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 Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 7:15 pm, 26th January 2011

We have had an extraordinary debate with many outstanding speeches from all sides of the Committee. I say more in sorrow than in anger that I am disappointed that no one from the Liberal Democrat Benches has spoken, particularly with their great tradition as a party in Wales. I cannot believe that they had nothing to say on this issue.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than on any other nation of the United Kingdom. Wales is projected to lose 10 seats of the 40 that it currently has. This represents, as we have heard, a 25 per cent reduction in its Westminster parliamentary representation. It is clearly a very significant proposal. What is so astonishing is that there was no debate in the other place on this matter. The guillotine came down. Does the Minister agree that it is outrageous and hard to understand how the elected House of Parliament could not debate this matter?

But it is worse than that. Many noble Lords who have spoken come from Wales and know how Wales is represented in another place. They will know that the Welsh Grand Committee, comprising all Members of Parliament from Wales, provides a forum for debate relating to Wales. The Grand Committee can meet only when the House directs it to do so. In effect, the Government decide when there is a need for such a meeting. A request was made from a distinguished ex-Secretary of State on 15 September 2010 to the current Secretary of State, the right honourable Mrs Gillan, to convene the Welsh Grand Committee. Unusually, the request was refused. In its report, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee made this comment about that refusal:

"We consider the Secretary of State for Wales' decision not to convene a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee in this instance to be very disappointing".

Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he thinks that that decision can be justified.

As many noble Lords have said, the prospect of this drastic reduction in the number of Members of Parliament has caused great concern in Wales and among those who are interested in Welsh matters. The all-party Welsh Affairs Select Committee of another place, made up of six government supporters and six opposition supporters, produced a report shortly after the Bill began its legislative stages in another place which was highly critical of the proposed changes. It said:

"A decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change".

The Select Committee concluded, as we have been arguing during our discussion on the Bill:

"There is no need to rush into reorganising the electoral system without careful and measured consideration of the differential effects on the different parts of the UK".

As the debate in the Committee today has shown, this drastic reduction in the number of MPs has provoked more than considerable concern. For a start, it is a complete departure from the current legal minimum of 35 seats for Wales, enshrined, as we have heard, in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which was passed by a Conservative Government, who should take great credit for that piece of legislation. It is also a significant reduction from the level of Welsh constituencies that was in place at the time when the Welsh people voted for the devolution settlement in 1998. That settlement, as the former Welsh Secretary, my right honourable friend Paul Murphy, noted in debates in the other place, was a package. It was, he explained,

"not simply the establishment of the Assembly, but the continuance of Members of Parliament, at that level, here in the House of Commons to protect the interests of the people of Wales and their nation. If we have a referendum, and there are greater powers, that might change, but at least people would have voted on it. However, in 1998, they voted for the opposite-the retention of Members of Parliament".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 72.]

Importantly, that point was echoed by Mr Simon Hart, the Conservative Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, who warned the Government that a reduction of 25 per cent in the number of Welsh constituencies ahead of the referendum on new powers for the Welsh Assembly was being decided,

"without any reference to the Welsh nation".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 119.]

Will the Minister please explain why the forthcoming referendum on powers has no bearing in the Bill on the level of Welsh parliamentary representation?

Leaving aside the issue of the referendum, a number of factors suggest that this sudden and deep reduction in Welsh representation goes too far, too fast. The imposition of a UK-wide electoral quota of the kind imposed by the Bill is bound to create one or two enormous Welsh constituencies that will be overwhelmingly rural in nature and will cover wide and in places inaccessible territories. It will force the construction of new constituencies in the Welsh valleys, which will be impractical and injurious to local community ties, as many noble Lords have said.

Previously, these were the sort of concerns that could have been soothed to a degree through the application of common sense and through the forum of public inquiries, which the Bill proposes to abolish. Will the noble and learned Lord clarify whether there will still be a right to hold public inquiries in boundary reviews concerning the constituencies of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not of the mother of Parliaments in Westminster?

I return to the issue of whether a uniform approach is right for the whole of the United Kingdom. In fairness, the Bill contains one rule to override the electoral parity rule, which acknowledges the fact that the United Kingdom is a union of four parts. That rule prohibits Boundary Commissions from creating any constituencies across national borders and recognises that the different parts of the union have their own special characteristics, traditions and administrative structures. My right honourable friend the shadow Welsh Secretary and ex-Secretary of State, Peter Hain, said:

"Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission for Wales, with cross-party support over the generations. For that reason, Parliament first decided in 1947 that there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts between the population over the past 60 years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to 40. As a note from the Commons Library of 28 July 2010 confirms ... during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, Mr Clarke rejected the argument that over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long-standing constitutional arrangement".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 123.]

That was mentioned in the debate. I ask the Minister whether he thinks that his right honourable colleague was wrong in that judgment.

We are not arguing that Wales should be protected from any reduction in parliamentary representation. The Committee is made up of political realists and we understand that the Government have some legitimate basic objectives, including the creation of more equal-sized seats. The question that has run through all our debates is whether those objectives need to be pursued in so rigid a fashion. Two noble Lords today used the word "savage" to describe the way in which this has been dealt with and questioned whether it must be pursued in a way that excludes all other factors.

We are beginning to see, in debates and votes on amendments that would inject a little more flexibility into the rigid rules set out in the Bill, a growing acceptance around the Committee that the Government should pay more attention to other considerations. Wales is an obvious area where some sensitivity at least should be given to special geographical characteristics, as well as to its status as a nation-this point was made by many noble Lords-within a larger union in which clearly England is the dominant force in wealth, population and political representation. The Welsh Affairs Committee stated that its concern was,

"about how the Government's proposals will affect Wales in ways distinct from the overall picture for the UK".

We know that, if the Bill passes, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its MPs, Northern Ireland will lose 17 per cent, Scotland 16 per cent and England 5 per cent. If the Government profess to be interested in fairness, it is important that the interests of each region are properly heard at Westminster.

The Government's proposals would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs representing Wales by 25 per cent. The Select Committee said that by any yardstick this would be a profound change to the way in which Wales is represented in Parliament. Paragraph 51 of the committee's report states:

"No persuasive argument has been presented to justify the haste with which this legislation is being pursued. There is no need for the legislation paving the way to the AV referendum to be linked to that fixing the size and number of parliamentary constituencies. Indeed, there are strong grounds for separating consideration of the two issues in time, both for Parliament and for the electorate ... a decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change".

The vast majority of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have agreed with that conclusion. We on the opposition Front Bench agree with it. If my noble friend seeks to test the opinion of the House, which is a matter entirely for him, we will encourage Labour Peers to support him.