Committee (8th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 12th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 6:00 pm, 12th January 2011

My Lords, this amendment connects in quite closely with previous debates but also raises a new point. It basically deals with the relationship between this legislation and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which is making its stately progress through the other place and will, I hope, arrive here by the end of this month. We will be having a debate on it. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, gave us an indication of how the Government envisage the relationship between the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and this Bill. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill envisages five-year Parliaments and five-yearly looks at the constituency boundaries by the Boundary Commissions. He says he envisages that there will be roughly an 18-month gap between the date on which the Boundary Commissions report and the date that the subsequent general election takes place. Those 18 months are presumably a period in which, where there are changes to the constituency boundaries, the constituency parties can select new Members of Parliament, people can get to know their constituencies and there can be a canvass in relation to it.

There is one factual issue in relation to this and one principle issue in relation to law. I raise first the factual issue which my noble friend Lord Lipsey touched on. He asked how many changes there would be every five years and made the point that if the numbers remain critical and it is only a 5 per cent variation, it is possible to envisage the boundaries of many constituencies changing. I quote from a document called The Ten Per Cent Solution which is by a man called Mr Lewis Baston and dated 20 January 2011. He says the following: "The government's Bill", which is a reference to this Bill,

"proposes that the boundaries will change every election, which disrupts the relationship between MP and constituency and will no doubt lead to confusion. Because the 5 per cent limit is so tight, many constituencies that were the right size in one boundary review will be too big or too small by the next. This will happen because of growth and decline in population. It will also happen because of variations in electoral registration from year to year, which are likely to be larger under the forthcoming Individual Electoral Registration system. It is quite possible that radical changes in boundaries will be made for no better reason than fluctuating registers, which as we know have become much less stable, complete and accurate".

So this report from Democratic Audit says that the effect will be quite significant; it uses the phrase "many constituencies". I do not know what work the Government have done on this but it is important to know their estimate of the effect of the five-yearly review-not the first review but the five-yearly review.

I say in parenthesis that I may have misunderstood what the noble and learned Lord said. He appeared to be saying that disruption in relation to what happens could be taken into account at subsequent reviews but not at the first review. My reading of proposed new Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act is that it would apply in relation to subsequent reviews as to first reviews. But I could be wrong about that, and if I am I hope that the noble and learned Lord will correct me. The proposed new schedule is headed "Rules for distribution of seats", and rule 2-at paragraph 2-states:

"The electorate of any constituency shall be ... no less than 95% of the ... quota, and ... no more than 105% of that quota".

So there is a 5 per cent variation. That applies to a subsequent review and not just to the first one. I am not going to hold the noble and learned Lord to his nods but I note that he is nodding at the moment.

Under the heading "Factors", to which the noble and learned Lord referred, rule 5(1)(d) states:

"A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit ... the inconveniences attendant on such changes".

The noble and learned Lord drew our attention to that rule. Rule 5(3) then states:

"This rule has effect subject to rules 2 and 4".

I read that as meaning that if you deviate in a subsequent review-not just the first one-from the 5 per cent tolerance allowed by rule 2, that will override the Boundary Commission's entitlement to take into account the inconveniences attendant on such changes. The position is therefore that, regardless of whether it is in the original review or subsequent reviews, if there is a deviation of more than the 5 per cent allowed for under rule 2, the position on attendant changes will be swept aside. I may have misunderstood what the noble and learned Lord said, but he seemed to be saying that the inconveniences attendant on such changes could override fluctuations. I do not think that they can do so under the Bill as drafted.

So, exactly as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, if there is any fluctuation over and above the 5 per cent, you will have to change the constituency boundaries. That can happen from a fluctuating register as much as from population changes. The independent work of Mr Baston suggests that that will affect "many constituencies", although I do not know how many.

We now get into the subject of the relationship between the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and this Bill. Noble Lords will remember that our own Constitution Committee said that the Government had not properly thought out the relationship between the two. What happens if, in accordance with Clause 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, a general election is called outwith the five years-because, for example, there is a two-thirds vote-or if, as that Bill envisages, there is a vote of no confidence in the Government and no subsequent Government can be formed after 14 days? Let us suppose that that occurred in October 2013, which is the date at which the boundary review will be completed. A boundary review will be completed and immediately thereafter there would be a general election-and ever after, until there was another breach of the five-year rule, you would be having the review and the general election happening almost on the same date.

We tabled this probing amendment because we want to know what thought the Government have given to the issue. The amendment proposes that if a general election takes place outwith the five-year period-for example, it occurs at or about the time of the review being completed-then there should be a recalibration and you should state the period in which the review will occur so that it is produced no later than 18 months before the next projected date of a general election. Under the Bill as drafted, an election could be held out of sync and then the review would occur right on top of a general election without the 18-month gap which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has rightly acknowledged is necessary to give new prospective parliamentary candidates the opportunity to find their seat and settle down there.

I have two fundamental questions. First, what work have the Government done on calculating how many constituencies might change hands? Obviously the noble and learned Lord cannot answer that with certainty but the Government must have done some work on it. What is the estimate? Secondly, am I right in my construction of the rule, which appears to be inconsistent with the noble and learned Lord's interpretation of the Bill? Thirdly, I invite the Government, if they are serious about the recurring 18 months, to table an amendment to the Bill to allow for a recalibration if there is an election outside whatever the fixed term is under the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I beg to move.