House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 1958.

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Order for Third Reading read.

7.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr Niall Macpherson Mr Niall Macpherson , Dumfriesshire

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House will not expect me to say more than a few words in moving the Third Reading of the Bill. My hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be glad to reply to any matters which may be raised in the debate. For my part, I shall confine myself to three short points.

The main characteristic of the proceedings on the Bill has been the equable and objective tone of the discussion. Indeed, it can be fairly claimed that, in general, this is an agreed Measure. It originated in criticisms made of the 1949 Act during the debates in 1954 and 1955 on the first periodical reports of the Boundary Commissions and in subsequent discussions which took place between the parties. There was broad agreement, first, that general reviews should take place less frequently; secondly, that the boundaries of counties and county boroughs and Metropolitan boroughs should be cut across as little as possible, even if the result was some disparity between neighbouring electorates or, as the Manchester Guardian headline put it—paraphrasing, perhaps, what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) had said— Local ties more important than mathematics Thirdly, there was general agreement on the need to recast the meaning of the phrase "electoral quota".

Broadly speaking, the Bill gives effect to the changes desired by the House. The only major point at issue was whether the number of seats for Great Britain should be increased so as to allow an electoral quota for England more closely in line with the Scottish and Welsh electoral quotas. But, as my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General said last Thursday: That discrepancy between the electorates originated in the recommendations of the Speakers' Conference, if not before … and he went on to say: the correction of this discrepancy between the different parts of the United Kingdom is a subject not for this Bill but for consideration at another Speaker's Conference, when the time comes for such a conference."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th March, 1958; Vol. 585, c. 667–8.] My second point is this. Practically all the argument has dealt with England. Indeed, if I may say so, not only does the Bill, in one respect, give statutory effect to what was already the practice in Scotland—namely, that the deputy-chairman of the Commission should he a judge of the High Court, or, in Scotland, the Court of Session—but, also, the House has endorsed and applauded the form in which the Scottish Commission submitted its Report. The Scottish Commission's handling of redistribution was found generally acceptable and, as a Scottish Minister, it is only right that I should use this opportunity to recall the debt that we owe to Lord Mackintosh and his colleagues.

I would recall the words of the right hon. Member for South Shields in the 1954 debate, when he said: I have rarely read a parliamentary document which gave me as much pleasure as the Report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December. 1954; Vol. 535, c. 1791]. One of the things in it that pleased him, I think, was that the Commission gave reasons for its recommendations. While it is one thing for the Scottish Commission to elaborate its reasons for the comparatively small number of cases in which changes of constituency boundaries were proposed in Scotland and quite a different thing in the much larger and more densely populated country on the south side of the Border, it is, nevertheless, significant that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have suggested that the task of the Home Secretary and of the House alike would be made easier if reasons for recommendations were given by Boundary Commissions.

My last point refers to a subject which has been hardly mentioned in the discussions, namely, Clause 4 of the Bill, which relates to publication of notices by the Boundary Commission and the holding of inquiries. The provisions contained therein will make it clear to all concerned that the procedure of the Commissions manifests, if possible, even more clearly than in the past, the three basic characteristics which the Franks Committee considers that tribunals should display—openness, fairness and impartiality." By the same token the provisions will give local opinion more opportunity to express itself concerning changes proposed. We are thus furthering, once again, local interest in local affairs.

Mr. Speaker, it is not often that we have an opportunity of expressing our thanks to you. I am sure that I am speaking for the whole House in thanking you very sincerely for continuing, as Chairman, to preside over all the Boundary Commissions.

7.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

The Minister is quite right in saying that, so far as we can now discuss the Bill, it is substantially an agreed Measure. There is one point that I should like to raise under Clause 2. It is, to put it shortly, the relation of the new consideration introduced by subsection (2) to the other rules which was fully discussed in Committee. I do not propose to repeat the discussion, because an undertaking was given on behalf of the Government that the matter would be looked at again and that any necessary or appropriate correction would be made in another place. Subject to that, the text of the Bill is agreed.

The hon. Gentleman rightly called attention to the relation between the electoral quota and the number of seats allotted to different parts of the United Kingdom. In our view, too, those matters are related, and in that and other respects we proposed additions to the Bill which the Government refused in Committee. I shall not refer to them. I merely say that those additions were rejected unilaterally without discussion or agreement by the Government.

We did not press the proposal about the number of seats to a division because we felt that the information before us was not sufficient to provide the appropriate number, and we said so. But we must reserve the right to make unilaterally such alterations as the Government rejected unilaterally the other day. The reference to the Speaker's Conference came entirely from Government spokesmen and received no endorsement or approval from our side. The Government acted unilaterally in rejecting our proposals. They must not be surprised if we, in our turn, act unilaterally, too.

I want to make that clear so that no misunderstanding should arise out of the fact that so much of the Bill, or, indeed, subject to the one point that I have already mentioned, the whole text of the Bill, represents an agreement, and I am glad to feel that there has been agreement, particularly on the question of the longer period between periodical reviews. Obviously, there was not merely a feeling among parties, but a feeling among individual hon. Members that what happened last time was a disturbance from their point of view and from the point of view of the electorates that might have been avoided and which should certainly not be allowed to occur too often.

On that point and the other points in the Bill, including the one under Clause 4, we shall not oppose this Measure. We shall, indeed, welcome it.

7.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Skeffington Mr Arthur Skeffington , Hayes and Harlington

I should like to begin by making one comment which goes some way towards confirming that what the Minister said about there being little between the two sides of the House is correct. The hon. Gentleman referred to a comment in the Manchester Guardian. I remember that during the discussion on the Provisional Orders in December, 1954, and the debates that took place then, sometimes very late at night and always with a full house, there was considerable difference between the two sides of the House.

The Manchester Guardian then suggested that hon. Members could be expected to be greatly concerned in this matter because little pigs are interested in the price of pork. There have not been nearly so many little pigs interested in the price of pork in this debate, partly, no doubt, because a review was a long way off, but primarily, I hope, because one feels that the new directions being given to the Commissioners will not result in the widespread changes which shocked both sides of the House on previous occasions.

I feel that the discussions that we had in December, 1954, and the discussions that we had in Committee and on Second Reading were overwhelmingly worth while in that the Boundary Commissions can be in no doubt about the genuine feeling of hon. Members on both sides. It can be summed up in the phrase, "Do not alter boundaries unless there is an overwhelming case."

As a result of our discussions in December, 1954, a number of new and, I think, helpful directions have emerged. It is, for example, a good thing that the failure to hold public inquiries, a fault of the English Commission in the past, will not be likely to occur in any future review.

I am certain that one of the reasons why the English recommendations had such a bad reception in the House was that no one knew the reasons for the changes suggested. It would also appear that the large number of alterations in boundaries which were made in certain of the large cities to secure the reduction of, perhaps, one constituency, very often infringing local government boundaries as well as disturbing groups of electors, as in the classic example of Southampton, will not be possible under the new Bill. For all these reasons, the Bill goes a considerable way to allaying the fears which many of us entertain.

If the case for a permanent Boundary Commission is accepted, although I am still not convinced of the need for it, it will be a much better Commission as a result of the directions in this Bill. I am particularly glad that Clause 4, to which the Joint Under-Secretary referred in opening, means that electors or groups of individuals will have an opportunity of presenting a case at a public inquiry when they feel that the Commission's proposals for alteration are unfair or unsatisfactory.

I only wish that the Bill had been able to deal with the under-representation in this House of Members for English constituencies. I cannot trespass on that on Third Reading, but it is a matter to which, no doubt, we shall be able to return in future. I also hope that there will be opportunity of considering again the direct right of access of local authorities to the Home Secretary in cases when they feel that there are genuine anomalies. Local authorities could be trusted to make responsible representations direct to the Home Secretary with the certainty under the Constitution of getting an answer.

I believe that all these discussions, both on the Bill and in 1954, have led to the emergence of whatI hope the Commissions will consider to be the sovereign rule of redistribution: that is, that a constituency should not be interfered with unless the case is overwhelmingly justified. Members of Parliament cannot do their job so well if there are frequent alterations in the people they represent. Electors, even those who may be opposed politically to their Member of Parliament, cherish the relation which grows up between a Member and his constituency, who, once he is elected, represents all the people of the area. Too frequent alterations in boundaries rupture something which has been an essential part of House of Commons life.

If the Boundary Commissioners in the four Commissions work on the principle that only when a constituency becomes very large or very small indeed is there need to make a change, the result of our discussions will be abundantly worth-while. I am sure that all hon. Members hope that, as a result of the Bill, the difficulties that we experienced in the past will not arise in the future.

7.23 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I am sure that the whole House will agree with what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) has said. It is a pleasant change to find that one does not disagree with anything which he has put forward on the Bill. I especially underline what the hon. Member said about not making changes unless there is a clear case for doing so. To say that there should be no change unless there is an overwhelming case may be putting it a little strongly, but I agree with the general spirit of the hon. Member's remarks. He was right also to stress the value of the introduction into the Bill of Clause 4 with the public inquiry procedure.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) made two points upon which I should comment. First, he referred to the fact that at an earlier stage he had asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General whether there could be a slight amendment to Clause 2 (2) to emphasise and clarify the exact position which Rule 4 is to occupy in relation to the other rules. My right hon. and learned Friend cannot be here this evening, for reasons which may be familiar to the House; he has had to go abroad to represent the United Kingdom. He has, however, asked me to say that he has already considered further the question whether greater precision could be introduced into the exception made in Clause 2 (2) for constituency alterations made for the purpose of Rule 4.

The House will, however, remember that in Committee my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General gave the warning that it was a difficult matter and that it might not be possible to make the subsection any clearer than it is. My right hon. and learned Friend has asked me to say that, having given the most careful consideration to the point, he regrets that it has not been found possible to devise a form of words which would give yet further precision and, at the same time, avoid the risk of either unduly extending or unduly restricting the generality of the subsection. I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering understands that that is often a difficulty with which the draftsman is faced. It is in no sense peculiar to the drafting of this subsection.

The hon. and learned Member made a surprising and, I say in all candour, a completely false point in suggesting that Opposition proposals during confidential discussions between the leaders of the party before the drafting of the Bill were rejected without discussion. In fact, as his hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, there were discussions.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

I made no such suggestion.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

The hon. and learned Member will forgive me if I misheard him, but I clearly understood the purport of his remarks to refer to discussions, not in proceedings on the Bill, but prior to the Bill.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

No. I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. What I said was that the text of the Bill as we have it now, subject to the minor point in Clause 2 (2), represents an agreement. I do not know whether I said it was an agreement actually arrived at before the Bill appeared, but that is what it represents. There is no difference between us on that.

The only other point I made was that, apart from that agreement, we put forward certain proposals in the Committee stage, to which I should not be in order in referring now, but as to each and every one of which I say that they were rejected unilaterally by the Government. There was no agreement about them, and never had been, and we reserve our right to return to those proposals. No suggestion was made at any stage that any one of them represented any breach of the agreement that had been reached.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member for that amount of clarification of his earlier statement, in which he used the phrase "without discussion", which it was surprising for him to use bearing in mind the full discussion which we had on the Amendments which were eventually left on the Notice Paper by the Opposition. We had a full and extremely good discussion on each of those Amendments and it was treated by both sides as essentially a House of Commons matter. The Government most certainly gave very careful consideration and reasoned arguments on each of those Amendments. It so happens that we were not able to accept them, and there it is.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

I am seeking no quarrel with the hon. and learned Gentleman about this. There is no difference between us. I do not remember the exact context in which I used the words "without discussion", but I certainly did not mean to say that we did not have a very full, interesting and adequate discussion on each of the Amendments which we put forward, save, possibly, one which I have forgotten or one which might have been withdrawn. On every one which came before us in Committee, certainly we had adequate discussion. There is no dispute about that.

All I am saying is that we were turned down unilaterally by the Government and we reserve the right to introduce those matters again as and when the occasion arises.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

It would be better, perhaps, if both hon. and learned Gentlemen would keep to the Bill as it is before the House. We have finished the Committee stage long ago.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

Throughout these proceedings, we have managed to maintain a very friendly atmosphere and I am only sorry if any misunderstanding between the hon. and learned Member and myself should in any way spoil it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.