Committee (11th Day) (Continued)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 19th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 10:30 pm, 19th January 2011

What makes this an absolutely Alice in Wonderland debate is that, when the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, reads Hansard, he will see that that is just what I said. I thank him for his support.

The commitment to represent everybody in the constituency does not necessarily mean, as has been made clear a number of times, that we should look to population rather than registration for basing the electorate. The electoral register has been the basis for boundary reviews since the 1940s. Current constituencies in the other place are drawn up on the basis of electorate, not population. It was made clear earlier this evening that there are reasons and principles for this practice and approach. The principle behind the Government's proposal is to ensure that one elector means one vote of equal weight, wherever that vote is cast in the United Kingdom. In order for this to be the case, constituencies must have a broadly equal number of electors. Simply to substitute population for electors would exacerbate the present inequalities in the weight of vote because there would be variations in the number of individuals in an area who are not entitled to vote. The best way to achieve fair and equal votes and to address concerns about underregistration is to have an equal number of registered electors while ensuring that the register is as accurate as possible.

A further argument has been put that the constituency boundaries should be drawn on the basis of population rather than the register of electors because a Member of Parliament is elected to represent all his constituents and a significant part of an MP's work can be on behalf of those who are not registered to vote. That argument has been made several times. However-this point has been made several times, but I shall say it again loudly-no Member of Parliament has a free ride. MPs have different kinds of pressures and different areas of responsibility, so it would be invidious to start deciding that constituency X rather than constituency Y had more problems. Most MPs will give a full description of the kind of problems that their particular constituency brings. That is why the Government believe that it is the right of electors to have a vote that is of equal weight between, as well as within, constituencies throughout the United Kingdom.

There have been ideas that we could use population. The difficulty is, as the Office for National Statistics has pointed out, that there are limitations with population estimates. Although I have heard in previous debates the suggestion that we could use the census, the data from the forthcoming census will not be available until far too late for the Boundary Commission to complete the task of reviewing the boundaries by 2015, which would mean that, up to the 2020 general election, the pattern of representation in the House of Commons would reflect the electoral register as it was in the year 2000. I cannot believe that we should do such a disservice to every elector in that way.

Nor, as I noted in the earlier debate on a similar amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, can we accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, that the total population of a constituency could not exceed a number that is 130 per cent of the electoral quota. I recognise the intention behind that amendment, but the data are not available that could make that work in practice. The Boundary Commission would need population data at a very low level of geography in order to ensure that the tests in the amendment were met. Those data are not available. It would be far better to use the electoral register, as has always been the case for boundary reviews, and concentrate our efforts on improving the registration rates. The census may provide valuable information that can support that work. The provisions in this Bill for a review once a Parliament, rather than once every eight to 12 years, will mean that the work will be reflected in a review very much sooner than would be the case under the existing provisions.

I note what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who made a valid point. I know that boundary reviews cause problems in terms of sitting MPs, but this proposal is for the benefit of the electors. Amendment 74C proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would allow the Boundary Commission to take into account likely rapid changes in population when making recommendations for boundary changes. Amendment 78A, which has not been moved by my noble friend Lord Maples, would require the commissions to take into account projected increases in the electorate.

My concern is that, however calculations were made on the projected electorate, there would, by definition, be an element of interpretation that would be subject to repeated challenge. Furthermore, the amendments would abolish the fixed figure and replace it with a moving target. I am concerned that interested parties would be likely to use this for arguing for a more advantageous calculation method for the projections. In order to maintain the high levels of trust in our system, we must base boundary reviews on the availability of actual data.

That said, I hope that we can reassure noble Lords on this issue. The Fifth Periodical Report of the Boundary Commission for England notes that the commission takes into account projected electorate changes where it believes that the projection is likely to become a reality. We are confident that the Bill does nothing to stop the commissions continuing that practice, and we would expect them to apply this practice where they judge that the specific circumstances warrant it. I would advocate continuing to rely on the professional and expert judgment of the commissions.

We agree that constituencies should be as up to date as reasonably possible in order that boundaries reflect where electors live and in order that votes have equal weight. The answer to this is the Bill's provision for redistributions to take place every five years.

At this point, in the tradition that has been established in the last hour in this House, I would offer the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, a meeting on this, but I think that his diary is probably already full. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.