Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench 5:30 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, we have had an excellent debate already, and nearly all the salient points in favour of these amendments have been made with great force and eloquence by earlier speakers. I endorse, adopt and applaud everything that has been said. I am deeply flattered by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, quoting from an intervention of mine. Was it some days or weeks ago? I am not sure; time now seems to have lost its significance. I believe it goes to the very heart of truth. The most important contributions that have been made have centred on the nationhood of Wales. I do not believe that there is anyone in this House who does not accept the fact of Welsh nationality and respect that as an historical and incontrovertible fact. TS Eliot, I think, says that a,

"Rose is a rose is a rose".

It says everything. We could say, "A nation is a nation is a nation", which means that surrounding that concept of nationhood there is respect for, and indeed an acceptance of, that entity, and that is the basis on which we should approach this question tonight, as I am sure we will.

Wales is one of the oldest nations in Europe. Noble Lords will remember that Milton, who was not only a great poet but the principal private secretary to Oliver Cromwell for many years-in many respects the spin merchant of the Government of that day-spoke of Wales as an ancient "nation, proud in arms". That was three and a half centuries ago. David Lloyd George, as I am sure his distinguished grandson will recollect, said once in the House of Commons that we in Wales were a land of poets and kings when the Anglo-Saxons were on the shores of the Baltic subsisting on piracy and periwinkles. I do not necessarily adopt that historical theory as the basis of my case, but one thing is certain and it has been said so clearly and eloquently; what is proposed here is not just a marginal change but a savage amputation of Welsh representation in the House of Commons. That is no exaggeration. It means that Wales, with 5.3 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom, has to bear 20 per cent of this surgery.

To put this another way, in the whole of the United Kingdom there is a diminution of seats to the tune, I calculate, of about 7.6 per cent. In Wales it is 25 per cent. We can bandy figures around, but the fact is that Wales is disproportionately dealt with to a very cruel degree as far as this part of the legislation is concerned. Do we deserve that? Is that right? Is that just? Is that inevitable? Those are the questions which I think that the House would wish to exercise in relation to this matter.

I believe there to be real sincerity in the attitude of many Members on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches, who believe that they can achieve fairness by a slavish adherence to arithmetical consistency. I respectfully suggest that they are wrong. Of course, some idea of a norm that would apply generally, all other things being equal, to constituencies as a whole would be utterly admirable. I have no doubt, and I accept, that in every consideration arithmetical consistency has some part to play. However, my first submission is that it is entirely chimerical. It does not achieve fairness because of so many other factors, with which we have dealt earlier. For example, the accessibility of a Member of Parliament to each and every constituent is far more important.

Secondly, mathematical correctitude cannot be achieved. Let us think of it in these terms. The register will be inaccurate, so far as the population and the possible electorate of a constituency are concerned, to the tune of about 3.5 million. As for Wales, my calculation on the basis of 5.3 per cent is roughly 185,000. That is a considerable totality of votes, which can of course completely affect this philosophy. It is as if the Government are saying, "We are aiming at a target through telescopic sights, and once we have that target in the crosshairs, we will be satisfied that we have done everything", but they forget that the barrel is bent. That bullet will never reach the spot at which the crosshairs are aiming. It will be a long way away. What possible validity can there be, therefore, for the theory that arithmetical correctitude governs all? There can never be.

I know that the noble and learned Lord who will reply to the debate will inevitably turn to devolution. In many public statements, he has already done so in relation to Wales and Scotland, but in Wales in particular devolution is linked with this considerable diminution in the number of seats. With great respect, I challenge that completely. Just before the Summer Recess, I asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally-I join everyone in wishing him a speedy return to this House-whether the culling of seats in Wales and Scotland would be affected by devolution. His answer was clear and to the point. He said, "No".

I know that the noble and learned Lord, who is a man of high intelligence and total integrity, will consider this argument very carefully. It can be tested in this way. Let us pretend for a moment that there had never been devolution in Wales and that no Wales Office had been created in 1964. Let us assume that no Welsh Assembly had come into being in 1998 and that there had been no Government of Wales Act 2006. Wales would still be losing 10 out of 40 of its constituencies. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, must have been right; this problem has nothing to do with devolution.

Further corroborative evidence, were it necessary, comes from the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution. The Deputy Prime Minister gave evidence before it and was asked why the diminution should be so great in Wales? All he said was, "Either you apply the same rules to Wales in order to bring about a commonality of electors or you do not". Not a word was mentioned about devolution. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord would accept that, but from the way in which I have looked at that, whatever can be said about devolution I see that it has nothing to do with the reduction of seats from 40 to 30.

The case is simple. For a long time, Wales has enjoyed generous overrepresentation. There is no doubt about that. I think it was in 1377-I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will correct me-that the figure of 24 was decided upon. Some centuries later it went up to 28. In 1832, it was 32. We know-indeed, we have had the benefit of the researches by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, into the latter period-that there is considerable overrepresentation.

People might say, "What are you whinging about? The thing to do is to say not that you should continue the overrepresentation but that it is wholly just that you should bring it to an end". That argument would be overwhelming, were it not for the central dominating feature of this issue: the nationhood of Wales. In 1992, when many Members here would have been Members of the other place, a Bill passed through the House of Commons that dealt with boundaries and the Boundary Commission. The right honourable Kenneth Clarke was Home Secretary at the time. He was exhorted by many Members to bring about a massive review of boundaries in Wales and Scotland with a review to diminution. He said, "No. There are national, cultural, historic, geographical and many other weighty factors that would make it impossible for me to do that". The situation is exactly the same now as it was then.

Finally, many speakers have referred to the federality -if that is the correct term-of the United States and many other countries when small communities have been given, at a certain level, the same or virtually the same representation as other larger units. One might say that a federal system is not possible in England, Wales and Scotland because of the massive size and power of England compared with the other two countries. However, it seems to me that some concession to the principle of federality has been made over the years by allowing that very overrepresentation. That has a great deal to do with the ethos of a United Kingdom. Destroy that by savage surgery and the future of the United Kingdom might well be fundamentally affected.