Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 7:15 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Touhig on his amendment. I do not want to repeat much of the discussion that has taken place in the Chamber during this debate. I have studiously avoided, during my repeated interventions on this Bill, accusing the Government of gerrymandering, because I do not believe that that is the motivation behind this legislation. However, in Wales the accusation of gerrymandering will stick because removing 25 per cent of Wales's Members of Parliament will create-indeed, it is at this moment creating-great suspicion in the minds of the Welsh people.

I claim a right to speak in this debate by way of my birthright in Swansea. My family is almost entirely Welsh. Due to the somewhat rare nature of the Savours name, which is easily traceable to 1602-a task carried out by a great relative of mine at the beginning of the previous century, before the age of the internet-we have quite a lot of information about my family's activities over several hundred years. In preparing for this debate, I particularly researched the role that my family may have played in setting boundaries in Wales. I had been informed -incorrectly, as it turned out-that sheriffs and high sheriffs had historically had the responsibility of setting boundaries. There are two high sheriffs in my family: Edward Savours in 1747 and Robert Savours in 1845. Both were in south Wales, so I obviously had an interest. It seems that the only influence that they may have had was on parish or county boundaries. Since 1832, sheriffs probably had very little influence, as boundaries appear to have been set by a boundary commission after that.

However, during the research, I turned up some interesting background material on the boundaries in Wales. It seems that in 1944, as has already been alluded to, a Speaker's Conference was established. From a pamphlet written in 1995 by Mr Iain McLean, a notable academic in this area, entitled Are Scotland and Wales Over-represented in the House of Commons?, we learn the lessons of history on the use of mathematical formulae and seat reductions in Wales-and how interesting these lessons are. Mr McLean explains what actually happened during the 1944 Speaker's Conference, which was established to resolve arguments over representation. The conference, he says,

"was appointed and run on very similar lines to its predecessor of 1916-17 ... Like its predecessor, the conference published only its conclusions".

However, the minutes of the Speaker's Conference committee are very illuminating. They say:

"It was pointed out that a strict application of the quota for the whole of Great Britain would result in a considerable decrease in the existing number of Scottish and Welsh seats, but that in practice, in view of the proposal that the Boundary Commissioners should be permitted to pay special consideration to geographical considerations ... it was ... unlikely that there would be any substantial reduction. It was strongly urged that ... it would be very desirable, on political grounds, to state from the outset quite clearly that the number of Scottish and Welsh seats should not be diminished. The absence of any such assurance might give rise to a good deal of political feeling and would lend support to the separatist movement in both countries".

The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, referred obliquely to that matter. I think that he was suggesting that that was a likelihood arising out of this legislation as it stands. Mr McLean goes on:

"Accordingly, the conference resolved not to cut the number of seats in ... Wales and to establish a separate boundary commission ... The 1944 recommendations have provided a template for all subsequent legislation ... There should be no reduction in seat numbers for Scotland, or for Wales ... There should be a Great Britain-wide quota, or target electorate, for each seat ... The maximum deviation of any seat from this target should be 25 per cent ... Boundary Commissions might 'depart from the strict application of these rules' if necessitated by 'special geographical considerations, including the area, shape, and accessibility of a constituency'".

Those are exactly the same arguments as we are having today. He continues:

"The Redistribution Act 1944 implemented these rules ... During 1946 and 1947 the Labour Government announced that the 25 per cent rule was too restrictive and was leading the commissioners to break up historic communities. This conservative argument was accepted by the Conservatives; an Act of 1947 removed the explicit 25 per cent rule, and placed equal constituency size below respect for local boundaries in the Commissions' rules".

In other words, no cuts in the number of seats and respect for local boundaries put above a 25 per cent deviation from targets-a lot more than the 5 per cent that is being proposed in this legislation.

As far as I am concerned, this legislation's effect on Wales is utterly absurd. It is unjust. It treats Members of Parliament miserably. It will interfere in family life for many Members of Parliament because the Bill is not even staged-and I heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on the question of staging. It also provides for a great level of disruption in the public service careers of Members of Parliament. Many Members go into Parliament because they believe in public service and the need to contribute to their communities. It is quite unreasonable suddenly to remove 25 per cent of them in the way that is being suggested.

Wales is being punished on the back of a populist response by the coalition Government. The expenses scandal has provoked a backlash against Members of Parliament. The Government's response has been to cut expenses, promise September sittings and cut the number of MPs. It is a kneejerk response and Wales is being appallingly treated. It is absurd that this Parliament should treat the Welsh people and the Welsh nation in this way.