David Linden debates with Cabinet Office

There have been 71 exchanges between David Linden and Cabinet Office

Tue 14th July 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 20 interactions (1,956 words)
Mon 13th July 2020 EU Exit: End of Transition Period 3 interactions (94 words)
Tue 30th June 2020 Civil Service Appointments 7 interactions (55 words)
Tue 30th June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Eighth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 37 interactions (3,623 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Sixth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 33 interactions (2,507 words)
Tue 23rd June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Third sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 13 interactions (1,978 words)
Tue 23rd June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Fourth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 16 interactions (1,873 words)
Thu 18th June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 6 interactions (785 words)
Thu 18th June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Second sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 29 interactions (2,605 words)
Tue 2nd June 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 25 interactions (1,806 words)
Wed 6th May 2020 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (104 words)
Tue 28th April 2020 Public Services 3 interactions (72 words)
Fri 20th December 2019 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 3 interactions (7 words)
Tue 29th October 2019 Early Parliamentary General Election Bill 3 interactions (6 words)
Tue 22nd October 2019 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 5 interactions (76 words)
Thu 26th September 2019 Principles of Democracy and the Rights of the Electorate 7 interactions (528 words)
Wed 25th September 2019 Prime Minister's Update 3 interactions (73 words)
Mon 9th September 2019 Prorogation (Disclosure of Communications) 3 interactions (18 words)
Mon 9th September 2019 Early Parliamentary General Election (No. 2) 5 interactions (84 words)
Wed 10th July 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (72 words)
Wed 3rd July 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (86 words)
Wed 12th June 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (113 words)
Wed 22nd May 2019 Leaving the European Union 3 interactions (49 words)
Wed 24th April 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 5 interactions (89 words)
Wed 3rd April 2019 Votes at 16 (Westminster Hall) 11 interactions (915 words)
Wed 27th February 2019 Electoral Funding: Unincorporated Associations (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (22 words)
Wed 27th February 2019 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twenty Eighth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 7 interactions (445 words)
Wed 20th February 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 9 interactions (108 words)
Wed 23rd January 2019 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twenty Sixth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 2 interactions (372 words)
Mon 21st January 2019 Leaving the EU 3 interactions (77 words)
Wed 16th January 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (94 words)
Wed 9th January 2019 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twenty Fourth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 3 interactions (231 words)
Mon 17th December 2018 European Council 3 interactions (57 words)
Tue 11th December 2018 House of Commons Financial Plan and Draft Estimates (Westminster Hall) 8 interactions (1,581 words)
Wed 5th December 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (117 words)
Wed 5th December 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twenty First sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 3 interactions (177 words)
Wed 28th November 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (101 words)
Wed 28th November 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twentieth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 2 interactions (93 words)
Thu 22nd November 2018 Progress on EU Negotiations 3 interactions (81 words)
Wed 14th November 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Eighteenth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 2 interactions (205 words)
Wed 24th October 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Sixteenth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 6 interactions (614 words)
Wed 17th October 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Fifteenth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 5 interactions (564 words)
Tue 16th October 2018 Overseas Electors Bill: Money 9 interactions (733 words)
Wed 12th September 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Thirteenth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 13 interactions (565 words)
Wed 5th September 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Twelfth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 4 interactions (530 words)
Wed 18th July 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Eleventh sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 12 interactions (1,123 words)
Mon 16th July 2018 NATO Summit 3 interactions (8 words)
Tue 19th June 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill: Committee Stage 25 interactions (2,039 words)
Mon 18th June 2018 House of Lords: Abolition (Westminster Hall) 17 interactions (2,297 words)
Wed 13th June 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Sixth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 27 interactions (667 words)
Wed 6th June 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (90 words)
Wed 23rd May 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Fourth sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 3 interactions (105 words)
Wed 16th May 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (Third sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 8 interactions (686 words)
Wed 9th May 2018 Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees) 3 interactions (246 words)
Wed 18th April 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (55 words)
Tue 17th April 2018 Military Action Overseas: Parliamentary Approval 3 interactions (1 words)
Wed 28th February 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (35 words)
Wed 28th February 2018 Equality of Voting Ages (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (64 words)
Wed 21st February 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (50 words)
Thu 1st February 2018 Capita 3 interactions (53 words)
Wed 17th January 2018 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (58 words)
Mon 18th December 2017 European Council 3 interactions (50 words)
Wed 6th December 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (69 words)
Wed 22nd November 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 4 interactions (70 words)
Wed 1st November 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (49 words)
Wed 25th October 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 7 interactions (65 words)
Tue 10th October 2017 Race Disparity Audit 3 interactions (129 words)
Mon 9th October 2017 UK Plans for Leaving the EU 3 interactions (61 words)
Mon 10th July 2017 G20 3 interactions (45 words)
Mon 26th June 2017 European Council 3 interactions (26 words)
Mon 26th June 2017 Northern Ireland 3 interactions (60 words)

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
(Report stage: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Tuesday 14th July 2020

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Bill Main Page
Cabinet Office
Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns - Hansard

I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s intervention. I looked through Hansard to see what the standing of the Labour party on this debate was, and it took a considerable time to find that the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, Albert Owen—a friend of the right hon Member and a friend of mine—did raise it, but it was quite a long time before that became a debate, so I think the right hon. Member overstates his support of the argument.

We should recognise that not only is Anglesey—Ynys Môn—an island and its own constituency, but it also has its own local authority. When local government boundaries were being considered as part of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994, the case for Ynys Môn was recognised, creating Ynys Môn as its own authority in its own right, in spite of the challenges of having a smaller population than others. Clearly the responsibility to meet all the obligations of all local authorities would be challenging for such a small community. The 1994 Act recognised the importance of the island’s make-up, which is further recognised in the Bill before us. The amendment that the Minister has accepted recognises that too.

As I mentioned, there is cross-party support for this amendment. I recognise the strong case that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has made for its status, and I also recognise that her predecessor, Albert Owen, made a similar case at a late stage of the Bill. The Bill goes to the heart of fairness in representation and will ensure that communities are respected. Accepting and responding to calls from my hon. Friend shows that. I commend the Minister for the way she has responded to the debate and to the case made by my hon. Friend and welcome her acceptance of the amendment.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, 12:03 a.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). I have to say, I found it quite strange hearing a man whose job in the last Government was to stand up for Wales in the Cabinet give such full-throated support to a Bill that will see Wales lose eight seats. Someone whose job in Cabinet was to be the voice of Wales has just stood up and said that he is quite content to see Wales lose seats, but that is a matter for him.

I rise to speak to new clause 2, which is in my name and those of my hon. and right hon. Friends. I want to start by thanking again all Members with whom I served on the Bill Committee, which I admit I probably took an unhealthy amount of joy and pleasure from. I suspect that I was not the only one—the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) had a “Rain Man” effect on some of us quite a few times. It was a meeting of minds for parliamentary geeks and psephologists, and in my view, it did not last long enough. All members of the Committee were thoughtful, engaging and good-natured. In particular, I enjoyed my exchanges with the Minister and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who led for the Opposition. Remarkably, this is the first time that all three of us have managed to get out of a boundaries Bill Committee without gaining extra offspring—that said, the Bill has not had Royal Assent yet, so we will not count our chickens.

On Second Reading, I made it clear that the Scottish National party will not oppose the Bill, not because it was in any way perfect—far from it. However, we genuinely welcomed the Government’s U-turn on cutting the number of constituencies from 650 to 600. I was delighted to see clause 5 in the Bill, and I was probably the only Member who spoke to it with such enthusiasm in Committee. I think that some Conservative Members found it quite difficult to speak in support of clause 5, which reversed what they had enshrined in law through the 2011 Act.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that our exit from the European Union means that there will be more legislative work for hon. Members to undertake, and therefore, cutting the number of MPs would be a very silly move, but I will return to that point later.

Before I turn to my concerns about the Bill, I want to welcome the amendment that we passed in Committee in respect of Ynys Môn, which will finally be a protected constituency, joining the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland, and Na h-Eileanan an Iar. Anglesey, on which I have certainly enjoyed a holiday, was first established as a constituency in 1536—probably around the point when the current Leader of the House was colouring in “Erskine May” as an enthusiastic toddler. In all seriousness, there was unanimous support in Committee for the proposal to protect Ynys Môn and I am glad that we achieved at least one change in our deliberations on the Committee Corridor. However, I bitterly regret the fact that the Government did not compromise on more issues because, as I said on Second Reading, the Government might have a majority in this House, but they certainly have no monopoly on wisdom. There are still aspects of this Bill, even as amended, that trouble me deeply, and I will outline them now.

First, there has rightly been much discussion about the controversial issue of automaticity. I was remarking to my friend the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood earlier this week that we do not actually know whether automaticity is a word, but it was certainly coined and used over and over again in Committee. We heard lots of evidence on both sides of the argument concerning Parliament’s role in having oversight of the Boundary Commission’s recommendations. While many of the points made by witnesses and Government members of the Committee were thoughtful and sincere, I am still not persuaded of the merits of this provision. We were repeatedly told during the Brexit process that Parliament is taking back control and that Parliament is sovereign. In my view, this move does exactly the opposite, with Parliament ceding its role of parliamentary oversight. Clause 2 of the Bill would enshrine this blatant power grab in statute, and therefore my party will support amendment 1 if my friend the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood chooses to divide the House.

Secondly, I am in favour of Labour’s new clause 1, which deals with the electoral quota. The Scottish National party supports a wider tolerance and we feel that moving to 7.5% is a reasonable compromise that would give boundary commissioners more flexibility in drawing up more manageable constituencies, which would be welcome. Certainly, the evidence we heard in Committee is that they are looking for as much flexibility as possible, and I think that it is incumbent upon us to respond to that. If my pal from Lancaster and Fleetwood puts new clause 1 to the vote, we will support Labour on that as well.

Thirdly—this is the nub of the matter for me—the Bill is absolutely rotten for the devolved nations, which is why I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) have tabled new clause 2, which we will seek to divide the House on. I want to outline to hon. Members precisely why we have chosen to focus on new clause 2 on Report and why I feel so passionately about this, but, more importantly, why I believe that others should too.

As I made clear on Second Reading and in Committee, bluntly, I do not want to see any Scottish seats in this House. Constitutionally, I do not want Scotland to be a part of the United Kingdom at all, because Scotland is a nation, and nations are best served when they govern themselves. However, I am a democrat and I accept that until the people of Scotland vote by a majority for independence in a referendum, we must continue to participate with diligence in the proceedings of this House and give Scotland a strong voice in accordance with the mandate delivered by our constituents, regardless of which party we represent.

As I have said repeatedly, Scotland’s current representation in this House, and indeed that of Wales, must not be diminished or reduced in any boundary reform. However, the reality of the Bill is that Scotland will lose three seats and Wales will lose eight. That is far from the Westminster respect agenda that people in Scotland were promised in the wake of our 2014 referendum result. Indeed, it is a democratic outrage and it is not one that we will stand for.

It is not just nationalists in this House who should be concerned about diminished representation in the House of Commons for the devolved nations. Surely every Union flag-waving, “Rule Britannia” singing Member in the Scottish Conservatives should be able to see that Scotland’s voice being diminished in Westminster is bad for the harmony and integrity of their precious, precious Union. What we see in the Bill is a blatant power grab of seats from the devolved nations, with them being given directly to England—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan seems to suggest that he is unhappy about that. He can challenge it if he wants to, but that is the reality in the Bill. It is a power grab of seats from the devolved nations—the devolved nations that he was meant to stand up for in Cabinet. They are being taken away from countries such as Wales and given to England. That is a fact, and if he cannot stand up and refute that, I am afraid that it is on the record.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con) - Hansard

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the primary purpose of this legislation is to ensure that votes have equal weight, and if he does accept that will he therefore also accept that his amendment would drive a coach and horses through that basic principle, because votes will count for far more in Wales and Scotland than in rest of the United Kingdom?

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I would make two points on that. First, the primary purpose of this Bill is, I suspect, to reverse the mess made by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which sought to reduce the number of seats in this House from 650 to 600. That is the whole point behind clause 5, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read assiduously. Secondly, if Members want to talk about fairness in the voting system, we should start by looking at the broken first-past-the-post electoral system, where we have Members who have majorities of nearly 40,000. So if the hon. Gentleman wants to talk to me about equal voting, we can absolutely do that, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room that is the broken first-past-the-post system.

One thing that is even more illogical about this is the fact that legislation once made in Brussels is soon coming back to Westminster as a result of our exit from the European Union. Scotland, which used to have six Members of the European Parliament, has lost that representation, and it is now expected to lose further representation in this place when legislative powers return from Europe. That is wrong; even Unionist Members in this House must recognise that.

So when the Division bell rings tonight and hon. Members decide how to cast their vote on new clause 2, they must ask themselves if they still believe that Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, as we were told in 2014, or was that in fact just hollow words in the heat of a referendum campaign to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Scotland? Voting to affirm reduced or diminished representation for the devolved nations in this place is an unforgivable act, which will only seek to reinforce the view that Westminster does not care what the devolved nations think and we might just be better with independence after all.

Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard

Order. I am sure colleagues can see that there is a lot of time pressure in this debate. I urge Members to stick to a maximum of six minutes, rather than having me impose a time limit at this stage. If Members can do that, we will see how we get on.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con) - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, midnight

First, I thank the Minister and her team for their hard work on this Bill. There are a select few of us in this House who can get excited about boundary reviews, and most of us are here today, and I thank her for indulging my psephological exuberance throughout.

I will speak about the merits of the Bill before turning to the amendments. At its heart, the Bill is about fairness; it is about recognising that everybody in this country should have an equal voice in our democratic process. Fundamentally, it is about saying that no one person’s vote should count more than another’s. There will be some in this Chamber who believe that that is the case already, and no doubt we will hear a series of eloquent speeches about that to one effect or another, but the crux of the matter is that there are some parts of the United Kingdom where just 56,000 people can send the same number of representatives as 100,000 in another.

Before this is hand-waved by Opposition Members as a ploy to make the electoral geography somehow better for one party or another, we need to understand the basic principle of electoral equality. This idea is not new; it was not cooked up in some trendy centre-right think-tank over on Millbank the other day. It started with the Chartists back in 1838, who, in the “People’s Charter”, called for this measure to be introduced as an essential cornerstone of our democracy.

As I mentioned in the Bill Committee, we do not need to look far for extreme examples of disparity. Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, has 27 MPs whose electorates range from 63,000 to 95,000. How can that be fair or right? My own seat, Heywood and Middleton, is around 111% of the electoral quota. Why should my constituents’ voices count for less than those of voters in Wirral West or Preston?

The issue is not just about apportionment within regions or counties, however—far from it. Using the December 2019 figures, we arrive at an electoral quota—the number of voters per seat—of about 72,431. That should be the average size of every seat in every region, but it is not. In Wales, it is a shade over 57,900; in the south-east, excluding the Isle of Wight, it is nearly 78,500. As a tenet of fundamental fairness, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to such disparity.

I accept that, historically, there are good reasons for that malapportionment—to ensure that the four nations of our Union could all have a voice in this place—but Scotland now has a Parliament that is the most powerful devolved legislature anywhere in the world, Wales has the Senedd and Northern Ireland has its Assembly. Outside London, there is a patchwork of uneven devolution settlements in certain counties and metropolitan areas, none of which comes close to those devolved legislatures.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, midnight

This is an argument I considered perhaps in response to the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). What the hon. Gentleman is missing here, of course, is the fact that we have English votes for English laws in this House under Standing Order No. 83W. English votes for English laws rather negates the idea that the imbalance in terms of devolution can be worked out under the Bill.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, 12:02 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point, but I disagree with him fundamentally. At the end of the day, there is no devolved legislature for England. This is a temporary fix that could be addressed by introducing a level of electoral fairness. I am more than happy to have a discussion about constitutional reform with anybody, but that is not what this debate is about. I am a Unionist to the tips of my toes, but I do not think that the Union will be reinforced by giving unfair or special treatment to one country at the expense of another.

Turning to some of the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled, new clause 1 seeks to change the variants of the electoral quota to 7.5%. That is, in effect, 15% between the smallest seat and the largest. In practice, that is a difference of about 10,860 voters, give or take. The argument put forward in Committee was that it would lessen the disruption needed to bring 650 seats into quota. Of course, that entirely ignores the fact that there will be a high level of disruption regardless. By its very nature, correcting 20-year-old boundaries and ensuring a fair distribution of seats in every nation and in every region will result in some disruption. I demonstrated that in Committee by pointing out that of the 10 Conservative seats represented, just one would have remained unchanged with a 7.5% variance. In fact, so many electorates have now deviated from the mean, it seems improbable that there will be minimal change.

The other argument put forward was that a 7.5% variance would avoid splitting communities or needing unusual combinations of wards from multiple authorities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke)—sadly, he cannot be with us today and has expressed his disappointment at not being able to—quite sensibly put it, that could be addressed by splitting wards. The Boundary Commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already do that. The Boundary Commission can do that in England, but it prefers not to for the sake of ease. This should not be about doing what is easiest, but what is best.

Break in Debate

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson - Hansard

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will come to that point when I address new clause 3.

I do not support new clause 1; I think that it is intended to undermine the concept of electoral equality and that it would cause further exponential disruption in future reviews as seats get further and further away from the mean, exacerbated by the large deviation permitted

New clause 2 is unconscionable. Setting a minimum quota for each nation would ultimately lead to one of two outcomes: either the malapportionment that we currently have, whereby some votes count for nearly twice as much as others, or the situation that developed in Canada, which has minimum quotas for areas and where rafts of new seats had to be added to Parliament to ensure some level of electoral equality. Under that approach, if Wales were to maintain its 40 seats, Greater Manchester alone would have almost as many MPs and the south-east would have well over 100. When we have one eye on the overpopulation of the other place, it strikes me as frankly bizarre that our nationalist friends should seek to pack this one, too.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a lot of time for him, but he will recognise that the rule in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 was introduced under the Government of Margaret Thatcher. The number of seats in Scotland was then amended from 73 to 59, in recognition of devolution. It is a well- established process that the devolved nations have that protected constituency; indeed, it was a Tory Government who put it in place.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a lot of time for him, too. I am not here to blindly say that I agree with everything that my party has ever done; I think that using an electoral quota is a much fairer way of doing it.

As I say, it strikes me as frankly bizarre that when we are concerned about the overpopulation of the other place, we should be trying to pack this place out. The hon. Gentleman played an extremely constructive role on the Bill Committee, with some very sensible proposals —he is one of us! [Interruption.] I mean an electoral geek, obviously. It is just a shame that his new clause 2 does not follow that lead, so I will give it “D minus —must try harder.”

Let me move on to new clause 3, which I think our Liberal Democrat friends might find a bit disappointing, too. Although on some level I have sympathy with the idea of including those who are not on the electoral register, we have to use the fairest and most consistent data available to us, which is the electoral register. If some people choose not to be on it, that is their choice. Similarly, some people will not qualify, and it is unfair to try to guess who those people might be. In either case, I do not think that adding additional people to the register will improve any electoral chances.

Lastly, I turn to the concept of automaticity, which is covered by amendment 1. I hardly need—

Break in Debate

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, 4:18 p.m.

I would never suggest that anybody who was in Parliament for all those years was in any way acting ridiculously, and I do not think that it was ridiculous, but it was quite clear that none of the commission’s reports would ever be implemented. The parliamentary arithmetic prevented them from being implemented, whenever it was attempted to do so.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, 4:19 p.m.

Part of the point that the hon. Gentleman is missing is that it is not just Members of Parliament who have that oversight; it is also their noble lordships in the other place. Is he aware of that?

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie - Hansard
14 Jul 2020, midnight

I am fully aware of that; I was speaking about the entirety of Parliament. I am going to get back to my speech, because I am conscious of time and I know that Madam Deputy Speaker would like me to wrap up quite soon.

I would never suggest that Members of this House would have anything but the good of our country and their constituents as their motive for supporting or opposing legislation in this place, but the practice of MPs voting essentially on whether to abolish themselves is wrong. We saw it with the previous iteration of this Bill in the last Parliament: there was talk of deals and swaps; colleagues and friends were eyeing each other suspiciously over the top of newspapers in the Tea Room, looking out for trip hazards at the top of stairwells. One almost fancied an early retirement, as one of my good friends said to me on my 32nd birthday.

Likewise, we cannot see essential boundary changes stymied by political machinations, as we did in 2012 when Nick Clegg abandoned the then boundary review, worrying that his party would lose about 15 seats. It is important that we oppose amendment 1 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which would seek—as it says in the explanatory statement—to “maintain the status quo”, because the status quo does not work. The draft Order in Council giving effect to recommendations no longer being subject to any parliamentary procedure or approval before it is made is an important and positive move, and hon. and right hon. Members should oppose amendment 1, which would remove it. Of course it remains in Parliament’s gift to create new primary legislation to manage this, as it always has.

I turn briefly to the Scottish National party’s new clause 2. I must admit that I was rather disappointed to see that it is so depressing in tone. Protecting seats in the devolved nations is, of course, an admirable thing to fight for, but to do so at the expense of English constituencies is deeply unfair. Had the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) sought to protect the number of English seats, I may even have found myself walking through the Division Lobby with my friend on the SNP Benches.

Break in Debate

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller - Hansard

The Bill is all about creating fairness and making sure that every vote counts the same, and I wish it well as it travels through to the other place. The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I locked horns on whether boundary changes should ever be characterised as a nuisance; I would never want to misquote him, and I apologise if he thought I did. However, there is no nuisance in creating fair and equal boundaries—we should all agree on that.

Equal suffrage is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the Bill is part of that. I thank the Minister for accepting new clause 10 during the Committee’s proceedings, which is now clause 7 of the Bill and makes Ynys Môn a protected constituency, which is an important addition to the two constituencies that are already protected. The Bill honours a 2019 Conservative party manifesto commitment to ensure that we have updated, equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same. I hope that the other place heeds the debate in this place, and the fact that this was a Conservative party manifesto commitment, as they consider the measures in the usual way.

However, one outstanding issue is certainly the Boundary Commission and the way it will operate in support of this legislation. I hope the Minister is able to continue, through the Cabinet Office, to make sure that that organisation is doing everything it should to have the data it needs to put in place this important piece of legislation.

I close by saying an enormous thanks to the Committee Clerks, who made the running of the Committee so smooth, and also to the Minister, her colleagues, those Members who chaired the Committee and, of course, to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being here this evening.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I echo the comments made by my colleagues on the Front-Bench about our thanks to those who presided over the Committee and to all the Members who took part. I regret that new clause 2, which sought to protect Scotland with 59 constituencies, was not passed. I think history will judge that vote harshly in the years to come, but that is a story for another day. I was speaking with a friend earlier this week about some of my favourite music and we were reflecting on a shared love of Green Day. I was reminded of their song “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, because when September ends we will have Lords amendments and I very much hope that when their lordships look at this Bill they will remove clause 2, which is an affront to democracy.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard

I call Gavin Robinson.

EU Exit: End of Transition Period

David Linden Excerpts
Monday 13th July 2020

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Cabinet Office
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there will be significant new opportunities, and as businesses prepare for life outside the customs union with the help and support that we are announcing today, that will equip them more easily to take advantage of global trade opportunities. We will make sure that there is a field force of appropriate advisers to supplement the online checker, which I know he and I will bring to the attention of the businesses in our constituencies.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard

In this latest Brexit bingo read-out that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster presented to the House, he wanted to talk about optimism and opportunity, but let me press him on a point that was not in the statement, relating specifically to the Erasmus scheme. Many young people at Lochend Community High School in Easterhouse were able to take part in the Erasmus scheme. With five and half months to go, what hope and opportunity can he offer them, or is it the case that this Tory Government are taking away that opportunity?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

After consultation with the devolved Administrations, we are negotiating to seek a potential continuation of involvement in the Erasmus scheme, as we are seeking to continue participation in scientific collaboration as well. One thing that I would say about the fate of children in Easterhouse and in other parts of Glasgow is that their life chances have fallen backwards relative to other parts of the United Kingdom as a result of the education policies that the Scottish Government have put in place. It used to be the case that Scotland was ahead of England in international league tables for reading, writing and mathematics. It is now the case that Scotland has fallen behind, and the response from the Scottish Government has been no longer to participate in some of those international comparisons. Hiding from scrutiny is no way to help Scotland’s children.

Civil Service Appointments

David Linden Excerpts
Tuesday 30th June 2020

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Cabinet Office
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

Speaking as a supporter of the Scotland football team, I think that appointing a plumber to be the manager of the England football team would be a novel and interesting way of evening the odds.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

indicated assent.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

The SNP is with me on that.

Break in Debate

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

I am really grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point; I should have made it earlier. It is the case that when the National Security Council sits, it is absolutely required that the representatives of the various security and intelligence agencies that keep us safe are there, along with key military and diplomatic figures. The National Security Adviser is one of a number of those with expertise, and it is the case that the National Security Council is now meeting more frequently, not least to take forward the integrated review that I know he supports.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

Don’t prorogue Parliament as the Supreme Court will find it unlawful. Don’t approve this planning application, Secretary Jenrick, as it will be found unlawful. Is this not just the latest case of the Government absolutely ignoring civil servants and making party political appointments that are wholly inappropriate. Does the Minister agree with that?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

It may surprise the hon. Gentleman, but, no, I do not. Of course, we benefit from impartial and authoritative advice, but, ultimately, Ministers decide. It is certainly the case that, in the Scottish Government, I know that the excellent civil servants there provide robust challenge, but, just occasionally, Ministers of the Scottish Government sometimes take a different view.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Eighth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 8th sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Tuesday 30th June 2020

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Cabinet Office
Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard

I was about to agree with the right hon. Gentleman. However, the point of our system is that in response to arguments, the boundary commission changes what it has proposed. Members can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that during either the 2013 review or the 2018 one—as we all know, those reviews were abandoned because the House failed to approve them—almost 50% of the changes that were made were changed in response to submissions, both from Members who were in the House at the time and from other interested parties, including members of the public.

I have no doubt that the boundary commission will make mistakes, but I trust the ingenuity of those people who will be able to challenge it: not just Members, but political parties, members of the public and random geeks who do this sort of thing for fun. I trust that the boundary commission will listen to reasonable representations—particularly those regarding local ties and linguistic points, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about earlier—and that we can get this right. We need to get the margin of appreciation as tight as possible so that the votes of all members of the public in this country can count equally. That is a very important principle, and one that I support.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

I am listening very closely to the hon. Gentleman. The Committee has talked at great length about the importance of voters having an equal say. Does he accept, however, that until people in this House are willing to be grown up enough to address the inadequacies of the first-past-the-post system, we are—I do not want to say “unable to pee and chew gum”—putting our effort in the wrong place? Quite rightly, we are saying that we want to have equal voting in constituencies, but we are unwilling to talk about the inadequacies of first past the post.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

At the risk of straying from the measures covered by this new clause, we can have that debate. I happen to support the first-past-the-post system, but I understand that there are very good reasons for not doing so. However, that is not the place of this Bill. If people wanted another referendum on the voting system, I think first past the post would win, as it did several years ago, but I am perfectly happy to have that debate.

In relation to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East about the inadequacies of first past the post, those who do not like that system need to accept that if one is going to respect local ties and local communities and regard them as important, one cannot at the same time support moving to a system that involves much bigger regions, such as a single transferable vote system, or proportional representation generally. That would negate the original point. There are a lot of things that people say they like about the first-past-the-post system. I am not saying that they like every aspect. For example, there are people in my constituency who vote Green, and it is unlikely that the Greens would ever win in my constituency—although, of course, strange things happen in politics. Those who vote Green might say, “I never get a chance for my vote to count.” I appreciate that, but one aspect that people do like about the first-past-the-post system is the fact that community ties are respected and they feel that their Member of Parliament to some degree represents what they feel their community to be like.

We have talked about the difficulties of this. Of course the boundary commission gets it wrong sometimes, but it is up to us, members of the public, political parties and the geeks who do this stuff for fun to try to ensure that the constituencies make sense, because that, I think, is the core of the legitimacy of the first-past-the-post system. And if—this, I suppose, is a warning to the Government or, indeed, anybody else—this whole process were mismanaged and the boundary commission ended up not listening to members of the public, constituencies, Members of Parliament and so on and not making sure that the constituencies did pee and chew gum at the same time, we would get delegitimisation of the first-past-the-post system, because people would not be feeling that they would be voting for a particular Member who represented their community. Therefore I think that it is a point well made.

Break in Debate

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard

I absolutely agree, which is why, to develop my argument and to answer the right hon. Lady directly, the new clause in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood does not seek to maintain the current number of constituencies in Wales. We accept—as we accepted, incidentally, with regard to the previous new clause that we talked about—that there has to be some level of equalisation of constituencies.

That means that Wales and Scotland will lose seats, but in order to manage the different pressures between getting equalisation and maintaining the integrity and strength of the Union and the diverse voices within it, the new clause seeks to maintain a balance by specifying a number of constituencies that is fewer, for example, than Wales has now, but more than it would have if absolute equalisation took place. We are therefore addressing some of the points that the right hon. Lady mentioned, and trying to strike a balance that puts the interests of the Union at the heart of the Bill.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

I am listening to the hon. Member very carefully. It will come as no surprise to the Committee that for me, as a Scottish nationalist, the strength and harmony of the Union is not something that generally keeps me awake at night; it often helps me to get to sleep. However, there is a point here. I do not want to conduct a debate with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for City of Chester, but it is very important for members of the Committee to reflect on the fact that this is not the first chipping away of the strength and harmony of the Union in this place.

The right hon. Lady talked about powers being devolved to Scotland and to Cardiff Bay, but let us not forget that this Conservative Government has introduced such things as English votes for English laws. That in itself has been a way of ensuring that Members of Parliament representing constituencies in England can have their say and has, in many respects, already opened up a second-class or second-tier Member of Parliament. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the issue the Committee is considering at the moment is not the first time that we have seen the integrity and harmony of the Union being chipped away, albeit inadvertently, by this Government.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point. I would suggest that we have English devolution, and if we were logical in these arguments, we would reduce the number of constituencies available in those parts of England where there has been devolution but not in the parts where there has not been. In my own area, for example, we do not have an elected mayor, whereas Greater Manchester—I see the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton is present—does have an elected mayor.

Break in Debate

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 3:51 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester for such a thought-provoking speech. I have thoroughly enjoyed our debate and I am perfectly willing to accept the charge of being a constitutional geek. We have debated a range of issues that really get to the heart of democracy and the questions of representation and what that entails. What the hon. Gentleman touched upon just now is something that we have not had an opportunity to discuss too much in Committee: the different challenges that an urban Member of Parliament might face compared with a Member of Parliament in a more rural constituency. I do not downplay the challenges of either; I simply say that there are different considerations and challenges. Although we might not be able to address some of those challenges in this Bill, I am sure the House authorities will have to do so in future. In the same way that it is unfair for a Member to try to represent a constituency of 100,000 electors, it is quite a behemoth task for a Member to do justice to a constituency that is more than 90 miles wide with a continuous population throughout it.

My point in relation to amendment (a) to new clause 3 —I am also willing to admit the charge of being a cheeky chappie in proposing the amendment—is purely to spark a bit of a debate around how we go about allocating seats between the four nations of the United Kingdom, and more specifically the appropriateness or otherwise of a single UK-wide electoral quota. I am here for the debate. I have my own set of views, which Members have probably already guessed, but the amendment is worth probing and it is worth having a discussion about some of the reasoning behind the single UK quota and, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester also illustrated in some detail, the possible unintended consequences.

There has been a common theme in not only the evidence sessions but in Committee discussions about the question of Wales: the elephant in the room. We cannot deny the fact that Wales, in terms of registered electors, is over-represented in this place. If we take a single UK-wide electoral quota, there is no argument. What I am trying to probe is whether we should apply a single UK electoral quota across the four nations. Points have already been made about the differential nature of devolution across the UK. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton correctly pointed out the fact that it has been piecemeal. To quote a famous Labour colleague in Wales, devolution has very much been,

“a process, not an event”.

I am glad to get that on the record.

Something that was raised in the first evidence session stuck with me; it was presented by the representative of the Liberal Democrats. He used the line of “no reduction, no further devolution.” It made me think about the rationale behind approaching a single UK electoral quota. If I were a Unionist, I would be quite concerned and would stay up at night worrying about the potential consequences of the provisions in the Bill for future boundary reviews, given that they are based on registered electors, when demographics and population change.

The differences in population between England and Wales are illustrative of how things might transpire or are likely to transpire. Between 2001—not quite the precise time of the last register—and the mid-year estimate of 2018, the population of Wales grew by 200,000. That is not a great deal in the broader scheme of things, but it is still an increase in the electorate. I know the point is that population growth in Wales is slower than in other parts of the UK, and it is likely to remain the case that Wales will not grow as quickly as other areas. The consequence of that, should the measures in the Bill be implemented, is that we will be talking about yet a further reduction in the number of Welsh seats at the next boundary review. That is based on the projections provided by the Office for National Statistics—it is a very real likelihood. I hope things will change, but unless we see some drastic changes in demographic trends and migration within the UK, Wales is unlikely to catch up with the pace of population growth.

What does that leave us with? It leaves us with a situation in which the number of representatives who are sent from Wales to this place will initially reduce by about eight—that is the figure that is commonly agreed on for this review. A further one or two seats will then be lost at each subsequent review every eight years or so, such is the disparity in the population growth figures. I am suggesting that, in maintaining 40 Members of Parliament, we focus on what we do about the nations. How do we tackle this constitutional problem? We are a Union of four nations. Although I completely empathise with and understand the arguments made for maintaining electoral quality as far as possible, I am very conscious of the fact that, to all intents and purposes, we have a unicameral system of elected representation. Yes, the House of Lords could be a vehicle to try to top up the territorial representation side of things, but that is not an issue that is being discussed at the moment in any great detail.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

At the risk of having a bash-the-House-of-Lords session, which I am sure the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell would enjoy, is there not a case for looking at the situation in the House of Lords—ironically—where certain demographics are protected? For example, there are 92 hereditary peers and 26 clerics. If we can protect particular demographics in the House of Lords, such as clerics and hereditary peers, why can we not do it for the four nations?

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and my views on House of Lords reform are well known. Should we be serious about trying to make the best possible use of a second Chamber, many countries across the world have shown how a second Chamber can be used to top up geographical or territorial concerns. I would like to see the House of Lords reformed in that kind of direction.

I would also be quite happy to explore further whether we need to have some sort of an agreement at this point in time about the disparities between the number of seats for each of the four nations. It is already the case that should there be anything that agitates a lot of popular sentiment in England only, there is a very good chance that it will come to pass and that a majority decision in its favour will happen in this place. That is not necessarily the case for Wales or for the other two devolved nations of the United Kingdom. Although it is unlikely that we will manage to address the issue in the Bill, it is nevertheless something to which we need to give active consideration—I say that as somebody of a particular political persuasion.

The situation in Wales is perhaps slightly different from that in Northern Ireland. The devolution settlement is not as developed and deep as the one in Scotland, or indeed the one in Northern Ireland. There are certain important spheres of policy—policing and the judiciary, for example—that are reserved to Westminster and apply to Wales. That is not the case for my colleagues and friends from Scotland, so there are plenty of arguments why there is still a special case to be made for Wales within an unreformed Parliament. When I say “unreformed”, I mean the House of Lords continuing in its current constitutional position.

Break in Debate

Shaun Bailey Portrait Shaun Bailey - Hansard

I am saying that we have to take a pragmatic approach to how we view our United Kingdom; as a Unionist, I would never say that the role that the hon. Gentleman speaks of is diminished. It would be remiss not to recognise that voters, particularly in the devolved nations, understand the differences I mentioned. We talk about reducing the number of constituencies in areas of the UK; in a way, we have to balance that with the democratic structures that now exist there.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman makes a thoughtful argument, but I rather feel that he is trying to square a circle. I follow where he is going with his point on the different legislatures that are available. My constituents have a Member of the UK Parliament, a local councillor and a Member of the Scottish Parliament. The problem with his argument is that until fairly recently, they also had a Member of the European Parliament. We are leaving the European Union—certainly not a change that I approve of—and legislative powers are, by and large, coming back from Brussels to Westminster. Under the Bill, those legislative powers will remain in Westminster, and representation for people in Scotland, including in my constituency, is diminished as a result. Can he not see that he is trying to square a circle in respect of Europe’s legislative powers?

Shaun Bailey Portrait Shaun Bailey - Hansard

I see the hon. Gentleman’s point. It is a difficult one because it is a good point, but with respect to the line that I am following, I think the scope of what he is saying is a slightly different debate. It is slightly out of the scope of the clause but I see his point and recognise it to a degree. However, as we move into a more—without panicking Front Benchers—quasi-federal system perhaps, there needs to be a wider recognition of how we deal with these quotas. If we look at other systems—take Australia for example—and the way they set quotas between state and federal level, they differentiate. That is just how it goes. It means that areas lose seats and that loss of power is there, but it is made up for by the fact there is a system underneath and they interact with each other. I follow the argument of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but given where we are constitutionally—I do not want to turn this into a huge constitutional debate because we could do that all day—and I agree that we need to be as pragmatic as we can and review this going forward, I think there is a balance there now with the Senedd and with the Scottish Parliament. I will draw my comments to a close to allow my hon. Friend to talk.

Break in Debate

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:22 p.m.

I do not want to take too long, but both interventions were correct. The point is that some powers will go straight to the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, but others will remain here. We are where we are.

Let me deal with the Unionist point of view first. When England play football, rugby or cricket, I support England, but I am also British and I am proud to be so. I have a sense of identity that tells me I am British. I do worry that the Union will be weakened under the Bill, because people will feel, in the nations other than England, that their voices are being diminished. That bothers me.

The Minister is right: there is a broader constitutional issue here. We are not trying to fix the constitutional issue, but we are trying not to damage it further. I do not want this to become an English Parliament. The hon. Member for Glasgow East talks about English votes for English laws, which, let’s face it, is a hotch-potch even now. There is a danger that this becomes an English Parliament and is seen as an English Parliament in the nations that are not England. That is my concern.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I am immensely grateful to the hon. Member for City of Chester for giving way. It is just interesting to note that the issue of English votes for English laws might have passed hon. Members by. That particular Standing Order has been suspended during the proceedings of the virtual Parliament. I will leave it to the Committee to ponder whether it might be a good idea to bring that back when virtual proceedings end. A lot of people, regardless of whether they are Unionists or nationalists, would think that English votes for English laws is a pretty silly policy in this place.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:24 p.m.

I had not noticed that. You learn something new every day in this Committee. I think the Minister was unfair to characterise this idea as we think we know better. It is not that; it is simply that we are proposing to do the process differently to bring in balance. That is something that I have talked about on this clause and other clauses, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood has talked about. We are trying to find a balance between community and numbers and geography and numbers. It is difficult and we have different opinions on it, but it is a genuine attempt to create a balance between the different areas.

It is right that this House and Parliament give instructions to the boundary commissions to go away and do their jobs, and the new clause is about trying to make sure that those instructions are balanced. It was a helpful debate with positive contributions, for which I am grateful. In the light of that, it is not my intention or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood to press the new clause to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Definition of “electorate”

‘(1) The 1986 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 9(2) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, omit the words from “the version that is required” to the end and insert “the electoral register as on the date of the last General Election before the review date.”’—(Cat Smith.)

For the purposes of future reviews, this new clause would define the electorate as being those on the electoral register at the last General Election prior to the review.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:27 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am acutely aware of the time and the willingness on the part of all hon. Members to try to get through the remainder of the new clauses in this sitting, so I will not seek to detain the Committee. I appreciate that some Committee members, including me, do not represent a constituency that totals 12,000 sq km, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) does.

New clause 5 seeks to initiate some thought in Government about the size of some of the proposed constituencies. In drafting the new clause, I was thinking specifically about the Highland North constituency in the last set of proposals by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. As Mr Martin of the Scottish National party set out during our evidence session, there is provision within the rules for a constituency up to that kind of size, but put simply, such constituencies are increasingly unmanageable. The clause, which is very much a probing amendment, seeks to spark a debate about the size of constituencies we expect Members to serve while providing an efficient service to their constituents. I found myself chuckling in the last debate at the thought of people being outraged at the idea of having a constituency that was only 90 miles long.

As I mentioned earlier, the largest constituency set out by the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposals was Highland North at 12,985 sq km. That is 16.66% or a sixth of Scotland, 65% of the size of Wales, 92% of the size of Northern Ireland, about the size of Yorkshire, 8.25 times the size of Greater London, five times the size of Luxembourg and larger than Cyprus and Luxembourg put together. Indeed, the three largest proposed constituencies, Highland North, Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, and Inverness and Skye, would cover 33,282 sq km.

To put that in context, those three constituencies would cover 42.7% of the area of Scotland, which is an area larger than Belgium. The two constituencies of Highland North and Argyll, Bute and Lochaber would cover an area larger than Slovenia. Those large constituencies would also include several island areas, which makes MP travel across constituencies even harder. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) already has five airports in his constituency.

So I have outlined, to some extent, the challenges faced by colleagues in Scotland, which is the motivation for new clause 5.

Break in Debate

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:32 p.m.

I will keep it brief. I acknowledge the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and he made them very well and very eloquently. He is right to bring in the experience of, for example, Charles Kennedy. There is no shying away from the fact that there will be large constituencies in a place that has a more sparse population. We have to face up to these issues and to how we can design constituencies accurately.

Essentially, the new clause seeks to achieve an easement, by reducing the impact of a certain rule, and I will just quickly run through that rule. Rule 4 in the second schedule to the 1986 Act relates specifically to constituencies that are geographically very large, and is, in effect, relevant only to Scotland and to the highlands, in particular. It stipulates that if a constituency is over 12,000 sq km and has yet to reach an electorate that is within the permitted variance range of 95% to 105%, the Boundary Commission may propose a constituency that is below 95% in electoral terms. That gives extra flexibility to meet the challenge of very large constituencies. As I said, it is a matter of reality that this matter falls to the Boundary Commission for Scotland. Indeed, the history of this rule involved using the largest constituency at the time to try to set a rule or a cap, so it is all quite specific.

It is not necessary to amend the rule in the way the hon. Gentleman proposes, because it is so rarely used and because the range of constituencies that would approach largeness is so spread out that even his new clause would not make a great deal of difference. I will just explain why.

At the 2018 boundary review, albeit that it was on the basis of 600 seats, the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed only one constituency; that is the constituency of Highland North, which the hon. Gentleman has argued in this Committee is already infamous. There was only one constituency that exceeded 12,000 sq km. In that case, the additional flexibility provided by rule 4 was not even needed, because the proposed electorate was within the tolerance range.

Although we must not prejudge the proposals of the next boundary review, lowering the threshold to 9,000 sq km might bring additional constituencies in, but it might not, because the previous review was, as I have said, on the basis of 600 seats, and even it brought in only two proposed constituencies that were between 9,000 and 12,000 sq km. Their names—I am going to get my commas and “ands” wrong here—were Highland Central and Argyll. Those are two constituencies, and their names will be in the record.

There is my argument in a nutshell. Because we are dealing with such outliers in terms of size—the square metreage, and not necessarily the population—an extension to the rule is not needed. The sub-outliers, if you like, are still so far down the line from the outlier that even the hon. Gentleman’s new clause would not make a great deal of difference. That is fundamentally my point against the new clause.

To come a little more generally to the themes we have seen in the rest of the Bill, a boundary review is a balancing act. We have seen this across several of the new clauses that we have spoken about this afternoon and several of the clauses in the Bill. We have to balance important but competing goals. On one hand, there is the premise of equality, which is extremely important. We have spoken all the way through about the fundamental idea that a vote in the Scottish highlands counts the same as one in the Brecon Beacons, which counts the same as one in the Somerset levels. We have heard witness after witness back up that idea. But on the other hand, we also have to reflect local community ties and respond to specific and varied circumstances.

In this particular case, it is not an easy balance to strike, but I draw the Committee’s attention to the real nature of this part of the graph and suggest that it is not necessary to make the change the hon. Gentleman suggests, because the protection is already there through the specific protected constituencies and through rule 4 as it currently exists, which protects very large highland constituencies.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:37 p.m.

I am grateful. This issue genuinely plays on the mind of quite a lot of Members in Scotland, so I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it to this Bill Committee so that people can consider it. At this stage, I will not press the new clause, but I will be giving further thought to it when we come to remaining stages on the Floor of the House. I am convinced that the matter is at least on the Minister’s radar. The very fact that she has stood up and shown a degree of understanding of the challenges faced by Members in Scotland is a source of at least some comfort—but perhaps I will bring something back in the remaining stages. On that basis, I will withdraw the new clause for now, but I suspect that we might see it at a later stage of the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 7

Constituency Groupings

“(1) Rule 7 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (Northern Ireland) is amended as below.

(2) In the heading for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘Constituency Groupings’.

(3) In rule 7(1) for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘any grouping of five or more constituencies being considered by a Boundary Commission”.

(4) In rule 7(1)(a)(i) for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘the area being considered’.

(5) In rule 7(1)(a)(ii) and rule 7(2) for ‘in Northern Ireland (determined by rule 8)’ substitute ‘being considered for the area’.

(6) In rule 7(1)(b) for ‘Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘relevant Boundary Commission’.

(7) In rule 7(2) for ‘the electorate of Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘the electorate of the area’.”—(David Linden.)

The current Rule 7 is a special rule for Northern Ireland which recognises that with the small number of constituencies allocated, there may be difficulties in using the UK Electoral Quota, which may vary considerably from the “Northern Ireland Quota”, calculated by dividing the Northern Ireland electorate by the number of constituencies allocated. This problem exists when drawing constituencies in any grouping involving a small number of seats. It is an arithmetical issue, not one connected with any special Northern Ireland considerations. This amendment therefore extends the potential application of the rule to any constituency grouping of five or more constituencies, with the same conditions as currently apply to the design of constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Brought up, and read the First time.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:38 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hope that Members’ heads have not been hurting too much in trying to understand this new clause, which gives a discretionary power in certain circumstances to all boundary commissions, when considering a grouping of constituencies, that currently applies only to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland when considering those constituencies as a whole.

Boundary commissions have always worked by grouping areas together and designing constituencies within those areas. For parliamentary reviews, areas will be formed by grouping local authorities. Sometimes the initial set of groupings does not work and other things are considered. The Boundary Commission for Scotland helpfully publishes all its minutes at the start of the initial consultation period and, indeed, makes available maps of its rejected proposals as well, so that people can see exactly how it has come to its conclusions.

Let us say that we are designing 10 constituencies in an area with an electorate roughly equal to the UK electoral quota multiplied by 10. We would be able to use the plus or minus 5% variation to its full throughout the area to design our 10 constituencies. A problem arises when the electorate of the 10 constituencies combined represents somewhere between 95% and 105% of the UK electoral quota multiplied by 10, because the scope for variation then becomes very limited, meaning that, to retain the grouping, constituencies will have to be designed with very little scope for numerical variation. That can often lead to what looks like logical groupings being abandoned unnecessarily.

The problem was recognised in Northern Ireland, which was allocated 16 and then 17 seats in the two reviews under the current legislation. Current rule 7 allows the use of a Northern Ireland quota in defined circumstances. The Northern Ireland quota is simply the number of electors in Northern Ireland divided by the number of constituencies allocated. Use of that quota means the full plus or minus 5% variation for constituencies is then effectively reinstated.

To pre-empt what the Minister might say, there was an obscure issue in Northern Ireland in the last review around the point at which the decision to apply the rule was made, which resulted in litigation. I stress that that was very much a procedural issue, which was not relevant to the essential utility of the rule. The problem in Northern Ireland was a numerical one. It is not one in special recognition of the politics there. The numerical problem applies throughout the United Kingdom when we group constituencies, as all boundary commissions do.

I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s position and her explanation of why what is good for Northern Ireland is not good for all the other boundary commissions when faced with the identical issue. On that basis, I will draw my remarks to a close and listen to what the Minister has to say on new clause 7.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard

Sir David, may I invite the hon. Gentleman to say what his amendment does?

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I am grateful to the Minister for that. Essentially, I am looking to give as much flexibility as possible to the boundary commissions. That is the idea behind looking at whether we can apply rule 7 to other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that that gives the Minister a bit of a steer about what I am looking to do with new clause 7.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard

I will do my best. What is puzzling me is why it might be a grouping of five, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to speak generally, I can, or perhaps he would like to articulate why it is five.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I am happy to allow the Minister to deliberate more generally and look into the numbering. This is a probing amendment.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard

Okay. I will give it my best shot. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman is trying to extend the rule that works in Northern Ireland and to apply it to the whole of the UK by saying that we could take a grouping of five or more constituencies, whose combined electorate meets a certain mathematical criterion.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government are committed to delivering equal and updated constituencies for the UK. We can do that only if the rules set for the boundary commissions allow them to propose constituencies that are equal or as equal as possible. That loops back to many of the nuances and balances that we have spoken about throughout the Committee. I fear the new clause goes in the opposite direction and, in doing so, raises a couple of problems, which I will try to draw out.

Let me start with what rule 7 is for. It exists because of a specific issue arising in Northern Ireland. Of the four nations, it has the smallest discrete group of constituencies. At the beginning of a boundary review, as I referred to earlier, numbers of constituencies are allocated to each nation using the Sainte-Laguë method. As each nation must have a whole number of constituencies, there is inevitably either a rounding up or a rounding down at the moment. For Northern Ireland, that has been likely to mean—and will still be likely to mean—either a rounding up to 18 or a rounding down to 17. The effects of that can be quite significant when you have only a double-digit number like that.

Rule 7 first applies a mathematical formula to assess the significance of the rounding effects. If, as a result of the rounding down, the overall electorate in Northern Ireland is significantly more than might be expected, by taking the UK electoral quota and multiplying by 17—the number of Northern Ireland seats—then rule 7 may come into play if the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland judges that is necessary in order for it to adequately perform a boundary review. In those circumstances, rule 7 then allows the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland to apply a more generous electoral quota variance range, that range being ascertained through a second mathematical formula. I apologise for the level of detail, but I wanted to set out what rule 7 does before going any further.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 4:49 p.m.

While I am tempted to try to give everyone on the Committee a migraine, I probably will not press the new clause to a vote, but I am glad for the opportunity to have this debate and to explore some of the issues.

I have heard Committee members talk often about equal votes and equal constituencies but, as I said in response to an hon. Member whose name and constituency escape me, we are perhaps having that debate in a silo, because we are having it without cognisance of the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system. The Minister just mentioned equal votes and equal constituencies, but look at the constituency of the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth). He has the largest majority in the House. He took 80.8% of the vote and has a majority of 39,924. That is great for him. I suspect he goes to his count and watches his votes being weighed. It makes the point that if we are going to have a conversation about equal votes and equal constituencies, I do not know if we are starting at the wrong end.

Coming back to my new clause 7, it was an opportunity to try and kick a bit of debate about, but it is probably best not to do that at about ten to five in the evening, when we have already done five or six hours in Committee. I am glad we had that opportunity but I will not put the new clause to a vote. I will consider whether I want to go down that slippery slope when we come to the next stage of our proceedings, although I suspect the appetite for that will be fairly small.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 8

Boundary Re-alignment

“(1) Where—

(a) existing parliamentary boundaries when originally recommended by the relevant Boundary Commission contained an element of alignment with a local authority area boundary; but

(b) as a consequence of a local authority area boundary review these boundaries have ceased to be aligned; and

(c) the number of registered electors affected by the local authority area boundary change was not more than 1,000;

the relevant Boundary Commission may submit a report recommending the re-alignment of the parliamentary constituencies affected to the new local authority area boundary.

(2) The procedure in Section 4 applies to orders following a recommendation under subsection (1), as it applies to orders following reports of the Boundary Commission under Section 3, with any necessary modifications.”—(David Linden.)

Local authority area reviews typically happen when a new housing development is built on an existing local authority boundary. The review might mean that a whole development is moved in to one authority, or other aligning changes. Without a parliamentary boundary change, this can mean a small number of electors from one local authority being in a constituency otherwise wholly within another local authority. This amendment gives a power to re-align parliamentary boundaries with the new local authority boundary where no more than 1,000 electors are affected. If there are more than 1,000 electors, then the boundary would be for consideration at the next periodical review. As the local area boundary would itself have been subject to local consultation, a further statutory public consultation in relation to the parliamentary boundary is not proposed. The relevant Boundary Commission could carry out such informal consultation as it considered necessary.

Brought up, and read the First time.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause is slightly easier to understand. It seeks to deal with a specific situation that arises when local authority areas are redrawn and relates not to wards but to other electoral divisions within those local authority areas. Members will see that I have listed a registered interest as the Member for Glasgow East, and I will explain why as I develop my speech.

Unlike wards, local authority areas are not periodically reviewed. The justification for a local authority area review is usually when new houses have been built over a local authority boundary, although there can be other triggers. For example, the construction of the Edinburgh bypass resulted in one farm moving from Edinburgh into West Lothian.

Sometimes areas are redrawn without any voters being affected. I understand that principal area boundary reviews elsewhere are similarly unusual and not conducted on a periodic basis. The local government boundary commission for Scotland has only carried out 10 local authority area reviews since we moved to unitary authorities in 1995. As luck would have it, two of those reviews, conducted in 2010 and 2019, affected my own constituency, and it is for that reason that I registered a specific interest in relation to this new clause.

Constituencies where there are a small number of electors in one local authority area present additional difficulties for returning officers in co-ordinating elections. They also cause issues in relation to representation. If a constituency is equally divided between two local authorities, the MP will be able to maintain a good working relationship between both sets of local authority officials and, importantly, so will their staff. If only a very small number of constituents are from one local authority, those relationships will not be established in the same way. I reflect on that particularly as someone who represents both Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, combined with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, anticipated a world where we would have elections every five years and boundaries reviewed before each election. I think some us probably wonder what on earth happened to that. With a model of the five-year elections and reviews every election in mind, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act abolished the idea of interim reviews. In the past, interim reviews of UK parliamentary constituencies were a check on whether more minor changes should be made to constituencies between the major periodical reviews. With constituencies being reviewed before each election, that process essentially became unnecessary.

The Bill looks to having reviews every two Parliaments or so. We never know when the next general election will happen—with this Government, that is fairly clear as they are looking to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Therefore, that brings back on the agenda the need to be able to set out the consequences of local authority area reviews.

My Scottish Parliament colleagues will have their constituency boundaries revised in time for the elections next year because Boundaries Scotland, as it is being renamed, retains an ability to conduct interim reviews. The 300 electors affected by the last local government area review in my constituency will move into a different Scottish Parliament constituency in May ’21. The electors affected by the earlier review were already in their correct constituency. The new clause does not attempt to bring back interim reviews, but to ensure that in those rare instances where there has been a local authority boundary change that can be reflected in the UK Parliament constituency, as it can be in the Scottish Parliament constituency as a result of the powers exercised by Boundaries Scotland.

The new clause contains a tightly drawn power that can only be used where a limited number of electors are affected by an area review. I would be happy to discuss further with the Minister the appropriate number, but in practice most area reviews involve considerably fewer electors. I hope the Minister therefore appreciates that the new clause is confined to very specific circumstances and is not an attempt to reintroduce interim reviews, and that on that basis the Government will support it.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 5 p.m.

I appreciate the way that the hon. Member for Glasgow East has framed the new clause—that it is not quite the same as the old policy of interim reviews but is a new policy for our times. I appreciate the way he put that. I understand the arguments he makes, but I argue that the new clause is not needed, and I will begin by looking back at what the old policy of interim reviews actually did, just to give us that context.

As I understand it, the new clause would give a boundary commission discretion to submit a report in between boundary reviews that recommends the realignment of existing parliamentary constituencies with a local authority area boundary that has ceased to be aligned with those constituencies owing to a local authority boundary change. The hon. Gentleman has been careful to try to temper that discretion by saying that it should only apply to 1,000 electors and, in effect, try to tackle the problem of orphaned electors who perhaps find themselves in a neighbouring constituency to the one they had expected to belong to. I think that the effect of this change would remain quite close to that of interim reviews and, for comparison, I will set out what those used to do.

Before the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the boundary commissions had discretion to carry out interim reviews of particular constituency boundaries. They could, for example, take into account intervening changes to local authority boundaries or to a number of registered electors that affecting the boundaries of existing parliamentary constituencies in a particular area. Provision for this was removed under the 2011 Act. It was thought unnecessary because, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, general reviews would then be held every five years.

Under the Bill, reviews will be held every eight years, so I argue—as the Committee accepts—that boundaries will be reviewed and updated regularly. That is sufficiently regular to make interim reviews not needed, so we have no need to return to that old policy. I have concerns about both the policy of interim reviews and the proposed policy which, even though the hon. Gentleman has tried to minimise disruption, would still be fundamentally disruptive, hitting local communities and their relationship with their representation in this place.

We should also accept the fundamental truth that the different governmental boundaries that criss-cross our country will never be fully aligned; it will inherently be a moving picture, and it will never be possible to align all of them at any one time. It is hard to put in place a policy that tries to align a small bit of that while acknowledging that the rest keeps evolving. Boundaries change all the time, owing to population shifts and the growth of new housing settlements. The point of a boundary review is to try to control for that by taking a snapshot in time, once every eight years, and saying that that is the point at which there will be changes—there will not be ongoing, perpetual change, but change at a key point in time.

I also do not think it cost-effective to keep going for that perpetual change. I appreciate the arguments that have been made, including the minimisation argument inherent in what the hon. Gentleman has tabled. However, there is a practical argument against asking the boundary commissions to effectively chase their tail and go after something that could move perpetually between those eight years or something that does not always come to fruition. The point has occasionally been made in the Committee about how to treat housing developments. That certainly ought to be accommodated in boundary reviews—that is the point of regular enough ones to do that—but it is also the case that sometimes housing developments do not come to fruition. Had that policy wrongly predicted a settlement, ultimately public money would have been wasted in getting the boundary commission to look at it.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 5:02 p.m.

I have never felt so powerful as I do right now. I am grateful for the Minister’s response. This was a probing new clause. The issue has dominated my email inbox since I was elected in 2017—there is a lovely little area in my constituency called Stepps, by Cardowan, where the good people vote highly for the SNP actually, but that is by the bye. I was keen to spark some thought in Government, but when drafting the new clause, I feared that putting the number at 1,000 electors would frighten the Government off a little. I will reflect on what the Minister has said.

At one minute past 5 o’clock, I will allow the opportunity for the hard-working Clerks and Hansard staff to get some respite. As this is the last opportunity I will have to say anything in Committee, I also thank you, Sir David, and Mr Paisley for your forbearance in what have been long-drawn-out proceedings. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 10

Protected constituencies

‘(1) Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 6(2), after paragraph (b) insert “;

(c) a constituency named Ynys Môn, comprising the area of the Isle of Anglesey County Council”.

(3) In rule 8(5)—

(a) in paragraph (b), for “6(2)” substitute “6(2)(a) and (b)”, and

(b) after paragraph (b) insert “;

“(c) the electorate of Wales shall be treated for the purposes of this rule as reduced by the electorate of the constituency mentioned in rule (6)(2)(c)”.

(4) In rule 9(7)—

(a) after “6” insert “(2)(a) or (b)”, and

(b) after “2011” insert “, and the reference in rule 6(2)(c) to the area of the Isle of Anglesey County Council is to the area as it existed on the coming into force of the Schedule to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020”.’—(Mrs Miller.)

This new clause adds the parliamentary constituency of Ynys Môn to the list of protected constituencies in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and makes other consequential changes to that Act.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard
30 Jun 2020, 5:04 p.m.

I thank you, Sir David, and Mr Paisley for all of your work in chairing this Committee. We have all appreciated your clear chairmanship and good humour. I also thank the Clerks and all House staff who have made it possible to do a Bill Committee in these new circumstances. They have been most diligent. Also, many thanks to the witnesses who joined us and gave helpful evidence on our journey in Committee.

Finally, I thank all our colleagues in this room. I will pick on my two silent Friends who do not normally get a great deal to say in Committee, but I say it for them, so I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North and for Loughborough for their contributions. I thank all the parties represented here for the excellent quality of their debate and for the probing discussions we have had—in the witness sessions, as well, when we heard from other parties.

We have covered all the issues in the Bill comprehensively, with ample time to do so. I am pleased that we found common ground on the need to provide equal and updated boundaries for the representation of all the communities in our land.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Sixth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 6th sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

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David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

It is a great pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir David—welcome to our deliberations. I certainly do not wish to detain the Committee long, not least because I see that the Minister is chewing a sweetie, and if I sit down quickly, I will put her in a difficult position. Amendment 10, which is supported by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, was tabled with a view to making the lives of the boundary commissioners a little easier by giving them some room for manoeuvre.

As the Committee will recall, during the evidence session on 19 June, Ms Drummond-Murray of the Boundary Commission for Scottish, in response to question 6, spoke of things being “problematic” in the last review because of the restrictions in the number of hearings set out in statute. She made it clear that covering a country the size of Scotland, and doing so with only five hearings, was problematic. The amendment would remove that restriction.

As I was gently discussing this with the hon. Member for West Bromwich West earlier, something that came through from the evidence sessions and over the course of this morning’s sitting was a respect for the boundary commissions and a desire to try to make their lives as easy as possible. The amendment would not alter the fundamental principles of the Bill; it seeks merely to give the commissioners the flexibility to undertake the public engagement that is welcomed—and not just by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West, but by us all in our communities. It seeks to give that flexibility to commissioners to undertake public engagement. I hope that the Government will support my amendment, and I look forward to hearing her thoughts on the proposal.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard

I will address both clause 4 and the amendment in one breath. As currently drafted, the rules governing the boundary reviews provide that there should be between two and five public hearings in each of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the nine English regions. The amendment would make the number of public hearings a matter of judgment for each of the boundary commissions. I am confident that I understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman made, and I am grateful to him for tabling the amendment in the spirit of improving and prioritising public consultation of the existing framework, which is very important.

My reservation about the amendment is that we need to give the boundary commissions clear rules that are in themselves unimpeachable. As we discussed this morning, there is of course great interest in getting the result right so that it can carry trust and command confidence. To that end, a clear and unambiguous framework is helpful; it would allow the boundary commissions to better preserve both their actual and perceived independence.

By mandating a particular number of hearings, we are saying that the commissions are able to deploy their technical expertise in a legally certain environment in which their independence could not be challenged for the wrong reasons—for example, on the grounds of process, or on grounds such as, “You didn’t do enough hearings here,” “You did too many hearings there,” or, “You didn’t give us a fair voice here and gave somebody else an overly large voice over there.”

I would put the argument at that level: instead of removing it entirely, it is right to maintain that set of guidelines for how many hearings there ought to be, because it allows for there to be a greater degree of public trust around the fairness of the process of the hearings. I hope that argument is enough to engage the interest of the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and to persuade him and the hon. Member for Ceredigion not to press the amendment.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:55 p.m.

I thank the Minister and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood, for City of Chester, for Eltham, and for Ceredigion for their considered remarks. During our discussions I reflected that perhaps this morning, we dealt with one of the more controversial aspects of the Bill with automaticity, but we have now moved to discussing hearings and where they should take place, so I am glad to have brought the temperature down, if not physically.

I detected from the Minister, particularly in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion, that the measure is something the Government are willing to consider if there is a way that we could work together to try to table an amendment on Report. The Minister will be aware that the amendment was in no way motivated by party politics. It is about trying to assist the commissions, so I propose to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that the Government discuss with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion some form of amendment that could perhaps be tabled on Report to address the issues that I still think are outstanding and that have been put on the record by Ms Drummond-Murray. On that basis, I will not press amendment 10 to a vote.

Break in Debate

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar - Hansard

Briefly, several of the factors that the Minister outlined were blindingly obviously after 2015 as well. The population in this country was going up and there had been a referendum to leave the European Union. Was it not, frankly, the shallowness of David Cameron and the stubbornness of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) that meant that the Government have had to make the change now that they could have made before? We would then have been here representing different constituencies. There is no shame in saying that the former leadership of the party—it is probably unwise to attack the current leadership—got it wrong and that is why they have done a U-turn.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

Can I say what a pleasure it is to see clause 5 in the Bill? I spent about 30 sittings of my life in the last Parliament on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, brought forward by the wonderful hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). On that Committee were me, the Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry North East, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the hon. Member for City of Chester, with whom I have grown incredibly close over this issue and through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a genuine delight to be on the Committee.

I used to trot along the corridor every Wednesday morning to come and argue that there should be 650 seats. At the time, the Minister, only six months ago, was resolutely opposed to that. So it is with a degree of glee that I hear her talk about that 5% population growth. I know that, on the Committee, I, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the Minister have had children, but I can safely say that we have not contributed 5% population growth in the last six months. Therefore, the U-turn is quite remarkable.

There is also an argument based on Britain leaving the European Union. I accept that. It will be a travesty and bad for Scotland, which is probably why people in Scotland voted against it, but if we follow to its logical conclusion the argument about losing 73 MEPs who used to go to Brussels and debate and legislate on our behalf, and all those laws coming back to the UK Parliament—by and large they are coming back to it as a result of a power grab by the UK Government who are not devolving the powers on to institutions such as the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament—presumably we should increase the number of seats, commensurately with MPs’ increased workload. Like the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood I am perplexed that the number remains at 650.

I want to pick up on the Minister’s point about cutting the cost of politics. One of the things that I tried to bring up in those enlightening Wednesday morning Committee sittings—with more ease some weeks than others—was that the Government’s argument that they are cutting the cost of politics is problematic because of the other place.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke - Hansard

Hear, hear!

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I am grateful that that revolutionary from Yorkshire, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, agrees that we should abolish their lordships. The Government need to be consistent if they make the argument about cutting costs. Even this week we hear that the Prime Minister’s chief aide Eddie Lister is off to join the House of Lords, with £305 a day tax-free for the rest of his life, without ever being subject to a vote.

The House of Lords is an utterly undemocratic institution. There are only two places in the world where hereditary chieftains retain the right to make law. One is the United Kingdom and other is Lesotho. There are only three parts of the world where clerics retain the right to legislate. We have 26 bishops, the Lords Spiritual, who legislate by virtue of their religion. The other countries, of course, are Iran and the Isle of Man. If the Minister, therefore, wants, as she has said today, to talk about cutting the cost of politics, may I gently suggest that in the previous Parliament the Bill was starting at the wrong end, with the election of MPs? Perhaps if we want to cut the cost of politics we should end the circus down the other side of the building.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con) - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman picks up where I was cut off by the time limit in my Second Reading speech, and I could not agree with him more. When I was preparing my Second Reading speech I looked at the Hansard report of the debate from the late 1990s on reform of the House of Lords under Tony Blair. I was struck to see such familiar names as Ted Heath. Giants of the British political scene made arguments that we make in exactly the same form today. I looked into the cost of the House of Lords, and it is not the same as the cost of House of Commons, but it is not far off. There is no right of removal, and we avert our eyes from what is inappropriately still a hereditary principle, when we all know that is not a good enough reason for anyone to hold status in public life any more. I hope that a bold, reforming one nation Government will have, at some point in the next five to 10 years, an eye on that, because it is the elephant in the Palace.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I have watched the hon. Lady in the last couple of weeks in the Chamber and she has been incredibly thoughtful. I suspect that the Government Whip is probably wincing slightly but the House is all the richer for people who are willing to stand up and say, “If we are going to talk about the future of the UK constitution we need to address the fact that in 2020 we still have people who have been there many years and have never been subject to a vote.” She is right to say that.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke - Hansard

As the hon. Gentleman has picked up, there is quite a lot of agreement about the other place. However, I do not think it is particularly fair on the Minister to be talking about it when we are trying to deal with a constitutional Bill on the House of Commons, and on how we vote. I say to him gently that I understand the arguments that he makes, and there is merit in them. He has some cross-party agreement. Voting on the other place has always tended to be a free vote, and it has always fallen at the last hurdle. I would be more than happy to have discussions with the hon. Gentleman if he could find positive ways to move forward on the subject. I am just not sure today is the right moment.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

Thank you very much, Sir David. I do not want to challenge the establishment too much when you are in the Chair, so I will avoid being taken down the path that these unruly Conservatives would have me go down—of course, I was so much in order. Perhaps my remarks in the last few minutes have been slightly cheekie-chappie, but I want to say that I am delighted to see the clause in the Bill. It would be remiss of us not to put on the record our thanks to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, who tried to keep this issue alive in the previous Parliament and, as a result, we find ourselves with a Bill that is by no means perfect, but the clause is one of the better things in it. With that, and I am sure to everyone’s relief, I bring my remarks to a close.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford - Hansard

The Bill gets more and more curious. The Minister argued consistently on previous clauses for a position that would have prevented us from getting to the clause, had we been in that position of automaticity and the previous boundary reviews had gone through. If it were not for Parliament’s ability to have a second look at what had been set in train, we would not have the clause to have 650 MPs.

It is curious for the Minister to stand up and say that is the right decision and what we should do when she has also argued for something that would have prevented us from getting to this position. That is the argument in favour of Parliament giving the final approval on whatever the boundary commission proposes. It is clear that going down to 600 MPs was a schism imposed on us by two ambitious young politicians who got together in a rose garden and completely fell in love. It was the wrong decision, and when Parliament got the chance to take a second look, it came to a conclusion that both sides of the House support. With the situation we are in, which we have been in for a long time—MPs represent greater numbers of constituents than ever before, and in some of our inner-city areas that involves many people who cannot go on the electoral register—it has been obvious that we should not cut the number of MPs. We are where we are, but that highlights how the Government are arguing for a position that would have resulted in us making a huge error, had it been in place at the time of the last boundary review.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard

I will speak only briefly. In fact, I only sought to catch your eye, Sir David, after my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley gave advice to the Minister, based on his years of experience, that she was entitled to criticise previous leaders who may no longer be with us. I thought I would therefore take the opportunity to do what I promised earlier and compliment the Minister on changing her position. I said how she would prove to be flexible, and this is what I was talking about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, the reversion to 650 is the right decision, and I very much welcome it. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham just said, is it not great that we are in a position to do that, because automaticity was not in the Bill? I will leave it at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Taking account of local government boundaries

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I beg to move amendment 8, in clause 6, page 4, line 35, before “for” insert “(a)”

This is linked to amendment 9.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I shall speak to amendment 9. During Second Reading, I was struck by the thoughtful approach of the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, who made a plea—often repeated during the evidence sessions—for commissioners to move away from using wards as the building blocks for drawing up constituencies, and instead to break it down and use more manageable and flexible building blocks. That point was also pressed many times by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke.

In evidence from Ms Drummond-Murray during the evidence session of June 18—referring specifically to Question 8 of that session—the Committee will have noted that Scotland can break it down by postcode, if necessary, rather than using the more clunky ward building blocks. Furthermore, evidence given by Mr Scott Martin, solicitor at the SNP, drew the attention of Members to spatialhub.scot and the technology that is in play north of the border, in response to Question 102 at the Bill’s evidence session of June 18.

Polling districts are usually natural communities on their own, and are good building blocks for constituencies when wards cannot be used. Drawing constituencies using polling districts also makes the constituencies much easier to implement for the electoral administrators. They just need to reallocate the constituency that applies to each polling district, rather than allocating each individual elector. It also means that voters will not need to be allocated to different polling places when boundaries are redrawn. The parties referred to by Sir David should also be borne in mind here. Political parties that select their candidates on the basis of their members’ vote are the first users of constituency boundary data. Reallocating polling districts rather than drawing new boundaries makes it easier for political parties to ballot their members, which they may wish to do before the new boundaries are effective on the electoral registers. I remind the Committee that amendment 9 seeks to add to the tool box for the boundary commission. Rule 5(1) lists factors that a boundary commission “may take into account” to such an extent as it sees “fit”. Amendment 9 also recognises that a polling district’s data may not always be usable, clearly ensuring that it stays as set out and that the data is only used by the relevant boundary commission satisfied that a particular area and data are properly usable. Amendment 9 merely supplements clause 6 and allows boundary commissioners to draw upon technology as set out in the Bill’s explanatory notes.

I am keen to hear the Government’s thoughts on the amendment, and if they plan to object I would like to hear the reason; I will make a judgement on that before I decide whether to press the matter to a vote. I have outlined the rationale behind the amendment, and I look forward to the Minister’s feedback.

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller - Hansard

I wanted to make a couple of short comments on amendments 8 and 9, and commend the hon. Member for Glasgow East—he confesses to being a “cheeky chappie”—for tabling them. The amendments may be probing amendments, as I do not necessarily think they would apply in his neck of the woods, but they would certainly apply in England and Wales. I can see why he has tabled them, following our discussions, because they would put on the face of the Bill a requirement that polling district mapping be available for use. It became clear in our evidence that that was not the case; that is why evidence sessions are so useful. I am sure that hon. Members will, like me, be paying quite particular attention to their constituency information, and indeed their polling district information, not least because we are often asked to comment on where polling stations are, and our in-depth knowledge of our constituencies is an important part of our job. We know where the polling stations are and where the polling district boundaries are.

I was quite blown away by some of the responses to the questions I put to Mr Bellringer from the English boundary commission. Returning to amendment 9 before I go into exactly what he said, I understand why the hon. Member for Glasgow East tabled it. If we are going to really do what the Bill requires, which is to create equal-sized constituencies, going to a sub-ward level, whether that is, as he suggested, through polling districts, or—as in my line of questioning to the boundary commission—through postcodes, as in the part of the United Kingdom from which the hon. Member for Glasgow East comes, we need to be able to manipulate the data and the constituency information we have on a very refined level. It seemed odd that that has not been explored in the detail that hon. Members might have expected.

Sir Iain McLean, when he gave evidence, talked about the tension between getting equal-sized constituencies and the issues around local ties, which we discussed in earlier strings of amendments. The importance of equal size is clearly pre-eminent in the Bill and the amendment we are talking about now is important to deliver that important strategic focus of the legislation.

I was perplexed first by the inconsistent approach to the use of sub-ward level data in England, Scotland and Wales, and the fact that postcode data is used in Scotland and Wales but not in England. When I pressed that with Mr Bellringer, he very clearly said on the record that that information was very difficult for the boundary commission to come by; it would take a long time to access the data in the detail required. I was then perplexed by my further lines of questioning to Mr Bellringer, which made me think that, frankly, sub-ward level data had been put into the box marked “too difficult” and it was not necessarily going to be revisited. I would like to send a clear message from the Committee: that that must be revisited.

Although I am not sure I would necessarily support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow East at this point, not least because we are still waiting for a note from the boundary commission on how it might handle this, I hope it is listening to the debate to hear the strength of feeling on the matter. For postcodes, Mr Bellringer said,

“we do not have the postcode areas in England. We would have to create them; they could be created, but it would take an awfully long time to do.”—[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 12, Q14.]

We can wait until that data is ready, if it takes six months or 12 months. The boundary commission needs to start setting the bar a little higher than it has to date on the sort of information it has to hand. Sir Iain McLean suggested that the boundary commission should invest in geographical information systems. I do not profess to be an expert in that and I do not know whether that is what is needed. However, if it is, it should be forthcoming because it is important that we deliver the heart of the Bill, which is about equal constituencies. At the moment, I am unclear about how the boundary commission in England is going to do that. I hope the paper it sends us will edify me on that point.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:51 p.m.

Further to that point of order, Sir David. I wonder whether it might helpful for the Committee to suspend proceedings for a minute or two, until we understand exactly what is happening. I confess that in the last minute or so I have become more confused.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:51 p.m.

Further to that point of order, Sir David. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East.

Break in Debate

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Here we go on the discussion of the franchise, which is a very large discussion, and I think, Sir David, you would rightly suggest we stay off it and remain within the matter in hand; but my right hon. Friend makes the point well that there are a number of different franchises in operation in this country, and there are a number of arguments for other groups to be added to the franchise. There are common arguments that those under 18, or European Union electors, should be added, but they are not in the scope of the Bill before the Committee, and in my opinion that is right. We have the correct data set, identified under the 1986 Act, as amended, and upheld in the Bill .

I hope that hon. Members will agree that the requirement that the new clause would put on the Department for Work and Pensions would not be technically correct or proportionate to its aim. I might add—although it is perhaps unwise as it might reopen the debate that we had about how the boundary commissions use data—that there is a further step that needs to be thought through, about how any such data could be used by the commissions. To use an example that I know hon. Members will appreciate, DWP records are not broken down by electoral ward—the very thing that we just spent some time discussing as the primary building block for parliamentary constituencies. A quite complex matching process would be required. That would take some time and of course doing it would have a price tag attached.

That is not the principal subject that the Committee is considering. I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood in how to include all people in our democratic process—the process represented in the Bill. She is coming from an admirable, principled place in tabling the new clause, and I have great sympathy with it, because I, like her, want as many people as possible to be registered to vote and take part, and to be counted within the purview of the Bill. However, I do not think that the new clause is a correct or proportionate way to achieve the goal.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I think that some time has elapsed, and the conversation has moved on somewhat, since I spoke to amendments 8 and 9. I referred to myself as a cheeky chappie, and the Minister referred to me as an agent provocateur, and of course the right hon. Member for Basingstoke is right: I do not have any skin in the game in this debate, because the situation is different north of the border. However, I was genuinely interested in what came up in the course of the evidence sittings. The point brought out a degree of interest in the Committee, and I tabled amendments 8 and 9 on that basis. I think most Members will have guessed by now that they are probing amendments. I am relatively satisfied that they fulfilled the objective of stimulating debate and thought in the Government, and on that basis I thank the Committee for the discussion, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 6, page 4, line 36, leave out

‘which exist, or are prospective, on the review date’.

This amendment removes the restriction on the local government boundaries the Boundary Commissions may take into account, rather than fixing them at a technical level as at the start of the review.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:11 p.m.

I rise to speak to amendments 6 and 7, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion. I do not wish to detain the Committee for long, so I will be brief in explaining the rationale behind these probing amendments. One of the clearest themes throughout our evidence hearings, particularly with boundary commissioners, was a request to leave them with as much latitude and flexibility as possible and not to tie their hands. The amendments seek to remove the restriction on local government boundaries that the boundary commission may take into account, rather than fixing them at a technical level as at the start of the review.

The use of modern technologies should give the boundary commissions the ability to adapt to local authority reviews during the course of their reviews in a way not envisaged when the original legislation was put in place in 1944. There are also likely to be local authority ward reviews all but completed at the start of the review but for which orders had not been laid to give effect to them. I am all for giving the boundary commissions the flexibility they need to get on with the job, and I hope that the Government are with me on that. The Bill helps in allowing prospective boundaries to be taken into account, but they are all fixed at the start of the review, and I am for further flexibility.

As I indicated, this is a probing amendment, so I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the merit of the suggestion and whether the Government feel that such flexibility for the boundary commission would be of use. I am happy to resume my seat and hear what the Minister has to say.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:13 p.m.

I do not wish to detain the Committee for long. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East explained the rationale behind the amendments and how we want to probe for a bit of debate. This gives me an opportunity to make history, potentially, because I will urge caution about accepting the amendment that I support, in the light of written evidence from Councillor Dick Cole of Cornwall Council, submitted to the Committee after the oral evidence sessions concluded. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on his letter, and particularly on the rights of Cornwall as a historic nation. Sir David, you were kind to allow me to tread on unfamiliar territory during the evidence sessions in asking about feelings about a cross-Tamar constituency. Having studied the matter further, I understand that people in Cornwall feel strongly about it, and rightly so.

The Committee’s attention should be drawn in particular to a decision made by the UK Government in 2014, where they recognised the Cornish people through the framework convention for the protection of national minorities. One part of the convention seeks to protect the political integrity of territories associated with groups such as the Cornish people. When the Minister sums up, could she say whether anything can be done as part of the Bill to address such concerns? I note there are a few calls for a boundary commission for Cornwall to be set up. I would be interested in hearing what is possible, because Councillor Cole has raised valid concerns that we should at least look at.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

My intention with amendments 6 and 7 was certainly not to declare war between Norfolk and Suffolk. As I outlined in my remarks, they are probing amendments; my intention was to stimulate discussion, and I am content that that has happened. At one stage, I was almost getting ready to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion to move over and let the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell come over and join the Celtic alliance.

More seriously, I think these amendments have informed the Committee’s debates, which was their objective. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to discuss them, and on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con) - Hansard

On a point of order, Sir David. I think we have had a very productive day so far, and our intention was to conclude proceedings at 4.45 pm.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Eddie Hughes.)

Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Third sitting)

(Committee Debate: 3rd sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd June 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

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David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

Q I would like to ask a question about the situation in New Zealand. I was struck by the fact that you said the whole process takes no longer than six months and by what the hon. Member for City of Chester said about safeguards. Clearly, we did not get this right in the legislation to move from 650 to 600. Can you outline any concerns you have about the associated speed, in terms of automaticity and the fact that we are trying to wrap this up within six months? Surely, if we try and ram this through very quickly it is not going to result in good proposals.

Break in Debate

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller - Hansard

Q Thank you very much, Sir David. I thank Mr Williams for coming to give evidence today; it is incredibly helpful to hear from a wide range of political parties. I note that in your introduction, you said you would cover issues in England and Wales, and I thought I detected a slight accent—I do not know whether you come from Wales. I wanted to press you a little further on that, because there are four protected constituencies in the Bill: two constituencies that will be the Isle of Wight, a single constituency in Orkney and the Shetland Islands, and the constituency formerly known as the Western Isles. Do you feel there is an argument to be made for protected constituencies in Wales? Other than Northern Ireland, which I think has its own set of issues, it is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have protected constituencies.

Chris Williams: There is an argument to be made, particularly around Ynys Môn. I am worried about how all this is going to be perceived in Wales, with a drop of about 20% in the number of MPs, and I think it would be a softener if they see they have been treated equally with England and Scotland, with Ynys Môn seen as a protected constituency. There is an argument about taking into account other geographical features when protecting constituencies, but if you start to look at mountains or rivers, you then start to look at the height or width of mountain ranges, and you get in a complete mess. Certainly, there is a sea in the way between Ynys Môn and the mainland, which is exactly the same criterion that is being used for the Isle of Wight, the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. I think it should be applied in Wales as well; otherwise there would be a rightful feeling of wrongdoing to Wales.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Q Can I ask you specifically what the Green party’s view is on the distribution of seats that will result from this Bill? It is my understanding—the Committee has been told this previously—that Scotland stands to lose seats, and you have spoken about the 20% drop in Wales. Does the Green party of England and Wales have a view on whether or not that is appropriate, and what that does for the integrity of the Union?

Chris Williams: Our Scottish Green colleagues will have a similar position to you on the Union. I guess we come from a perspective of wanting every vote to have the same weight and potentially the same impact on an election, in terms of determining the future Government. The difficulty we have is that whatever we do with the process and with first past the post, there is always going to be some inequity between the constituencies, even if we have no tolerance or variance limit at all. By the time they come in, the numbers will still be different, because the data is always historical and never accurate enough. If we are going to go down the line of every vote being pretty much equal, and trying to make that as equal as possible within the system, it is very hard to argue for a great deal of difference between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I would say that a vote in Hartlepool is as equal as one in Ogmore but, at the same time, I can see that this might well bring greater arguments for further devolution.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con) - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Q On the same theme, Wales has roughly the same sized electorate as Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, but we have 27 MPs and Wales has 40, which means that their average electoral quota is 64,546, to 71,780 in Greater Manchester. Why do you think that 30% fewer electors are required to elect an MP in Wales?

Chris Williams: I guess I argue that there should not be that inequity, except for protected constituencies. Every vote should be as equal as possible in terms of being able to influence the future make-up of the Government.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

On a point of order, the Bill that I am working from is the one we used for the Second Reading debate. That is not the Bill in the Committee Room. I do not know if I am the only person in the Committee using the Bill from Second Reading. Will you clarify that, Sir David?

Break in Debate

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 11:01 a.m.

Q We have had some powerful evidence that parliamentary boundaries are to a greater or lesser extent an artificial construct, although rules are put in place to try to acknowledge issues, which should be taken into account. I want to probe further something that Sir John talked about earlier. Because we are dealing with boundaries that are 20 years out of date, this will be a disruptive redistribution.

What comments can be made about trying to future-proof any proposals, to take into account any proposed developments and house building, while noting that those cannot be taken into any analysis of the quota? Do our experts have any views on whether that should be taken into account with regards to the geographical boundaries, so as to avoid unnecessary disruption in the future?

Professor Sir John Curtice: There is a difference between the rules of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England and the parliamentary boundary commissions. The local government boundary commissions are permitted to take into account anticipated housing developments. I have had the occasional private conversation with people about this. You may want to quiz the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The question that arises is how accurate the forecasts of house building and demolition activity are and the extent to which that ensure that the local government ward boundaries do not get out of date.

The answer to you is that it is certainly possible—see the rules of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England—but regarding the extent to which it is effective, you should ask the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, because I am not certain. There is a difference and you could anticipate doing a degree of that.

Professor McLean: May I add to that? It is rather unfortunate that there are two sets of boundary commissions with different operating rules. Although it is not in the Bill, I do not understand why there needs to be a separate local government boundary commission, in particular one that operates under different rules, as John has just highlighted, from those used by the parliamentary boundary commission.

If one had to choose between these sets of rules—the Local Government Boundary Commission for England permitting evidence about future housing developments and the rules currently before you not permitting them —I would go with the rules that are in front of you, for the same reason that I gave in an earlier answer. One person’s likely housing development, which may just happen to favour that political party could be countered by another person’s likely future housing development, which may favour another party. I feel for the poor inspector, who is, by construction, not a specialist in the area, and is faced with claims that are very hard to adjudicate. You can adjudicate numbers, but future housing development is much more difficult.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 11:05 a.m.

Q Thank you to our witnesses for their evidence thus far. Professor Curtice was probably right to say that we should focus on things in the Bill. The two major things are going from 600 seats to 650, and parliamentary approval. To take the first issue in a question to both witnesses, why do you think that the Government changed their position, going from 600 seats to 650?

Professor Sir John Curtice: That is not difficult. Turkeys were persuaded to put Christmas in the calendar in 2011 but, when Christmas eve came along, they decided to abandon it. There was always going to be a question mark about the willingness of MPs to vote for their own demise.

The reason why we were to have the cuts in the first place is that in 2010 both parties in the coalition proposed reductions in the size of the House of Commons. That was a populist response to the MPs’ expenses scandal. In the end, the cut to 600 that they introduced was less than those in the two parties’ manifestos. Then, of course, implementing it became a victim in 2013 of the spat within the coalition over the failure to reform the House of Lords, and in 2018 of the anticipated inability of the then Conservative Administration to get the provisions through—because they were asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. I am indicating that that is a classic case of how, at the end of the day, it is difficult to persuade Members of the House of Commons to engage in a radical reform that will make their lives difficult.

By the way, given that you have asked this question, let me expand its scope slightly. This is an aspect of the Bill that matters, and this is the question of the attempt at automaticity. To make it clear, there is an issue about automaticity—that is, the ability of Parliament to intervene. Parliament intervened in 2013 and stopped the boundary commissioners working—that was the work of Labour and the Liberal Democrats together—and in 2018 the Conservative Government failed to push the provisions through. Back in the late 1960s, the then Labour Government got their MPs to vote down the provisions. To that extent, there is clearly an issue. Although we have a process of neutral boundary proposals operating under rules set by the House of Commons, in effect the Commons has on three occasions, under different Administrations, ended up not implementing the rule, so there is an automaticity question.

My concern, however, is that although the Bill might make it more difficult for that to happen again, it will not stop it happening again. Given that in clause 8 the Bill stops implementation of the 2018 review, going on to have provisions that supposedly make it impossible for Parliament to overturn things in future, the truth is that the same is perfectly possible for a future House of Commons—a boundary review comes along, the current Administration does not like it, saying, “Actually, we should delay it”, and all they need to do is to introduce a quick piece of primary legislation to overturn it.

As we saw with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it is very difficult to introduce provisions that discipline the House of Commons to keep to a set of constitutional rules, given that we do not have an entrenched constitution. Although all of us would laud the fact that the provisions of the Bill are an improvement, reducing the ability of Parliament to stop things, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it will necessarily stop Parliament, not least because even within the terms of the Bill an order has to be laid—instead of

“as soon as is reasonably practicable”

at the moment—under the new provisions,

“as soon as may be reasonably practicable”.

I am not a lawyer, but the distinction between those two things still strikes me as rather fine on whether or not we could still be left in the situation that we had in the last Parliament, when the provisions were simply were not put before the House of Commons in a timely fashion. That could be repeated.

Professor McLean: I have very little to add. The automaticity may look worrying to some, because it removes the rule from Parliament, but parliamentary supremacy is mentioned in the explanatory notes and of course the Bill could be enacted and then repealed by a future Parliament. That is the nature of parliamentary supremacy. It would be very embarrassing—the mother of Parliaments, one of the oldest parliamentary democracies and so on: it is already very embarrassing that it is operating on the basis of 20-year-old boundaries and therefore we did not have equal suffrage in the 2019 general election, to put it at its most blunt. I would concur with John that Parliament could do it again. It would be embarrassing, and I rather hope it does not.

Break in Debate

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 11:12 a.m.

Q Of all the things that are embarrassing about the mother of Parliaments I do not think that is the one that would come top of my list. Can I ask specifically about the distribution of seats, and the idea that based on what is before us there would be a reduction in the number of seats for Scotland and Wales? Professor Curtice mentioned that it was a destructive process. Would you go so far as to say that that would impact on the harmony of the Union?

Professor McLean: It was bound to be disruptive once a uniform electoral quota was introduced for the four nations of the UK. John, the Minister, or others can correct me, but I think that that was done by the 2011 Act. The fact that, as has already been mentioned, the two instances of review that should have happened under the 2011 Act have not yet happened, means that that bomb, as it seems to some in Scotland and in Wales, was primed in 2011. It has not yet exploded, but it will with the implementation of this Bill; but that is a necessary consequence, as all Members know, of a uniform electoral quota for the United Kingdom. I cannot say any more than that.

Professor Sir John Curtice: Can we go back a bit on the history of this? The truth, as Iain will explain much more eloquently than me, is that he original over-representation of Scotland and Wales was entirely the product of accident rather than design. When the Scottish Parliament was introduced in 1999 by the Labour Administration one of the things that was done as a result was indeed to reduce the size of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons—although it was done in a manner that was arguably technically deficient, and did not necessarily deal with the possibility that there would be future disparities between the growth in population in Scotland and that in England.

The principle of basically saying that Scotland’s representation should be proportionate to England’s representation was already embodied by the Labour party and Labour Administration at the beginning of the century. The same thing was not done for Wales because of course when the then Welsh Assembly was first created it had only secondary legislative powers, and it was therefore felt that the devolution was not on a scale that justified the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs. Given that we now have a Welsh Senedd that has primary legislative powers that are not commensurate with, but not that dissimilar from, those of the Scottish Parliament, as it were, what has already been done for Scotland seems to be relevant for Wales.

As to the actual effect, now we are talking about a 650 Parliament: by my calculation, which is based on the electorates as of the election—but, given we are now going to do the electorate on 1 March it will be slightly different, but will not be very different—Scotland is probably going to lose three seats. It is the last seat, I think, at the moment, that is tight between Scotland and England. At worst Scotland loses three seats. Effectively, Scotland is affected at the edges but not fundamentally, and the fact that Scotland’s political system and political representation is now very different from that in England and Wales is still likely to be heavily reflected in any new House.

This is essentially a redistribution from Wales to England, and then within England it is a redistribution really from a line from East Anglia southwards—as opposed to the northern parts of England. Of course one of the ironies of the situation we are now in is that because the Conservative party gained so many seats—they had the so-called red wall seats in the north of England and so on—actually the disparity in the size of the electorate between constituencies that are represented by the Labour party and those represented by the Conservatives is smaller than it has been at any point during these current set of constituencies. In other words, changes in electoral geography are changing the politics of redistribution.  London is one of the places that will benefit; it is now a Labour city. The north-east of England, which now has a non-trivial number of Conservative MPs, will lose out heavily. Therefore, actually the redistributive consequences politically are perhaps not quite as toxic as we might have imagined 10 or 15 years ago.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con) - Hansard

Q Professor McLean, you mentioned that you felt it would be difficult for the preference of existing constituencies to be kept to if we keep within the 5% quota, because there would need to be quite a substantial revision, and Professor Curtice made similar remarks. Could you expand a little on your analysis of how that might shake out? In terms of our recent electoral history, where do you think this disruption will rank?

Professor McLean: A problem is caused when you are going by a regional area. The practice of the English commission has been to go by counties for some of its units, including administrative counties such as the former metropolitan counties that were abolished in 1986. That is a defensible practice, because the larger the unit within which you operate, the easier it is to reconcile conflicting criteria. Therefore, if you are in a unit of, let us say, three constituencies, one of which by happenstance is the right size and the others are not, it might be difficult to maintain the right-sized one and observe the other rules. If you are in a unit of 15 constituencies, one of which is the right size, the commissioners have more freedom to draw a map that retains the constituency that happens to be the right size while altering the others.

I said earlier that it is likely—I do not have the data, but John may—that there are now very few constituencies anywhere in the UK that are the right size, which is to say, one 600th of the House, given that we have had 20 years of migration and the disruption mentioned in Scotland and especially Wales. So I think it will be very hard to preserve existing constituencies.

Professor Sir John Curtice: All I can add is that I did look quickly at what statisticians call the standard deviation of constituency size—that is simply a measure of the extent to which the number of registered electors in a constituency varies between one seat and another—and that number is constantly increasing. Basically, there is now a greater difference in the size of constituencies than there was in 2017, there was a greater difference in 2017 than in 2015, and there was a greater difference in 2015 than in 2010. Although politically this redistribution may not be as dramatic as people on both sides of the House might imagine, there is no doubt that getting the constituencies to reflect electorate sizes is bound to be disruptive.

Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Fourth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 4th sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd June 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

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Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson - Hansard

Q Setting aside what we would prefer the system to be, do you agree that, for the current system, more equalised electorates would be fairer?

Darren Hughes: Yes, provided that we are talking about things such as the electoral register being more accurate and complete by taking proactive measures, for example automatic voter registration. Keeping the number of seats at 650 adds to that argument. So yes, but with the important caveat that you mentioned: this is not a system that we would choose if it were over the last—[Inaudible.]

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard

Q I am very grateful to you, Mr Hughes, for your appearance before the Committee today. One of the things in which the Electoral Reform Society is interested is, essentially, the health of British democracy. Can you expand a little on your thoughts about the distribution of seats between the four nations of the UK, commenting specifically on the fact that under these proposals both Scotland and Wales would have less representation in the House of Commons?

Darren Hughes: These questions on the Union are very interesting. In our three most recent general election reports, we have been tracking the movement between the nations at elections. In addition to some of the class voting changes that Professor Curtice talked about this morning, we think that those issues of the politics and the psephology of the nations of the UK are certainly worth more attention than they probably get.

The most obvious point with respect to the Bill is that it makes a bad situation slightly better, in the sense that at once stage Wales would have fallen to 28 seats from its current 40 under the cut to 600 seats. I guess that it is important to recognise the effects of the Bill in that regard. Even so, the impact on Scotland is not exactly clear, but it would certainly be a reduction, maybe in the order of two or three seats, while in Wales, it would be more like eight. That becomes quite a significant proportion of the representation.

One thought that we have had about that, though, comes back to the previous answer that I gave to Chris Clarkson about the electoral register and making sure that more people are on it in areas where there might be under-registration or non-registration, in order to boost the entitlement to more constituencies.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 11:19 a.m.

Q My final question follows on from what the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said about the size of constituencies. You may have seen from some of the questions that I have asked in previous sittings of this Committee that a lot of people in Scotland were frankly outraged at the proposal for a Highland North constituency, which would have been utterly unmanageable for any MP; I mean, the current Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency is already far, far too big. Does the ERS have any views about reducing the current 12,000 sq km guideline to try to ensure slightly more manageable constituencies and a slightly closer relationship between the electors and their MP?

Darren Hughes: I think that is exactly right. These processes give us the opportunity to say, “What would the rules be and how would they apply in the majority of cases?”, and then, “Where are the outliers, whereby if we did apply the rules we could congratulate ourselves on the consistency?”, but actually we are creating a brand new representation injury, by making politics and representation so distant from people.

As we were discussing with the last set of questions, if we had multi-Member wards, these things could be addressed. Obviously, you cannot change the geographic challenges of some areas—they simply cannot be addressed by any system—but you can make decisions to make the situation worse, and sometimes that is what tends to happen.

If there was a multi-Member system, that would be of assistance, but it is also important to carve out the ability for the commissioners to look at a particular constituency and say, “This just doesn’t make sense.” Equally, you could not make a decision based on those examples and then necessarily apply it to the rest of the UK, because that would create further injustices as well. Until we know more about the effect of the new regime, given that by the time we get to the next election it will be nearly a quarter of a century since the 2000 dataset that is being used, that needs to be part of the consideration. But you point to examples or rules that you could use that would minimise that.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con) - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 11:19 a.m.

Q Thank you, Darren, for giving evidence to us.

One of the things we heard this morning was that US congressional districts had close to zero margin of deviation around population size, and one of the points that you made was that when people buy a house, or look on Zoopla, they are not given information about their political constituency, but they are given other very local information, for example school proximity. I just wondered whether there was any sort of empirical basis that you had in mind when you said that you thought that the 5% range, if I can call it that, was not sufficient.

Darren Hughes: Sure. The American examples are obviously the extreme ones, but they are ones to bear in mind, because they are examples of what can happen if you set hard and fast rules, so they apply everywhere no matter what, and then you also allow for a rampant politicisation of the process.

There is an author called David Daley who has written a couple of books, which are incredibly readable and accessible, about how the boundary system in American got to the state it is in. Unfortunately, one of them has such a colourful title that you will need to google it; I could not possibly say it in this forum.

However, regarding your point about the 5% versus the 10% range, these are the areas where you can go round in a lot of circles, because there are arguments in favour of each range. I just feel that if you could offer reasonable flexibility to the commission, what you would hope is that the practice would develop and that it gives them an extra tool when a particular geographic situation confronts them, as opposed to just starting out by saying, “We’ll flex our muscles wherever we can.” The thinking on that was that they are the final line in the arguments, but because you are not having that final parliamentary vote and you are not getting the commissions to do the work, it might make sense to offer them those tools.

Break in Debate

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith - Hansard

Q Finally, is there anything else in the Bill that the DUP has any concerns about?

Gavin Robinson: I believe it is wrong to move away from parliamentary approval. I see the proposal is to remove the ministerial ability for amendment and to remove the ability for Parliament ultimately to approve the proposals. Parliamentary approval is an important constitutional dimension that should be retained. It is a bulwark against proposals that do not rest well with our body politic, and I do not think the removal from Ministers of the ability to amend is in any way commensurate with the removal of Parliament’s ability to approve the proposals. The Minister will know better than I, but I am unaware of any fundamental use of the Minister’s ability to amend. We are all aware, however, of Parliament’s ability to inject itself and determine one way or another whether proposals should proceed. So we are concerned about the loss of parliamentary approval in the process.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

Q I am grateful to Mr Robinson for appearing before the Committee. He is obviously a Unionist, and I am not, but can he see the fundamental problem that people in Scotland and Wales may have in seeing Northern Ireland getting to keep its 18 seats while they get lesser representation in the House of Commons, from a Unionist point of view?

Gavin Robinson: Arguments can be made for solidifying the number of constituencies in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I do not think there should be any rationale that precludes me from advancing an argument that is important for Northern Ireland on our political context and make-up. On our number of electors, at this moment in time we have sufficient electors for 17.63 constituencies, leading to the 18 constituencies, and we have that additional flexibility on rule 7.

Mr Linden, you are more than capable of advancing arguments that are important for Scotland, as indeed is Mr Lake for Wales. I think it is appropriate that the concerns highlighted about a cyclical reduction that could potentially arise through future reviews—a cyclical reduction or increase of parliamentary boundaries, and the knock-on consequence that would have for devolved Administrations—should be considered more generally, but I will advance the argument on Northern Ireland’s behalf.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:09 a.m.

Q Can I draw your attention to new clause 7, which I have tabled? I appreciate that you may not have it in front of you. That new clause seeks to initiate a bit of debate about the application of rule 7, not just in Northern Ireland but other constituencies. Is there any circumstance in which you could envisage the application of rule 7 being helpful for other parts of the UK, not just Northern Ireland?

    Gavin Robinson: I am sure it could be. Again, that is an argument that could and should be advanced, and I would not hinder someone in making that argument. When we went through the process within the past two years, with the various iterations of Boundary Commission proposals for Northern Ireland, the rationale for using rule 7 was incredibly clear. The Boundary Commission’s initial draft proposals brought forward constituencies that were not in any way consistent with geographical localities, urban dimensions or local ties, and were outwith the legislative framework that I believe the commission had in its process. They commenced with a false premise, and ended up with a real mishmash of parliamentary boundaries.

        I was pleased that they invoked rule 7. I mentioned the chill effect earlier: that use of rule 7 was struck down by the Court of Appeal within the past month in the case of Patrick Lynch. It was not struck down because rule 7 was used inappropriately, but because the Boundary Commission simply failed to articulate the rationale for using it. It has been proven to be an incredibly important tool to ensure the fundamentals of achieving good boundaries within Northern Ireland were attained in the last process.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

Q One final question if I may, which is perhaps slightly mischievous. Obviously, in the last Parliament, the Government had a very different view on how many seats there should be in the House of Commons, namely that there should be 600. It is well known and on record that the DUP was opposed to that, and was part of a confidence and supply agreement. Did the DUP and the Government ever discuss those proposals, and is that perhaps why Orders in Council did not come forward in the last Parliament?

        Gavin Robinson: I think you imbue me with greater knowledge, Mr Linden, and considerably more power than the circumstances merit.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

Thank you, Mr Robinson.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith - Hansard

Q Gavin, I want to round out our session with one quite small piece of detail, but one that we have not managed to touch on with any other witness yet. That is the way in which the constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly are directly tied to UK parliamentary constituencies.

        As you will have seen from a close reading, this Bill makes provision for a buffer period between recommendations from a boundary review that would come into effect for the UK, and the point at which the Northern Ireland Assembly constituencies would change to reflect those new boundaries. I wonder if you might be able to give us a little more insight into the impact of such a scenario—that is, what effect not having that kind of buffer and protection would have on constituencies and electors in Northern Ireland.

        Gavin Robinson: I think as currently outlined, with a projected Assembly election in 2022, the process is manageable. There are two considerations for further reflection; we will reflect on them, and I am sure others will as well.

        The first would be a cyclical reduction in uplift from 17 and 18, which I think would be unhelpful given the knock-on consequences that would have for the Assembly elections. Fundamentally, given the difficulties we have faced over the past three years—the stagnation in the effective operation of our devolved institutions—I do not think we have fully reflected on or resolved what would happen should there be an early or emergency Assembly election and how that may be impacted by this boundary process.

Break in Debate

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, midnight

Q That is interesting. Out of interest—I could go and check this now, but I do not have it in front of me—on the 2018 review, which obviously did not happen, for various reasons that we have discussed already, what percentage of seats underwent what you would consider major revision?

Dr Rossiter: I do not have that figure to hand. One of the problems is that this affects different parts of the country differently, so, for example, during the 2018 review, the south-east of England was little affected because it was set to lose only one seat during that review. Now that we go back to 650 seats, because of the growth in the south-east of England, the south-east will gain seven seats. Gaining seven seats inevitably results in a huge amount of change.

So, it can be helpful to look at what happened in 2013 and 2018 as exemplars of what results from this, but this is the problem: the devil is always in the detail. It is always in the specific geography of the area. It is always in the specific number of electors—whether a county, for example, has an integer entitlement or a non-integer entitlement. I have near me the example of East Sussex. East Sussex at the moment is entitled to eight and a half seats. With a 5% tolerance either way, that will mean that the East Sussex boundary has to be bridged. Kent is perfectly okay. West Sussex is perfectly okay. Therefore, in sorting out the problem in East Sussex—this is all provisional on 2019 data not changing an awful lot—we will need to see something that goes across the county boundary in one way or another.

Until we know the final figures, we will not be able to be absolutely certain on any of these issues. At least half of seats were changed during the 2013 and 2018 reviews, and when I say that the forthcoming review would be between two thirds and 75%, that is simply a reflection of the fact that it is trying to deal with that extra amount of time. What seems surprising is that maintaining 650 seats does not necessarily help a huge amount. It helps slightly, but not a great deal, in minimising the disruption that is going to happen. I hope that that is helpful.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Q Thank you very much, Professor Pattie and Dr Rossiter, for coming before the Committee. I have a couple of questions that I want to explore with you. You may have seen in previous oral evidence there has been some discussion of the idea of the building blocks for constituencies, whether those are used by polling districts or wards. Can you offer a view on that? Perhaps Professor Pattie would start off.

Professor Pattie: This is an interesting issue, isn’t it? The issue here again is obviously over, partially, the practice of splitting wards—which clearly can be done—and partially the pragmatics, if you like. I know you have had lots of evidence already about data sources, software availability, etc. I will leave that to people who are more expert in handling those data systems, but clearly that causes an issue. I think I would raise just two points, here. First of all, harking back to our 2014 McDougall Trust report, we did try there to estimate the relative effects on disruption of playing around with the tolerances versus playing around with ward splitting. Ward splitting certainly helped to reduce the amount of disruption, but in our estimates it did not reduce disruption anything like as much as widening the tolerances moderately. The second thing you have to bear in mind here is that we are talking about disruption to communities. Remember how the Boundary Commission’s local government wards operate. It tends to be quite strong on the idea that, in building the ward suggestions, it is trying to represent people, so when you split a ward, arguably you are splitting a community—you are doing the very thing that you are trying to avoid, to avoid the thing that you are trying to avoid, if that makes sense. You end up in a strange circular process in which you disrupt a community to save a community. Where the white line is on that is anyone’s guess, but ward splitting is neither technically a global panacea, nor conceptually a panacea, precisely because in splitting a ward, you might well be splitting a community.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Q Continuing the theme of geography, although I appreciate that you will not necessarily have the amendment paper in front of you, I have tabled new clause 5, which looks specifically at the highland constituencies and that limit of 12,000 sq km. I have asked this question of other witnesses before the Committee. Can you offer any thoughts on ways in which to manage constituencies so that they are slightly more manageable for Members? I think that most people would agree that having a constituency of 12,000 sq km is somewhat unsustainable. In my name, I have tabled a new clause to say that it should be 9,000 sq km, for example. Do either of you have a view of that, in terms of the management of constituencies?

Professor Pattie: At the risk of sounding flippant, the Durack division in Western Australia is 1.63 million sq km. The north highlands is large, but there are much larger seats out there. It is how you strike the balance, I guess, but where it is can be tricky. I would not want to minimise the workload of an MP, in particular working in any area as large as the north highlands. Where one draws that line is a judgment call. I do not think that you will find an easy answer. To use a phrase much bandied about at the moment, I do not think that this is an area where one can defer to the science, because there is no clear science to this.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson - Hansard
23 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Q This is for both our witnesses, but I will start with Dr Rossiter. Do you agree that reaching electoral equality is important not just between regions but within regions? I will take the example of between regions first.

At the moment, Wales has an electoral quota of about 54,500, as opposed to about 72,000 in the north-west. Within Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, the number ranges from about 63,000 to 95,000. To take the concept that you just put forward of not splitting communities, in my borough are two seats that are prettily evenly divided: mine is Heywood and Middleton, and the neighbouring one is called Rochdale. From the sound of things, they are self-contained communities, but, in reality, I represent about a third of Rochdale. If you were not to split the communities, my neighbour would represent 103,000 people to my 57,000. Taking that to the logical extreme, do you not accept that, at some point, you will have to split some communities in order to achieve electoral equality?

Beyond that, talking about disruption in future reviews, would you accept that, to a degree, splitting wards would minimise that, reducing the amount of absolute disruption? Most of the disruption that will come from this review relies on the fact that the electoral figures we are using are 20 years out of date.

Dr Rossiter: If I take your second point first, I do not think that the difficulties that are going to come with the current review will be of such a scale that anything really can be read into them—too much should not be read into that, if you see what I mean. To take your first point, the commissions have always been capable of producing constituencies that are very close to quota. The problem you are identifying—these large differences in constituencies—has largely come not because of an observance of local ties, but from demographic change within and between regions. I am totally comfortable with the concept of trying to achieve equally populated constituencies—I have always thought that should be aimed for. My concern is the unintended consequences of a set of rules, which I think is the territory we have entered.

In terms of principles, absolutely every person’s vote should be treated as equal in so far as that can be achieved in a constituency-based system. There is no reason why either between or within areas that should not be achievable. Where local authority boundaries have to be crossed to achieve that, I have no problem with that. I remember writing a paper back in the 1980s about how we needed to look at crossing London borough boundaries, which were being observed as almost sacrosanct at the time, causing quite significant difficulties and an over-representation effect.

What I think we are looking at is how you strike the right balance. I do not disagree at all with where you are coming from and what you are trying to achieve; it is just that by placing in a rule as strict as 5%, you are removing a degree of discretion that will not benefit anybody either politically or in their sense of connection with a constituency and their MP.

Professor Pattie: To add to that, the point I was trying to make earlier was not that one must never split communities. That is going to happen, and it always has happened under the boundary review process; there have always been communities split. My point is to recognise that splitting wards in itself is not a solution, because that may involve another form of community split. But we must also remember—Iain put this nicely this morning when he described the different directions in which community can run, depending on how it serves different people’s interests—that community is very much in the eye of the beholder. I am sure we all recognise, even in areas that we know well, that we could quite quickly generate quite a few different views of what a local community really was. They are often genuinely held. So, one should not be too—how can I put this?—precious about community versus size. I think David is absolutely right: the issue is where to strike the balance and how one achieves that as relatively painlessly as possible.

Parliamentary Constituencies bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Thursday 18th June 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith - Hansard
18 Jun 2020, 11:47 a.m.

Q In areas where electoral wards are much larger—some cities, certainly in England, have wards of almost 10,000 electors—would those communities be seen as more difficult to fit into the 5% without splitting wards?

Tony Bellringer: Yes is the short answer. As you say, particularly in England we work or we have traditionally worked on the basis of using wards as our building blocks—I am sure there will be some discussion about that in due course. But as you say, a number of wards, particularly in urban authorities in England, are larger than the entire possible range that you are permitted—the difference, I should say—so by moving one ward, you will move from being too big as a constituency to being too small, with nothing in between, so you then have to start looking at splitting the wards, which becomes more problematic for us, for reasons that I am sure we will get on to.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP) - Hansard
18 Jun 2020, 11:48 a.m.

Q It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I have perhaps three or four questions that I would like to ask Ms Drummond-Murray. First, most of us here are quite pleased that the Government have decided to change their position and let us remain at 650 seats, but I understand that even with the protection of 650 seats for the UK Parliament, Scotland would lose seats under this review. Is that a point that you can clarify, and what would be the reduction for Scotland?

Isabel Drummond-Murray: It is not possible to give an answer to that until we have the electorate data that the review will be based on. I think, informally, we did look at the December ’19 register, and if that were the one being used, it did suggest a reduction in seats in Scotland. Clearly, the Bill as drafted suggests the December ’20 register. Until we get those figures published, from whichever data is finally proposed by the Bill, we cannot tell you exactly how many seats there would be. We would have to run the formula that Tony referred to, and that would allocate between the four countries.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
18 Jun 2020, 11:49 a.m.

Q I also want to ask a question that I appreciate may be slightly more technical, but pretty much all of us on this Committee are probably minded that way. I understand that there are limits on how often hearings can be conducted for the Boundary Commission, and I think that at one point Scotland was limited to four or five hearings. I know that in evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Professor Henderson said that that was problematic for the Boundary Commission in Scotland. Is it still the view of the Boundary Commission that the limit on hearings is problematic?

Isabel Drummond-Murray: It was problematic in the last review, because the public hearings were held during the initial consultation and that meant that you were trying to guess in advance where there was likely to be particular interest. You were trying to cover the geography and population of Scotland with five hearings, so if you held one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow, you then had a large area to cover with the three remaining ones. The Bill proposes holding public hearings and a secondary consultation, which will help, because we will then have an idea of whether to hold the ones outwith the central belt in, for example, Inverness or Hawick. You just cannot tell. There is still an element of guessing, from the responses received, as to where people really want to come along and discuss in public what we propose, but yes, that will help. I think six also helps, geographically.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard

Q Continuing on that theme of geography, which is obviously a challenge in rural Scotland, quite a number of us, regardless of what party we are in, were quite alarmed at the size of the proposal for what would be a Highland North constituency. Can you tell the Committee a little bit about how you go about drawing up constituencies in that part of the world, particularly in relation to the 12,000 sq km or 13,000 sq km size, as is the case with one constituency in Scotland at the moment?

Isabel Drummond-Murray: We start the review by allocating loose groupings—they are not set out in legislation, but they enable us to divide up the country. As a preliminary step, we always look at the highlands first, because of the rule that an area bigger than 12,000 sq km can go below the minus 5% threshold. However, because of the way the legislation is worded, you would only need to go below that 5% if you could not reasonably construct a constituency otherwise, but we could. We found in the 2018 review that it was possible to stick within that plus or minus 5%, despite its being a very large constituency. I think Highlands North was the only constituency proposed in the 2018 review that was above 12,000 sq km, which is obviously geographically very large.

David Linden Portrait David Linden - Hansard
18 Jun 2020, 11:52 a.m.

Q It would be very difficult for Members to cover as well. My final question is on the idea of building constituencies not necessarily based on ward boundaries but on polling districts. Do you have a view on that, and how that would work in Scotland?

Isabel Drummond-Murray: We do not use polling districts, in part because there has not been an available Scotland-wide, up-to-date dataset that we could access. We create our own postcode datasets, so when we come down to split below ward level, if necessary, we do it on the basis of postcodes. We have always been able to split wards in Scotland, if necessary.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) - Hansard
18 Jun 2020, 11:52 a.m.

Q Can I ask both witnesses how they prioritise the various different factors, for example, the numbers and the tolerance, the geography and the communities of interest? How do you weight each of those, and what process do you use to draw those up?

Tony Bellringer: In essence, there are two categories. One is mandatory—the plus or minus 5%—which we have to stick to and is obviously our primary factor. About half a dozen other statutory factors are set out in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. We do not prioritise any of them formally. I guess we would look first at the rule about having regard to existing constituencies. So far as possible, we actually start off by asking how many constituencies that are currently there already fit the plus or minus 5% and whether we can start by not changing those. We then look at those that are not within the plus or minus 5% and think, “Okay; that is going to have to change, and that is going to have to change”. That is why you often find, unfortunately, that you may be sitting as an MP in a constituency that perfectly meets the plus or minus 5%, but your constituency changes because some of the neighbouring ones have to change and have to take in some of yours, or vice versa.

        As I say, we do not have a firm ranking, but we then probably look at local ties. To a certain extent, you would expect existing constituencies to have already respected local ties, which is why it is not higher, because local ties are generally what people feel most strongly about—in fact, probably more than the numbers, to be honest. They accept the principle of electorate parity, but if you ask most people on the ground, they are more concerned about their local communities being split off from each other in the drawing of the lines. That is what the vast majority of responses to our consultation are about, so we do look at whether we are breaking local ties.

There is also the obvious map factor of physical geography and what are termed significant geographical features. River estuaries, mountain ranges and motorways are fairly obvious bits of physical geography that can have quite a significant impact on how you would want to look at drawing a constituency. Is that enough for you?

Parliamentary Constituencies bill (Second sitting)

(Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons)
David Linden Excerpts
Thursday 18th June 2020

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith -