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I remind the Committee that with this we are taking 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-
(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 welcome you back to the Chair, Ms Primarolo, and to the consideration of clause 8. I am delighted that we can continue debating amendment 127. Of course, we would not have been able to do this if the Opposition's attempt to prevent us from doing so, when we dealt with the timetable motion yesterday, had succeeded. When I was last speaking to this group of amendments, we were having a brief exchange on the matter of Wales. I do not want to continue that exchange, because we need the opportunity to discuss the much more important issues relating to Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom under clause 9, which I hope we will reach shortly.
I was also considering the amendments proposed by Chris Bryant. One of the great advantages of having an overnight break is that we can look back at the Official Report and read what the protagonists have said. I looked back through the report of the 50 minutes that the hon. Gentleman took in proposing his amendments and found that he did not, as I had suspected, mention them once during those 50 minutes. We know not from him what the content of the amendments is. So I propose to move on from the hon. Gentleman to the right hon. and hon. Members who contributed something positive to the debate.
Much of what we heard was about registration and the fact-it is a fact-that many people do not appear on the electoral register. Graham Stringer-I am glad to see him in his place-made clear his view on that, and said, I think, that we were moving to a system whereby 3.5 million people are not on the register. I disagree with him about that. We are not moving to a system whereby 3.5 million people are not on the register; we are already at that stage, and have been for a very long time. The disgrace is that we have been so unsuccessful in dealing with the parts of the country where registration is insufficient.
My hon. Friend Andrew George set out some of the reasons why we will never achieve 100% registration, given the difficulties involved. He is absolutely right, and I do not disagree with his analysis in any way. That is why the Government are introducing proposals at least to help the process and get as many people as possible on to the register.
The difficulties that we have with the amendments fall into two groups. They would change the basis on which boundary reviews are effected, moving away from the number of registered electors to some other basis, whether an estimate of eligible electors or an estimate of population. Alternatively, they suggest that we delay the process and make it longer, by a variety of mechanisms. I do not believe that that is the right way forward. The proper course of action is to ensure that register is as accurate as possible. As I have said, the Government are taking action to improve the registration system.
Amendment 125 would require the boundary commissions to use an estimate of eligible electors, to be provided by the Office for National Statistics. The ONS does not at present make any estimate of eligible electors. Census data are available, but a census is carried out only once a decade, does not cover eligibility to vote and may contain inaccuracies. Indeed, in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Scotland said that there would be "significant practical problems" with using population rather than registered electorate for the purposes of the boundary review. It was mentioned that the electoral register is published annually, whereas the census, which does not record whether a person is eligible to vote, is published every 10 years.
Delaying the boundary reviews would simply make the information on which they are based more inaccurate. The general election held last May was based on electoral registration data 10 years out of date. That cannot be right, and that is my difficulty with amendments 341 and 342, tabled by my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland. Those amendments would not only delay the initial review, but halve the frequency of such reviews, by requiring the boundary commissions to report before
The Government's proposals build on the existing arrangements for boundary reviews, which have been based on the electoral register for decades. It is right that we take action in support of complete and accurate registers, and the Government are taking that action. On that basis, I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to press their amendments.
We have had 51 speakers-or rather, 52, counting the Deputy Leader of the House, who has just spoken. Despite his rather petulant and "ad hominate" speech last night, we have none the less had a good debate. He did, however, correctly excoriate me for not fully adumbrating the amendments that we tabled. That was partly because I took 31 interventions, more than half of which were from Government Members, but perhaps it would be of assistance if I were now to explain precisely why our two amendments are important.
The Deputy Leader of the House was quite right last night to say that our two amendments, 127 and 135, which refer to different parts of the Bill, are not necessarily readily comprehensible at first sight-partly because one refers to clause 8 and the other to clause 16. Both appear at different points in the amendment paper. Consequently, Members will have to turn to pages 429 and 445 to find them.
Amendment 127 would include in clause 8 the words
"within twelve months of part 2 of the...Act...coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof'."
In other words, the Boundary Commission would produce its report within 12 months of an addition to clause 16(2), which we would insert through amendment 135, stating,
The Deputy Leader of the House rightly told me off last night for not explaining precisely why we believe that that is important. As I tried to say in yesterday's debate, historically, we have constructed Parliament in this country by determination according to the four different constituent parts of the Union. That has included the representation that each part requires in order for the Union to be solid and hold together, which is precisely what happened in the 1536 Act of Union, the 1707 Act of Union and the 1801 Act of Union. With all three, the first thing determined was how much representation there should be from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Obviously, that was subsequently changed with the creation of the Irish Free State.
The further change to Scottish representation occurred when we introduced devolution, so, following the Scotland Act 1998, it was agreed that because a variety of powers would be given to the Scottish Parliament, it was right and proper for the number of seats that Scotland accounted for in the Westminster Parliament to be reduced.
The first referendum in Wales on devolution brought about the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, which does not have law-making powers or enjoy any powers over crime, justice or policing, so it is a somewhat different body from the Scottish Parliament. However, there is a proposition that follows on from the Wales Act 2006, and it will be tested in a referendum, which the Government have said will take place in the first quarter of next year, but for which as yet no date has been set. The Welsh Assembly Government have requested that it should be on
However, be that as it may, we need to be assured of what powers the Welsh Assembly will have if we are then to have a coherent Union-based understanding of how much representation there should be from Wales in the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is why we have tabled the two amendments, and I shall press them to a Division, because I have not heard anything from the Deputy Leader of the House to alter my opinion that we should proceed on a Union-based understanding of how we create this House, not on a purely mathematically based assumption.
Further to that point, does my hon. Friend recognise that because of the arithmetical formula, the Bill will ensure not just that boundaries will change every five years, but that the number of seats allocated to each Boundary Commission could change? The number of seats in Northern Ireland could go up in one review and down in another, and that in turn would affect the seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, because the constituencies of the Assembly and of Parliament are absolutely coterminous. The proposal will create havoc.
The seats in the Welsh Assembly are coterminous with those for this Parliament at the moment, although there is a provision later in the Bill to change that through decoupling. That is something that we must analyse. My hon. Friend is right that there may be a change in the number of seats between each segment. If there is a boundary review every five years, there might well be a change in the number of seats, and in the end I am not sure whether that is likely to lead to a more stable constitutional settlement between the four constituent parts of the Union.
There are those who like to think that there is just the Union, not any constituent parts, and there are those who want to think that there are just the constituent parts-which should not be constituent parts but independent. However, I believe that they are constituent parts of the whole, and I say gently to Ministers that the way in which they are proceeding in relation to some parts of the Union is not likely to aid the Unionist cause. It will be detrimental.
We do not say that the provision in our amendments should be introduced solely if the referendum is successful in granting further powers to the Assembly.
No, it is not Labour party policy that anywhere be under-represented. We believe, as I said yesterday evening, that it is important to achieve greater equalisation of the number of voters in each electorate, but that should not be a purely mathematical exercise. Where there are overriding concerns, those should be brought into play. Indeed, the Government agree to some degree, because they have created a degree of exception for Northern Ireland and a completely different set of exemptions for two seats in Scotland, which, according to the Government's interpretation of the situation-and, I presume therefore, the hon. Gentleman's-will effectively create two rotten boroughs in Scotland. We think that if we are going to make exemptions, we should make a broader set of exemptions, rather than just those two.
To correct not only my hon. Friend but myself, I should say that I am reliably informed that three seats are involved. There is another seat; there is a rule that applies only to that seat on geographical grounds. That does not apply in Wales, where, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, a seat could well stretch from one side to the other if the population density was low.
My hon. Friend is right to correct me. I accept the admonition that three seats are being created in this way. I do not think it inappropriate for those seats to exist. But the logic of the Government's argument-that there should be complete mathematical purity-leads one to suppose that they can only think that they are creating three rotten boroughs.
I detected a form of back-pedalling in the hon. Gentleman's answer to Mark Tami. I assume that he is not saying that Labour's policy is that the islands of Scotland are rotten in some way.
No. The hon. Gentleman knows that personally I have a great affection for the islands; indeed, many of my ancestors came from Lewis. But that is not the point. I am not trying to say that Scotland is in any shape rotten; I am merely trying to say that there is an illogicality in the argument that the Government are presenting. They are trying to say that we should have mathematical purity everywhere-except where we should not have it. I am trying to say that we should strive towards broad equality of representation in each of the seats. However, other considerations need to be brought to mind, and that should apply not only to the seats that I mentioned, but to some others as well.
I want some clarification. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the sensible exceptions that have been made for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland? Yes or no?
Yes, I do. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, we have tabled amendments that would include his seat, but also include others. He is a sage man and I know that he would want to pursue the logic of the creation of his own seat so as to make exactly the same exemptions in some other cases where there are overriding concerns-in the Isle of Wight, for instance. That is the nature of the amendment that we have tabled elsewhere.
Could we put it this way? Given that the Government have already conceded that there are exceptions to the numerical rule, would it not be better to give the judgment to the Boundary Commission, which could not be perceived to have any vested interest? It could make the judgment on where exceptions should and should not apply, rather than the Government laying that out in the Bill.
The hon. Lady speaks with almost as much sagacity as Mr MacNeil. I agree with her that there is no logic to how the exceptions have been laid out. The Boundary Commissions should be given a certain latitude while striving towards a greater equalisation of the number of electors in each constituency.
Does my hon. Friend find it surprising that the Bill comes from a party that is meant to be committed to the Union and that that party's parliamentary colleagues will be involving themselves in the destruction of the historic Duchy of Cornwall along the same lines?
My hon. and historical Friend is absolutely right. That adds to my argument, and to arguments that I shall hope to adduce later. As I said, there need to be some exemptions where there are overriding geographical, political or cultural issues that need to be resolved.
One of the overriding political issues is the bonding together of the Union, which historically has taken into consideration the existing political structures in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. That is why we have tabled amendments 127 and 135, which would mean that the Boundary Commission would not be able to proceed until the referendum had happened in Wales. In that way, we would know that there was a settled view about what powers the National Assembly for Wales would have.
There are other amendments in this group. In particular, Greg Mulholland has tabled amendments 341 and 342, either of which I would be happy to support; I very much hope that he will press one of them to a Division.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point in his contribution to the debate when he said that we have only just had a boundary review and we are to have another by 2013, which seems rather a fruitless exercise. He is absolutely right; it would be better if we did things on a longer time scale, and towards 2018. That point relates to his amendment 341. His amendment 342 would mean that instead of having reviews every five years, we should have them every 10 years. I say to hon. Members who are hard and fast in their view that we should have a full boundary review, every five years, on the basis of purely mathematical, arithmetical equations, that that would put every single parliamentary seat in doubt every single time. It may not be that every single one is changed every time, but a large number probably would be. The danger is that that gives rise to a conflict when an hon. Member knows the seat that they will be fighting at the next general election and they want to get in touch with the voters in that seat not as an MP but as a candidate. That is likely to lead to a considerable number of unfortunate circumstances in the way that Parliament behaves. It was difficult enough in the last general election, when the Speaker and the courts had to intervene in two cases in London where boundaries had been redrawn and MPs wished to be able to correspond not as an MP but as a candidate, and the sitting MP objected to that intervention.
Does the shadow Minister agree that over, say, a 20-year period of four Parliaments one community could find itself in four different constituencies and have four different MPs, not because an MP is deposed but because the constituency boundaries are being changed to ensure that all the arithmetical figures stack up? That breaks the strong and important link between the constituency MP and the local electorate.
Absolutely. Particularly in many rural areas where the difference between reaching the mathematical perfect number and not reaching it might be 1,500 or 3,000 votes, a medium-sized village or small town might have to be divided in half, or a river might run across the constituency and new polling districts might have to be created. A whole series of different issues might mean that the individual voter ultimately ends up being less confident about knowing who their political representative is.
Mrs Laing, who knows that I have a great respect for her-I waited until she took her seat before referring to her-made several points, one of which related to the fact that we should not be redrawing the seats for our own convenience. She is absolutely right. We should, however, ensure that the political boundaries for constituencies are for the convenience of our electors. Our electors do not think in terms of lines on a map but in terms of political communities, cultural connections and social connections, and where the roads go and do not go. If one is to bind together little bits of geography just because they sort out a perfect map according to mathematical excellence, one might assist the convenience of the Boundary Commission, but one will not necessarily assist the convenience of voters, who want to know and understand who their Member of Parliament is-and it is better that they do. I know that there are split wards, but it would be better if there were not.
My hon. Friend suggested that there would be changes every five years but that that might not affect every constituency. Does he agree that, for example, a constituency in the south that grew because of population changes and migration would necessarily have a nudging effect on contiguous boundaries and a domino effect all the way up the country, and that because it is likely that virtually every seat will change every five years during the 20-year period that my hon. Friend Phil Wilson mentioned, one's constituency might move around the country? [ Interruption. ]
Members on both sides are laughing because my hon. Friend has of course moved around the country himself, so I will assist by saying that I know that the people of Wales welcome him back to his home town.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that where there are significant changes in the population there will not only be effects for one constituency but potentially nudge-on effects for many others, which may move from one county council or one borough to another. In part, we have to accept this. Rhondda used to have two parliamentary seats, Rhondda East and Rhondda West, and then we moved down to one parliamentary seat because the population fell dramatically. I do not believe that the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies in Wales or anywhere else should be written in stone-of course we have to move with the population flows. However, if we move forward precisely like this, without any kind of exemption, one constituency in Wales will represent at least a third of the geographical area of Wales. That would be unacceptable. It would cover several counties, which are unitary authorities in Wales, and would include areas that are, and feel themselves to be, virtually in England, and a large part of Wales that is fiercely proud of its Welsh language heritage. That would be an inappropriate direction in which to move.
Does my hon. Friend agree with what the women's institute has written? As I am sure all hon. Members know, anyone who dares to suggest that the women's institute is party political will have their come-uppance, but it has expressed great concern about the effect that the changes will have on rural communities, because natural geographical boundaries will be cut up.
Tony Blair learned that one should not really mess with the women's institute, and I have no intention of doing so, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Large parts of her constituency are very rural, and chunks of mine are semi-rural-everybody in the Rhondda lives within about 200 metres of a farm. Surely the point is that overriding concerns must be able to trump mathematical perfection, not entirely but to a degree. The Government have already accepted that in relation to three constituencies, but it should apply more widely.
My hon. Friend Graham Stringer has tabled amendment 38, which refers to registration. A lot of Members talked about under-registration yesterday afternoon, and the Deputy Leader of the House has just mentioned it. I am glad he accepts that some 3.5 million people are not on the register and should be. I make no pretence that we got it right when we were in government. Indeed, some of us-particularly one of my hon. Friends, who is probably about to intervene on me-quite rightly argued aggressively in the last Parliament that many people are under-represented on the register. The danger is that they will therefore be under-represented in Parliament and their concerns will not be taken on board.
My hon. Friend says that we did not do as much as we could have done, and I agree, but we did do some things in the past 13 years. In the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we examined what electoral registration officers were doing and measured them in 26 fields. That process was long and slow, but now we are beginning to examine what they achieved so that we can fine-tune the process. However, the current proposals are being rushed through.
We also listened to the then Opposition. When they wanted individual registration, we opposed it at first but then said that because of political balance we would introduce it. We said that it would happen in 2015 and that we would put measures in place to increase registration over the five years until then. All that bipartisanship has been shattered by the governing parties for party political gain and to pursue a little English coup.
But it was very good, Mr Hood, and spot on. I hope that some coalition Members accept that when we were in government, we tried to co-operate on electoral registration. When the hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke for her party on the matter, she did so very effectively and we tried to co-operate and reach agreement when we could. We agreed that we would move towards individual registration, but I am concerned that the new Government's message about registration is, "Yes, we want everybody to register, but it doesn't really matter if you don't. We're going to get rid of the fine for somebody who does not send in their form, and registering is almost entirely optional." That is a shame, because as I tried to say in a debate that the hon. Lady secured in Westminster Hall earlier today, we sometimes take our democracy for granted all too easily.
No-I heard exactly the opposite. I think that there was a reference to a 7% cut in local authority funding every year for the next four years. My concern is that, because all too often we take democracy for granted, when local councillors have to decide whether to spend £100,000 on keeping a swimming pool open or on a really good door-to-door canvas to ensure that everybody is registered, they tend to keep the swimming pool open. Although I fully understand such decisions, which will be difficult for many councillors in the next four years, unless one values democracy and spends money on it, one does not get a proper representative democracy. That is why Labour Members believe that amendment 38 is important. Unless the Electoral Commission is satisfied that there is proper registration and that proper measures are being taken to ensure full registration of all eligible voters in this country-and for dealing with those who are on the register but should not be-the Boundary Commission should not be able to produce its report.
My hon. Friend Geraint Davies tabled amendment 125, which refers to the census. Earlier, the Deputy Leader of the House said that he did not agree with the amendment because the census happened every 10 years, which might have led one to believe that there would not be one for 10 years, but of course, one will be held next year. The information may not be available immediately, but surely it would be bizarre if we found that the number of those eligible to vote in individual areas of the country was dramatically higher than those registered to vote, and that those areas were significantly unfairly under-represented in the House because the Government chose to proceed on only one element.
My amendment would provide for the Office for National Statistics to conduct an assessment of the number of eligible voters. It would use the register of voters alongside the census and other data sources to get the best estimate. It might not be perfect, but it would be better than the current suggestion.
Precisely. That is one of the things that the Boundary Commission should consider.
One other issue was mentioned in yesterday's debate. I am sorry to refer to the hon. Member for Epping Forest for a third time, but she got rather cross with me in yesterday evening's debate, so I merely wish to respond to one of her comments. She said that the point about the number of Members of Parliament in a particular area and the casework that they took on was not a matter of substance. Various hon. Friends suggested that some of those who are not eligible to vote often provide much of the casework in a constituency. Consequently, there is an argument about the role of the Member of Parliament, which should be considered before reaching the precise matter of how the boundaries are drawn. The hon. Lady said that it would be good if we reduced the number of Members of Parliament and achieved equalisation of the electorate in each constituency, and that if a problem remained with casework, we could give Members of Parliament more staff. [Interruption.] I think that Roger Williams says, "Hear, hear" because he wants more staff to work for him.
I am concerned about the hon. Lady's view because the role of a Member of Parliament has completely changed since the days of Stafford Cripps, and casework is an essential part of the job. Simply hiving it off to a member of staff, without the Member of Parliament's being directly involved, distances Members of Parliament from the real life that goes on around them. Simply replacing Members of Parliament with paid staff is not the right route.
I am keen to press our amendments to a Division. I hope that hon. Members will agree that mathematical excellence is not the only way in which one should proceed towards creating new boundaries for the House for Commons, and that other considerations need to be borne in mind. I hope that I can rely on the Committee's good sense.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: 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.".'.- (Graham Stringer.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 231, Noes 328.
I beg to move amendment 234, page 7, line 17, at end insert-
'(5AA) The draft of an Order in Council laid under subsection (5A) above may only give effect to the recommendations contained in all four reports under subsection (1) above with modifications, where those modifications have been made with the agreement of the Boundary Commissions.'.
This amendment has been tabled in the names of members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Allen, is sadly unable to be in here this afternoon and so I have undertaken to move the amendment on behalf of his Committee.
The Select Committee, as the Committee well knows, carried out a necessarily brief and swift but in-depth consideration of the Bill. In order to try to be helpful to the House and the Minister, we tabled several amendments that we believed ought to be considered and that we hope will improve the Bill. The purpose of amendment 234 is to reflect paragraph 139 of the Select Committee's recently published report, which states that
"the power of the Executive to depart from the recommendations of an independent statutory body should have clear statutory limits to prevent abuse for partisan advantage."
I am sure the Committee will agree that that is a matter that ought to be drawn to the attention of the Minister and of hon. Members.
I ask the Minister where the justification lies for the Government's retaining such a wide-ranging power to depart from the Boundary Commissions' recommendations. Although I would assert that I have every confidence-as does the Select Committee-that the current Government would always act in this matter in an honourable, straightforward and democratic way, may I nevertheless ask the Minister on behalf of the Select Committee what safeguards exist against any future Government's misusing such a power to their partisan advantage. It would be helpful if the Minister would consider those questions, and I am sure that the Committee will be eager to know the answers.
First, let me briefly comment on the fact that before you took the Chair, Mr Hoyle, we had a former miner in the Chair and two Tellers who were also former miners, so, as the MP for the Rhondda I felt quite at home. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the amendment, I am afraid.
The amendment has been charmingly moved by Mrs Laing, who is absolutely right. This is an issue that I have tried to raise on several occasions-
The Minister says that not so charmingly himself, so the favour goes back to him.
Under the clause, new subsection (5A) would read:
"As soon as may be after the submission of all four reports under subsection (1) above that are required by subsection (2) above to be submitted before a particular date, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in them."
So the Boundary Commission will bring forth its report, there will be no public inquiry and the Minister will then bring forward the boundaries with or without modifications. It is the phrase "with or without modifications" that I have difficulty with, and clearly the Select Committee does too.
The hon. Lady mentioned that her Committee had to do its business very swiftly. Indeed, I think it had only five days in which to undertake a whole inquiry. That is one reason why I believe the Bill is being taken through with undue haste. A substantial number of amendments have been tabled and will be considered on Monday, but we already know that some of them are inaccurate and will be modified when the Government bring forward territorial statutory instruments in relation to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I very much hope that the Minister will enlighten us as to whether those statutory instruments will be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure. [ Interruption. ] That is not what will happen on Monday because the measures are not going to be debated next Monday at all, contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the House has just said from a sedentary position.
The Government believe that we should retain in present legislation the phrase "with or without modifications". That is a pretty broad power.
With previous boundary reviews, there have sometimes been attempts at judicial review of elements of what the Boundary Commission has done. Most of them have been rejected, but we have to consider that that is a possibility and that minor modification might be required-or does the hon. Gentleman think that will not happen?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the due process that needs to be gone through. I believe that we need a due process in relation to the Boundary Commission, because it might proceed incorrectly according to the rules that are laid down for it, it might proceed in a partisan manner or it might not consider all the factors that need to be considered. That is why we have heretofore always had a system of public inquiry, and not just written reports being sent in. That is essential for there to be utter confidence in the process that the commission goes through. He is absolutely right that there is also, sometimes, a process of judicial review. I suspect that if the Government push through the Bill in the partisan way that they are doing, without any provision for public inquiry, the likelihood of a judicial review being sought in many constituencies in the land will be very high indeed.
The hon. Gentleman might say that that is a good reason why the Minister needs even more power to draw constituency boundaries as he thinks fit. Unless the Government can be shifted from this view-whether that happens in the House or in the other House-we shall almost inexorably end up with no due process, other than the recourse that people might have to the courts.
The Minister will probably tell us that the Government need this power because apostrophes and commas are sometimes put in the wrong place and there are inadvertent errors. That is why the amendment, which was tabled by several members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, is perfect: it simply says that the Minister, if he or she wishes to make any modification, must return to the Boundary Commission and ask, "Are you okay with this amendment?" If Ministers were in a conciliatory, cross-party mood, they would accept the amendment.
I fully understand that the precise wording they propose is that of the current legislation. That is fine when due process can go on after the Boundary Commissions have done their work-for example, public inquiries, where the public can have their say on the Boundary Commissions' proposals. Where that does not happen-that is the intention of the Bill, although it is something that we shall return to later-it is important that there is a bind on Ministers, so that they are not entirely free to dream up any kind of modification that they might want; otherwise, strictly speaking in law, I guess that Ministers would be perfectly at liberty, if they felt that the boundary commission had got something slightly wrong and representations were made to Ministers, to make such modifications as they thought fit.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is familiar with the situation in the United States, where there is no boundary commission and state legislators draw up in a partisan, political way each state's congressional districts. Does he agree that we are starting down a slippery slope and that we will end up with a partisan political set of redistricting-to use the American phrase-if the boundary commission's authority is not protected?
That will happen not just if we do not have the boundary commission's public inquiry process, but if this element of the Bill remains without the amendment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the United States of America, because there is a redrawing each time, there are many instances where the incumbents effectively draw boundaries to protect themselves. Therefore, two Hispanic communities that might be thought to vote Democrat could be linked, because boundaries must be contiguous, by a single side of a road, thus creating bizarrely shaped constituencies. That is why, as I am sure hon. Members know, one of the congressional districts in Massachusetts that was drawn up by Governor Elbridge Gerry in the 19th century was shaped like a salamander-hence the term "gerrymander". In fact, it looked more like an eagle than a salamander.
This provision, as constructed in the Bill, will specifically allow Ministers to gerrymander. It is entirely partisan. It will allow Ministers-indeed, it encourages them-to be partisan. [ Interruption. ] The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, says from a sedentary position what I have already said. He says, "We aren't changing anything." He says, as I have said, that the provision is in the existing legislation-it is-but if he would just listen to the end of the paragraph, he would understand and learn that, in fact, the difference between the legislation that he is advancing and the existing legislation is that he will allow no due process. There will be no public inquiries. Consequently, I do not think that the electorate will have confidence in the way the commission draws up boundaries and, thereafter, in the way that Ministers are allowed by their legislation to make such modifications as they see fit.
The Minister may be able to satisfy my concerns by saying that there is legal provision to prevent a member of the Government from doing anything that the boundary commission disagrees with, but I do not think he will be able to, because I cannot see where the Bill or any Act makes such a provision. That is why we wholeheartedly support the amendment presented by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. We believe intrinsically that it is one of the most important amendments to the Bill, and I do not know whether she intends to press it to a Division, but if she does not we certainly shall.
As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am disappointed to find that a measure with cross-party support on the Committee-we all agreed to it-has not been accepted as a good piece of advice on amending a Bill which did not have the pre-legislative scrutiny that might have incorporated such a provision in the first place. Indeed, that is why we have such bodies as Select Committees. They exist to ensure, in an atmosphere that is not adversarial, a greater depth of debate than has been possible even in our debates on the Bill over the past couple of days and today. All Select Committee members felt that, as a safeguard, the amendment was a reasonable way to progress, and, if Ministers have no intention of making unreasonable modifications, they have nothing to lose from accepting such a provision.
Mrs Laing said that she had no concerns about her Government using such powers. We might think differently, but equally she might think differently if there were a change of Government. From the perspective of our discussions in the Committee, the measure simply represented a safeguard that accounts for the fact that the whole procedure has changed. We know that the provision in the Bill is very similar, so we are not ignoring it, but the amendment was agreed to in the wider context of a debate about how we carry out such boundary changes, and the fact that public inquiries will not take place. We wanted to ensure that things could not be altered at the last minute in an unsatisfactory way that cut across whatever public consultation there had been throughout the process.
With many aspects of the Bill, we have forgotten the underlying reason for wanting to legislate on the constitution. I remember the Deputy Prime Minister, when he introduced this constitutional programme, saying that he wanted to overcome the distrust in politics and the fact that people appeared to have lost faith in politics and politicians, and that he felt that the constitutional changes would improve the situation. Having listened to some of last night's debate, I think it very important that we bear that test in mind when we consider the provision before us. We should ask ourselves, "Do these various detailed provisions improve that trust or detract from it?" The amendment would be a small and fairly technical provision that went some way to meeting that test. I commend it to the Minister and hope that it might be accepted.
The amendment would represent a very important reassurance, because the Minister would not be able to make highly arbitrary and subjective judgments on any modifications that were introduced. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we are being asked to consider a situation in which, in every Parliament, there will be a boundary review in respect of the next Parliament. That means that in each Parliament, and in each Government, the relevant Minister will in effect have his or her hands on a boundary review. That fundamentally changes the political nature of the operation, and it might be abused. I am thinking not only of one party against another; it could be abused within a party. It could become yet another of the Whips' weapons against recalcitrant Government Members-they could say, "Look, we can redistrict you." That is what has happened in the United States. We find many former members of Congress who say that they were blatantly redistricted by their own parties because they did not fit or did not particularly toe the line. We have seen that happen in various states.
The arrangements provided in the Bill are pregnant with the possibility of abuse or accusations of abuse. The parliamentary process needs to be protected from that. The House has made a mistake in accepting boundary reviews every five years rather than every 10 years. That means that every Parliament will be affected and infected by the issue and the controversy around it. If Ministers want to be free from that, they should agree to the amendment.
I am extremely grateful to Mrs Laing for moving the amendment. I give my best wishes-and, I am sure, those of the whole Committee-to the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who would normally have been here to speak about its proposals.
We have had a short and helpful debate. Chris Bryant has told us about the derivation of the word "gerrymander" again; hopefully, we will hear that each day this Committee sits. It worries me when the hon. Gentleman talks about due process: the more he talks about it-and it is not the issue before us at this stage-the more I think he does not know what it means. We will come back to that later.
Sheila Gilmore assumed a position on the part of the Government without knowing what it was. I suggest to her that that is not a sensible way to go forward; that is meant to be helpful. We are grateful to her.
Mark Durkan got the tone exactly right. There is an issue, and we understand that. The amendment would allow the Order in Council laid before Parliament to give effect to the boundary commissions' recommendations with modifications only if the commissions were content with the changes made. As we have heard, the existing legislation does not have a restriction on modification such as that proposed by the amendment. The Bill simply preserves that power.
There is no record of that power ever having been used. There was an instance in which a Government urged Parliament to reject boundary commission proposals in toto rather than modify them, and some would suggest that that in itself was an abuse, but a Government have never urged Parliament to modify such proposals, so there is no history on the issue. However, I entirely understand the desire expressed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to ensure the independence of the boundary commissions and see that their work is not modified for partisan reasons by any Government.
I say to the hon. Member for Epping Forest that the Government would like to consider the matter in more detail. There might be a situation in which, for the timely implementation of the boundary commission's recommendations, any unintended errors in the reports would need to be corrected in the Order in Council. We would want to consider carefully how any such restriction on the power to include modifications in the Order in Council might work.
There may be a technical defect in what the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has brought forward. That is not a criticism of its work. The amendment appears to require all four boundary commissions to agree to any modification, rather than the relevant commission or commissions for the part or parts of the United Kingdom where the modification is being made. We may have to look at how the amendment is cast.
I did not jump into the trap that my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore jumped into. However, I want to intervene to say that I would feel quite differently if the hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking that if he found some technical concern about the wording, he would bring back an amendment that made sure that no changes could be made to boundaries by a Minister without the consent of the boundary commission for the relevant region.
The hon. Lady has been in government so she knows the constraints within which we work.
I am very sympathetic to the views expressed in the amendment, and we will have to look at it further. That is not an attempt to fob off the hon. Member for Epping Forest or the Select Committee. It raises an important issue. I do not want there to be any circumstances in which a Government can apply a partisan consideration to a modification for a boundary commission response. I give a clear undertaking that the Government will consider the matter in detail and come back with a response in due course. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment on the basis that we will look at the matter further and that we are grateful to the Committee for having brought it to our attention.
I appreciate the position taken by Sheila Gilmore, but the Select Committee has not suggested that the proposals in the Bill avoid due process. I would argue personally, not necessarily on behalf of the Committee, that the proposals in the Bill do involve due process, but that that is not a matter which hon. Members should worry about. That is not the problem before us right now-the problem is simply whether the Government could, at some point in the future, take action without the agreement of the boundary commissions. I am pleased that the Minister has accepted that that is an issue. Every member of the Select Committee will be very pleased that its work has, at least in this respect, been seen to be worth while and contributing to improving the Bill, which was our purpose in submitting the amendment. Having heard the general arguments put this afternoon, including by the shadow Minister, I believe that it may have to be tightened up somewhat in its wording and technicalities.
I am delighted that the Minister has indicated that the Government will look in more detail at the matter and undertaken to come back to the House with it. Given that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 162, page 7, line 22, at end insert-
'( ) In Article 3 of the Lord President of the Council Order 2010 (S.I. 2010/1837) (which makes certain functions of the Secretary of State exercisable concurrently with the Lord President) the reference in paragraph (1) to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 is to be read as a reference to that Act as amended by this section.'.
These are minor amendments to clarify the position on ministerial responsibilities in relation to the constituencies provisions of the Bill. Responsibility for elections law, including parliamentary constituencies, is now exercisable by the Lord President and the Secretary of State, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, as Lord President of the Council, now has responsibility for political and constitutional reform. That was effected by the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, which provides that functions under various Acts, including the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, are exercisable concurrently by the Lord President and the Secretary of State. In the case of that Act, "the Secretary of State" includes the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who retain functions relating to boundary commissions in their parts of the United Kingdom.
The order states that references to the 1986 Act include references to it as amended by any enactment already made but not yet in force. It is arguable that that implies that such a reference does not include a reference to that Act as amended by a subsequent enactment. The amendment therefore provides that the reference to the 1986 Act in the order is to be read as a reference to the Act as amended by the Bill.
Amendments 163 to 167 are to clause 11 on the relationship between the changes to parliamentary constituencies and the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales. They make similar changes to those in the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, so that the clause refers to both the Secretary of State and the Lord President of the Council, and not just to the Secretary of State. That is done in the same way as in part 1 of the Bill, which provides that the Minister means the Lord President or the Secretary of State. I hope that that is perfectly clear to the Committee.
These amendments seem perfectly sensible and we have no problem with them. We hope that they will go forward immediately.
Amendment 162 agreed to.
On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. The amendments selected in this group include some that are proposing special privileges-some might say gerrymandering-for certain constituencies, and these have been ruled to be in order, while others suggesting gerrymandering, such as my own, which suggests that the traditional rotten borough of Retford should be created, as it was in 1832, have been ruled out of order. [Hon. Members: "It is not this group. It is the next group."] Well, I am making my point now anyway. Why have some been ruled in and some ruled out, when they are all about gerrymandering the boundaries?