House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 19th October 2010.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 341, page 6, line 35, leave out '2013' and insert '2018'.
Amendment 342, page 6, line 36, leave out 'fifth' and insert 'tenth'.
Amendment 38, page 6, line 36, at end insert-
'(3A) After subsection (2) there is inserted-
"(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.".'.
Amendment 70, in clause 9, page 7, line 32, at end insert-
'(1A) This rule is subject to an independent assessment of the Boundary Commission as to the potential electorate within any area where the Commission, having consulted-
(a) the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Registration Officer of the local authority or authorities in that area,
(c) such other organisations and individuals whom the Boundary Commission may choose to consult, determine that the difference between the registered electorate and the assessed numbers eligible to be registered is so significant as to give rise to concern about the number of people to be served within such constituencies as would otherwise be created by rule 2(1) above.'.
Amendment 125, page 10, line 2, leave out from 'persons' to end of line 6 and insert
'who are estimated by the Office of National Statistics to be eligible to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections, whether or not they are so registered to vote.'.
Amendment 135, in clause 16, page 13, line 5, at end insert
'with the exception of Part 2, which will not come into force until-
(a) after the referendum on the determination of powers devolved to the National Assembly for Wales under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006; and
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported to the House of Commons, that over 95% of eligible voters in each local authority area are estimated to be on the electoral register.'.
I presume that once we have been through the amendments, we might then have a clause stand part debate, but maybe you will wish to return to that matter later, Mr Gale, having seen how the debate proceeds.
As the Committee will know, we are now moving into part 2 of the Bill, and into what I believe to be its directly partisan elements. Clause 8 provides for a complete change in how the boundary commissions will proceed, and particularly in the speed with which they will produce their reports. The Government say in subsection (3):
"A Boundary Commission shall submit reports under subsection (1) above periodically...before 1st October 2013, and...before 1st October of every fifth year after that."
The last part of that presumes that another Bill that is currently going through the House, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, will not only be carried but remain precisely as it stands. It assumes that we will have five-year Parliaments.
I have pointed out before to the Deputy Prime Minister that the average length of a British Parliament in peacetime since 1832 has been three years and eight months. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some five-year Parliaments, not least the previous one and the final Parliament of John Major's Government, for the most part the British political system has tended to move more or less in a three and a half to four and a half-year cycle. It would make far more sense for us to proceed on the basis of a four-year Parliament than a five-year Parliament, especially since I find remarkably few instances of the latter around the world.
The existing process for boundary reviews is that they proceed on a seven-year basis. That is partly because after the Triennial Act 1641 originally provided for three-year Parliaments, there was later a move to seven-year Parliaments. As a result of the Parliament Act 1911, Parliaments were changed to five years, but without a change in the seven-yearly boundary reviews.
The assumption has always been that the boundary commissions in each nation of the UK are independent. That has not changed, except that an overriding provision is to be arrived at before each national commission considers the matter. The Government intend that there should be boundary commission reports on the whole country by
"within twelve months of Part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010"- this Bill-
"coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof", which of course provides for the entry into force of the Bill.
We believe that given the provisions that have been put together, not least those in clause 9 about the number of seats, it is a pretty tall order for the boundary commissions to achieve a review by 2013. Some argue that the six or seven years that they have previously taken is too long and carries the risk that population movements in the meantime are not taken into account. I have some sympathy with that view, and it may be possible to expedite a boundary review, but that would require additional resources. I ask the Minister who responds-I presume it will be the Deputy Leader of the House-what resources there will be.
Why are the Government proposing to have a review conducted in less than three years? After all, it would not even be a standard boundary review. They are proposing arguably the biggest, most controversial and most complicated redrawing of constituency boundaries since the departure of Irish MPs in 1921. The reason why the 1832 Great Reform Act is the largest Bill sitting rolled up in the parliamentary archives in the Victoria Tower is that it goes through each parliamentary constituency in the land in detail, making provision for each. The current Bill, however, will give the boundary commissions carte blanche and demand a review with a swiftness that may mean it does not meet the political necessities of the British constitution.
The Government intend to do all that, of course, on the basis of an entirely new set of inflexible mathematical rules that will mean factors such as geography, history and community being completely and utterly gazumped by the need to adhere unbendingly-or, to be fair to the Government, not entirely unbendingly but only very slightly bendingly-to a higher electoral quota. We will discuss that when we come to clause 9. If there were ever a case for arguing that seven years is an appropriate period for redrawing constituency borders, it is now, because every single constituency in the land is to be redrawn.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is right that the boundaries be redrawn, whether in three years or seven? Does he agree that it is almost absurd and bizarre that Labour can secure 70% of the MPs from Scotland with 42% of the vote? Surely that is wrong and must be challenged.
Obviously I would love Labour to secure every single seat in Scotland, but I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to entice me to talk about proportional systems, which are not the material of part 2. As he knows, I believe that there is a case for reform and for redrawing boundaries, but how do we decide how that should be done? More importantly in the context of clause 8, we have to consider what time should be allocated for a boundary commission to be able to carry out a review in a genuinely independent way that meets political needs. I understand that he may believe that the boundaries in Scotland are currently drawn up so as to benefit Labour over the Scottish National party, but I am not sure whether that is true.
That is exactly what I contend. It takes many fewer electors in Scotland to elect a Labour MP than one of any other party. The reason why I believe a boundary review is necessary is that there is something wrong with the fact that 42% of the voters in Scotland can elect 70% of its MPs. Surely that cannot be right. As a fair man, surely the hon. Gentleman will concede that it is wrong.
The hon. Gentleman knows that in majoritarian systems, there is a disproportionate benefit for parties that get beyond 40% of the vote. That is a simple fact, so in a sense, his argument is partly in favour of a change to the electoral system, which I am sure he supports, although I suspect he supports a fully proportional system rather than the one subject to the referendum. However, it is not true to suggest-as we read in some of the propaganda-that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative or Liberal MP. [ Interruption. ] I am not denying that that has happened, but it does not happen because of the drawing of the boundaries. It sometimes takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because of the tendency of likely Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters to live in certain areas.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the report by the British Academy entitled, "Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom"? It finds that a number of factors give rise to the apparent bias in the electoral system, but that constituency boundaries were worth 18 seats to the Labour party at the last general election. He is right to say that there are a number of factors, including the distribution of the vote, but Labour seats are smaller on average than Conservative seats. That independent analysis found that that was worth 18 seats to Labour at the last general election. Has he seen that report and would he like to comment on it?
I have seen the report and I agree with some elements of it. I agree with the bits that agree with me and disagree with the bits that disagree with me and that are unhelpful to my argument. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of the bits of the report that is not helpful to my argument, so I was not going to refer to it.
Contrary to the evidence offered by Gavin Barwell, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant might be aware that some extensive work by the university of Liverpool that was reported on "Newsnight" in the third week of August showed that the proposed mathematical formula and the arbitrary reduction from 650 to 600 seats would result in a 13% loss for the Liberal Democrats, a 10% loss for the Labour party, but only a 4% loss for the Conservatives.
I happened to see that programme, and it helps my argument, so I am quite happy to refer to it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's honest answer to my question, and I do not mean to be unhelpful to his argument, but if he accepts that analysis-
The hon. Gentleman must do a little better in explaining why he does not accept that analysis. If, as the independent British Academy report suggests, the current boundary system favours the Labour party, albeit in a minor way, does he accept that it is unreasonable to allow that unfairness to continue, and does he agree that it should be addressed before the next general election?
There are a lot of misconceptions in relation to the supposed benefits or otherwise of the system to the Labour party. For instance, I heard frequently during the general election-this is before Cleggmania rose and fell-that the system was unfair because the Conservatives would need to be 10 points ahead to gain a majority. That is not precisely the hon. Gentleman's point, which I will come to in a moment, but many people forget that the difference between winning an election and winning a majority is significant in our system. However the boundaries are drawn, the moment a party gets over the 40% mark in a majoritarian system such as ours, it tends to do rather better than its share of the vote would suggest.
The reason why parties or people do well in a majoritarian system when they get more than 40% of the vote is that the first-past-the-post-system was really designed for two players. A third or fourth player complicates first past the post and renders it idiotic, but for chaos theory.
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's pronunciation of the word "renders", but other than that, I am not sure I agree with his point. It is true that in elections in the previous century, the Conservative and Labour parties secured something like 95% or 96% of the vote and that in the last election, we secured considerably less than that. That is one reason why we ended up with a hung Parliament. However, I do not see how that bears on my point, which is that in a majoritarian system, once a party gets more than 40% of the vote-many think that this is the great benefit of that system-it tends to find it rather easy to get not just a majority, but a fairly hefty one.
We can try to work out how many votes it takes to elect a Scottish National party MP or a Labour MP, but the distribution of seats, turnout and the number of candidates standing are bigger factors than boundaries. My hon. Friend and I would have no objection to a quick boundary review if it were seen to be fair, and if there were a right of appeal against Boundary Commission decisions.
My hon. Friend makes precisely the point that I have laboriously tried to make, and far more succinctly. He is right that a wide range of factors pertain to the different number of votes it takes to elect Labour and Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats are not in contention in a large number of seats in the country but none the less gain 15% or 20% of the vote nationally. They accumulate a lot of votes around the country, but do not necessarily secure seats in the House of Commons. That is one function of the majoritarian system. I do not think that the number of votes necessary for election indicates fairness or unfairness in relation to drawing the boundaries. Short of gerrymandering the boundaries so that the pockets of Lib Dem voters around the country ended up in the same constituencies, we would be unable to overcome that element of unfairness.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a third time. I completely agree with his argument on the number of voters that it takes to elect MPs from certain parties. However, for the benefit hon. Members who have not seen it, the British Academy report shows that the average electorate in Labour seats is significantly lower than the average electorate in Conservative seats. Even after we strip out factors such as turnout and the advantageous concentration of the Labour vote in certain parts of the country, a partisan advantage is still derived from the way in which the boundaries are drawn. In the average Labour seat, there are just over 69,000 electors, but in the average Conservative seat, there are just over 73,000. That is unfair. Should it not be corrected before the next election?
I have said several times already in the course of these debates that there should be a greater drive towards equalisation. However, as we will debate under clause 9, I do not want the drawing of our constituencies to be merely mathematical. Other things must be taken into consideration.
One factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that the United Kingdom is made of four distinct countries, with four distinct constitutional settlements. Therefore, to proceed on a purely mathematical basis is completely incorrect. We must take into account the constitutional settlements in place in the respective countries, a point of which I know my hon. Friend is very well aware.
My hon. Friend has been making extremely sensible remarks on such issues ever since he and I were at university together, and he makes an important point now.
I say this to Gavin Barwell, who has intervened three times: changing the boundaries in the way that he suggests will not of itself make the dramatic difference that he thinks it will make. My argument on clause 8 is that there is a real danger that the boundary commissions will be unable to redraw every single constituency in the land with proper diligence and sheer impartiality using a mathematical equation. Of course, they can bear other things in mind, but not if a proposed constituency strays outside the mathematical equation.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the representatives of the boundary commissions for each part of the UK gave evidence to the Select Committee on that point, saying that what they will be required to do by the Bill can be done properly, reasonably and in a measured and correct way?
Yes, I know that they have said that, and of course they would say that, wouldn't they? If they are required by Parliament to do that, they will undoubtedly do their best to achieve it. However, to be able to do so for 600 or 650 constituencies-whatever number we end up with-will be difficult in a completely changed system without dramatically increased resources. The only way it can be achieved in that time is to get rid of the due process-the public inquiries. Getting rid of those inquiries is likely to destabilise people's understanding of their parliamentary constituency, and that is a retrograde step. Without due process, it is difficult to proceed in the way that is being suggested.
Surely the important factor is not what the boundary commissions think, but what the public will make of this process. Is not the real danger that the rushed approach and the huge changes that will be made to constituency boundaries will mean that the public will come to see the boundary commissions as partisan and unfair, as opposed to independent and objective?
Indeed. The Electoral Reform Society has produced two versions of what might happen in Wales with a reduced number of seats. The suggestion for the Rhondda, the parliamentary constituency in which I take most interest-as hon. Members will not be surprised to learn-is that the Rhondda Fach should be split, with the north end being put in one constituency and the south in another. It also suggests that one of the wards should be split in half. That would be bizarre.
Any of us could swiftly split the country up in that way, probably in less than a week, but that does not necessarily mean that the result would be the right constitutional settlement for this country or an appropriate approach to take. Members of Parliament should have roots in their local communities-not personally, but their office should have roots in the local community-and the number of voters in each constituency should be broadly equal around the country. However, constituencies also need to match the political structure in the local area, and that is an important factor. Balancing all those factors cannot be done swiftly.
The hon. Gentleman may be overestimating the complexity of this task. Gloucestershire has six MPs and almost exactly the right population for six MPs under the new system, so very little adjustment will be needed there. That could also be true in large parts of the country, and he may be extrapolating too much from the Rhondda valley.
That smacked a little of "I'm all right, Jack" to me. The problem is not only what happens in Gloucestershire and the boundary commissions cannot bear in mind only what happens there. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and Mr Harper are united on the proposal that Gloucestershire should retain six seats. The point is that neighbouring counties may not have sufficient numbers and may have to nick population from somewhere else. When we come to the divvying up of boundaries, that is one of the issues to which I wish to refer, and I have some examples. However, just as we should not look at the whole country on the basis of what will happen in the Rhondda, nor should we look at it in relation to what happens in Cheltenham.
Unlike in Gloucestershire, we have just over 30,000 households in Liverpool that are not on the register, which means that the number of MPs will probably be reduced from five to four, and my hon. Friend Steve Rotheram received a parliamentary answer that confirmed that it was conceivable that a constituency in Liverpool could be split by the River Mersey.
That is the sort of thing that makes sheer nonsense of the situation. Indeed, I believe that someone in Cornwall is on hunger strike because of their objection to the proposals. My hon. Friend mentioned a constituency being split by a river: for those in the Rhondda, having half the Rhondda Fach allied with the Rhondda Fawr, and the other half with the Cynon Valley is almost as difficult a concept to grasp.
The speed with which this will have to be done and the fact that the public inquiries will be dispensed with are key points. In the last two boundary commission reviews in Northern Ireland, both public inquiries led to changes in the recommendations, and that gave the public confidence in the boundaries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is foolish to sweep that aside?
I presumed that the hon. Lady would speak with some authority, as she is a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission and knows her stuff. She is right: if there is no due process, with a proper opportunity for people to provide oral evidence to a public inquiry, the public cannot be carried along with the changes to the boundaries. That is why it will be difficult to perform this function to the timetable that the Government suggest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are doing a jigsaw with 600 pieces instead of 650 pieces, every piece will be different, so it is naïve to think that significant changes will not be necessary across the whole country?
That is certainly true. Should the boundary commissions start from the south of England and work their way upwards with their mathematical equations? When the process starts, how often should the boundary commissions allow themselves to use the 95% rule and how often they should force themselves to use the 105% rule? In addition, my hon. Friend Ian Lucas made the good point that the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has always been constituted on the basis of its four constituent parts. The consideration has always been first that there should be X parliamentary seats for, say, Wales, and then those seats have been distributed within that area. That is a more constitutionally wise way to proceed.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in Wales we are looking at county council boundaries, which is causing all sorts of chaos. Some of my wards have registration levels of 70% to 75%, but in others registration levels are 95%. So the decisions will not be made on the true population levels of the seats.
My hon. Friend is right. There are many reasons why electoral registration is so low in certain communities, and in some cases people do not want to register because they do not want to pay council tax-a residue from the original attempt to introduce the poll tax-and others might not want it to be known that they are living in a particular house. In some urban areas, with a highly mobile population, many people are not registered because the process of registering is so difficult. We make it virtually impossible for someone to register at any one time, and that is one of the problems that we need to overcome.
Several interventions ago my hon. Friend was destroying the complacency of Martin Horwood. He made the case that county boundaries will not necessarily be taken into account in working out constituency seats. Does that not show something that has not really come out in this debate and the public discussion, which is that it is most unlikely, if these proposals go ahead, that any hon. Member will ever again represent the same constituency from one election to another?
Order. The Front-Bench spokesman asked whether there would be a stand part debate. As is generally known, I take a fairly relaxed view about these things, but we can have a stand part debate only once, and it seems to me that we are having it now.
Although you said it with a wry smile, Mr Gale, you make an eminently sane point.
My hon. Friend Graham Stringer also makes a good point, which is that we are to do this every five years. In other words, between each election, every Member's boundaries could be redrawn. That does not provide any political stability to constituents. It is already difficult enough for most members of the public to know who their MP is. It is one of the embarrassing things about the British political system that very few people know who their MP is.
I hate to refer again to the Rhondda, but it is probably easier for people there to know not the name of their MP-I am not asserting that-but that their MP is the MP for Rhondda, because they know that they live in the Rhondda. Most people do not know the name of their constituency, so when the MP for Middle Wallop comes on television, they do not know whether they live in Middle Wallop, Upper Wallop or Nether Wallop. That matters because it is about ensuring that MPs are not deracinated from the politics around them.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The point is that all Members of the House elected to take part in the law-making process of our Parliament should come here with equal weight and represent an equal number of people, regardless of whether they are in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales, and regardless of whether they are from a mountain, a hillside, a valley or an inner city. It is the principle of democracy that matters.
I completely and utterly disagree with the hon. Lady. Of course one ought to strive towards equality in representation, but that is simply not the British way of creating the House of Commons. Historically, we said, "Okay, the shires need to be represented", and consequentially the knights of the shires were brought into the first Parliament in the 13th century-incidentally, the only reason we know the names of any of those who first attended is that they presented their expenses chits and had them paid. Then we decided that the towns and villages needed representation, because the principle was that representation was based on communities-it was communities that were represented here. It was not just about the mathematical calculating machine system for deciding constituencies. There are countries that have used that system. The United States of America uses it for its House of Representatives. In fact, that is what led to the concept of gerrymandering-it was, I think, a Governor of Massachusetts, Mr Gerry, who was the first person to create a constituency designed to get him re-elected, and it was in the shape of a salamander.
May I return to the earlier point about urban under-registration, because it is an important point in seats such as mine? However, that is an operational matter for the electoral registration officer and the Electoral Commission; it is not an excuse for perpetuating a bias in the electoral system in favour of small urban seats. It is an important matter, but let us not confuse two things.
The hon. Gentleman is right in a sense, although I expect that the under-registration in his constituency is nowhere near as high as it is in, for example, Hackney North and Stoke Newington or Hackney South and Shoreditch, which have much more mobile populations, in part because the people there do not own their own homes and because of the ethnic mix. Clear evidence has also been provided showing that people from black and ethnic minority groups and poor people are far less likely to register. We need to bear that in mind. I shall refer to that again when we discuss how many MPs there should be.
Mrs Laing said that we should have mathematical purity when drawing boundaries. Wales has 22 local authorities. That was not our choice: they were given to us by Mr Redwood when he was Secretary of State for Wales. It is a crazy number, and would make it very difficult to draw boundaries without crossing in some cases more than one local authority boundary. That is a political problem.
The problem that the hon. Gentleman is trying to explain occurs under the current rules. There are plenty of constituencies in this Parliament that cross local authority boundaries. We already have and deal with the problem to which he alludes.
I am terribly sorry, but I missed the hon. Gentleman's point.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that, if we go for greater electoral equality, we will have seats that cross local authority boundaries, but there are already significant numbers of Members representing seats that cross local authority boundaries. Lots of London seats cross London borough boundaries. [Interruption.] No, the London borough of Croydon is not crossed, but the neighbouring borough of Bromley has a seat that crosses into Lewisham, and that applies to the seats of lots of hon. Members. It is perfectly straightforward.
Yes, there are seats at the moment that cross regional boundaries. The seat of Brigg and Goole is in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
I am not sure who is giving way to whom now. The hon. Gentleman makes a point, and it sounds like he is happy with crossing those boundaries- [Interruption.] And clearly the Minister is relaxed about it as well. However, I am less relaxed about it. There is already a problem with it, but there is no need to exacerbate it.
Political boundaries are one thing-in the end they are in our minds, they are a political construct-but geographical and cultural boundaries are not just boundaries that we have imposed; they have been given to us by others.
Further to the intervention from Greg Hands about adopting an approach of mathematical purity and equality, he will be aware of my amendment 70 on taking into account concerns about voter registration levels across the country. This is not merely a technical matter for registration officers. As I suggest, it should be a matter for the discretion of the Boundary Commission when it takes into account the relative weight of a population in an area, bearing in mind the indicative registration levels that should apply in that area, whether it be urban or rural.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The pattern of under-registration is different in different parts of the country. The consistent bits are that poorer people and those who live in rented accommodation are less likely to register, black and ethnic minorities are less likely to register and the young are less likely to register. That is a problem.
I confess to the Committee, however, that Labour Members cannot preach overly on this issue because we failed to take some of the steps that could have been taken to change the electoral registration system. [Interruption.] Greg Hands says rather unfairly, with a scowl on his face, that we failed to take any measures. We took some measures, but we should have adopted the situation in Chile, where it is mandatory to register. I wish that we were moving towards that, but unfortunately the Minister completely disagrees.
I want to follow on from the point about under-registration. The response to Gavin Barwell, whose constituency I know quite well, is that, on average, there are more registered voters in Conservative seats than in Labour seats. The differences referred to are more than explained by that demographic bias. Many Labour seats contain as many people of voting age as Conservative seats. For example, Bradford West has an 18-plus population of 77,848, but the registered electorate is just 62,000. Bermondsey and Old Southwark is a starker example. There, the 18-plus population is more than 101,000, but only 76,000 people are registered. Does my hon. Friend accept that this is systematic bias against poorer people in Labour seats? If we compare the number of seats with the size of the 18-plus population, we see that there is no bias. This is about gerrymandering, not fairness.
My hon. Friend, now the Member for Swansea West, is right, in the sense that the level of registration makes a dramatic difference to the issues that were raised by Gavin Barwell, which were not sufficiently addressed by the British Academy report. It perhaps takes someone who is used to knocking on doors and discovering that the electoral register has large gaps in it to make that kind of analysis. My anxiety is that many local authorities do not engage in proper canvassing, and consequently seem to take a rather lackadaisical attitude towards getting people on to the register. Local authorities should be saying, "We know you exist, because you're being paid benefits. The least that we can do is put you on the electoral register and not make it almost impossible for you to register."
Does my hon. Friend believe that the forthcoming census, which comes only a few months after the arbitrary cut-off date in March and will cost £500 million, with 38,000 canvassers knocking on doors across the UK, could provide a fantastic opportunity to boost registration in constituencies such as mine, where more than 5,000 households are not on the register?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no reason why the census should not be able to engage in that activity. If people are going door to door, they could be doing more than one task. In addition, there will be profound embarrassment if, according to the census, the number of people eligible to register in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham, or wherever else, turns out to be considerably higher than the number of people who are registered, and yet constituencies have still been allocated solely on the basis of those who are registered.
I find this conversation difficult, because we have electoral registration officers whose job it is to get people on to the electoral register. That is their day job. In South Derbyshire, registration stands at some 98.5%, which is absolutely excellent and shows that it can be done. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that the job is too difficult to do. It is not too difficult to do.
In a sense, the hon. Lady makes my point for me. Registration in her constituency may be at 98%, but in many constituencies in the land it is closer to 80%. That is precisely the problem, because-to meet the point that Mrs Laing made-those are the places where there will be an inequity of representation if we proceed solely on the basis of what is proposed in the Bill.
I totally agree with Heather Wheeler. However, that is the point: the job can be done, but too many local authorities are interested only in doing a tick-box exercise, as if to say, "We sent the forms, we sent them again, we've sent someone round, and no one has replied," despite the fact that everyone knows that a number of people are living in the property concerned. However, as far as the local authority is concerned, it has done what it wants to do, but it is not prepared to put in the extra work to get those people on to the register.
That is true. Most local authorities are having to make fairly substantial cuts at the moment, and my anxiety is they will find their electoral registration budgets all too easy to cut, because people will think, "Well, you know, what's the real benefit of that?" From my perspective, if we are to achieve equity-which, broadly speaking, means achieving the equalisation of seats, but not absolute equalisation, to allow for where the Boundary Commission has an overriding concern, whether about a geographical community or the splitting of wards, which I hope all hon. Members would think was more complicated-then we need to change what the Bill currently provides for.
The Government propose a timetable of less than three years, which is artificially quick, even under the Bill's own terms. I do not see why the timetable has to be three years. According to clause 8(3), future reviews will be held on a five-yearly basis, but the initial, dramatic redrawing of boundaries is being tracked even faster than this apparent ideal. Why? Is the reason that the Government are trying to minimise the risks of the results being made out of date by interim changes in the population? There are significant parts of the country where population changes are moving swiftly. Is that the why the Government wish to move so fast? I suspect that that cannot be the reason, or else they would be proposing that three years should always be the period for boundary reviews.
I suspect that the truth is far less respectable. As the Deputy Prime Minister himself admitted in the House in July, the real reason for this rushed process is political convenience. He said that
"we need to start with the work of the boundary review as soon as possible in order that it can be concluded in the timetable that we have set out. That is why the boundary review will be based on the electoral register that will be published at the beginning of December this year."-[ Hansard, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 37.]
That is a circular argument.
Is the hon. Gentleman defending the status quo? Under the current system, we typically have boundary reviews every three Parliaments, with the population data that are fed in typically being about 10 years out of date. The new boundaries that were introduced in May were based on electoral registers from 2000, and they may still be in force in 2024 if we have three five-year Parliaments. Is he seriously defending the status quo, under which our data can be up to 24 years out of date?
I think that I am correct in saying that that system was set up by the previous Conservative Government, and no, I am not defending the status quo. I am not defending it in relation to the overall structure of the system that we ought to have, nor am I defending it in relation to the precise allocation of seats, and so on. As I have said several times in this debate, I would prefer to move towards closer equalisation. However, I want the boundary commissions to bear in mind other factors, which should include the political realities of the Union, along with ward and other political boundaries. Boundary commissions should also be able to bear in mind geographical features, such as rivers, islands and, in my case, valleys, as well as physical access, because it is pretty difficult to tie two places together that have no access between them.
The timetable for the boundary review is not driven by practical concerns about what would be suitable, but by crude and, I believe, partisan calculations that are the antithesis of the supposedly high constitutional principles that the Deputy Prime Minister invoked in his first speech in office. How quickly those noble ideals seem to have been cast aside. Back then he promised the
"biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes."
Is not the most iniquitous thing about this Bill that there has been no attempt to seek cross-party consensus, which has always happened in the past?
Not only that, but there has been absolutely no pre-legislative scrutiny. In particular-
Order. So far as I can see, we have debated most of clause 8 and a chunk of clause 9, and we are now moving on to clause 10. The hon. Gentleman has yet to move the first of a series of amendments to clause 8, many of which other hon. Members wish to speak to. I would be grateful if we returned to the amendment.
Many thanks, Mr Gale.
I was trying to argue that the Government want to move with precipitate haste towards producing a Boundary Commission report on
An Electoral Commission study published earlier this year found that under-registration was concentrated among specific social groups. That is why I believe that it would be inappropriate to move at the pace on which the Government are insisting, and why the amendments would be more appropriate. Greg Mulholland has tabled amendment 341, which proposes to leave out the date "2013" from the clause and insert "2018". That would be a more appropriate timetable, and if he were to press that amendment to a vote, we would want to support him. Mr Gale, I am grateful for the leniency that you have shown in this debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I must start by saying that I did not know that the word "majoritarian" existed until now, so, as a politics graduate, I have learned something new. I rise to speak in support of amendments 341 and 342. I am pleased to say that they are, in parliamentary terms and in common-sense terms, remarkably simple. Amendment 341 would simply delay the introduction of new boundaries following any boundary review, whatever its findings, until after the next but one general election. That would mean that the next election would be fought on the current boundaries, and that the new boundaries-whatever they might be-would be introduced afterwards, in time for the election in 10 years' time, if we have fixed-term Parliaments.
Amendment 342 relates to the regularity of boundary changes. Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of the process of introducing boundary changes. Every boundary review and change incurs a significant cost, which we should surely be concerned about in a time of austerity. They also cause chaos for the constituents of all hon. Members around the country, and for all the local authorities that have to work out the boundaries. Recently, I found out that one of my local pubs had been wrongly put into Leeds Central as a result of the latest boundary changes.
This illustrates the point of amendment 341. We introduced significant boundary changes for the election that took place just six months ago, and to ask the people of this country to understand why we are now going to redraw them again, even for a good reason, is simply not common sense. It is simply not acceptable.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he must accept that those boundary changes were based on figures collected almost 10 years ago. Also, does he accept the principle of the equalisation of the numbers of voters in constituencies?
Forgive me, but I do not think the hon. Lady has been listening to my comments very well, because I just said that I supported the principle of having more equal constituencies. I support that aim, although I also support many of the caveats relating to common-sense, physical boundaries and to local determination which other amendments deal with. However, I support equalisation as a principle.
I was listening to what the hon. Gentleman was saying, and I am still listening, but he is contradicting himself. If he agrees with the principle of equalising the number of electors in each constituency, he must accept that populations move and that their numbers change, and that there must therefore be boundary changes. If he is simply arguing that they are inconvenient for the boundary commissions, I do not think his argument is very strong.
I think the hon. Lady must be the only person in the Chamber who could possibly regard what I have said as a contradiction. I will tell the Committee who is inconvenienced by the boundary changes: it is the voters of this country, as well as Members of Parliament. There are constituents in this country who have been in four different constituencies in recent times. They simply do not know what parliamentary seat they are in, who their MP is or even who they will be allowed to support at the next election.
The hon. Gentleman is making the sensible case for equalisation rather than the illogical case for it. Does he agree that if such a profound change were to take place and if it were the view of Parliament, it would be right and proper to bring the measure in over a longer and more considered period of time, not least because the Government's proposal is not for an equalisation but for an equalisation plus or minus 5%? Thus a degree of discretion will be allowed, which is potentially arbitrary. It could be countered even on the principle of equalisation if there were the ability to have public inquiries and hearings based on the principle that the hon. Gentleman is advocating.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but let me make it clear again that I support the principle of having more equal constituencies. Indeed, we need to move towards such a system that recognises, as Mrs Laing said, that populations change. Clearly, that has to be recognised; it is why we have boundary changes now. It is also fair to say that those boundaries changes might be too infrequent and based on out-of-date data. However, that is an argument for having boundary changes every 10 years so that we have the same boundary at least for two consecutive general elections. Having different boundaries for every single general election is, frankly, absurd and would lead to utter electoral chaos.
The problem at the first redrawing would be one of the massive reconstruction of the whole country. With the second, third and subsequent redrawings, if there is such a word, there would be only marginal changes.
Indeed, but the hon. Gentleman makes my point because that huge initial change should not be rushed through, certainly not a mere five years after new constituency boundaries have been formed. He knows-I have said this to him in person-that I support his particular campaign for his area and his constituency to remain as one. He provides living proof of one of the very caveats I agree with to the principle of more equal constituencies, which I generally support.
Another issue that has not been discussed in relation to changing boundaries more regularly is that the elections for this Parliament are out of sync with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, for example, which happen between general elections but with the same boundaries. When the boundaries change, it can lead to the anomalous position whereby my constituents in Dundonald, for example, are part of the Belfast East parliamentary constituency for Westminster purposes-so I represent them-but they are represented by my Strangford colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are sometimes uncertain to which constituency they owe their loyalty and to whom they should go with their problems and difficulties. A level of confusion among the electorate is created. I think that is unhelpful if we want to get people more connected with politics, which is what will ultimately improve registration.
The hon. Lady reminds us that there are indeed many complications stemming from devolution in the three affected nations. As an English MP, however, my concern with devolution is that there is not yet a satisfactory solution for the English people at this stage-something for which I shall continue to push.
Whenever boundary changes are made or proposed, we see the disfranchisement of possibly hundreds of thousands of people. It results in two classes among the electorate. The first class comprises the people who can vote for someone again after the boundary changes are made; but then there are people in limbo in certain parts of our constituencies. We were their Member of Parliament leading up to the last election, but we knew and they knew that they could not vote for us. They could no longer realistically hold us to account. They could not realistically expect us to knock on their doors-again because they knew and we knew that they could not vote for us. They did not know who their candidates would be in the general election. That is chaos; it should not happen more frequently than once every 10 years. The idea of making boundary changes for every election is simply ridiculous. I hope that that point will be taken seriously on Report and in the other place.
Some Members may not be aware of the knock-on effects on constituencies. Mr Turner suggested that there might be marginal changes in subsequent boundary reviews. In fact, an urban extension might have an initial effect on the constituency involved and subsequent knock-on effects on others, and the change might be more radical each time a boundary was subjected to a review.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. I am amazed that the reality of boundary changes is being accepted by so few Members, despite the effects that it will have on their constituents.
As Members who served before the last general election know all too well, there is also a huge problem with parliamentary protocol, which causes all sorts of squabbles and spats. According to the democratic process, I, as a candidate, had every right to knock on doors in the bits of the constituencies next to mine where I would be asking people to vote for me; yet, theoretically, parliamentary protocol says that I should not do so. I am afraid that such matters have simply not been considered.
Is not the reason why so many Government Members seem to have failed to notice that the Bill will have an enormous impact not just on seats in areas like mine in Wales-which will pay a heavy price-but on seats throughout England that they are being reassured by their Front Benchers that this is gerrymandering that will strip out Labour Members but not have a detrimental effect on Tory seats? The reality is very different. As the hon. Gentleman says, there will be an impact on every Member's seat.
I take issue with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman. We must stop this being a partisan, party political matter. We are talking about electoral, constitutional and parliamentary changes. They should be taken very seriously, and every Member should speak on that basis and that basis alone.
We are getting to the heart of the debate now. This is what it is all about. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is an in-built Labour advantage in the current arrangements, and the coalition are trying to deal with it. I am not in favour of retaining a Labour advantage in elections, because my party is at a disadvantage. Why is the hon. Gentleman in favour of that?
It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is thinking of his self-interest. My point is that that should not be the principle of changes of this nature. It should not be the approach of any party in the House or any individual hon. Member. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks in those terms when it comes to such a major change.
May I extend the hon. Gentleman's point a little? Does he accept that in the event of gradual migration from the north of England to the south-for reasons connected with jobs, for instance-there may be dramatic and ongoing changes as each constituency in the south becomes more populated, while those in the north become less populated? If we change the boundaries every five years, there may be enormous shifts.
The hon. Gentleman made an eloquent point about whether Members were familiar with their own constituents. This proposal would lead to a shambolic effect on the association between Members and the stable populations that they represented.
If the hon. Gentleman visited my constituency, he would understand why people not only would not want to leave but would want to move there in great numbers. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, Mrs Laing asks whether we do not need two Members of Parliament. Perhaps she is making the case for an English Parliament. As I have said, the English question with regard to devolution certainly needs attention.
I am willing to do so, although I suspect that you may not allow it, Mr Bayley. It is up to you to decide whether it is in order.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for giving way a third time. I had no intention of interrupting him at this point, but as he has put words into my mouth, I must ensure that they are not on the record as mine. I will advance no argument for an English Parliament, now or at any other time. What I was saying to the hon. Gentleman was that if many people came to live in his constituency-as he has just said that they might, because it is such a desirable place-the population would rise considerably, and it would need more than one Member of Parliament in order to have equal representation in the House.
I am starting to worry that my acting as a tourism officer for Leeds North West may attract an undue influx of people to the constituency. I think a few would be good for the local economy, but if there is such an influx I will come back to the House and explain that we do have a real problem.
It is rather odd that the hon. Lady should make that point given that I have already said that I support the principle of more equal constituencies, which she agrees with, and that it should be done on a sensible and regular basis. I think that that sensible and regular basis should be every 10 years-at every other general election, rather than every election. That seems to me to be so commonsensical that I fail to understand why someone with as much common sense as the hon. Lady does not support it. I can only suggest that perhaps some of the rather less kind comments from certain Members might explain in part why other Members do or do not support this proposal. Indeed, Pete Wishart was at least honest about supporting it for the entirely self-interested reason that he hopes the Scottish National party will gain in representation as against the Labour party.
I support many proposals in the Bill, and I support the principle of sensible, more equal constituencies, but we should not be enforcing yet another boundary change-with all the ensuing chaos, cost and confusion both in Parliament and outside-before the next general election. That change should come in after the next election, and we should have a review every 10 years, or for every other election.
Amendment 125 suggests that instead of using the register of voters for calculating the relative size of constituencies, we should use the best estimate of eligible voters, so that each MP represents the same number of people who are eligible to vote, not the same number of people who happen to have registered. I propose that because of the demographic bias in respect of the categories of people who are more or less likely to register, and my contention is that all those people have the right to vote. They may at some point register if there are better registration systems, and they should not be denied a proportionate voice. I also contend that those Members, particularly on the Government Benches, who have argued that there is a systematic bias in favour of the Labour party because the average number of registered voters in Labour seats is less than the average number in Conservative seats miss the point that that bias does not exist when account is taken of the number of eligible voters-those aged over 18.
I do not intend to run through a comprehensive list, although I have been provided with figures from the Library. I pointed out earlier that in Bradford West there are 77,848 people over 18, yet only 62,519 are registered. In Holborn and St Pancras in London, there are 119,000 people aged over 18 and the number on the electorate is 86,000, and the electorate as a proportion of the 18-plus population is just 73%.
To summarise, the top line of my argument is that we must have the right basis for doing the calculation before we have a big argument about whether we should then apply other criteria, such as community and geography. We should establish fairly and squarely the basis of the argument put by the Government, and decide who we should be counting. I say that we should be counting those who are eligible to vote.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, I think, but does he think that there is an easy way that can be picked up in his amendment to tell the difference between a set of electors-say, US citizens living in the constituency that he just named-who are not able to vote under any circumstances, and those who would be able to vote but are simply not registered?
I should certainly like to help the hon. Gentleman on that point. What the amendment actually says is that we should use figures by the Office for National Statistics for who is estimated
"to be eligible to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections".
Obviously, the question is how the ONS would make that estimate. The answer is by using a combination of the register of electors, the census and other data forms.
As has already been pointed out and as we all know by now, there is a systematic bias against the registration of certain categories of people-ethnic communities, people in private rented accommodation, 17 to 24-year-olds and, generally, those in poorer areas. Those poorer areas tend to be more likely to be represented by Labour MPs. That explains the difference in the average figures for registration. The problem that I have with the current thrust towards quickly redrawing the boundaries on the basis of registered voters is that clearly there will be a bias in that, so people from poorer communities will be under-represented. That is not effective or fair democracy.
Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I was by the fact that the Government do not seem committed to putting in extra resources in the lead-up to December to gain the count that they seek for the new constituency boundaries?
That is unfortunate and surprising. If one were cynical about it, one would say that the Conservatives already know that there is a registration bias in favour of people who, demographically, are more likely to vote for them, so why should they take the action that my hon. Friend suggests? I introduced the amendment to say, "Let's do this on a fair and equitable basis." We want more registration because the people who are registered to vote are the people who are allowed to vote. That is a separate issue from the relative sizes of constituencies, which should be based on the number of people who are eligible to vote. We hope that those people will, over time, register to vote and will ultimately vote.
We have been having the argument about registration across the Floor of the House for many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the individual has to take a certain amount of personal responsibility in registering to vote, especially when individual voter registration is introduced-a measure brought in by his Government, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition? Does he agree that there is an element of personal responsibility, that sometimes people do not register to vote because they choose not to do so, and that they therefore choose to lose their vote, for whatever reason?
Clearly, we all want to encourage individual responsibility, and I think that there is an individual responsibility to try to register to vote. However, there is a propensity for certain categories of people not to vote because it is more difficult for them to do so. Examples include the one in five people in Britain who is functionally illiterate and finds it very difficult to fill in forms. And what about people who do not speak English very well?
We are about to move to the next stage, which is individual registration as opposed to household registration, and that will have a dramatic impact, particularly on ethnic communities, where there may be a lead member of the household who is the only person in the household who can speak English; in such cases, we may start off with five votes and get one. Some people might say, "It's their fault; they should learn English," and all the rest of it, but our law is that an eligible voter is an eligible voter, whether they are educated or not.
Through the amendment, I am saying that the boundaries should be drawn on the basis of eligible voters. Parallel to that, we want more registration, because the people who can vote are those who are registered. The point is that Parliament should represent the people. Poorer people should not be less well represented because they do not register as a result of failures in the education system, or for a host of other reasons.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Of course, in coalfield communities, in particular, significant numbers left school aged 15 without the school being the slightest bit bothered whether they could read or write. The problem is exacerbated among those who are elderly and have, for example, eyesight problems. Among those with low literacy and eyesight problems, registration is therefore below the norm. Does he also agree that certain categories of people are over-registered? Students, for example, can be registered in two places-once by their parents and once by a university authority. That will mean that on
My hon. Friend makes a compelling point. In many cases, the individual who has not been educated has been born and brought up in a cultural system that might not encourage that, and that might not be their fault. There is obviously individual responsibility to get educated but, in terms of the bias, it is clearly the case that the more money people have the more educated they and their children tend to be, and the more likely they are to be registered. If we consider the system overall, we have clearly moved to a system- [ Interruption. ] Oh, Mr Davis is crossing the Floor on the basis of my argument. That is good to see.
On the point about individual responsibility, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an individual responsibility on all hon. Members to ensure that every eligible adult gets on to the electoral register and that we have a particular moral responsibility when we consider that somebody might be disadvantaged in any way? That very much equates to individual responsibility in this case and it is shameful that Mrs Laing does not seem to recognise that.
I certainly think that more resources need to be put in. More people need to be registered and to participate in the vote, but it remains the case that as we stand-as has been pointed out, not many resources have been put into this-there is a systematic bias against poorer areas in terms of the number of eligible voters being reflected in the number of registered voters. If we are going to make this massive change based on a numerical system of one size fits all, that numerical system needs to be rooted in the best estimate of eligible voters, not in the number of people who happen to have registered. As we go downstream with individual registration, my fear is that things will get worse and worse as groups of people who are not very literate and so on fall off the register because they are not being registered as a household. That will produce more and more of a bias.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely gallant in giving way, because I have to answer the point made by Susan Elan Jones, who is sitting on the Bench almost beside him and has just accused me of saying something shameful. She is completely wrong and she took my words completely out of context, which is not normal parliamentary behaviour. I agree with every word that she said about individual responsibility resting also on Members of this House to ensure that people are registered. Of course we must, and it is wrong of her to call me shameful.
That was a strange intervention on my speech. The case that one would want to make is that we have an individual responsibility to register, but that we have to be cognisant of the fact that there is a bias in the rate of registration among different groups. With this amendment, which I would like to press to a vote tomorrow-if that is when we have the vote-I am calling for fairness in that sense.
I should declare an interest. My father, David Thomas Morgan Davies, was the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Wales between 1973 and 1984, so I have a particular interest in this area. Historically, it was always the case that the start point for drawing boundaries was equality in size and populations of constituency, adjusted for community and natural geography-rivers, seas and so on-and the needs of effective democracy. That is why we are where we are in Wales, for example, which stands, as has been pointed out, to lose a quarter of its elected representatives-the number will go from 40 down to 30. The real fear, as well as the points that I have made about the proportion of people from mining communities and other communities that are under-registered, is that we will lose out numerically and that communities will be merged-one valley with another, and with no geographical relationship between them-or that people will have to be in a constituency with a mountain in the way. In terms of effective democracy-devolution was mentioned-an Assembly boundary might be coincident with a parliamentary boundary, so that people can come to see me to talk about benefits and see the Assembly representative to talk about the health service. Now the boundaries will all be changed and then, every five years, changed again. The issue is one of effective democracy. How does the citizen know who represents them and which institution has a clear mechanism for doing so? These things have evolved into place over time and there is a risk that by superimposing a one-size-fits-all system based on the wrong calculus-namely, registered voters as opposed to eligible voters-we will end up with a much less effective democracy.
My hon. Friend mentions devolution. Does he agree that the Bill being railroaded through to try to fix the result of the next election has another unintended consequence-on devolution? The Bill makes a radical change in Wales that will shift the balance between Westminster and the Assembly. It will be the biggest change since devolution was introduced, with a quarter of Welsh MPs losing their seats, and will therefore mean a radical diminution in both the scrutiny of Welsh-related legislation in the House and, potentially, a reduction in the quality of the Executive that hands over the block grant to Wales. It is a very important-
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions are supposed to be quite short.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting and important point. Wales is a nation of just 3 million people sitting alongside a larger nation that is 17 times its size. It is completely dependent on the financial stream from Westminster to fund the devolved Welsh Assembly. Historically, the relationship between the number of seats per head in Wales has been different to that in England because of the need to keep the Union together, in harmony, in a situation of great inequality between the two neighbours.
I fear that the haste with which this process is moving forward and the tremendous step change that it will make to the representation of Wales in Westminster-reducing the number of seats by a quarter from 40 to 30-will have such a dramatic effect on the people of Wales that they will be driven into the arms of the nationalists. There is a danger that we will fracture the United Kingdom. I am sure this could be part of a Conservative conspiracy, whereby some in the Conservative party think, "Well it is nice to have the Union, but these people in Wales keep on voting Labour, so wouldn't it be better to chop 'em down, cut their money and live with a world where we can guarantee continuous Tory government in England at the expense of an impoverished Wales that is split between Labour and the nationalists, who will then be thrown the right to raise their own taxes on a tax base that is a third poorer?" That is the sort of grand plan that seems to be emerging. It is very concerning that the haste and nature of the changes we are considering are such that they will risk and provoke rips in the fabric of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely terrible.
My hon. Friend makes a very persuasive case. Do the measures in the Bill not suggest that there is no real feel for the fabric of the United Kingdom from the Government and that the interrelationship between Wales, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and many of the Scottish islands is not felt by them? Their desperate desire to ram the Bill through is incorrect.
Order. We are straying rather far from the point that we are supposed to be debating-the registration and under-registration of voters and the relevant group of amendments. Hon. Members should confine themselves to debating those matters.
Thank you very much, Mr. Bayley.
The amendment is about the relationship between the number of people registered and the number of people who are eligible to vote. If, in the comprehensive spending review tomorrow, there is a particular focus on poorer people and people in public service-in Wales, 24% are in public services and in England 20%; in Swansea, in fact, it is 38%-those people will suffer. People in public service tend to be poorer, and because they are poor, they tend to be under-registered. Those people who will face the real sharpness of the Conservative axe will the next day be denied the chance to vote against it because their constituencies will be smaller and because they are less likely to be registered-unless my amendment is agreed to ensure that people who are poor, and who are more likely to be unregistered, have an equal right to a share of a constituency, by virtue of being an eligible voter.
That is part of the mix of what seems, from the Welsh perspective at least, to be doing down Wales-attacking Wales financially, attacking Wales by reducing representation, attacking the poorest communities, attacking public services. In that political and economic context, what has understandably been seen locally as constitutional gerrymandering is in danger of ripping open the Union and having dramatic effects on our historical future. That may all be clinically predicted but it is very unfortunate.
As I pointed out, the 3.5 million or so unregistered voters are not evenly distributed. We heard from the Conservative Front Bench that, apparently, we are doing very well because in Britain, some 92% of people are registered. We are told that we should pat ourselves on the back and need not make any changes, but we know that registration is thoroughly disproportionately distributed, and in some areas it may be as low as 70%. To pre-empt the arguments against the amendment, we also know that the census comes around only once in a while. I am arguing that we should assemble a portfolio of data, including the census returns, registration figures and other data sources, to give our best estimate of the number of eligible over 18-year-olds in each area. That would be much more representative than the number of registered voters.
Does the hon. Member believe that the registration forms are too complex and need to be simplified to encourage more people, especially from poorer backgrounds, to register to vote?
Yes, I certainly do. Obviously there are issues about literacy-about being able to read-language, and style. We have all seen forms produced by bureaucracies that are long, complicated and intimidating when they need to be catchy. If one wanted to persuade someone to subscribe to Sky television, one would not use an electoral registration form. I do not mean that completely as a joke; it is true. To capture someone's attention, it is necessary to make them interested and make it easy, and ensure that there is a follow-up system; but electoral registration systems are not focused in that way. There are limited resources, and some people may say, "We have sent a form through. What more can we do?" A lot more could be done if we were serious. The worry is that people are not serious.
If we were to take the Government's intentions seriously, would they not be building on the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 in strengthening the Electoral Commission and the work of electoral registration officers and giving more resources to ensure that we can take those constituencies with 73% registration up to at least the average for the whole country?
That is precisely right. The failure to provide the necessary resources and the fact that the deadline is the end of December show that the Government have no interest in doing that. Even with the best will in the world, which they do not have, there would still be substantial under-representation in various constituencies for the reasons that have been suggested-the forms are wrong, the language is difficult, and so on. As has been said, some people think they might get caught for the poll tax. They are still living in the past, when people fell off the register through fear.
The way to short-circuit those problems and move forward to a new mandate on a more equal basis must surely be to count the people who are eligible to vote, or to get the best estimate. That might not be perfect, but it would be a great deal better and fairer than the current system.
My hon. Friend makes a persuasive case for his amendment. Does he agree that the Government have acknowledged part of his case with their announcement last month about data-sharing pilots? They acknowledged-the Minister nods-that there is an issue of other data sources being available to authorities. Might that be a way in which the proposal in my hon. Friend's amendment could be constructed-by using some of those other data registers to ensure a much more accurate list of adults living in an area, rather than moving rapidly to boundary changes, as proposed in the Bill?
That is right. The amendment proposes that the estimates should be put together by the Office for National Statistics. I hope it would use a range of data sources, and if the Government plan any initiatives to enrich the data, that would be welcome. If a sudden change is made to all the boundaries with a view to changing the composition, possibly for the next general election, let us get it right. In order to do what my hon. Friend suggests, which I entirely agree with, the necessary time must be allowed.
I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. We had the great joy of hearing expert witnesses from the Electoral Commission and the administrators, and from the Minister. What was fed back from the practitioners was that given the resource and the time available, it would be difficult to administrate the changes, in particular for the administrators of the election. The commission has been given an extra £1.9 million to drive ahead, although there are only 3 million people living in Wales. That is an enormous cost to railroad the provisions through. The administrators of the electoral areas thought the results would be chaotic. In terms of effective democracy, which is what we are about, as well as inherent fairness, the speed and nature of the change are wrong.
I will conclude now as I know that Members want to move on. In essence, I am arguing that a more sophisticated, accurate and fairer way of counting voters to provide the best estimate of the number of people eligible to vote is the best way to sustain credibility and confidence in our democracy in future. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment when it is put to the vote.
It is a pleasure to follow Geraint Davies, who covered all aspects of the potential interpretation of his amendment.
I give notice that I may seek to press amendment 70 to a Division. It achieves much the same as the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve. The Bill proposes to put a straitjacket around the Boundary Commission in its interpretation of the role of divvying up the nation, or the nations, to deliver so-called equal seats, but the amendment takes into account the variability in registration around the country. It is a good idea to start from the fundamental premise that we are trying our utmost to achieve, if at all possible, a strong sense of equality throughout all seats in terms of their electorates. However, the 5 to 10% margin might create a straitjacket that does not allow as my amendment would, for the discretion to-
Order. This debate is about the question of registration or under-registration and the hon. Gentleman's amendment 70 focuses on that very directly. As we are taking amendments at this stage, he needs to confine his remarks to the question of registration or under-registration.
I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for your guidance. As you will notice, my amendment states:
"This rule is subject to an independent assessment of the Boundary Commission as to the potential electorate within any area where the Commission, having consulted- the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Registration Officer of the local authority or authorities in that area,
(c) such other organisations and individuals whom the Boundary Commission may choose to consult".
I mentioned the margin of error in order to contrast it with the proposal in my amendment, which would give the Boundary Commission some discretion over how it interpreted the rule. In other words, the commission would be able to take into account the distinction between, as the amendment itself describes, the potential electorate, bearing in mind the variability of registration throughout the country, and the actual electors on the electoral roll. The amendment prises open the issue that several Members have already teased out in today's debate and, therefore, questions whether the 5% margin of error might in fact reflect a larger margin of error in the registration of electors in each constituency.
The Boundary Commission has not been given sufficient leeway to take account of that variability, and, as others have already pointed out, the Electoral Commission studied the issue earlier this year. It produced a report entitled, "The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain, March 2010", and I shall quote from the document's key findings. It states:
"national datasets and local case study research suggest there may be widening local and regional variations in registration levels. While there is no straightforward relationship between population density and the state of local registers, the lowest rates of completeness and accuracy were found in the...most densely populated...areas" and among "the most mobile populations".
The report continues:
"Recent social, economic and political changes appear to have resulted in a declining motivation to register", and it goes on to state:
"Under-registration and inaccuracy are closely associated with the social groups most likely to move home."
Across the case study areas, it found, as Chris Bryant said earlier, that
"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)."
It also found that during the year the rate of completeness is likely to decline by about 10 percentage points.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that list of people who are under-represented or not registered. Does he agree that the categories he has outlined, although unregistered, often form the majority of an MP's caseload, and that that huge impact on their workload should be recognised by the Boundary Commission?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I argue further that any Member of Parliament who does their job properly should be seeking out those silent voices rather than waiting for them to come to them. MPs should recognise that people who are not registering are probably not articulating themselves in other ways, so they should be finding ways of ensuring that their needs are properly articulated.
Some local authorities are clearly better than others at raising registration levels. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should learn from those that are achieving much higher levels of registration? Some have improved from quite low levels, whereas others are more interested in doing the absolute minimum just to say, "Well, we have done what we are required to do."
I agree. It may be a function of a change of staff or of the resources of the local authority and how it goes about its task. Inevitably, in different parts of the country, the situation will ebb and flow over time. One cannot necessarily say that a place with high levels of registration will always have them-there may well be variations.
I will gave way one more time, but I want to bring my remarks to a close.
Speaking from experience, Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire in my constituency, has taken the electorate up from 49,000 to 56,000-a huge percentage increase. That has been achieved partly by having a big, bold reminder in the middle of the registration form saying that not registering is an offence punishable by a £1,000 fine. At the end of the process, the chief executive sends out letters to those who are unregistered saying, "I am now turning this over to my legal department for you to be prosecuted." That ability to prosecute, which is a powerful tool in forcing people to register, is going to be removed by the hon. Gentleman's Front Benchers, as was outlined a few weeks ago. What does he think about that?
I would be straying beyond the limits of this debate if I discussed compulsion in registration, but it could perhaps be debated in relation to other parts of the Bill.
As well as the groups in the community that the independent Electoral Commission found were under-represented, my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson and I, and many other hon. Members-John Mann referred to this-represent parts of the country where there are large numbers of second homes. Those part-time residents often like to ensure that they are on the electoral register. Given the relative weight of the significance and marginality of the two, or possibly three or more, seats in which they have their votes, one suspects that in some cases-of course, this should not happen-they might decide where they might most effectively cast that vote, if indeed they cast it only once. There are questions about whether they should register to vote in the first place, which of course they are entitled to do for local authority elections. Strictly speaking, they should not cast a vote in the general election because they are not in their primary residence.
My hon. Friend has a long record of pointing out anomalies with regard to second homes, and he knows that I had a meeting about that last week with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, who is not in his place. It is felt keenly in my constituency by people who stood in local authority elections-independents as well as party members-that second home ownership in an area can be influential in determining results. If someone is not normally resident in a place, they should not be on the register there. The problem is that local authority officers may not have had the point reinforced to them that they have the power to prevent people from getting on the register if they cannot prove that they are normally resident in the area. It is not about whether they own a property there.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point of electoral law, which needs to be emphasised. Points have been made about registration levels-Heather Wheeler said that registration levels of 98 or 99% had been achieved in her area. In fact, in constituencies such as mine it is potentially possible to achieve registration levels over 100%.
Does the hon. Gentleman regard the student vote in the same way?
It is an important case in point. As I understand it, students can register in more than one location and decide where their primary residence is for the purpose of electoral registration and casting their vote. Most university students go to their parental home, for example, when they are not at university, and they spend about half the year in each place. The point therefore becomes moot.
The vast majority of first-year students are registered where they were living with their parents, and if they are living in a hall of residence they are simultaneously registered by the university authority, often without their knowledge. They are entitled to vote in either place, but is not the salient point in regard to this Bill that they count twice in determining the size of the electorate? That will create another artificial and arbitrary division based on the date of
The hon. Gentleman has placed his point on the record, and I wish to move on.
My primary point is that the margin of error in the registration level is significantly greater in certain areas. Registration can be as low as 80%, but I would argue that in some areas, perhaps those with high numbers of students or second homes, it could potentially be more than 100%. With such margins of error, the straitjacket of a 5% margin of error in the Bill is inappropriate.
I will not any more.
The Boundary Commission should be given discretion over the matter, because the Bill as currently drafted would unquestionably result in young, vulnerable and minority ethnic communities being under-represented and second home owners and students being over-represented. We all want equality, but we want it interpreted reasonably.
Greg Mulholland made some general, profound comments on the threat behind the Bill to the effect that it will destroy the accountability link between hon. Members and their electorate by ensuring that Members never stand again for the same constituency. If he presses his amendment to a Division, I will happily join him in the Lobby. The electorate has an absolute right to vote to support a Member of Parliament who has done a good job, just as it has the absolute right to throw a rascal out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Does he think I should seek to divide the Committee on amendment 342, which would mean a report every 10 years, or amendment 341, which would delay the changes until after the election?
I would be happy to vote for amendments 341 and 342. Although the mechanisms would be different, the proposals would have an essentially similar affect on accountability.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there would be support from the Democratic Unionist party and, I am sure, from other parties, if Greg Mulholland were to press those amendments to a Division? As he said, there is a lack of consensus or cross-party support for those fundamental changes to parliamentary democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point well and I am sure Greg Mulholland heard him.
I shall speak to amendment 38, which is in my name. With permission, Mr Bayley, I should also like to press it a Division. Other than what I said on amendments 341 and 342, arguments about the number of people on the electoral register lie behind this debate. One argument that was touched on earlier is bogus, and it should be discounted: namely, that the number of electors that it takes to elect a Member from one political party is different from the number it takes to elect a Member for another party. That is irrelevant to this debate. Turnout, the number of candidates and the distribution of electors also affect the number of people it takes to elect a Member for a political party. If people want a kind of representation that means that it takes exactly the same number of people to elect each MP, the answer is PR. I am against that and in favour of first past the post. However, that is nothing to do with the clause.
The second point at the heart of clause 8 is that constituencies should be based on an equal number of registered electors. That is a reasonable starting point, but there are two exceptions-one is relevant to this clause and the other will be debated later. If people are to represent constituencies, geographical features, boundaries and real communities should be significant considerations, as well as absolute numbers. However, how can the Committee say that absolute numbers is the overwhelmingly relevant consideration and accept that change to the system when 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register?
In amendment 38, I am seeking, in a different way from Andrew George, to address voter registration. He is trying to get the Boundary Commission to assess the difference between those who are registered and those who are not. The point of my amendment is to get the Electoral Commission, which is the more appropriate body, to try to satisfy this House and the other place that enough changes and processes have taken place to ensure that as many people as practically possible are registered. Once that has been done, but not before, the figures can be taken into account when considering boundaries.
My hon. Friend says that 3.5 million people are missing from the register, but the Government announced the other week that they will introduce individual registration and remove some of the measures that could help us to increase registration. When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was a 10% drop in registration. If it is introduced on the mainland, that could mean 4.5 million people fewer on the register, so that 8 million people-including the most vulnerable in society-could be missing from the register. Does my hon. Friend agree that that constitutes a very little English coup?
I would not use the word "coup", but I would use the word "gerrymandering". In fact, a double gerrymander lies at the heart of this Bill. I would like the Electoral Commission to look at the issue of registration and report to both Houses, because there are sins of commission and sins of omission involved in why the electoral register is not complete. It has already been said that some electoral registration officers are more effective and efficient than others, and that is true. I represent areas of Manchester and Salford, and the electoral registration and returning officers there are doing a good job. They have done three canvasses and use what data they may legally access to ensure that electoral registration is as complete as possible. But that is not the case in several constituencies.
My hon. Friend may be interested to note that Simon Hughes is now in his place. In his constituency, the register contains 77,628 people, so it is on target, but the population of those over 18 and eligible to vote is 101,000. In other words, 26,000 people will not be counted, and that is wrong. However, Members on the other side of the House, including the hon. Gentleman, will sleepwalk into this ridiculously unfair system.
Unfortunately, I think that my hon. Friend may have encouraged Simon Hughes to attempt to intervene. I give way to my hon. Friend Stephen Pound.
I think that the House is at one with my hon. Friend on that particular point- [ Laughter. ]
Like me, my hon. Friend represents an urban constituency. I have three surgeries a week and more than 50% of those who attend are not on the electoral register because they are homeless, asylum seekers or simply incapable of being allowed to register. Does my hon. Friend agree that were we to proceed-as I sincerely hope we will not-with this crude numerically simplistic stitch-up we would be ignoring the reality of life in urban constituencies?
I agree with my hon. Friend and I have similar experiences in Blackley and Broughton.
I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the suggestion that a Member of Parliament who knows that 50% of those attending his surgeries are not registered does nothing about it. Why does he not point out to the people who attend his surgeries but fail to be on the register that they are breaking the law? If the issue is as simple as that, something can be done about it.
As far as I can see, the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for most of the debate. I ask him to listen carefully to this and the next part of my speech. There are reasons why some people are not on the electoral register, but I can assure him that I check whether people live in the constituency and/or are on the electoral register, and if they are not, I try to persuade them to get on to it.
I was coming to the reasons some people are off the electoral register. It is not just a result of how well the registration officer does his job. Among poorer people, the number of people on the electoral register in Manchester declined by about 15% when the poll tax was brought in, because it was the single easiest way of avoiding tax. It has been 20 years since the poll tax was introduced, but the position has never recovered. I could take hon. Members to an estate in my constituency where nearly 60% of people on the electoral register are women. That is not because the estate is not roughly 50:50, but because the men living there do not register so as to get 25% off their council tax. It will take time to address that situation of people avoiding both tax and being on the electoral register. It is not an easy problem, but it should be dealt with.
If somebody lives in a house and is partaking of the services provided by the local authority, and it is known that they live in that house, and they do not register in order not to pay tax, they are not avoiding tax-they are evading tax. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is up to someone else to register them to vote?
I agree. The accurate word is "evading" not "avoiding". I stand corrected. If people are evading tax, and therefore breaking the law, one cannot expect them to change. It is up to those bodies that enforce the law to enforce it. I am happy to clarify that position. Getting the electoral register to represent everyone who is entitled to vote is not a simple process. However, I am sure that hon. Members believe, as I do, that people should be registered and should comply with the law on being registered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way with his customary generosity, but he fails to recognise that there has to be a definitive basis for registering those qualified to vote in an election and for distinguishing between them and others who live in the area and are served by a Member of Parliament. He might inadvertently be leading the House in that direction. In my constituency, there are 70,000 electors, but nearly 78,000 residents-the rest are mainly EU migrants. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I will serve those people, but there is a distinction between them and those who are duly, properly and legally entitled to vote for me at an election. He is not making that distinction clear to the Committee.
I have not come to that point yet, but there is an overlap. Some recent immigrants are Commonwealth citizens and entitled to vote in general elections. It is a complicated matter. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but there is some overlap between people who are entitled to vote and people who are part of the recent immigrant community.
Another large area where there is under-representation and, probably, unlawful activity associated with it relates to houses in multiple occupation and private landlords. For different reasons-sometimes voting abuse, sometimes to conceal the number of people living in houses of multiple occupation-landlords prevent their tenants from voting or hinder their attempts to do so.
The hon. Gentleman previously mentioned recent immigrants. Registration is low among those in black and ethnic minority groups for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because they do not understand the system or are frightened of it, and sometimes, as was mentioned previously in the case of poorer sections of the community, it is because the levels of functional illiteracy are higher than one would want. That means that many of the forms end up in the bin, because they cannot be understood. There are different estimates, but generally in this House-and not just on the issue of electoral registration-we ignore the fact that probably about 22.5% of the adult population in this country are functionally illiterate and find it difficult to deal with forms.
Those are the main reasons there are real practical difficulties-there are probably more difficulties than I have mentioned, as well as those to do with the efficiency of the electoral registration officers-and why 3.5 million people are currently not on the electoral register. I do not think that we can move to a more balanced system between the different constituencies-one based on the number of electors-until we ensure that registration is much more accurate than it currently is.
The group of amendments that the Committee is being asked to consider poses the Government three questions: what is the rush, why have a review every five years, and do we not need to address the issue of under-registration? I want briefly to address those three questions.
Before I do so, however, I want to make a point about partisanship. It is important to reflect the fact that any discussion about the boundaries of our constituencies is bound to have partisan considerations, and it is much better that we should acknowledge that up front, rather than trying to pretend otherwise. I believe that the current boundaries are unfair, for reasons that I will come to. They are unfair to the Conservative party, but I also believe that they are unfair to my constituents-the people of Croydon, who are under-represented in this House. However, to make the point that this issue is about political balance, I should make the related point that the local authority ward boundaries in my borough are also unfair, but they are unfair the other way round.
Order. I must encourage the hon. Gentleman to get on to the question of registration and under-registration. He has made his opening remarks, and he should now address the questions raised by the amendment.
I take your point, Mr Bayley, but some of the amendments in the group are also about the need for speed and whether the proposals in the Bill should take effect by October 2013. The point that I was trying to make in an earlier intervention is that the average size of Labour seats is significantly smaller than those of Conservative Members. That is an unfairness and it is important to correct it, but I shall take your advice and come on to the issue of registration.
I am nervous about being drawn back into what I have just been told to move off, but I will give way briefly.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the information I have received from research by the Library shows that of the top 100 seats with the most number of unregistered people, 96 are Labour seats? Should it not be borne in mind, when he is pointing out unfairness this way and that way, that those unregistered people are in Labour seats?
I think that that is a question about registration, so I can certainly address it. It has always been the case historically that, in deciding on constituency boundaries, we have looked at the number of people who are eligible to vote; that is, we have looked at electorates as the basis on which to draw the boundaries. Opposition Members have raised the issue of registration in this debate, with some amendments asking for a report on the issue and others going further, making the radical proposition that we should look at the number of adults who are eligible to register in a constituency when drawing up the boundaries.
That may well be a debate of principle that we need to have at some point, but it seems to me that the arguments of Opposition Members have varied and have been based on a number of different potential categories. We could look at electors, the number of people over 18 who are eligible to vote, or the total adult population over 18, but when Geraint Davies was quoting his figures earlier, I think he was actually quoting the figures for the adult population over 18. I do not know any data sets that can give an accurate figure for the number of people over 18 who are eligible to vote, which is an entirely different thing, because there will be many people who are not UK citizens-and who are therefore not eligible to vote-but who will appear on the census. Or we could go even further and look at the total population in each part of the country when drawing up boundaries.
My real concern is that the amendments before us suggest that we should draw up constituency boundaries based on a guess. They suggest that we look at the census data, but many Members-particularly those who represent urban constituencies-will be aware of the real problems relating to the accuracy of those data. The census is carried out only every 10 years, and there are often gross inaccuracies in the published figures, certainly for London.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, because he is making a coherent and cogent case. I must point out, however, that there are empirical data out there, and that we do not have to rely on guesswork. As any Member of Parliament will tell him, his or her constituency roll will show EU and Commonwealth citizens who can register but cannot vote for their Member of Parliament. Bizarrely, even though those people will surely come to their Member of Parliament for advice and assistance, they will not count when it comes to classifying the size of a parliamentary constituency. Surely that cannot be right.
Well, there we go. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting, with his customary eloquence, that we go even further than the hon. Member for Swansea West did. I think he is arguing that we should use the whole over-18 adult population as the basis for deciding the boundaries. Indeed, in an earlier intervention, he said that he had a significant number of asylum seekers in his constituency who, although they were ineligible to vote, still gave rise to casework.
There are many different proposals for ways in which we can develop these figures. My point about the hon. Member for Swansea West's amendment is that we cannot come up with a definitive figure. We can start with the census and take into account the electorate, and we can then use other data sets to refine that information, but we cannot come up with an accurate figure.
My own view is that we should stick with the current basis, which looks at the published electorate, but that we should also take action to deal with under-representation, which affects certain parts of the country more than others. The hon. Member for Swansea West talked about poverty, and Andrew George, who has now left the Chamber, referred to work carried out by the Electoral Commission that showed that the transience of the population-the churn-was the key factor. There are certain groups within the population, including the black and minority ethnic community, young people and people who live in the private rented sector, that are much more likely to move frequently, and that is the main causal driver of this problem.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty in the past 15 or 20 years has been that the Boundary Commission has not been guided by Government regulations specifically to look at future population changes? That has been an important factor in making many, if not most, of the constituencies in this country out of date almost as soon as they are created.
That cuts to the point of one of the amendments, which deals with the frequency with which we carry out the reviews. That is an important point, because if we had more regular reviews, they would be based on more recent data, and we would not see such dramatic changes. If we had a review every five years, we would not see significant changes in many of our constituencies.
The point I was trying to make, which I think has been misrepresented by the new hon. Member for Croydon Central, is that we should use the best data available on those people who are 18 and over and eligible to vote. I have accepted that we will not get a perfect number, but I propose that we should do the best we can with the data sets available to get as accurate a picture as possible, and that that is the best basis for a fair democracy. That would be much fairer than simply relying on registration figures.
I take that point, but my response would be that, rather than using figures that are guesstimates, we should use the actual electorate figures. We should also, however, take action across the country to replicate the work of the best local authorities to drive up representation.
I am going to conclude my speech now; I have taken a number of interventions, and I promised that I would not speak for too long.
We have just had a boundary review, for which many Opposition Members will have voted, that was based on electorate figures. None of these points about tackling under-representation were made when the orders were put through in the last Parliament to implement those boundary changes. Although the point is a good one, it was not applied previously.
In conclusion, the people of Croydon are significantly under-represented in this House, and I think we need urgent action to address that unfairness. We certainly need to take action to deal with under-registration, but the current boundaries are not fair, which is why it is important to take action quickly to put that right.
I rise to speak-briefly, I hope-in support of amendment 127. I gather from my hon. Friend Chris Bryant that we are going to press it to the vote. I also support amendment 341, which I hope Greg Mulholland is going to put to the vote-he must. I support amendment 38, too, tabled by my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, which he is going to press to the vote.
All three amendments are an attempt to soften the rigours of the brutal redistribution proposed in clause 8. Indeed, it is a redistribution so brutal that it amounts to a gerrymander. The pretext is that the unequal seats work against the Tory party. We have heard that argument put at length by Gavin Barwell. It is true that the inequality in seats helps the Labour party and works against the Tory party, to which I would reply, in the classic words of Demosthenes, "Ah, diddums. What a great shame"! Various factors are relevant, including turnout, people taken off the register, which happens all the time- [Interruption.] Ah diddums, rural seats and so forth. Another factor, which has not been dealt with in the debate so far, is hat the population moves.
There was a similar bias in the 1950s, but then it favoured the Tory party because of rural seats and the rurality factor. I hope Members will remember-I certainly do; I am old enough to remember-that the Conservative party won power in 1951 and had a working majority, but Labour had secured over 500,000 votes more than the Conservatives. The system then worked in favour of the Conservatives, who at that time were not so adamant about the need for a redistribution and a massive upsetting of the whole system to make it fairer. Now they are adamant. That unfairness towards the Conservatives persisted until the 1960s. Now it has worked the other way because of the subsequent drift of large Labour majorities out to the suburbs, where the vote is more evenly distributed.
These amendments all provide an opportunity to modify the brutality of the redistribution that the Government propose, with Liberal support, to remedy this deficiency. Clause 8 is effectively creating what I would call a doomsday machine. It is rather like the monsters my grandchildren watch on television. They are called transformers-they are huge metal monsters that go out clumping all around the country. It is a kind of redistribution by Blitzkrieg! It is just like that when this has to be done so suddenly and in defiance of any community centre or local government boundaries.
Why does my hon. Friend think the Con-Dem alliance is in such haste?
Well, it is quite simple. The alliance wants its redistribution completed before the election in 2015-it is going to determine the date in another piece of legislation-because it will favour the Conservative party. It hopes to reduce the number of Labour Members. We shall come later to the reduction in the size of the House, but it is another attempt in the same direction-intended to reduce the number of Labour Members and increase the number of Conservative Members. The alliance simply wants to give itself a doughty majority. AV is supposed to work for the Liberals and the redistribution is supposed to work for the Conservatives. That is the calculation behind it, which is why it has to be completed before the next election, so that it can hang on to power by gerrymandering the system in its favour.
This is going to be a redistribution by steamroller-not a reasonable redistribution in which we will have the power to put opposing points of view, to argue for a sense of community or a sense of locality or to put forward views about the crossing of county boundaries. We will not have a chance to put democratic and fair arguments to the redistribution committee in the way we have been accustomed to, and the way that has been institutionalised. The committee will simply plough on with its Blitzkrieg.
I was intending to plough on with my own Blitzkrieg, but I am happy to give way.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way following that mixed metaphor. I will take it no further.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what we have here is a formula according to which one imperative, and one imperative alone, will drive what boundary commissions do, and that what they do will not be subject to serious appeal or challenge for the purposes of those of us in the real world who must live with the outcome or consequences? It will ignore the realities and demands of constituency service. It completely dismisses real-world considerations. We will be stuck with whatever the outcome is, and it will go from Parliament to Parliament as the Boundary Commission sees fit. Will this not constitute the IPSAfication of boundaries?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend has put the case much more articulately and better than I could have, so I shall delete the next part of my speech, take it for granted and move on. This is not a redistribution; it is a Blitzkrieg-an unfair Blitzkrieg that is designed to work in the electoral interests of the Conservative party.
Interestingly, the amendments show that the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition is beginning to wake up to that fact. I understand that the hon. Member for Leeds North West intends to put his amendment to the vote. Perhaps he will nod to confirm that, because it will slow down the whole process and stop the Blitzkrieg.
The position is actually slightly worse than it was portrayed by our friend from the SDLP, Mark Durkan. In addition, the Minister will be able to lay the Order in Council on the basis of the Boundary Commission's report "with or without modifications". [Interruption.] I can hear the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, saying that that is the present legislation, but the present legislation allows for proper public inquiries, and he is getting rid of public inquiries.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The present system of redistribution was devised by the Conservatives. Now, finding themselves in electoral danger, they want to scrap it to protect themselves and remain in power in this tenuous coalition.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is a comic turn. Does he agree, however, that he was not so voluble when in 1970-as he is old enough to remember-a Labour Government were the only Government in history to shelve significant boundary changes for party political reasons? He was probably also not as voluble at the time of the 2005 election, when the Conservative party out-polled the Labour party in England and Labour had many dozens more seats than the Conservatives. Was that fair, or was it gerrymandering?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to outdo my comic turn by putting me in the House of Commons well before I was actually here, but he is entitled to do that.
I am voluble now because of the threat to democracy that is implicit in this whole process. As one of my hon. Friends said earlier, that is what is waking up the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition. It is easy enough to organise a redistribution for 650 Members, but if there are only 600 pieces in the jigsaw, the implication is that every boundary in the country must be changed. That is what is waking up the Liberal Democrats, because they tend to win seats through intense community work and community politics involving cracked paving stones and late buses, and they must have a community to work to. That settled community will be disturbed by the redistribution, and the Liberal Democrats will lose seats. Their amendments suggest that they are now waking up to that fact.
It is a bit late in the day, but I can tell the Liberal Democrats that they will lose out. The AV part of the deal, which was supposed to benefit the Liberal Democrats while the redistribution was supposed to benefit the Conservatives, will not be carried, because it will be defeated in the referendum. Then the Liberal Democrats will ask themselves, "What have we got out of this coalition? We have abandoned all our faiths, we have sacrificed everything we believe in, we have allowed massive cuts to the detriment of British society-and what have we got out of it?" The answer will be "Peanuts. Nothing." Their only resort, if they are to prevent themselves from being thrown out in the election following the redistribution, will be to throw out the Government and stop the redistribution.
I estimate that the Liberal Democrats will belatedly begin to wake up to that fact in about 2013 or 2014, and then they will become a disruptive factor within the coalition. I am trying to prevent them from ending up in that situation- [Interruption.] No, my heart bleeds for them. I am very sympathetic because it is tragic watching them betray their principles one by one in order to cling on to power and to get bums into ministerial cars and on to ministerial Benches-but if that is what they want to do, let them. I am trying to help them by persuading them to vote for amendments 127, 341 and 38. [Interruption.] No, I am a decent man. I would have voted Liberal in 1951, except that I did not have a vote because I was too young, but I wore a Liberal rosette on my meat round. That is the full history of my association with the Liberals-it ended in 1956 with the invasion of Suez-and now I am trying to protect them.
In conclusion, we should support these amendments in order to prevent the brutality of a process that would be damaging to British democracy and the community and that would create an unsettled situation for Members of Parliament. I spent many years in New Zealand, and we had much more regular redistributions when I was there-every five years, I think. That was before proportional representation came in. The seats could be made much more equal, but as a result of the changes no Member of Parliament knew five years ahead whether he would be representing the same area, or whether some bits would be shipped out and others would be shipped in because of boundary changes, and therefore the seat he would be representing would be totally changed. I want to prevent that situation from happening here. We represent settled communities that have clear boundaries, and we should not disrupt them in this fashion just for the electoral purposes of the Conservative party.
Austin Mitchell has just given the game away. He has at last revealed what this part of the debate is really about: the convenience of Members of Parliament, and the desire to make sure that they are not unsettled. This House should not be making laws for the convenience of Members of Parliament, however; we should be making laws for the good of the people of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman has made many good points during the debate, and he has just made an excellent speech, albeit from his point of view-I disagree with him of course, but he always makes excellent speeches-but I am glad that he gave the game away at the end of his contribution.
While sitting through this lengthy debate, I have been wondering why so many Members have made illogical and inconsequential speeches. That is unusual for Members of this House- [Interruption]-especially those such as Chris Ruane, who is laughing, and who has engaged in many debates on these subjects over many years. Why is nobody talking about individual voter registration, even though it is an integral part of improving the registration process?
I have just mentioned individual registration. We all know what it is about: it is about driving a further 4.5 million people off the register to join the other 3.5 million, in order to keep the Conservatives in office for another generation.
It is not; on the contrary, in fact. The last Government, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition, introduced individual voter registration and this Government have speeded up the process.
I am not going to take up much of the Committee's time as we have heard many speeches on these subjects tonight and I have had the good fortune of being able to make many interventions in other Members' contributions. In counting the number of people who are represented by each Member of Parliament we should count on the basis of democracy and the workings of democracy, not on the basis of social work. [Interruption.] Well, we all have several roles as Members of Parliament, and one of our roles is the pastoral one of looking after the people who live in our constituencies regardless of whether they are registered to vote, of their nationality, and of where they live. We are all decent Members of Parliament, and if someone comes to us with a problem, it will be dealt with-or it certainly would be in my constituency surgeries. I am sure that that is the case for almost everybody here. I see assent from Labour Members. However, we must separate those two roles, and that is integral to the point that we are discussing.
Stephen Pound may have thousands of people in his constituency who are not voters-who are either not eligible or not registered to vote. He therefore possibly has more casework, but that can be dealt with by giving him greater resources to deal with it. The issue should not be dealt with by distorting the democratic process and the way in which the Chamber works.
The hon. Lady knows that I respect her views in many regards, but I would find it phenomenally difficult to differentiate the two elements of our role-on the one hand, the representative function of a Member of Parliament in representing all the voters in their constituency, and, on the other hand, their casework. Many, if not all, of the issues that I have taken up in this House have come to me from my casework-apart, perhaps, from the issue of the Bill that we are discussing tonight. I urge her not to stray too far down the route of trying to separate out the two concepts.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has brought before the House many matters that have arisen from people who come to his constituency surgeries, but he also has a role in raising points of principle on the subject of politics, the constitution and so on-I have seen him do so over many years-that are nothing to do with the casework that comes to him. I therefore do not accept his point.
I thank the hon. Lady for nobly offering, in a way that is typical of her, to support my special pleading to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for additional staff. Together, we will be unbeatable. May I also apologise for perhaps inadvertently misleading the Committee earlier when I referred to Commonwealth citizens not having the right to vote? They do, of course, have that right. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have immediately spotted that I was referring to European economic area citizens, in the context of increased casework with no chance of a vote at the end of it.
Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. First, I do support his special pleading to IPSA. Secondly, I am glad to have given him the opportunity to put the record straight on the EEA; we are all better educated for that.
Our duty is not to try to amend the Bill to make life easier for Members of Parliament. What matters is not our certainty about where the boundaries of our constituencies will be drawn, but how the democratic process works. I have thought to myself, "Why have there been so many illogical arguments this evening?" I realise, of course, that it is because of special pleading.
Does the hon. Lady recall, as I do, the evidence that we received on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which suggested that where there were arbitrary and dramatic changes in boundaries, an absence of democracy often followed, as local party activists and local electors began to lose influence and interest in the local democratic process?
I recall the point being raised in the Select Committee, but I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The fact is-
No. The hon. Gentleman has not been in Committee all evening, and it is time that we got on; this debate has taken too long. I would simply say that the reason why Opposition Members are arguing as they are is that they cannot in all honesty stand up in this House and say that the principle of equalising the size of constituencies is wrong. They are therefore manufacturing arguments against this Bill to try to stop this part of it. They are quite simply trying to avoid being turkeys voting for Christmas. They know that, and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave this away when he said that this is about certainty and uncertainty for Members of Parliament. The fact is that the only principle that should matter in considering this part of the Bill is the working of democracy. If Opposition Members do not have the courage to put their constituents and the people of the United Kingdom first and themselves second, they do not deserve to be Members of Parliament. It is the principle of equality that matters and that is what we must vote for.
If this Bill passes, we will make the most significant reduction in parliamentary representation since 1922. If we are to make such a fundamental change, we need carefully to examine the basis on which we do it. There needs to be a proper assessment of constituency size, which the electoral register will not provide. In particular, any electoral register from December of any one year will not provide it.
My hon. Friend Geraint Davies said earlier that we know that there are particular groups of voters who are under-represented-young people, students, those living in houses in multiple occupation, those in black and minority ethnic communities and those in social housing. In a constituency such as mine, all those groups combine and are linked to a very high level of turnover to create significant under-representation and under-registration. In just one of my wards, 23% of households have no one registered. In another, the figure is 19% and in another it is 16%. Across the constituency, the average is 15.5%. Many of those who are not registered to vote are those who face the problems that translate into higher levels of casework for me and for my office.
Registration in the constituency contrasts sharply with the neighbouring constituency, Sheffield Hallam, which is represented by the Deputy Prime Minister. It was a traditional Conservative seat until 1997 and some might say it is again. With the demographic profile of Sheffield Hallam and the stability of the population in that constituency, there are very high levels of registration. The number of unregistered households averages just 4%.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given the depressing statistics that he has related to the Committee this evening- [ Interruption. ] Sorry for the confusion, Mr Hoyle. Given the depressing outlook of the figures that he has given about voter registration, can he explain what the previous Labour Government did to try to improve the situation?
The previous Labour Government did a great deal. Much of the responsibility for execution, of course, lies with the city council, which is run by the Liberal Democrats and it characterised itself by turning voters away from the polling station.
Talking of Liberal Democrat councils, is my hon. Friend aware of the previous Liberal leader of Islington council, who, when the Labour group asked for a registration drive before the election, said, "No, we're not having that. That's how we win elections"?
I was not aware of that. I am grateful to have been informed and I am not at all surprised. As I said, in Sheffield Hallam, where there is only 4% under-registration, we begin to see the real nature of what lies behind the Bill.
I must disagree with Mrs Laing-this is not just about those who are eligible to vote. Significant numbers of people who are not eligible to vote still need the support of their Member of Parliament. That should be taken account of when determining constituency size because we are there to provide a voice for all those in our constituency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even when one or two people in a household are on the register, one often finds during elections that there are four, five or six people in the house who are eligible to vote but not on the register?
I accept that point entirely. On the calculation of unregistered households in my constituency, I estimate that there are about 25,000 people who are eligible to vote but who would not be counted into the constituency on the basis of a strict redefinition of boundaries by the electoral register. I think that we should-
Take your hand out of your pocket when you address the Chamber.
I apologise for any offence that I have caused the hon. Gentleman, but I think it would be more useful to focus on the issues under debate. In that context, I want to support amendment 125, which provides for the Boundary Commission to develop a much more accurate assessment of numbers, drawing on information from the Office for National Statistics. I would have preferred it if amendment 229 was also being considered, as that specifically covered census information and would have provided another excellent way of redrawing boundaries.
We all accept that the information that comes from local authorities about the electoral roll is not always totally perfect, but people would not accuse others of gerrymandering as a result. If we started using information from many sources, there might be accusations of gerrymandering because of the use of that information.
Amendment 125 takes the census as one source of information, but there are and have been fairly well-justified suggestions of gerrymandering based on the way in which the electoral register would be used were it applied in the December of any year.
On that point, electoral registration officers can calculate the eligible population in each ward in each of our constituencies. They have that information on databases such as the housing benefit and council tax databases, so it is available and could be produced to a high degree of accuracy.
I accept that point and add that taking the electoral register in the December of any year in a constituency such as mine, with its turnover, would ensure that the numbers would be depressed. In the four months leading up to the general election, we added about 4,000 voters to the register in Sheffield Central. They were caught up in the excitement of the campaign that we were running, but those additions reflect the difficulty of using the December figure.
Is not the answer to the problem better individual electoral registration rather than playing around with the size of constituency boundaries so that some constituencies have larger populations while others have smaller populations?
Obviously, we would all like to see better electoral registration. The point is that we know there are significant groups within all our communities for whom it is difficult to achieve the levels of registration that we wish to see.
My hon. Friend is making a good point; the information that he has given the Committee about the great disparity in registration levels between his constituency and Sheffield, Hallam is very stark. But if he looks at information that was given to a Select Committee hearing in the Parliament before last in the House, about initial returns to the registration officer from different parts of Sheffield, he will find that registrations from Manor, an inner-city part of his constituency, were only just over 50% at first instance, while in the Dore ward in Hallam they were over 95%. And if we use a December figure before the canvassing has really got going to get additional people on the register, those initial returns and the disparity between them will be even greater than the disparity between the registers as they now stand.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, because it highlights the particular difficulty of using the December register. There can be only two reasons to use December as the point at which to measure registered electors: either because there is undue haste in trying to push through this process, or because there is a recognition that at that point those voters who some would wish to see disregarded will not be reflected within the register.
The Government would claim that the Bill is about new politics, but a failure to address these concerns will send a message to the public that this represents the very worst of old politics, putting party advantage before democracy and, as one Government Member said on Second Reading, putting decisions behind closed doors before transparency. If the Bill proceeds unamended, it will not only damage the Government but damage confidence in our democracy.
I wanted to make a couple of brief comments, even before I was provoked by Geraint Davies. As it happens, I was inaccurately provoked, because he misread the table produced by the Library. I am one of the Members of Parliament whose constituency is in the top 10 of those where the proportion of the population registered to vote is smaller and the population is larger. The official figures in a House of Commons table show that Bermondsey and Old Southwark has a population of 122,510-we are No. 10 in the list-and an electorate of 77,628: almost the quota that is suggested across the country. The electorate make up 63.4% of the population according to the latest figures.
There are two explanations. One is that a lot of the differential is accounted for by people under 18; that applies across all our seats. The second is that there is a mixture of people-inner London has this in common with many places-who live there perfectly lawfully but are not entitled to vote. They are not UK citizens, they are not Irish citizens, they are not EU citizens and they are not Commonwealth citizens. We have a lot in my constituency; we are very proud to do so, and I serve them without discrimination, just as I would serve anyone on the electoral roll.
However, there is a problem of under-registration of those who should be on the electoral register, and I am never going to take any lessons from the Labour party because throughout the period of Labour Government the problem was exactly the same, and the legacy is that the Labour party left us with an under-registration of 3.5 million people.
I am going to be brief, because the debate is time-limited until 11 pm, but I will give way.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Islington we had the second-worst voter registration rate in the country when the Liberals were in charge of my local council, and when we, the Labour group, tried to pass a resolution to increase voter registration, the deputy leader of the council shouted across the council chamber, "Bu that's how we win elections"? The voter registration went up by 9,000 from 2005 to 2010, and my vote went up by 6,000.
If the hon. Lady had been present a few minutes ago, she would have heard that point made by one of her colleagues. I have heard it made before. [Hon. Members: "It is still true."] I am making the point that for Labour to be critical of the fact that 3.5 million people are not registered but should be registered is entirely unjustified, because for 13 years Labour were in government. They could and should have done much more.
No, I am not going to get into a big debate. I address my comments to my ministerial friends, and they know what I am going to say next. There is a duty on Government to do much more to ensure that people who should be registered are registered. In my constituency there is a turnover of about a quarter of the electorate every year, so registration is difficult.
I want to make publicly the point that I have made privately to Ministers and to the Deputy Prime Minister. My first proposition is that one of the things that I want us to do-the deputy leader of the Labour party, Ms Harman, made this point when she was in government-is to work across parties and to put our heads together to think of all the ways in which we can increase registration. I hope the new Labour leader, his Front-Bench colleagues and the deputy leader will work with the Government and all other parties to make sure we-
No, not now.
We need to work across parties, with all parties, to ensure that in every constituency in Britain, whatever the number of constituencies, everybody who can possibly be registered is on the electoral register.
Absolutely. I am keen that we do with registration this autumn.
I have a second proposition. The deputy leader of the Labour party argued-I put the argument to her and she made it publicly-that we should have a regular democracy day, democracy week or democracy month. Using Government resources, the Central Office of Information, and the publicity of Government and local councils, we should have a campaign that goes out to find people to register and does not do the traditional, routine, perfectly proper thing-knocking on doors, finding that people are not in and not tracking them down.
My suggestion is that this November we have a big effort led by the Deputy Prime Minister's Department and my right hon. and hon. Friends who are Ministers, using the radio and television and getting people out on the streets, outside the tube stations in London, outside the railway stations and the bus stations, outside the further education colleges throughout the country, and outside the supermarkets and at the shopping centres, so that rather than relying on people being found to be at home, there is a way in which people are encouraged to vote.
We need collectively to own a failure of a generation to ensure that people are registered to vote in the numbers that they should be. It is not a party political matter. It should not be regarded as a case for party banter and provocation. We all have a duty, because it is unacceptable that so many people are not on the voting list when they should be. I hope that the Government will come forward with positive proposals on a cross-party basis that will engage us this autumn-next month-to do something about that so that we on the Government Benches, at least, can be seen to be trying to remedy a problem which for 13 and a half years was not remedied by the Labour party.
Mrs Laing spoke passionately and ended with words to the effect that this was all about equalising constituencies. There is no equalisation of constituencies. All our constituencies are different. Simon Hughes would agree with me, I think, that his constituents who identify with Bermondsey do not identify with Deptford, and vice versa.
Even in London, we have distinct communities. We have people who hang together as a community and as a society. That is extraordinarily valuable. I want to examine for a moment who the people are whom the hon. Lady seemed to set aside as though they had no worth because, she said, they are not part of our democracy. Those are real people living in our communities, contributing to our communities. This is not a one-way street. It is not that we are here and they come as supplicants to us, to ask for favours. They are people in their own right, who contribute to our communities even when they do not vote and may not be registered. They are human beings living as part of our communities. We have to think very seriously about being dismissive of a significant proportion of our population.
Andrew George mentioned the Electoral Commission's study when the Chamber was far less full, so I shall repeat some of his points. The investigation found that
"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)."
It found also:
"The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas" and in areas where there are
"high levels of social deprivation."
That is a representation of my constituency, which is vibrant, alive and contributing, but where there is huge under-registration.
Let me look at those different categories and how they have come to be under-registered. There has been much talk of functional illiteracy being a factor in the lack of registration, but I remind the Committee that many people in my community are entirely literate in their own language. They contribute and work, but often they are not able to function very well in English, which is not their first language. None the less, our local authority, a Labour local authority, has made enormous efforts to register people, but I shall refer again to those categories of people and to why efforts fail.
Many of my constituents are poor people. Members have spoken a lot about poverty tonight, but if someone is poor in my constituency and has the chance to work, they work. People do not lie around and take benefits when they have the option to work; they work. They do two, three and, occasionally, four little jobs on low wages, and by doing all those jobs they pile up enough to live on. However, they are never at home, including when I call to canvass them or to see whether they have any needs that I can represent, and they are not there even when a proactive council such as mine sends people out at all times of the day in order to try to find people at home. There are people who never, ever come into contact with those who would try to help them to register.
Does my right hon. Friend think that one way around that problem is to employ local people who are trusted in such communities to do the electoral registration there?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and there have been attempts to undertake such work. My local authority has recruited well-known people in the community and efforts have been made at community events. We have many young people's events and an elected young mayor in Lewisham, and all of that contributes to helping people understand that they should be registered and should take the opportunity to vote.
Will the right hon. Lady describe for the Committee the barriers to her local authority having been able to do more over the past 13 years to encourage greater electoral registration?
There have been very good results in my local authority area. It removed from the register many names that were there inaccurately, because it wanted to be honest and direct and not keep names on the roll. It would have been in a better position, given the Government's attitude, if it had left all those names on, but its process was thorough, and through its efforts it has added many thousands of names to the register.
My own electorate was registered at 59,000 in 2005 and at 67,000 in 2010. Real efforts have been made, and I certainly applaud that. However, notwithstanding all the efforts, which do have results, there will always be people we cannot reach, and we must have regard to them.
One barrier that many local authorities think they face is using other available data sets. Last month, the Government made a welcome announcement about data-sharing pilots. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those pilots should be carried out prior to the fundamental changes in the Bill?
Absolutely. It is utterly hypocritical of Government Members to accuse the Labour Government of doing nothing, because local authorities put things into practice, and many have chosen not to. It is also completely unethical to propose a Bill of this nature knowing that millions are not registered and utterly refuse to do anything about registration prior to the Bill possibly becoming law.
Would the right hon. Lady care to tell us when it would be possible to carry out a boundary review, or are we to have Labour seats being smaller than other seats for ever, given that we will never have a perfect electoral roll?
The judgment that the hon. Gentleman makes in saying that Labour seats are smaller is based on numbers.
We challenge the Government to work with all of us-Simon Hughes suggested how we might all work together-to increase levels of registration. If we did that, the Government would be in a much better position having made an honest effort to argue the case with us. In my view, even if we do the best that we can, there is still an issue that cannot be ignored.
I think that there is a desire in all parts of the Committee to ensure maximum registration. Is my right hon. Friend aware that contrary to the point made by Nick Boles, some of the largest registered electorates are in Labour-held constituencies?
I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely important point, and I hope that it has been heard on the Government Benches.
When the boundaries were drawn last time, how was under-registration taken into account by the Boundary Commission?
That is a matter for the Boundary Commission; I was not party to its deliberations.
I was talking about people who are not able to be at home, people whose first language is not English, and people who live in houses in multiple occupation. Every one of us who has a constituency where there are houses in multiple occupation will have seen properties in which there is a sea of mailed documents and leaflets on the floor and nobody picks them up. There are major problems in reaching people in such places, particularly those who are living in bad housing conditions. In my constituency, regrettably, we have many thousands waiting for social housing.
In my constituency, the ward of Rhyl West is the poorest ward in the whole of Wales, which has 1,900 wards, and it has 900 houses in multiple occupation. Yet Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire, was able to take that ward's registration rate up from 2,400 to 3,600 electors by cross-referencing databases and door-knocking. Does my right hon. Friend think that that should be replicated across the country?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a most valuable point. I have already paid tribute to my local authority. That job can be done, but because of all the factors that I have mentioned, we will not succeed in registering 100% of people in constituencies such as mine that are affected by the problems identified by the Electoral Commission. That is partly because the population of such areas is so mobile, with perhaps 10% of people moving every year. It will never be possible to equalise constituencies such as Lewisham, Deptford and Epping Forest.
Is not the most important point, and the one to which coalition Members are not listening, that constituencies may well be much more equal than local registration figures show? In constituencies such as my right hon. Friend's and mine where there is very high churn, there are a large number of Europeans, and people who want to be on the register but cannot. A large number of people simply do not count, but they do exist and are a valuable part of our constituencies.
I agree absolutely. I repeat that those are real people contributing to our communities and living among us, and we ought to value them. They may not be on the electoral register, but they certainly exist. The hon. Member for Epping Forest agreed that as Members of Parliament, we have to treat unregistered people equally with those who are registered if they come through our doors. That is a most important principle. We need to recognise their existence, value them and be willing to count them in as people who could be registered, even if they are not.
Nobody would disagree with the right hon. Lady that we must make every effort to register everybody who is eligible, but does she not agree that there are two different issues to consider? One is that every Member of Parliament should be elected by an equal number of electors, and the other is that if one Member has to represent more people than others do, perhaps more resources should be made available to them. She is confusing two issues.
I am not at all. I am talking about the equal worth of people who are eligible to be registered but are not, and those who are registered. That is the difference between our position and the Government's. They simply wish to take a number and say that every constituency must reach that number of electors, otherwise it cannot exist. That is illogical and ludicrous, and worse still, they plan to do nothing to attempt to equalise the numbers, even on their own terms.
I conclude by repeating that as Members of Parliament we serve all our constituents and all our constituencies. I am sure that we all often say, "Well, frankly, if you're not voting, don't come complaining to me." But we are not suggesting that only voters count, are we? On the technical issue of registration, that is not good enough for me, and it should not be good enough for the majority of hon. Members.
I am sure the whole Committee is delighted that we have now reached part 2 of the Bill, which is based on the very simple concept that votes across the country should have equal value, wherever someone is. Chris Bryant can provide a simple example of why that is important. His constituency, according to the records, has 51,706 electors. My constituency of Somerton and Frome has 81,566 electors. I have 30,000 more electors than him. Why should my electors' votes have less value than those of his electors? That is the question he needs to answer.
I have already made it absolutely clear in the debate that I believe that there should be greater equalisation of the constituencies. The Deputy Leader of the House says that there is one sole principle, so why, by his own analysis, is he creating two rotten boroughs in Scotland?
If the hon. Gentleman accepts the principle that votes should be equalised, he disguised it well in his very long contribution. We had a wide debate on this group of amendments. At one point it looked like a clause stand part debate, and at another like a Bill stand part debate, given the amount of material we considered. Most Members were relatively continent, but then we had the hon. Gentleman. When I suggested that we have an extra hour for this debate this evening because of the earlier statement, I did not appreciate that it would be taken up almost entirely by him.
On previous groups of amendments, it seemed that the hon. Gentleman had not properly read the Bill, but on this group of amendments, it seemed that he had not read his own proposals. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was deliberately trying to avoid speaking to his amendments. Members listening to the debate might have assumed that his proposal was to slow down the process set out in the Bill. They might have thought that in amendment 127, to which he never referred, he was proposing to extend the period for the Boundary Commission to do its job, but no, that was not his proposition. If anyone cares to look at the amendment paper, they will see that amendment 127 suggests that far from the Boundary Commission doing its job in three years, as proposed in the Bill, it should do it one year, which is entirely contrary to everything that he said in his contribution. He persuaded Austin Mitchell, who is not in the Chamber, that he had a sensible suggestion, but he did not persuade me.
If hon. Members listened to the hon. Member for Rhondda, they might have assumed that it would be difficult for boundary commissions to do their job within the resources and time available, but they might not realise that each boundary commission gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform and rebutted that suggestion in terms, saying that they had the resources and the capability, and that there was no problem whatever.
I listened to the Boundary Commission's evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The Deputy Leader of the House is right that the commission said that it would be able to do its work within the time frame. Clearly, it felt able to say that only because it needs to pay attention only to the politics by numbers-the arithmetic formula this Government are imposing to gerrymander and rig the next election. The commission has no need to consider the geographical, historical or cultural identities and ties that have created our constituencies. That is why it can do its work in the time given.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has completely demolished whatever case the hon. Member for Rhondda had for saying that the Boundary Commission's resources were inadequate for its job.
Hon. Members who listened to the debate might also have felt that the hon. Member for Rhondda had tabled a second amendment of which they knew little. They certainly would not have heard that he wished to make the implementation of equal votes across the constituencies of the UK dependent on the referendum on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. But his amendment would provide that nothing could change until after that referendum. Our difficulty with that is that these provisions have nothing to do with the devolved powers of the National Assembly for Wales: they are about putting the electors of Wales on the same basis as the electors of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is a question of fairness.
Does the Parliamentary Secretary recognise that there are four different constitutional settlements within the United Kingdom and that those issues are central to the question of the constitutional arrangements relating to this House? Why is he presenting a Bill that is constitutionally illiterate?
I know of no constitutional principle that says that voters in Wales should have twice the value of voters in Somerset. I do not understand that as a constitutional concept, and it is not one that I support. Why should Wales continue to be over-represented? Why should it be placed in that constitutional setting in eternity? Perhaps he can tell us.
The Parliamentary Secretary should recognise that the relationship between Wales and England is an historic one that depends closely on the managed constitutional relations between the two countries. The reality is that Wales is a small country that has a long and strong relationship with England, a much larger country. Wales has a distinct identity, and when he was on the Opposition Benches he recognised that through devolution. Why is he now jettisoning the distinct identity of Wales and treating the people of Wales in this way?
There we have the paucity of the argument for the defence. This is not about the historic and cultural value of the principality of Wales. I am a great fan of Wales and I always have been. It has a very important part to play in the United Kingdom, but I return to my point that I see no reason why electors in Wales should have more of a say in this, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, than electors in any other part of the country. That is the principle before us today.
The Parliamentary Secretary was asked a straightforward question earlier. If he believes in equalisation, why will two seats in Scotland be treated differently?
Order. I think that we are going wide of the mark and the Deputy Leader of the House is being dragged into areas where I would not expect him to be led. I know that he knows better and I will let him continue with his speech.
I will of course be led by you, Mr Hoyle, on what it is appropriate to deal with on this group of amendments, although I will take great pleasure in coming back to that argument tomorrow when we debate the proposed constituencies.
Many hon. Members have concentrated on registration, and it is an extraordinarily important issue. I yield to no one in my wish to see registration dealt with much more effectively. Indeed, it was one of my persistent criticisms of the 13 years of the Labour Government that they did so little to ensure that the registration of electors was much improved. That is one of the many failures of the previous Government. I agree with my hon. Friend Simon Hughes, who said that this issue should transcend party politics and our views on the outcome of elections. It surely should be a principle that every single eligible elector should be on the register and that those who are not eligible should not be on the register.
Those are the two sides of the coin, as far as electoral registration is concerned. That is why I am so pleased to have heard what the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper said the other day about the extra measures that the Government are taking to ensure that registration is carried out more effectively across the country. We can do more. I am taken by the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, which I have heard expressed before, that we should have a democracy day. That is something we can build on. Perhaps hon. Members could work with the local authorities in their area and make better registration a reality.
The debate stood adjourned (Programme Order, this day, and
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again tomorrow.