Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:12 pm on 15th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 8:12 pm, 15th November 2010

My Lords, as a Welshman in your Lordships' House, I will direct my remarks to the impact that the Bill will have on Wales and address three main issues: the impact of the Bill on the union; the ending of community-based representation; and the silencing of local opinion in parliamentary boundary changes.

As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, Wales will be more adversely affected than any other part of the United Kingdom by the Bill. If this measure becomes law, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its elected representation in this, the Parliament of the union. It will be the biggest shake-up in representation since the 16th century and it will leave Wales with fewer MPs in Parliament than at any time since 1832. One hundred and seventy-eight years ago Wales sent 35 MPs to Parliament. If the Bill gains the statute book, we will send just 30. It will weaken the voice of Wales in Parliament and it will weaken the union-something I and many others have fought against all our political lives. As I look across to the almost empty Benches opposite, occupied by a once great party that was proud to call itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, I cannot believe that for short-term party-political advantage the Conservatives are prepared to put our union at risk, but that is what the Bill will do.

The Bill will adversely affect the predominantly Welsh-speaking parts of Wales. This was powerfully illustrated in a letter that Lewis Baston, senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, sent to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place. The committee, which has also been mentioned and which has a Conservative chairman and a non-Labour majority, conducted an inquiry into the implications of the Bill, concluded it was wrong and roundly condemned it. Mr Baston said:

"There are currently 5 majority-Welsh constituencies: Ynys Mon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Arfon, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East & Dinefwr. All of these are undersized, and the Bill will mean reduction accompanied by radical boundary changes. The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament".

As I look across the Chamber to the left, I shake my head in disbelief at the Liberal Benches. How can the heirs to Lloyd George, who loved Wales, loved its people and loved its language, support this Bill? Lloyd George must be turning in his grave. Both Tories and Liberals will pay a high price for the Bill when their candidates face the electorate in Wales next spring.

Mr Baston, in the paragraph I quoted, mentioned constituencies that are undersized. This brings me to the heart of the second part of the Bill. The mantra that the Bill's supporters use is "fairness of representation". The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke about it on the radio this morning. Its supporters say fairness of representation can only be achieved by creating constituencies of equal numbers of electors. Why is that the only criterion? Why is that the only definition of fairness that they will admit to? The union of the four nations of these islands, which has allowed us to live as a united country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held this union together.

We do not have a written constitution. Some of us say, "Thank God for that", but had we sat down to write a constitution, would we not have had the good sense to allow for the smaller states of our union to have greater representation in our Parliament than their populations must justify? The United States did that, as did the Australians. Both the United States and Australia give greater representation to smaller states within their unions, recognising the benefits for the whole-the benefits for the union. Look across the Atlantic. California, with a population of 37 million, sends two senators to Washington, as does Wyoming, which has a population of 544,000. Even at this stage, I urge the Government not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. Do not harm the union. If noble Lords will forgive me for paraphrasing: it is the union, stupid. That is the big impact that the Bill will have. I can think of no single act more likely to threaten the union than to cut Wales's representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom by one in four.

My second point is that the Bill will bring an end to community-based representation in Parliament-a feature of our parliamentary system since the earliest times. When giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, Mr Paul Wood, a member of the Boundary Commission for Wales, said that,

"issues such as local ties and historical ties, which may have had more weight previously, are clearly subsumed in the legislation to the numerical issues".

My good friend the right honourable Member for Torfaen, who is a former Northern Ireland Secretary and has twice been Secretary of State for Wales, said:

"The creation of very large constituencies, rigidly defined by numbers, will destroy community-based constituencies since it would appear that, to create such constituencies, local ties, geography and tradition are likely to be ignored".

What will the ending of community-based representation in Parliament mean in practice? I see from an exercise carried out by the Electoral Reform Society to redraw the boundaries in Wales based on this Bill that my former constituency of Islwyn will disappear. I am not suggesting that the society's report is definitive but it gives a flavour of what could happen. It suggests that the community of Abercarn should be part of the new constituency of Caerphilly. Abercarn is in the Ebbw Valley; Caerphilly is in the Rhymney valley. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. The community of Cefn Fforest, the society suggests, could become part of the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Ystrad Mynach. Historically, Cefn Fforest and Merthyr Tydfil are in different counties-they are miles apart-separated by mountains and rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. If this Bill becomes law, we will not need a Boundary Commission to settle new boundaries-the new parliamentary seats can be created by anyone with a map, a pencil and an abacus. We might as well give the job to the Flat Earth Society for all the good it will do in preserving local representation.

My third and final point is the proposal to end local public inquiries into boundary changes. The Bill, most disgracefully, does away with this, thus denying local people a say in the drawing up of constituency boundaries. The abandoning of local public inquiries into proposed parliamentary boundary changes will silence the voice of local people. What price the big society now? The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement said of the big society that the aim is,

"to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from politicians and give it to people".

The Prime Minister said in an article in the Guardian in September that this is the Government who will give power back to the people. How hollow all that sounds now with this Bill, which is silencing the voice of dissent in a way that only people such as Robert Mugabe is used to deploying. The Bill is partisan and there is no motivation for redrawing the constituency map other than Tory Party self-interest. The Liberals have gone along with it in exchange for the holy grail of electoral reform, except that the Bill does not give them electoral reform-it merely promises a referendum on changing the voting system to AV. They do not like it and nor do the Tories, so why on earth are they pursuing it in this way? I suspect that many Liberal supporters in Wales will think that is not much of a prize to gain for the betrayal of selling out the Welsh people.

This is the most partisan Bill I have ever seen. Its aim is to manipulate our constitution to assist the governing parties to remain in power. This House has long prided itself on being the guardian of our constitution. This is the great challenge we face now in defending our constitution from subversion to party-political interests. If we are worthy of our role as constitutional guardians, we need to find the stomach to fight and tackle this Bill head on. To do anything less would be a dereliction of our constitutional duty.