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Clause 11 — number and distribution of seats

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Programme) (No. 4) – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 1st November 2010.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 5:38 pm, 1st November 2010

The Government's rhetoric suggests that all parliamentary seats should be of exactly the same size of electorate, but that is not what the Bill says. It allows for a variation of up to 5% either way from the national average and creates three special exemptions for Scottish seats, one of which is held by the Scottish National party and the other two of which are held by the Liberals. We are not opposed to those exemptions, although they look dubious in the context of the Bill's wider attempt to strive for mathematical purity.

Our argument is that although the majority of seats should indeed be within 5% each way, there are more instances than are allowed for in the Bill where the Boundary Commission should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion, because this country is made up not just of statistics on a map but of living communities with distinct historical, cultural and political identities that need their discrete representation in the House. A system that delivers mathematical perfection may be aseptically clean, and please the tidy utilitarian and the centralist, but it will in countless cases leave voters on the wrong side of a river, a mountain, a county or ward boundary, or cultural divide and, thereby, fail the fundamental tests that we should be setting.

Will those boundaries be readily comprehensible to ordinary voters? Will they match the political and cultural aspirations of the discrete communities of the UK? Will they render Members more or less accessible? Frankly, will they look like common-sense boundaries or seem like crazed contortions devised by a centralised desiccated calculating machine? The Government are not just insisting on their mathematical equation, of course; they are also subordinating any other considerations of whatever kind, such as local authority boundaries, to that calculation. Taken together, those measures will lead to ludicrous anomalies.

Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. Wyre Forest is, quite sensibly, coterminous with its district council, but it would have had 2,131 too many electors for the 5% rule. Likewise, Shrewsbury and Atcham is coterminous with the former district of that name and unchanged after a number of reviews, but it would have had 1,552 too many electors. Bath and North East Somerset council includes two constituencies, Bath and North East Somerset, but it would have had to find 1,886 electors from a neighbouring authority. Even Forest of Dean, comprising the Forest of Dean district council and one ward from Tewkesbury district council, a seat that was completely unchanged at the last review, would have been 383 voters short. That is why we want to change the Bill.

In many cases, it would be impossible to respect county boundaries. At the last election, Cumbria would have had to find 14,296 electors from neighbouring counties in order to make up its six seats. Northumberland would have had to find 22,529 electors for four seats. Warwickshire's six seats, Kenilworth and Southam, North Warwickshire, Nuneaton, Rugby, Stratford on Avon, Warwick and Leamington, would have needed to find 7,991 electors.