I have also enjoyed the last 40 minutes of this debate, which of course touches on extremely important points. The issue between us is whether the current system is capable of delivering people who are of high calibre, impartial, able and suitable to perform this key public responsibility. The simple contention of the Government is that the present system is suitable for purpose. I do not accept the animadversions of those who say that our public appointments system is in any way corrupt, or indeed corruptible. Also, I have never said anything about this Government other than that they are secured on a strong mandate from the people. That is perfectly legitimate to point out, although it is not relevant to the arguments before us. Those arguments, put so ably and charmingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, are about not the nature of the mandate but the nature in which any Government carry out, and are enabled to carry out, their mandate.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, not only for raising these issues and tabling his amendment but for the meticulous research and work that he has undertaken, which he presented in Grand Committee. I also thank him for the opportunity to discuss, more than once, various ways in which one might address the conundrums that he has put forward. However, my strong contention is that the statutory approach that he suggests is not one that the Government can accept. I must politely resist it and reiterate the appropriateness and robustness of our existing appointments system.
The Government accept the importance of these posts but they argue that the processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is not room for inappropriate influence. The Government believe that the processes that we currently have in place for the recruitment of boundary commissioners are more than adequate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, says that he does not think that they are sufficient. Therefore, I must remind your Lordships of some of the systems and safeguards that apply.
Appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The commissions are listed in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for a governance code on public appointments and for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to regulate the process. The detailed governance code and the commissioner’s oversight ensure that appointments to the Boundary Commissions, and indeed to many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work, are made openly and fairly on merit.
In addition to requirements in the governance code, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has acknowledged, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. To have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will therefore have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure: their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre will have been tested in many walks of life. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to provide that the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for these appointments in England and Wales to safeguard, as he puts it, the independence of the deputy chair role. The Government do not consider this to be necessary, as the persons to be appointed are High Court judges, I repeat, and the Lord Chief Justice is consulted over these appointments. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that what people say looks bad is not necessarily bad. I believe that the system has delivered high-calibre appointees.
The second part of the amendment looks at the selection panel. The governance code has equally robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of members appointed to the Boundary Commissions. Members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, yes, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. I am advised that it has never happened that a Minister has appointed someone not found appointable by an advisory assessment panel. In accordance with the governance code, the panel will include a senior departmental official, an independent member and a board-level representative of the body concerned. In the case of the Boundary Commission, that would, in practice, be the deputy chair—I repeat again, a High Court judge.
At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity of various kinds over the previous five years—having made significant donations and so on. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations and, in the case of these particular appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. We cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, but it seems likely that recent, significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with their finding a candidate appointable.
The Government’s contention is that the public appointments system is fit for purpose. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued that this was insufficient, but I put it to noble Lords that, to date, this system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades, and the Government believe it should remain in place. To create a bespoke system, in primary legislation, for Boundary Commission appointments, as the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, sets out to do, could cast doubt, although he said it would not, on an independently regulated system that has ensured, and does ensure, that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government carrying out vital public work. Are we to doubt those people appointed in this way today? Are we to doubt those recently appointed under this system to be Boundary Commissioners for Wales?
The noble and learned Lord’s amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term of office for deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential, as he puts it, for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. We do not think it advisable to make this change, and there are specific difficulties. We consider that if an individual is to serve one term only—a single, non-renewable term—it would need to be, my brief says, for eight years to ensure that they cover a boundary review, since, in future, reviews will be held every eight years. I seem to recall that, a few minutes ago, your Lordships voted for a review every 10 years. That would mean a single, non-renewable term of 10 years to ensure that a member took part in a boundary review. We are not aware of a board appointment of such length, and it is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. Our contention is that appointments are currently based on a robust system. The system would prevent partial candidates being appointed in the first place—or, indeed, reappointed. We do not consider there to be a risk of appointing candidates who would be partisan.
In conclusion, I pay tribute again to the experience and advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I say to him that we have reflected on a number of the points he has made in conversations. His advice has been of great benefit to the House today during this debate. It has been helpful to take time to discuss these issues in further detail with him, and he has had the opportunity to discuss them with my officials. While the Government will resist this amendment if he presses it today, I am grateful for the constructive and courteous manner in which he has approached our discussions. I do not demur from the significance of the issues he has raised. Notwithstanding that disappointing conclusion, in many ways, I hope I have been able to give some assurance along the way to your Lordships that the system we have in place is strong and appropriate and deserves to stay in place. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received a request to ask a short question for elucidation from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, the matter before the House is whether the system for England and Wales is sufficient and effective. The contention I put to your Lordships’ House is that it is sufficient and effective. My noble friend will know in any case that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland have long demanded different approaches.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this interesting debate and, in particular, I again thank the Minister for the courtesy he has shown me and for the time that his officials have given to looking at this matter. It seems to me, however, that four points emerge.
First, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, put is so powerfully, we are concerned to ensure that not only is the commission impartial but that it is perceived and seen to be impartial. With the change brought about by automaticity, its role has changed so fundamentally that fundamental changes are needed to ensure that there is perceived impartiality.
Secondly, as to the position of the Lord Chief Justice, it is very difficult to see any argument in principle—the Minister has advanced none—for why it is not brought into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland or, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, put it, the position is restored to the appointment of the person by the head of the judiciary. It is important to appreciate the kind of world in which we now live. Certainly, my own experience is that people will dig to find connections, however spurious they may be. Some may remember the connections that were dug up in relation to a decision on which I sat in 2017. No judge should be put in a position where his or her appointment is called into question on the basis that they may have some connection that has made them favourable to the political Minister, particularly a Minister whose own constituency might well be affected by the Boundary Commission review.
Thirdly, it seems to me that this must be put in statutory form. I have made no criticism of the current appointment process in relation to how the commission currently works, but it has fundamentally changed. No assurances—as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, pointed out—can work because assurances do not bind future Governments and this is in a code not made under statute, merely by an Order in Council.
Fourthly, as to the term, there simply is no reason why the tenure cannot move to being akin to other important constitutional watchdog posts. Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised the interesting issue of bringing together the Local Government Boundary Commission in England and Wales and the parliamentary Boundary Commission. When looking at this matter, there is much that can be said in favour of such a move. However, that should in no way affect the basic constitutional principle that the appointment should be for a fixed, non-renewable term so that, in a case, the decisions that they make are not subject to a review by Parliament, or by anyone else, and must be accepted.
In the light of the Government’s position, I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 12. I have to inform your Lordships that we have had three people scratch from this group, the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division should make that clear in debate.
12: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Electorate per constituency
In rule 2(1)(a) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (electorate per constituency), for “95%” substitute “92.5%”.”
My Lords, technically I rise to move Amendment 12, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lennie and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, but I must say that I will withdraw it at the end of this group. However, I will move, and shall now speak to, Amendment 13, in the name of my noble friends Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott. It is on that amendment that we will seek to divide the House.
Everything that we heard in Committee made it clear that the change in the 2011 Act—setting such a very low tolerance level within which the boundary commissioners could do their work—will mean that communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and motorways will have to be crossed to engineer exactly the right mathematical numbers. Those final boundary moves—sometimes mere tweaks—to reach the required numbers make even less sense when set against the number of people not even on the electoral roll.
It is estimated that some 20% of eligible voters are not registered, which is, on average, about 10,000 per constituency; the Government are obsessed with the last 3,000 or 4,000. I remind the Minister that this is a smaller number than when there were to be 600 constituencies under the 2011 Act. The average number per constituency was therefore larger, so the 5% tolerance then gave a larger number of electors for the margin in which the Boundary Commissions work, but the very welcome return to 650 Members reduces the average number per constituency and therefore reduces the 5% either way within which the Boundary Commissions can do their work. Therefore, the last 3,000 or 4,000 the Government are so wedded to is actually very small compared with the about 10,000 per constituency who are not even on the electoral roll. Indeed, perhaps if the Government could spend as much energy on getting those 10,000 on to the register, any talk of democratic equivalence and fair votes would have a little more resonance.
The resulting splitting of communities that 5% requires also flies in the face of the reality—as we heard in the debate on today’s first group of amendments—that MPs represent areas, not just individuals. Of course, areas do not vote, but it means that MPs can best represent those individuals if they understand and have a good relationship with the organisations within those constituencies. Therefore, breaking through, for example, a school’s catchment area—sometimes for small numbers to get the percentage right—means that issues of education could pull in more than just the MP in whose seat the school is located, because the narrowness of the margin does not allow for the catchment area to be included in that seat. That will sometimes happen at the borders of constituencies, but to make it happen for a mathematical formula seems particularly unhelpful.
It can also be argued that it is not good for accountability as it does not help an MP represent the totality of an area. Communities have natural boundaries and sometimes they will have to be cut through, as I say, but we should minimise that by giving the Boundary Commissions a bit more space to allow them to respond to local circumstances.
The very slight change to an extra 2.5% either way would give the commissions an extra bit of leeway to respond to travel patterns, geographical community or the needs of an area without having the knock-on or ripple effects on neighbouring seats so that again, and sometimes for no good reason, a neighbouring community is impacted just because the numbers do not quite fit in the first seat.
This will be of particular help in rural areas or, I have to say again, communities in Wales where the mountains and valleys impose geographical constraints which perhaps are not particularly well understood in SW1, or indeed some other conurbations. Amendment 13 would make the margin 5,500 rather than 3,500 and provide some helpful flexibility—if it is needed; it does not have to be used—so that those who are holding the pencil can draw boundaries that really do represent communities and which allow people to have a community-based relationship with their Member of Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, our own amendment in this group is Amendment 14 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard, but I will refer also to others in this group which offer slightly different solutions to the fundamental problem with this Bill that all the signatories agree is so apparent. As Members of your Lordships’ House will have observed, we have modified our suggested solution in the spirit of compromise appropriate to Report. We had previously recommended a basic quota variance of 8%, but we took careful note of the developing consensus in Grand Committee, and we now endorse 7.5% as providing the essential and reasonable flexibility that so many Members are seeking and to which the noble Baroness has just referred.
From Second Reading right through our discussions, a clear majority of contributors have expressed concern about the very narrow 5% tolerance currently in the Bill. As has already been indicated, that concern is now echoed across the House of Commons. We must all hope that the Government are also determined to reach a sensible consensus by compromising on this figure. They have nothing to lose by doing so. As the forensic academic analysis by the late Professor Johnston and his colleagues has demonstrated so conclusively, the perceived electoral imbalance between Conservative and Labour constituencies would not be especially adversely affected by this simple and flexible adjustment. What would be changed would be the widespread disruption of so many constituency boundaries. Those newly elected Conservative MPs, especially from seats hitherto not held by the party in the north and the Midlands, may now recognise the attraction of a more measured approach in this forthcoming review. They may also be especially apprehensive about potential “blue on blue” contests. This was the core of the evidence presented to the Commons Bill Committee.
We take very seriously the point just made by the noble Baroness about the number of people who are currently eligible to be on the register but who are not there. We believe that in the months of the process of the review, this may be improved; in which case, of course, there might be quite considerable increases in particular constituencies. It is also true that if the Government eventually pursue their intention of increasing the franchise to those who have moved abroad, that too could mean a considerable difference during the actual process of the review. If, for example, anyone decides to move permanently from the London area to the Ancona area in the east of Italy and they wanted to retain their voting rights after 15 years, that could make a major difference to one of the boroughs in London. That may be true of other areas and for other individuals as well.
Meanwhile there is common ground across your Lordships’ House that the insistence on the 5% variance straitjacket, imposed on the four Boundary Commissions, will result in more changes with 650 constituencies than were proposed with the previously proposed 600 constituencies; then more regular changes for more constituencies at more reviews; and there would be more consequent knock-on changes even to adjoining constituencies which are themselves within the limits. Incumbents who believed themselves to be safe would suddenly find that they are far from it. There would also be more disruption of historic, geographically and socially cohesive communities. Finally, there would be more disconnection between MPs, councillors and the public at more regular intervals than is either necessary or desirable.
I know from my personal involvement in the coalition discussions that these reasons were basically those that motivated the then Conservative Leader of our House to recommend to the Prime Minister that the variance should go up to 10%. We can, perhaps, take it that there is a strong argument for more flexibility. The question in this debate is therefore how we should adjust this figure. Our amendment recommends a normal 7.5% variance in the quota, but permits each of the Boundary Commissions to explore the validity of 10% where exceptional circumstances demand it in each of the nations of the UK. This might include avoiding crossing the major administrative boundaries of English counties and unitary authorities, for example, or greater problems of rurality and limited transport links, or other special factors. The reference to Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act in our amendment is very specific and gives clear guidance to each of the Boundary Commissions.
Of course, constituencies within the four nations vary enormously. These factors may not be material in seeking to serve constituents in inner cities. However, as I mentioned in Grand Committee, in my previous North Cornwall constituency before the boundaries were redrawn, to drive from an advice surgery at one end to the next one at the other end could take 90 minutes in winter but up to 150 minutes at the height of the summer holiday season.
As has been emphasised by all participants at all stages of the Bill, our prime concern should be for the effect on individual residents, groups and communities in a distinct area rather than on their political representatives or their local parties. It is for that reason that we prefer our formulation to that in Amendments 12 and 13 on the one hand, or in Amendment18 on the other. The former pair seem to us to be a real improvement, but not to fully recognise the special local circumstances to which I have referred. Some scattered rural areas, not least in mid and north Wales, would certainly benefit from more variation than 7.5%. The latter amendment provides so much variation, but in just one part of the UK, that again it fails to accept the significance of the smaller number of potential constituencies with unusual requirements while at the same time loading extra electorates on to others.
The common cause we all recognise in this group of amendments is that the unacceptable level and regularity of disruption, implicit in the current 5% straitjacket, must be avoided. Here I must note my personal experience: the drastic change between my original Bodmin constituency and the subsequent North Cornwall constituency was very confusing for residents and for all those who were involved in trying to represent their interests. Indeed, I would say that that change was much more significant in trying to get good service to the electorate than the fact that by the time I retired, it had gone up to 87,000.
There has already been a lot of compromise on Report, and I accept that. The rest of us must now hope that the Minister will accept the strength of the case for greater flexibility that so many noble Lords are advancing, and accept that that, too, would reach a good consensus for us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, have withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My Lords, I shall speak to my noble friend’s amendment and I agree with every word she said. I do not have a great deal to add. I also agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. That emphasises that we are not talking about an issue of principle in any of the amendments in the group but one of degree. It is worth reminding ourselves that there is widespread agreement across the House on most of contents of the Bill. That has been recognised even on a day like today when there have inevitably been Divisions, as there always will be. We are all agreed in our opposition to huge variations in the size of constituencies and that we should aim for equality—not precise arithmetic equality but much greater equality.
As regards my background in fighting elections, if anyone is qualified to speak on the issue of huge variations in constituency size, I can probably, without too much vanity, claim that qualification. At one stage, I represented a seat with an electorate of 57,000 and at another represented a seat with an electorate of 100,000. I therefore bow to no one in my belief that there should be far greater equality in constituency size, and that is agreed across the House.
We also all agree across the House—I include the Government in this—that there is much more to it than the simple question of arithmetic when determining constituency boundaries. We know all the guidance given to the Boundary Commission but in the Bill the Government acknowledge this issue by exempting certain constituencies from the general framework in which boundaries must be drawn. There are five such constituencies, whose inclusion I support but not for the flimsy reason that the Government claim—that they are all in one category. That is true to the extent that they are all islands or groups of islands but there also is a great deal of difference between them. No obvious similarities spring to mind between Anglesey and the Shetlands, or between the Isle of Wight and the Western Isles. Many more geographic issues need to be taken into account than the category of being islands, which is the only one that the Government seem to acknowledge, with all the frailties of that argument.
I agree with my noble friend’s amendment, which seeks greater flexibility and, in particular, has the important characteristic regarding Wales mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lady Hayter. I do not hesitate to repeat what I said in Committee. I was shocked at the impact of the boundary review proposals that we are considering in the Bill on representation in Wales. The House should walk on the other side on that issue with great care.
In conclusion, there is no great issue of principle that divides the Government from those of us who feel that there should be greater flexibility. All that we are asking is that they should change the rules in the Bill to allow a little more flexibility for the Boundary Commission, and Minister should offer more flexibility when he responds.