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 Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:45 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be taking part for the first time in this debate tonight. The Welsh Affairs Committee report has been quoted several times tonight. I will quote from it again:

"The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than any other nation of the UK. Wales is projected to lose ten of its forty parliamentary seats, a reduction of 25%. We agree with the principle that all votes should have equal weighting. However, equalisation between constituencies is only one of a number of factors to be taken into account when deciding constituency boundaries. The unique geography, history and communities of Wales must not be ignored when the Boundary Commission undertakes its review".

The former Secretary of State for Wales, my right honourable friend Paul Murphy MP, said in evidence to the committee that the reduction in the number of MPs is unprecedented:

"Wales has had a dedicated number of MPs in Parliament since the middle of the Sixteenth Century. This is to safeguard the rights of a small nation in a United Kingdom".

The report goes on to say:

"In a democracy, it is an important consideration that every effort is made to ensure that votes have equal weight. However, no electoral system genuinely delivers a wholly 'fair' outcome in these terms. Notwithstanding this principle, other factors legitimately weigh in the consideration of where the balance of fairness lies. It is also important that the interests of each region of the United Kingdom are properly heard at Westminster. The Government's proposals would reduce, at a stroke, the number of MPs representing Wales by 25%. By any yardstick, this would be a profound change to the way that Wales is represented".

Tonight, we have heard a lot about having equal weight in voting, but does saying that something is equal mean fairness? Does it mean democracy? One aspect of this is that Welsh Assembly boundaries will be different from Westminster boundaries, and I think that that will cause problems. I know that this has happened in Scotland, but Scotland is not Wales. Scotland has already reduced its numbers because it has much greater devolved powers than we have in Wales. I think that it will cause problems if we have 30 Westminster seats and 40 Assembly seats, especially if we have elections on the same day in May 2015.

We do not know what the result of the referendum on 3 March will be. Most of us will be hoping for a yes vote, but even with that yes vote no greater powers will be devolved to Wales. It will mean that Wales can make primary legislation without coming to Westminster on matters that have already been devolved to Wales.

I am not sure whether the position of women has been mentioned in the 14 days of Committee debate, but with equality and fairness, surely democracy must be mentioned. There are not many women MPs in Wales. We have never had many women MPs. There have been only 13 since 1918. At the moment there are seven. The largest number that we ever had at one time was in 2005 and we are now down to seven. It could be that, throughout the country, with a reduction of 50 and the new boundaries, women will lose out. There will be fewer women MPs at Westminster in 2015 than we have now, and that is something that all parties should consider deeply. The main parties want to see bigger representation and this must be taken into consideration.

The south Wales valleys have been mentioned several times. My noble friend Lord Rowlands mentioned Merthyr Valley in his former constituency. I have lived for most of my life in the Rhondda Valley, which has an electorate of just over 50,000. We are surrounded by the Cynon Valley, Pontypridd and Ogmore, which would be possible areas where you could expand. Lewis Baston, who has been mentioned several times, suggests that in order to fit in the numbers to get to the magical 75,000, Rhondda and Ogmore could become one constituency. My noble friend Lord Kinnock is smiling because he knows the area, and many noble Lords will as well as I do. We know that Rhondda and Ogmore have no natural links whatever. How on earth can you have a Rhondda and Ogmore constituency when you have a great big mountain between us? You can go over the mountain road, but that is closed the minute there is any fog, ice or snow. It would be extremely difficult and the Rhondda and Ogmore people are totally different communities. The Rhondda Valley is unique, as are all the valleys. There is no other place in the United Kingdom like the south Wales valleys.

It is worrying. Where will you get these extra votes? Wales is taking such a big hit because 22 of the smallest constituencies are in Wales. Was it taken into account when the figures of 50 and 75,000 were decided that Wales would be the hardest hit? I doubt it. I suppose it was done on a piece of paper and someone thought that it was a good formula, but as a result Wales has taken a big hit.

In the Rhondda Valley, the community spirit is still very strong. We people in the Rhondda practised the big society before it was ever heard of. People have a strong community spirit. The miners of the Rhondda built their own hospitals and we had our own libraries, all contributed from the miners' pay packets every week. We had our own doctors before the NHS ever came into being.

I would like to say a little about how strong the Rhondda spirit is and how strongly people feel in the valleys. John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, decided that there would be local government reorganisation and we would have unitary authorities instead of districts and counties. There would be 22 constituencies. One of them would be made up of Rhondda, Cynon Valley and Pontypridd and it would be called the Glamorgan Valleys, which meant that Rhondda would no longer be in the title of our local government. Two wonderful Rhondda women, Betty Bowen and the late Carys Pugh, who noble Lords will remember, decided that this was not on and that Rhondda would not disappear from local government.

They fought a campaign-just the two of them-and this was before the internet and mobile phones, Facebook or Twitter. They had support from all over the world from ex-Rhondda people who said that Rhondda must not disappear. They secured a meeting with John Redwood and he had the good sense to meet these two wonderful and formidable women. As a result, the Secretary of State eventually bowed to their wishes and the council was called Rhondda Cynon Taff Council. After all that effort, the council is generally now known in the Rhondda by its initials RCT. That is just one example of how strongly people in the Rhondda feel about it.

The Welsh language has been mentioned, which is very important to all of us in Wales. I do not speak Welsh myself, but my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren speak Welsh. The Office for National Statistics states that the increase of people speaking Welsh in Wales in the 2001 census was largely as a result of children being taught the language in schools. This goes way back to the 1950s, when the old Glamorgan County Council, in a non-Welsh speaking area, made sure that Welsh medium schools were started, and they have been a great success. The report said that because of the Welsh medium schools, we now have many more children speaking Welsh. The report states that in all age groups, women are more likely to have Welsh language skills than men, and the,

"difference was most notable in the 10 to 15 and 16 to 19 year old age groups-in both cases the proportion of girls able to speak, read and write Welsh was seven percentage points higher than boys".

I make that point because much was said about Welshmen speaking Welsh.

I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Touhig because we would lose 25 per cent of our MPs, but not gain any more powers. I can see that there might be a case if we had more powers, similar to Scotland, but it is wrong. Stifling the voice and the strength of the Welsh people is wrong. I ask the Minister to think again before allowing this to happen and to take into consideration all that has been said today because Welsh people will be listening to this debate. They did not have a chance to listen to what went on in the House of Commons because of the guillotine, but they will listen closely to what this coalition Government have to say about Wales. I am sure that they would want a really good response and that they will take note when the elections come on 5 May.