Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), Lords Spokesperson (Wales Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 7:45 pm, 26th January 2011

I think that the noble Lord congratulated us on that at the time.

The point I am trying to make is that the two Scottish highland constituencies to which I referred are substantially greater than Brecon and Radnorshire-in the case of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, almost three times as big; in the case of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, more than four times as big. We would have to go a very long way before we got anywhere near constituencies of that size, which have equally challenging geographical issues. Nevertheless, Members of Parliament have successfully represented those constituencies, as can be seen by the fact that they have been returned regularly in elections.

I take on the genuine issue, which several noble Lords have mentioned, of the effect of the interaction with the Union. I express myself as a passionate advocate of the benefits of the United Kingdom, while at the same time as someone who has vociferously argued for devolution. I recognise the sincerity with which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, raised his concern about the Union.

My point, on which the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, picked me up, is not unreasonable. I think that there is an issue of fairness, and I have not yet heard the argument why it is in some way unfair that a vote in Cardiff should have the same value as a vote in Belfast, London and Edinburgh. Indeed, those who argue the contrary must tell us what explanation we give to a voter in Edinburgh that a vote in Cardiff should be worth more. I have not heard yet that explanation. Neither do I believe that in some way that difference in value will cement Wales's place in the Union. In fact, I think there is some merit in saying that if all parts of the Union are treated equally, that is positive. I would have hesitated to say it, because I am not Welsh, but my noble friend Lord Crickhowell made the point that the Welsh nation can have true confidence in itself. It does not need overrepresentation in order to have confidence in itself. That is worth bearing in mind.

I come on to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when he asked about various points I had made in the past about devolution. Points have been raised about the Speaker's Conference. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, much has happened since the 1944 Speaker's Conference, and much has happened since the remarks attributed to my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke in 1992. We cannot hypothetically say, "What would happen to this Bill if we had the Wales Office and had never had devolution?". That is not the situation today. It is the case that on the back of devolution, Scotland reduced its representation from 72 to 59, but devolution is not relevant to the proposals that the Government are putting forward because we are not seeking to make a distinction between Scotland, which has a different form of devolution from Wales, Wales, which may have more powers following the referendum on 3 March, Northern Ireland, which has a different system of devolution again, and England, which has no devolved government.

Noble Lords made the point that the United Kingdom Parliament deals with macroeconomic policies, defence-the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke of the contribution that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom make to the Armed Forces-social security matters and pensions matters. The Government are saying that representation should be fair in all parts of the United Kingdom. There may be some who would argue that because Scotland has its Parliament dealing with a range of domestic issues, there could even be an argument for underrepresentation, but that is not the position of the Government. The Government believe that there should be equal representation in all parts of the United Kingdom, and that is what underlies this. We do not find it particularly acceptable that, for example, the constituency of Arfon, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, has an electorate of just over 40,000 whereas Falkirk has an electorate of 80,000. Indeed, it was pointed out that even within Wales, there are substantial divergences in the number of electors.

I shall pick up the point on the Welsh language. I cannot see why the reduction in the number of Members from Wales would have an impact on the Welsh language. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, some of the great steps forward for the Welsh language were taken by people who were not Welsh-speaking in response to those who made very good, cogent arguments for the Welsh language over many years. It is the case that many Members of Parliament in our inner cities are dealing with constituencies in which a variety of languages are used by people from minority ethnic communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, made an important and valuable contribution when he referred to his manuscript amendment and there will be an opportunity to debate it more fully when-when-we come to Clause 18. The amendment would, as I understand it, mean that the first boundary review would take place as though the new rules were in force; the existing legislation would remain in force in the mean time; the new boundary provisions would be commenced only once the Boundary Commissions had reported; and votes in both Houses on the commencement order would be at that point. The House would effectively have the choice of commencing the new rules or retaining the 1986 Act rules. I recognise the intention behind this amendment, which was briefly spoken to by the noble Lord, and I salute the helpful spirit in which it was proposed. We will clearly want to give thought to the issues that it raises, but I will put down a caveat in that it invites Parliament to do what it does not usually do. Parliament usually sets the rules for the Boundary Commission and does not give people who have more than a vested interest in them the opportunity to decide whether they should introduce new boundaries that have a direct effect on them. Having said that, it is an innovative suggestion that I would be very happy to discuss with the noble Lord. I hope we will be able to have that discussion soon before we debate his amendment in due course.

In conclusion, I repeat that the provisions in this Bill will mean a reduction in the number of Welsh constituencies, just as in the rest of the United Kingdom. In opening this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, pointed out that Wales has 5 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. On the 2009 figures, the overall proportion of Welsh seats in Westminster would go from 6 per cent to 5 per cent. I do not believe that that poses a threat to the Union. If anything, I believe that greater fairness and equality can help strengthen our union, and I beg the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.