Committee (11th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 19th January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Chair, HIV and AIDS Committee in the United Kingdom 6:30 pm, 19th January 2011

Having started and tried to get consensus, I shall not continue to debate with the noble Lord, because I am obviously not doing very well at it. It was the word "sprat" that offended me.

Few issues in politics-many of us who have been in the other place will understand this-are more important or sensitive than constituency boundaries. I speak with some experience on this. My first constituency was not Sutton Coldfield but Nottingham South. Sadly, when I entered the other place in 1970 for my first Queen's Speech, it was to hear that the boundary review was to be implemented and that, as a result of that, my seat was to be abolished. It is not exactly what you hope and expect to hear on your first day in Parliament. Things could only get better.

The seat was being abolished because the Boundary Commission thought it wrong to have a constituency that crossed the river at Trent Bridge, going from the city to the county at West Bridgford. That was in spite of the fact that it took only a couple of minutes to walk over the bridge, there was no toll on the bridge and you certainly did not need a ferry to make the crossing.

When it comes to the Isle of Wight, of which I have been a resident for more than 25 years, the theory is exactly the opposite. The consequence of what is being proposed in the Bill is that a new constituency would be formed that would be partly on the mainland and partly on the Isle of Wight, in spite of the fact the two parts would be eight to 10 miles apart, over a stretch of sea and with expensive ferries being the only means of communication. It is claimed that there must be this kind of new constituency because it is essential that all constituencies should have electorates of around 76,000, when the Isle of Wight has 110,000. No exceptions are possible, except the two in the Bill both concerning island constituencies and where the electorates are not abnormally high but abnormally low.

My amendment would allow there to be one or two constituencies on the Isle of Wight. Most importantly, it follows the amendment put down in the other place by Andrew Turner, the excellent Member of Parliament for the island who was elected on a manifesto that promised opposition to a cross-Solent constituency. You might think that his amendment would have been carefully considered in the other place, but you would be absolutely wrong. Due to the timetabling arrangements in the other place, which perhaps underlines a little the debate that has gone before, he was allowed no time at all in Committee, four minutes on Report and no opportunity to bring the proposition to a vote.

I cannot believe that this is a sensible way of governing this country. If nothing else, this amendment gives the other place the opportunity at least to consider the proposition concerning the Isle of Wight. I emphasise that the proposition is supported by every political party on the island; we speak as one on this. It would be the first time since the Reform Act 1832 that the unity of the Isle of Wight in parliamentary terms would be destroyed. It would be a bad deal for the island and for whatever area of the mainland forms part of the proposed new constituency.

There are several practical reasons why the proposal is not in the public interest. The most basic point is that however you put together a new, divided constituency, no one believes that you can create a community, yet all the political parties in this country talk at some length about the importance of building communities. This proposal goes smack against that objective. If a new constituency was created out of part of Portsmouth and the east of the Isle of Wight, the travel difficulties involved in moving between one part and the other would be both immense and expensive. We are not talking about walking over Trent Bridge but about having to take a ferry or a hovercraft. A return journey by car ferry is likely to cost £50, and it could cost £100. A trip by hovercraft is less expensive but presents the problem of how to get about on the other side. The bus service tries hard but everyone would concede that it does not meet all the needs of the public. The internal rail service is typified by the provision of antique, cast-off London Transport carriages, as everyone who has been to the Isle of Wight knows. None of this is a recipe for free and easy movement in the new constituency or in a community.

Nor are the interests of the island and the mainland necessarily the same. For example, on another part of the island, the islanders want an improved ferry service from Yarmouth to Lymington, but they are strongly opposed by the mainland Lymington River Association, which wants nothing of the kind. There is no community of interest.

There has been no consultation with the people on the island about this proposal. Had there been, the Government would have discovered that all three political parties are opposed to a cross-Solent constituency-as are the county council, including the independents, the other councils on the island and, overwhelmingly, the public, 18,000 of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, which was collected in literally only a couple of weeks. Obviously it is not as easy to gauge the view of the public on the mainland because we do not know what part of the mainland the new constituency is meant to tie up with. However, if we are talking about Portsmouth, Southampton or somewhere else, I guess that there would not be overwhelming support for the proposition.

Two points in particular need to be borne in mind. First, given the electoral size of the island constituencies that are made exceptions to the 76,000 size rule in the Bill-Orkney and Shetland and what used to be the Western Isles; Orkney and Shetland has 33,000 constituents and the other constituency has 22,000-if there was only one constituency on the Isle of the Wight, the difference from the standard would not be anything like as great as that, and the same would be true if there were two constituencies.

However, a second and perhaps even more fundamental point is that the Boundary Commission looked at the proposition of a cross-Solent constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was, even then, 103,000-33 per cent larger than the average-and the commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency. However, it concluded that to do so would,

"disregard the historical and unique geographical situation".

It found that it would,

"create confusion and a feeling of loss of identity", among the island's electorate. It also stated that,

"communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament".

I am sad to say that, despite that conclusive and independent thumbs down, the Government have persisted with this proposal.

I say directly to the government Front Bench that both coalition partners promised an end to the "politics of ignoring the people"-and I dare say that the Labour Party has made a similar pledge. Frankly, it is no more than common sense. Yet the proposal to preserve the position of the Isle of Wight and to give it similar consideration to that of the Scottish islands has the support of its Member of Parliament, of neighbouring MPs, of political parties on the island, of the councils, of the business community and, above all, of the public. I do not think that the public and the community on the Isle of Wight could have made the position any clearer than they have. I very much hope that in the debate today and tonight the Government will not try to ride roughshod over this public opinion and ignore it.

My hope is that the Minister will today give a commitment that the Government will look at this again; that they will consider the arguments that I have put, and which doubtless others will put, in the debate; and that he will meet me and others and consider how we can make progress before Report. It should not be beyond the capacity of the House to correct the present deeply unsatisfactory position. I beg to move.