Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 5:15 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, save for a short intervention of about one minute, I have not so far taken part in debates on this Bill. My short intervention was on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McNally-whom I wish well-when, in a fragile mood in the early hours of the morning, he reminded the Committee that the other place had lost its freedom of unlimited debate at the time of the Fenians in the 19th century. Whether the purpose of his remarks was a gentle hint, a threat-which was denied-or just a Freudian slip, I know not, but I was not surprised when, in a very short time, government supporters trooped into the Lobbies, in a very illiberal step, to force a closure not once but twice on the debate. Was that a sheer coincidence of comment and action, or was it something else?

I shall be very brief and I shall not go into the detail of the admirable speech of my noble friend Lord Touhig, who has broadened the canvas and dealt with most of the points. However, I shall return to his main issue: our proposal that the number of parliamentary seats should be 35, rather than the 25 per cent reduction from 40 to 30 as proposed by the Government.

The figure of 35 has a long, almost entrenched history. In 1918, the number of seats in Wales was 36; in 1954, it was not less than 35. The figure remained at 36 through each review until it reached 39 in 1986, as recommended by the Boundary Commission in order to take account of geographical considerations in the county of Gwynedd. The fifth periodical review, operating under the same rules, determined that the number of seats should not be less than 35 and, in fact, it allocated 40.

I have been in politics more than 50 years, I have to confess-I have been in Parliament for more than that period. I had it always in mind that the figure of 35 is, somehow or other, entrenched so far as political representation for Wales is concerned. The reason for that goes back to the basic point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig: that Wales is a nation within a larger country. We need go no further than that. It is because we desire and need good representation as we are a small part of the United Kingdom. That is the basis on which our distinctive voice should be heard, in the way that it has been heard over the centuries.

We need within that very small number of 35 Members of Parliament of all political persuasions from north Wales, mid-Wales and south Wales to articulate the needs of Wales. Its distinctiveness as a nation is exemplified in one way-it may be a small way, but it is important-by the fact that no one in his senses would dream of chopping off bits of either Wales or England and adding it to the other. Why? Because England is a nation and Wales is a nation, and you would not go over the boundary of either country to make a brand new seat which straddled the two countries. Our basic case is that our need as a nation for strong representation at Westminster has in the past been recognised. If there is concern about the Tamar, the Tyne and the Isle of Wight-I have heard the debates about them-how much more concern there is when a nation is concerned. We are dealing not with counties in England but with the nation of Wales, hence our need for our traditional representation.

I understand the case for arithmetic equality across the whole country, but it is a fact that, in the past, Boundary Commissions have been allowed-indeed encouraged-by Parliament to take into account of a whole host of other factors. Arithmetic equality is not the beginning and the end and it has never been thus. If it were, we could draw straight lines and squares across the whole of the United Kingdom. Allowing for the coast, we could parcel England and Wales into neat little squares. That is what relying solely on arithmetic equality would result in. Indeed, we would be behaving like our colonialist forefathers in Africa, drawing straight lines and creating new countries regardless of tribes one way or the other. It was my privilege as a young Minister as long ago as the early 1960s to help draw up plans for sharing the wealth of the North Sea. Well, that was very easy to do by drawing squares, because it was only water that stopped you from extending the square one way or the other, but you cannot do it when countries are involved and without having regard to strong community ties.

In the past, valleys and large areas such as Brecon and Radnor and Gwynedd have had to be taken into account by Boundary Commissions. People in the valleys do not often cross from one valley to another-I can count almost on the fingers of one hand how much I went over from my valley, the Afan valley, into other adjacent valleys. Some people did-there was some community of interest-but, generally, people went up and down, and the community of interest was north and south. The imagination boggles at the thought of trying to create maps in the north of Glamorgan and the north of Gwent to meet the needs of those different communities and of the poor, eventual, long suffering Member of Parliament having to attend to those needs time and again.

I have seen this happening. I have appeared professionally before Boundary Commissions, and generally they do their work well. It is the assistant commissioner, usually a Queen's Counsel, who sits. Arguments are heard. They are very short-three or four days at the outside, in most cases. Communities can express their interests, and political parties can appear and put their interests. Everyone feels at the end of the day that they have had their day in court. Anything that constrains, limits or diminishes the discretion of a Boundary Commission is bad news.

My worst experience was appearing professionally for the city and county of Cardiff, when there were four seats to be distributed. An inquiry was necessary, although the two main parties-the Conservatives and Labour-had agreed. Unfortunately there was a split in the Conservative Party and therefore there had to be a public inquiry. The local Member of Parliament was a witness; he happened to be Mr Callaghan. It was my big moment to call this star witness and I had the proof of his evidence before me. Unfortunately, I relied on that proof too much. I asked, "Is your full name James Callaghan?", and he said, "No, Mr Morris. It is Leonard James Callaghan". It was the worst moment for me of that inquiry. I should have known better, having seen those magic initials, LJC, on so many documents.

The question for the House is how to achieve fairness with the least turmoil. Do we want candidates to be constantly reselected because of redistribution? A constituency that has had a Member of Parliament of either party knows whom to look to. It is a strain on that relationship if they have to change time after time, not for political reasons but because of the arithmetic which the legislation has determined. Such regularity of changes is not good, and I speak as a former Member of Parliament of more than 40 years' standing. It was that internal relationship which I valued very much. I saw young, rebellious men and women growing up to be mature leaders in their communities and to see their children doing the same. It would be a tragic loss if there were this unnecessary change because we were acting far too quickly.

If there is to be a change and if there has to be more arithmetical fairness, let it be as limited and as infrequent as possible in order to retain that sense of community which constituencies, local authorities, local political associations and political representatives have, whether there is a change in that representation or not. They have acquired this long relationship with their communities over the years.

I will close with one very real illustration. For 23 years, I represented the constituency of Aberavon, but because of the change in the county boundaries, it became necessary to detach three of my eastern wards and give me instead a couple of wards from the neighbouring constituency of Neath. There has always been long and intense rivalry on the rugby field between Aberavon and Neath. There I was, in my new ward, canvassing in what I regarded as a 90 per cent safe area, when someone came up to me and said, "I can't vote for you, Mr Morris". "Why?" I asked. "Well, I've got my little boy here, and when he grows up I don't want him to play for Aberavon, I want him to play for Neath". It was an uphill task for me to try to persuade that man that boundary redistribution had nothing whatever to do with rugby rivalry or loyalty.

With these few words, I hope there will be pause to consider the needs of Wales.