Committee (10th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative 3:30 pm, 18th January 2011

My Lords, I must apologise for not being in the Chamber when the noble and learned Lord began this debate. I was detained by a call I had to take from overseas, but I hope that the House will allow me to intervene at this stage because I have a related amendment on the Marshalled List. It would be much more sensible for me to deal with the points that I would have made on that amendment later on this amendment and to comment on the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.

I approach this whole issue by looking at the situation in Wales. When I saw a proposed set of possible constituencies presented to a committee of the other place, it struck me that we might avoid some of the obvious difficulties by going to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. There are similarities between the Welsh situation and the Scottish mainland situation. I am not suggesting that we go down the solution that exists in Scotland-that is, two very large constituencies with a very small electorate. But in both cases there is a concentration of population in an industrial belt, which is surrounded by large, thinly populated, rural areas.

When I looked at the suggestions of what constituencies might be like, I observed at once that it seemed probable that one would have to detach a small part of my former constituency in Pembroke and put it into Carmarthen; a perhaps rather larger bit of Powys and put it into Ceredigion; and, in the valleys, possibly detaching or placing in neighbouring valleys some parts of constituencies that would be better not separated. I immediately came to the conclusion that a lot of these difficulties could be avoided if we went to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent.

It was not until I received the interesting paper from Democratic Audit and the points made by Lewis Baston that I really turned my attention to the English situation. It seems to me that that paper makes a very powerful case. It points out that with a 5 per cent variation, there would be serious difficulties with the crossing of county boundaries and so on, and that under a 10 per cent variation there would be much less crossing of county boundaries, much less splitting of wards, fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future and closer concordance with community identities. Surely, we all want that.

Lewis Baston points out that for a county to avoid sharing one or more seats with another county, it needs to meet a number of criteria. He tells us that very few counties could meet these criteria in England with a 5 per cent limit. A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture. No counties fail outright, other than the Isle of Wight, which we will debate on a separate occasion, although in practice, some might be close enough to the edge to make pairings necessary. None the less, it was found that only two relatively natural pairings-Wiltshire and Dorset, and West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire-would arise under a revised plan based on 10 per cent.

It is also probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards in constituencies. Again, that difficulty would be largely overcome. The final positive benefit would mean fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future. Surely, that is of great significance for the political parties and candidates. As we heard from the noble Lord who is an expert on these subjects, and see from the democratic audit paper, the conclusion has to be that there are no significant differences between 5 per cent and 10 per cent equalisation as regards their partisan effect.

I am then faced with the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord and the group of amendments led off by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. On balance, I prefer the simpler, later amendment. I am not sure why we need something that on the face of it appears slightly complicated and obscure but, to a layman and non-lawyer, appears to put slightly tougher criteria on to the shoulders of the Boundary Commission. Here is an opportunity, while meeting all the Government's main objectives, to improve the Bill. I have not heard their response and there may be obstacles that I do not know about. I shall listen carefully and hope that, on this occasion, the Government will say, "Yes, we can accept it". There may be flaws in the amendment and the Government could bring their own forward on Report. I hope, entirely in the interests of the political parties, the candidates and those who care about local links, that the Government will consider the arguments. I will support any of the solutions that they say better fit in with the proper drafting of the Bill.