Clause 11 — Number and distribution of seats

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 15th February 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment 19.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The amendment would give the Boundary Commission the discretion to propose constituencies within an extended 15% range of the UK electoral quota in the event that a commission considered that exceptional local ties or geographical circumstances made it necessary for a viable constituency. That means that the plus or minus 5% rule could be extended to plus or minus 7.5% in the exceptional circumstances set out in the amendment.

The Government believe that the principle of "one vote, one value", so that there are votes of more equal weight across the country, is paramount. That is the fundamental principle underpinning the Bill. It is not an abstract concept, nor is it, as some of our opponents like to say, about a slavish adherence to arithmetic. It is right for electors across the UK to have an equal say not just in who will be their local representative, but in who will form the Government of the day. For votes to have equal weight in a single member constituency system, the constituencies must contain a broadly equal number of electors.

The existing legislation that determines how the boundaries are to be drawn-the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986-also has that principle at its heart. Indeed, in one sense it could be argued that it involves a tighter rule, because it suggests that the Boundary Commission should aim for exact numerical equality, but the rules in that Act are contradictory and compromise the principle of equality. We see the large variations in the sizes of constituencies at the moment, which is why the Government's proposals set a clear range for the number of electors that a constituency may contain.

I have already said that absolute equality is not practicable. There are a small number of specific exceptions, which recognise the practicalities of genuinely challenging geography: those are the two provisions that we inserted into the Bill at the beginning. I will not dwell on the subject of the Isle of Wight now; we will have an opportunity to do so later. More generally, the Bill allows for constituencies to vary by 5% either side of the quota. On the basis of the register data for 2009, that is about 8,000 electors. Within that range, commissions can take account of local circumstances.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

As the Minister knows, we have debated this issue many times before, but I have not heard him explain precisely what is significantly different about the two constituencies identified in the Bill, or why they are so significantly different that they should be identified. It would be useful to have that on the record.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

We have defined the difference. Both constituencies constitute groups of islands which, owing to their challenging geography, are not readily combinable with the mainland. I know that some Members, including the hon. Gentleman, wanted more exceptions to be made, but few if any argued that we should not have made the two exceptions that we did make. Although most of the argument in the House of Commons was in favour of further exceptions, we were reluctant to make many, because we believed that the general principle of equality was important.

There was a clear rationale for the Government's proposal for 5% either side of the United Kingdom electoral quota. It is the closest to equality that we can achieve while allowing wards, which are themselves drawn with local factors in mind, to remain the building blocks of constituencies in England which account for the majority of seats. We believe that that strikes the right balance between the principle of more equally weighted votes at national level, and flexibility to allow account to be taken of specific circumstances at local level.

The amendment was proposed in a constructive spirit by Cross Benchers in the other place who wanted to ensure that exceptions were strictly limited, and it was debated at length. However, the Government disagree with the Lords, for the following reasons. First, we believe that however emphatic the drafting, attempts to limit the exercise of the discretion in exceptional circumstances are unlikely to be as successful as the proposers of the amendment hoped. Each exception would constitute a further precedent, and as the number of exceptions increases, so does the scope for argument. That is clear from the existing legislation. Boundary commissions are supposed to aim for equality, but because of all the other factors that they must take into account, the size of some constituencies varies by up to 50%.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I would be interested to know why the Government believe that they know best how to divide the country into constituencies. If the primary purpose is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament to no more than 600-a laudable aim, which I strongly support-would it not be sufficient for the Government to stick to that, and allow the Boundary Commission to do its work?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No, I do not think that it would. The existing process causes a significant variation in the size of constituencies. Even if we set aside differences between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, where there are different electoral quotas, we see within England significant differences between parliamentary constituencies that effectively mean that the weight of someone's vote, in terms of the say that they have in the House, is significantly different from the weight of someone else's vote. The Government do not think that that is right: we believe that constituencies should be of more equal size, so that votes are of more equal weight across the whole United Kingdom.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The Minister conveniently ignores the fact that in some constituencies, such as those containing a large number of students or a large number of second homes, people will have registered twice. Constituencies will therefore not be equal, and individual registration will bring that sharply into focus at some stage in the future.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman has raised three issues. First, I can tell him that we propose to continue to use the registered electorate data. Secondly, I can say in answer to his point about our proposal to introduce individual voter registration that-as I have made clear in the House before-the Government are as interested in the completeness of the registers as in their accuracy. The hon. Gentleman, who follows these matters closely, will know that we propose to conduct pilots this year with a range of local authorities to examine public sector databases, and the possibility of using the data to ensure that the electoral register is more complete. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman will know that ownership of a second property does not, in itself, allow people to register to vote; the electoral registration officer must be satisfied that they genuinely reside in the area concerned.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

This is not just a question of second homes; it is also a question of the presence of students. Some constituencies contain 20,000 students, many of whom are dual-registered. There will not be equality of size; indeed, we will not know whether there is equality of size, because the students' home constituencies will vary dramatically. We can only guess what the figures would be.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The Bill does not change the process of using the registered electorate data-which are the best that we have-to make the necessary decisions. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's point holds water.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once more, but then I must make some progress.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The Minister is kindly giving way again, in the interests of good debate.

My constituency does not contain many students. Whatever limit is set, that will be the number of people eligible and wanting to vote. Other constituencies-Sheffield, Hallam, for instance-contain vast numbers of students. There will be a big difference between the number of voters in Bassetlaw and the number of real voters in Sheffield, Hallam. What has that to do with equality of size of constituencies? The Minister has lost the argument, has he not?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No. I am not entirely certain what argument the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, and I suspect that I carry at least quite a few Members with me. We are not changing the basis on which we use registered electorate data. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a limit to the number of people who had registered to vote, but everyone in his constituency who is eligible to vote is able to register. I would encourage everyone who is eligible to register to vote in his constituency to do so, and to use that vote in an election-as, I am sure, would all Members on both sides of the House.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The argument advanced by John Mann does not hold water at all. First, given that there are students and people with second or third homes all over the country, if someone moves from one constituency to another having registered two votes, those votes will cancel each other out. When the movement between constituencies is considered as a single total movement of population, we see that that will apply throughout the country. Secondly, that is exactly why we need a variation of about 5%.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend mentioned the number of votes. It is true that if someone genuinely resides in more than one location, rather than merely owning property in those locations-I know that this has been an issue in some parts of the country including Cornwall, and I urge returning officers who do not believe that someone genuinely resides somewhere to be firm about challenging that claim-even if they receive two ballot papers, they are entitled to vote only once. That is the point that I was trying to make to Chris Bryant. Currently it is possible to obtain more than one ballot paper, but it is a criminal offence to use more than one in the same election.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

May I clarify a point? As the Minister said, we have debated the issue before. Does he mean "reside"-in which case people with three or four homes could presumably register in each of the places where they occasionally reside-or does he mean "primarily reside"? Surely it must be decided where people's primary residence is, rather than where they occasionally reside. People with second homes-and third homes, and fourth homes-have a significant advantage over all other voters, in that they can choose where to deploy their vote most effectively.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 6:00 pm, 15th February 2011

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises this point: it is an issue in Cornwall, where a number of voters have second properties. The case law clearly talks not about "primarily reside" but about "reside". However, it is also clear that if a second-property owner pops there on holiday for two weeks a year, that would not count as residing. Many hon. Members genuinely live in more than one location of course, because we spend some of our time in London and some of our time in our constituency. Many Members will therefore be registered to vote in both places, but for parliamentary elections we will exercise that vote only once. I suspect that Members will tend to do as I do, which is exercise it in such a way that we can vote for ourselves, either because it makes a difference electorally or because it is more emotionally satisfying-or both.

I shall return to the point I was making before we went off on a number of interesting detours. However emphatic the drafting, we do not think that attempts to limit the exercise of discretion in exceptional circumstances are likely to be as successful as do those in the House of Lords who proposed the amendment. It may be true that the drafting will discourage a court from finding against a boundary commission that chooses not to exercise that discretion, but the commissions will be under considerable pressure to exercise it, particularly given the inclusion of the concept of "local ties". Exceptional local ties may actually exist in the UK, but the concept is already the Trojan horse which allows political parties to make arguments that are in their electoral interest-and, frankly, in their electoral interest alone.

The Boundary Commission for England noted in its fifth general report that there was usually more debate at local inquiries about local ties, in their many varied and often subjective guises, than about any other matter. That is one of the main reasons why constituencies are as unequal in size as they are today. It seems to the Government that this amendment would in practice simply increase the amount by which constituencies and the weight of vote vary, and do so by far more than those who argue for it imagine.

My hon. Friend Mrs Laing, who is a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, made this point in the previous debate when she said it was important that we have clarity and as much certainty as possible. The Government's view is that that will not be the effect of this amendment, which is why I am arguing that we should not agree to it.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Is it not the case that clause 11 provides for constituencies in Northern Ireland to not conform to being within the plus or minus 5% UK quota? Instead, they will vary greatly, and far more widely than that quota; the Bill makes specific provision for that. Why can Northern Ireland constituencies deviate more widely from the UK quota, and from each other, than other constituencies? These are constituencies that will also be electing six seats each to the Assembly. This completely contradicts both the Minister's arguments and the principle of proportional representation that is in the Good Friday agreement.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think we debated this matter at an earlier stage in the House. The reason is very simple: Northern Ireland is a very small part of the United Kingdom and there is an issue in respect of seats being allocated between the constituent parts of the UK. If a Northern Ireland constituency is on the cusp of being or not being allocated as a seat, we could end up with a situation where a boundary commission's ability to have flexibility was constrained to a far greater degree than the plus or minus 5%. The point of the provision is to make sure that in such cases, in that very small part of the UK where there are relatively few seats, the boundary commissions are able to take proper account of local ties. In no other part of the UK is that effect likely to take place, because the next smallest part of the UK is almost twice the size. We thought this was a sensible measure to make sure the boundary commissions were not constrained to a far greater degree than they would be in other parts of the UK because of the relative smallness of the population of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

This stems not from the size of Northern Ireland, but from the problem of fixing-from the fact that the Bill fixes the number of seats at 600 and 600 only, and from the way in which seats are then distributed to the different constituent parts of the UK. That is the issue. It has nothing to do with being able to take account of local boundaries or geography or anything else. It is because of this insistence on 600 and 600 only.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Well, it is certainly true that even if we allocate using the Sainte-Laguë method-which is the one we specify in the Bill, and which is generally agreed by academics who are far more knowledgeable about these things than me to be the fairest way of allocating-it is always the case that there might be a seat that is close to the cusp of allocation. As a result, in this small part of the UK the boundary commissions might find their discretion overly constrained, and far tighter than the plus or minus 5% stated in the Bill. The measures for Northern Ireland were therefore to try to make sure that its boundary commissions were not overly constrained and unable to take account properly, as they can in the rest of the UK, of those important local ties with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar.

The Government did not think that it would be possible to limit the effect of this amendment to genuinely exceptional matters. In this respect, there is an interesting Court of Appeal judgment. In Al Rawi and others v. Security Service, the judge said:

"Quite apart from the fact that the issue is one of principle, it is a melancholy truth that a procedure or approach which is sanctioned by a court expressly on the basis that it is applicable only in exceptional circumstances nonetheless often becomes common practice."

That is exactly what we fear here.

We also think the amendment could lead to a general increase in the risk to the timetable for the review. That is important because the boundaries we used at the last general election in England were based on electoral registration data that were a decade out of date. If we do not complete the boundary review before the next general election, we will be fighting it on electoral data that are 15 years out of date, which is clearly unacceptable for those who argue that we should be using up-to-date data. We think that the terms in this Lords amendment, such as "exceptionally compelling", "viable" and "necessary, are very subjective and would require the boundary commissions to apply new tests that they have not applied before. Because they are subjective, and also because there will be arguments between the four commissions in terms of consistency, we think they will provoke an increased number of applications for judicial review.

That incentive could diminish if, and when, the first judicial reviews are not upheld, but even though successful judicial reviews are unlikely, applications for permission would have to be dealt with, which would impact on the resources of the boundary commissions and, potentially, make it impossible to achieve what is already a challenging timetable of completing the boundary review by October 2013.

We also think that the case for the additional 2.5% either way has simply not been made. Increasing the band of tolerance in one constituency will mean there is less room to account for local circumstances in others. Therefore, the commissions would be asked in effect to trade off the rights of different communities both close to and far from each other. We think the Government's consistent band is much more sensible. The variation in this rule also has no objective rationale, because it does not solve any real-world problems. All the specific problems that have been advanced-such as the arguments put forward for Cornwall and for Argyll and Bute-are outside that range, so this amendment would not solve any real-world problems, but would bring with it a lot of significant potential problems.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I understand why it is thought that the move to the 5% limit is required-to stop the boundary commissions going off-piste and having very different constituencies-but does the Minister agree that in many areas of the country the 5% will give greater flexibility for local ties than is currently the case, because we will be removing the requirement to try to get even closer to equality? Can the Minister also explain why once a boundary commission has satisfied the 5% requirement, he is not asking it to try to get closer to equality where possible?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

This measure gives boundary commissions the range to be able to take account of issues such as local ties, but it also sets the quota. Boundary commissions should aim at the quota, but we want them to have a range so that they can take account of those local ties. I think my hon. Friend is trying to tempt me into suggesting a much tighter limit and a more aggressive move towards equality, but the Government think it is right to take account of some of those local matters, but there should also be a limit so that we end up with more equal constituencies.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

But surely under the new arrangements we will not be requiring the boundary commissions to aim at equality. We will be requiring them only to get within plus or minus 5%, and once they have done that they will be able to give complete consideration to local ties without worrying about getting closer to equality.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The boundary commissions will have to draw up a scheme of constituencies and they will have examine the entire country. In some constituencies there may not be much need to vary from the quota, perhaps because there may not be many ties to take account of. However, there will be such a need in other areas, which is why this proposal to allow a much wider band would be very damaging. If they allow more flexibility in some areas, it will be taken away from others. That is why we want a consistent rule across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I wish to clarify something that I have been asked about several times. Have the Government given any guidance to the boundary commission as to whether it will work from south to north across the country or from north to south? The direction will have a significant impact on the shaping of the constituencies, so I genuinely ask the question.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by "country", because of course there are four boundary commissions.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there will be one scheme for the whole area. We have suggested in the Bill that the Boundary Commission for England does this by region. The regional boundaries are not absolute and it is able to propose constituencies that cross those boundaries, but given the size of England it seemed sensible to give the Boundary Commission at least a starting point from which to work. The rules that will apply are in the Bill and it would not be appropriate for the Government to try to influence how it conducts the review. If the Government were to do so, the hon. Gentleman would be one of the first to object.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I am grateful for that clarification. Has the Minister had any discussions about whether the Boundary Commission for Scotland is minded to start this from the English-Scottish border and work north? Alternatively, having exempted the highlands and islands-I will not repeat the argument about that-will it work southwards? The direction will significantly affect the shape of these new constituencies.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman was asking two questions. On the first, I have not had those discussions with the boundary commissions and I do not think it would be appropriate to do so. On the second, I am not sure that the direction would make the difference that he suggests, but he should put his question to the boundary commissions, rather than the Government.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Could the Minister clarify the precise situation, because this is slightly confusing? Surely if England is to be divided into regions, each of those regions would have to contain a set number of seats, given that a particular day would be pinpointed. The notion that a particular constituency could cross a regional boundary must be nonsense. We have to work on the basis of a particular region having a certain number of seats, for example, 35 or 45. Any decision taken at the 11th hour for a constituency to cross a regional boundary would have a huge knock-on effect on all the other seats within that region.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No, the process for allocating the fixed number of seats in the Bill is by country. So the 600 seats will be allocated between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the fair and impartial process set out in the Bill, which is generally accepted to be the best one for doing these types of divisions. The boundary commissions wanted guidance in the Bill about how to divide up England so that they did not have to do it all in one go. So they will use regions as a starting point, but nothing constrains their ability to cross regional boundaries if they think that that makes sense, taking into account the factors that they are able to consider. The regional boundaries and the allocation of seats to regions are not hard and fast things set out in the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have a dazzling range of talent to choose from, but I have not heard yet from Mr MacNeil.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Have the Government done any theoretical mock-ups of how the arrangements might look starting from the south, starting from the north or using any regional basis? Have they worked out how the pieces might fall at the end of the day?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No, we have not. That is not a matter for the Government; it is a job for the boundary commissions and it is not appropriate for the Government to do it.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth 6:15 pm, 15th February 2011

The Minister has mentioned that the Boundary Commission for England will operate using English regions. Does that mean that it will start by clustering together English counties and then work to refine the boundaries within those counties, or will this be done specifically at regional level?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I can understand why hon. Members are asking me these questions, but these are matters for the boundary commissions. One of the things that we made very clear in the debate when we were being accused of gerrymandering by the Labour party was that in our system the boundary commissions draw the lines, whereas in some other countries those lines are drawn by political parties in legislatures. We have set the guidelines for the boundary commissions and the rules are in the Bill, which we hope will be passed by Parliament and thus enacted. The detail of how the boundary commissions go about that work is a matter for them and they are experienced in doing such work. When they have these public hearings, having published their proposals, they will set out the nature of the scheme under which they are going to listen to people, and they will be very clear about how they have reached their decisions. These are matters for the boundary commissions. I can understand why my hon. Friend is trying to tempt me on this, but it would be wrong for Ministers to try to get involved in directing the boundary commissions on how they carry out their work.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Does my hon. Friend not appreciate the concern that when we are discussing whether there should be any variance, be it of 5% or 7.5%, it is important to know how the process operates? If the entire United Kingdom-its 650 seats-was to be considered at once, there would be almost no need for any variance. If things are considered on the basis of smaller clusters, one can see the relevance of having that sort of variance, particularly if there is also a desire to avoid crossing ward boundaries. We do need to have an understanding of the process. If we do not have at least a basic understanding of how it will operate, it will be difficult for us to make any value judgment as to where the variance should lie, which is the subject of amendment 19.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's analysis that if we were conducting a single review across the whole United Kingdom, we would not need the plus or minus 5% flexibility at all. We would still need it. At the extreme, we could say that every constituency had to be exactly the same size. We would then end up with a map with lots of straight lines on it, but I do not think anybody would think that that was satisfactory. We therefore set a plus or minus 5% variance, so that the boundary commissions can get seats pretty close to that quota, in order for votes to be of equal weight, but they can also take properly into account the things that hon. Members and those outside this place think they should be able to consider. I do not believe that he was in for the earlier debate, but he will know that the former Member for his constituency had an amendment in the other place proposing that the boundaries of the City of London can be explicitly examined, and I hope that he will welcome that. These are matters for the boundary commissions and we should not be prescriptive about how they carry out their work.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Given the nature of some of the questions that the Minister has been asked in the past few minutes, does he agree that perhaps there should be an opportunity to review the wisdom of going ahead on the basis that he is describing? Clearly many hon. Members are not fully aware that this inflexible, sanitised and homogenised approach will result in lines being drawn through constituencies where sitting Members believed that there would be no significant change to the boundaries. That will be happening across the board as a result of the very changes that he proposes.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I recall distinctly that we had this debate in the House in the first place. The boundary commissions set out clearly in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the reduction to 600 Members and the clearer hierarchy of rules would mean that there would be significant change across the country, except of course for the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and one other Member, whose constituency boundaries will remain the same. Members were very clear about that at the beginning, so I do not think that that is a new piece of information.

Arguments have also been advanced that this extra bit of discretion would mean that parliamentary constituency boundaries would not need to cross county boundaries where the area is a little bit over or under the 10% band of tolerance, but the Government do not consider constituencies that cross local authority boundaries to be a problem in principle-certainly not for electors, who should be the focus of our concern. The 7.5% discretion rule would not solve the problem: it would just move the line somewhere else.

The Government's proposal of allowing 5% on either side of the UK electoral quota has a clear rationale: it is the closest we can get to having fair and equally weighted votes for electors while still allowing local factors to be taken into account, using wards as the building blocks in most cases. We think that is the right judgment in principle and in practice. Our reasons for disagreeing with the amendments do not detract from the usefulness of this debate, which has been valuable, but we think that the principle of one vote, one value and having more equal-sized constituencies is right. The amendments compromise that principle and would cause practical problems for the review. That is why we oppose them.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

First, I point out that the Government decided that one hour should be set aside to discuss these amendments and that the Minister has taken up almost two thirds of that time. I do not criticise him, because he took many interventions, but it is a bit rich for him to accuse the House of Lords of filibustering. He should bear that in mind when we are considering constitutional Bills of this nature.

The amendments were moved by a Cross Bencher, Lord Pannick of Radlett, in the House of Lords, which is a revising Chamber, when he demolished the points that the Minister has raised this afternoon. The House needs to consider whether we are setting a precedent for how constitutional matters are taken forward-ignoring revisions made in the Lords that were moved by an expert Cross Bencher. I fear that the Minister has fallen into the trap of praying in aid the Lords, particularly Cross Benchers, when they agree with his points, but finding excuses for disagreeing with them when they disagree with him, let alone when they overturn a Commons decision by a considerable majority. For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate what my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and I said on a number of occasions as the Bill went through the Commons, which was repeated by Opposition spokespeople in the other place: we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized constituencies, but we have practical concerns about the way that the Bill seeks to pursue that reasonable objective.

Lord Pannick's amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula in the Bill for redrawing boundaries. I remind the House that the original Bill proposed that there should be flexibility in the size of constituencies of 5% either side of the electoral quota or norm, so that constituencies could vary between 95% and 105% of the electoral quota. The Bill also accepts that there should be exceptions for Northern Ireland, for Orkney and Shetland and for the Western Isles.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my disappointment and that of my constituents that the Deputy Prime Minister has sought to make special cases for the Western Isles and the Isle of Wight but has ignored Cornwall completely? Does he agree that the 7.5% differential is the best and last chance that the people of Cornwall will have to protect their historic boundary?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I agree with every word the hon. Lady has said. She has sat through many debates in the past few months without having the chance to speak in them. It is interesting that we are lectured regularly by the Deputy Prime Minister about principles but that he is willing to throw them in the bin when it suits his party political purpose.

In addition to the exception for the Western Isles and others, the Government are making a further exception for the Isle of Wight, so there will now be two seats with 55,000 voters-so much for one vote, one value. The Government have put aside their concerns about the knock-on consequences and about equality of seats where it suits them, so equality is not the only value or issue being considered. It is obvious that there have to be exceptions on equality for the Bill to be workable in practice.

Lord Pannick's amendment 19, which was passed by a fair majority in the other House, represents a compromise. To give the amendment the justice it deserves, it is not just the average between the positions of the Government and the Opposition, but a genuine refinement of the measure. To paraphrase, it is fair, reasonable and workable. Having constituencies that can vary in size, in exceptional circumstances, between 92.5% and 107.5% of the norm allows sufficient flexibility to satisfy the concerns of many who think that the Government's approach way too rigid. When a Bill of this constitutional significance has not had proper pre-legislative scrutiny, it is incumbent on the Government to pause and consider the criticisms made by all-party Select Committees of the Commons and the Lords.

The amendment was moved in the other place by one of the country's leading lawyers. If we ignore it, that raises questions about the purpose of having Cross-Bench experts in the other place. It was passed by a significant majority, but the Government, rather than seeking to accommodate it, are trying to overturn it in the Commons by taking advantage of their huge majority. The amendment was passed by a significant majority in the Lords after 60 new Government peers had been placed there. That speaks volumes about the merits of the arguments behind it.

Reliance on a rigid mathematical formula could result in problems in parts of the country where there is a risk that unique geographical and historical circumstances will be disturbed and that the local legitimacy of constituencies will be undermined. That is not just our opinion; it is shared in many quarters.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I want to make some progress.

Democratic Audit, a think-tank attached to the university of Liverpool, has argued that greater flexibility is needed in the system for a number of reasons. It would lead to far fewer county boundaries being crossed, a reduction in the number of wards being split, a lower chance of towns and villages being divided between constituencies and better community cohesion. Let me throw into the mix that such flexibility would also mean that the clarion calls from Cornwall for the preservation of parliamentary representation west of the Tamar would be satisfied-no doubt to the relief of those Members who represent the fiercely proud people of that part of the south-west.

I emphasise that the amendment is not partisan, so it ought to find favour on both sides of the House.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I want to finish my contribution so that others can speak.

The wording in Lord Pannick's amendment is designed to prevent exceptional circumstances from simply becoming the norm-a concern that the Minister has articulated-and the Opposition do not question Lord Pannick's legal judgment. His amendment is deliberately drafted to allow the boundary commissions very narrow discretion to depart from the electoral norm by up to another 2.5% either way. They could do that only if they believed that two criteria were satisfied. First, further departure would have to be "necessary"-not reasonable or desirable, but necessary. Secondly, the departure would have to be necessary in order to address "special geographical considerations" or local ties of an "exceptionally compelling nature".

Lord Pannick has already forcefully demolished the arguments that the Minister put forward in his lengthy contribution today. It is worth reminding the House that before Lord Pannick drafted the amendment, he met the Leader of the House of Lords, the Government spokesman on these matters Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Minister himself, and the Bill team. He then sought to address constructively in his amendment the concerns they had raised with him. I urge Members on both sides of the House to recognise the inherent sense of realism that the amendment brings to the Bill and I hope that they will see fit to support it in the Division Lobby.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 6:30 pm, 15th February 2011

I wish to make a few brief remarks on this most inflexible and rigid part of the Bill. The amendments would move things in the right direction by giving the boundary commissions greater latitude and flexibility than they would have had under the original Bill. In my view, that is a result of the intransigence of the Prime Minister, rather than the Deputy Prime Minister, in insisting that we adopt a situation in which there are just 600 MPs. A more flexible approach would have been to say that there should be no more than 600 and to allow the Boundary Commission the latitude and flexibility to interpret that alongside a clear instruction to work towards more equalised constituencies.

The Government have won that argument, and certainly the current range in electorate sizes across constituencies is intolerable and more effort must be made to achieve greater equality across constituencies. However, to do so in the sanitised, homogenised, rigid, inflexible and intransigent way that the Government propose is not the solution, because that will continue to create a wide range of significant anomalies across the country.

Given some of the interventions that we have heard, particularly from the Government Benches, it will be interesting to note how the work of the Boundary Commission will dawn on those Members as it does its work. They might believe that the whole town they represent, or the whole part of a shire county, for example, which they feel comfortable with, will not be changed, other than a little nibbling away at the boundaries, which they can tolerate. However, the Government's approach will mean that we will end up with lines being drawn straight through those constituencies, and the associations that have been established over years between Members of Parliament and their towns will be divided as a result.

I do not know how it will all pan out. As we have heard, although there will be guidance for the Boundary Commission to work within what I call the Government zones, but which others have described as regional boundaries, there is no absolute requirement for it to do so.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that every major boundary review, including those that took place before the 1983, 1997 and 2010 elections, resulted in more than half of all constituencies changing, often substantially. That is the nature of any boundary review.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I think that the inflexibility of the proposals will result in much more significant changes across the country. Having argued that we should have far fewer MPs than even proposed in the Bill, I am not averse to the idea of significant changes being made at one time to the process by which MPs are elected, but I do not think that it should happen every five years, irrespective of what has happened before. That will happen across the country every five years, and as a result of these proposals the changes will be very significant indeed.

All I am asking is that the Government take a less intransigent and more flexible approach-the 7.5% figure is a reasonable extension, frankly. In order to be able to address many of the anomalies, from Argyll and Bute to the Cornish seats and the highlands, the Boundary Commission will need to be given a great deal more latitude than the amendment proposes, as the Minister has rightly said. We had the opportunity to extend the exceptional geographical circumstances of the Western Isles-

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and Orkney and Shetland. When one considers the geographic arguments for those constituencies' exceptional status, one sees that it is reasonable to argue that exceptional geographical status can be justifiably extended to other constituencies.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am a supporter of Cornwall in that argument, and of Isle of Wight and Argyll and Bute. Following an earlier question to the Minister, I have a question for the hon. Gentleman. Given the geographical constraints on his constituency in the south-west, from where the Boundary Commission will obviously have to start moving, how much more territory will have to come into his constituency? He is restricted to the north, south and west and so can expand only eastwards to increase his electorate to roughly 80,000.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I am not engaged in special pleading. My constituency is in the bottom left-hand corner and as far away from the rest of England as one can get in Cornwall, and of course it includes the Isles of Scilly, which have some special geographical considerations, so it is clear that I do not need to worry. There will no doubt be some oscillation of the constituency's eastern boundary. I am here not for special pleading, but because I believe that a significant injustice is going on across the whole country and that the intransigence in the way it is being handled is simply unacceptable.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I will not give way, because we have only 11 minutes left and I want to finish to allow other Members to speak. We had the option of extending to other constituencies the exceptional geographical status that is applied to Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland and the other places that have been mentioned. All the amendment would do is give the Boundary Commission reasonable latitude and discretion to accept the arguments for exceptional status that will inevitably arise. Otherwise, the Government's intransigence will leave a legacy that I believe the House will regret.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

I do not understand why the Government and the Minister are being so rigid and fundamentalist on this issue. The Minister has already accepted the principle that there can be 5% leeway in the size of the electorate and that that flexibility is the result of local ties and circumstances. Many of us wanted a flexibility of 10%, but the Government wanted 5%. After weeks of debate in the House of Lords and in this Chamber, he is for some reason sticking to the rigidity of 5%, despite knowing full well that the 7.5% flexibility would not result in the problems that he has suggested. Of course it would not, because the principles are exactly the same.

The Minister represents a constituency that has distinctive circumstances as a result of its locality-the former coal-mining area of Forest of Dean. If it was turned into Gloucestershire parliamentary district No. 3, does he think that that is how his constituents would want to be represented in the House of Commons? Of course they would not. They would want to ensure that they have someone who understands their locality and all the special reasons that make it so important. I have already named two examples from Wales, as we have a number of Welsh-speaking constituencies that, generally speaking, have Welsh-speaking MPs to represent their linguistic interests in the House. With the 25% reduction in MPs for Wales, that is no longer likely to be the case.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Does that not point to a lack of understanding about the nature of the Union? Those balances and inequalities are represented in this Chamber, because that is the price of holding together the Union, and the Government's utilitarian approach does no favours to the United Kingdom.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, in the sense that the unity of our kingdom is based on the recognition of the differences within it. Those differences can be reflected linguistically, culturally, socially and in other ways. The rigidity with which the Government have embarked on this course puts that Union in danger.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I set out from the Government's perspective the reason why we settled on plus or minus 5%-a 10% range that is based on more equal seats but allows the use of wards as building blocks. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House the principled reason why he thinks that 7.5% either side of that quota is the right number?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

That extra flexibility allows for the factor that I have just described in Wales and elsewhere to be taken into account-of course it does. I should argue very strongly for 10%, but the Government have a particular principle behind their legislation, which incidentally is based not in any way on logic, but on expediency.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The right hon. Gentleman is doing very well, as ever, at putting before the House what appears to be an argument based on principle, but in reality are not he and his Labour party colleagues afraid of the inflexibility of a 5% variation, because it would take away their in-built advantage under the current unfair system?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

In the examples that I have just given, of Welsh-speaking constituencies in Wales, the seats are held mainly by Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrat party, so there is no advantage for the Labour party in that. I am not arguing a partisan point; I am arguing that 7.5% would provide for that flexibility throughout the United Kingdom and avoid the worst excesses of the Bill.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

A couple of moments ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Union might become weaker with the passage of the Bill. How much weaker does he think that 88-year-old Union-stretching back to 1922-might be after Royal Assent tomorrow?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

The Union will be weaker as a result, because the Bill will not take into account the various points that I have just described. If we do not allow the small countries within our larger country to be properly represented within the Chambers of the legislature, we will ensure a bad effect on the relations between different parts of that country.

As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I really do not believe, as my hon. Friend Mark Durkan said, that the Government have thought for one second about the political impact of the changes before us on the constituency boundaries in Northern Ireland. They do not understand that, when we drew up the Good Friday agreement, much of our argument was about how we could create a sensitive balance between Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and nationalist in Northern Ireland. That balance will be upset by the rigidity on which the Government have embarked, and at this very last moment I urge the Minister and the Government to change their minds.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

My problem with Lords amendment 19 is new paragraph 5A(b) of schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which states that

"such necessity arises from special geographical considerations or local ties".

I want to focus on "local ties", because that is why I shall vote against the amendment. It is bad law, and, looking at "local ties" and how that might be expanded, we should consider my seat, Elmet and Rothwell.

First, let us focus on Rothwell, which between 1917 and 1955 had its own parliamentary constituency. After that, it was included in others, and at the most recent election it fell outside a safe Labour seat for the first time, making me the first Conservative MP for Rothwell.

Moving on to special interests and local ties of an "exceptionally compelling nature", however, I note that outside my constituency there is a village called Sherburn in Elmet. Many people in that part of the world, when I tell them that I am the MP for Elmet and Rothwell, say, "Ah, I live in Sherburn in Elmet; you're my MP," but of course, I am not, because it is not in my constituency.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Conservative, Selby and Ainsty

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour refers to Sherburn in Elmet. I assure him that the people of Sherburn in Elmet consider themselves very much in North Yorkshire and would be appalled at the idea of being seen as part of Leeds.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Absolutely. That makes my point entirely. When considering special circumstances and local ties, would not Sherburn in Elmet, part of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, become part of a constituency incorporating Elmet? Would that not come under special interests and considerations? Would not precedent be brought forward in the courts in terms of representing that seat? The amendment is absolute nonsense which leads to grey areas in the Bill.

I want to talk about the 5% barrier. In the Leeds area, Elmet and Rothwell has 78,000 electors, and perhaps this point did not occur to the Opposition when they put their proposal together, but their variations on 76,000, the figure in the Bill, take us perilously close to the 68,000 electors in Leeds North East, a Labour seat; to the 65,000 electors in Leeds East, also held by Labour; and to the 65,000 electors in Leeds Central-Labour. The only exceptions are Morley and Outwood, which has 74,000 electors, although I believe Ed Balls would need only a 1.5% swing to lose the seat; and Pudsey, which has 69,000 electors. The 5% barrier is fine; it allows us not to go down the path of dividing villages or streets. The idea of trying to increase the percentage is just an attempt to preserve the Labour party's in-built advantage.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The amendment cannot stand: first, it is unclear, and it would be wrong for this House to make laws that are unclear; and secondly, it is unfair.

Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 16.

The House divided: Ayes 317, Noes 250.

Division number 202

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 16 disagreed to.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 19.- (Mr Harper.)

The House divided: Ayes 320, Noes 249.

Division number 203

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 19 disagreed to.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment 20 and Government amendments (a) to (e) in lieu.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The amendments concern the effect on the Isle of Wight of the Government's proposals for votes to have more equal weight, which has been a subject of much debate both inside and outside Parliament. I know that myself, having visited the Isle of Wight at the invitation of its Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend Mr Turner, last autumn.

As we said in the earlier debates, the Government believe that the principle of one elector, one vote-or, rather, one vote, one value-is paramount. [Interruption.] I think we all agree with the first proposition. There is consensus on that. It is right that electors across the UK should have an equal say not just in their choice of local representative, but in who forms the Government of the day. As I said in the previous debate, for votes to have equal weight in a single-member constituency system, constituencies must contain a broadly equal number of electors.

Although absolute equality would be right in principle if-as was said in a previous debate-we were all desiccated calculating machines, but in the real world some flexibility is needed to recognise local circumstances. Exceptions compromise equality, so the Government's view is that the number of exceptions must be very limited. [Interruption.] Calm down. The Bill presented to the House by the Government provided for only two specific exemptions from the parity rule for two Scottish island constituencies-Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland.

The rationale for those exceptions was clear. They are remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland, and legislation in practice already recognises their unique geographical circumstances.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I am grateful to the Minister, who is always generous with his-with the House's time. He mentioned the issue of the highlands. Is he not aware that in Scotland there are many islands? I look to Mr Reid, where there are a large number of islands attached to the mainland. North Ayrshire and Arran also has an island.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My point was that the exemptions were for remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland. In the two examples that the hon. Gentleman gives, the islands are already combined with the mainland as a parliamentary constituency. That is a clear distinction. I do not understand the point he makes.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I represent a distinct island community. Previously, when I supported the Isle of Wight and other constituencies being lumped together, the argument was that it did not have enough electorate. Now the Government's proposal is for two distinct seats on the Isle of Wight, with 50,000 electors each. My constituency, Ynys Môn, the isle of Anglesey, has 50,000-plus, so the rationale has changed. Will the Minister reconsider the uniqueness of islands? The existence of a bridge does not make it any less an island or a community.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman should wait to hear my argument. In the previous debate, Opposition Members made great play of the fact that when the House of Lords votes on matters, this House should consider them. The Government were clear about the Bill that we introduced. We were clear in the House of Lords about our argument. We resisted Lord Fowler's amendment, but Members of all parties in the House of Lords did not agree with the Government. If hon. Members will allow me to make some progress in my argument, I will explain why the Government have tabled the amendments in lieu.

The Scotland Act 1998 provided a specific exemption for Orkney and Shetland. There are other constituencies that include or comprise islands, but these have either already been combined with the mainland or, in the Government's view, such combination would be possible. Clearly, the Isle of Wight does not face the same geographic circumstances as the island constituencies in Scotland. Newport is only three hours from London, and there are regular ferry crossings. In shaping our proposals, we took account of the fact that the island increasingly looks to the mainland in pursuit of greater partnership-for example, in the creation of the Solent local enterprise partnership, which is supported by the island council and covers the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. [Interruption.] Well, I am arguing that that is why the Government thought it was perfectly possible to combine the Isle of Wight with the mainland. The House of Lords, though, took a different view.

In coming to the view that the island should not be granted a specific exemption, we concluded that the practical problems that would arise for an MP attempting to represent a constituency that is already the length of Wales, as in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, or some 12 to 13 hours from the mainland by ferry, as in the case of Orkney and Shetland, would not arise for a cross-Solent MP. We were not persuaded that an MP could not effectively represent two different communities, as a cross-Solent MP would have to do. Many Members represent constituencies that contain citizens with a range of diverse cultures, languages and interests.

We have, however, listened to the arguments put forcefully in this House by my hon. Friend Mr Turner and in the other place, most notably by the noble Lord Fowler, who is with us this evening in spirit, and the noble Lord Oakeshott. We judge that the strength of opinion evidenced by the vote on the amendment in the other place, which had cross-party support, including strong support from the Labour party, is such that the Bill should be amended so as not to require a constituency shared between the Isle of Wight and the mainland.

The amendment passed by the House of Lords was intended to achieve that, but it would leave to the discretion of the Boundary Commission for England the question of whether there should be one seat on the island or two. We believe that that poses some practical problems. For a start, the amendment does not specify the basis on which the Boundary Commission should decide how many seats to allocate the Isle of Wight. Nor does it except the constituency or constituencies on the Isle of Wight from the calculation of the electoral quota. The Isle of Wight's smaller or larger than average constituencies would therefore have an effect on the average size of other constituencies across England. If an exception is to be made for the Isle of Wight, we believe that it should be treated the same as the other exceptions in the Bill in a consistent and fair way.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Does the Minister accept that the Boundary Commission has considered the boundaries of the Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and has previously discussed whether there should be two constituencies? It has rejected that option on the grounds that it would be difficult to define where the boundary should be and what the islanders' wishes were. If the Boundary Commission had discretion over exactly what happened, there might be a repeat of those previous processes unless it were directed to conclude otherwise.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the views of local people, when I visited the island myself and spoke to people there, they were very clear that they were not being prescriptive about whether they wanted one seat or two. The clear message that I got was that they did not want one that crossed the Solent. They did not say that they wanted only one seat-they were relaxed about whether they should have one or two. I believe that the nub of Lord Fowler's point was about the nature of a cross-Solent seat, and our amendments in lieu reflect that.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

There are, of course, other parts of the country, including Cornwall, where people recognise boundaries in precisely the same way as people on the Isle of Wight recognise their boundary on the Solent. Is the irony not lost on the Minister that when we have 650 seats in the House of Commons the Isle of Wight has one, but when the Government are seeking to reduce the number of seats in this House significantly, they double that representation?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my argument, which does not have very much- [Interruption.] No, I am just saying that I have not got to that bit yet. If he will let me, I will get to it.

The amendments that we have proposed in lieu of Lord Fowler's amendments would resolve the problems that I have mentioned. The Boundary Commission would be required to create two constituencies wholly on the island. They would obviously be outside the range of 5% either side of the quota-otherwise we would not be having this debate in the first place-but each would be closer to the quota than a single island constituency would be. That would ensure that electors' votes were closer in weight to those cast elsewhere in the UK, which we believe is important.

Our amendments also make consequential adjustments to the formula used to apportion seats to the constituent parts of the UK and to calculate the UK electoral quota, so as to be consistent with the approach taken to the other exceptions in the Bill. To pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing, who is not in her place, they will therefore provide the Boundary Commission for England with a clearer task than under the amendment made in the other place.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

What is the difference in actual votes between the 76,000 quota and Isle of Wight constituencies of 110,000 or 55,000 people? Would 3,500 votes mean another whole constituency in the House, when the number is going from 650 to 600?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am sadly not able to do the maths at the Dispatch Box, but we have examined the matter, and what I have just said is borne out. I will do the maths when I sit down, or maybe inspiration will strike me, but two seats would be closer to the quota than one. That is the basis for our decision, which is very clear [Interruption.] The debate in the House of Lords supporting the amendment of the-[ Interruption.]

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I know that hon. Members feel very strongly about this matter, but persistent heckling really is not what we expect in the Chamber. Interventions, yes, but not heckling.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The amendment that was accepted by their lordships' House, which we accept in principle, was supported by all parties. The Cross Benchers supported it, along with every Labour peer who voted in the Division, some Liberal Democrats and some bishops. However, we believe that the Boundary Commission needs to be given clarity and certainty so that we do not end up with a confusing and challengeable boundary review.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

We might note the precedent of what the Boundary Commission has done in the past when it has had to choose whether to give, say, two or three seats to a London borough. Its decision has been based on trying to get as arithmetically close to the quota as possible. The amendment clarifies exactly that principle for the Isle of Wight. If the matter had been left to the Boundary Commission, precedent suggests that it would have given the Isle of Wight two seats rather than one.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend is quite right, but it is important for the Boundary Commission to be certain about the matter at the beginning, so that it can then undertake the rest of the boundary process. If the decision were up to the commission and it were to make a certain assumption in its initial proposals, and then come to a different conclusion as a result of the extensive written consultation process and public hearings that we have laid in place, it would have to make a radical change to the proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who is now back in her place, said in a previous debate, certainty and clarity are very important to ensure that the boundary review is carried out properly.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I support the amendments fully, but once the Isle of Wight has been given two seats, the argument for absolute uniformity has fallen, which it did not in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the Shetland Islands and so on. If the Isle of Wight can have special treatment, why not Cornwall and, as far as I am concerned, why not Somerset? Every county now has a special case to make that ought to be considered. In largely accepting the Lords amendment, the Government have given the game away.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 7:30 pm, 15th February 2011

I think that my hon. Friend helps my argument. As I said, this is part of the parliamentary process. The Government introduced a Bill, which did not include an exception for the Isle of Wight. When Lord Fowler tabled his amendment, the Government strongly resisted it-indeed, we were criticised for doing that-but the House of Lords took a different view. My hon. Friend mentioned Cornwall, but the House of Lords debated Cornwall, voted on it, and decided, by a considerable margin, that the case for Cornwall had not been made. I appreciate that some hon. Members disagree, but that was the view that the House of Lords reached. It did not reach the same view about the Isle of Wight. There was a majority of 74 in the other place for making an exception for the Isle of Wight. That was not the Government's position, but a strong message from the other place.

Inspiration has now struck me, and I can answer the question that Tristram Hunt asked. Based on 2009 figures, one seat would be 34,366 away from the UK quota and the two seats would be 20,748 away from the quota. That is a significant narrowing of the difference.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

Although the Lords are wonderful guardians of our constitution, the debate has seen any number of perfectly sensible amendments rejected, and the Government have not lost a single vote in the House. I therefore do not see the logic of saying, "We must give in to the Lords on this, but on everything else we'll tell them they're wrong and send the Bill back."

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think the difference is the strength of view in the other place on the matter. [Interruption.] That view was also consistent and cross party. The Labour Lords who voted in the Division in the other place all supported Lord Fowler's amendment. It is therefore extraordinary that Labour Members are making so much noise now. The Government have acknowledged the debate at the other end of the corridor. Given my hon. Friend's previous comments about their lordships, I would have thought that he saw more strength in the case. On the basis of the arguments that I have set out, I hope that that case will be supported.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am sorry, but I think that that is the shabbiest speech I have heard from a Conservative Member. The Parliamentary Secretary appeared to suggest that Labour Members are now arguing against what we supported in the House of Lords. We support what was carried in the House of Lords: we would prefer the amendment that was carried there to be accepted here. It is absolutely shoddy that the Government, to give themselves an extra parliamentary seat, will provide for two seats for the Isle of Wight. It is not so much a gerrymander as a ferrymander.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg effectively said, the Parliamentary Secretary has driven a coach and horses through his own argument. His argument so far has been that there must be equalisation at all costs. It has been, "Don't recognise local ties, county boundaries or ward boundaries." He tries to insist on mathematical perfection, but when it comes to this one place, there must be an exception.

We agree that there should be exceptions. We believe that there should be some other exceptions, too. The argument that the Parliamentary Secretary makes could and should apply to Cornwall, Somerset and all the counties-and, indeed, ward boundaries. We should recognise more exceptions.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I wish that the hon. Gentleman could have presented that argument precisely and briefly when the Bill was previously in the House, then perhaps we could all have had the chance to debate the subject at an earlier stage. However, does he agree that the debate about Cornwall in another place focused on cultural issues rather than geographical considerations? Sadly, the Government's approach does not address those factors.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Absolutely. Some specific geographical issues need to be borne in mind. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will hate any reference to my constituency, but a former Member of Parliament for the Rhondda, Alec Jones, was once presented with a suggestion that the Cynon valley should be included in the Rhondda constituency, even though for much of the year it is almost impossible to get from one to the other. Alec Jones wisely said, "Bloody hell, somebody's got hold of a flat map." Those are precisely the sort of arrangements that we will end up with.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I will not, because the hon. Gentleman voted for the programme motion. There is a short time left and we ought to hear from Mr Turner, who should be the only hon. Member for the Isle of Wight.

The argument that has been adduced in favour of the Isle of Wight should surely apply to Anglesey, too. There is no argument against that-except for the fact that it is represented by a Labour Member, and happens to be in Wales.

There is an additional problem with the Government amendments. Because they are trying to force two parliamentary seats on the Isle of Wight-I suspect that that does not reflect the view of the people of the Isle of Wight; they think that it should be separate from Hampshire, but they have not argued for two seats-it will be difficult to draw the boundary. We are more likely to end up with one constituency of 60,000 or 65,000 and one of 30,000 or 35,000 than an exact divide.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

No, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, too, voted for the programme motion, so I shall not give way.

Someone of cynical mind could look at the list of parliamentary constituencies for which exceptions are being made and draw conclusions: one, by virtue of 13,000 sq km, to the Liberal Democrats; one, for Orkney and Shetland, to the Liberal Democrats, one, for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, to the nationalists-at the moment, but I hope for not much longer-and two for the Isle of Wight. Some have suggested that that means two Tory seats in the Isle of Wight. It may be one Tory and one Liberal Democrat: perhaps that is the rescue seat for the Deputy Prime Minister come the next general election.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I had a speech prepared to deliver today, but I do not think that I shall need it; I am using another.

Let us go over what happened. When I first heard of the proposals, I got together with the County Press, the island's weekly paper, and Isle of Wight Radio, our local radio station, to see how "we" could fight "them". It was energising to do that. We all met representatives from the island's Labour party and Liberal Democrats-and, of course, the Conservatives-as well as the chamber of commerce, and the One Wight campaign was formed.

We appointed a non-political spokesman, Richard Priest, who has done an admirable job of fronting the campaign.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

That is correct, but I would not use the word "international".

Although opinion was divided on whether the ideal solution was for one or two MPs, we were united at the outset in the view that what was simply unacceptable was the notion of one and a half MPs, with one part of the island placed in an unholy alliance with a part of the mainland.

Eventually we all agreed that even if the island were to remain under-represented, that was a price worth paying. We got support from many places. Among many others, printing was done free of charge by Crossprint; Marc Morgan-Huws of the bus company Southern Vectis donated the use of the One Wight bus, which thousands of people signed, and Paul Bertie of World Leisure printed T-shirts for the campaigners. I would like to thank them all, as well as those whom I do not have time to mention. Everyone involved played a significant part.

My amendment was not debated in this Chamber and there was no vote, but I want to place on record my gratitude to the hon. Members from all parties who pledged their support for it. I like to think that we would have won if the opinion of the House had been tested. None the less, the Bill went to the other place unamended, and the island's cause was taken up by Lord Fowler, who is a long-term resident of Seaview, on the island. His skilful management in the other place led to a significant victory and a majority of 74 in favour of keeping the Isle of Wight separate. He found support from all parties, as I did, for the island's cause, in addition to considerable support from the Cross Benches.

I thank all the noble Lords and Ladies who supported the amendment, and I pay tribute to Lord Fowler. His many years of experience in this House and the other place stood him in good stead in fighting the island's cause. The whole island owes him a debt of gratitude. I hope that Seaview residents, after short congratulations and celebrations, will permit him to return to a once-again peaceful island.

The fact that islanders were prepared to be under-represented added to the strength of our argument, but the Government were scrupulously fair, and once they accepted the case that we should be separate, they offered us, like the Scottish islanders, over-representation, which I welcomed.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

In a perfect world, would the hon. Gentleman be in favour of a single Member or two Members for the Isle of Wight?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am in favour of whatever is voted for by the island.

I admit that I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought that I would be the last MP for the Isle of Wight, but the right decision has been made for the island and I support it unequivocally. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the arguments and for making the right choice, albeit rather late in the day.

This is a victory for the island and the islanders. Everyone who supported us can be proud of the part that they played. I look forward to joining hon. Members of all parties in the Aye Lobby.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

It is a great pleasure to follow a fellow islander in this debate. I supported the Isle of Wight exception all the way through, and like Mr Turner, I have been consistent in the view that there should be exemptions for unique island constituencies such as his and Ynys Môn-the Isle of Anglesey.

I have a lot of respect for the Minister, who has had a difficult job in presenting the Bill to the House. He has been courteous and amicable in taking interventions. He was rigid in his responses, and always said that he would not give an exemption to the Isle of Wight and gave his reasons for that. However, as Jacob Rees-Mogg said, the Minister has now let the cat out of the bag: the exemption is a political fix, pure and simple. To argue for days and days in the House for no exemption for the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and other historic places, and then all of a sudden to make a U-turn for political advantage, is an absolute disgrace.

The people of Anglesey are proud people. It has been a seat since 1535, during which time it has been represented by four different parties, which is perhaps unique in the House. The Liberal Democrats represented Anglesey for many years, as did the Conservatives. I can tell the House that Anglesey will give its verdict in the May elections on its shabby treatment by this coalition Government of Liberals and Conservatives.

Wales has not been treated fairly in the Bill. The 25% reduction in the number of seats is an absolute disgrace. What is more, the Anglesey community is unique. It is coterminous with the county council. It has unique linguistic as well as historic characteristics, but they have not been recognised.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight was supportive of islands such as mine, and I am still supportive of his, but the Government have gone a step too far by conceding seats that will represent in the region of 50,000 to 55,000 electors. If they want to put that down as a marker, they should reconsider seats such as Anglesey. The island will be a single constituency in National Assembly for Wales, so there will be confusion at the next elections if they take place on the same day. One set of voters will be voting for the island and another set will be voting for the island-plus. That is completely and utterly wrong, and the Minister should reflect on it. He is looking at his notes, and he has been courteous all the way through, but I hope that he can now somehow please Wales, because thus far, Wales has been treated grossly unfairly.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 7:45 pm, 15th February 2011

I want briefly to reflect the view from the other side of the Solent. I congratulate Mr Turner, who has fought a magnificent campaign on the principle that the Isle of Wight should be a constituency in its own right. Indeed, the island is a unitary authority. It has close links with the other side of the Solent but it is a distinct community, council and island, with its own practices and traditions, rights and functions.

Before becoming a unitary authority the island was divided into two district authorities. As hon. Members who took any interest in that arrangement will know, the division of an island that is essentially a unitary entity proved extremely difficult. I predict that should two seats be required for the Isle of Wight, a similar difficulty in defining what part of the island goes-

Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 17.

Lords amendment 17 disagreed to.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 20.- (Mr Harper.)

The House divided: Ayes 311, Noes 244.

Division number 204

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to .

Lords amendment 20 disagreed to.

Amendments (a) to (e) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 17 and 20 .-( Mr Harper .)

Question put, That the amendments be made.

The House divided: Ayes 318, Noes 233.

Division number 205

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendments (a) to (e) made in lieu of Lords amendments 17 and 20.