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I beg to move amendment 205, page 12, line 21, at end insert-
'(A1) In relation to a report under section 3(1) that a Boundary Commission is required by section 3(2) to submit before
(a) a Boundary Commission shall make information available via their website, and if they see fit by other means, on their proposed general approach to the application of Schedule 2;
(b) representations with respect to this proposed general approach may be made to the Commission during a specified period of eight weeks; and
(c) the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made prior to the provisional determination of any recommendations affecting any constituency.
(A2) A Boundary Commission's "proposed general approach" shall include, but need not be limited to-
(a) the processes by which they intend to seek to ensure the application of rule 2, and in the case of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland of rule 7, including the circumstances in which they will consider recommending that wards, electoral areas and divisions should be divided between two or more constituencies, and the information on which they intend to rely in determining how to carry out such a division, and
(b) the extent to which they intend to take into account each of the factors described in rule 5(1), and in the case of the Boundary Commission for England of rule 5(2).'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 206, page 12, leave out lines 22 to 34 and insert-
'(1) Where a Boundary Commission has provisionally determined to make recommendations affecting any constituency-
(a) they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency of the effect of the proposed recommendations and that a copy of the recommendations is open to inspection at a specified place within the constituency,
(b) they shall make available via their website, and if they see fit by other means, copies of their proposed recommendations and information on their effect, together with such information as they have on the number of the electorate in every sub-division of every ward, electoral division and electoral area in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and
(c) representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission by people whether in or outside any given constituency during a specified period of 12 weeks, and the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made.'.
Amendment 15, page 12, leave out lines 35 to 41 and insert-
'(1A) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receives any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(1B) Where a local inquiry was held in respect of the constituencies before the publication of the notice mentioned in subsection (1) above, that subsection shall not apply if the Commission, after considering the matters discussed at the local inquiry, the nature of the representations received on the publication of the notice and any other relevant circumstances, is of an opinion that a further local inquiry would not be justified.
(1C) In subsection (1A) above, "interested authority" and "elector" respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.'.
Amendment 209, page 12, leave out lines 35 and 36.
Amendment 194, page 12, line 35, after '(2)', insert 'Subject to subsection (2A) below'.
Amendment 195, page 12, line 36, at end insert-
'(2A) The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act covering the whole of Northern Ireland, where any representation objecting to a report has been received from the council of a district in Northern Ireland or from a body of parliamentary electors in Northern Ireland numbering one hundred or more from two or more constituencies.'.
Amendment 210, page 12, leave out line 41.
I am glad that we are going to be able to debate all these amendments in this one debate. It is unfortunate that Mr Allen, the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, cannot be present, as he would have relished the opportunity to speak to these amendments on behalf of our Committee. I am pleased to see that other members of the Committee are in the Chamber, however, and they may wish to echo those sentiments. In the absence of the Chairman, I shall speak to amendments 205 and 206, which arise from the Committee's report on the Bill-the nearest that we got to pre-legislative scrutiny.
The purpose of amendments 205 and 206 is to ensure that consultation by the boundary commissions is as meaningful as possible. Amendment 205 would require them to hold a one-off, short consultation on how they intended to approach the division of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into constituencies before the first review-the 2011 to 2013 review-took place. It would allow people to give their views on the extent to which, for example, county boundaries should be crossed and which ward sub-division might be desirable and, where wards are sub-divided, on the kinds of sub-division to be used. The Committee has asked the House simply to consider whether amendment 205 would-we hope that it would-increase the perceived legitimacy of the boundary commissions' decisions, and reduce the likelihood of local frustration and the possibility of legal challenge to their recommendations.
Amendment 206 is intended to improve the quality of the consultations that the boundary commissions conduct under each proposed future review. As the Committee said in its report:
"The legitimacy of the next boundary review in the eyes of the public is likely to be strongly influenced by their ability to participate effectively."
The amendment would allow people to make representations to the commissions on constituencies other than the one in which they live, and it would require information on the number of electors within sub-ward divisions of constituencies to be made available nationwide. I appreciate that the Government are working to a very tight timetable and we do not have very much time for debate this evening. Members wish to raise important matters, so I shall be as brief as I can.
The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that people have, first, the information about their locality that they need to make to the boundary commission a proposal that keeps within the rules, and, secondly, the right to make recommendations about constituencies other than the one in which they live so that that they are not prevented from making suggestions about their locality that would otherwise take their constituency outside the range of the 5% flexibility permitted. I appreciate that I have truncated the case, for the reasons that I have set out, but I am sure that hon. Members who are interested in the matter and, certainly, Ministers will already have read the Select Committee's report and fully appreciate the importance of the points that I have put to the House.
The Government may not wish to accept the amendments, but they are intended entirely to be helpful and constructive. The Committee took a cross-party position, and the amendments are not political. Given the timetable to which the Government are working, however, they may not wish to consider the matters. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the Committee's amendments, how will the boundary commissions ensure that consultation with local people is meaningful, and that the mass of the new rules is not so constructed that local feeling on constituency boundaries cannot be taken into account?
I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the point that I make on behalf of the Committee, and members of the Committee who sit on the Opposition Benches may wish to take those points further, but I shall move on from the Committee's position to speak on my own behalf. We know from experience that the boundary commissions have taken a very long time to consider their reports in previous decades, and that an enormous amount of time and taxpayers' money has been spent on consultations with them.
The Committee is being constructive with amendments 205 and 206, by trying to help the Government to improve the perception of the commissions' legitimacy, but I argue, from my point of view as the representative of a constituency that has been changed by almost every boundary review over the past century, that most of the time taken up by consultation with the boundary commissions has been taken up by political parties. There has not-I defy anyone to come forward with evidence to show that there has-been an enormous outcry from individuals, saying, "I don't want to be in Epping Forest; I want to be in Brentwood and Ongar."
Most people in this country accept that the boundary commissions have to do the work that they do, and that, having one vote of one value and equal-sized constituencies, is the right way to a fair, modern democracy that properly represents every person who lives in any part of the United Kingdom. The boundary commissions have not been inundated with individual members of the public whose hearts have been broken by the thought of being represented by a different Member of Parliament.
I cannot speak about Epping Forest or Brentwood and Ongar, but, when the boundaries changed in Scotland in 2005, the proposal for my constituency was to take out two large wards from the town of Dumfries itself. People were so angry that they mounted their own campaign, which they took to a public inquiry, and they won the case that they should not be separated. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to say that only political parties undertake such activity. The strength and voice of communities should be heard, but the Bill will not give those communities the voice that they deserve in a democratic society.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I understand how strongly the people of Dumfries feel, but that is not the point of democracy. In a modern democracy what counts is not valleys, mountains, rivers and perceived ancient boundaries, as we heard argued in the previous debate; what counts is that every person in the United Kingdom has a voice of equal value and votes.
The hon. Lady has made the point a number of times tonight about everything being of equal value and equal size, so why does she support measures that take three seats in Scotland and count them differently? Her argument would be stronger if she opposed those measures in the Lobby.
The hon. Gentleman does not know how I voted-that is my business. [ Interruption. ] Well, I was not in the Lobby with him. [ Interruption. ] It is hardly a secret, is it? The matters on which we have just voted were rather wider than that, and so I naturally loyally supported my Government-or part of my Government. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout these debates.
Order. I know that people have strong views on this, but, Mr Tami, it would help if you proceeded by intervention rather than by shouting across the Chamber: it is very distracting. Thank you very much.
Thank you for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker. Regardless of where the hon. Gentleman has been, he can have this argument with the Government, but he cannot have it with me, because I have said on more than one occasion-and I will say it again, but it does not really matter, because nobody listens to what I say-
I am much gratified by that.
I would not have had any exceptions in the Bill; I think that the exceptions are wrong. The matter at issue is that every vote in the United Kingdom should be of one value and of one weight-that every Member of Parliament who comes to this House should have, within a reasonable tolerance, the same number of potential voters, voting for them or otherwise.
Does the hon. Lady support-I fully presume that she does-the building of the big society, as outlined by her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench? Is not the Select Committee's suggestion that the boundary commissions should have this arrangement for people to make representations an acknowledgement that the elimination of public inquiries is creating a vacuum and depriving citizens of the opportunity to make such representations, and therefore totally contradicts the big society in preventing expressions of disappointment or concern about the proposals from being allowed to take place?
The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, very clever in the way that he puts his point, but this has nothing to do with the big society. I take his point that the boundary commissions must be seen to be operating fairly, but I argue strongly that there is no need for them to take year after year, spending more and more taxpayers' money, listening to political parties making points that are cleverly disguised as being about ancient boundaries, communities and so on, when in fact they are about the perceived electoral advantage or disadvantage of each particular political party. Anyone involved in politics knows perfectly well that that happens. At a time when we should be spending money on the real big society issues of which the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, we should not be spending enormous amounts of taxpayers' money on keeping the boundary commissions doing that year after year.
I agree with the hon. Lady's Aristotelian logic. There is no need for wide public inquiries or forced submissions if we are going to have a purely arithmetical decision on where the boundaries lie; in fact, there is no need for any submissions whatsoever. May I therefore urge her to table an amendment that would scrap any discussion or debate in this House and just move on to drawing the jigsaw that will be the United Kingdom's parliamentary boundaries? If one takes her logic to the extreme, there is no need for any discussion or debate whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point with which I cannot disagree. It is the arithmetic that rules. Labour Members try to find arguments against that, but the fact is that if one believes in a modern democracy where every vote is of equal value and every Member of Parliament comes here with an equal weight of potential votes behind them, one cannot argue otherwise. I would go further and say that there should have been no exceptions in the Bill.
This evening and on other occasions, Members of this House have put great emphasis on equal votes having equal value. If the coalition Government succeed in doing what they are attempting to do, the vote of every person who goes to the polling station will be equal when they enter, but a 48% turnout will give a different value to that vote than it would if the turnout were 70%. Equality is about more than just the number of bodies in a constituency-it is also about votes being cast, and that can cause a disproportionate level of representation.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is speaking from sincere and heartfelt beliefs, but that is totally illogical. If there are, say, 76,000 potential voters in a constituency and 40,000 of them decide not to vote, that is their democratic choice, just as it is the democratic choice of the other 37,000-I think I got the arithmetic wrong there-to cast their vote. People who decide not to vote are exercising their democratic judgment in the same way as people who decide to vote. There has been a lot of discussion about where the heart is, communities, boundaries, and so on-matters that appear to be anything other than purely arithmetical.
Completing the circle of logic in the hon. Lady's argument, presumably she will want to table, or to have someone else table, an amendment that would prohibit people from registering in more than one place, because those voters, be they students or second-property owners, have the opportunity to choose where they would cast their vote. Therefore their vote is not as equal as anybody else's. Given her logic, she is presumably in favour of such an amendment and will be urging Government Front Benchers to bring it forward immediately.
I see the hon. Gentleman's point. However, the logic and arithmetic of that is that it does of course happen, but it pretty well cancels itself out from one constituency to the next. People often, for various reasons and quite legitimately, register in more than one place, but the fact that it happens all over the country cancels it out.
No, I cannot prolong this part of the debate. I am aware that there is very little time and there are a lot of matters to be discussed.
All the other parts of this debate have been froth: the only thing that matters is that in a modern democracy every vote should have an equal value, and every Member of Parliament should come to this House with an equal number of constituents behind them.
I rise to speak to amendment 15, on which we will wish to divide the House.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mrs Laing. As charming as her speech was, I am reassured that we were in different Lobbies in the last Division, and I suspect that we will be again come 10 o'clock. She has sat through all five days of the Committee stage and all of today, and no doubt she will sit through tomorrow's debates on remaining stages.
The hon. Lady should understand that many colleagues are frustrated that they have not had a chance to make certain substantive points, and they will be frustrated by the Bill when it leaves the House. That is a metaphor for what will happen when it abolishes the public inquiry. She and many colleagues are frustrated, and some Members shouted "Disgraceful" when the last Division result was announced. Citizens around the country will be shouting "Disgraceful" when the boundaries are changed without their having a chance to argue their case before the boundary commission. Their only option will be recourse to judicial review, which will make lawyers rich and citizens poorer.
I am not usually one for hyperbole, but let us be absolutely clear that the Government's proposal to abolish public inquiries is driven by one overriding concern-the politically driven desire to rush the completion of the boundary review through by October 2013. That is against due process and natural justice, and it is partisan. I say to the hon. Lady that if there are concerns about public inquiries taking too long, the Government should speed up the process, not abolish them. There is obviously a tension between the speed of the boundary reviews, strict adherence to electoral equality and the strong tradition of consultation and public involvement in such reviews. This country is currently giving lectures to emerging democracies about the importance of voting and of involving communities in how boundaries are drawn up, but at the same time we are abolishing public inquiries.
Is it not the case that where the traditional English counties, for example, are breached, such as by constituencies crossing from Nottinghamshire into Derbyshire, Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, people will want to have a far greater say than they have for many years in a county such as Nottinghamshire? Although the boundary reviews there have sometimes been contentious, they have been within clearly defined parameters, which have been publicly available and generally publicly acceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I will come later to the evidence, which is something the Government seem scared of. It proves his point that at the time when the public inquiries are serving their greatest function, they are being abolished. One has to ask why.
A balance needs to be struck between overlapping objectives, but in the Bill the Government have managed to get the weighting wrong in almost every regard. The limits on disparities between seats are too severe and inflexible, the time scale for the boundary review is far too tight, and the abolition of local inquiries in return for an extended window for written submissions is deplorable.
As I have said, because of the programming of the Bill we have dealt inadequately with the speed of the boundary review and with the strictness of the adherence to electoral equality. The abolition of inquiries is entirely at odds with the concept of localism and open politics, which my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick referred to a moment ago and which the Deputy Prime Minister, who has called himself the great reformer, has previously professed. In a speech five months ago, which I will quote because it is important that colleagues in the other place hear it, he said:
"I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: this government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state."
How does the abolition of local public inquiries empower people?
To suit their rushed agenda, the Government are simply withdrawing any meaningful element of public participation and consultation, thereby reducing the boundary review process to an opaque, bureaucratic and largely mathematical exercise. The loss of transparency and the ability to comment on and amend proposals will seriously damage the reputation of the boundary commissions. It will erode the high level of trust in their impartiality that they rely on for their reports to be accepted, and the quality of their proposals will be compromised.
Any significant boundary change is likely to cause some level of discontent and controversy, but that will be magnified to previously unknown levels of disquiet if the rigid new rules in the Bill are adopted and 50 seats are abolished. In a written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretaries of the four boundary commissions were clear:
"The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries."
"The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases" and
"will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries...the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies."
If there is no procedural outlet for that discontent, the boundary commissions and the entire review process will be rapidly discredited.
As the Member for Blaenau Gwent, I have a coterminous borough. If I want to get things done, I go to one chief executive and one leader. I talk to the local police inspector or the person who manages the health board locally. According to the Electoral Reform Society, if the proposed change is pushed through, I will have to work with three or four different borough councils, which will make it much harder to be effective as a local politician and to get things done. It will be much more complicated to work on behalf of my constituents, and I will be much less likely to be able to stand up for them, because I will have to deal with numerous officials in all sorts of different places. Surely that is bad for democracy.
That highlights some of the nonsense reasons given by the coalition Government for the Bill. We are told that the Bill will make MPs more effective. Clearly, it will not. We are told that the boundary changes will make things cheaper for MPs. Clearly, they will not. What is clear is that it is not only my hon. Friend who will become a number, but the citizens in his area. That is all for the partisan reasons that I have set out.
Pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend Nick Smith, I should add that, under the ERS proposals, the seat of Ogmore will disappear, and it is no coincidence that the largest majority in absolute terms for any party in Wales is in Ogmore. The seat will disappear and be subsumed into five neighbouring constituencies, all of which will be accountable to two chief executives, two cabinet systems, two sets of social services and two sets of everything, including different police authorities. In terms of simplifying an MP's accountability to his constituents, and of constituents being able to demand good services in one area, the Government are completely shooting themselves in the foot.
I thank my hon. Friend. [ Interruption. ] I hear the chuntering from those on the coalition Government's Front Benches-it is funny how soon some people become arrogant. The Government should test my hon. Friend's proposition. It would be easy: they could have a public inquiry to test whether my hon. Friend is on a frolic of his own or whether his constituents share his concerns about what the changes will bring. Why are the Government running away from local public inquiries?
I am very concerned about the points made by the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Does the shadow Minister agree that they cannot possibly be arguing that they are so inefficient and ineffective as Members of Parliament that they cannot cope with more than one local authority? I am sure they are not. For goodness' sake, we all have to cope with different layers of local government. The hon. Member for Ogmore is wrong to say that he is any way accountable to local authority chief executives-that is simply nonsense. Such arguments have nothing whatever to do with this debate and do not hold water.
With respect, may I tell the hon. Lady why she is wrong? My hon. Friends' constituents will have their lives changed because they will have to deal with different people as a result of the boundary changes. Those changes will be made not to make things more efficient, or to save money, but because the system has, for partisan reasons, been based just on numbers. An MP's ability to do his or her constituency a service will be affected. More importantly, however, a constituent's ability to contact the person he or she needs to contact to improve things will also be affected.
I find it extraordinary that we have these complaints from Members representing small constituencies. They say that it is quite impossible to do something that is normal for half the House. I have three local authorities in my constituency. That is normal on our side of the Bristol channel, but it is apparently impossible on the Welsh side.
If the Minister is so confident in his arguments, why does he not allow the public to make objections and to have a local public inquiry, rather than a bureaucrat in a quango taking only written submissions before reaching a view? The Minister has to answer that question.
Another possible outcome of the proposed consultation is legal challenge by political parties, or local cross-party or apolitical campaign groups, such as Keep Cornwall Whole. Boundary commission decisions could be subject to judicial review. It is worth noting that only one judicial review resulted from the previous boundary review, but in evidence the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Professor Ron Johnston, who is an expert on such matters, said:
"I can well see people using [judicial review] as a [means to] address the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries."
Excluding those cases when the only change was the name of the constituency, in the fifth periodic review of boundaries 27% of English constituencies were altered by one degree or another following a public inquiry into commission recommendations. In many cases, those inquiries looked at the local ties of a particular village or town. Most of the participants were concerned about the integrity of their local constituency.
What makes the right hon. Gentleman's argument so unpersuasive to me is that when the people of Northumberland voted in a referendum not to replace their district councils with a single unitary authority, the Labour Government ignored the referendum, which they had organised.
I am not sure what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. We are talking about the abolition of local inquiries. In fact, his is an argument for more scrutiny and checks and balances at local level, with people giving evidence, rather than relying on written evidence in 12 weeks. If he feels that strongly, he should be embarrassed at how he will vote in an hour and a half.
It is noteworthy that Cornwall MPs tonight found their consciences when self-interest was involved, but for five days in Committee they were absent from the Division Lobby. It is also noteworthy that three Tory MPs were willing to vote in their own interests. The Opposition have been consistent throughout in saying that the Bill is wrong. It is wrong on the principle of losing public inquiries, but it is also wrong because as the Cornwall Members pointed out-there is compelling evidence-the remote communities in Cornwall previously managed to convince the commission to amend its proposals. Many of us believe that the attention given to such local issues is the strength of the current system. Here is the key point: in every single case in which the commission proposed an increase or decrease in the number of constituencies in an area, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned citizens and asked why MPs cannot do their jobs. However, this is not about our jobs becoming more complicated, but about citizens and constituents having a right to have their views heard in a public inquiry. In many cases, including Derbyshire, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made to initial proposals, as in the Deputy Prime Minister's city of Sheffield. His predecessor appeared at the inquiry and successfully argued for changes to the provisional recommendations. Many times, the commission commented in its report that the assistant commissioner's recommendations improved as a consequence of the public inquiry.
May I reinforce my right hon. Friend's point? There was a public inquiry in Midlothian before the 2005 election. The commission recommended that the borders be brought into Midlothian and that we take Peebles and Galashiels into my constituency, but after public scrutiny the commission recommended that that would be inappropriate. No city of Edinburgh representative has yet complained because they represent 75,000 people and I represent 60,000 or so. Nobody questions that, because they recognise that the geographical layout of Midlothian is different to that of the city.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and colleagues in the other place with read it with interest.
In Derbyshire and Derby, the commission made provisional recommendations for the creation of a new seat, but they were rejected in favour of another that the assistant commissioner believed better reflected community ties. The amended proposals moved fewer electors and reduced the disparity. In Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, the commission proposed a division of the city of Exeter that was deeply unpopular with residents. The assistant commissioner believed that the counter-proposal better reflected local ties and reduced the electoral disparity.
In Merseyside, the commission proposed a seat containing parts of both sides of the Mersey that was opposed by almost all those with an interest, and the assistant commissioner recommended a counter-proposal that almost wholly redrew most of the constituency. The Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed a Scottish parliamentary seat crossing the River Clyde estuary that was widely opposed and rejected by the assistant commissioner in favour of a scheme of minimum change. I have many examples of where proposals have been made, local residents have looked at the proposals, there has been a public inquiry, and an assistant commissioner has heard the evidence and changed their mind.
Of all the changes made by the assistant commissioners, how many were instigated by proposals put forward by political parties?
I was coming to that. I am not embarrassed to say that political parties have a huge role to play in a democracy. We are going around the world, not only lecturing, but helping emerging democracies. They have a lot to learn from us, so hon. Members should be careful of what they throw away in the interests of victories at future general elections.
My right hon. Friend prayed in aid Merseyside, but he should not take that argument too far, because Wirral now has a lot of undersized constituencies, while Knowsley, which I represent, has a very large one. It does not always work out perfectly.
My right hon. Friend makes my point for me. There will be many people who are unhappy with how boundaries are drawn up-there always have been, and there always will be-but having a fair process at least makes people believe that they are involved in how boundaries are redrawn. If he is this disgruntled with the old system, let us imagine how he will feel if the only chance to object is by a written submission in a 12-week window that he might not have heard about.
My right hon. Friend needs to realise the fact that, because Wirral ended up with undersized constituencies, one constituency in Knowsley disappeared altogether. It was not done as a nice statistical exercise. It was basically done on the prejudices of the people of Wirral, who did not want to be seen to cross the river and be considered as part of Liverpool.
As somebody who does not get the chance to go to Anfield as much as he would like, I take my right hon. Friend's point. I am happy for him to invite me up and show me the consequences of the changes made.
The Bill's new inflexible rules and proposals for an arbitrary reduction in the number of constituencies will mean that the situations I have illustrated will occur in many more areas. At exactly the point when public inquiries will be at their most valuable, the Government are proposing to abolish them. Even those who hold reservations about the workings of public inquiries concede that now is not the time to end their use-quite the opposite in fact. Professor Ron Johnston told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
"where public inquiries had a big impact from what the Commission initially proposed to the final solution was where either a seat was being added to a county or being taken away and then everything was up for grabs and, not surprisingly, there was much more fighting over it".
"that is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different...This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time."
"Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because there are going to be big changes".
He made another important point. He noted that the main responses under the new system will come in shortly before the end of the 12-week deadline, which means that participants will not necessarily know the counter-proposals made. The main benefit of inquiries is that all those with an objection feel that they have had an opportunity to be heard, and can understand the arguments against them and why they might be unsuccessful.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about this travesty of democracy. Can one imagine what the Minister responding to this debate would have said about the proposal were he in opposition? He would have been the most vehement opponent of this denial of democracy. He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is willing to justify what is before us.
Given parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, one has to ask what sort of shabby deal was made in those five days when this Government were being formed. It is clear from the history of our country and the way in which reforms have been made that, for big constitutional change, parties have either a mandate from their manifestos or try to reach a consensus across the Chamber or between the two Houses. No such attempt has been made in this case. The Government are rushing through some of the biggest changes in my political lifetime for the sake of expediency. My hon. Friend was very tempered in his comments.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend the inconsistency in principles at work here? In Wales, we are currently redrawing the local authority boundaries. We are able to make submissions and have hearings. Some people are happy and some are not, but at least they feel that they have had the opportunity to be heard. Many Lib Dem and Conservative local associations have made submissions to that process, and that principle has been accepted by everybody, because they have had that opportunity. What is being proposed is the electoral equivalent of a poll tax, and it is going to bite some people on the bum.
One of the reasons why we have a Public Gallery and open democracy is that people can see democracy at work, even though they may not like what we say or how we vote. One of the reasons why we have open trials is to have open justice, so that people can see what happens in a trial. Not only does due process lead to better results; it also leads to people feeling that they get a fair hearing. In just five months, these guys on the Government Benches have been willing to bulldoze through some of the biggest changes in our lifetimes for the sake of stitching up the next general election.
The way it works in a democracy is that candidates stand on a manifesto and people vote for that manifesto, so that those representatives have a mandate. What is not democratic is for two parties to come up with a deal behind closed doors over five days, with no mandate from the British public, and after the election to change their views from what they had wanted to do before the election. Neither of the two parties in government talked about getting rid of public inquiries or about 300 seats, so the hon. Gentleman should ask himself whether he is proud to vote as he will in an hour and a half, to abolish public inquiries.
For the avoidance of doubt, and to answer the important point raised by Gavin Williamson, I do not disparage the active part that political parties play in the inquiry process. It is entirely natural that they are involved and that inquiries are more effective as a result. Indeed, that is what we encourage in emerging democracies.
I actually asked the right hon. Gentleman how many of the changes in question had been the result of proposals put forward by a political party. I wonder whether he has an answer to that.
I will go one better. In a few moments, I will cite for the hon. Gentleman not what I think, but what assistant commissioner Nicholas Elliot QC concluded after he had heard evidence from political parties.
In the fifth review, both Labour and the Conservatives presented carefully researched and reasoned cases to the boundary commissions. That enabled proper arguments and options to be presented to the assistant commissioners. That was hardly illicit manipulation of the process; rather, it was open and transparent, and there was an inquiry. I ask the question: how open and transparent will the process be if people only get to write in and do not have an inquiry, where the public can see what representations are made? It is far better for political parties to get involved than just to have a rigid mathematical formula to decide how seats are drawn up.
It is important to highlight the fact that oral representations in a public inquiry will be taken away. Like me, my right hon. Friend is a solicitor. Do oral hearings not very often illuminate far more than written representations ever would, so that all parties, including the person who holds the inquiry, learn much more through that process?
I advise my hon. Friend to be very careful with this coalition Government. In five months, they have got rid of the local public inquiry for the sake of expediency. God knows, next year they may get rid of the right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and just rely on written representations. They may think, "This democracy malarkey is just too expensive. Let's just have written submissions and then have a vote in our constituencies rather than turning up and having a debate and arguing the pros and cons of an issue." I am astonished that hon. and right hon. Members on the Government Benches, who should know better, are taking through this shabby piece of legislation.
Another criticism, which came from the hon. Member for Epping Forest, is that the local inquiry takes too long. The final and most lengthy inquiry, the fifth review, was in Greater Manchester and took more than two weeks. The assistant commissioner, Nicholas Elliot QC, made the following observation:
"The advantage, sitting as an Assistant Boundary Commissioner, is that one gets from the two major political parties that they equally look at the overall picture in somewhere like Greater Manchester where it has to be done, whereas others examine it from their own perspective. The difficulty of the Assistant Commissioner is that you do have to look at the overall picture, and it is only those two major political parties who do provide very, very great assistance in trying to come to what may be the best or worst answer."
It is good to use Manchester as an example when one talks about public inquiries. South Manchester has the highest concentration of university students in western Europe. Is not one of the anomalies that boundary commission inquiries might need to take evidence on the fact that university students will be able to register in two locations? Therefore, there will not be equal-sized constituencies. What we will have are university constituencies with a significant number of dual registrations. There could be as many as 15,000 people who are dual-registered and choose to vote in their previous constituency. The concept of equal votes in equal constituencies is thrown out of the water. Is that not the sort of thing that the Boundary Commission, even with this rotten legislation, would want to have a look at?
Order. As the right hon. Gentleman rises to answer that intervention, may I remind him that he is supposed to be addressing his remarks to the Chair, and not to have his back to the Chair?
It is with pleasure that I address the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I tell my hon. Friend that one of the important points that comes out in an oral inquiry is the one that can be teased out. The ability for the assistant commissioner to tease out and uncover points is hindered by written submissions. My hon. Friend raises a serious point.
The tradition of boundary reviews is that they tend to be politically uncontentious. All those with an interest-political parties, local authorities, community organisations and individuals-have the opportunity to participate. The commissioners adopt the recommendations of assistant commissioners only because they believe them to be improvements on the proposals. Such recommendations come not from the political parties, but from the assistant commissioner after he or she has heard evidence from the community. Political parties are part of that community-I am proud to be part of that community- and the same judgments are unlikely to be reached based solely on a written consultation. The inquiry allows all those with an interest to comment not only on the commissioner's proposals but on those of others, so that all counter-proposals are tested in the same way. Such transparency and engagement is what gives legitimacy to the boundary review process. This Bill, with clause 15 left unchanged, would remove the opportunity for the public to have a meaningful say over the reform process and would replace a transparent system with an opaque one.
My right hon. Friend will know individuals who never put pen to paper and who do not have the capacity to articulate their views in written form, but who can stand up and speak eloquently for their communities at a public meeting and turn an argument on a dime. Who are we, as parliamentarians, to deny such people ever again the opportunity to have their say? Are the Government arguing, rather, that those people should go to the offices of their MPs or councillors and sit with them while they write out their complaints?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Another, linked, point is that assistant commissioners often visit areas under consideration, once they have been pointed out by members of the public or by MPs. Evidence from such senior people is invaluable when recommendations are being made.
It is in the context of the biggest shake-up of constituency boundaries in modern times that the Government are abolishing public inquiries. The next review will be critical for other reasons as well. Concerns are already being expressed about the legitimacy of the next election.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that giving primacy to numbers as opposed to community and geography, combined with not having a transparent appeals system, could result in boundaries drawn purely on the basis of political gerrymandering, in the knowledge that those adjudicating on those decisions in private will not be required to take account of geography, community, culture or history and will therefore accept what could simply be bizarre drawings for the party political advantage of the Government?
My hon. Friend's point would have less force if the coalition Government were taking time to ensure that the 3.5 million electors who are not on the register were put on to it, if they were to wait and see what happens as a result of next year's housing benefit changes, and if they were to wait for the results of next year's census. They are rushing this Bill through, however, and my hon. Friend's point has some force.
The Bill will mean that the next election could be held under a different voting system and with 600 constituencies instead of the present 650, alongside a referendum with differential turnouts. Questions are already being asked about the legitimacy of the next general election. Why add to that by taking away due process and natural justice? By taking away the opportunity to hold a public inquiry, the coalition Government are eroding the legitimacy of a system for redrawing boundaries that is the envy of the democratic world.
Surely it cannot be right that in Scotland, at the end of the 10-year period between 2005 and 2015, there will be 25 fewer MPs. That means that 31% of the representatives of Scotland will be wiped out in that short period of time. What does that say about democracy?
This is what we call the respect agenda. I hope that when those in Scotland have seen the Bill rushed through, the way in which the debate has been stopped-the hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned "truncated" contributions-and the number of MPs who have not been allowed to make a contribution, they will form their own judgment.
We do not want to stop being the envy of the democratic world, and I commend my amendment to the House. I ask those colleagues who are watching the debate in their rooms to do the right thing and support amendment 15.
I rise to speak to amendments 194 and 195. Before I address them specifically, however, I shall comment on one of the amendments tabled by members of the Select Committee, with which I have a fair degree of sympathy. I must express my slight reservation, however, about the wording of proposed new subsection A2(a) in amendment 205. I am worried that, by asking a boundary commission to publish the criteria it would use in the splitting of wards, we could end up inviting the commission to split wards more than we want. The Bill proposes that wards should not be split, and I think that most Members agree that local government boundaries should not be split. I am worried that that proposal could result in more wards being split than people would want. I would still support that amendment on a vote, however.
Amendment 195 deals with the Government resisting all attempts to keep local inquiries as a general option. Under my proposal, at least Northern Ireland would be allowed the option of holding a general regional inquiry in relation to all the seats in Northern Ireland. This proposal is a fall-back measure.
I want to make it clear that I absolutely support the amendments that would preserve the opportunity of holding local inquiries throughout the United Kingdom. Sadiq Khan made a powerful speech in support of preserving inquiries and their important role. I know that other colleagues will propose other amendments to preserve inquiries.
I thought that Mrs Laing was quite disparaging about the role of inquiries, submissions and contributions to inquiries. First, where political parties make shallow, self-serving submissions about boundaries and where specious and spurious claims of local identity and local interests are made, there is no better way of exposing them than local inquiries. By their very nature, local inquiries expose, counter and introduce other realities.
The hon. Lady's speech was about the rule of arithmetic, and I agree that this is what the Bill is about-the tyranny of arithmetic for boundaries in the future. She says that it does not matter. For her, traditions do not matter; local conditions do not matter; identity does not matter; community does not matter-it is all going to be driven by a numerical imperative that says "one size fits all" and nothing else can be considered. An official of the European Commission would be proud of that mindset. It is exactly the mindset that the hon. Lady usually criticises in the European Commission. As well as backing the "IPSA-fication" of boundaries in the future, she is now backing a European Commission standard that says, "No, we just deal in numerical arithmetic; we see only one size fitting all; we make no concession to local realities or local conditions."
I rise to defend myself, because that is not at all what I said. On the contrary, communities and local traditions are very important. It is important to have a parish council representing a village and to have Cornishmen feeling Cornish and caring about Cornwall-nobody is changing Cornwall. It is very important to respect local history and the feelings of local communities. That is not reflected in the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies. There are many other ways in which those traditions and communities are respected, observed and upheld. It is not in the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies-
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take no responsibility for the possibility that the boundaries of interventions were exceeded there.
I would take the hon. Lady's point if she had said that in her speech, but that was not the attitude she conveyed. Then, it was the numerical imperative that was going to achieve an equality that she believed overrode every other possible consideration, including those that she has just outlined. Boundary commissions have been able to ensure that these sorts of local considerations are brought to bear on the construct of parliamentary constituencies. In future, after this Bill, however, that is going to be hard.
I do not accept that we should lose the ability to have local inquiries in general as part of electoral reform, but my fall-back amendments are designed to protect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, where, as I said when speaking to earlier amendments, it needs to be borne in mind that the parliamentary constituencies are, by statute, also the constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many of the issues that will come up as matters of local contention and perhaps even party political controversy will pertain as much to the Assembly constituencies as to other constituencies. Of course, the Northern Ireland Assembly is elected on the basis of proportional representation, which is meant to be about giving equal weight to votes, including those of minorities in particular Northern Ireland constituencies. That is part of the agreement. We want to ensure that, rather than decisions in Northern Ireland being driven by robotic computer-generated arithmetic suggesting boundaries that will secure the numbers that fit, a local regional inquiry can take account of the different interests-not just party interests, but civic and local community interests.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting-and all of us in the islands must bear this in mind-that there will be a particularly destabilising effect on Northern Irish society? We know what a destabilising effect on Northern Irish society might mean. Is that the main cause of his concern?
I do not want to dwell on this, because I spoke about it in the context of an earlier amendment, but we should bear in mind that the boundaries will be revised in every single Parliament as a result of the Bill. Given the way in which the seats will be distributed in the various parts of the United Kingdom, the chances are that the number of seats in Northern Ireland will fall following one boundary review, rise following the next, and then fall again.
The unsettling nature of the reviews will affect Assembly and parliamentary constituencies. A computer will say, "This is what we have to do", and it is possible that constituencies will receive the word that the computer says that there must be a reduction from 15 to 14 following the next boundary review. That will be hugely destabilising, and people will feel frustrated when they are told, "Sorry, this pays no regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly." Another of my amendments, in a subsequent group, would enable the Speaker of the Assembly to be notified formally of all the workings of the boundary commissions. That would make at least some acknowledgement of the impact on the Assembly, which is completely absent from the Bill.
I believe that if the Government are refusing to allow local inquiries elsewhere-and they should not do that-they should at least allow, as a fall-back, a general inquiry in Northern Ireland that will take account of its particular circumstances. I will support any and all amendments that defend local inquiries.
I ask Members to bear my amendment in mind; I ask the Government to continue to acknowledge that there is a deficit in the consideration that they have shown to Northern Ireland in the Bill, and to be ready to make up for that deficit.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, who always speaks with a deep understanding of Northern Ireland, with a great passion for Northern Ireland, and, of course, with eloquence.
I was elected in a by-election in 1986 to represent a constituency that was then known as Knowsley, North. I represented Knowsley, North in the House until 1997. Following earlier boundary changes-a public inquiry had been held before the boundaries were finally fixed-I ended up representing a constituency known as Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. I represented Knowsley, North and Sefton, East for 13 years. In the meantime, the boundary commissioner came along again, and I now represent a constituency known as Knowsley. I therefore speak as one who has experienced dramatic boundary changes in my constituency on two occasions.
I think it instructive to examine what happened on both those occasions. On the first occasion, when the boundary commission proposed that the Knowsley, North constituency should be coupled with Sefton, East, a public inquiry was held. Different views were expressed on either side of the boundary about what was and what was not appropriate. People had their say. I attended the inquiry on more than one occasion, and heard the debates about what links existed between the two constituencies.
Two facts emerged that tipped the balance. The first was that a large number of people living in the Sefton, East part of what subsequently became the Knowsley, North and Sefton, East constituency worked in Knowsley, which was an industrial area. The second was that many people travelled between the two constituencies for leisure purposes.
The leisure centre in Kirkby, which was in the old Knowsley, North constituency, was heavily used by people from Maghull, Aintree and Melling, so a link was established, but it would never have been established-nobody would have even checked the statistics on this-unless there had been a public inquiry. In the end, the original Boundary Commission proposals stood and the new constituency was formed; it became a parliamentary seat at the 1997 general election.
My constituency's second boundary change took place before the last general election. I made some comments about the Wirral earlier and, on reflection, perhaps I overstated the case. I think I said that we ended up with the boundaries we have got because of prejudices on the part of the people in the Wirral. Prejudice is probably too strong a word, so let me retract it. However, what did clearly emerge was that because of the arguments put by the people of the Wirral, we have undersized constituencies in that part of the county of Merseyside than on my side of the river in Knowsley.
It is rather like a county. I will come on to counties shortly, because I realise it might sound as if I am arguing against myself. Let us consider constituencies within a county with reference to the idea of a balloon. If we squeeze some air out of one part of it-air being the electors-it will emerge somewhere else, and it emerged in Knowsley. I now represent a constituency of just under 80,000 people, whereas some Members of Parliament in the Wirral represent under 60,000. The Government's argument would be that if we equalise that, it would not matter, but I honestly believe that 80,000 electors is too many for an MP to be able to represent adequately. It is not that, as Mrs Laing said, I am too lazy or incompetent to do that; it is just really difficult.
I now want to talk about some of the practical implications of the two changes I have experienced. The first of them is to do with representing a constituency that is partly in two different boroughs. The Knowsley, North and Sefton, East constituency was slightly less than half in Sefton with the rest in Knowsley. Many Members on the Government Benches represent areas where that is already the case, but most of them are probably not in metropolitan districts. For Members with constituencies that are in a metropolitan district rather than a shire county, the powers of local authorities, primary care trusts and so forth are much more important and much more focused. For 13 years, I represented a constituency that had two primary care trusts, two hospital trusts, two local authorities and two different area police command divisions, and dealing with that is very difficult. Apart from the practicalities of needing to keep lists of everybody we have to deal with, we deal with areas that have different kinds of crime, different kinds of health problems and different kinds of relationships with their local authorities. That does make a difference. My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made that point quite well, and I support it.
Now if, as seems perfectly possible under the provisions in this part of the Bill, we start to say that county boundaries can also be crossed, the problem could be compounded even further. At some points, my constituency is right on the edge of West Lancashire-indeed, it is on the edge of a lot of other constituencies. It is perfectly possible that if this Bill goes ahead as it is, my constituency could end up containing part of Lancashire, as could the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Watts. That would involve a whole different set of relationships, and my hon. Friend and I could find ourselves motoring up and down to Preston on an almost daily basis in the recesses as we try to represent another county, as well as the metropolitan county in which we are located.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the last time the number-crunching took place the Boundary Commission recommended that one constituency should be half on one side of the river and half on the other. How does he feel he could represent a constituency that had the River Mersey running between its two halves?
I do not think that that would be impossible. After all, two tunnels and a bridge run between the two areas, and there is a proposal for a further bridge. I do not think it would be beyond the wit of man, or even my hon. Friend and I, to commute either under a tunnel or over a bridge. The point is that, as I said a little earlier-I do not know whether he was in his place at the time-the consequence of the arrangements is that we have undersized constituencies in the Wirral and oversized constituencies in some parts on the other side of the river.
Is the point not that under the Bill, as drafted-I refer to clauses 11(2) and 11(5)-numbers trump everything? All the points made by my right hon. Friend and by other hon. Friends do not matter a jot, because numbers trump everything.
Yes, and my right hon. Friend may not have realised it, but I am actually supporting his argument. The point I am making is that a public inquiry is able to examine any problems that are thrown up as a result of that, and that is why I am supporting his amendment 15, which would create the circumstances in which public inquiries could still be held.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, in reflecting on the problems of the Mersey, might also consider the issues of the Solent and the proposition that 40,000 people will be taken away from the Isle of Wight and distributed to a constituency somewhere in Hampshire. They know not where, they would have no say in where that might be and, as far as I can see, the Boundary Commission may not even be able to determine whether a ferry actually connects them with where they might go. Does he think that that is a reasonable way to proceed on a boundary change-with no public inquiry or no input into what might happen in future?
It is very tempting to be taken down the road that my hon. Friend seeks to lead me, but having spent a lifetime struggling with the problems of the Mersey I am hardly likely to spend what remains of my life struggling with the problems of the Solent. He makes his point effectively.
My key point is that there are practical implications to such changes. They need to be examined and the best way to do that is in a public inquiry. Mrs Laing, for whom I have some affection-she referred to Socrates, so perhaps at this point I should say that it is entirely Platonic-outlined the argument that this issue is not important and that a lot of these inquiries were vexatious and just held for the benefit of political parties. I do not think that is true. My experience of having sat through two public inquiries into major constituency boundary changes is that people from the community-people from community groups or individuals-come along, express their opinion and either it is taken into account or it is not. If there is a valid objection, it will often be taken into account. If it is not, it will not. The point is that they are the most important people in that inquiry. It is important to them with whom they are linked in a parliamentary constituency.
I come back to the point that my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan was making: of course there needs to be fairness on the size of constituencies, but if we reach the point where they are purely mathematical entities and if everybody changes-if it is like a roundabout, where someone jumps on at one point and jumps off at the next election, finding themselves representing an entirely different constituency-the relationship between the constituency, the Member of Parliament and the people whom that Member of Parliament represents will change dramatically. Not only will those constituencies be a mathematical entity, but Members of this House will start to view them in that light. That will dramatically change the relationship with our constituents.
I thank my right hon. Friend for generously giving way, and he is making an excellent point. Will the problem not be further and particularly compounded by the fact that with individual registration proposed for 2014-15, there will be a huge ripple effect throughout the country-particularly in areas where there are university residences with large concentrations of students who are automatically registered by the university authorities? If students are not automatically registered, there will be a huge ripple effect throughout the country that will alter the boundaries significantly in every constituency?
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Does he not agree that the key point about public inquiries is that rule by consent is the basis of democracy? If people, because of the abolition of public inquiries, feel that they have no voice-if they feel that they have no chance to make their opinions heard, whether or not their opinion is the one that is found in favour of-that will do absolutely nothing to get rid of the cynicism about democracy and nothing to help people to take part. That will bring the coalition Government into absolute disrepute.
My hon. Friend put that argument very well indeed and I would struggle to find the words to match what she has just said.
Let me conclude. I genuinely believe that what is proposed by taking away public inquiries as part of the process is that the relationship between constituent, Member of Parliament and constituency, which is already fractured, will split completely. I think we will end up in a situation where constituencies are simply ships of convenience. I hope that that day never comes and that the Government will at some point wake up and realise that this is not the right way to do things.
I want to speak in support of amendment 209, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend Dr McCrea, as well the consequential amendment 210. It would delete proposed new section 5(2) from clause 12 so that the status quo was maintained and a public inquiry could be held by a boundary commission. As that is the purpose of my amendment, I have no difficulty in lending my support and that of my hon. Friends to amendment 15, proposed by Sadiq Khan. As regards the other amendments in this group, I am happy to support amendment 194, tabled by Mark Durkan. As he said, it is a fall-back provision if the House decides to do away with the option of having local public inquiries in general. At the very least, I agree that there should be such a provision that would cover Northern Ireland as a region because of the particular circumstances that he so ably outlined.
I want to make a few general comments very briefly, then a couple that relate specifically to Northern Ireland. First, we have had a very good debate. Everyone who has spoken in this and the previous one spoke against the Bill and its provisions. I have not heard many speeches in support of it, other than from those on the Government Front Bench. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry: Mrs Laing, who has returned to her place, strongly opposed part 1 of the Bill on the alternative vote, so she is in the category of having opposed the Bill on some matters but, as she made clear, she would go much further than the Bill does on other matters. I got the clear impression that she would be happy to do away with constituencies altogether and have one great list system in which everyone voted in relation to the entire country. She might be happier with such a system, but we shall not rehearse that debate as we have already had exchanges on it.
Given that no mandate has been sought by or given to either of the coalition parties on either the AV provisions or on reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600, given that there has been no Speaker's Conference and no pre-legislative consultation, and given that no cross-party consensus has been sought or given and that there has been no consultation with any of the devolved Administrations, it is all the more appalling and reprehensible that there should be no opportunity for people to give oral evidence to, or to query, the boundary commission proposals at a local public inquiry. The coalition Government talk about new politics, openness and transparency, but I think that these measures will be for ever cited as a damning indictment of their real approach to this issue.
Given the scale and unprecedented nature of the changes to boundaries and constituencies and given that the measures are driven by the need to do this quickly for reasons of political expediency, it is absolutely essential that we should have public local inquiries. It is vital to ensure that people in local communities know what is going on and what is being proposed, that they are able to participate fully in the process and feel ownership of it, and that there is transparency and openness in the entire process. In my experience and that of the people I represent, the taking of such an approach has made a difference.
As the hon. Member for Foyle will know, not long ago the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland proposed to reduce the number of seats in Belfast from four to three and there was an outcry. The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that there was never an enormous outcry about constituency boundary changes, but I can tell her that there was about the prospect of the Belfast boundaries being changed. Of course, she can imagine why that might be, given what it would mean with regard to who would be representing certain people in certain areas. More recently, when it was proposed that a particular community should be moved from the Lagan Valley constituency into the Belfast West constituency, that community spontaneously and of their own volition made strenuous objections to the proposal. They went to the public local inquiry, raised their concerns, were interrogated on them and ultimately made a difference to the outcome. The effect is all the greater because some Northern Ireland constituencies are not represented in this House as their elected Members deliberately abstain from and boycott the House by not taking their seats here, so these things matter to people in Northern Ireland. That is why we need public local inquiries to take account of such local issues.
As has been mentioned, the proposed constituency changes will affect representation not only in this House but in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some of the issues pertinent to the boundary changes are therefore relevant not only to the make-up of the House of Commons and how people are represented here, by a single elected Member, but to multi-Member constituencies in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not underestimate the fact that people in Northern Ireland have for many years put a great premium on stability and having a consensus moving forward.
Now we risk-almost as an aside, almost as an incidental of the Bill being rushed through-upsetting a delicate political equilibrium, a point that was made by Paul Murphy, the former Secretary of State, in his contribution. We risk that equilibrium being thrown into turmoil. All sorts of unintended consequences could emerge from that, so I urge caution.
At the very least, if the Government are not so minded and the House does not support my amendment or amendment 15 in the name of the right hon. Member for Tooting, the Government should allow Northern Ireland, through amendment 194, to have the opportunity of its own regional inquiry. I urge the House to think carefully before it does away with the right of local public inquiries to have the oral evidence presented, to allow people to participate and to have their concerns investigated in detail.
It strikes me that there is cross-community agreement on local public inquiries as the Northern Ireland fall-back position. Does the right hon. Gentleman hope that if the Government do not listen here, they might listen in the other place?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Given the experience of recent days, and the Minister's references to the time that has been allowed for debate-a couple of hours this afternoon and this evening to debate these very important matters concerning the number of seats and the abolition of the age-old right to have local public inquiries-I am confident that the other place will examine these matters in great detail and will, I hope, bring common sense to bear.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point. Is he aware that, so far as I know, there is an anomaly that in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the boundary commission inquiries for parliamentary constituencies are to be abolished, but remain for the two Assemblies and the Parliament?
In Northern Ireland, the parliamentary constituency boundaries are the Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries. I know the position is different in Scotland and Wales. That is why, at least for Northern Ireland-and for all the reasons that I and others have outlined this evening, it should be the case for the whole country-I appeal to the Government to think very carefully about the implications for our country of the decision to push ahead with abolition.
Almost all of us are aware of the purpose of the abolition of inquiries into boundary changes. It is about expediency, getting the process through as rapidly as possible, and air-brushing out a particularly important part of the process in order to do that.
I do not accept the idea that because boundary commissions have not changed an enormous amount in the past, that is likely to be the case in future. Because of the wholesale changes that are being made in the rest of the Bill, boundary commission public local inquiries will probably be more important in future than was the case in the past.
In the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, the most recent iteration of the rules for the redistribution of seats, we see, as other hon. Members have mentioned, a balancing arrangement between the idea of equality in representation, between various local considerations, and between representation and decision making. As a result of that relatively balanced mechanism, it is fair to say that the boundary commission process has worked pretty well, without enormous public outcry at its past decisions.
Looking ahead, we find that the Government are removing not only most of the checks and balances that were in the boundary commission arrangement, but the very last check and balance whereby, after that whole process has taken place, the public have an opportunity to question, have their say and find out why those changes are taking place in the way that has been suggested. The idea that that should be replaced with a procedure that is simply not transparent is a complete rejection of all those previous checks and balances, and a rejection of the principles put forward-I am sorry if this sounds ad hominem-by a Minister, the Deputy Leader of the House, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but who would have made exactly the same arguments about public representation, the public's say and the due process of democracy until one day before the election.
I do not know whether a particular event in Greece, and the electoral practices there, caused the hon. Gentleman to change his mind on the matter, but over the years a large number of Liberal Democrat constituency parties have been active participants in those processes, and he will have to go to them and say, "Actually, you can't do this anymore, because I've thrown this out of the window as part of a deal to get something else through." They will be aghast at what has happened to the principles that they previously put forward.
Does my hon. Friend know whether any party standing at the last general election had as a manifesto commitment the abolition of public inquiries by the boundary commission?
As my hon. Friend will know, peruse though one might, it is not possible to find such a pledge. If any party had put such a pledge in its manifesto at the last election, that itself would have been the subject of an internal public inquiry, because of what it would have said about that party's commitment to the process of electoral change.
On the differences that the boundary reviews will make, I refer to the Isle of Wight, which is close to my constituency but separated by a substantial body of water, the Solent. The proposal, which is likely to come to pass, is that 40,000 people will be taken out of that constituency and distributed somewhere else in Hampshire-they know not where. [ Interruption. ] They will stay on the Isle of Wight, but for the purposes of political representation they will join another constituency.
The boundary commission will have a certain say in the process, because it will have to decide which 40,000 people on the island go to various other parts for their representation. It may decide that they will go to Portsmouth, to Southampton or to the New Forest. Each area has a connecting ferry service to the island, but I am not sure whether the commission can even take into account whether the people and the ferry service should be connected, given the changes that will be made and the Government's conditions for the new arrangements.
All that will be done on the basis of a boundary commission decision, no public inquiry, some representations and no explanation. That represents a serious and fundamental change to the representation of, admittedly, just one constituency, but the process will be repeated throughout the country in a substantial if not such an extreme way, and if that is not a negation of the public's right to understand what is happening to their own political processes, I do not what is or will be.
We must vote for amendment 15, which would reintroduce the idea of a public inquiry within particular boundaries and for particular concerns to ensure that it was conducted seriously and not frivolously. The idea that the public should have their say in who they are represented by, how they are represented and where their representation takes place has been a fundamental part of our electoral system for many years, and to throw it out of the window for expediency is a move that will be regretted and a move that we should reject.
Let me start by thanking Mrs Laing for speaking to the amendment on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on which she serves. It is a great pity that the Chair of the Committee, Mr Allen, is not also present in order to support its view.
The hon. Lady said that nobody ever listens to a word she says. I have to say that that is not entirely the case, because I remember in Committee of the whole House she very eloquently put forward the views of the Select Committee that the Government should not be able unilaterally to change the views expressed by the boundary commissions before presenting them to Parliament. We listened to what she said on behalf of the Select Committee, and we have tabled amendments to put that into effect; they will be debated in due course.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The Select Committee has done a very good job in raising some important issues.
Amendment 205 would add a stage to the consultation process that the boundary commissions are required to carry out for the purposes of the review. Prior to making recommendations, the commissions would be required to publish online their proposed approach to the application of the rules and factors. A consultation period of eight weeks would follow, and the commissions would be required to take the results into account. We have set a deadline of October 2013 for the commissions to report to allow parties, administrators and electors to adjust to the new boundaries prior to the general election in 2015.
An increase in consultation time of eight weeks could delay the reports, making it harder to prepare for the next general election. In effect, the time added to the process by the amendment would be much greater, as the commissions would have to publicise their proposed approach and assess the representations received before taking the many and complex individual decisions required to put together their recommendations. The Government believe that the right place to debate the approach that the boundary commissions must take is in Parliament. The importance of that is highlighted by the fact that the Bill had its Committee stage on the Floor of the House. The boundary commissions will carry out the review according to Parliament's wishes, as has always been the case.
In any event, I do not consider that the commissions' general approach, divorced from the resulting recommendation for particular constituencies, is a subject on which wide consultation is appropriate. It is the effect of the recommendations on a person's local constituency or local area on which it is important for them to have a say, and the Bill increases the period for them to do so. Consultation on a general approach is likely to lead to many responses that are based not on genuine concern about the approach but on guesswork as to what the effect of that approach might be in a local area. But until the commission has taken all the many individual decisions necessary to formulate its recommendations, it will be impossible to predict the effect on a particular area.
I hope that it will reassure hon. Members that during the previous review the Boundary Commission for England produced a booklet prior to the publication of recommendations which gave information about the review. There was also extensive use of the commissions' websites to inform interested parties about all aspects of the review. Amendment 206 proposes a new set of publicity and consultation rules under clause 10. I hope to reassure hon. Members who tabled the amendment that it is not necessary as it reflects the practice that the boundary commissions are likely to follow in any event. The boundary commissions made extensive use of the internet in publicising the last general review and, although it is for them to decide, I am confident they will do likewise this time. The information that they published at the time of their recommendations included the electorate figures mentioned in the amendment.
I believe that it is important to allow the boundary commissions discretion to present their recommendations and relevant accompanying information as they think best, taking into account the particular circumstances with which they are dealing and the changing way in which people obtain information and communicate. On that basis, while I do not disagree with the principle underlying the amendment, I do not agree that it is desirable for the Bill to particularise the commissions' practice in legislation to the extent that the amendment proposes.
The amendment would also expressly allow representations to be made by people within or outside the affected constituency. That is presently the case, and the Bill does not change that. New section 5(1)(b) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 follows the existing section 5(2) in that respect. The boundary commissions are likely to publish recommendations for a number of constituencies together as a scheme, and the proposals for one constituency will undoubtedly affect those of others. It is important that interested parties from both within a proposed constituency and from neighbouring constituencies may make representations to the commissions for alternative schemes that work within the rules, and the Bill does not prevent that from happening. While I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Epping Forest, it is not necessary for the wording that appears in the amendment to be in the Bill. On that basis, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I now turn to more general points about local inquiries. It was interesting to listen to Sadiq Khan outline the Opposition's case. I am glad that in this evening's debate, we have not heard local inquiries described as appeals, because of course they are not. They are part of the process of information gathering, listening to the views of local people and weighing them up as part of the due process.
The process suggested in the Bill maintains that principle. Indeed, it actually extends it. It is vital that the boundary commissions fully consult all interested parties on proposals for changes to constituency boundaries. We all accept that. Local people in particular must be able to have their say. However, the Government believe that it would be a mistake to imagine that local inquiries achieve that objective, and there is independent support for that view. The Bill abolishes them for three major reasons. First, we simply must speed up reviews.
Yes, it is very important that we get people registered, and it is an indictment of the previous Government's conduct that they totally failed to deal with the gap in registration. However, I have to say that it is not relevant to the issue before us at the moment.
The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the average time taken for a review in the current system is six years. In his new system it will be three years. Bearing in mind that he has conceded that people will still be missed off the electoral register, is not the real reason for the rush that he wants the change before the next general election rather than the one after?
It is hardly a secret that we want a general election based on fair constituencies, and I do not think that is an unreasonable aspiration.
The second reason why we are abolishing the public inquiries is that they do not achieve their purpose. They do not provide the boundary commissions with a good indication of local opinion to aid them in the process of drawing up constituencies. [Hon. Members: "How do you know?"] I will tell Members how I know-academics have been clear on that point for a number of years. Professors Butler and McLean, in their evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2006, argued that a faster approach could
"simplify the system without leading to any significant decline in equity."
Oral inquiries were described by Professor Ron Johnston and his colleagues, whom the right hon. Member for Tooting quoted several times, as
"very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the Commission's recommendations-in which their sole goal is to promote their own electoral interests."
That is why the right hon. Gentleman and his friends like the system at the moment. It gives the power to the parties, not to the public.
The Deputy Leader of the House makes an interesting point and quotes a generalised point that the professor made, but did not he and many other experts also make the specific point that bearing in mind the huge changes that are to be made, this is the one occasion if any when a public inquiry is essential?
No, it is the one occasion when it is absolutely essential that we have the fullest possible consultation process, and that is why we are extending the consultation period for three months, allowing every single person to have their say, not just the political parties that want to turn up at public inquiries. I hope the right hon. Gentleman recognises that.
No, I have got to make progress.
The third reason for abolishing inquiries is that they rarely lead to significant changes in recommendations. The statistics that are often prayed in aid of local inquiries usually group together many different constituencies and include changes solely to the names of constituencies, to inflate the figure of the proportion that lead to change. The truth, as Professor Johnston told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, is:
"Public inquiries often have no impact."
The changes are frequently minor. For example, at the time of the fifth general review in England, only 2% of wards in counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result.
What the Bill does- [Interruption.] No, let us deal with what the Bill actually does. It improves the process of public consultation, so that the public will be better able to have their say on proposals. That is why we are extending the period for representations on proposals from one month to three. Where a boundary commission revises proposed recommendations, the period of consultation on the revised proposals will be the same.
In making that decision, the Government have considered the approach taken in other nations. We looked at the example of Australia, which has a 28-day consultation period for proposed recommendations, followed by 14 days for comments. The Government propose a longer consultation period of three months.
The Deputy Leader has said that where a boundary commission reviews its recommendations, they will be subject to a further period of consultation, but a second revision will be final, and there will be no consultation. An appeal will involve people turning to the Secretary of State, who may, under the Bill, prepare an Order in Council with or without modification. The Secretary of State can therefore change things, but the public cannot appeal.
I would answer the hon. Gentleman in two ways, and I know that he takes a serious interest in these matters. The second inquiry, as he puts it, does not happen now. Once a boundary commission makes its final conclusions, that is the end of the story-and there has to be an end to the process. In the Bill, we are establishing a longer and more thorough process of consultation, all of which will be in the open, rather than in secret, because it will all be published and available for people to see. That is a fairer way of doing things than having highly paid QCs representing two big parties simply making partisan points in front of an assistant commissioner.
We did not propose legislation on the Boundary Commission at that point, but we are doing so now, and those are the proposals before the hon. Gentleman. He must look at them and see whether they make sense. I believe that they do.
During our discussions, we have had a flavour of some of the arguments that are put before commissioners in public inquiries. We have had people claiming that constituencies can never cross a river. We have had Members complaining that they cannot have a connection to more than one local authority in their constituency. Those are the sorts of spurious argument that a public inquiry throws out of court every time.
The Deputy Leader of the House quoted Professor Johnston out of context and now has issues with lawyers earning lots of money in inquiries. Will he confirm that Professor Johnston said:
"I can well see people using" judicial review
"as a reason for addressing the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries"?
Does the Minister agree with Professor Johnston or does he not?
If each of the boundary commissions does a thorough job, which I fully expect them to, and takes the proper matters into consideration, I do not expect an increase in judicial review. That is my answer to the right hon. Gentleman. He mentions the fact that he is a lawyer and that I do not like highly paid lawyers very much, but I am surprised that he decries the idea of submissions being made in writing rather than orally, because that is a well-known and fundamental principle in law.
The improved process in the Bill will deliver faster reviews. Time-consuming public inquiries that do not bring new arguments to the table and which are dominated by parties attempting to advance their electoral interests are not beneficial in Northern Ireland or anywhere in the UK. I urge hon. Members not to press the amendments.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: 15, page 12, leave out lines 35 to 41 and insert-
'(1A) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receives any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(1B) Where a local inquiry was held in respect of the constituencies before the publication of the notice mentioned in subsection (1) above, that subsection shall not apply if the Commission, after considering the matters discussed at the local inquiry, the nature of the representations received on the publication of the notice and any other relevant circumstances, is of an opinion that a further local inquiry would not be justified.
(1C) In subsection (1A) above, "interested authority" and "elector" respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.'.- (Sadiq Khan.)