Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 26th January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Conservative 6:30 pm, 26th January 2011

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is a fellow north Walian. I look forward to hearing his maiden speech, but perhaps not this evening. We have gone on long enough I think.

As we are all aware, under the Bill as it stands, the total of Welsh parliamentary seats will be reduced from 40 to 30, which is an unprecedented figure. Even in 1832 Wales had 32 seats and, of course, the number has grown since then to 35 under the Representation of the People Act 1918, 36 under the Representation of the People Act 1948, to 38 in 1982-83, and 40 in 1995, under various statutory instruments passed by Conservative Governments. So the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, is perfectly correct in saying that both major parties have contributed over the years to this increase in Welsh representation. It is interesting to note that in 1948, while the Labour Government reduced the overall number of Members of the House of Commons from 640 to 625, they increased the number of Welsh seats by one.

How have the present proposals come about? The Government made their views very clear in the evidence that they supplied to the Welsh Affairs Committee, which conducted an inquiry into the implications for Wales of the Government's proposals. It is clear from that evidence that it is the equal value of votes cast at parliamentary elections across the UK that is the overriding principle. Currently they do not have equal value. The Government go on to say in that evidence:

"The electoral quota for Wales's forty constituencies averages around 56,500, the lowest of the four nations in the United Kingdom. Welsh constituencies now have on average some 20% fewer electors than constituencies in England; almost 14% fewer than constituencies in Scotland; and some 13% fewer than constituencies in Northern Ireland".

Those are the facts. The Government go on in that evidence to point out the inequality in vote value among constituencies in Wales. They say:

"For example, the vote of an elector in Arfon, with an electorate of around 41,000, is worth almost twice that of an elector in Cardiff South and Penarth, with an electorate of over 73,000. The votes of electors in Aberconwy, Dwyfor Meirionydd and Montgomeryshire, all with electorates below 50,000, are worth considerably more than those in the Vale of Glamorgan, with an electorate of over 70,000 ... The Government believes that, again, there is strong justification for ending this manifest inequality".

I cannot say that that is felt at all acutely in Wales. Nevertheless, those are the facts that we must consider.

Some would think that the Government's proposals are among the consequentials of devolution and the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales with its 60 representatives. They would recall that Scottish representation was reduced in 2005 from 72 to 59. The Government's evidence appears to deny that in the case of Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, was absolutely right on that. In their evidence the Government deal with the view,

"that given the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales and the extent of devolution to the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government, Wales's representation at Westminster should be proportionally less than that of England, not the same. The Government disagrees with this view. Since devolution, Parliament continues to legislate for the whole of the United Kingdom on matters that are non-devolved, including social security, tax, immigration and defence. It is surely right in principle that the people of Wales should have the same level of representation in respect to these matters as the people of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland".

There we have the Government's reasoned justification for their proposals. We are all aware of the factors that the Boundary Commission may take into account in deciding boundaries. We would all probably agree that a 10 per cent variation on either side of the quota would probably make life easier without mortally injuring the basic equality principle that lies at the heart of this Bill. As has already been said, Mr Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit has drafted a list of a possible 30 constituencies approximating the required size. The list is to be found in the Welsh Affairs Committee evidence. It merits close study. Of course it would be controversial, as any proposals for boundary changes are bound to be.

Devolution and the election of 60 National Assembly Members should have reduced the constituency workload of MPs, especially in the areas of devolved government-health, education, housing, and so on. But some MPs tell me that constituents still come to see them rather than their Assembly Members. If so, that is a problem that they should sort out among themselves at ground level. Wales has many problems. Indeed someone asked where Wales would be without its problems. More MPs than average is not the answer in my view. I agree that it is a matter of quality. Better quality MPs might help, but not more.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell has expressed my views very well about the very eloquent arguments that we have heard in the course of this debate. Like him, I shall continue to ponder, but your Lordships may rest assured that there is no doubt that the issue of parliamentary representation of Wales is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has said, Parliament has played a very important part in our history. I hesitate to say it but surely the 16th century Act that was passed requiring the translation of the Bible into Welsh was a unique piece of Welsh legislation. If my memory, which is faulty, nevertheless serves me correct, it was 1563 and it was a fellow countryman from the Conwy valley, where I reside, Richard Davies, who actually pressed that statute in this very House.