Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 16th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Labour 7:15 pm, 16th November 2010

My Lords, as a Lewisham resident, I disagree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, about the borough. It is a wonderful borough; it has a vibrant, multicultural community of which I and my wife are proud to be a part. It is not only a few square miles of concrete; people know exactly where they live.

I declare an interest as a member of the Electoral Commission. With that in mind, I shall restrict my remarks to matters concerning the proposals to reduce the number of seats by 50 and to changes to the way in which boundary inquiries are conducted as these matters are not within the remit of the Electoral Commission. I shall make no comment on matters on which the commission has to take a view or will be charged with delivering when the Bill is passed into law.

The proposals to reduce the number of seats and to deny citizens the right to make representations at a local inquiry to determine the area their elected representative will cover is not only a matter for the House of Commons. I and other noble Lords in this House will not let the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats get away with suggesting that that is all it is. These proposals go to the very heart of how we are governed. They are politically motivated, as was the proposal to bring in another group of Peers so soon after the summer intake, of which I was a Member. So on the one hand we have proposals to further increase the combined strength of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers in this House and, on the other, proposals to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons by 50 to 600, of which it is suggested approximately half will be Labour.

I have no issue with equalising seats; it is the reduction by 50 to which I object. Where did this figure come from? It was in neither party's manifesto. How will the citizens of our country be better served with 50 fewer Members of the Commons to represent them? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will tell us a little more than the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told us yesterday. "A nice round figure" were the words he used.

No matter how the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats try to dress it up, there is only one way to describe their actions-gerrymandering. They are partisan and seek to gain political advantage for their respective parties. My noble friend Lord Wills referred to the website of the honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mr Mark Field, on this point yesterday.

The proposals for the boundary review are the most far reaching in modern times; there has never been a boundary review like the one proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It will take place every five years, shorter than normally, and the Government want a full review in three years. How do they achieve that? They do it by denying citizens the right to make representations in person at local inquiries. I asked the Government a question on boundary inquiries a few weeks ago. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, advised me that there had been an initial inquiry and five periodic reviews since 1944, and that the legislation which brought in local inquiries dates from 1949. That is 61 years ago. The Labour Government of the day had just brought in the NHS the year before.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, further advised me in his reply that at the last boundary review a total of 205 seats had changes made to their boundaries from what was first proposed by the Boundary Commission as a result of evidence received, including local inquiry reports. The last election was fought on that review of parliamentary seats for the first time, and the Labour Party lost that election. That is nearly a third of the seats in the House of Commons today.

No case has been put forward by the Government as to why this change is justified. This system works: why cannot the Government speed up the process but still keep the inquiries? That would be achievable, keep what is good in the present process and allow citizens to have as full a role in the process as possible. Having the ability to send in a letter; having the review use a mathematical formula; and having no respect for communities is no substitute for what we have at present.

Why also do the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want reviews every five years, so that we have a review after every general election with as little as possible involvement from the public?

Not everyone in the Conservatives and Lib Dems is happy about this. The honourable Member of Leeds North West, Mr Greg Mulholland, who is a Liberal Democrat MP, said in the House of Commons recently:

"Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of the process of introducing boundary changes".-[Hansard, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 882.]

He made those remarks when introducing an amendment which would have required a boundary review every 10 years. I agree with Mr Mulholland; he is absolutely right. We should be working towards having a review every 10 years.

I am sure that we will be told that the Government want communities to be respected and local ward boundaries to be the building blocks. Their problem is that by imposing such rigid rules on the Boundary Commission and allowing only toleration of only a 5 per cent variation, they make it impossible. The Boundary Commission must be allowed more flexibility in looking at issues such as geography, culture and community ties. If the Government relaxed the toleration margin to 10 per cent, they would not only achieve their objective of more equally balanced constituencies but also allow other considerations to be taken into account.

Mr Lewis Baston from Democratic Audit made this very point in written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, saying:

"A general principle of toleration of 10 per cent variation allows for county boundaries, community identity and practicality of representation to be taken into account, while a rigid 5 per cent rule cannot ... Of the 533 English constituencies in the last review, 474 (88.9 per cent) were within 10 per cent of the English quota ... One has to ask whether it is worth imposing the disruption ... when the bulk of them are within 10 per cent of what they 'should' be anyway".

Reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 was in the manifesto of neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems. No justification has been provided for this proposal either. The honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mr Mark Field, who is a Conservative MP, has not been convinced on this point. He said during the passage of the Bill in the other place:

"Neither can I see any justification for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600".-[Hansard, Commons, 20/10/10; col. 1049.]

So we have reductions in the number of seats; citizens denied the opportunity to make their case in person in front of a commissioner; and rigid rules imposed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. This is the new politics, with no attempt made to reach a sensible consensus on which all such types of legislation should be based. It is partisan politics at its worst, seeking to achieve change for narrow party political advantage. There is nothing one nation or Liberal about this Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response.