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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:15 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 11:15 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I support this amendment on the grounds already put before the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in opening this debate. My main concern is the effects on the courts of the removal of inquiries and the consequences that that could have for the proper workings of the Boundary Commission. I should acknowledge that that point was drawn to my attention by the right honourable Mr Straw in the other place who, of course, has been recently the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. As I understand it, he shares the same concerns as I will advance.

Before I do that, I feel that I should advise the House, on the basis of my general experience and my responsibility at one stage of my career at the Bar, of when I appeared quite regularly for the Government in inquiries which were going wrong. The problem was that the public felt that those inquiries, although they were local inquiries, did not give them the opportunity to express the strength of feeling that they had on a governmental proposal. In considering this amendment, the Government would be wise to take that possible unforeseen consequence into account. I am pleased that the proposed amendment deals with some of the problems that could arise in regard to the ability for local inquiries to take place.

The first matter was delay. I hope that the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for dealing with that will be considered to be satisfactory. Certainly, it seemed to me to be a constructive proposal. However, the most important reason for preserving this power for the Boundary Commission to hold a local inquiry in the form that will exist in law if this amendment is accepted is the fact that the Boundary Commission is given the key to the door as to whether there should be a local inquiry. It would have a discretion and, although there are thresholds, those thresholds do not bite on the discretion. The only situation when there would be an inquiry is where the Boundary Commission thinks that it is necessary, which, surely, is an important point that is made in this amendment.

If there is no provision for an inquiry I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review. Applications for judicial review are a plague so far as the Government of the day are concerned. They are also a problem for the courts, albeit that the courts take great pride in the way, over the past decade and more, they have developed the ability of the public to seek the aid of the courts where they think their rights are being infringed. If this amendment is not accepted, the issues that will be sought to be raised on applications for judicial reviews are ones which the courts will find peculiar difficulty in dealing with. It is a very important part of our constitution-unwritten though it be-that there should be a relationship between the courts and Parliament which avoids Parliament trespassing on the proper province of the courts and avoids the courts trespassing on the proper province of Parliament. Matters dealing with constituency boundaries, it seems to me, are the very sorts of matters which the courts should not be required to deal with if there is a way of avoiding it. The best way of giving the public the ability to express their views is by public inquiries being held whenever the Boundary Commission considers it is appropriate.

On the basis of those two points, I urgently encourage the Government to look with sympathy on this amendment, which has so carefully been drafted to meet possible objections but achieve a very valuable safeguard for the public. It is in accord with the Government's policy, as I understand it, of allowing the public to have a say on matters of such importance.