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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (14th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:00 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 11:00 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, this is an important amendment about public inquiries. It is well known throughout this House and the other place what the Act does: it does not simply abolish the entitlement to a public inquiry; it prohibits a public inquiry, even though the Boundary Commission might consider that the most appropriate way in which to deal with issues that arise in relation to a proposed new setting of a boundary. Clause 12(1) inserts a new Section 5(2) into the 1986 Act which states that:

"A Boundary Commission may not cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act", and Clause 12(2) states that:

"Section 6 of the 1986 Act (local inquiries) is repealed".

The old system of local inquiries is repealed, and a prohibition is imposed on the Boundary Commission concluding that it should have one.

We submit that this is damaging to the process and reduces its legitimacy in setting constituency boundaries. In our original amendment, we proposed to delete the subsection prohibiting public inquiries and to insert the wording relating to inquiries contained in the existing legislation. That would have put the Government at one end of the spectrum with their proposal to prohibit public inquiries and us at the other with a proposal to preserve completely the status quo. However, I believe your Lordships' House has expressed a very clear desire in recent days for both sides to work constructively for compromise on this Bill where there are differences of view. In that spirit of compromise and in an attempt to find common ground on this most important of issues, we withdrew our previous amendment and have tabled a revised version of our original amendment, which we believe addresses successfully the Government's central concerns in relation to public inquiries. I am anxious to make it very clear at this point that we have genuinely sought to understand the Government's reasons for abolishing and prohibiting inquiries, for it is only by seeking to understand their motivation that we can hope to come forward with a proposition capable of garnering broad support and encouraging the Government to accept public inquiries.

Mr David Heath, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, outlined the Government's position during Committee stage in the other place last November. He stated:

"The Bill abolishes them for three major reasons. First, we simply must speed up reviews ... The second reason why we are abolishing the public inquiries is that they do not achieve their purpose. They do not provide the boundary commissions with a good indication of local opinion to aid them in the process of drawing up constituencies ... The third reason for abolishing inquiries is that they rarely lead to significant changes in recommendations ... The changes are frequently minor. For example, at the time of the fifth general review in England, only 2% of wards in counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result".-[Hansard, Commons, 1/11/10; cols. 729-30.]

I shall deal with the three points in reverse order. I submit that the weakest argument in favour of abolishing public inquiries at this time is that they rarely lead to significant changes. If we look at the last review in England, it is true that alterations were made in only just over a quarter of all parliamentary constituencies, but the context is all important. In every case where the Boundary Commission was proposing an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry. In many cases, such as Derbyshire, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made, and many times the Boundary Commission commented in the report that the recommendations of the assistant commissioner-the judicial officer who presided over the public inquiry-were improvements on their own.

The same is true in Scotland. A review of Scottish Parliament-not national Parliament-constituencies in 2007 based on very similar rules to those being proposed in this Bill led to the Boundary Commission recommending substantial changes to the electoral map. Your Lordships will recall the quote that I gave on the previous occasion from Sheriff Principal Kerr, who referred to the 10 substantial public inquiries that had had a significant effect on the drawing of the map of the Scottish Parliament constituencies. Thousands of objections and a rash of local inquiries resulted in major alterations being made to the original recommendations. As your Lordships have already heard, if the next UK boundary review takes place on the basis of the proposed new rules, alongside a reduction of 50 constituencies there will inevitably be widespread disruption to the electoral map of the UK. That prospect prompted Robin Gray, who was the former chair of the Boundary Commission for England, to say to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:

"Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because these are going to be big changes".

Those remarks were echoed by Professor Ron Johnston, who is generally sceptical about the value of public inquiries but who told the committee that the scale of the proposed changes,

"is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different ... local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time".

Likewise, Mr Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit has commented: "The banning"-he was right to use that word-

"of public inquiries is a severe and deplorable downgrading of public participation and transparency in the boundary process".

There is then a powerful, principled argument for retaining public inquiries, especially in the context of a proposal fundamentally to alter the composition of the constituencies that make up the other place.

None the less, it is plain that we should recognise that there is an argument for controlling properly the extent to which public inquiries are used. We have therefore revised our previous amendment and now propose that the Boundary Commission should not be obliged to hold a public inquiry even where the threshold for triggering an inquiry has been met and that threshold is either a representation from an interested authority-essentially, a local authority-objecting to the proposed recommendation or electors numbering 100 or more. Even if the Boundary Commission received those objections which satisfied the condition for holding a public inquiry, if it judged that the issues raised were not substantive or constituted counter proposals which would infringe the general rules on the distribution of seats-that is, if it was plain that there was no real issue or if there was a strict rule that prevented any change-it could conclude that there should not be a public inquiry. The Boundary Commission would therefore have the power to say that it would grant an inquiry only when the representation was of real value and the condition was satisfied. That would go a long way towards dealing with the concern that inquiries would be used unnecessarily.

I shall address the second of Mr Heath's criticisms, the charge that inquiries do not provide a good indication of local public opinion. The allegation here is that they engage only political parties. That charge loses a great deal of its weight in the context of the next review, which, as has been repeatedly mentioned, is so significant. We have already witnessed huge-I use "huge" advisedly-numbers of representations made; for example, in relation to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. Strong public interest was aroused in both those areas, in part because it was already known that the new rules would have a particular effect either on the Isle of Wight-the island would be split into two and joined in part to the mainland-or on Cornwall, where there is very strong feeling about crossing a boundary.

Once the provisional recommendations for boundary changes are published, we are likely to see very considerable objection to them. I remind your Lordships what the four secretaries of the Boundary Commissions have warned that the,

"the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies".

We do not deny that political parties have tended very often to be the major participants in inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions. It would be surprising if they were not, but the engagement of political parties is a positive thing, provided that they are not somehow abusing the process. Inquiries are chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, and there has never been any allegation that they are anything other than independent, unbiased and effective. They are regarded as vital to imbuing the process with legitimacy, both in the eyes of the public, and also in the eyes of the parties. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Political parties are not a malign force; they are vital to our system of representative parliamentary democracy and they need to be both involved and assured that the process for drawing the electoral map is open, inclusive and above board. Their acceptance of those facts is important to the legitimacy of our democracy. If that assurance is lacking, then the result-according to innumerable experts who gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, including those who I have already quoted-will be an increase in the use of judicial review, which is not something any of us would welcome. Were this to be the case, it is difficult to see how the timetable for completing the boundary review could be achieved.

This brings me to the first of the Government's reasons for abolishing inquiries- and it may be the primary reason. The Government are worried that public inquiries would delay the process to such an extent as to prevent a boundary review being completed before the next general election, which is currently stated by the Government to be in 2015. Your Lordships are aware that we on this side of the House have grave concerns about a timetable for the review which will result in excluding many millions of eligible voters from the calculations. We recognise, however, the political reality that the Government will not agree to permit public inquiries to operate if they believe their operation would prevent a boundary review being completed before the next election, or in time for the next election. The relevant date set in the Bill in order for it to be okay for the next election is 31 October 2013.

We are entirely open to a compromise that retains public inquiries, chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, with the possibility of oral hearing and the ability to see and comment on other oral and written representations, but with a time limit on their duration. It should not be beyond the wit of man to identify what the appropriate time limit should be. It ought to be possible to achieve this without recourse to legislation, but I wait to hear what the Minister has to say about this.

For example, one of the reasons why the last review took so long was not due to public inquiries, but because the Boundary Commission had to wait for a national review of local ward boundaries to be completed. That will not be a problem this time, if the Boundary Commissions are able to plan ahead and schedule inquiries for immediately after the publication of provisional proposals, which we assume will be later this year, then completed by the end of the summer of 2012. However, the Government may want the extra assurance of a time limit on public inquiries set into the statute. We are prepared to compromise on that and wait to hear what the Minister says on that.

Our amendment therefore stipulates that any public inquiry must be completed within six months of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Furthermore, it also stipulates that if a second local inquiry is deemed necessary, it must be completed within nine months-that is, an additional three months only-of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Nine months would be the maximum period of delay that a public inquiry could cause. With extra resources and planning, that should pose no danger to the Government's specified timetable of completing the review by the end of 2013.

I conclude by returning to the important democratic principle which I highlighted at the beginning of this debate-legitimacy. In its report on this Bill, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place observed:

"The legitimacy of the next boundary review in the eyes of the public is likely to be strongly influenced by their ability to participate effectively".

The abolition of public inquiries, come what may, will undermine the ability of the public to participate and in so doing will undermine the quality of the conclusions and the legitimacy of the boundary review process.

Our amendment is, I hope, regarded as a genuine attempt-that is what it is-to reach a proposal that the Government will find satisfactory. It does not undermine any of the principles of the Bill. At the same time, it guards against the unnecessary use of such inquiries and ensures that the Government are able to review constituency boundaries in time for the next election. I urge the Government to accept this amendment. I beg to move.