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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 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) 11:30 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for introducing this amendment and for the very helpful and constructive spirit in which he proposed it. I also thank the other noble Lords who made important contributions to this relatively short but important debate.

The amendment seeks to introduce a public inquiry stage into the boundary review process, allowing the Boundary Commissions to hold a public inquiry where representations are received from any interested local authority or from 100 or more interested electors.

As we made clear in our response to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in the previous debate, and in our responses on local government ward boundaries and existing parliamentary constituencies, the Government's position has been that we are open to considering reasonable improvements to the process, provided that they do not compromise the fundamental principles of the Bill, and that still remains our position.

It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries. The decision to end the process of oral inquiries, which appears in this Bill, was in fact taken on the basis of the evidence before us, when we came to consider the most effective consultation process for boundary reviews, which is what we are all trying to achieve.

Among the many contributions that we have heard not just this evening but over a number of Committee sittings, the case has been made tonight that local inquiries are an important safety valve because they allow everyone, as we might put it, to have their day in court. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, made that very point. It allows people to have their say. My view is that this is perhaps the only objective of local inquiries: that any credible argument can be mounted in their favour. Evidence and academic opinion indicate that local inquiries are perhaps far more effective in principle than in practice.

Local inquiries do not as a rule consist of the general public having their say on boundary proposals. Professor Ron Johnston-whose namechecks in these debates are now getting quite considerable; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer quoted him-and his colleagues have concluded that the public inquiry process is "dominated by political parties", describing the process as,

"very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the Commission's recommendations-in which their sole goal is to promote their own electoral interests".

Of course, he is perfectly right; political parties play a vital role in our democracy, and there is nothing wrong with parties contributing fully to the boundary review process. It is inevitable that they are going to do that, but if we are considering what would be gained by the noble and learned Lord's amendment, which would restore oral inquiries in some form, we should not imagine that we would necessarily be giving the public a better chance to have their say. We would be looking to restore a potentially long process to which parties will send Queen's Counsel in their attempts to secure the most favourable outcome for their electoral prospects, certainly if history is anything to go by. It may be that the quasi-judicial nature of the local inquiry process could act as a disincentive to public participation by ordinary people who hope to have their say.

Our intention is that a written consultation process, with the existing period for representations extended from one month to three, will actually amount to a much more effective way to allow a level playing field for the general public who wish to have their say. Whatever the merits of the cases that are made for exceptions in this Bill-for example, for the Isle of Wight-I do not think that anyone could doubt that the people involved were very successful in making their voices heard through petitions, campaigns and websites.

There is little evidence, too, that local inquiries bring to light evidence that would not otherwise be considered. In an earlier debate in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, gave us an example of when a public inquiry had changed the boundary of the West Bromwich East constituency to reflect local geography, using a dual carriageway in place of a defunct railway line as a point of orientation. I am sure that that was a sensible change, and I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord that local knowledge is immensely important in these matters, but I do not see why that could not have been raised as part of an extended consultation period, as proposed by this Bill.

That is why changes that are made following local inquiries are often minor. At the fifth general review in England, for example, only 2 per cent of wards in English counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result. Robin Gray, a former boundary commissioner already quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that Professor Ron Johnston was,

"absolutely right about the impact that public inquiries had on the Commission's initial recommendations. In a lot of cases there was no change".

The evidence given by the Boundary Commission for Wales to the Welsh Affairs Committee is also instructive on this point. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, the secretary of the Welsh commission said that,

"during the fifth general review, there were four issues that the Commission changed its mind on as a result of the consultation process. Perhaps I should say that, while these issues were raised in the local inquiries they were also raised beforehand in the written representations. In one sense, the Commission, before the local inquiries, had in its mind that modifications were required in the draft proposals".

That brings me to the evidence of Ron Johnston before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Professor Johnston, as we have acknowledged has been much quoted in these debates. I think that anyone reading his evidence and his previous work will reach the same conclusion that the committee reached in its report that the result of Professor Johnston's extensive research into the topic, and oral inquiries in particular, led him to,

"generally welcome the abolition of public inquiries".

I stress that, not because somehow Professor Johnston's view is the only one that counts, but because it dispels the theory that only we on the government Benches somehow hold the view that oral inquiries are not necessarily the best way to achieve the objectives that we all want, which is a robust consultation process at which everyone, including those who are not able to appoint legal counsel on their behalf, can have their say on a commission's proposals.

However, in the same session, Robin Gray stated that he believed public inquiries added value because they provided assurance that the,

"issues have been looked at and debated"- perhaps an echo of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.

One charge that cannot be laid against oral inquiries in the past is that they were anything less than thorough in this regard. This lengthy process, however, goes to the heart of one of the key principles in the Bill, which was identified by the noble and learned Lord when he moved his amendment. If no action is taken the boundaries in force at the next general election will be 15 years out of date, if we do not proceed to get a boundary review and report by October 2013, as set out in the Bill. We believe that it is simply not fair to electors-most notably all those who have come on to the register in the past 15 years. I believe that noble Lords opposite share our concern about this. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, made that very point. I readily acknowledge that the amendment attempts to address it by limiting the triggers for inquiries and placing a limit on their duration, and I very much welcome how that has been presented by the noble and learned Lord.

It is also important that we listen carefully and reflect on what was said by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf and Lord Goldsmith, not least on the question of judicial review-judicial review if you do not have oral inquiries and judicial review if you do have oral inquiries. There is an argument that the proposal in the amendment to give the Boundary Commission the decision on whether to hold an inquiry in each constituency where the requirements in the amendment are met would also lead to a risk of judicial reviews of the Boundary Commission's decisions on that point.

Important issues have been raised. I have indicated not just in this debate but in others that the principle should be that reviews must be conducted more quickly so that the pattern of representation in the other place represents the reality of where electors live now, not of history. That goes to the heart of fairer and more equally weighted votes throughout the United Kingdom, which is a core objective of the Bill. We will obviously want to consider the noble and learned Lord's concerns on the issue of judicial reviews-as I have said, if you have them or if you do not have them. Subject to meeting the key principle, which I have indicated, I am content to take the noble and learned Lord's amendment and consider the thinking behind it to see whether it offers a way in which the advantage that I acknowledge an inquiry can provide-a sense of "a day in court"-can be retained. On that basis, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.