Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Rowlands Lord Rowlands Labour 6:45 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I had the privilege of representing for 30 years one of the most remarkable constituencies in the country. It cannot be denied that Merthyr Tydfil has played an enormous role in the political, social and cultural developments in Wales, particularly in south Wales. It also has a remarkable sense of continuity. There has been mention of the Reform Act 1832. That Act created Merthyr Tydfil as a constituency, although not until the very last minute. In the last moments of the debates in the Commons and the last stages of the third Reform Bill, the Government eventually gave in to pressure to create the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. In three successive Bills it was proposed that Merthyr should be a contributory borough of Cardiff. Neither Merthyr nor Cardiff thought that that was a good idea. Cardiff believed that it would be swamped by the Merthyr hordes and Merthyr considered that it was-as it was at that time-a more populous and more economically thriving community than the decaying county town of Cardiff. At the very last minute, the boundary change was made, and the concession was made.

When I reread the proceedings of the 1832 Reform Bills, two things struck me. One was that the Government of the day, and Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell, made considerable concessions to gain parliamentary assent. They seem to have accepted that the only way they could get that major Reform Bill through was by building parliamentary assent. They made concessions that some people thought they never should have made, but they were made. You do not create great parliamentary reform of this kind through ministerial macho approaches. It is important to build parliamentary assent. One of the saddest things about our lengthy debates is that no such attempt to build parliamentary assent has been made-not so far, anyway. I hope that at this late stage that process can and should start.

As I say, Merthyr Tydfil was created by the Reform Act 1832. During the 19th century it grew in population and electorate and became a two-Member seat. In 1900, it produced a remarkable dual membership: the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie, who served the constituency alongside one of the richest men in Britain, the mighty coal owner DA Thomas, later Viscount Rhondda. In 1918, it reverted to a single-Member seat. Since 1918 to this very day, the core of the Merthyr constituency is the Merthyr county borough. However, given its remit, I have no guarantee or assurance that the Boundary Commission will respect that core. It may do what a former Boundary Commission once recommended and fracture the core of that constituency-the community-based constituency that I had the privilege of serving. I am fortunate that, in 34 years in the other place, I went through only one parliamentary Boundary Commission.

Listening to these debates has brought back many memories of that experience. One of the first proposals of the Boundary Commission convened before the 1983 election was that Aberfan and the Merthyr Vale ward in the heart of the Merthyr Valley should be transferred to a new constituency in the Cynon Valley. There were two problems with that. First, there happened to be a rather large mountain between the two and there was no direct route between them, which meant that local people thought that the Boundary Commission was working off a flat map with no contours of any kind.

Secondly, can one imagine the total insensitivity of supposing that Aberfan and Merthyr Vale be removed from the Merthyr constituency at a time when, some years after the Aberfan tragedy, we were still dealing with its long-term consequences at both parliamentary and borough level? That is the kind of insensitivity that I fear will arise time and again if the Boundary Commission's remit stays as it is. It will not respect the community feeling that is such a passionate part of our political and community life. I felt that most forcefully when in 1983 the then Boundary Commission eventually amended the constituency by attaching the Rhymney Valley to Merthyr. This was not thought well of in the Rhymney Valley. There are deep attachments not necessarily to counties but to constituencies. The people of Rhymney Valley were passionately attached to their constituency of Ebbw Vale. It was little wonder that that was the case as they had been represented for more than 30 years by Aneurin Bevan and were represented at that time by Michael Foot. It took a huge effort to try to rebuild and connect communities to make the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney feel as one, and these were communities with identical political and social values.

While Boundary Commissions are impartial, they are certainly not infallible. The great value of local inquiries is that they allow communities to educate the commissioners in what communities are all about. However, communities will be denied that under this Bill if the Boundary Commission makes the absurd proposals that have been made in the past, which happily were quickly rejected because of the outrage that they caused locally. That experience could be repeated over and over again, as they cut across normal communities and move wards around, as is feared will be the consequence of the Bill.

I also want to touch upon the second point about the relationship between the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster and the union. I heard and reread the first attempt by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to defend this argument a week last Monday. He said:

"The important point to remember is that the reform means that a vote in Cardiff will have an equal value to a vote in Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh or London. To me, that does not undermine the union; giving an equal value to a vote in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London will, we hope, bring the union closer together".-[Hansard, 10/01/2011; col. 1227.]

The notion that by cutting 10 constituencies in Wales and reducing representation to the Commons by 25 per cent will somehow create a closer sense of union is an absurd suggestion by the noble and learned Lord, who has made a very good fist of a very poor case throughout most of these debates. I do not think that the kind of cut that is envisaged will create a closer union; I think it will sow seeds of disunion.

I cannot follow the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that numbers do not matter. Besides equality, they matter every now and then in the Lobbies. Among other things, therefore, a proper representation-certainly not 30-is essential for the good maintenance of the union, alongside devolution itself. I might be a bit of an endangered species in this case. My noble friend Professor Lord Morgan was, I think, thinking of me; I am an old-fashioned Labour unionist at heart and in the Bevanite tradition that meant that you had to be where power is. Power is and will remain, very substantially, in Whitehall and Westminster to influence the affairs of Wales. We cannot afford to reduce that representation, or to be perceived to have done so. Never mind being perceived; it will have happened if we cut the numbers by the amount suggested.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, feel any affinity to the great Whig/Liberal tradition that created the Reform Act 1832, with Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell. At least during the course of that Bill they made very strategic concessions to create parliamentary assent. Thankfully, as a result of that pressure, they created the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, that they start making strategic concessions tonight by accepting these amendments.