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)|
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Break in Debate
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Break in Debate
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Break in Debate
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Taking account of local government boundaries
Break in Debate
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
Further to that point of order, Sir David. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East.
Break in Debate
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.
Break in Debate
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
Break in Debate
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.
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
Break in Debate
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.
Break in Debate
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.
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.]
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?