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Clause 8 — Reports of the Boundary Commissions

Part of House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 19th October 2010.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 7:30 pm, 19th October 2010

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 1 October 2013 and subsequently every five years. Our amendment would leave out the words "before 1st October 2013" and insert

"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.