Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:44 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 4:44 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I am pleased to be opening this debate on Wales so that we can air some issues that concern many of us. But at the same time I am saddened because none of these amendments was debated in the other place because of the use of a guillotine, which shows the importance of the scrutiny that your Lordships' House is able to afford at this time.

Wales, more than any other part of the United Kingdom, will be adversely affected as a result of this Bill. Wales has just 5 per cent of the United Kingdom's population but in this Bill Wales will lose 10 parliamentary constituencies. That equates to 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of constituencies the Government are seeking across the whole United Kingdom. The Bill will see the number of MPs Wales sends to the Parliament of the United Kingdom reduced by one in four. That is 25 per cent compared with around 7 per cent for the rest of the country. That means fewer MPs than after the great reforms of 1832 when the population of Wales could be counted in thousands.

We are a small nation within a large country but our contribution to our democratic parliamentary life has been far greater than many would think possible for a country of around 3 million people. Sons of Wales at one time or another have dominated the British political scene. David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan are but two. Our adopted sons James Callaghan and Michael Foot rose to great offices of state and came to lead their party. From the Conservative Benches the noble Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, changed the course of British politics when he resigned from Mrs Thatcher's Government. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, became leader of his party. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, the longest-serving Welsh Office Minister who was in office for half the time the Welsh Office actually existed, was responsible for steering through the Welsh Language Act which gave Welsh equal status with English for the first time. And I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who served as a distinguished Secretary of State, is also with us this afternoon.

More than 700 years ago, with a population that counted in thousands, 24 Welsh MPs were summoned to Parliament. In those seven centuries, as the population has grown to 3 million, that number has increased to just 40. Parliament in its wisdom passed the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and in Schedule 2 it states:

"The number of constituencies in Wales shall not be less than 35".

That, I would argue, gives a valid and sound basis for the amendment we have before us. It was based on the unanimous conclusions of the 1944 Speaker's Conference and that 1986 Act went through Parliament without a Division. In fact, it was supported by all parties. If anything could be said to have support on all sides of the political spectrum it was that Act. Contrast that with the present Bill which was not the subject of a Green Paper, a White Paper or any pre-legislative scrutiny and certainly cannot be said to have widespread parliamentary support. I further believe that, by guaranteeing that Wales should have a minimum of 35 Members of Parliament, recognition was given to the need to make special provision for the small nations in our United Kingdom. With only 5 per cent of the UK population, Wales needs this sort of provision if we are to play our full role in the multinational British state.

Many people fear that reducing Welsh representation in the other place by 25 per cent when many aspects of Welsh life, including the ability of the Welsh Assembly to do its job, depend on the Government and Parliament in Westminster, would fuel a further interest in separatism. I raised the matter at Second Reading when I warned that this could be a threat to our union. When the people of Wales voted by a very small margin in 1997 for devolution and the creation of a Welsh Assembly, it was on the clear understanding that this would have no effect on Welsh representation in the British Parliament. I can, albeit reluctantly, accept that that now could be interpreted in terms of the minimum 35 seats in the UK Parliament, which this amendment seeks to achieve. Based on the many comments that I have received from noble Lords on all sides, I cannot accept that the protection afforded to Wales of a minimum of 35 seats should be removed.

Even after the establishment of a Welsh Assembly, huge areas of Welsh life continue to be determined by decisions of the Government and Parliament in Westminster: everything from pensions, benefits, criminal justice and policing, taxation, levels of public expenditure, macroeconomic policy, and defence and foreign policy, will remain the responsibility of the Government and Parliament in Westminster. This will continue to be the case even if the people of Wales vote in the referendum in March to devolve further powers to the Welsh Assembly.

The situation in the United Kingdom, with devolved Administrations in the various nations, is not uncommon around the world. It is common for countries which have a mixture of central and devolved government to exercise positive discrimination in their constitutions to safeguard the smaller, devolved areas. In that way, the strength of the union is made secure. In the United States, California, with 37 million people, sends two senators to Washington-as does Wyoming, with a population of 544,000. Again, it is important for their union. The smallest state in Germany, Bremen, with a population of 220,000, sends three members to the German Bundesrat, while the largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, with a population of 3 million, sends six. Again, it is important for their union that the smaller regions and nations are protected. Nor should we forget who helped the Germans to devise their constitution after the last war. Representation in the Spanish senate is weighted towards the smaller regions. That also happens in Australia. This is all done because of the need for a strong, central, good union.

Noble Lords on the Conservative Benches should wake up to the threat to our union posed by a 25 per cent reduction in the number of Members of Parliament that Wales sends here. The Conservative Party rightly and for a long time prided itself on being called the Conservative and Unionist Party. Regardless of our political differences-they will always remain, which is good and healthy for our democracy-we should make common cause to defend our union. Noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the heirs to Lloyd George, know in their hearts that it is not right to remove 25 per cent of Welsh Members from the House of Commons, with Wales bearing 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of MPs for the whole United Kingdom. A week ago last Monday was the anniversary of the birth of Lloyd George. He loved Wales, her people and her language, and he would never have done anything to diminish her role in the United Kingdom.

The Government have made a case for special treatment for two parliamentary seats in Scotland, which will not be required to meet their ambition for seats of equal size. Your Lordships' House has done the same for the Isle of Wight. Why, therefore, will the Government not consider that there is a case for special consideration for Wales? The Bill proposes that Wales should lose the largest number of MPs in percentage terms of any part of the United Kingdom: 20 per cent of the reduction for the entire country will come from Wales. In the interests of fairness, that cannot be right.

There is another important aspect of Wales that merits special consideration: the Welsh language. In five parliamentary constituencies-Ynys Môn, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr-Welsh is the first language of a majority of voters. Mr Lewis Baston, a senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, has been much quoted in the debates that we have had in the House in recent days. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place, he criticised the impact that a reduction of 10 seats would have on Welsh-speaking areas. He said:

"The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament".

Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where some 20 per cent of the population speak two languages, Welsh and English. Surely that merits special consideration. If special consideration can be given to preserving two parliamentary constituencies in Scotland because of geographical, historical and community factors, surely Wales can be given special consideration. The same historical and community factors exist in Wales, on top of which there is the unique factor of the Welsh language, which is the first language for a majority of people in five parliamentary constituencies. Have the Government given any consideration to the fact that Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where a second language is spoken by 20 per cent of the population? What thought has been given to ensuring that the sparsely populated areas of Wales are properly represented in Parliament?

We had a very good debate the other evening about Brecon and Radnor. As many noble Lords will know, this constituency in eastern Wales runs along the border with England. The northernmost tip of that constituency is closer to the north Wales coast than it is to the southernmost tip of the constituency, and the southernmost tip of the constituency is closer to the south Wales coast than it is to the northernmost tip of the constituency. It is a huge area. It is conceivable, if the Bill is not altered, that there could be just two Members of Parliament representing an area from the Welsh/English border in the east to Cardigan Bay in the west: two Members from the Heads of the Valley Road in the south to the borders of Wrexham and the A55 in the north. At a stroke, the long-established community links between MPs and constituents would be lost. Rural MPs in Wales would have to travel great distances to see their constituents, and they would have to travel great distances to see them.

I remind the House of a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, in our debate the other evening. He said:

"This piece of legislation says that you should look at representation from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament and the number of constituents that he has. No, my Lords: you should look at it from the other end of the telescope-from the end of the ordinary constituent, who asks himself, 'How accessible is my Member of Parliament to me?'. If you ask that question, you are likely to get a more reasonable and just result".-[Hansard, 24/1/11; col. 800.]

I endorse what the noble Lord said.

I will take a step further the argument for the need to preserve community-based representation in Parliament. Has any consideration been given to sustaining the distinctive community-based representation of the south Wales valleys? The noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, made powerful arguments the other evening in favour of sustaining the close link between an MP and his constituents when they admirably put the case for the Isle of Wight. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said:

"This is not just a numbers game. If we end up making it a numbers game, we may very well find that respect, support and influence that Parliament is able to bring to bear through its Members in their constituencies are greatly diminished at a time when we need to strengthen Parliament".-[Hansard, 19/1/11; col. 413.]

We face the loss of community-based representation across the Welsh valleys. I mentioned this at Second Reading and again in the debate the other evening.

The Electoral Reform Society carried out an exercise redrawing the electoral map of Wales and reducing it to 30 parliamentary constituencies. In the case of my former constituency of Islwyn, it would put the community of Abercarn in the new constituency of Caerphilly. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. It would put to the community of Cefn Fforest in the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil, when it is not even in the same county. I give the same illustration that I gave the other night. Think of the South Wales Valleys as being like a hand. The valleys are the fingers, the palms are the cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. There is movement from valleys to city for jobs, shopping and entertainment. The transport links, rail and road, are from valleys to city. There is very little cross-valley movement. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when the Minister comes to reply.

The amendment in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon, my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, and the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, and supported by many others-the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea cannot be here today-would ensure that Wales had a minimum of 35 seats in Parliament.

On the day of Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord McNally-like many others, I wish him well and look forward to seeing him back at that Dispatch Box and giving us all a bit of a ticking off and amusement as soon as possible-spoke on radio about fairness in relation to this debate. I fear that, throughout this debate, the Government and their supporters believe that fairness in representation in Parliament can be achieved only by constituencies of equal size. Why is that the only definition of fairness that they are prepared to admit to? I said on Second Reading that the Union of the four nations of these islands, which has united us as one country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have a greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held our Union together for these past centuries. The amendment ensuring that Wales has 35 seats in the Commons will go a long way to protecting that Union.

Amendment 89BC would ensure that no English region, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would suffer a reduction in the number of seats of more than 10 per cent at any one review. None of us knows what will be the effect of individual registration. Many would argue that the heavily populated inner cities, where there is a greater population turnover, will be severely underrepresented if we are not careful. The amendment provides that there should be a reduction of no more than 10 per cent in the number of MPs at any one time.

The final amendment, Amendment 102AA, would ensure that there could be no change to Welsh parliamentary constituencies unless the referendum results in March say yes to additional powers for the Assembly and those powers are actually passed to the Assembly.

I hope that I have been able to convey to your Lordships the very real anxiety that many of us have about the impact of the Bill in Wales. I am sure that other noble Lords will now have their say, and I look forward to hearing them with interest. I especially look forward with interest to the reply of the Minister. I hope that he will at least agree that a fair case has been made to cause the Government to reflect and reconsider these issues concerning Wales. Based on his reply, I must consider whether or not I should seek leave to divide your Lordships' House. Let me say now that I hope that when he replies, the Minister will give me every reason not to do so.