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Constituency Electorates

Oral Answers to Questions — Constitutional Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 28th February 2006.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham 2:30 pm, 28th February 2006

If she will make a statement on Government policy on equalising the number of registered electors per parliamentary constituency.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Parliamentary Boundary Commission reviews parliamentary boundaries according to the number of registered electors and other geographical and community factors. It will next report to the Government by April next year. That report will be laid before this House, and its proposals will be in force for the next general election.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

I thank the Minister for that answer, but does she accept that our democracy is being damaged by unequal representation in this House? In that regard, I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend Mr. Maples through his Parliamentary Constituencies (Equalisation) Bill. There are 239 constituencies in this country that diverge by more than 10 per cent. from the national average. They are not confined to English rural areas: my constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham in inner London has 79,807 electors, is the 57th largest in the UK and is more than 16 per cent. larger than the average. What proposals does she have to amend the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to correct those undemocratic disparities and to make more frequent boundary reviews—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I think that the Minister has probably got the point.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I should like to thank the boundary commission for the very difficult work that it does. It is not party political, and every hon. Member has an axe to grind with it but, by and large, the House should have confidence in its work, which is independent, neutral and based on research and consultation. The smallest UK constituency—Na h-Eileanan an Iar, in Scotland, formerly the Western Isles—has only 23,000 electors because it is an island. However, the largest has 107,000 electors, but that is also because it is an island. We must take account of geographical factors, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in looking for the estimated 17,000 unregistered voters in his constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham who do not have the right to vote.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Will my right hon. and learned Friend say what is the Government's policy in respect of equalising the number of residents who are eligible to be registered as electors in each parliamentary constituency? That is a more important question. Merely to equalise the number of people registered would discriminate against people in the inner cities and those who live in private rented accommodation or houses of multiple occupation or who belong to the black and ethnic minority communities. All of those people are less likely to register in practice.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The boundary commission bases its estimate of a constituency's size on the number of registered electors. If 500,000 possible electors were missing from the register in London, for example, that total would amount to the number of voters in eight parliamentary constituencies. My hon. Friend Emily Thornberry told us about what is happening with her council, but perhaps Simon Hughes should get on to his friends on that local authority and ask them to deal with the same problem there.

Another problem has to do with the electoral administration canvassers who go around knocking on doors to find the hard-to-register voters. There are only 64 such canvassers in Barnet, but in Southwark we have 170. All areas should aspire to the standards of the best in their work to find our unregistered voters.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Surely the Minister is not saying that we should count people who are not registered to vote. How could we possibly guess who they were, or how many of them there were? However, a party that gains the majority of voters in England but ends up with 93 fewer seats cannot say that the system is fair. We need a system that is genuinely fair, so that first past the post works, rather than a flawed proportional representation system. Should not the boundary commission rules be changed so that there is a fixed electoral quota in constituencies across the UK? The Minister may say that the country has plenty of islands, but in reality there are not that many. An equal quota should be the general rule, and the boundary commission's rules need to be changed.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I confess that I am not following the hon. Gentleman's line of argument—but I hope that he is not criticising the way in which the boundary commission goes about its work. The House agreed, on an all-party basis, what the framework for the boundary commission should be, and that is the framework on which it operates. I am saying that we should estimate the number who are not registered and get those people registered; then the boundary commission's basis would be much more robust.