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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Sanderson of Bowden Lord Sanderson of Bowden Conservative 5:50 pm, 27th May 2010

I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said in his excellent speech about Scotland and the various elections we might be faced with in five years' time. I also agree with what he and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said about the rearrangements, if I may put it that way, in this House.

I want to concentrate on one sentence in the gracious Speech which states that a Bill will be introduced,

"to create fewer and more equal sized constituencies".

I shall not delve into the problems of AV. My political baptism was as a volunteer, coming through the ranks from branch to association and then to chairmanship of our own national union executive committee. The sentence about creating equal sized constituencies is very important and I was pleased to hear what my noble friend Lord McNally had to say in his opening speech. It sounds easy, but it easier said than done given the vested interests. I wish to make one or two points which should be addressed as the Government give the boundary commissions their marching orders. In passing, perhaps I can be bold and say to my own party, "Do not be fast asleep when these changes are being discussed". In my experience, our political opponents-here I refer to the Labour Party-are much better at dealing with maps and boundaries than ever our party has been.

What are the points to bear in mind? Fair votes means what it says: that, where possible, each person's vote should be equal to that of the next man or woman. Is this so now? Certainly not. I shall deal with the obvious anomalies first and then ask a few pertinent questions which arise from the devolved assemblies.

Taking Glasgow as a typical city of the UK, I estimate that at present the average constituency has approximately 60,000 people. In one of the shire counties, Cambridgeshire, South West Cambridge has an electorate of 88,857 and South East Cambridge one of 83,068. I cannot for the life of me see what this example is except standing equality of representation on its head. It is not an isolated example. Bedfordshire has seats in the high 70,000s and yet three of the four Liverpool seats are in the low 60,000s. The figures speak for themselves and the boundary commissions' membership must be made aware of the extreme disquiet that these anomalies create among those who study them.

Now is a good time to address these matters and, as legislation is required to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons-as I believe is common ground with our partners-then so be it. I realise that is upsetting for new MPs, who have to face a shake up of constituencies, but it must not be delayed as changes will take time to pass through the system. I hope that in any Bill brought forward the appeal timetable for the commissions' work will be looked at. In addition, as the key will no doubt be the building blocks of the local authority boundaries, it is not as straightforward as it may seem. However, it must be addressed. It has been the practice to combine local authority wards together to make up a parliamentary constituency, but if the map is drawn in such a way that these wards are smaller than the average, the result is smaller than average parliamentary constituencies, particularly in the cities. I have a question in this regard. Can we be certain that equalising the size of constituencies is the rule that the Government will instruct the commissions to follow? If not, why not? Surely that is the meaning of fair vote reform in the manifesto.

I shall say a few words about the size of constituencies in Wales and Scotland. Now that there are devolved Parliaments in each country, whose Members cover many of the issues that used to be in the hands of their Westminster MPs, is it fair that those constituencies should in many cases be much smaller than their English counterparts? Coming as I do from Scotland, I see some glaring examples of unfair voting arrangements which do nothing for equality of representation.

I realise that the Western Isles is an island situation, as is Orkney and Shetland, but given that they have Holyrood Members in addition, is it fair that they should have electorates for Westminster of 22,000-odd and 33,000-odd respectively? I think not. If there is to be a cut in the number of seats and a consequent enlargement of constituencies, it would be possible and practical to link Orkney and Shetland to Caithness and Sutherland, making an electorate of 80,000, and the Western Isles with Ross, Skye and Lochaber, making an electorate 74,000-odd. Therefore, my second question is about Scotland. Will the Government instruct the Boundary Commission for Scotland to consult its English opposite number to ensure fair votes? Will the chairmen of the respective boundary commissions in each country be told that there are no no-go areas, as I understand was the case when the Scottish island situation was last discussed?

In Wales, I notice some quite small electorates compared to England; for example, Arfon, with 41,000-odd voters, and Aberconwy, with 44,500. They seem small when one considers that they have the benefit of a Welsh Assembly as well. In contrast, over the border in England, the Hereford constituency has 71,000 voters. That seems wrong.

I know that these questions could be interpreted as trying to tell the Government that all is not well in the boundaries area, but I firmly believe that to be the case. I trust that my noble friends will agree and realise that in order to do anything this side of a general election, the work has to start soon, with the guidelines for the commissions clearly stated and published to ensure transparency.

I wish the joint Front-Bench team well as they start their work together. In the days of Gladstone, who started life on the Tory Benches when Pitt, Liverpool, Canning and Peel were around, our party was a reforming party. In the years between 1846 and 1859, there was no monopoly of Whigs or Tories that undertook the many reforms. Gladstone was a leading light in many of those reforms, including colonial self-government for Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the reform of the Civil Service and the universities. However, I must remind my noble friends here from the Liberal Democrat Party that it was the Conservatives who brought forward the second Reform Act of 1867. If history is to repeat itself, changes that give equal value to the citizen must be accomplished within the lifetime of this Government.