Committee (12th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 24th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 6:00 pm, 24th January 2011

My noble friend is absolutely right. I was just about to make that point; the Member of Parliament is liable to be conflicted if he owes equal loyalty to different local authorities, which might themselves be at odds on important policy issues. Under the provisions of the Bill, as my noble friend suggested, it would be difficult for a Member of Parliament to deal with elected county councillors in two different counties that overlapped with his constituency. In the previous debate I quoted Dr Lewis Baston on the danger that, with the narrow 5 per cent tolerance-or, as the Minister likes to call it, a 10 per cent tolerance: both ways from the norm of 76,000 voters-wards would all too frequently be split.

Equally, there will be all too frequent occasions on which constituency boundaries have to cross county council boundaries. Again, to quote Dr Baston:

"In the Democratic Audit model of how boundaries could be drawn using a 5 per cent rule, 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 (North Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire). Furthermore, relatively small future changes in electorate size would lead to disruptive change to the county groupings every parliament. A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture", and vastly for the better. This question of a 5 per cent or 10 per cent tolerance connects absolutely inextricably with the issue of alignment with local authority boundaries. It is very important that we do not make a mistake by legislating so tightly that we break the existing pattern of good working relations as it largely prevails between Members of Parliament and local authorities; and fragment constituencies between different local authorities, making for a far more complex, even chaotic, pattern-if you can call it that-of relationships.

That matters very much for the constituents of both ward members and Members of Parliament. We all know that in Members' constituency surgeries cases are brought to them that, in principle, ought to have been taken to the ward member. Sensible, practical, fluid relationships between Members of Parliament and their colleagues in local government, in the service of their shared constituents, are very precious and important within our system. It will be made more difficult if we see the sort of fragmentation that the Government seem willing to contemplate.

The same applies to voluntary organisations, which are part of the warp and weft of our democratic life, activism and citizenship in the healthiest way in our constituencies. It is unfair on voluntary bodies to require them, often with very limited resources and hard pressed to do the tasks that they do in the interests of their communities, to have to relate to a much more complex cat's cradle of elected representatives than need be the case.

What lies behind our concern on this side of the House to ensure that this legislation allows for the continuation of a sensible and workable pattern of relationships between local authorities and Members of Parliament is respect for local government. Local government in this country is too weak. If it is to become ill-assorted with Westminster representation, it will be bad for our democratic culture. As my noble friends have stressed, the ward is the building block and basis of our democracy. The Minister and Mr Nick Clegg have both paid lip service to the importance of the ward as that building block. We must allow it to be a reality. Unless we make it realistic and practical for political parties to organise at ward level, and then to campaign both for elections to local authorities and elections to Westminster constituencies, we will vex, confuse and undermine the operation of local authorities. It will be made worse if there are to be boundary reviews every five years and frequent shifts of boundary. Let us, for heaven's sake, not make the situation any more complex and tormenting than it need be for local political parties. For these reasons, securing a rational and reasonably consistent alignment of constituency boundaries with local authority boundaries, and minimising the occasions on which constituency boundaries traverse local authority boundaries, is well worth some compromise of the pure principle of numerical equality.