Committee (13th Day)
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Lord Teverson (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I speak for the first time on this Bill-on Committee day 13. I have obviously been remiss on the previous 12 days, but it is a pleasure for me to speak on an issue that is fundamental and important. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, I agree with the two principles of the Bill. The first is that, on the whole, constituencies should be of roughly equal size, whereby at least we have a starting point for equality of value of votes. I also agree that the people of this country should be given the opportunity to choose the electoral system by which they elect Members of Parliament.
However, no system is perfect-particularly in politics. There will always be exceptions to the way things work. That is because, in politics and communities, things are not even or homogenous. History and many other things shape society, which means that sometimes there should be different solutions for different situations and areas. I am not, on the whole, a traditionalist, but it is important that this Parliament and the Bill recognise that there is a history in particular communities, cultures and geographical parts of our islands that should be recognised within the way that democracy functions. That is why I have put my name to the amendment, because it is essential in terms of people and communities believing in the democracy in which they participate and allowing them more to participate in it.
However, one of the big problems when drawing up a list is deciding whether there should be any special cases and which they should be. We know that we could all make that list as long as the list of 600 constituencies which are supposed to be created when the Bill is passed. If we are to be realistic, there must be a limited list. It may be difficult to get to that. I have not spoken in Committee on the Bill before, but I have sat in on a number of debates. A number of areas that are listed in the amendment have been mentioned on many occasions, because they deserve to be treated in a different way. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, the Bill and the Government have already recognised that some exceptions should be made to the principle of equal constituency size on the grounds of geography-for example, Orkney and Shetland. I welcome that deviation from the model. Last week, this House considered the Isle of Wight, which is listed in this amendment, and accepted that it should be treated separately. It is instructive to see that, particularly in the case of the Isle of Wight, the issue is not one of trying to get as much parliamentary representation as possible, but of the wholeness of that island and other areas. It is not a grab for more seats, but a desire to have wholeness and a natural community within a parliamentary constituency.
I will not extol the virtues of all the regions and areas that are listed in the amendment. I am sure that other noble Lords are far more expert on those regions than I am. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not use the official Gaelic name of the Western Isles; I look forward to another noble Lord doing that later. Ynys Môn-Anglesey-in Wales, the Highland council area, Orkney and Shetland, and Argyll and Bute were mentioned a number of times earlier. I will concentrate on the south-west of the United Kingdom, on the county-indeed, the Duchy-of Cornwall. I will also refer to the separate unitary council of the Isles of Scilly. Although I could be tempted to add the Isles of Scilly to the list-I was privileged to represent it in the European Parliament-it has only 2,000 electors, so I might be pushing my luck too far. Cornwall naturally comes together with the Isles of Scilly, although they have separate councils. That is why they are together here.
Something that I remember from the 1970s, when I listened to the news and was interested in politics- I think I was even a member of the Labour Party for a year in 1973, but I will leave my revelations at that-was a very important report on the constitution produced by the Kilbrandon royal commission. I am sure that many noble Lords remember the name and have referred to the report. The report states that what the people of Cornwall,
"want is a recognition of the fact that Cornwall has a separate identity and that its traditional boundaries shall be respected ... Just as the people of Scotland and Wales tend to resent the description of their countries as regions of the United Kingdom"-
I am sure that noble Lords would agree with that-
"so the people of Cornwall regard their part of the United Kingdom as not just another English county".
The report recommends that the designation "Duchy of Cornwall" be used on all appropriate occasions to emphasise the,
"special relationship and the territorial integrity of Cornwall".
Cornwall sees itself as the fourth Celtic nation of the United Kingdom. It has a strong and separate historical tradition. It has a definite boundary: the River Tamar. It does not in any way deny that the rest of the United Kingdom, or England, exists beyond that river, but it is very proud of its separate identity, its history and its community. I have been privileged to be a resident of Cornwall and to represent it in Brussels. Until recently it was a region, Celtic nation, county, Duchy-however one wants to look at it-that looked backwards in many ways. However, over the past decade it has become resurgent. It looks forward, it is successful and it enjoys being a progressive contributor to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why there has been such resistance in Cornwall to the risk of a constituency crossing the Tamar between it and Devon.
We should make no mistake: this is not antagonistic towards Devon. Both are great areas. However, the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall form a special area. It is a Celtic nation with its own language and an exciting future. It wants to live as an important contributing part of the United Kingdom, but it wants to retain its identity. One of the main ways in which it should be allowed to do this is through its voting, its democracy, and the way that it is represented in Westminster. The amendment is important because I am sure that other listed regions feel exactly the same way. The list is limited and does not undermine in any way the general principles of the Bill, which I would not want to see undermined. I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to consider this amendment and those regions favourably in his reply.