Committee (10th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 18th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 3:11 pm, 18th January 2011

My Lords, we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized seats, but we have practical concerns about the way in which the legislation seeks to pursue this reasonable objective. Our amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula for redrawing parliamentary boundaries that is proposed by the Bill. Clause 11 of the Bill proposes an entirely new system of rules for drawing parliamentary constituency boundaries, based on the paramount requirement that, save for some protected seats in Scotland, the electorate of any constituency shall be no less than 95 per cent of a UK-wide electoral quota, and no more than 105 per cent of that quota. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in evidence to your Lordships' House's Constitution Committee that the 5 per cent disparity limit had been chosen because the Government believe, having consulted the Boundary Commission, that it was the closest to absolute mathematical equality that could be practically achieved without forcing the Boundary Commission to split wards. Yet the heads of the four Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place that:

"The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases".

That sentiment was forcefully echoed by Professor Ron Johnson, one of Britain's foremost psephologists. He told the Select Committee that:

"It seems to me that the Commissions will be in great problems in some parts of the country".

By way of example he cited the position in Sheffield, the home of the Deputy Prime Minister. Professor Johnson told the committee:

"Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies under the current reduction. Sheffield has 28 wards. That would be three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, over the five per cent on one side, and two of five wards which would be below the five per cent on the other side. You would have to either split wards in Sheffield or somehow around the Barnsley/Rotherham interchange manage to create constituencies which cross the boundaries all of which were within five per cent. I very much doubt"-

Professor Johnson went on-

"that is feasible because wards in Rotherham are about the same size as wards in Sheffield anyhow and there are some hills in the way before you get to Barnsley. They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this".

The facts seem pretty clear-if the Government genuinely do wish to avoid splitting up wards, they must relax the 5 per cent disparity limit.

There are other arguments in favour of a more flexible threshold. A 5 per cent disparity limit will deprive the Boundary Commissions of the flexibility they need to take proper account of history, local ties or geography when drawing boundaries. As a consequence, towns and villages will be divided between constituencies, and natural boundaries will in many cases be overlooked. Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. A number of constituencies that fit well with their local authority would no longer have been able to do so-Wyre Forest for example, which is coterminous with its district, would have had 2,131 too many electors. Similarly, Shrewsbury and Atcham, also coterminous with its district, would have had 1,552 too many electors. A number of counties and boundaries with statutory limits on electorates would no longer have been able to sustain whole numbers of constituencies, and would therefore need to share at least one seat with a neighbouring county or borough.

Take the six seats in the county of Oxfordshire-Banbury, Henley, Oxford East, Oxford West and Abingdon, Wantage, and Witney. They were on average 1,907 electors over the threshold. So, approximately 11,000 Oxfordshire electors would have needed to be shed so that they could be in a constituency shared with a neighbouring county. For example, part of the Prime Minister's constituency might have had to be shifted to a seat based in Gloucestershire. Another striking example is the historic county of Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly, which would have had to find 13,138 electors-or an average of 2,190 per constituency-from Devon to make up the number they require under the Bill for six seats.

The problem would have been particularly acute in London. The borough of Barnet-Chipping Barnet, Finchley and Golders Green, and Hendon constituencies-would have had 371 too many electors for its three seats. Enfield borough-Edmonton, Enfield North and Enfield Southgate constituencies-would have had 219 too few electors, with an average of 73 per seat needed from a neighbouring borough. The borough of Sutton-Carshalton, Wallington, and Sutton and Cheam constituencies-would have had 1,119 too few electors for two seats, an average of 560 per seat. The borough of Wandsworth-the Battersea, Putney and Tooting constituencies-would have had 3,427 too few electors for three seats. So you would have had all these constituencies crossing, with a very small number, into neighbouring boroughs.

Looking ahead, a Democratic Audit model of how boundaries would have to be drawn in the future using the 5 per cent proposed in the Bill has found that,

"only 9 out of 46 counties, accounting for 67 of the 503 seats proposed for England, did not need to be grouped with another county".

Indeed, this sort of widespread disruption resulting from the new rules will be the chief legacy of the Bill if it is left in this form. That is because even in regions and counties where there may be little or no change in the number of constituencies, the knock-on effect of the rigidity of the 5 per cent rule will none the less produce wholesale alterations to the boundaries of seats within these counties whether or not their electorates fall within the proposed 5 per cent threshold.

The existing rules for drawing constituency boundaries require the commissions to take into account any local ties that may be broken by alterations to constituencies. This is widely seen as an essential counterbalance to the mathematics and reflects one of the strengths of the British constituency system, which respects real communities and well understood boundaries, and in turn fosters an identity within those constituencies and a connection between electors and their representatives.

No doubt the Minister will counter that the rules set out in the Bill will similarly allow Boundary Commissions to take into account factors such as geography and local ties. The Minister is correct in that rule 5 does provide for an allowance, but what the Minister will seek to gloss over is that such considerations must be subject to the rule governing the size of constituencies. It is there in black and white on page 10 at line 22. So it is the numbers first, and then as long as you have the numbers, apart from two or three exceptions, then and only then can you apply geography, local ties and history.

So this Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill would thus transform the process of a boundary review from one that seeks to balance electoral equality with community identity to one that would abandon the latter in order to achieve a negligible advance in the former. As well as creating pointless anomalies, the Bill will lead to widespread unnecessary disruption. This is because when allied to the reduction of 50 seats proposed in the Bill, the rigid 5 per cent thresholds for acceptable disparity from the UK electoral quota means that there will be very few, if any, seats that will be unaffected by the boundary changes. Cutting the Commons to 600 seats has the effect of increasing the electoral quota in all parts of the United Kingdom, even in England where it would go up from 71,537 registered electors to 75,800. Currently, only a minority of constituencies have electorates within 5 per cent of the new electoral quota, and even they are not guaranteed to emerge unscathed.

In England, the adoption of an electoral quota of 75,800 would require each constituency to have an electorate of between 72,010 and 79,590. On current electorates, just 204 constituencies have electorates within that range. Clearly, all of the others will be subject to some change but, in practice, every single constituency will probably be redrawn. The chairs of the Boundary Commissions have admitted so publicly, because the knock-on effect is so enormous.

A prime example is what will happen to the county of Hampshire. Because the rules will not allow the Isle of Wight to remain a single seat, the county will need to accommodate approximately 35,000 electors from the island who will need to be allocated to one of the mainland seats. This will have a significant ripple effect on constituencies across the county, leading to significant changes in the shape of Hampshire constituencies. Although that extreme level of disruption would not be seen again after the first redrawing, widespread disturbance of constituency boundaries would none the less be evident every time there was a future review, because population changes will constantly push constituencies outside the 5 per cent threshold. That was confirmed by the heads of the Boundary Commissions in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place. It has also been highlighted by Lewis Baston of the Democratic Audit team, who has predicted that,

"there will be only two boundary reviews under these rules-one reporting by 2013 and in force from 2015, and another reporting in 2018. At that point, MPs will revolt at the prospect of repeated disruptive boundary reviews, as they did in similar circumstances in 1958".

We need to avert this if we possibly can, but we need to get greater equality among the size of constituencies. We can start by revising this Bill so that the goal of numerical parity, which is important and which we support, is balanced with the real-life needs of local communities. That is the purpose of our amendment. It would provide the Boundary Commission with the practical leeway that it needs to balance the different factors which influence the design of constituencies, while still ensuring the creation of more equal-sized seats. Our amendment states:

"No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should".

That would enable the commissions to have a meaningful ability to take account of the geographical and other factors which regularly have a bearing on their calculations at the moment. It will allow the Boundary Commissions to exercise their judgment in a field in which they, after all, are expert. However, to ensure that there is an absolute limit on levels of disparity between different seats, the amendment also states:

"No constituency shall have an electorate more than 10% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom".

Democratic Audit has calculated that a 10 per cent outside limit would be just enough to prevent the division of wards in almost every case and enough to enable the Boundary Commissions to work within county boundaries, with maybe two exceptions.

Our fundamental argument is simple. We believe that although the majority of seats would and indeed should be within 5 per cent of an electoral quota, there are more instances than are allowed for in the Bill where the Boundary Commission should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion of up to 10 per cent from the quota.