House of Commons Redistribution of Seats (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1969.

Alert me about debates like this

Order for Second Reading read.

3.4 p.m.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

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

The time available for this debate is limited. Therefore, I will be brief and, I hope, uncontroversial.

The Bill is short, simple and fair. It deals with an obvious defect and inadequacy in present electoral arrangements. It deals, in fact, with a matter of electoral justice and is not, therefore, in any sense a party measure. It is in no party spirit that I seek to commend it to the House. But where electoral justice is involved, it is a matter of concern to Members of all parties sitting in all parts of the Chamber.

The principle of one man one vote has been for long axiomatic in this country. But the principle becomes meaningless unless the votes are of approximately equal value. If in one constituency, for instance, it takes five times as many votes to elect a Member as in another, this makes a mockery of the principle of one man one vote.

It was to deal with this particular matter that the procedure for the review of Parliamentary constituencies was brought into being. Under this procedure, as the House will know, reviews take place from time to time. The last General Review was in 1954—fifteen years ago. The purpose of the reviews is quite obvious. Stated briefly, it is to keep the electorates of the constituencies as nearly equal in size as is conveniently possible.

It will be within the knowledge of the House that the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies are currently being reviewed, as the law requires. This is obviously necessary as substantial population movements have taken place and serious disparities and inequalities in the sizes of the electorates of constituencies have developed. I would assume that the past 15 years has seen one of the largest movements of population about the United Kingdom as has possibly ever been known in any similar previous period. The result is that there is now a serious disparity in the size of the electorates of the constituencies.

I will give only two or three examples from the many that could be quoted. Some constituencies, like Billericay and Portsmouth, Langstone, have swollen to twice the national average. Others, like Glasgow, Kelvingrove and Birmingham, Ladywood, are too small.

It is interesting to note that the late Member for Birmingham, Ladywood had only to poll less than 9,000 votes in 1966 to get elected, whereas the runner-up in Billericay polled over 38,000 votes but was nevertheless defeated.

This, on every ground, is a very serious position. Perhaps the most serious aspect is that it tends to destroy the faith of the public at large in the justice of the democratic principles by which Members are elected to this House. When faith in democracy is shaken in this way, the consequences cannot be other than altogether evil.

The Boundary Commissioners, which have now had this matter under active review, must complete their General Review by November, 1969, but it is anticipated that they will report much earlier than the latest permitted date.

My Bill deals simply with what happens after they have reported. The present law requires that after the Commissions have reported the Home Secretary shall present Orders to Parliament to implement the recommendations "as soon as may be". This phrase is so vague that it imposes no obligation on the Home Secretary to present the Orders at any time at all. The phrase is simply "as soon as may be". This imposes no limit of any kind on the dilatoriness of a Home Secretary—or a Government—who believes that the proposed alterations in boundaries might be disadvantageous to his party. The Government of the time can, of course, refrain indefinitely from implementing the recommendations, that is to say for so long as they may be able to remain in power, and to remain in power on the basis of the votes of electorates which are obviously unsatisfactory electorates. This, by any measure, is a most unsatisfactory position.

It is my endeavour throughout to introduce this matter with a maximum of light and a minimum of heat. I make no imputation whatever against the present Home Secretary in respect of a dilatoriness which has not yet occurred. But it is obviously wrong that any Government or any Home Secretary of any party should be able to delay an urgently necessary review of Parliamentary boundaries for any reason, least of all for the reason of party advantage.

The purpose of my Bill is to deal with this obvious deficiency in the law, to impose a time limit of two months instead of the words "as soon as may be", so that there is an obligation on the Home Secretary for the time being to make his Orders in the House within a limited period.

I should like to demonstrate my great desire to be most reasonable in this matter by saying that if a case can be made to show that for procedural reasons two months is an inadequate period, I should be very susceptible to a suggestion in Committee that the period might be extended to three, or possibly even four months. This is a matter of concern to all hon. Members. It goes to the root of democratic practice, and we have the opportunity today in this simple Bill in the time that remains to take the first step to put the matter right.

We often hear strong criticisms from hon. Members—I do not criticise them for this in any way—of other Governments who exercise a sway in distant parts of the world when it is alleged that those Governments are not complying with proper democratic practices in their own electoral arrangements. If it is desired that we should be in a position to make this kind of criticism of other countries and other Governments for which we have no responsibility, how much more is it necessary that we, as the House of Commons, should have clean hands in the matter of our own electoral arrangements?

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Three hon. Members wish to intervene. The hon. Gentleman will have to choose which hon. Member he would like to interrupt him.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

In as much as I am going to resume my seat in one minute, Mr. Speaker, I think it would be better if I were to conclude my speech and leave the interveners with the hope of catching your eye.

This Bill speaks for itself. Its purpose is clear. Its justification is obvious, and it is difficult to see on what reasonable ground any Member can seek to oppose or obstruct a Bill that is so obviously necessary.

3.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) on having brought before the House this Bill which is succinct and easy to understand. It is quite obvious, in view of the way in which he has introduced the Bill, that the House should give it a Second Reading.

My hon. Friend's approach has been utterly reasonable. Should the Government say that the suggested period of two months during which they will have an opportunity of considering the recommendations is too short, my hon. Friend has indicated, with an infinity of reasonableness, that he is prepared to consider an Amendment to lengthen the period. This is an extraordinarily reasonable approach, so it seems that we should have agreement from the Government that the Bill should have a Second Reading so that the whole matter can be gone into in some detail.

Let us face the fact that there has been widespread speculation that the Government do not intend to act with expedition relative to the Boundary Commission's recommendations. It has been suggested widely in the Press—I have cuttings with me—that they do not intend to act with expedition because the Boundary Commission's recommendations may be to the Labour Party's disadvantage. Today the Government will have an opportunity to confound those suggestions that they intend to be dilatory about this matter for their political advantage. The best way they can do that is by allowing this Bill to have a Second Reading.

I hope that we shall have certain assurances from the Home Office today. The first assurance for which I ask is that the Government will not put forward, as an excuse for not implementing the Boundary Commission's recommendations speedily, the fact that in due course a Royal Commission on Local Government is to report. I do not expect that any such excuse will be put forward by the Government. It would be particularly invidious if that were to be put forward in view of the latest information which I have, emanating from the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who is reported as having said, I believe in a speech at Truro, that the implementation of local government reform will probably not take place till 1973 or 1974. Therefore, it would obviously be absurd if any suggestion were made that the implementation of the Boundary Commission's recommendations must await the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government. I should like a firm assurance from the Government that that is not their intention.

Second, we want an assurance from the Government that, in laying draft Orders based on the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, they will act, if not in weeks, at least within a very few months. It is the basis of my hon. Friend's Bill so to provide, and I hope that we shall have a firm assurance from the Government to that effect.

If we have assurances of that kind, the speculation and suggestions that there is likely to be procrastination here for party advantage will be set at rest, and I hope that the Minister present, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, for whom one has personal respect, will be able to give them.

Photo of Mr Denis Coe Mr Denis Coe , Middleton and Prestwich

The hon. Gentleman says that he is in favour of the Bill. Will he tell us where the Official Opposition stand on the question of months? He speaks of two months. May we be told more specifically what the view of the official Opposition is?

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

That is precisely the sort of reason why we consider that the Bill should have a Second Reading, so that we may go into the whole question of how long is likely to be necessary. We do not assert, and neither does my hon. Friend, that two months is necessarily exactly right. We shall want to give detailed consideration to the question in Committee, assisted, no doubt, by the advice which can be drawn from the detailed researches which the Government will have made into it.

Is delay necessary? In the past, we had an example of a review in similar circumstances. That was in the mid-1950s, and the Conservative Home Secretary then, Mr. Gwilym Lloyd-George, acted with great expedition. Within two weeks of the Report, draft Orders were laid before the House. He was subject to some criticism for undue expedition in the matter, but the criticism centred largely on suggested faults in the original legislation, the 1949 Act, on which the procedure of the Committee was based. As a result of those criticisms, we had, by agreement, a later Measure, the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1958, which largely put right the suggested procedural faults pointed out in the earlier debates.

Therefore, any criticism there might have been in the past that a Conservative Home Secretary acted with undue expedition would not apply now if a Home Secretary were to act with expedition, since the 1958 Act, a Measure passed without Division and with all-party support for its principal provisions, made it possible for the Commissions to adopt a better procedure, with local inquiries, and so on. This makes it much easier for the Government to act speedily when they receive the recommendation of the Commission. A Conservative Home Secretary acted within two weeks under the old Act. It would hardly become the Government to admit that they could not act within two months, and, as I have said, we are only too glad to discuss what the appropriate period should be.

This is an urgent matter. As Mr. David Wood pointed out in The Times as long ago as 1957, the present situation is undesirable, and by the mid-1970s it will have become outrageous. The Government must give the assurances for which I have asked. The health of our Constitution requires that constituency boundaries be subject to this continuing review.

It may be that the 1958 Act went too far in providing that the maximum period between reviews can be as long as 15 years. There is a case for saying that that is too long. But we are getting near the end of that 15-year period and we must have assurances from the Government that they will act with expedition. I expect that we shall have an assurance from them that they have utter confidence in the Boundary Commission which in the case of England has Mr. Speaker as the Chairman, Mr. Justice Thesiger as Deputy Chairman, and a very distinguished composition.

The Government have had the advantage of preliminary draft reports which have been published and considered locally, so they know which way the Commission's thoughts are going over most of the country. Any additional homework that will have to be done when the final report comes out will not be very considerable. If the situation is not righted very speedily, our constitution could lose its credibility. It becomes utterly absurd when we have the sort of situation indicated by my hon. Friend of 93,000 electors in Hornchurch, 102,000 in Portsmouth, Langstone and 109,000 in Billericay while there are tiny constituencies like Manchester, Exchange with a mere 19,000 and Glasgow, Kelvingrove with 20,000. The problem becomes very serious when there is this contrast.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Shoreditch and Finsbury

Is the hon. Gentleman also aware that as a result of this enormous review there are certain areas in London where the new figure is to be 70,000 or more? If he is complaining that figures of 80,000 or 90,000 are too high, is not it absurd to increase the electorate in some areas in London? He will know them as well as I do, because he has no doubt done his homework. Therefore, I cannot see his argument. Given that some are large, the reports now coming out show that some are to be made even larger.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

What is needed is a much more sensible mean figure. The hon. Gentleman has discussed the draft reports. We shall see what comes out in the final Report. What he said is no argument against evening up, so far as is practicable. Under the 1958 Act, the terms of reference were made more flexible so that local considerations of boundaries, loyalties and so on could be taken more specifically into account. This was one of the improvements agreed upon by all parties. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's intervention does not take the matter much further. It is obviously absurd to have some constituencies with electorates of 109,000 and others with a mere 19,000 or so. It is necessary, therefore, that the Government act with speed as soon as they receive the final Report.

When does the Minister expect to get it? One hears that it is likely to come very shortly. We hope that that will be later in the spring, but as today is officially about the first day of spring we must hope that it will be just a little on into the spring or early summer. We should like the assurance that as soon as the Report is received the Government will act with expedition in implementing what it recommends

3.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

It might be convenient if I intervene at this stage to give the Government's view on the Bill. Bills are usually introduced to bring about a change that is demonstrably necessary, to deal with something that has not been done in the past. But if the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) looks to the past, he will see that in the early 1950s the then Labour Government distributed themselves out of office. The first Tory Government in the early 1950s was a minority Government. Therefore, the past gives the hon. Gentleman no reason to believe that this side of the House is motivated by political considerations.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

That was an admirable precedent.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

That may be so, but it ill becomes the party opposite to suggest that it has never been done. The Labour Party Government know exactly what to do. We are fully aware of our statutory obligations.

The Bill seeks to make a simple amendment to Section 2(5) of the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1949. Hon. Members have referred to the provisions of that subsection and I want to quote it in full because there are some aspects of it to which I shall refer. It says: As soon as may be after a Boundary Commission have submitted a report to the Secretary of State under this Act, he shall lay the report before Parliament together, except in a case where the report states that no alternation is required to be made in respect of the part of the United Kingdom with which the Commission are concerned, with the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, whether with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in the report. The Bill would substitute the words, Not more than two months for the words, as soon as may be". Accordingly, the Secretary of State of the day would be required to comply with his responsibilities under the Statute within a specific period, no matter what circumstances then existed.

Let us, first, consider what those responsibilities are. A Commission reaches its final conclusions and completes its report. Arrangements then have to be made for it to be printed and distributed to both Houses together with draft Orders in Council. The Act refers to a single draft Order but it has been the practice to prepare several, each relating to a group of constituencies. The purpose of this has been to facilitate debate in Parliament.

The effect of the requirement in Section 2(5), combined with the practice of the laying of Statutory Instruments generally, is that both the reports and draft Orders in Council must be presented and published simultaneously. So, after a report is received, some time must be allowed for all the necessary printing to be done. This can be a major task in the case of a general review.

Section 2(5) contemplates that draft Orders in Council may modify the recommendations contained in a report. The words of the Subsection are …together…with the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, whether with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in the report". Clearly, then, Parliament contemplated that the Government of the day should examine a report of a Commission and reach its conclusions on it before bringing it to Parliament. Time is needed for that and for the preparation of the draft Orders in Council and also, as I have said, for their printing.

Then there is the provision in Section 3(5) of the 1949 Act which provides that where any draft Order in Council gives effect to the recommendations of a Commission with modifications, the Secretary of State must at the same time lay before Parliament the draft of a statement of the reasons for the modifications. Accordingly, if modifications are proposed, time is needed for the preparation and printing of the statement. That is a brief outline of the administrative arrangements necessary following the submission of a report by a Boundary Commission. This Bill would allow a period of two months for their completion.

Section 2(5) of the 1949 Act is a consolidation of provisions which first appeared in Section 4(5) of the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1944, following a recommendation made by Mr. Speaker's Conference in May, 1944—Command Paper No. 6534, Recommendation No. 23. There was also a similar provision in Section 2 of the 1944 Act relating specifically to a review of abnormally large constituencies, which was a procedure followed at the time.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon has not provided evidence of an unjustified delay in the past. Indeed, he and the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) told us that the purpose of the Bill was to seek an assurance from the Government about their intentions with respect to the present general review. I remind the House, however, that the change proposed by the Bill will affect the reports not only of that review, but all reports made by the Commissions in future.

I return to what appears to be the main purpose of the Bill—to obtain some assurance from the Government that constituency boundaries will be altered before the next general election. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with this matter during the debate on electoral law on 14th October. He said, in effect, that the Government had taken no decisions in this matter and that they saw no reason to do so in advance of receiving the Commissions' reports; that he proposed to wait for the reports, give appropriate consideration to them and to bring the Government's conclusions before the House. He also indicated that, if the Commissions did not report until the autumn of 1969, the Reports of the Royal Commissions on Local Government in England and Scotland, which are also awaited, would be a factor which would need to be taken into account.

That is still the position. Neither the Reports of the Royal Commissions on Local Government nor the reports of the Boundary Commissions have yet been received. I find it absolutely extraordinary that everybody is talking as though my right hon. Friend had received the reports of the Boundary Commissions. They have not yet been received.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth that I have never used. I made it perfectly clear that I was making no imputation of bad faith against the Home Secretary or against the Government. I do not understand why heat has been engendered about something which I have not said.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The hon. Member proposes a Bill which alters the present procedures and says that no imputation is being made, but offers no evidence for a change. The evidence from past years shows that the Labour Party carries out its statutory obligations. With respect to the hon. Member, whom I respect in many other ways, this seems to be an effort on behalf of the Conservative Central Office. What I heard just now was that the Conservative Central Office has decided that redistribution is in the Conservatives' favour.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the reports have not yet been received and said that my hon. Friend was implying that they had been received and that there had been some hanky-panky. However, the Home Secretary said quite clearly, and I have his words before me, that the Boundary Commission was not required to report until November, 1969, although it was expected to report much sooner. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman saying that the Commissions have not yet reported.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I find it interesting to hear that they are expected to report shortly. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman, any hon. Gentleman, got that advice. It would be of great value to the Home Office to know.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. I remind the House that other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

It was suggested in The Times that this was likely. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm whether the Commissions are likely to report in the spring. Will he give the first assurance for which I asked, that the Royal Commissions on Local Government will not be used as a reason for delaying decisions?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I gather from my brief experience that it is not the practice to comment in the House on comment in newspapers, however distinguished?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I have already made the point that the reports on Local Government will be received later in the year, and they will be a factor to be taken into account, as my right hon. Friend stated.

The position is that we have not yet received the reports of the Boundary Commissions. If hon. Members opposite are expecting me this afternoon to announce the Government's intentions on the Boundary Commission's reports, not yet received, they are asking for the impossible. The Government propose to consider the recommendations and reach their conclusions on them in the light of circumstances when the reports are received.

The matter would then be in the hands of Parliament, and I remind the House that, under Section 3(5) of the 1949 Act, if a draft Order is rejected by either House, or withdrawn by leave of either House, the Secretary of State may amend the draft and lay an amended draft. Accordingly, the question of the period between the submission of a Boundary Commission report and the implementation of changes in constituency boundaries depends to some extent on Parliament itself.

The effect of Section 3 of the Interpretation Act, 1889 would be that the period of two months—or three months: the hon. Gentleman said that he would make it a little longer if necessary, but we will stick to two for this argument—would be two calendar months and not two months of Parliamentary time. It is not inconceivable that a Boundary Commission could report just before a Dissolution. Under the proposed time limit, there would be precious little time after a General Election to consider the recommendations and bring the reports and draft Orders before Parliament. Moreover, with a period of two calendar months, there could be some technical difficulties if the reports and draft Orders had to be presented to Parliament by a certain date which happened to fall in a Parliamentary recess.

The Government's view is that the existing words "as soon as may be" in Section 2(5) of the 1949 Act are the most appropriate. They were no doubt wisely chosen by those responsible for their inclusion first of all in the 1944 Act. The words take into account the fact that the amount of work flowing from the recommendations in a report can vary according to the magnitude of the alterations recommended. For example, action could be taken fairly quickly or. an interim report under Section 2(3) which recommended only minor alterations of particular constituency boundaries to bring them into line with altered local government boundaries, but a great deal of work might be necessary following a general review of all constituencies, because many alterations might have to be made.

The provisional recommendations of the English Commission which have been published locally in the constituencies affected over the past two or three years seem to show that many changes of constituency boundaries would flow from the final recommendations of the Commission. The Government think it right that they should have time to consider the Commission's final recommendations thoroughly before bringing them before Parliament. In their view, the present law recognises their right to do this and they cannot accept the Amendment proposed in the Bill.

It is perhaps not inappropriate for me to end by saying that Bills of this nature are normally Government Measures preceded by consultations between the parties. The hon. Member for Wimbledon would no doubt take the view that such consultations are difficult for a private Member. Perhaps so, but that makes it even more clear that the Bill's purpose is to get the Government to say what they propose to do about the Boundary Commissions' reports before they have received them. The Government propose to examine the reports thoroughly when they are submitted. Accordingly, they oppose the amendment of the law which the Bill seeks to make and advise the House to reject it. I can only repeat the words of my right hon. Friend on 13tn February when, speaking of the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) he said: The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be well aware that I am aware of my statutory obligations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th February, 1969; Vol. 777, c. 1544.]

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. I have called two Members of the Opposition, and I am now calling the second Member from the Government side.

3.44 p.m.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

I deplored the political remarks made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) in introducing the Bill. The Bill is concerned basically with the democratic process. The hon Member was concerned that, because of the present rapid changes in population, it was important that certain electoral changes took place so as to maintain, as far as possible, the democratic character of our elections. But I have a horrible suspicion that the results even of these Boundary Commissions will not basically further this democratic procedure.

Hon. Members opposite have mentioned particularly constituencies like Billericay, with an electorate of 109,000, and, on the other hand, Ladywood, with about 19,000. What they have not mentioned is that there are in Britain constituencies like Merionethshire with an electorate of 25,000, Caithness and Sutherland with 26,000, and Orkney and Shetland with about 24,000. Even after the proposed redistribution, that type of constituency would remain.

Effectively, therefore, there would be many English constituencies with a figure of nearer 50,000, but in Wales and Scotland there would remain abnormally small constituencies in terms of numbers. I accept that there may be good geographical argument for those constituencies, and I will return to this presently. Basically, however, what would be left after the redistribution is the fact that, in some senses, some Welshmen are equivalent to two Englishmen. Whereas some of us would never quibble with that fact, some of us, perhaps, have doubts whether one Scotsman is equivalent to two Englishmen. Clearly, therefore, it cannot be said that this redistribution is the ultimate answer to the problem of maintaining the democratic nature of the electorate.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

Would not the hon. Member agree, however, that it is far more important than the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, for example, in maintaining the democratic process?

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

I would not hesitate, perhaps, to agree on that point. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said——

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Shoreditch and Finsbury

In discussing the democratic process, will not my hon. Friend remind the House of the time in 1963 when the City of London, the most appalling rotten borough in the business, was left as a deliberate attempt by the Conservatives to retain it? This is an example of talking about democratic processes in the House but the Tory Party outside doing the exact reverse.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

I quite agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments. We have only to look across the water to the position in Northern Ireland if we want to extend this discussion on the democratic process.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has referred to the great changes which are taking place. There is the problem of the redistribution of local government boundaries. There is the question of the 3 million-plus—we are not certain exactly how many—young voters who will be coming on to the electoral register. As the hon. Member for Wimbledon mentioned, the nature of population movements is far more complex than ever before. We can, therefore, say that the questions of Parliamentary boundaries and electoral size in general are becoming more and more complex.

It seems to me, therefore, that the arguments are not in favour of the Bill, which would precipitate the action of my hon. Friend the Minister, but are rather in favour of greater delay and consideration. The time is, perhaps, reasonable for us now to look at the whole problem of constituencies and the electoral process. It may be that something more is required than merely changing boundaries in the way proposed.

It has been suggested that we should have multiple representation. Certainly it would overcome some of the problems of small constituencies in Wales and Scotland because we could have two hon. Members for larger, less populated areas and perhaps three hon. Members for more compact, highly populated urban areas, and the same might apply to parts of England. This would provide something nearer the statistical type of democracy which hon. Gentlemen opposite are seeking, because it would be as near as one could get to the "one man one vote" principle.

The CLERK ASSISTANT at the Table informed the House of the unavoidable absence of Mr. SPEAKER.

Whereupon Mr. SYDNEY IRVING, The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, took the Chair as DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to the Standing Order.

3.52 p.m.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

I hope that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Gwilym Roberts) will forgive me if I do not pursue him into the fastnesses of Wales and Scotland in an attempt to weigh up the values of the various nationalities. He gave away the game when he acknowledged that there were geographical conditions which might make a difference to the electoral figures.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the latter part of my argument was designed to point out that by having multiple representation we should in the end secure a system whereby every man's vote would elect an equivalent part of an hon. Member, which is what I believe hon. Gentlemen are trying to achieve?

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

The hon. Gentleman is making the whole thing unnecessarily complicated.

The Minister suggested that this was a case for a Government Bill after consultation between the two parties. In view of the experience of the House on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, over which, we gather, there was consultation between the two Front Benches, is the Minister's suggestion a good one? Hon. Members are finding the results of that consultation singularly unacceptable in the face of the Government's trying to force through the Measure against the wish of the House as a whole.

The Minister then suggested that the Labour Party had redistributed itself out of office in 1951. That is a doubtful proposition. Rather than placing a halo over his head for his party having taken that sort of action, and instead of making the public wait the statutory time, he should urge his colleagues to go to the country now; and then we shall all be able to judge the result.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Essex South East

I must correct an impression which the Minister gave earlier. The redistribution took place not in the Parliament of 1950–51 but prior to the 1950 election, and that election was won by the Labour Party. Thus, the redistribution did not have an adverse effect on hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing my remarks about the Minister's earlier proposition.

The Government also take the view that my hon. Friend's suggestion of two months is not satisfactory because of the time that would be needed for printing and so on. That is no ground for rejecting the Bill. My hon. Friend made it clear that he was not wedded to the period of two months. In any event, the Minister did not say what he thought the period should be. Does he think it should be three or four months?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I said that it should remain as soon as maybe, which is even better.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

I will come to that. When I was asked to be a sponsor of the Bill and I looked into the matter, I was astonished to find that the present situation rested on an expression so vague and meaningless as "as soon as may be", which can mean whatever one wishes it to mean, or nothing at all.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Is the view that has just been expressed the considered view of the Opposition?

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

The hon. Gentleman cannot hold me responsible for my entire party, any more than he speaks for his whole party on matters like the Parliament (No. 2) Bill. I speak for myself, and I find the expression "as soon as may be" vague and woolly. It suits the hon. Gentleman at the moment to continue with such a phrase, and I will tell him why in a moment. I regard it as being quite unacceptable, whichever party is in power, that there should be the possibility of delay. My hon. Friend was taking a non-party line on this, and I agree with him.

During the last 15 years since the boundaries have been redrawn there have been enormous changes in Hertfordshire and Essex, caused by the large influx of people from London to the new towns. This has completely thrown out of balance the way in which the constituency boundaries have been drawn. In any event, however quickly the Government get on to issuing the Order in Council, we shall always be a bit behind the times. Two years have probably elapsed since the Boundary Commission made its proposals for Hertfordshire and for Essex, and there have been public inquiries——

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

This is an interesting point. The hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government are allowed to bring in modifications to take into account changes since the earlier considerations.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

I am not objecting to the Government bringing in modifications. I am saying that the time required should be quantified. I may come to him later to ask for modifications of certain constituencies where there is dissatisfaction with the proposals which have been made.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

This all takes time, after the report has been received; that is the point.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

Yes, it all takes time, and it may be that the time should be tied to the date on which the modifications have been made, but it is clear that the vague phrase "as soon as may be" allows too much room for unattractive manoeuvre.

If we know that the proposition which will be put to the House will be on figures which are already two years out of date, it is absurd to allow that position to drift on. It may be that a Government may not be making allowance for the changes which have since taken place and are working on the figures which they have before them. It is a question of how long it takes to decide the modifications.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Shoreditch and Finsbury

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the most important factor is the coming into effect of votes at 18. This represents an enormous change of pattern. Any Government would have to take into account the distribution of 3½ million 18-year-olds and its impact on certain areas. It must obviously take far longer than two months to deal with it.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

The hon. Gentleman is saying what I expected to hear from the other side, and making any excuse for delay in coming to a decision. I dare say he will find that the 18-year-olds will not greatly affect the position. They are probably fairly evenly spread throughout the country and will not make much difference to the size of the constituencies.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

The case being made out by the hon. Gentleman is the case that I was trying to put forward, that the problem is becoming more and more complex, and now is the time when the Government should look at the whole problem of the electoral process to see how it can be made more democratic.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

That is almost another speech, rather than an intervention. My point is that, over and over again, the Government——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday, 18th April.