Clause 8 — Reports of the Boundary Commissions

Part of Police Terms and Conditions of Service (Redundancy) – in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 20th October 2010.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:13 pm, 20th October 2010

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 1 October 2018, instead of 2013, and every 10th year after that, instead of every fifth year. That would simply make an unacceptable situation worse.

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.