Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:55 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Frank Doran Frank Doran Labour, Aberdeen North 5:55 pm, 6th September 2010

I want to address the issue of boundaries and, as a Member from the north of Scotland, particularly the issue raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Straw about the way in which it seems the rules are to be changed and moved about to facilitate certain hoped-for outcomes.

The north of Scotland loses out badly under this Bill, because we have more than our fair share of large and sparsely populated constituencies representing remote and rural areas. It is agreed, of course, that there should be special provision for Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, as there has been for many decades, but the Deputy Prime Minister also declared at the outset of this whole process

"that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now".

He went on to spell that out, saying that his party colleague, Mr Kennedy, represented

"a constituency that is by far the largest in the country" and that the Government would take

"the cue from his constituency"-[ Hansard, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 25-29.]

The Deputy Prime Minister had, of course, already said that every mainland seat would have to have an electorate between 95% and 105% of the UK average electorate, which in current terms means between about 73,000 and 80,000 voters. I apologise for all the figures that I will mention. However, that did not help the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, because his electorate is far too small-just short of 52,000-and no amount of Government spin-doctoring can add 21,000 voters to a rural constituency without adding a single hectare of land.

In a press story in July, it was pointed out that the suggestion that Ross, Skye and Lochaber could continue unchanged was fundamentally wrong for two reasons. The first was the legal requirement to add more than 20,000 electors, which was not possible without taking a couple of wards in the city of Inverness from the constituency of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury-which would obviously be undesirable. Of course that would make the seat larger than it is now, even if only by a few square kilometres.

The Deputy Prime Minister had an answer to that, however. In the Bill he has set the cap on size of constituency at not

"just shy of 13,000 sq km" as he had promised, but at exactly 13,000 sq km, which is enough to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber to add some 285 sq km and so, perhaps, 21,000 voters in the city of Inverness. More importantly, the Deputy Prime Minister had gone back on his insistence a few days earlier that there would be no more concessions to special cases. The Deputy Prime Minister had said on 5 July:

"As for the basis upon which the boundary commissions will make their decisions, the exceptions on the face of the Bill will be very limited-for obvious reasons, the two island constituencies that I set out, and the geographical cap in size that I specified."-[ Hansard, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 29.]

No doubt that was the deal: exceptions for two seats to preserve Orkney and Shetland under the new regime and a guarantee that Ross, Skye and Lochaber would not be made any bigger, in exchange for a promise that the Liberal Democrats would not seek any more exceptions but would deliver what the Prime Minister and Conservative central office wanted and face down Back-Bench dissent from either Government party.

On 22 July, however, a new concession appeared: that a constituency would be exempted from the rule requiring it to have an average-sized electorate in the event that it had a land area of over 12,000 sq km, so long as the boundary commission concerned is

"satisfied that it is not reasonably possible for the constituency to comply with that rule."

There is, of course, only one constituency currently with a land area in that magic category of between 12,000 and 13,000 sq km: Ross, Skye and Lochaber. However, in spite of his party leader's best efforts, the problem for the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber has not been solved. In fact I think it is arguable that it has only been more cruelly exposed.

The Deputy Prime Minister himself had said that Ross, Skye and Lochaber was "by far the largest" constituency in Britain, and that is indeed the case. There is a vast difference in land area between that seat, at 12,715 sq km, and the second largest constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross at 8,711 sq km. The Deputy Prime Minister's party colleague, John Thurso, may never have been leader of the Liberal Democrats, but his problem is none the less the same: with only 47,000 electors in a large rural constituency, he needs to find another 25,000 voters if he is to meet the requirements of the legislation.

Worse still, there is only one mainland constituency neighbouring Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in which extra voters or hectares can be found. Bringing the hon. Gentleman's seat up to size will require large additions from Ross, Skye and Lochaber and perhaps also from Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Despite the Deputy Prime Minister's best efforts, the Bill must result in three new constituencies in place of the four currently representing the areas of Highland and Argyll, and the seat most likely to disappear if the Boundary Commission for Scotland operates in its normal way, whether it comes from south to north or north to south, is Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Thus, perhaps during the passage of the Bill we will see yet another concession and yet another crude attempt to protect Liberal Democrat seats in the highlands from the logic of the Conservative drive to cut Scottish seats. If we do, it will expose yet further the sheer cynicism and party political opportunism behind this measure.