‘After rule 2(1) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, insert—
“(1A) Notwithstanding rule 2(1), where it is necessary to take account of the factors listed in rule 5, the electorate of any constituency shall be—
(a) no less than 92.5% of the United Kingdom electoral quota, and
(b) no more than 107.5% of that quota.”’—(Cat Smith.)
This new clause seeks to instruct the Boundary Commission to aim for 5% above or below the electoral quota calculated in accordance with Schedule 2 rule 2(3) of the 1986 Act; but widens the permissible range in a constituency‘s electorate up to 7.5% above or below the electoral quota in difficult cases where it is necessary to do so to take proper account of all the considerations in rule 5 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act. It will be at the Boundary Commission‘s discretion whether to apply the wider flexibility in specific cases, in order to comply with the rule 5 considerations such as to maintain local and community ties, or to prevent the division of wards.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
New clause 2—Allocation of constituencies—
‘(1) Rule 8 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (the allocation method) is amended as follows.
(2) After rule 8(5) insert—
“(6) Notwithstanding the allocation of constituencies according to the allocation method set out in rule 8(2)(5), there must be a minimum allocation of constituencies as follows—
(a) Wales must be allocated at least 40 constituencies (including the protected constituency);
(b) Scotland must be allocated at least 59 constituencies (including the two protected constituencies);
(c) Northern Ireland must be allocated at least 18 constituencies; and
(d) the allocation of constituencies must be adjusted accordingly.”’
This new clause seeks to protect representation in the devolved nations by securing a minimum number of constituencies in each of the devolved nations.
New clause 3—Definition of “electorate”—
‘In rule 9(2) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, for “whose names appear on the relevant version of a register of parliamentary electors”
substitute “who are estimated by the Electoral Commission to be eligible to vote in an election, were they to register”’.
This new clause would change the definition of ‘electorate’
to include all potential electors, both those who are on an electoral roll and those who are not.
Amendment 1, page 2, line 19, leave out clause 2.
This amendment aims to maintain the status quo of parliamentary oversight within the boundary review process.
It is a pleasure to speak again on the Bill, as it gives me the opportunity to put on the record the Labour party’s support for the boundary review in time for the next general election. I would like to start by thanking all the right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Bill Committee—in particular my hon. Friend Christian Matheson, who regrets that he cannot be with us this afternoon.
Our current constituencies were drawn up on electorate data that is now nearly two decades old; we cannot go into the next election with constituencies based on data that will, by then, be a quarter of a century out of date. Our country and our communities look very different, and the review will take into account new electors as well as significant demographic shifts. A review is urgently needed, and the Opposition do not stand in the way of that.
Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have worked constructively to improve it for the good of our democracy, and there have been areas of distinct improvement along the way. The size of the House of Commons has varied massively over the centuries. The largest Commons, in 1918, came in at 707 MPs—they really would have struggled with the social distancing measures we are adhering to. However, certainly in the last two centuries, we have not dropped below 615 MPs. Reducing the number of MPs while maintaining the size of the Executive was always an affront to democracy, and I welcome the Minister’s U-turn on that matter. Given our departure from the European Union and this Government’s chaotic handling of the current pandemic, it is clear that there will be plenty of work for 650 MPs.
We supported and welcomed the amendment in Committee to use the March 2020 register for the new boundary review. It is important that we use the most accurate snapshot of our country to draw up our electoral boundaries. The inclusion of Ynys Môn as a protected constituency is something that the Labour party has long campaigned for, although I was surprised to see the Minister support it in Committee, given her party’s previous firm opposition to it. But then I remembered that the Tories may have an alternative motivation for suddenly recognising the island’s unique status. I welcome that recognition all the same.
I wish to raise two remaining crucial areas of concern in the legislation. New clause 1 and amendment 1 are crucial for the betterment of the Bill and I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to support them. Amendment 1, tabled in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition, addresses the central problem at the heart of the Bill: ending parliamentary oversight will fundamentally undermine the democratic integrity of the boundary process for years to come.
To quote a written answer to a parliamentary question tabled in the other place:
The process is therefore not a normal procedure, and the Opposition have concerns about its use in the Bill. The process is reserved for things such as when the University of Westminster changed its name, or when the Trading Standards Institute became the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, and so on. Changes of that type required Orders in Council, which raises the important question of whether this is the right procedure to use for the adoption of new parliamentary constituencies. It seems to me that the answer is clearly no.
The new reports will be approved automatically by Order in Council, without debate or approval by either House of Parliament. The Government argue that the change will allow for the reviews to be passed “without interference or delay”, but this is quite simply not the case. As Professor Sir John Curtice said in evidence to the Bill Committee, if the Administration at the time did not like the review, it would be
“perfectly possible for a future House of Commons” to say,
“‘Actually, we should delay it’, and all they need to do is to introduce a quick piece of primary legislation to overturn it.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee,
c. 94, Q176.]
The change is a dangerous step that would by definition grant any Government unequal and undue influence over the boundary review process. A Government have the power to shape and manipulate the rules that govern the boundary review process. Although the commissions are fundamentally independent, they work to the advice and instructions given by Government; the question of a 600-seat or 650-seat Parliament is an example of how the Executive can determine the outcome of the process.
I have been listening intently to what the hon. Lady has been saying, and at the very beginning of her speech she lamented the fact that it has been so long since we implemented the recommendations of a boundary review. The explanatory note to amendment 1, to which she is now speaking, says that the amendment
“aims to maintain the status quo”.
Does what she said not prove that the status quo has not been working, hence why we have brought forward this Bill?
Quite the opposite: I am arguing that under the status quo the only blockage to the passing of a boundary review has been the Government, and they would, under this Bill, still have the power to put up the same block as they have the past two times that a boundary review has failed to go through this House. It is worth noting that if it was not for parliamentary oversight, we would have a 600-seat Parliament today. Perhaps that is an example of parliamentary scrutiny at its best.
My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the issue. The reason why the Government failed to put the past two boundary commission reviews to the House of Commons was that their stubbornness in sticking to 600 seats meant that they would not be carried. The fault lay with the Prime Minister rather than with the House of Commons. That is the real problem.
My right hon. Friend made some thoughtful and interesting contributions in Committee and continues to do so on Report. The points he raised are entirely correct. The Government would do away with Parliament’s role in the process—a role that Parliament has always had. In short, the Bill removes the power from Parliament and hands it to the Executive. The Government’s justification for the change simply does not stack up. The Minister says that her Government are removing Parliament from the process to prevent delay and interference from MPs, but according to Professor Sir John Curtice—and who are we to challenge him?—delay and interference by the Executive will still be “perfectly possible”.
I apologise for interrupting the shadow Minister’s train of thought, but she keeps repeating this “fact”, which is not a fact at all. The Bill actually takes away power from the Executive; it does not give the Executive more power, because it removes the reserve powers of Government to amend the boundaries. The hon. Lady needs to set the record straight; otherwise, she risks misinterpreting the Bill for a wider audience.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, but I am afraid that I quite simply disagree. This Bill takes power away from the whole of Parliament and hands it to the Executive. After all, they are the ones who can table primary legislation and choose to bring forward or not to bring forward the report for a vote. The power has been in their hands, which is why we are in the mess that we are in today with boundaries that are 20 years out of date, and looking to be a quarter of a century out of date by the next election if we do not make progress with this Bill.
In her speech on Second Reading, the Minister stated that the removal of parliamentary oversight and approval would quicken the process, thereby avoiding wasting public time and money. If she is so concerned about wasting public time and money, why did she allow the commissioners to carry on with their sixth periodic review and then not bring it to Parliament for a vote?
New clause 1, which stands in my name and in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, is a pragmatic and constructive amendment. I very much hope that Members will consider supporting it. It seeks to alleviate the inevitable break-up of communities resulting from the too narrow 5% quota. While the commissioners should always aim to hit electoral quota, in some particularly challenging cases this new clause would allow them to have a greater flexibility of 7.5%. This 5% variance from electoral quota was first introduced at the sixth periodic review, and it was introduced alongside reducing the number of constituencies to 600. That is important because, at 600 constituencies, a 5% variance is approximately 4,000 electors either side of quota, but at 650 constituencies, which is what we have before us today, a 5% variance narrows and is approximately just 3,500 electors either side of quota, making it even more difficult to keep wards whole and communities together. The 5% variance needs to be adjusted in line with the number of constituencies. When we consider that the average urban ward in England is around 8,000 electors, we can appreciate the significance of needing at least 4,000 electors either side of quota to prevent the breaking up of wards and communities.
A further point about the need for this 7.5% is that it would particularly help seats in Wales, where the geography of seats, including my own, covers three or four valley communities. The extra flex would allow communities to stay together, especially where the physical geography means that people cannot travel from one valley to another without going up and down the other. These sorts of changes, therefore, really do make a difference in lots of rural and ex-industrial communities that have, shall we say, not-flat land masses.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the particular geography in the Welsh valleys where the mountains prevent communities being drawn across those mountain ranges when there are issues with the transport links.
The hon. Lady talks about keeping communities together and about breaking up wards. Why does it matter if a ward is broken up? Surely communities are created through small building blocks. By discarding this almost obsession the Boundary Commission has had with entire wards, huge changes could be avoided and communities could stay together. Will she not support the idea that smaller building blocks are the way to create better constituencies that are community based, rather than artificial communities based on entire wards?
I would argue that the wards, which are obviously drawn by the Local Government Boundary Commission, do actually reflect communities to a great extent. If we are to go down the path of splitting wards, we will end up with the ridiculous situation, like we did at the previous review, where constituencies such as Port Talbot had a shopping centre in one constituency and the high street in another constituency. My new clause seeks to minimise the chances of such ridiculous situations occurring again. Under the current Bill, the Commission will struggle to respect the factors laid out in rule five, which, of course, Members will know, are the existing constituencies, local government boundaries, local ties and geography.
During the evidence sessions of this Bill, the secretariat for the Boundary Commission for England spoke about the difficulties caused by this small tolerance, which makes it
“much harder to have regard to the other factors…such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography.”
“Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have…The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility…to have regard to the other factors”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee,
c. 7, Q3.]
So while the Government keep saying the boundary commissions will listen to the views of communities in the drawing of the boundaries, some communities will literally be wasting their time putting forward those arguments if the restrictive quota will mathematically prevent the commissioners from respecting their views and the community ties.
The hon. Lady raises the case of Port Talbot in a previous review. Does she not accept that this was actually one of the reasons why it should be easier for the boundary commissions to split wards, because the whole point of the Port Talbot proposals was that they have to come to those combinations because they are working with entire wards?
I think in the case of Port Talbot it was the 5% quota that meant that that decision had to be reached. When we are talking about quotas, we know that internationally a larger quota is used and promoted as best practice for securing fair representation. Indeed, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s code of good practice in electoral matters recommends allowing a standard permissible tolerance of an average of plus or minus 10%.
As the Minister knows, there is a consensus amongst respected experts such as David Rosser and Professor Charles Pattie who agree that the 5% rule causes significant disruption to community boundaries.
We have heard from the other side a suggestion that we should use polling districts as the building blocks, not wards, but is there not a problem with deviating from wards? Wards are agreed by an independent commission, whereas polling districts are decided based on the location of the local church hall for use as the polling station. Surely we need independent commissions that create the building blocks of wards that then form the building blocks of constituencies. The only way to do that is with the 10% or 7.5% variance.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the legal standing of polling districts. Wards that are drawn up by the local government boundary commission have that independence in terms of the boundaries that they represent, whereas polling districts are for administration of elections done by local councils and, as he says, can be decided basically on their proximity to a church hall.
My hon. Friend Chris Elmore mentioned Wales earlier, and this restrictive quota will disproportionately impact Wales. I know that many more Welsh colleagues will express their concern about the geographical challenges that the quota will throw up in Wales. With mountains and valleys dividing communities, the task of creating constituencies that make sense to those communities becomes extremely difficult.
I shall conclude by highlighting the fatal flaw in the Government’s arguments on the 5% quota. Throughout the Bill’s progress, the Minister has argued that a robust boundary review with a 5% quota will magically ensure that every vote carries the same weight. But the Government’s central argument turns on the ludicrous suggestion that the 5% quota will achieve parity of representation for all electors across the United Kingdom. On what planet does every vote count equally in this country? Leaving aside the fact that there are so-called safe seats, which effectively disenfranchise huge swathes of the population at every election, it simply is not true that every vote would count equally as a result of the Bill. At any given election, in the region of 9 million eligible voters are incorrectly registered and lose out on their chance to vote, and millions more will join them with the Government’s voter ID plan set to lock more people out of democracy simply for not having the right form of ID.
The new boundaries will not be based on the reality of the British electorate, with millions of eligible voters missing from the register, so can the Minister stop rolling out the line that somehow a 5% quota will revolutionise our electoral system and suddenly make every vote count equally? The truth is that she knows exactly what measures will make our electoral system more equal, because 11 months ago the Electoral Commission made clear recommendations, including encouraging the introduction of automatic voter registration. The Government still have not responded to those recommendations, meaning that the electoral register to be used as the basis for these boundaries is incomplete and patchy at best. When will the Government start to prioritise democratic engagement?
It is clear that the Government’s central argument about making every vote count falls at the first hurdle and that their secondary argument about the removal of Parliament’s role preventing delays to the process just does not hold water. As Professor Sir John Curtice pointed out, the Government can easily delay the process. The Labour party fundamentally rejects the Government’s attempt to end parliamentary approval for new constituency boundaries, and we ask that Members think hard and long about the impact of removing Parliament from the process. In its current form, this Bill is an insult to the House.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute in this debate and to speak about some of the proposals that were discussed in Committee and that have been tabled on Report.
I wish to begin by paying tribute to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, who has responded positively on Second Reading and in Committee to the concerns and challenges highlighted in respect of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. As we all know, this is an extremely important Bill that goes to the heart of our democracy, requiring and demanding fair play at each and every stage. She has responded to concerns from Members from across the House in a fair, balanced and pragmatic way. Despite the warm tones from the shadow Minister at the outset of the debate, the new clauses and amendment that have been tabled are nothing short of wrecking proposals. Despite seemingly suggesting that they were in favour of the Bill, Opposition Members are doing everything possible to stop it. We all know that equalisation and fairness are at the heart of the Bill, yet the Opposition are determined to table amendments to provide for wider variation. This Bill seeks to reduce such variation, and the Opposition proposals would leave us with less fair outcomes.
Equalisation has not been pursued in the purest form, as it would be unfair. Naturally, there is that 5% variation the we have already heard about, which this and the previous Bill allowed for, in order to make things practical and to enable local variations to take place where necessary. I commend the Minister for the way in which she responded in Committee to the unique circumstances of Ynys Môn to protect the integrity of representation of the island community, constituency and authority area. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, who introduced the amendment on this issue in Committee, presenting such a strong argument that it has been recognised by the Minister, to whom I pay tribute for the way in which she responded.
We are all familiar with the data showing that Wales currently has a disproportionate number of smaller constituencies, so equalisation will naturally have an effect, but this also ties in with the enhanced role and powers of the National Assembly. There is a logic behind the Bill and the Minister’s thinking. This approach follows the precedent that Labour pursued when the Scottish Parliament was established, with equalisation of constituencies between Scotland and England. It is logical that Wales follows suit, particularly given that the Assembly has become a Parliament with tax-varying powers. However, the 2011 Act and the earlier draft of this Bill left an anomaly, in the form of Ynys Môn. As an island community, it was being treated differently from the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. I can appreciate that the fundamental part of the 2011 Act was to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, which left less scope to answer the Ynys Môn argument. However, this Bill providing for 650 MPs has enabled the Minister to respond positively.
After all, this argument has been supported on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie has been pressing the case from the very first day that she came to the House. She has pushed, encouraged and debated in favour of the special case that is Ynys Môn and has presented such a strong argument that even my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke decided to pursue it in Committee, which obviously won support from the Minister.
I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s intervention. I looked through Hansard to see what the standing of the Labour party on this debate was, and it took a considerable time to find that the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, Albert Owen—a friend of the right hon Member and a friend of mine—did raise it, but it was quite a long time before that became a debate, so I think the right hon. Member overstates his support of the argument.
We should recognise that not only is Anglesey—Ynys Môn—an island and its own constituency, but it also has its own local authority. When local government boundaries were being considered as part of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994, the case for Ynys Môn was recognised, creating Ynys Môn as its own authority in its own right, in spite of the challenges of having a smaller population than others. Clearly the responsibility to meet all the obligations of all local authorities would be challenging for such a small community. The 1994 Act recognised the importance of the island’s make-up, which is further recognised in the Bill before us. The amendment that the Minister has accepted recognises that too.
As I mentioned, there is cross-party support for this amendment. I recognise the strong case that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has made for its status, and I also recognise that her predecessor, Albert Owen, made a similar case at a late stage of the Bill. The Bill goes to the heart of fairness in representation and will ensure that communities are respected. Accepting and responding to calls from my hon. Friend shows that. I commend the Minister for the way she has responded to the debate and to the case made by my hon. Friend and welcome her acceptance of the amendment.
It is a great pleasure to follow Alun Cairns. I have to say, I found it quite strange hearing a man whose job in the last Government was to stand up for Wales in the Cabinet give such full-throated support to a Bill that will see Wales lose eight seats. Someone whose job in Cabinet was to be the voice of Wales has just stood up and said that he is quite content to see Wales lose seats, but that is a matter for him.
I rise to speak to new clause 2, which is in my name and those of my hon. and right hon. Friends. I want to start by thanking again all Members with whom I served on the Bill Committee, which I admit I probably took an unhealthy amount of joy and pleasure from. I suspect that I was not the only one—Chris Clarkson had a “Rain Man” effect on some of us quite a few times. It was a meeting of minds for parliamentary geeks and psephologists, and in my view, it did not last long enough. All members of the Committee were thoughtful, engaging and good-natured. In particular, I enjoyed my exchanges with the Minister and Cat Smith, who led for the Opposition. Remarkably, this is the first time that all three of us have managed to get out of a boundaries Bill Committee without gaining extra offspring—that said, the Bill has not had Royal Assent yet, so we will not count our chickens.
On Second Reading, I made it clear that the Scottish National party will not oppose the Bill, not because it was in any way perfect—far from it. However, we genuinely welcomed the Government’s U-turn on cutting the number of constituencies from 650 to 600. I was delighted to see clause 5 in the Bill, and I was probably the only Member who spoke to it with such enthusiasm in Committee. I think that some Conservative Members found it quite difficult to speak in support of clause 5, which reversed what they had enshrined in law through the 2011 Act.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that our exit from the European Union means that there will be more legislative work for hon. Members to undertake, and therefore, cutting the number of MPs would be a very silly move, but I will return to that point later.
Before I turn to my concerns about the Bill, I want to welcome the amendment that we passed in Committee in respect of Ynys Môn, which will finally be a protected constituency, joining the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland, and Na h-Eileanan an Iar. Anglesey, on which I have certainly enjoyed a holiday, was first established as a constituency in 1536—probably around the point when the current Leader of the House was colouring in “Erskine May” as an enthusiastic toddler. In all seriousness, there was unanimous support in Committee for the proposal to protect Ynys Môn and I am glad that we achieved at least one change in our deliberations on the Committee Corridor. However, I bitterly regret the fact that the Government did not compromise on more issues because, as I said on Second Reading, the Government might have a majority in this House, but they certainly have no monopoly on wisdom. There are still aspects of this Bill, even as amended, that trouble me deeply, and I will outline them now.
First, there has rightly been much discussion about the controversial issue of automaticity. I was remarking to my friend the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood earlier this week that we do not actually know whether automaticity is a word, but it was certainly coined and used over and over again in Committee. We heard lots of evidence on both sides of the argument concerning Parliament’s role in having oversight of the Boundary Commission’s recommendations. While many of the points made by witnesses and Government members of the Committee were thoughtful and sincere, I am still not persuaded of the merits of this provision. We were repeatedly told during the Brexit process that Parliament is taking back control and that Parliament is sovereign. In my view, this move does exactly the opposite, with Parliament ceding its role of parliamentary oversight. Clause 2 of the Bill would enshrine this blatant power grab in statute, and therefore my party will support amendment 1 if my friend the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood chooses to divide the House.
Secondly, I am in favour of Labour’s new clause 1, which deals with the electoral quota. The Scottish National party supports a wider tolerance and we feel that moving to 7.5% is a reasonable compromise that would give boundary commissioners more flexibility in drawing up more manageable constituencies, which would be welcome. Certainly, the evidence we heard in Committee is that they are looking for as much flexibility as possible, and I think that it is incumbent upon us to respond to that. If my pal from Lancaster and Fleetwood puts new clause 1 to the vote, we will support Labour on that as well.
Thirdly—this is the nub of the matter for me—the Bill is absolutely rotten for the devolved nations, which is why I and my hon. Friend Ben Lake have tabled new clause 2, which we will seek to divide the House on. I want to outline to hon. Members precisely why we have chosen to focus on new clause 2 on Report and why I feel so passionately about this, but, more importantly, why I believe that others should too.
As I made clear on Second Reading and in Committee, bluntly, I do not want to see any Scottish seats in this House. Constitutionally, I do not want Scotland to be a part of the United Kingdom at all, because Scotland is a nation, and nations are best served when they govern themselves. However, I am a democrat and I accept that until the people of Scotland vote by a majority for independence in a referendum, we must continue to participate with diligence in the proceedings of this House and give Scotland a strong voice in accordance with the mandate delivered by our constituents, regardless of which party we represent.
As I have said repeatedly, Scotland’s current representation in this House, and indeed that of Wales, must not be diminished or reduced in any boundary reform. However, the reality of the Bill is that Scotland will lose three seats and Wales will lose eight. That is far from the Westminster respect agenda that people in Scotland were promised in the wake of our 2014 referendum result. Indeed, it is a democratic outrage and it is not one that we will stand for.
It is not just nationalists in this House who should be concerned about diminished representation in the House of Commons for the devolved nations. Surely every Union flag-waving, “Rule Britannia” singing Member in the Scottish Conservatives should be able to see that Scotland’s voice being diminished in Westminster is bad for the harmony and integrity of their precious, precious Union. What we see in the Bill is a blatant power grab of seats from the devolved nations, with them being given directly to England—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan seems to suggest that he is unhappy about that. He can challenge it if he wants to, but that is the reality in the Bill. It is a power grab of seats from the devolved nations—the devolved nations that he was meant to stand up for in Cabinet. They are being taken away from countries such as Wales and given to England. That is a fact, and if he cannot stand up and refute that, I am afraid that it is on the record.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the primary purpose of this legislation is to ensure that votes have equal weight, and if he does accept that will he therefore also accept that his amendment would drive a coach and horses through that basic principle, because votes will count for far more in Wales and Scotland than in rest of the United Kingdom?
I would make two points on that. First, the primary purpose of this Bill is, I suspect, to reverse the mess made by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which sought to reduce the number of seats in this House from 650 to 600. That is the whole point behind clause 5, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read assiduously. Secondly, if Members want to talk about fairness in the voting system, we should start by looking at the broken first-past-the-post electoral system, where we have Members who have majorities of nearly 40,000. So if the hon. Gentleman wants to talk to me about equal voting, we can absolutely do that, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room that is the broken first-past-the-post system.
One thing that is even more illogical about this is the fact that legislation once made in Brussels is soon coming back to Westminster as a result of our exit from the European Union. Scotland, which used to have six Members of the European Parliament, has lost that representation, and it is now expected to lose further representation in this place when legislative powers return from Europe. That is wrong; even Unionist Members in this House must recognise that.
So when the Division bell rings tonight and hon. Members decide how to cast their vote on new clause 2, they must ask themselves if they still believe that Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, as we were told in 2014, or was that in fact just hollow words in the heat of a referendum campaign to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Scotland? Voting to affirm reduced or diminished representation for the devolved nations in this place is an unforgivable act, which will only seek to reinforce the view that Westminster does not care what the devolved nations think and we might just be better with independence after all.
Order. I am sure colleagues can see that there is a lot of time pressure in this debate. I urge Members to stick to a maximum of six minutes, rather than having me impose a time limit at this stage. If Members can do that, we will see how we get on.
First, I thank the Minister and her team for their hard work on this Bill. There are a select few of us in this House who can get excited about boundary reviews, and most of us are here today, and I thank her for indulging my psephological exuberance throughout.
I will speak about the merits of the Bill before turning to the amendments. At its heart, the Bill is about fairness; it is about recognising that everybody in this country should have an equal voice in our democratic process. Fundamentally, it is about saying that no one person’s vote should count more than another’s. There will be some in this Chamber who believe that that is the case already, and no doubt we will hear a series of eloquent speeches about that to one effect or another, but the crux of the matter is that there are some parts of the United Kingdom where just 56,000 people can send the same number of representatives as 100,000 in another.
Before this is hand-waved by Opposition Members as a ploy to make the electoral geography somehow better for one party or another, we need to understand the basic principle of electoral equality. This idea is not new; it was not cooked up in some trendy centre-right think-tank over on Millbank the other day. It started with the Chartists back in 1838, who, in the “People’s Charter”, called for this measure to be introduced as an essential cornerstone of our democracy.
As I mentioned in the Bill Committee, we do not need to look far for extreme examples of disparity. Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, has 27 MPs whose electorates range from 63,000 to 95,000. How can that be fair or right? My own seat, Heywood and Middleton, is around 111% of the electoral quota. Why should my constituents’ voices count for less than those of voters in Wirral West or Preston?
The issue is not just about apportionment within regions or counties, however—far from it. Using the December 2019 figures, we arrive at an electoral quota—the number of voters per seat—of about 72,431. That should be the average size of every seat in every region, but it is not. In Wales, it is a shade over 57,900; in the south-east, excluding the Isle of Wight, it is nearly 78,500. As a tenet of fundamental fairness, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to such disparity.
I accept that, historically, there are good reasons for that malapportionment—to ensure that the four nations of our Union could all have a voice in this place—but Scotland now has a Parliament that is the most powerful devolved legislature anywhere in the world, Wales has the Senedd and Northern Ireland has its Assembly. Outside London, there is a patchwork of uneven devolution settlements in certain counties and metropolitan areas, none of which comes close to those devolved legislatures.
This is an argument I considered perhaps in response to Gareth Johnson. What the hon. Gentleman is missing here, of course, is the fact that we have English votes for English laws in this House under
The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point, but I disagree with him fundamentally. At the end of the day, there is no devolved legislature for England. This is a temporary fix that could be addressed by introducing a level of electoral fairness. I am more than happy to have a discussion about constitutional reform with anybody, but that is not what this debate is about. I am a Unionist to the tips of my toes, but I do not think that the Union will be reinforced by giving unfair or special treatment to one country at the expense of another.
Turning to some of the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled, new clause 1 seeks to change the variants of the electoral quota to 7.5%. That is, in effect, 15% between the smallest seat and the largest. In practice, that is a difference of about 10,860 voters, give or take. The argument put forward in Committee was that it would lessen the disruption needed to bring 650 seats into quota. Of course, that entirely ignores the fact that there will be a high level of disruption regardless. By its very nature, correcting 20-year-old boundaries and ensuring a fair distribution of seats in every nation and in every region will result in some disruption. I demonstrated that in Committee by pointing out that of the 10 Conservative seats represented, just one would have remained unchanged with a 7.5% variance. In fact, so many electorates have now deviated from the mean, it seems improbable that there will be minimal change.
The other argument put forward was that a 7.5% variance would avoid splitting communities or needing unusual combinations of wards from multiple authorities. As my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke—sadly, he cannot be with us today and has expressed his disappointment at not being able to—quite sensibly put it, that could be addressed by splitting wards. The Boundary Commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already do that. The Boundary Commission can do that in England, but it prefers not to for the sake of ease. This should not be about doing what is easiest, but what is best.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the solution Labour proposes in new clause 1 is somewhat crude and inelegant? It does not properly address the concerns many Members have regarding the creation of coherent constituencies and it undermines the core principle of carrying out a boundary review—equalising electorates. Does he furthermore agree that a better model is the extant one used by the Boundary Commission for Scotland, which splits wards into their component communities where necessary to create coherent constituencies, rather than ones that merely meet the narrow requirement of electoral quotas?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which is, as always, well-considered and eloquent. I completely agree with him. The Boundary Commission for Scotland has already demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of splitting wards using postcode data. There is nothing in the legislation that prevents the Boundary Commission from doing that; it is simply a choice not to act, and that cannot be a good enough foundation.
I totally agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. The absurdity of entire wards making constituencies that divide communities, particularly in places such as Greater London, where we have huge wards in my constituency of 10,000 or 12,000, means that changing that involves massive upheavals and breaking up communities, so he is absolutely right that the Boundary Commission must be more flexible on this point.
Certainly, in some of the larger metropolitan boroughs, there is what I call the martini paradox, where three wards is not quite enough and four is too many.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. I wonder if he agrees with me, as an advocate for democracy, that we should have automatic voter registration. That would genuinely ensure that everybody gets an equal voice.
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will come to that point when I address new clause 3.
I do not support new clause 1; I think that it is intended to undermine the concept of electoral equality and that it would cause further exponential disruption in future reviews as seats get further and further away from the mean, exacerbated by the large deviation permitted
New clause 2 is unconscionable. Setting a minimum quota for each nation would ultimately lead to one of two outcomes: either the malapportionment that we currently have, whereby some votes count for nearly twice as much as others, or the situation that developed in Canada, which has minimum quotas for areas and where rafts of new seats had to be added to Parliament to ensure some level of electoral equality. Under that approach, if Wales were to maintain its 40 seats, Greater Manchester alone would have almost as many MPs and the south-east would have well over 100. When we have one eye on the overpopulation of the other place, it strikes me as frankly bizarre that our nationalist friends should seek to pack this one, too.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a lot of time for him, but he will recognise that the rule in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 was introduced under the Government of Margaret Thatcher. The number of seats in Scotland was then amended from 73 to 59, in recognition of devolution. It is a well- established process that the devolved nations have that protected constituency; indeed, it was a Tory Government who put it in place.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a lot of time for him, too. I am not here to blindly say that I agree with everything that my party has ever done; I think that using an electoral quota is a much fairer way of doing it.
As I say, it strikes me as frankly bizarre that when we are concerned about the overpopulation of the other place, we should be trying to pack this place out. The hon. Gentleman played an extremely constructive role on the Bill Committee, with some very sensible proposals —he is one of us! [Interruption.] I mean an electoral geek, obviously. It is just a shame that his new clause 2 does not follow that lead, so I will give it “D minus —must try harder.”
Let me move on to new clause 3, which I think our Liberal Democrat friends might find a bit disappointing, too. Although on some level I have sympathy with the idea of including those who are not on the electoral register, we have to use the fairest and most consistent data available to us, which is the electoral register. If some people choose not to be on it, that is their choice. Similarly, some people will not qualify, and it is unfair to try to guess who those people might be. In either case, I do not think that adding additional people to the register will improve any electoral chances.
Lastly, I turn to the concept of automaticity, which is covered by amendment 1. I hardly need—
We are not really doing very well so far, are we? We will have another go at trying to stick to six minutes. John Spellar, I am sure, will do that.
I shall certainly try, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Can we be frank? Boundary changes are a real nuisance, but a necessary nuisance. We all accept that they have to happen, even though they are a problem for Members of Parliament, and indeed for political organisations and often for constituents. Everyone accepts that; what people do not accept is gratuitous disruption, which is what we have had over the past 10 years.
Let us be clear about what the Bill is trying to do: it is trying to clear up the mess from the shoddy, squalid deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, into which they both put exercises for party political advantage. The Lib Dems thought that they would get proportional representation; the Tories thought that they would rig the redistribution process; and neither worked. One of the reasons why there was such opposition in Parliament, and why the changes were never put to Parliament, was precisely that the Government knew that they could not command a majority among their own Members, who recognised that. Several Chief Whips tried to persuade very stubborn Prime Ministers of that fact.
Why did the problems occur? Basically, the idea was fatally flawed, and it was made worse by the 5%. That rigid demarcation ended up forcing the Boundary Commission to make decisions and plans that made no sense on the ground. Take Birmingham: one ward was taken out of Sutton Coldfield, which has never accepted that it is part of Birmingham, and transferred to Birmingham, Erdington, while another ward was taken from Birmingham, Erdington and put into Sutton Coldfield. Nobody was happy with that, but it was forced on them by the narrow constraints. Similarly, my constituency, part of which is right up at the edge of Birmingham, was moved right the way through Sandwell and into Dudley town centre.
There was no coherence, no community, between them, and everybody recognised that. Another one went from the middle of Halesowen right the way in a strip across Birmingham, and that was replicated all around the country.
Why did it come up with that in the first place when it was clearly such a dumb proposal? Parliament was the necessary corrective to this. It said: “This doesn’t work”, and by the way Conservative Members were still in a majority at the time. What’s even more extraordinary, in this Parliament, where the Government have a clear majority, they still do not believe they could carry the day with their own Members. There is a danger of that. There is a danger that the bureaucracy of the Boundary Commission will not pay regard to local sensitivities or communities and we will end up once again with boundaries of which Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, the founder of the gerrymander, would have been proud.
At the same time, it would be much better to go back to many of the basic principles, such as the principle, where possible, of not crossing borough or ward boundaries. In urban areas as well, these places form communities. Andrew Rosindell is right about the size of some of the building blocks. That is why, within boroughs and other areas, people might have to accept some temporary disparity, but that might be a better than having one MP representing part of a particular ward and another representing the rest. Equally, there is the problem of orphan wards, which we have in many areas of the boundary review, whereby one ward is in a constituency in another borough. Inevitably, the focus of the Member of Parliament will be on the main borough. It is unnecessary and gratuitous.
It all depends on whether people believe, as I certainly do, and many Conservative Members do as well, in the fundamental principle of individual constituencies with individual Members of Parliament, not proportional list Members. If people think that Members of Parliaments’ connection to their constituencies does not matter, that is fine—just have a national list. I fundamentally do not believe that—and by the way nor did the British public when they voted it down in a referendum.
Let us be clear: we want to ensure that parliamentarians represent their constituencies and their constituency interests, and that is why we need a parliamentary override and a slightly wider area of discretion, so that anomalies can be properly dealt with and responded to, rather than the artificial constructs the Boundary Commission is forced into—maybe sometimes it goes into them a little too willingly—instead of looking at the interests of localities, particularly in urban areas.
I was actually enjoying the speech from John Spellar, and I agreed with some of his points, but it is worth pointing out that the purpose of the original decision by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to reduce the number of constituencies was to reduce the cost of politics at the time. [Interruption.] That was the argument put forward. Then we had Brexit and so on, but I actually agree with the principle of 650 constituencies in the UK, because if we are not going to reduce the size of the Executive, it would create some disparity, so I welcome the changes.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, and all the members of the Bill Committee on their work. It can be a complicated matter on occasions. We must not lose sight of the basic principle behind the Bill, which is to ensure that each vote in the UK carries the same weight—that there is an equal suffrage. When someone casts their vote in the polling station at any election, they should be confident that their vote is just as valuable as anybody else’s. We therefore need boundary changes to take place, because there is an unacceptable disparity now.
I agree again with the right hon. Member for Warley that we as parliamentarians and constituency MPs do not like boundary changes, because we put a lot of investment, time and commitment into building up a relationship with our constituents, communities, villages and towns, and at a stroke of a pen the Boundary Commission can remove that connection that we have worked so hard on. In some ways, these changes are welcome, but in some ways they can be very difficult.
The main reason I wanted to speak in this debate is that, as sad as it may sound, I was looking through the Hansard reports of the Public Bill Committee and an awful lot was said about the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and its attitude towards the electoral quota and how much tolerance there should be between the size of different constituencies. I am the UK lead on the OSCE, and I have looked into what it actually said. For Members who are unaware of its work, the organisation sends election monitors to various countries around the world to ensure they are carried out in a fair, impartial and democratic way.
The OSCE does not have a view on whether there should be a 5% or a 7.5% tolerance in the electoral quota, but it is worth noting what it states in its “Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections”. It states:
“Electoral constituencies should be drawn in a manner that preserves equality among voters. Thus, the law should require that constituencies be drawn in such a way that each constituency has approximately the same population size…The manner in which constituencies are drawn should not circumvent the principle of equal suffrage, which is a cornerstone of democratic elections.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Since his hon. Friend Chris Clarkson was unable to get to the point in his speech where he was going to answer my question, I will instead ask him. In this keenness to involve every person and make every vote count, what is his opinion on automatic voter registration?
People have the option, if they want, to register to vote. That was made a very easy process by the previous Government, particularly through the actions of my hon. Friend John Penrose, who was at pains to ensure that people found it very easy to register to vote. Of course, people have the right not to vote if they wish. I would argue that automatically assuming that somebody wants to vote is incorrect.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman read the Committee reports, but I am not sure he read my comments. I read out the OSCE’s recommendation that
“the maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10 per cent”— departure from the criterion would mean in either direction—
“and never 15 per cent, except in really exceptional circumstances”.
We were being quite modest; we were only asking for a 7.5% departure.
I did read the right hon. Gentleman’s quote, and I have looked into exactly what that was. It was not the OSCE that said that, but the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. It is clear from the quote I gave and from what the Council of Europe has said that the further we move away from the median, and the greater tolerance we give to departures from it, the less weight there is to each individual vote and the more disparity there will be between constituencies.
If the House allows for 7.5% to be the maximum departure from the electoral quota, we would be saying that the size of an electorate can differ by 15 percentage points between individual constituencies. We would then be going down a road where people’s votes would not count the same, so I think new clause 1 should be rejected for that reason. The main reason we are having boundary changes is to ensure we do not have constituencies that are too large, and we have got constituencies that are too large. We also have constituencies that are too small, where people have a greater weight to their individual votes. I argue that we should reject the 7.5% proposal.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I do apologise for attending the Chamber late—it takes me a little time to get here.
The hon. Member refers to avoiding making constituencies too large. The present constituency that I represent, if it had been enlarged under the David Cameron proposals, would have included Shieldaig, and the driving time from Shieldaig to Wick, which is also in the constituency—148 miles—is three hours and 15 minutes. What I want to put to the hon. Member and the Chamber is that this is not just about the number of votes, but about the right of access to an MP that the voters have. When an MP has to cover an area that big, surely there is a democratic deficit.
This is perhaps one of the arguments behind keeping to 650 so the actual sizes of constituencies do not change. I have one of the few constituencies in the country that would actually have lost voters, even under the 600 formula, so there are a lot of differences between hon. Members’ constituencies.
I would ask that the Labour party supports this Bill as it goes through Parliament. The only thing in the Labour party’s manifesto about boundary changes was changing from 600 to 650. It has got what it asked for, and therefore should be supportive of the Government on this particular Bill.
The Government’s rationale for this Bill is that they want to make every vote count equally, and we have heard that. I pointed out on Second Reading that an electoral system in which a Government can win a majority of seats in this House without a majority of votes is one in which votes can never count equally. What the Government really mean is that they want to ensure that constituencies are more or less equally sized. I think there is broad agreement across the House that, within our current electoral system, there are good reasons to do this, although there is clearly disagreement about just how strict that equality should be.
While we have spent much time discussing how much equality there should be between constituencies, we have not really addressed what I believe is a fundamental question: equality of what? That is why I have tabled my amendment. The legislation, as it currently stands, says that there should be equality between the electorates of different constituencies, and that equality should be determined as a proportion of the electorate of the country.
That is not the only option available. New Zealand, for example, uses the census to determine constituency sizes, and I am sympathetic to this. We provide public services to everyone in our constituency, regardless of whether they are eligible to vote or indeed registered to vote. However, my new clause does something else: it redefines what “electorate” means for the purposes of this Bill. Currently, the electorate within the scope of the Bill means all those people on the electoral roll. I would expand this definition. My amendment would include all those who are eligible to vote, not just those who happen to be on the electoral roll at the time of the review.
According to the Electoral Commission, over 9 million people who are eligible to vote are not currently on the electoral roll. I would suggest to Chris Clarkson that these are not necessarily people who choose not to vote. Our electoral register is incomplete by a large amount. That is a huge problem for our democracy, and it is a problem for this Bill and for what the Government hope to achieve by it, for how can we say that this Bill makes constituencies equal sized when it is based on an incomplete register that misses out nearly 20% of eligible voters? It is easy to think up examples. Two parts of this country may well have an identical number of eligible voters, but one local register may be more complete than the other, and as a result one part of the country counts for more than the other when it comes to the boundary review. That will be the reality when this review takes place.
This also raises questions about the value some Members are placing on this 5%. We must also remember that, by the time of the 2024 election, voters who have lived overseas for more than 15 years will, according to this Government’s manifesto, also be eligible to vote. This is a move that I and my party welcome, but it is another reason why the boundaries that this review will create will never be truly equal. They are out of date before they are even used for the first time.
The most concerning thing, however, is that the 9 million who are eligible to vote but not on the register are not just a random collection of individuals. The groups who are disproportionately likely to be eligible to vote but not on the roll include young people, renters, those for whom English is not their first language, and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. As far as I am concerned, this is a total failure of public policy. Since the murder of George Floyd back in May, we have collectively reflected across this House on the fact that the structures and institutions that make up our society too frequently produce inferior outcomes for those people who are not white. Every Member of this House should be incredibly concerned about the fact that if someone is black, they are disproportionately unlikely to appear on the electoral roll. We are about to carry out a boundary review that will disproportionately exclude BAME people from being counted. That surely is not right.
That is the problem my new clause seeks to address. It would mean that the fact that our register is incomplete does not make a difference because the Boundary Commission would consider these potential electors too. It is entirely possible to treat 100% enrolment as an achievable goal.
Within this country, in Northern Ireland, there is a far more concerted effort to ensure that those in sixth forms and colleges are put on to the electoral register just as they turn 18. I welcome such assisted registration measures, which should be considered throughout the UK. The Government should accept that the annual canvass fails to register a huge number of people. Automatic voter registration is used in many countries, and it is an issue that Judith Cummins raised in her ten-minute rule Bill recently. Just last week, the Lords Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 found the same thing. It said that completeness of the register had not improved, and it proposed automatic and assisted registration as well as ways to reduce duplicate applications. We have to be doing more on this issue, and I hope that the Minister will offer assurances during her winding-up speech that the Government are willing to engage with this issue.
This is a probing amendment, because Members accept that if we want the review to go ahead later this year, providing estimates of eligible voters might be difficult. I welcome the fact that an agreement to use the register for March this year, as opposed to December, has been reached. That shows that the Government accept that we should not be using incomplete registers. This is an issue of sufficient weight that I would be minded to move to a vote if the Government fail to offer an indication that they would be willing to engage on this issue.
We should bear all these points in mind as we look forward to the Government’s future legislative programme. We have all agreed that our democracy should be fair, but it also needs to be accessible and enabling.
It will not surprise anybody that I rise in support of the Bill. The current boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies resulted from the fifth periodical review in Scotland. That was based on data gathered between 2001 and 2003, and completed in 2004. I was thinking about that earlier on, and I had a look at what was happening in 2004. What was in the news? Labour were seven years into a majority Government; the Hutton report was released; the European Union expanded, with 10 new countries joining; “Friends” aired for the final time—Rachel got off that plane; something called Facebook was launched at Harvard University, but I am sure it will never catch on; and Tony Blair banished—sorry, sent—Peter Mandelson to Brussels as our European Commissioner. It was a much simpler time. I was 17 and looking forward to my final year at school. My point is that this Bill is long overdue.
When the last Boundary Commission report altered the boundaries of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine to their current state, the population in my constituency was just over 81,000. The population of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine now stands at an estimated 97,041, which is an increase of 16,000. Interestingly, the electoral roll has also grown by about 10,000 in that period. That will come as no surprise to those of us who have witnessed the growth of Portlethen, Westhill and Banchory over this time.
This legislation and the resultant review are long overdue. The geography of many towns and settlements in my constituency has changed beyond all recognition, such has been the scale of house building over the past two decades, and that story is replicated in some form in every constituency across the United Kingdom. Constituencies are not stuck in aspic. People move, the economy evolves, and populations rise and fall, so it is welcome that the Bill requires the Boundary Commission to report every eight years from July 2023. We should never again be in a position where we wait what will be, by then, 19 years between reviews. Not, of course, that we have been waiting 19 years between reviews, because we all know that there have been various attempts and, indeed, various reports from the Boundary Commission between 2010 and now, but today I am glad that we will finally see progress and that in 2023 a report will be implemented.
There must be equal representation of all people in this place, wherever in the United Kingdom they live. Every vote should count the same. How can we have confidence that that will be the case? How do we know that Liberal Democrat shenanigans and parliamentary arithmetic will not get in the way of implementing the commission’s recommendations, as they have done in the past? [Interruption.] I will tell hon. Members why. It is because the single most important part of the Bill, clause 2, removes us MPs from the process. It is frankly ridiculous for MPs to vote on boundary changes. While I would never suggest that—
I would never suggest that anybody who was in Parliament for all those years was in any way acting ridiculously, and I do not think that it was ridiculous, but it was quite clear that none of the commission’s reports would ever be implemented. The parliamentary arithmetic prevented them from being implemented, whenever it was attempted to do so.
I am fully aware of that; I was speaking about the entirety of Parliament. I am going to get back to my speech, because I am conscious of time and I know that Madam Deputy Speaker would like me to wrap up quite soon.
I would never suggest that Members of this House would have anything but the good of our country and their constituents as their motive for supporting or opposing legislation in this place, but the practice of MPs voting essentially on whether to abolish themselves is wrong. We saw it with the previous iteration of this Bill in the last Parliament: there was talk of deals and swaps; colleagues and friends were eyeing each other suspiciously over the top of newspapers in the Tea Room, looking out for trip hazards at the top of stairwells. One almost fancied an early retirement, as one of my good friends said to me on my 32nd birthday.
Likewise, we cannot see essential boundary changes stymied by political machinations, as we did in 2012 when Nick Clegg abandoned the then boundary review, worrying that his party would lose about 15 seats. It is important that we oppose amendment 1 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which would seek—as it says in the explanatory statement—to “maintain the status quo”, because the status quo does not work. The draft Order in Council giving effect to recommendations no longer being subject to any parliamentary procedure or approval before it is made is an important and positive move, and hon. and right hon. Members should oppose amendment 1, which would remove it. Of course it remains in Parliament’s gift to create new primary legislation to manage this, as it always has.
I turn briefly to the Scottish National party’s new clause 2. I must admit that I was rather disappointed to see that it is so depressing in tone. Protecting seats in the devolved nations is, of course, an admirable thing to fight for, but to do so at the expense of English constituencies is deeply unfair. Had the new clause in the name of David Linden sought to protect the number of English seats, I may even have found myself walking through the Division Lobby with my friend on the SNP Benches.
I will not because of the time.
I am fully aware that SNP Members do not view us as one nation, but we Conservative Members most certainly do. We believe that there should be equal representation for every seat in the United Kingdom. I shall not detain the House any longer. This is a good Bill and it should have our full-throated support this evening.
Everyone on the Opposition Benches accepts that this parliamentary boundary review is overdue. I think we all also accept that what we want to achieve is equality in the weight of each individual elector’s vote. However, we found from the evidence that we took and our deliberation in Committee that that is not possible.
There are local circumstances that require flexibility in how we construct our parliamentary constituencies, and I very much favour flexibility for the Boundary Commission to be able to get on with its job. We heard from Mr Bellringer from the Boundary Commission, who said that greater flexibility allowed the commission the opportunity to facilitate local concerns and make the best of representations from local communities, and it allowed him to do his job more efficiently. We do not represent individuals alone. We represent communities. I firmly believe that if we create flexibility, we can protect the communities that Chris Clarkson referred to earlier. That is why the 5% rigid limitation that the Government want to impose is wrong.
The Boundary Commission wrote to the Committee with some additional evidence, in which it said that
“a ward is a unit of electoral administration”.
Breaking up wards therefore needs to be avoided because it creates difficulty in administering elections. But if that is true, it must also be true that to go across a local government boundary is even more disruptive. What we have to create for the Boundary Commission is the flexibility to avoid circumstances that force it to decide that a parliamentary constituency must take orphan wards from a neighbouring local authority area or bits of communities from a neighbouring area that do not really match up to the communities in the main body of the constituency. We must accept the need to minimise disruption of that kind, so we need to ensure that the people making the recommendations on parliamentary boundaries have the maximum flexibility to do their job.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree that sometimes a ward is completely artificial, so to break up a ward can actually unite a community, rather than divide it? Therefore, the Boundary Commission should be more flexible about using smaller building blocks, such as polling districts, or even an individual road that it makes sense to transfer into a constituency?
I agree, provided it is within a recognisable local government area and a recognisable community, and there is support from the local community. In additional evidence the Boundary Commission sent, it talked about the administrative problems of going down to polling district level. The commission referred to getting Ordnance Survey to map all the polling districts in the whole country, but it seems to me that all it has to do is ring up the electoral registration offices, which can tell it how many people live in every road in every polling district. Why go to a separate organisation to find out information that is already recorded on a given date when we start the parliamentary boundary review? If that is already recorded and kept, all the Boundary Commission has to do is refer to it; then, it could go down to sub-ward level where that makes sense locally. I think the commission is creating problems for itself.
Why 7.5%? We had evidence from Dr Rossiter, who has researched this issue. He explained that as we go up from 5% to 6 % to 7% to 8%, although each percentage point seems a small amount, it improves the quality of the outcome, and that there are benefits from moving from 5% to 6 % to 7% or 8% because it improves the decision-making process. He then said that, beyond 8%, that benefit diminishes. The amendment therefore proposes 7.5%, and the experts who gave evidence favour a figure close to 7.5%. I ask the Government to reconsider their position, as they no doubt will in the other place, to look at the evidence and to accept that 7.5% is a much more sensible figure than the rigid 5% which we know has created problems in the past.
No, because I heard Madam Deputy Speaker cough, which is telling me, “Efford, shut up.” I will conclude by making one point about parliamentary oversight.
If we had not had parliamentary oversight, we would now have 600 MPs, and I do not think anyone in this Chamber thinks we should have 600 MPs. Parliamentary oversight saved us from that gerrymander attempt, which I will not dwell on because I do not have time. It is Parliament that sets the rules, and in any process where someone sets the rules and sends someone else off to perform a function, at the end of it there must be oversight to ensure that the function was performed efficiently and according to the rules that were set out. That is what Parliament does. That is Parliament’s role in this area. Why do we not trust ourselves to perform the function that Parliament is put here to perform? If we set the Boundary Commission a task to perform, we should have oversight of the outcome. If we had not had oversight of the previous two reviews, we would have made the mistake of cutting our number to 600, with all the consequent chaos.
This Bill is all about creating fair and proper representation in this House for everyone in the United Kingdom. Although there are many local challenges, we should be proud that the Bill aims to achieve just that, and for that reason I very much welcome it.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 put in place processes to reduce the number of MPs in this House from 650 to 600. In Cornwall, the number of MPs would have been reduced from six to five and a bit. Reducing the number of MPs in that way meant that it was highly unlikely that the boundary of Cornwall would be respected, but that a cross-border constituency formed of towns and parishes in both Devon and Cornwall could and would be created. When the Boundary Commission for England published its proposals for the new constituency boundaries, it produced a parliamentary seat that quickly acquired the nickname of “Devonwall”, which naturally caused considerable upset in Cornwall and a bit of damage to Cornish pride. I tried at the time to argue that it was the start of a takeover, but the commission was not buying it.
Cornwall is a historic nation with its own traditions, its own heritage and its own language, and in 2014 the Cornish people became protected through the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. I am happy to say that because of this Bill, the cross-border issue appears to have been rectified for now, and I am grateful to the Bill Committee.
Can the hon. Lady see the logical inconsistency? Had the provisions of the Bill about automaticity gone through, there would not have been any way of stopping that; they would have gone through, and Cornwall would have been disadvantaged under precisely that rule.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but on this review, the mathematics mean that the people in Cornwall will be represented within its boundary, as we would expect.
I will press on, because we need to get other hon. Members this afternoon.
Constituency boundaries should coincide, where possible, with local administrative boundaries, which should help my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie. I am pleased that the Bill, by reviewing the number of MPs needed for fair and effective representation, ensures that the United Kingdom will continue to have 650 Members to serve in this House and six whole, passionate, hard-working Cornish MPs.
It is worth remembering that, as well as protecting the culture and identity of national minorities, the framework convention seeks to protect the political integrity of territories. I am of the opinion that the Bill will help to protect the Cornish people as a national minority by affording us fair representation for effective government, and our boundaries will stay intact. Once the Bill has passed, it will be for the Cornish MPs, the local authority in Cornwall and local residents to work with the Boundary Commission to ensure that the identity of Cornwall is protected, with its six constituencies within its boundaries, to offer the equal and fair representation that the people deserve.
There is an appetite in Cornwall to look further at greater autonomy, and I am sure that the Government will be more than happy to work with Cornwall towards that goal. It is through that mechanism that I call for more permanent protection of Cornwall’s historic boundary, and I look forward to future conversations with Ministers to that end. If the local authority in Cornwall is serious about greater autonomy, I invite it to be part of those conversations with the Government at that time to achieve that. However, for now, I will continue to do what I can to ensure that my constituents in Truro and Falmouth get the fair representation that they deserve, as well as continued support through the current crisis and beyond, and I thank the Government for their part in that.
To that end, I support the Bill, and I support the Government’s attempts to safeguard and encourage democracy throughout the whole country.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, and a particular pleasure to follow Cherilyn Mackrory, with whom I agree quite strongly that Cornwall is its own nation and should be respected. Indeed, in Committee, we received quite a bit of evidence to that effect from Cornwall Council and Councillor Dick Cole, who drew our attention to the fact that the UK Government recognised Cornwall as a minority nation back in 2014, and that its territorial integrity in terms of representation in this place must be respected.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member that that should be addressed. Where we might disagree somewhat is that I believe we perhaps need to go further —this is something that could be looked at again under this Bill, perhaps in the other place—to see how we can ensure that those safeguards for the people and the nation of Cornwall are adequately protected.
I am a fan of the Kingdom of Sussex and I still sing “Sussex by the Sea” on our national day, but is that not an argument for keeping within county boundaries or historic national boundaries? We therefore need a higher variance on the number; otherwise, the Cornish will be saved this time, but they will not be saved next time.
The hon. Member makes a good point in terms of the fact that the protections are temporary, in so far as the mathematics, or the population, this time around is protected and works for Cornwall, but in the future there need to be other safeguards.
I would like to take this argument when we have further devolution calls; at that point, because Cornwall has a special status, I would like to see the boundary protected.
That is a very good point well made.
To return to more familiar ground—Wales—let me say in passing that I was very pleased to see Ynys Môn included as a protected constituency. I see that Virginia Crosbie is here. I congratulate Mrs Miller on her amendment. I tried to table a very similarly worded amendment—I see the right hon. Member gesturing—but it did not quite fit the bill. What is important is that the change got through. It is a rare day indeed when the Labour party, the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru find common cause on anything, so in that sense it is very good.
I am conscious that I was distracted earlier, so I will now keep to some points about Wales, and particularly a question raised during Committee stage that I believe warrants further debate, and which Alun Cairns touched on: the allocation of seats between the nations of the UK. Other Members have already drawn attention to the fact that Wales is likely to lose quite a significant number of seats at this initial boundary review, which, yes—before anybody intervenes—is partly a result of our not having had a boundary review for so many years. Chris Clarkson and I had a good exchange on that in Committee.
However, although I completely understand the arguments for applying a single UK-wide electoral quota and agree with its proponents that it has a logical coherence, I think that the unintended consequences of such an approach should be addressed. In Committee, some practical issues with changing to a single UK-wide electoral quota were addressed, including that we are tying ourselves to demographic changes, with automaticity clauses meaning that further changes are implemented without further discussion or decision by this place.
Reference has been made to the fact that we base our electoral registers on those who are eligible to vote, as opposed to populations, but for the sake of argument, between 2001 and 2018 the population of Wales grew by some 200,000. Projections suggest that between 2018 and 2028—just before the further review—it will grow by another 2.7%. However, it is likely, according to the evidence we received in Committee, that the number of seats that Wales will send to this place will be reduced initially by eight, or perhaps seven, and a further one or two at the next review.
Some practical issues, including the creation of large geographical constituencies, have been addressed, particularly by Jamie Stone. However, there are constitutional considerations as well. Wales will lose eight seats initially, and unless demographic trends change quite significantly in the coming decade, we stand to lose further representation in this place. The right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan made the valid point that one thing that has changed in the last decade or two is the devolution settlement, although that was not necessarily the rationale put to us for the move to a single UK-wide electoral quota. But if we were to adopt that logic, as the representative from the Liberal Democrats told us in Committee, there should be no reduction without further devolution.
I completely acknowledge and note the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments, but we fundamentally disagree. I consider the UK to be a union of four nations, as opposed to a single entity. I think we are at an impasse and will never be able to agree. I acknowledge that his argument is coherent, but I do not agree with it, which is more than I can say for other Members.
The representation of the peoples of the UK could be addressed if we were to explore reforms to other parts of the constitution, most notably the other place. Other countries have shown that second Chambers can be very good at doing this. However, that is not on offer at the moment and, indeed, is not a measure before the House. For that reason, I encourage Members to support new clause 2, to at least make us pause and make sure that it is a conscious decision to reduce the number of MPs from the respective nations of the UK.
It is a great pleasure to follow Ben Lake. I am pleased to hear his support for my old new clause 10, which now makes up clause 7 in the Bill. I think he will find that his amendment was what we call technically defective. However, it is good to hear his support.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group of amendments on Report, but before I do that, it says it all when Labour characterises boundary changes, as John Spellar did, as unnecessary nuisances. The Bill is all about the quality of our democracy. Fair and equal-sized constituencies are at the heart of it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Bill is all about the quality of our democracy and about fair and equal-sized constituencies, which are at the heart of the Bill. It is to ensure that every vote counts the same. I see that as part of a fair democracy. This group of amendments repeats many of the debates in Committee, despite the compelling evidence that we received. They are designed to dilute the intention of the Bill and, in doing so, reduce its effectiveness in delivering better democracy.
I will look at just two amendments: new clause 1 and amendment 1. New clause 1, which would allow an up to 15% difference between each of our constituencies, fundamentally tries to undermine the intention of the Bill. Anyone listening to the debate today would think that our communities all come in packages of particular sizes; that is simply not the case. Swindon and Reading both had to be split in two, and any increase in the tolerance around the quota would not have really helped them. My constituency of Basingstoke now has 83,000 people. Whatever way we read that, Basingstoke will have to be carved up into different constituencies, regardless of the fact that it is clearly one coherent community.
The cornerstone of what we are doing here has to be the issue of equal suffrage. That is the cornerstone of our democracy and we cannot con ourselves into thinking that our communities can be carved up easily—they cannot. It is difficult. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Warley had a point when he used the words—which I must get right now to ensure I do not affront him again—an unnecessary nuisance, because in many ways this is very difficult to put into practice. However, it was central to our 2019 Conservative party manifesto that we would have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counted the same.
On the amendment, if we are to reach the Bill’s objective, we need to urge the Boundary Commission to be far more imaginative in how it looks at our communities and go below the ward level when trying to construct new boundaries. It is possible within the existing rules to do that—no rule change is required—but I was rather taken aback by some of the Boundary Commission’s evidence saying how difficult that would be, particularly given that software with geographic information system capability has been purchased to enable sub-ward-level boundaries to be considered. I hope that the Minister may be able to edify the Chamber a little on what more work has been done in that direction.
I note that the Boundary Commission’s letter by way of supplementary evidence said that the political parties were going to meet the commission prior to the review starting. I hope the Minister may be able to reassure us that further headway will be made on this issue. I welcomed the commission suggesting, in that supplementary evidence, the prioritising of the mapping of metropolitan council areas where the largest ward electorate sizes occur, but if other areas in the country require that to happen, how will we handle that?
Perhaps the Minister could also consider how we should be dealing with the Boundary Commission between reviews to make sure that it is doing this basic spadework then, rather than when a review is imminent. It seems to be a poor use of resources to be dealing with it in this way.
Amendment 1 would effectively remove automaticity—again, a cornerstone of this Bill. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, far from keeping more power with the Executive, the Bill takes away that power. We have to be very clear that we would not be in the position we are in now if automaticity had been brought in before. We would not be dealing with boundaries using data that is 20 years out of date. Automaticity is an essential part of this Bill. I thoroughly urge the Minister to reject the amendments.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for tabling amendment 14, which gives my constituency of Ynys Môn protected status in this Bill. To all those Members who sat on the Bill Committee, diolch yn fawr —thank you very much.
When I was elected as the MP for Ynys Môn last December, I know that there were many on the island who felt that a Conservative from England who was only 50% Welsh would neither care for nor understand their views or their culture. I entered into politics to make a difference and to give a voice to those who feel they have none, wherever I am based. Over the past six months living on Anglesey with my husband, our three children and our cocker spaniel, I have been welcomed and encouraged, and I already feel that sense of “coming home” when I cross the Menai strait on to the island.
Going through lockdown on Anglesey has shown me very clearly the strong bonds that tie this island community together. I have witnessed overwhelming friendship and kindness, with towns and villages drawing together to protect and support each other. Voluntary groups like Stayce Weeder’s Anglesey’s Random Acts of Kindness and Steve MacVicar’s Seiriol Alliance, along with many, many others, have shown exactly what Anglesey’s communities are all about and why it is such a special place.
It would be easy to take a contemporary view of Ynys Môn as part of the mainland merely because it is close enough to be connected by two bridges, but that misses the point. Ynys Môn is, and always will be, an island community. It is an island with a fierce history of independence, separated from the UK by the narrow but treacherous Menai strait until the 1800s. It has often been annexed politically as well as physically from the mainland. It was the last stronghold of the druids against the invading Roman army, it was one of the first places Edward I put defences when he conquered Wales, and it is famous as Môn Mam Cymru for keeping north Wales fed through the middle ages.
The island is environmentally and ecologically different from the mainland. I took a wonderful drive round the north coast of the island at the weekend, where the rolling, fertile fields stand in testimony to its agricultural heritage, and the rocky coastline plays host to buildings that hark back to centuries of maritime trade. The mainland, in contrast, is mountainous and has different economic needs. Talking to local people over the past few months, I have seen and understood why they feel that the island should not be united politically with the mainland and that that would be detrimental locally.
The proposal to give Ynys Môn protected status puts it on a par with the other major islands in the UK—Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Wight. The support that my right hon. Friend’s amendment has received from these constituencies shows that there is a shared understanding among islanders of being different from the mainland. I was really pleased to see party politics put aside so that the amendment enjoyed unanimous support in Committee. I particularly thank Ben Lake for his backing. He, too, has a genuine understanding of Ynys Môn’s desire to be acknowledged as an island community in its own right.
I will conclude with a message sent to me by one of my constituents:
“Virginia having you as our MP is like having a window on Westminster. You have clearly fallen in love with the island—and we are falling in love with you.”
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured statutory protection for her constituency, alongside my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller. In a previous life, when I worked for the Scottish Conservatives, I argued strongly for a set of provisions that would cover all island-authority constituencies; I was very disappointed that Ynys Môn was left out. I think my hon. Friend would agree that a great injustice has been corrected in the new version of the legislation.
It is a pleasure to follow Virginia Crosbie. I congratulate her on her success; I hope it is the first of many. I shall not repeat her constituency name too frequently in case I injure its pronunciation. It is a great tribute to her that she has got that success so soon in this Parliament.
As we know, every day is a school day. It has been interesting to hear people on the Government Benches talk with a straight face about the equalisation of seats, having operated and implemented the English votes for English laws process in this Parliament. If Members want an English Parliament, they should create it, and I will support it, but it is no substitute for our national Parliament, which is this Chamber. It is hard to listen to equalisation arguments, having been unnecessarily excluded from so many votes in this place since the creation of that policy.
As I say, every day is a school day, and it is interesting to learn that not only is there a song called “Sussex by the Sea”, but it is an anthem with a national day on which to be sung. Andrew Rosindell is looking at me because he understands all the nuances in our wonderful British Isles. It would have been no surprise to him, but it was to me.
Having heard the comments from David Linden, who is not in the Chamber, about how much he enjoyed the Bill Committee, I suppose I should probably not admit that I gave evidence to the Committee and probably added to the pain and suffering that he and other Committee members endured. I was pleased to give evidence as our party’s director of elections.
Some important contributions have resurfaced today, not only from the Bill Committee but on the amendment paper, and should be considered. I can see no argument against parliamentary sovereignty or parliamentary scrutiny of boundary commission proposals. I added my name to amendment 1 for that precise purpose. Clive Efford made the argument earlier about setting the task and then agreeing with the conclusion, and that is our role.
I do not agree with Mrs Miller when she suggests that there is a commensurate removal of Executive power. When I gave evidence to the Bill Committee, I think I was fair when I reflected that there is no equivalence or equalisation between parliamentary sovereignty and approval and a technical amendment mechanism that is not used by Ministers and has not been used by Ministers. I have yet to hear Ministers put forward a comprehensive or compelling example of when that ministerial power was used and how it is of equal comparison to the removal of parliamentary approval for boundary commission proposals in respect of the restructure in the Bill. I do not think there is such an example and I have yet to hear one, but I am happy to give way should somebody wish to correct me.
I support new clause 1, but it is fair to say that it contains many arguments in which I have no part to play. I will not put forward arguments about the retention of seats in Wales—that is for others—or about the retention of seats in Scotland, either. In 2018, the Government published the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which secured 18 seats for Northern Ireland. It was published but never progressed, but that legislative commitment was given by Government, and it was important for the constitutional and balanced position that we have in Northern Ireland. It was a commitment that was given and has not been repeated in this Bill, which is hugely regrettable, so I will support new clause 2 if it is brought to a vote.
On new clause 1, there are fair arguments about 5% and how much better the constituencies will be with the increase of every percentage point thereafter. This has not been raised in the Chamber thus far, but Members will know that, under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, Northern Ireland has a special provision in rule 7 whereby, if the Boundary Commission is unable to construe boundaries with geographical significance or there is no further inaccuracy, we are allowed to have a tolerance of 10%. That rule is retained in this Bill, and we think it is an important rule. The Minister will know from the comments I made in evidence to the Bill Committee that, following a judicial review last year and the Court of Appeal judgment issued only two months ago, Boundary Commission proposals from Northern Ireland were struck down in the operation of rule 7, and we are concerned that there may be a chilling effect on the application of rule 7 in future Boundary Commission proposals.
We will support the increased tolerance from 5% to 7.5% because we think that it would give the greater flexibility required to ensure that Boundary Commission proposals in Northern Ireland are fair, balanced and not infected by other historical arguments that could be brought into the process. However, I am keen to hear from the Minister how lessons can be learned from the application of rule 7 and that the 10% tolerance—or 20%, since it is plus or minus 10%—is important for Northern Ireland, and future boundary commissioners should not be precluded from using it, because it plays an important part in the Boundary Commission process in Northern Ireland, and ultimately it needs to be retained.
Things have perked up enormously on the time front. However, from now on, if Members could stick to five minutes, everyone will be able to speak. I call Shaun Bailey.
Before I begin, on Black Country Day, I want to pay tribute to the Black Country chartists and suffragettes in Wednesbury and Tipton who fought for us to be here under one member, one vote and ensure that our constituents could be represented.
I fear that I may repeat many of the arguments that had been made eloquently today. It is great to follow Gavin Robinson, who gave enlightening and interesting evidence to the Bill Committee. I would like to thank all members of the Bill Committee. It was my first Bill Committee, and what a Bill Committee to be on. As my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson put it, it allowed me to utilise my psephological exuberance, which is a fantastic phrase that I will try to make sure I get into conversations from now on.
I want to touch on three main points. The first is on automaticity—a word that I have finally learned to say without tongue-twisting. As my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller said in Committee, at the moment we are in a situation where we mark our own homework; there is no doubt about that. I do not understand how we can reconcile that. I repeat what I said on Second Reading: what is being proposed is an independent, judiciary-led commission. I have trust and faith in our judiciary. I am a lawyer—that is bred into me. Unless someone wants to take me to school on this, my understanding of our constitutional structure is that this place sets the laws, and the judiciary help to interpret them, so I do not understand where this fear of what is business as usual comes from.
My hon. Friend Mike Wood articulated the point eloquently, as did my neighbour, John Spellar, about the Boundary Commission’s Selly Oak proposal. The independent commission took evidence from the community, after which it made the decision that the proposal was not acceptable. We talk about this as if, once we get the initial recommendations, that is it—game over. It is not like that at all. Those who have been through the experience of a boundary change know full well that it is not like that, so I struggle to accept that argument from the Opposition.
When we talk about a 7.5% threshold, it is not actually 7.5%—it is 15%. Let us be honest about that. The Venice Commission report, which Opposition Members have quoted freely, states clearly that that 15% threshold is for exceptional circumstances.
The semantics of that report were quite clear. It effectively advised to steer well clear of going anywhere near that, and actually went so far as to suggest that we should keep that threshold as minimal as possible to ensure certainty, fairness and parity among constituencies. I do not accept Opposition Members’ interpretation of that report.
I do have sympathy, particularly with Ben Lake, who has the honour of representing the town in which I went to university. It was great in Committee to go down memory lane, talking about places such as Llanbadarn, Llanbedr Pont Steffan, Pont-Siân and Aberystwyth, of course—the prime town in Wales. What I would say to him is that our constitutional settlement has changed. It was a point I raised in Committee, in that I think voters—electors—are sophisticated now. They understand the difference between a Member of Parliament and an Aelod o’r Senedd or Member of the Senedd. Electors understand the difference between their local authority and their devolved authority, and the fact is that our constitution is going through a period of change naturally. As a result, we have a scenario of 60 Members of the Senedd and 40 Members of Parliament. Effectively, we have a scenario of 100 elected representatives on that sort of threshold level. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say in geographic and cultural terms, particularly as self-taught Welsh speaker. I have sympathy with the cultural and language element, but constitutionally the numbers do not really help the argument.
In conclusion, I support the Bill and I oppose the amendments. We have to trust our judiciary and the Boundary Commission. We have to trust the fact that this is business as usual when it comes to how we make legislation, how we pass laws and I commend the Bill to the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and a very happy Black Country Day to you today. As a proud Black Country man it has been an honour to represent communities in Dudley South for the past five years. I hope to have the opportunity to do so for a number of years to come. Like many other constituencies in this country, the boundaries on which I was elected were last fundamentally altered ahead of the 1997 general election, based on electorates from the early 1990s. We are literally a generation out of date on the boundaries on which many of the constituencies in the west midlands were drawn up.
Like Members on both sides of the House, I am enormously fond of all parts of my constituency. I love every last ward and polling district of it. It would be a real wrench if any of it were to be taken out of Dudley South, but we also have to recognise that, like many of the Black Country constituencies, the current size of the constituency is under the quota whether it is based on 600 or 650. Many constituencies in the Black Country will need to take in additional areas and, of course, some will be divided between constituencies. I am as likely to find myself without a constituency to represent as any other Member of Parliament, but when we are considering fundamental constitutional reform such as this one it is not about whether I have a constituency to represent. This is not about me. This is about the wider electoral system. It must be a fundamental premise of our electoral system that constituencies have to be as close to the same size as is possible.
One of the very few upsides of this horrific outbreak and lockdown has been the opportunity to spend a little more time helping my children with their schoolwork at home. My daughter is in year 7 and she is studying the people’s charter of 1838—it was referred to by my hon. Friend for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—which includes the campaign for constituencies based on equal numbers of electors. Many Opposition Members —and possibly even some Government Members—consider themselves the natural heirs of 19th century radicals, but instead of picking up the torch of William Lovett and Feargus O’Connor, it seems they are choosing to put themselves on the side of those arguing for representation on the basis of acres of land and for the geographic extent of a constituency to somehow override the priority of equalising the number of electors represented within. That cannot be the right way. It was not the right way in the 19th century and it is certainly not the right way in a 21st century democracy.
There is a better way, one that has been referred to by my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell; we can make sure that equal-sized constituencies can be drawn up that properly represent local constituencies if the boundary commissions are encouraged to look more favourably at dividing wards across constituencies where the alternative would be unnatural constituencies or dividing communities. That was done in the west midlands during the last review and it is one reason why the proposals by John Spellar—he is not in his place—for a Halesowen and Selly Oak constituency, for Sutton Coldfield to be divided and for various other strange things in the initial recommendations were not in the final recommendations. It was precisely because in only three wards across the whole of the west midlands are they able to divide across natural boundaries within those wards, which are amalgamations of wards, and therefore have more natural boundaries across the constituency.
Let me briefly touch on the issue of automatic implementation. The right hon. Gentleman said that, as Parliament, we instruct these independent bodies to go out and draw up rules, and therefore we should be able to decide whether to implement them and whether they are the right decisions. But we also instructed the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to draw up parliamentary pay and conditions. In the not-too-distant future, it will look as strange to people that we think we should draw the constituency boundaries on which we are elected—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have found the debate a little confusing, because the arguments that Conservative Members have been making, some of whom I hold in high regard, make me wonder how clearly and accurately they listened to the opening speeches. I would go as far as to say that there have been many straw man arguments created throughout this debate. At the outset, I wish to say that when quoting any Member of the House it is important that it is done accurately and precisely, and I hope Hansard will reflect that.
The Labour party of course accepts the need for boundary changes. No one has argued against that, so again I am slightly confused by the arguments presented by Conservative Members that somehow we are speaking against it. We have welcomed the fact that the Bill has moved to having 650 MPs and that the data being taken is from March 2020. I wish to spend a moment paying tribute to my staff for the amount of work they have done and for how hard they have worked during this pandemic. I am sure that is the case for all Members’ staff throughout this time and we should all recognise the need for 650 MPs.
I wish to address some of the comments made by Conservative Members. I was disappointed to hear our amendment referred to as a “wrecking amendment”, as I thought that was unjustified. Trying to extend the flexibility of a boundary commission to take into account local history and local cultures is not “wrecking”; it is merely pragmatic and sensible, so I was disappointed with the language used. Another Member mentioned the need for the Boundary Commission to be more imaginative, but surely there needs to be recognition of the fact that it is difficult for it to be imaginative when its hands are tied behind its back because it is restricted to 5%. As our shadow Minister said, 5% on the basis of 600 Members is 4,000 electors, whereas 5% on the basis of 650 is only 3,500.
Yet another straw man argument being presented by Conservative Members is that all these constituencies would be 15% different, which shows that they have not accurately read the amendment. That is not what it says. It says that the Boundary Commission would use the 5% and have a tolerance to extend to 7.5% in areas where it is absolutely necessary. It does not at any point say, “Let’s encourage the Boundary Commission to make sure all our constituencies are 15% different.” Again, we saw another straw man and another disappointing argument from Conservative Members.
Some of the evidence that was given during the Bill Committee included comments from David Rossiter and Charles Pattie, who noted that it was the 5% that caused the greatest disruption. Indeed, one of the things that was so intolerable to the people in the community in the changes that were going to be implemented in my constituency of Hull West and Hessle was the movement across the natural boundaries. A ward was proposed that would instead go from east Hull into west Hull. I do not expect anyone in the House now to be aware of the historical traditions and rivalries between east and west Hull, but if Members look at our rugby teams as a good example of that friendly rivalry that exists in the community, they can perhaps start to understand why a movement across the River Hull would be so intolerable. That was indeed mentioned by my predecessor, Alan Johnson, and by my hon. Friend Karl Turner in the evidence that they gave to the previous Boundary Commission. I suppose that part of my message to the Boundary Commission, via the Minister, is that it really does need to look at natural geography and the histories and cultural traditions of places. That is why I am in favour of allowing this extra tolerance—not on every occasion as has been mentioned—to ensure that it takes those historical differences into account.
I will not detain the House for too much longer, but I think it is also worth pointing out—it is certainly the feeling I get from residents in Hull—that no one would thank a political party for trying to enforce a new identity on an established community by moving it out of one community and insisting that it belongs to another. I am also a little perplexed by the idea that a political party, which seems to be so keen on taking back control of our borders, seems to want to relinquish control of our constituency borders to an unelected body.
On the point about bringing the decision back to Parliament, it is worth pointing out that we are under no illusion that, if we bring the matter back to Parliament, the Conservative party has the majority to force through what it wants, so this is a point of principle, rather than any realistic notion that we could change the decisions that have been made. That is why I support new clause 1 and amendment 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
It is a pleasure to follow Emma Hardy. I am very glad to be able to speak today as, unfortunately, time ran out on me on Second Reading. I congratulate the Bill Committee on all the work it has done on this Bill in the meantime.
The obvious core point is about fairness, which a number of Members have mentioned. I will not go into any great detail, because it does seem to be a point that has been broadly conceded. My hon. Friend Iain Stewart represents nearly 100,000 people when plenty of Members in this House represent fewer than half that number. That is not fair on either him or, more importantly, on his constituents, because their votes literally count half as much as those of other constituencies.
On the subject of tolerance, a 5% tolerance is a 10% band, and every seat should be within 7,000 or so people, which is a perfectly reasonable proposition. We might flatter ourselves that the identity of our constituents is formed by the constituency in which they live, but I do not think that is the case at all. Our constituents actually look to their immediate community, and perhaps even to their church hall, which, as a polling station is an element of community. I do not think that constituents are that bothered by the name of the constituency in which they happen to live. My seat of Newcastle-under-Lyme is slightly on the small side, so I understand that that will mean changes for me. It means that I will probably have to absorb some more of the Loyal and Ancient Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I welcome. I gently point out to the Boundary Commission —if it is listening or reading Hansard—that crossing the A500 into Stoke-on-Trent will probably not go down very well in the area.
The point of my hon. Friend and neighbour is well made.
I would also like to say how much distaste I feel when I hear these allegations of gerrymandering, which sometimes happens with these Bills. They seemed to start with the former Member for Blackburn and former Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, who described our manifesto proposals in 2010 as “gerrymandering”. I regret to say that Chris Bryant, the Chair of the Committee on Standards, described this Bill as gerrymandering in a tweet in May. Nothing could be further from the truth. This Bill is quite the opposite; it levels the playing field. To call it “gerrymandering” is a slur on the Boundary Commission and the judicial process. As my hon. Friend Shaun Bailey said, it is a judicial process and we should have trust that it will be fair. Either they do not know the meaning of the word “gerrymandering”, or they are choosing to misrepresent what is going on, potentially for partisan gain, or potentially to scare the electorate into thinking something nefarious is going on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am also pleased that this Bill introduces the automaticity that my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson was regrettably unable to get to in his speech.
It makes the translation of boundaries into law near automatic. It not only removes delay, but ensures integrity in the process.
I was a neutral outside observer when I saw what happened in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament: clearly, the proposals that came back were, for partisan reasons, unwelcome to Members who had already voted that there should be a review on that basis. To answer the point made by Clive Efford, the House had had its say. The House had said that we should be down to 600; now the House has changed its mind as a result of Brexit, and I understand that, but the House had already agreed to 600, yet the proposals that came back were not acceptable to Members for partisan reasons, because they feared they were going to lose their seats. That is what brings politics into disrepute—when we vote down judicially decided and fair proposals that have been reviewed through the processes that my hon. Friend Mike Wood talked about. If we do that because we are worried about our own individual seats—or the consequences for the Liberal Democrat party, which we can see right now—that brings politics into disrepute. So I really do welcome this, and for that reason I am completely against the proposal to remove the automaticity from this Bill.
Finally, I want to briefly raise something with the Minister, perhaps for another day. There are lots of amendments and suggestions about what we should do with electoral registration; one of the real concerns with the present system is dual registration. I represent a university seat, and I know others who represent university seats, and obviously I represent the students in my seat to the best of my ability, even though I fear that not that many of them voted for me, but dual registration is fundamentally unfair for two reasons: first, it distorts the numbers on which the boundary review is based; and secondly, it gives anybody who is dual-registered, whether they have a second home or are a student, a choice of where to exercise their vote for maximum personal electoral gain. That is not fair, and we need to look at it in the future. People may want to register in two local authorities, but they should have to nominate which is their general election seat. That is something I propose for the future.
In conclusion, I support the Bill and thank the Minister and her team for all the work they have done on it. We must get as close as possible to the principle of equality, so that all votes in this place and in the country count the same.
When I went to the Table Office a few weeks ago to pick up this Bill I picked up the wrong one, and I was reading it and thinking, “This is a particularly good Bill and it seems very reasonable and sensible,” and then I realised it was actually a private Member’s Bill from a number of Conservative Members. So better suggestions have been laid here in Parliament, and it is such a shame that the Government do not take more heed of their own Members. But let us talk about the content of the Bill before us today.
The question is, of course, what is in a number, because the reality is that a percentage does not really matter. We are talking about building blocks that are numbers, not percentages. We do not say, “In this ward there is 5% of the population”; we say, “In this ward there are 3,000 voters.” That is what we are working on.
So let us talk about practicalities. In the average metropolitan borough or London borough, the average ward size is 9,800 people—about 10,000 people. A 5% variance at the moment excludes all of those borough wards. It does not affect nice shire counties where, of course, Government Members predominately come from, because their average size is only 3,000. So of course they are able to build coherent communities in those places more easily, but it is harder in urban areas and we divide and rule communities there with this 5% variance. If we had a 7.5% variance, we would of course avoid that, because then the variance is 10,000; the vast majority of our urban wards would be able to be included as a whole, and there would be very little problem.
I think there is actually an argument to review how we do boundary proposals in their holistic nature from bottom to top, and say that the boundary commissions for local government should be creating wards of smaller sizes, so they fit into the shape of what we want the variance to be. There is an argument for doing that to get the building blocks right, but the Government have not come forward with such a proposal; they have rejected the idea of talking about local government reviews at the same time as parliamentary Government reviews. Since that is off the table, we need to accommodate ourselves to the situation that we have.
No, I am afraid that time is very tight.
The predecessor Committee to mine suggested 10%, with a 15% allowance in exceptional circumstance. That was agreed across the parties in 2015; this is a far more modest proposal. Of course the Boundary Commission should aim to be dead on—no one is saying otherwise—but where that is impossible, we should allow it flexibility. To use a judicial analogy, we should allow the judge to use their expertise, rather than tying their hands behind their back.
We know that if the rules are written incorrectly, we will get a gerrymandered outcome. That is not the fault of the commissioners; it is not the fault of the judges, although it is not a judicial but a quasi-judicial process; it is a fault in how the rules are written, which is why it is so important that the question should come back here. It is not we who vote in Parliament; our votes are for the people, so removing this place’s oversight is removing the oversight of the people.
Finally, I will quickly touch on how we look at the numbers. The 1917 boundary review, which was the first major boundary review in this country, used census data. The 1911 census, which I have been looking at recently while doing my ancestry—scarily, I am related to the Eustices; I must inform the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—was used as the building block, because it was both the census and the electoral roll. Splitting it has meant that we no longer have an automated electoral roll. If we either had an automated electoral roll or used the census, we would have fairer constituencies as well. I am disappointed that the Government have not included that.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill; I will keep my comments brief because I know that we are short on time.
It will come as no surprise that I have concerns about the restrictive 5% electoral quota and the impact that it will have on constituencies such as the area that I represent in the heart of the south Wales valleys. Creating constituencies that make sense to the local communities is even harder with our local geography. I know that this has already been eloquently explained by Ben Lake, but locals in my patch in Pontypridd and across Rhondda Cynon Taf will tell you in a heartbeat that it would make no sense for constituencies to have more than one valley and a mountain range in between. Indeed, during her evidence session, Shereen Williams of the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales said:
“I think the valleys will present a unique challenge for us, because you do not really want to split a valley and have half in one seat and the other half in another seat.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee,
c. 20, Q35.]
I completely agree. It is clear that our stunning valleys should be given greater consideration than the 5% variance in drawing Welsh boundaries, and I urge colleagues to support a flexible and sensible approach.
Naturally, I also have general concerns that Wales will be hit most by the loss of constituencies in the next boundary change, because of the large population shifts in the area over the past 20 years, which colleagues have alluded to. I have also been shocked, frustrated and actually quite tamping, for want of a better word, to read the incredibly reckless comments from colleagues in the Senedd, most notably from Mark Reckless MS, about abolishing the Welsh Parliament. It is clear, now more than ever, that the Welsh Parliament plays a vital role in scrutinising policy that has an impact on communities across Wales.
I urge colleagues on the Government Benches to stand with me and commit to strengthening, as opposed to weakening, Wales’s voice, both here in Westminster and in the Senedd. It is vital that the boundary commissioners be given greater flexibility to take into account our unique geography, particularly if we are to ensure that representation in Wales is not forgotten here in Parliament.
I rise to speak to new clauses 1 and 3. New clause 1 is perhaps the biggest piece of contention on both sides of the House. When I read through the Bill Committee’s proceedings, I noticed that at the very start and the very end—in sittings one and eight—the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson really pushed the point about 5% versus 7.5%. I cannot understand how the Labour party, which historically has campaigned for one person, one vote, can now be campaigning for something that would make that less likely. It is totally logical to want as small a variant as possible between populations.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle talked about wards being the building blocks of our communities. I totally disagree with the point, which he made in an intervention, that church halls and polling districts are not the building blocks. Church halls are the heart of communities in our constituencies; they are were people gather, where the scouts and brownies go, where people have coffee mornings, and so on. They are the building blocks of our communities, and the Bill should be based on them, not on arbitrary boundaries.
I actually agreed with the hon. Member on his point about looking at wards more generally. I would be very much in favour of single member wards. Some parts of my constituency have one member, while some people are represented by three councillors. It is bizarre that in one part of my constituency someone can ask three people to represent me, but in another part only one. We dealt with that in this place in the 1950s. I think we could deal with it on a council level as well and would support any moves the Government make in that direction.
The switch to 7.5% is not a price worth paying to keep wards together. On that point, there is a fundamental disagreement between the two sides of the House. I am very happy to go with polling districts. I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory, who is the co-chair with me on the all-party group on local democracy. We represent a lot of town and parish councils. Such things are much more important and should be recognised where possible. If the Minister could speak to that, it would be really helpful. I generally agree also with my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell, who is not in his seat, about this obsession with metropolitan wards being large contiguous units. It is not true. Some of these wards have 15,000 or 20,000 people in them. They are not one community and could easily be divided up.
On new clause 3, Wendy Chamberlain mentioned this idea that we should want to try to estimate things. I remember what happened to her colleague, Tim Farron, in the 2017 general election. The Lib Dem counters on election night mis-estimated his votes and thought he was about to lose, which was why they left him in a car park for several hours when he was leader of the party. We should not bring estimates into this. The current situation is sensible. The electoral roll has been the basis for some time and is the right basis.
In conclusion, I urge hon. Members to support the Government today and back this excellent Bill, which is not before time.
I speak in this debate with previous experience of the process of making electoral boundaries. As I referred to on Second Reading, I used to work for the Local Government Boundary Commission for England on periodic electoral reviews of local government boundaries, and I must declare an interest: some of my friends and colleagues moved on to work more recently for the Boundary Commission for England on parliamentary reviews.
I am pleased the Government have accepted our call to scrap the plan to cut the number of MPs to 600. A reduction would have weakened the role of Parliament to the benefit of the Executive, and recently we have seen the value and importance of a breadth of scrutiny of Government during the covid-19 pandemic. I am pleased also that the numeration date changed to
I still have concerns, however, about the Government’s intention to remove parliamentary scrutiny from the boundary review process and the imposition of a restrictive electoral quota, so I am speaking strongly in favour of amendment 1, to remove clause 2, and of new clause 1, both tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Effective democracy is reliant on transparency and public confidence in the structures and processes, so removing parliamentary scrutiny and approval of the structure from the process raises questions about the integrity of our democracy. It would give the Government of the day unequal influence over the process, but the most important point is the one made very eloquently put by my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle. The point about democracy is that our constituents can hold us to account for the decisions we make, and the proposal takes that away.
The Government’s intention to impose a 5% electoral quota will have a detrimental impact on the democratic representation of our communities.
Flexibility must be central to our boundary review system in order to recognise community identities and connections, and to facilitate the accurate representation of different geographical areas.
From my experience of boundary making, I have an informed understanding of how the public responds to well-made and poor boundaries, or should I say, sensible and coherent constituencies that reflect local community identity and ultimately make sense locally, and those that do not. A 5% electoral quota will restrict the Boundary Commission’s ability to construct constituencies that protect local ties, reflect local authority boundaries and recognise the natural topography of rural and urban areas. The statistical difference in size of constituencies is marginal, but the positive impact that it will have on the functioning of our democracy is overwhelming. It would help to reduce the ratcheting effect where, to be within the tolerance of the quota, an amendment is made to one constituency which has a significant knock-on effect across multiple constituencies, resulting in a poorer sense of community identity in many constituencies simply to avoid a single constituency having only a few hundred more or fewer votes. I urge the Minister to reflect on that and agree that, in certain circumstances, it is more important that people who have common interests and live in a common identifiable community are kept together, rather than divided in order to meet these very tight constraints on the size of constituencies.
Any decent boundary geek worth their salt also knows that a higher variance is the exception, not the norm. There have been only a few occurrences when a slightly higher tolerance would facilitate better boundaries, as well as help to manage compound names, which can often agitate the public, who write in to complain more about that than with objections to boundaries.
I have one point to add to the earlier debate about the use of polling districts as building blocks. I fundamentally disagree that they should be used as building blocks because they do not have a statutory standing compared with wards, which do. Their main focus is on accessibility, and they are administrative conveniences agreed by local authorities with no statutory standing compared with ward boundaries. Some wards may have five or six polling districts compared with some that have only three or four, so it is a flawed measure in that they are not evenly distributed. They are focused on polling places, not necessarily on communities.
With that, I commend the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Cat Smith, and I hope that the Minister will consider them.
New clause 1 is in my opinion about stopping equalisation, because through this Bill we are going to see equal, fairer boundaries. Lloyd Russell-Moyle talked about the shires—I am not quite sure that the shires of Stoke-on-Trent exist at the moment but I look forward to seeing them being created, apparently, with the so-called gerrymandering that we are trying to do.
We talk time and again about the idea of identity. Let me tell the House about Stoke-on-Trent. We might be a city, but we are a federation of towns, from Burslem to Tunstall, to Longton, to Fenton. Even within that, when we talk about identities, in the ward of Baddeley, Milton and Norton, we have Norton Green and Norton le Moors, and if someone says to a Norton Green resident, “You are a member of Norton le Moors”, they will get accosted—as I rightly did, on the doorsteps during the last general election campaign—for misannouncing them. So even though we talk about this idea of 5% to 7.5%, we are still talking about identities that are broken down even within the wards of local councils.
As I said, the community I represent is an amalgamation of pit villages, small towns and little villages. However, I dare to cross from Stoke-on-Trent to—this is where the hon. Gentleman will be pleased—Staffordshire County Council, so I do have a small number of shires, in the guise of Kidsgrove, Talke and a small slice of Newchapel. Again, the people of Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove would identify as sharing common values. Even though they are different areas with different needs, they have a proud industrial mining heritage. Therefore, new clause 1 effectively goes against this idea, giving 7.5% here and 5% there. That is not equalisation. That is against it and once we start applying the rule to one area, we think, “Do we apply the rule to this area instead?” It becomes a bit of a mess, so I have to honourably disagree with Opposition Members on new clause 1. I will, of course, be voting against it.
On new clause 3, I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend Mr Holden on the use of the electoral roll rather than estimates. I agree that this could become a grey area. How would the estimates be calculated? How would we create the formula to make it viable in future? The electoral roll is something solid. It is something that businesses and politicians use. It is simple and we should carry on using it.
Let us not forget that this is an important time for us to update the boundaries. In Stoke-on-Trent, I represent—I say this cheekily—a larger constituency than my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). Do I get paid more for doing more work than them? They would argue that they work harder and I would not necessarily disagree on some areas. They are very good at chuntering—[Interruption.] I know, spicy. The idea that there should be a difference is not a fair one. We want to be equal. We are a proud city and every single one of us wants to represent our areas. There are areas like Abbey Hulton, where, I believe, I have 15 electorates from the ward in my constituency. I find that rather bizarre. The way the boundaries have grown over time with housing developments in my area has left us in a bit of a confusing mess. This is, therefore, a good time to update the boundaries so that the people of Stoke-on-Trent can be represented as they deserve to be, in an equal and measured way, and in an area that they notice and understand. As I say, the idea that we must go on local government boundary wards is for the past, not the future.
Finally, I will have a little pop at new clause 2. I have great love for David Linden. We get on incredibly well. We disagree on everything, but we have a good chat. I know he is desperate to leave this place and never ever to have to come back, but I have to remind him that we are one United Kingdom. It is therefore only right that for the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who again are my dear friends—I know Jim Shannon will be disappointed that I say this—we ensure there is equality and fairness across our United Kingdom. I will be voting against new clause 2 and I urge Members across the House to do so, too. I am sure that will be used on Facebook as a clip of “the English so-and-sos stopping us having what we want”. I wholeheartedly support the Government in what they are doing today.
It is a pleasure to follow Jonathan Gullis. He and I have been very good friends in this House in the short time he has been here. I agree with him that we are always better together. It is better to have the four regions together as one. That is the real United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: stronger, better together every time.
This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue and I will start by declaring, as I always do, an interest in having the most wonderful constituency in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Strangford is the most beautiful constituency it is possible to have and I am very pleased to be able to represent it. It brings a lot of communities together and we have an affiliation with each other. As my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson mentioned earlier, we absolutely require the 10% variation on the quota given our distinct geographical circumstances and the limitations to what changes can be made in Northern Ireland. As everyone knows, we have a land frontier with another country, so our circumstances are very different from everybody else’s.
One issue that is essential, especially in Northern Ireland with the mix of rural and urban in almost every constituency, is the notion of belonging and community. My constituency of Strangford represents the council areas of Ards and North Down, and parts of Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Newry, Mourne and Down. When I was first elected in 2010, we had a massive change in that Ballynahinch East was added to Strangford. I made a decision to make sure that they knew their MP and opened an office in Ballynahinch to underline my commitment to make them a part of Strangford when they never were before.
The office costs allowance could never fully cover another office, but I made the decision because people could not necessarily travel some 45 to 50 miles—an hour or thereabouts—to my office in Newtonards. That has been a great boost because the people of Ballynahinch now very clearly see the constituency of Strangford as it is now and as it should be. When that happened back in 2010, the southern part of Ballynahinch—the Spa area—went into South Down and the west part went into the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley. This area was slightly different from the rest of Strangford and required an office to make its MP accessible to all, and I believe that decision was the right one.
However, every time there is a tinkering with the boundaries, it becomes an issue. Although numbers are easy to understand and move around, people’s identities are less easy to move around. To me, identity is very important, and people’s kinship is worthy of consideration. That is why I am delighted that some of the early proposals did not find their way into these final measures. I understand the concerns of some Members. The Bill has rightly ring-fenced the Isle of Wight, and Virginia Crosbie, in her contribution, referred to that as well. In Northern Ireland, we must take account of individual circumstances, not simply let the numbers involved in a headcount be the be all and end all.
I can remember a situation where, to put in place the ward of Carrowdore, two people had to be moved—just two people. They lived no more than 300 yards from the school where they voted, and they were moved out and had to go and vote in Carrowdore, a 20-minute journey by car down the road. That tinkering, I believe, was wrong, and I did make representations to the commission at that time. The sentiment has been embedded in my mind that where someone votes can matter, and that while moving those two on the map tidied up the numbers, it impacted on people. That must always be a consideration. I believe it is very important that people feel they are part of the constituency and part of the area.
I am thankful that after I hang up my tie and take off these worn leather shoes—it is probably a long time away, by the way, but it happens to all of us who look to be here—Strangford will remain and prosper, and I hope that remains the case for years to come. Strangford, my constituency, has been held together over these years with blood, sweat and tears, and that must be recognised and protected. The personality and the affiliation of Strangford must be considered along with the numbers for every constituency. It is not just about numbers; it is about the constituency and about the people whom we represent. What a joy it is to represent Strangford! It is my pleasure.
And what a pleasure it is, as always, to follow the remarks of the sage of Strangford, Jim Shannon, with his unrivalled love for his constituency and, may I say, for this Chamber, which he demonstrates day after day—and evening after evening.
Let me take each proposed amendment in turn. I will do my best to accommodate the comments that hon. and right hon. Members have made. If I do not manage to do justice to all of that, I will try to accommodate them in my remarks on Third Reading.
Starting with new clause 1, I am very grateful to hon. Members for all their contributions, because it was a very strong theme in Committee. It is about how much flexibility ought to be given to the boundary commissions. Let me start by outlining that 5% is the existing law—the status quo—and there are a number of reasons why the Government have chosen not to change the legislation in that area and why we therefore do not support the new clause. When we say plus or minus 5%, we are talking about a range of 10% around the electoral quota. By that token, when we talk about plus or minus 7.5%, what is being spoken about is a range of 15%. By my calculation, each percentage is over 1,000 people, and people matter in this.
We believe that a 10% range does give the boundary commissions the space that they need to take account of the other factors that they may consider. As hon. Members will know, those include local geographical features, community ties, local government boundaries and existing parliamentary boundaries. At this point, I note that my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller is right that discussions are ongoing with the Boundary Commission for England, picking up on what we did in Committee.
Some characterise 10% as overly mathematically or too constraining—I think those were the words used by Cat Smith—but that is not the case. It is right that the boundary commissions are able to engage in dialogue with local communities—that is very important—and are able to adjust the number of electors to reflect important community ties. The 10% range allows that, and the proof is seen in an example from the Boundary Commission for England: in the 2016-18 review, more than 50% of its initial proposals were changed in the light of consultation and feedback.
I admire the tenacity with which the hon. Lady has made that argument today. It is not the subject of the Bill, and, for what it is worth, I do not agree with the concept of automatic voter registration, but I am happy to have that conversation with her in more detail at another time. I will be more sparing in taking interventions from now on, because there is a time limit and I have much to get through.
As I understand it, the intention behind new clause 1 is to require the boundary commissions to aim for the 10% range, and only if necessary would they then use the extra 5%. That approach gives rise to a number of concerns. First, it seems to me that there is a lack of clarity, which could generate confusion; it would certainly generate ambiguity and might undermine the effectiveness of the process. One can imagine local authorities simply not knowing at the outset of the process whether their constituency would fall within the 10% range, or whether they might be a special case. A process that was previously clear and transparent would become less so.
Secondly, there is the risk of a ratchet effect. If we were to offer the boundary commissions the option to go up 7.5%, they would quickly come under pressure. That might lead to lobbying and the 15% range becoming increasingly widely used. It might be said that those who want that outcome should put it directly and courageously in an amendment, rather than saying it could be used if the commission wanted to use it.
Thirdly, and quite important, the discretion provided to the four boundary commissions would be likely to generate different approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom. That could open the door to legal challenges and a situation where the commissions’ work was made more difficult. I acknowledge the words of Gavin Robinson about rule 7 and the court case there. I recognise his points, and much more detail was drawn out in that ruling, but let me say briefly now that I think rule 7 is important and it stands, notwithstanding that ruling.
In Committee, we discussed 5% versus other numbers at length. Today, I say that we should be in the business of giving the boundary commissions clear instructions. There are times when we give them room for judgment and discretion. We ask them to conduct an intense process, but this should not be one of the times when their instructions lack clarity. The matter of the tolerance is a judgment for us; it is for us in this House to set out what we think it ought to be. A balance must be struck, and no academic can tell us the right answer. Conservative Members believe in equal-sized constituencies and in being able to deliver updated and equal constituencies, and the 5% tolerance gives a better chance of achieving that and ending an unfairness that has persisted for too long.
Let me address new clause 2. I thank the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) for making this an interesting debate—one that we also had in Committee. It seems that something that is actually quite technical is being used here as a conduit for a much larger constitutional debate about the Union and how its nations relate to each other. That is important and extremely interesting, but today is rather a narrow debate and it is not necessarily the time for concluding such big questions. Let us talk about what this new clause would actually mean.
My concern is that new clause 2, by fixing a minimum number of constituencies, would effectively enshrine electoral inequality, cementing the current situation and not allowing it to develop. I can give the House lots of examples of unequal constituency sizes within and between our nations, and those are the kinds of inequality that we are trying to address in the Bill overall. Of course, it is critical that every nation and every part of the Union has a powerful voice in Westminster. They have two powerful voices here today—and across the Chamber—but there is already a sensible way of setting the nation’s participation in Westminster. The new clause would not add value in that respect.
Under the current legislation, a mathematical formula exists to do exactly the job of allocating constituency numbers to each of the four nations. It is widely used internationally and is widely thought of as being one of the fairest methods. It should be maintained because it is fair and rational. The problem with the new clause is that it suggests that the hon. Members who tabled it could be fairer and more rational in deciding what the numbers ought to be, but in effect those Members are guessing what the numbers should be and trying to lock them in. The new clause would lock in quite radical inequality between the nations of the Union in terms of the citizen-to-MP ratio that would result, and there is not a good reason for that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. He knows that the Conservative party and the Government are absolutely committed to strengthening our Union and we do not believe that that would be achieved through new clause 2, which would undermine in many ways what ought to be an equality in the assessment of the voices in the Union and an equality between citizens that can be enjoyed across the nation.
I absolutely recognise the wider debate about what our nations and our Union consist of, although the hon. Member for Glasgow East would love to have nothing more to do with that debate—he would love to be nowhere near here today, and that breaks my heart. As much as I may say that I would love to see the back of him, of course I would not. I cannot wait to spend even more time discussing exactly this point with him and with anybody else who would like to join me in the debate about how to strengthen our Union, how to maintain excellent intergovernmental relations, how to help our nations work best together and how to help people across the nation to be as prosperous as they can. But new clause 2 is not the place to do that.
I thank Wendy Chamberlain for tabling new clause 3. She was honest and sincere about what she is seeking to do with the amendment, which is to open up a valuable broader debate. I will talk a little about why the new clause would not quite do what is right, but let me say that the hon. Member’s instincts are admirable. We should all share the goal of being able to do the utmost for our constituents, whether they are registered to vote or not. Furthermore, we should all share the goal of wanting as many people on our electoral registers as possible. That is notwithstanding the fact that the Government believe that it is an important principle that our constituencies are based on the electoral registers.
On what we are doing to ensure that the registers are as accurate and complete as possible, the introduction of online registration has made it simpler and faster for people to register to vote; it takes as little as five minutes. This benefits everybody, including anybody who may previously have found it harder to make an application to register. We have developed a range of resources to promote engagement with our democracy and to encourage people to register to vote, all of which are available on gov.uk and are aimed widely—at registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and more.
We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain, which will improve its efficiency greatly and will allow officers to focus their efforts on those who they may traditionally have found harder to get to register. That is important for accuracy and completeness. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers in Great Britain are as complete and more accurate than before; that is an important base of the record.
I share the intentions of the hon. Member for North East Fife of wanting to see more people registered and to see us listening to all in our community, so let me turn to why new clause 3 would not necessarily work as well as might be wished. Its core problem is that it deals with estimates and moves away from facts. It asks the Electoral Commission to do a very large job of estimation when, in fact, we already have firm data that the process can be based on. It would be a huge and unnecessary task to set off, bringing further elements of risk and challenge to the work of the Boundary Commissions.
The work of the Boundary Commissions should be based on those who have registered as electors. That principle counts those who want to have their views represented in Parliament. That is what a Member of Parliament is for and that is what voting for Parliament is for. It is a good principle that that is the basis on which we work, and it is not new, having been the case since 1944.
We should encourage more people to register to vote. I think the new clause does a slightly different thing. I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady referred to it as a probing amendment, and I hope she will not press it to a Division. Before I move on, I welcome her support for our overseas voters. She will know that there is much work to do to enable more overseas voters to register The Government are committed, as I hope she is, to ending the injustice of the abrupt disenfranchisement that they face after 15 years overseas.
Finally, I cannot support the intention of amendment 1. The effect of clause 2, which amendment 1 would remove, is to bring much-needed certainty to the boundary review process. It gives confidence that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions will be brought into effect without interference or delay. They develop their proposal through a robust process that lasts over a two to three-year period with extensive public consultation. Those impartial recommendations ought to be brought into effect promptly without any further wastage of public money and without any question of their independence. Clause 2 provides for that, and it does so by a very normal mechanism.
I just want to pick up one point that was made. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood tried to go to town on the nature of an Order in Council. Let me break it to her, in case she is not aware, that the last Labour Government used more than 300 of them between 1997 and 2010. They are a normal constitutional legislative instrument. They should be recognised as being part of the status quo. She is either misreading the Bill or wilfully misrepresenting it—I do not know which. She did so in Committee, and she is doing so again today.
The Order in Council is not the villain that the hon. Lady makes it out to be, and nor is there an increase in powers in the Bill for the Executive. The opposite is the case. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use similar approaches. A string of respected academics voiced their support for this change during Committee when giving evidence. Memorably, one in particular said:
“It is probably better that MPs set the terms of the exercise for the Boundary Commission behind a veil of ignorance…without knowing exactly what the particular outcomes would be for them as individual MPs.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee,
c. 57, Q117.]
The Government believe that clause 2 is an important and principled change. It will ensure that expert recommendations are brought into effect independently with no further delay.
It provides a better outcome for people, and I urge the hon. Lady not to press the amendment to a Division.
I did not think it was possible to have as much fun as we had in Committee, but this afternoon has perhaps run it quite close. Of course, there is no comparison between three hours and four days. I put on record my thanks to the members of the Committee who have also made contributions to today’s debate.
The Labour party supports the democratic principles of the boundary review. We recognise that this review is urgently needed, given the out-of-date boundaries we currently have. The idea of constituencies being of broadly equal size and the idea of constituencies also taking account of local community ties are not mutually exclusive, and I urge Members to support that amendment. Labour’s new clause would provide for the flexibility needed to create constituencies that communities can have confidence in and identify with.
Most critically, I encourage Members across the House to support amendment 1. The Government must not use the Bill to strengthen their own power at the expense of parliamentary power. It is an insult to this House, and it sets a dangerous precedent for future legislation.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The House divided: Ayes 246, Noes 342.
Question accordingly negatived.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order,
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (