Clause 12 : Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation
Moved by Lord Wallace of Tankerness
27G: Clause 12, page 13, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 14 and insert-
"(1) Once a Boundary Commission have decided what constituencies they propose to recommend in a report under section 3(1)(a) above-
(a) the Commission shall take such steps as they think fit to inform people in each of the proposed constituencies-
(i) what the proposals are,
(ii) that a copy of the proposals is open to inspection at a specified place within the proposed constituency, and
(iii) that written representations with respect to the proposals may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks ("the initial consultation period");
(b) the Commission shall cause public hearings to be held during the period beginning with the fifth week of the initial consultation period and ending with the tenth week of it.
(2) Subsection (1)(a)(ii) above does not apply to a constituency with respect to which no alteration is proposed.
(3) Schedule 2A to this Act, which makes further provision about public hearings under subsection (1)(b) above, has effect.
(4) After the end of the initial consultation period the Commission-
(a) shall publish, in such manner as they think fit, representations made as mentioned in subsection (1)(a) above and records of public hearings held under subsection (1)(b) above;
(b) shall take such steps as they think fit to inform people in the proposed constituencies that further written representations with respect to the things published under paragraph (a) above may be made to the Commission during a specified period of four weeks ("the secondary consultation period").
(5) If after the end of the secondary consultation period the Commission are minded to revise their original proposals so as to recommend different constituencies, they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in each of those revised proposed constituencies-
(a) what the revised proposals are,
(b) that a copy of the revised proposals is open to inspection at a specified place within the revised proposed constituency, and
(c) that written representations with respect to the revised proposals may be made to the Commission during a specified period of eight weeks.
(6) Subsection (5) above does not apply to any proposals to make further revisions.
(7) Steps taken under subsection (4) or (5) above need not be of the same kind as those taken under subsection (1) above.
(8) A Boundary Commission shall take into consideration-
(a) written representations duly made to them as mentioned in subsection (1)(a), (4)(b) or (5)(c) above, and
(b) representations made at public hearings under subsection (1)(b) above.
(9) Except as provided by this section and Schedule 2A to this Act, a Boundary Commission shall not cause any public hearing or inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act.
(10) Where a Boundary Commission publish-
(a) general information about how they propose to carry out their functions (including, in the case of the Boundary Commission for England, information about the extent (if any) to which they propose to take into account the boundaries mentioned in rule 5(2) of Schedule 2 to this Act), or
(b) anything else to which subsection (1), (4) or (5) above does not apply,
it is for the Commission to determine whether to invite representations and, if they decide to do so, the procedure that is to apply.""
My Lords, these amendments provide for public hearings as part of the Boundary Commission's consultation on its initial recommendations.
In Committee last week, in response to the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, I undertook on behalf of the Government to bring forward amendments for a public hearing process, enabling an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their view in a way that the timetable for completion of that review is met. These amendments, which are in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally, fulfil that commitment.
Perhaps it will be useful if I start by setting out how we arrived at this position. Clearly it is vital that all those with an interest in the proposals have an opportunity to have their say. In the Bill, as it was brought from the other place and as it now stands, there is no provision at all for any oral participation. We believe, however, that the boundary reviews have taken far too long in the past. The last review in England took six years and seven months to report.
Let me be absolutely clear why the Government believe that is wrong. It is not simply a question of impatience or change for its own sake. Constituency boundaries-and this is at the heart of this part of the Bill-are the means by which representation in the other place is distributed. The point has been made on all sides of the House in debates on this Bill that they must accurately reflect that representation. That means work to increase the registration rate. The same principled concern applies to making sure that boundaries are up to date and reflect where people live, not where they used to live. If we took no action, the next boundary review may not take effect until 2020. This would mean that in 2018 there will be electors who reach voting age and register to vote who will not even have been born when the basis of the pattern of representation in the Commons was determined. That is unfair and unacceptable and drives inequality in the weight of a vote. It is one of the key principles that the Bill must address.
When we were drafting these proposals it became clear that the existing system of local inquiries was not fit for purpose. Yes, it satisfies the urges of political parties to put their case at considerable length at times, but it was rarely successful in engaging the general public. I cannot make this point forcefully enough to the House. We have, many times in these debates, traded quotes across the Dispatch Box in a bid to claim that the weight of academic evidence supports our case. However, it is clear that the academic literature supports the view, first put forward by leading expert in the field Professor Ron Johnston in 2008, that inquiries are "far too elaborate". I accept-I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, quoted this in our first debate on this-that Professor Johnston made a telling observation to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee when he conceded that there was an argument against his view on the limited value of the public inquiry stage when he told that committee:
"This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time".
The observation has been made on all sides of the House that there might indeed be a far greater degree of interest in the next review on the part of local people, because there will be a greater degree of change in the constituency map. We have reflected on those concerns and we have heard concerns during our debates. I think the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, mentioned his experience, when people having the opportunity to have their say was so important. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, referred to an inquiry in the Monklands constituency-in which the late John Smith had his last public engagement-where local communities had a valuable opportunity to have their say. However, that is not the same as an argument for restoring the old system of local inquiries. If the concern is to give people the chance to have their say on proposals, old-style local inquiries will not do that. The body of evidence on that point is emphatic.
The amendments before your Lordships' House today are the Government's response to all these issues. They provide for a new public hearings stage as part of the consultation process. Their purpose is set out in new Schedule 2A, in government Amendment 39, and could not be plainer:
"The purpose of a public hearing is to enable representations to be made about any of the proposals with which the hearing is concerned".
Representations to the commission in person will be considered in the same way as the written submissions. The commissions have sensible discretion as to how many hearings there are in each region and to vary the length of the hearing, but there must be a balance of process against the principle of up-to-date boundaries. We cannot have an unlimited number of lengthy inquiries-in some cases during the previous boundary review these lasted for 12 or 10 days-focused on one or two counties or boroughs, in which lawyers can speak at length on behalf of political parties, thereby crowding out the general public, unless they happen to suit a political party interest. We will protect the commissions by placing a clear limit of five hearings in each nation or region of a maximum of two days' duration, which between them will cover the full range of the commissions' proposals.
I should be clear that what we envisage here is genuine public engagement. The public hearings will take place during the period for written representations. They will not commence until week 5, so that everyone has time to consider the commissions' proposals and form an initial view. There are four weeks for representations under the present system. The hearings will conclude by week 10, so that there will be two weeks from the date of the last public hearing for further written submissions. Those submissions might be put forward in the light of the arguments and alternatives that have been advanced during these hearings, or they might not be; other issues might have arisen.
In addition, we have recognised that there is value in the scrutiny of others' proposals. That is why these amendments also provide that at the end of the 12-week initial consultation stage, all the representations, including the record of the public hearing, will be published. There will then follow a four-week period for counter-representations on these proposals. This will allow for the effective scrutiny of the arguments put forward by others, and will ensure that the commissioners' deliberations are better informed and that the recommendations more robust. This kind of scrutiny does not need a process akin to a court, whereby a witness is cross-examined. This part of the amendment fulfils our commitment to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who brought the recommendations of the British Academy, including those of Professor Johnston, to the attention of the House. That aspect of this amendment is modelled on that British Academy report.
We recognise the legitimate stake that political parties have in this process and that they can assist in bringing the arguments of others to light. That is why the amendments provide explicitly for a role for the parties at each hearing; but they allow the chair to regulate that and not exclude other voices. I cannot emphasise enough that due process is exceptionally important.
My Lords, in order to give the Boundary Commissions a clear direction on this, we have indicated that there will be a maximum of two days. I do not think that anything would prevent a postponement of two days. We are giving the commissions a degree of flexibility, but the period will be a maximum of two days to make it clear that the hearings cannot go on and on. They are intended to be public engagement, not lengthy inquiry hearings.
In response also to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, it is open to the commissions to set clear procedures for the hearings to ensure consistency. However, the chair will be able to ensure that the procedure for the hearings can adapt to local or unexpected circumstances. This balance of discretion for the commissions and the clear powers for the chair set out in legislation makes the procedures robust against judicial review.
Let us not forget that the Boundary Commissions are each chaired by a High Court judge-or, rather, they are chaired by the Speaker, but the deputy chairs will be High Court judges or their equivalent. I have no doubt whatever that sensitivity to due process will be paramount among their concerns. There has been no suggestion throughout our long debates that the Boundary Commissions have been anything other than scrupulously independent and committed to fairness in their deliberations. They are guarantees of the process being fair. However, let me be clear what these amendments envisage. It is not a return to adversarial inquiries dominated by legal argument. That would be to invent what we know, from experience, does not work. It is new; it is a culture change; and we believe it is a better concept-an open hearing, neutrally and fairly chaired, at which the people can have their say. It is not a substitute for the deliberations of the Boundary Commissions, but another means for people to tell them what they think.
We will no doubt hear arguments about the importance or otherwise of legal professionals being involved in chairing hearings. The commissions will have absolute discretion to appoint individuals who may or may not be legally qualified, and we have tabled an amendment to broaden the purposes for which assistant commissioners may be engaged. If the commissions consider that there is merit in using a suitably legally qualified person to chair the hearings-and we recognise that a legal skill set may well be advantageous-it is open to them to do so. However, if there are other individuals, such as senior public servants or commission employees, who are equally able to chair these proceedings that are designed to engage the public, there is no way in which they should be disqualified from doing so-indeed, they should be allowed to do so.
It is worth considering that the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 makes no provision that the existing inquiries must be chaired by a legally qualified person, or indeed be involved in any of the elaborate processes that have grown up around these inquiries. What that legislation fails to do-a failing that our proposals address-is to make the purpose of a hearing sufficiently clear. The result is that the commissions are exposed and inquiries are no longer about people having their say but about exhaustive legal arguments designed to avoid a judicial review.
I expect that we will hear also that an oral stage requires a chair who is independent from the commissions, and who must produce a lengthy deliberative report. The Government do not accept this premise. The commissions themselves are independent, so there is no need for further separation between a commission and the arguments being put forward. The representations made at the hearings will be taken into consideration by the commissions-the amendment requires them to do it-and it will be for them to consider how best to do this. Weighing the representations made in writing, and those put in person at hearings, against all the other factors in the legislation, and against the proposals made across the regions, is the point of having a Boundary Commission. We do not require a further intermediate step.
We propose something that is culturally different from what has gone before. I note the amendments to the amendment that have been tabled, and I am grateful for the dialogue that I have had with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. However, at the end of the day it boils down to a difference in culture and approach. Several amendments state: "delete 'hearing', insert 'inquiry'". That is at the heart of what this is about.
I agree with much of what the Minister says, but if we are going to have a real culture change, it will be no good starting at 10.30 am and finishing at 3:30 pm, which is what the old culture does. If we are down to two days, let us have two real working days so that we have genuine participation even in the truncated time that I think is too short; I suggested five days. The new culture will be no good on the timescales that operated in the past.
I will not go down the road of wondering who the timescale was intended to suit. It is clear that Boundary Commissions have discretion in their proceedings. The comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is very fair. We want to make sure that the time is best used and that people whose work patterns do not necessarily fit a 10.30 am to 3.30 pm programme have the opportunity to exercise their discretion, and that people have the maximum number of opportunities to contribute.
My noble friend perhaps articulated the point that I was hinting at.
The government amendments complete the task of putting the public at the heart of the process, and of delivering effective public engagement with a clear but proportionate role for political parties. The complementary amendment on a counter-representations stage, suggested in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, will allow for the effective scrutiny of the arguments and proposals of others. People who, with the best will in the world, may not be able to attend a public hearing will still be able to make counterproposals in writing.
Also, importantly, this will be achieved on a timescale that will allow for up-to-date boundaries to be in place by the 2015 general election, and during each Parliament thereafter. This will give effect to key principle underpinning the Bill: fair and equally weighted votes throughout the UK. The amendments respond to the spirit that has been expressed in many of our debates about the public having the opportunity to have their say, without adopting an unduly legalistic view that can exclude the public. I beg to move the amendment standing in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally.
My Lords, I propose a number of amendments to those proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, on behalf of the Government. At the heart of the noble and learned Lord's proposals is the introduction of a process which, as he accepts, is not in any sense an inquiry but is intended to enable the public to make representations about any proposals regarding boundary changes with which the hearing is concerned.
As I understand the Government's proposal, it will be open to individuals to make oral representations. A chair will be present to govern the proceedings-presumably to determine the order in which people speak; perhaps to determine whether what they say properly relates to the proposals; and also to determine how long they speak to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to do so. A record will be kept of what is said and that will be put into a public place for people to see. It is not envisaged that there will be any resolution or that the chair will play any part in determining any issues that arise on the wisdom or otherwise of the boundary proposals. However, it is envisaged that the oral hearing process should take place before the conclusion of the written representation period, which I think ends at week 12, with the oral hearing process taking place between weeks five and 10. Therefore, what the Government propose is not in any sense an inquiry and resolution of issues in the form of a report making recommendations to the Boundary Commission; it is simply an opportunity to make oral representations, which are recorded and then made public.
Previously, the Government proposed to ban the Boundary Commission from holding public inquiries altogether. They have not moved from that position but they have introduced the public hearing process that I have described. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, expresses his opposition to public inquiries primarily because he is concerned that an open-ended process of public inquiries could cause a fatal delay to the timetable for completing the next boundary review before the intended 2015 general election. He was also concerned that political parties would be too involved. For that reason, the Government have reduced the process to one of only a hearing.
"Particularly with this first round ... there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because these are going to be big changes".
Ron Johnston, as the noble and learned Lord fairly said, is normally an opponent of public inquiries. In this area, he said that,
"you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different ... local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time".
Noble Lords will form their own view of the extent to which they have received representations from members of the public about, for example, the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Anglesey and a number of other issues relating to the proposed boundary changes.
Our initial proposals to reinstate public inquiries in their current form did not address the noble and learned Lord's concerns about the prospect of delay or the fact that there needed to be streamlined public inquiries. We agree with him that there needs to be proper control, as efficient focus as possible and a real focus on real issues. We listened to what the Government said and moved to a new amendment, which allowed for public inquiries but with significant new limitations that would give the Boundary Commissions discretion over whether an inquiry was held. It also placed a cap on the length of time that inquiries could take. During the debate on our amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who, I am happy to see, is in his place, made an important intervention. He pointed out:
"If there is no provision for an inquiry"-
I interpose that there is no doubt that by "inquiry" he meant a proper inquiry, not the hearing process to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, refers,
"I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review".-[Hansard, 26/1/11; col. 1067.]
The Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, responded favourably to that first debate, which was on our amendments. He said:
"It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries".-[Hansard, 26/1/11; col. 1070.]
Although he did not mention it at that point, when he said "inquiries", I think he meant the sort of hearings that he has been referring to.
After we had put down our amendment, and after that date, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, then moved, from the Cross Benches, a revised version of our amendment, which placed even tighter limits on the time that inquiries would be allowed to take and altered the drafting on the discretion to seek to insulate the process from the threat of judicial review. In moving that amendment, the noble Baroness said:
"The question of oral public inquiry remains pivotal ... My own feeling-my instinct, even-is that we need further clarification at this stage from the Minister on whether the Government can accept oral public inquiry in the Bill".
For our part, we responded to the spirit of compromise in which the amendment was moved, and made clear that we were prepared to accept the scheme proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, which was also tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
During the debate on the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, a number of very important contributions were made, including a telling intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who said:
"The Boundary Commission process, including public inquiries, has served this country very well. It has maintained public confidence by a transparent process which has avoided even the suspicion of gerrymandering which blights so many other democratic countries. The Boundary Commission needs to retain some form of discretion to call for an inquiry, at least in those cases where it considers that it is necessary, with appropriate safeguards. I am sure that improvements can be made to the statutory scheme to promote efficiency and reduce delays but there really is no case for abolition".-[Hansard, 31/1/11; cols. 1217-18.]
The response of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, left me with the impression that the Government were persuaded by the principle. He said:
"We remain very happy to discuss the detail of how these proposals will operate-obviously with the noble Baroness who has proposed her amendment and with the official Opposition".-[Hansard, 31/1/11; col. 1223.]
As it happens, the amendments were not discussed with the Opposition. The amendment makes progress but is disappointing because of this great hole in its heart.
As I have indicated, the sequencing is wrong. The whole purpose of inquiries to which written and oral evidence can be submitted is that they should occur after the initial period of written representation so that they deal with the issues that there may be in relation to a particular boundary dispute. The inquiries, where they are held, should provide an opportunity for representations to be made, but they should also provide an opportunity for those issues to be examined, to hear people respond at the hearing to what others say, to make arguments with or without lawyers as they or the chair of the inquiry sees fit and to reach some kind of conclusion in the form of a report. The government amendment fails to specify who will chair an inquiry-or "hearing", as they describe it-and it fails to say how that person's independence will be guaranteed. Above all, it fails to say whether the chair will have the power to make recommendations. However, the noble and learned Lord has made it clear that that is not his or her role.
The one thing that the government amendment is unfailingly clear about is that, although hearings will cover a whole region, they should not last more than two days. In very many cases, that might be sufficient, depending on what the issues are in a region; in others, however, it will not.
Our amendments are intended to correct those flaws. In an effort to reach a compromise, we do so while retaining much of the structure included in the government amendment. Our amendment also respects the fundamental concern of the Government, which is to ensure that the inclusion of a right to public inquiries does not prevent a boundary review before 2015. Our amendments to the Government's scheme cover roughly the same time period in total as the Government's scheme. We reduce the time limit on the initial written consultation phase from 12 to six weeks; stipulate that public inquiries cannot last for more than four months-by that, I do not mean the hearing but the process-after the close of the initial written consultation period; and reduce the period when written representations may be made after any revised proposals from eight to four weeks. Because public inquiries allow for objections and counterproposals to be made, we would remove the four-week secondary consultation period that the government amendment inserts.
We propose an identification of the issues for the written representations, an inquiry that must be concluded within four months from the closure for the first written representations, a report with recommendations from the chair or assistant chair of the inquiry and then an opportunity for people to comment on it-thereby ensuring the right for people to make representations and some response to the representations. The right to make representations which then find no conclusion or expression except in the statement of what the boundaries finally are will not be sufficient.
Apart from the question of timing and the chairmanship of an inquiry, or whatever we call it, what is the substantive difference between a public inquiry and what is proposed, a public hearing? Can the noble and learned Lord summarise the substantive differences for my sake?
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that opportunity. As I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will confirm, a public hearing simply involves an opportunity for people to come to a room-a town hall or a village hall-to make or read a statement. It is recorded, and that is it. The next person then stands up and makes a statement, and then he or she sits down. It goes on like that. A record is kept of what is said, but there is no resolution of any issues. The statement of what is said is then, I assume, placed on the web so that everybody can see what was said
A public enquiry would involve Mr X saying, "I think that the boundaries should be here", and Mr Y saying, "I think that the boundaries should be there". Then the chair-having heard all the representations that people want to make, determining what the process is, having heard what everybody has said-says, "I recommend to the Boundary Commission that it should draw the boundaries there". So it is a process where issues are identified and some resolution is given. That is the fundamental difference.
That is the weakness in the position at present and as outlined by the noble and learned Lord: there are two recommendations. There is the recommendation from the chairman of the inquiry and then the Boundary Commission makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State as to where the boundary should be. What is the need for a double decision?
The effect of the Bill and all previous Bills is that the Boundary Commission's conclusions are in practice final. Yes, they have to be given to the Secretary of State, but the Bill-in my view, correctly-takes away any discretion from the Secretary of State to do anything other than lay them before Parliament, so, in practice, they are final.
The Boundary Commission does not come in any shape or form from the locality; it does not hear local representations; and it does not hear argument about where the boundaries should be. It is fundamentally different; it is carrying out an administrative process.
Is the difference, therefore, that the Boundary Commission will be the body that considers all representations, whether oral or written? Will this not be more desirable than it simply acting administratively, as the noble and learned Lord says, upon the recommendation of somebody else?
Absolutely not, because where, as a result of the representations made at written stage, an issue is identified that would be assisted by hearing people locally, not only do you get local engagement-which everybody thinks is important-you also focus on a particular issue with somebody hearing and resolving the arguments. Of all the people in the world who would think that that was a worthwhile process, I can think of nobody who would regard it as more so than the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford-who in all my years in the House has upheld every single aspect of such a process.
The noble Lord has been extraordinarily patient, but I am sure that he wants us all to understand-and I may not be the only person in the Chamber who does not from his explanation-whether cross-examination will be allowed.
It will be entirely a matter for the chair, probably operating in accordance with guidance given by the assistant or deputy chairs of the Boundary Commission. We will encourage a process that is streamlined and non-formal. If cross-examination would help let it be so, if it would not let it be a matter for the assistant chair hearing the inquiry on the day. I trust the right people to make the right decisions on how to get to a conclusion as shortly, as economically and as appropriately as possible.
In our amendment we propose that the chair of such a public enquiry must be a legally qualified assistant commissioner, appointed by the chair of the Boundary Commission, with the power to make recommendations. We say this must be a legally qualified person because they will have experience of ensuring short, sharp hearings, which I think is what everybody wants. Without that, the system of hearings put forward by the Government is little more than a public reading of statements. It will lead, I am sure, to a sense of frustration because there is no response of any detailed sort.
The issue of public inquiries is one of the most central concerns we have with the Bill. The Government's initial response to the debates we had on this matter was pivotal in breaking the deadlock in Committee. We have understood that they would respond favourably to this and other amendments on public enquiries; it matters hugely. However, we have put the proposal forward in a spirit of compromise. We have sought at every stage to listen to what the Government have said.
I have not taken much active interest in this debate but I have read all the official reports. I cannot understand why one has to go into this rather complex, devious regime and not leave this matter of tremendous importance-non-political importance-to the Boundary Commission. I may have missed it, but I have been listening and I do not understand.
I have considerable sympathy with that view. If the Bill had said, "Let there be public inquiries and let the chair or the deputy chair of the Boundary Commission determine the right course and whether or not there should be a public inquiry", I anticipate and understand that the Government would have been concerned about the delay that that might cause to the timing of the boundary review. We are prepared to enter into a scheme, whose structure is in effect proposed by the Government, that does its level best to ensure that the process will be over by
In an attempt to reach a conclusion, the Government's amendment, as amended by ours, would do what your Lordships' House does very well-namely, improve the Bill in a way which is both a sensible solution and a product of compromise and good sense. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Government have moved a long way but, in my view, they have not moved far enough. Indeed, some of what they propose is not constructive in the way they intend. The Government's proposals, if coupled with those put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would produce a much better result. This is very important for the public because the scale of the changes involved means that the public should have a proper hearing.
I am not surprised that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, asked what is the difference between a public hearing and a public inquiry. Normally a proper hearing involves the kind of matters to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred. It is no use having a hearing if it does not serve its purpose. The great defect in the Government's proposals is that they arrange a hearing following which the person who has to make the decision will not have an opportunity of having any more than a record of what has occurred in the hearing.
In times out of number within our legal system-whether it be in the form of a planning or any other inquiry-a hearing has resulted in an opportunity to be heard, which is then reported upon by a neutral and independent person, normally someone with skill and experience in the area in question. Here it is quite clear that, in the end, the Boundary Commission will have to make the decision and, on both proposals, its decision will be coloured by what has happened at the public hearing. However, on the Government's case, the Boundary Commission will have only a written record. What is the purpose of having an oral hearing if there is going to be no more than that?
What should happen-I submit that this is what is intended to happen in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-is that there should be included in the matters that go before the Boundary Commission the views of the person who is chairing the hearing. That does not mean, as was thought by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas-I say this with great respect-that there would be two decisions; there will be only one decision. The chairman will take great care to do no more than assist the Boundary Commission to reach its decision.
Those who have had the task of looking at many inspectors' reports will know how a decision that is to be made by the Secretary of State is assisted by an inspector's report. I anticipate that the chairman will say, "So and so was contended on behalf of X, but Y said so and so, which the Boundary Commission may think is the stronger argument". The chairman might say, "The Boundary Commission may submit that this point or that point was not properly considered by X in giving his evidence".
A multitude of situations could arise whereby that process could properly be dealt with by a report by the person who actually conducted the hearing. If that was allowed, you would avoid the frustration felt on the part of those appearing before the chairman that their words are apparently disappearing into the ether with no conclusion being given on them. I strongly urge the Government to think again objectively about what is proposed to avoid that situation, especially if they are concerned about delay.
The Boundary Commission can be given the task of reaching its final decision within a specific time. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, suggested, it is given the power to control the chairman, it can ensure that there will be no undue delay, which would have the undesirable results on which the Government speculate. An important point is that there are provisions in the Government's proposal for questions to be asked of those making oral statements to the hearing-I refer to paragraph 8 of new Schedule 2A, proposed in Amendment 39, where that is made clear. That comes very close to the procedure which would normally take place before someone such as the chairman at a public hearing, as that is normally known. Therefore, you have questioning only under the control of the chairman. Answers are given and you have-and should have-the views of the chairman on what has occurred. If that is not done, a very strange animal indeed will be produced.
Is the noble and learned Lord suggesting that the chairman should have a power to comment, or is he suggesting that the chairman should recommend, which is really where the issue lies?
It would be a preliminary recommendation to be considered by the Boundary Commission, which would make the final recommendation. The only other alternative is that the hearing should take place before the Boundary Commission and that is obviously not a practical proposition. I am sorry that I have obviously not persuaded the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, on this.
I have been at Boundary Commission hearings, although I do not recall a judicial review. Does not the noble and learned Lord's suggestion mean that the recommendations of the chairman would be open to judicial review? Is that not one of the things that we are trying to avoid?
I certainly cannot say that in no circumstances could the chairman's recommendations be the subject of judicial review, but there is a greater risk of judicial review if you do not allow the chairman to put before the Boundary Commission the information that it will need to make a decision. I cannot anticipate what a judge would say on an application for judicial review in all cases, but, in the majority of cases, I think that the possibility of judicial review at that stage would be very slim.
As the noble Lord knows well from his experience of judicial review, what is normally judicially reviewed is the final recommendation. A preliminary recommendation made by the chairman would not be the subject of judicial review, because if it was criticised, as it would have to be, as not being in accordance of the legal requirements, the answer would be, "Well, what are you worrying about? The Boundary Commission will put that right, and, if they don't, you can come back to us then". You do not come, at this first stage, to seek judicial review of what is no more than a preliminary recommendation. I think that that is the trite law which the noble Lord would expect the court to follow on applications for judicial review.
Let us have sensible provisions; let us give the widest possible discretion to the Boundary Commission; let us have the ability to go that one step further than the Government's proposals so far and enable the person who chairs the hearing to make a preliminary recommendation. Of course, he may decide not to make a recommendation, but he should not be prevented from doing so. He may think that the situation is sufficient. I would therefore urge flexibility.
In that regard, could I also urge the Government to reconsider the requirement that there should be at least two public hearings? There may be situations where to have public hearings will serve no real purpose. That should be a matter of which the Boundary Commission should again be in charge.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his helpful clarification, but how can judicial review, which is of general application, have any specific relationship with this particular question? Acceptance of judicial review is a matter always for the discretion of the court. You have no right to it, unless the court accepts your application.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is of course absolutely right that the matter is in the hands of the judge who hears the application, but he will forgive me if I do not from these Benches seek to give my opinion as to what a judge can do and should do other than in the most cautious of terms. I have tried to assist the House by indicating that, from my experience, it is unlikely that the fears expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, would have any basis in reality.
My Lords, the government amendments give expression to a widespread feeling in the House, which I share, that there should be some oral procedure in the Boundary Commission's decision-making process. The amendments give the political parties and members of the public the opportunity to give evidence, to make representations orally and in public, to develop written submissions that have already been submitted and to put forward arguments orally.
The system proposed by the government amendments achieves that in a way that is proportionate, reasonably economical and reasonably expeditious. It avoids effectively dividing the decision-making process between the recommendation of the chair of a public inquiry and the final recommendation of the Boundary Commission itself. The amendments allow for two-day hearings across the whole country, which the Boundary Commission must take into account. They have at their heart a trust in the Boundary Commission and its decision-making ability that is, in our submission, in no way misplaced.
The proposals offer a transparent system with the public having a genuine and adequate chance to participate at every stage, whereas the amendments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, would, I suggest, revert to a cumbersome system of public inquiries that has often led to the whole system becoming bogged down. Those inquiries may be as long as four months. That is not expeditious.
Further, in answer to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick-one which, with the greatest of respect, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, did not adequately deal with in his speech-they open up a dual decision-making process with different and distinct decision-making stages. I give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt but I have taken part in a number of hearings in Ayrshire. In one case, the assistant commissioner recommended something which was accepted by the Boundary Commission; and in another a different commissioner recommended something that was not accepted by it. The decision of the Boundary Commission is always final.
My Lords, that is precisely the point. The intervention of the noble Lord illustrates that the Boundary Commission makes decisions, taking into account recommendations of the commissioners that may be inconsistent, which negates the importance or effect of the public inquiries. Amendment 43 empowers the assistant commissioner to,
"adjudicate between the arguments and to make a final recommendation on proposed boundary changes".
As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, explains, there is no explanation anywhere of how that would work or what the precise status or effect of the recommendation would be. Presumably, as he says, the Boundary Commission would have to take that into account but that would-again with respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf-open up the public hearings or inquiries to judicial review, possibly not as to the content of the recommendation but as to the procedure adopted before the public inquiry.
Then there would be the difficulty that any departure by the Boundary Commission from the recommendation from a public inquiry would be challengeable as irrational. That itself would be fruitful grounds for judicial review hearings. The amendment does not state how these problems would be dealt with. I give way.
My Lords, what it means is that there is a difficult and delaying process at that stage because there is the interposition of the public inquiry; that is, with a public hearing as proposed by the Government, there is a hearing which is essentially, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, explained, an evidence- and argument-gathering procedure, orally in public, prior to a decision-making process by the Boundary Commission which, as I say, we should trust.
The government amendments quite properly exclude this unhappy intermediate stage in the decision-making process. Furthermore, the cost of the public inquiry proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is considerable. It cuts out a substantial and essential element of transparency from the system proposed by the government amendments. The opposition amendments would remove the requirement to publish the records of public hearings to enable informed public comment.
In terms of timing, the proposals of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, would total 26 weeks in cases where there were proposals to revise recommendations-six for written submissions, 16 or 17 for public inquiries and then four for further inquiries. The proposals of the government amendments are much shorter overall-12 weeks for written submissions and public hearings, four for a period of secondary consultation and eight if revisions are proposed: so, 16 weeks rising to a maximum of 24 weeks. However, the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, keep his timetable down to 26 or 27 weeks only by cutting from 12 weeks to six the period for public written submissions; by cutting entirely the four-week secondary consultation period proposed by the Government and by allowing only four weeks instead of eight for the public to make written representations on any revised proposals.
At the heart of our position on these amendments is the notion that members of the public are more likely to make written representations than they are to attend long public inquiries, which would largely be the forum of the political parties. The amendments proposed by the Opposition favour a return to a long, cumbersome, legalistic and expensive decision-making process of public inquiries going before the Boundary Commission's recommendation, a process whose status is entirely uncertain because its effect on the final decision is not clear.
Finally, an entirely lawyerly point, Amendment 27GH of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, inserts a reference to subsection (4)(b) of government Amendment 27G which, by Amendment 27GD, they have entirely deleted. That is a small point by comparison with the central point. The public hearings proposed by the Government amendments are essentially creatures of the public with longer timescales for written representations and a shorter, simpler arrangement for public hearings with all the evidence and all the argument then considered by the Boundary Commission, which we ought to trust. I urge the House to accept the government amendments and reject those proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer.
Experience shows that where two or three lawyers are gathered together one is sure to disagree. I entirely agree with every word that has fallen from the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which I am afraid inevitably means that, with great respect, I venture to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. He suggested that the advantage of his proposals was flexibility. I suggest that the disadvantage is an absence of simplicity. I can see no possible advantage in having a double decision process in a matter such as this. On the face of it, one would think it must increase the likelihood of an application for judicial review. In any event, the question should not be decided simply by that-it was a strong argument at one stage. But now we have before us not the original amendment proposed by the Convenor, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, which in its way was a very good amendment, but an amendment from the Government containing everything that was in that amendment, which, to my mind, is essential. A public inquiry as such is not essential. A public hearing is, and that is what is promised.
My Lords, I share the Government's objective here, which is to make this process more efficient. At the moment it is not efficient. It is too slow, too cumbersome and there are too many lawyers involved. I therefore share the Government's objective. However, I also share the concerns so eloquently expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. The Government will abolish any effective inquiry and will introduce a procedure which will ensure that the decision-maker-and here I say to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that there is only one decision-maker on the opposition amendment: the Boundary Commission-does not hear the oral representations that have been made. The person who does hear those oral representations has no role in communicating to the decision-maker any advice on what he or she thinks of what he or she has just heard. It is absolutely inevitable that the introduction of such a procedure will exacerbate rather than diminish the sense of grievance that has led people to make representations in the first place.
As I understand it, that is the position. The opposition amendments will leave that to the discretion of the person who is hearing the representations, which seems to me right and proper. The proposal from the Government at the moment is a sort of legal interruptus in which the person hearing the material will end the process in a profoundly unsatisfactory way-unsatisfactory to the person who made the representations-because nothing arises from that other than communication to the decision-maker who has not actually heard what has been going on.
Does the noble Lord not agree that the person to whom he refers, the person who would be aggrieved, would prefer that their contribution goes directly to the decision-maker and is not filtered in an intermediate stage by the chairman, who may have all sorts of views of his own and may colour the way in which that person wants his representations to be heard?
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that in my experience it is most unusual indeed to arrange for oral representations, and let us not forget that this is what the Government are rightly proposing, in which the person hearing them then has no role, not even an advisory one. It is my experience in all areas of the law, and I hope that it is the experience of the noble Lord as well, that if you give people a fair hearing and then a reasoned conclusion at the end of it, even if it is only advisory in nature, they are normally-not always-prepared to accept the result, however disappointing it may be. The Government's proposals, by contrast, will inevitably raise expectations which they cannot satisfy and which will inevitably frustrate and anger people, who will inevitably feel that this is a charade. On a matter as sensitive and important as constituency boundaries, it is vital for this House to maintain some genuine process of inquiry leading to a result, even if it is only advisory. Inquiries have contributed substantially to the confidence that all sections of the public now have in the process of boundary review.
People have confidence in the fairness of the process. I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that the cost of providing fairness in this vital area should deter us from what the Opposition suggest. Nor can I accept that there is any realistic prospect of judicial review here, which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, was concerned about. I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. It is most unlikely-although one can never say never-that any court will entertain in this context a judicial review challenge to an advisory recommendation. The court would say, "Exhaust your remedy-your remedy is to wait until the Boundary Commission has formed its conclusion". The noble Lord, Lord Marks, is concerned that if the chairman gives advice with which the Boundary Commission does not agree, that might provoke a judicial review. Again, in this discretionary area, it is highly unlikely-although one can never say never-that such a judicial review should succeed. I take the view that the risks of people bringing judicial reviews are all the greater if you do not give them a proper, fair process.
Would the noble Lord not agree that if the Boundary Commission failed to follow the recommendation of the first decision-maker- which may be provisional-that would inevitably trigger judicial review? That is the problem when you have double decision-making.
I am sorry, but I simply do not accept that. The noble Lord is very familiar with the general process of planning inquiries, when advice is regularly given that is not followed by the decision-maker. The courts are sophisticated enough to understand in this sensitive area that advice is not necessarily followed. The Boundary Commission is the decision-maker. If I were to go to the court tomorrow and rely on advice that the Boundary Commission had rejected, and if that were the basis of my judicial review, the case would not last very long, as I think the noble Lord knows.
I have taken a number of interventions. This is Report, and I hope that the House will agree with me that it is appropriate that we proceed with this matter.
Even at this late stage, will the Minister and the Government please think again? They can make this process more efficient, but they should not abolish the inquiry, which is what they are in effect doing, as it serves a very valuable purpose.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, described this proposal as being culturally different from what had gone before. He is right in one sense, but I respectfully suggest that it is very much in line with the way in which a lot of procedures are developing. We are not obsessed by prolonged oral hearings with laborious cross-examination, dominated by lawyers-and here I must declare an interest as a member of that much maligned species. Rather, it is a sensible way of dealing with matters so that there can be full written representations followed by a public hearing. I think that the expression "public hearing" is an attractive one, as opposed to a "public inquiry", which sounds rather murky and obscure from the point of view of the public, for whose benefit it is supposed to be.
I hope very much that such a hearing will be "lawyer light". There is no need for the chair to be a lawyer; it might be better if they are not. What we require from the chair is someone who is capable of organising a hearing at which everyone who has a reasonable interest in a matter can have their interest properly heard and recorded. I accept the observation by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that there is no need to stick to strict court hours, and one hopes that the chair will allow a longer period as necessary.
We are talking about, I hope, an informal but thorough hearing. It allows what, as I understood it, the Opposition required-in effect, a day in court, an opportunity for people to say that they have said something as well as written something. This seems to be an extremely practical and fair solution, and I will support it.
I want to raise a point that only the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has touched on. I speak as someone who was in the other place and went through two boundary inquiries. Most Members of Parliament fail when dealing with casework, and they have to give their constituents bad news. Most constituents receive that news on the basis that their case has been taken to the top; they accept that, and that is the end of the matter. That is a generalisation, but by and large it is my experience.
On both of the boundary changes that we dealt with-I am speaking only about the evidence from the city of Birmingham-we as Members of Parliament took criticism from members of the public, churches and party members, and this applied to both major parties as we were very much a two-party city in those days. The criticism was that someone had come up from London who had never been there before and was redrawing boundaries and sticking this ward into the constituency when we wanted that one instead.
I remember one particular incident, at a public community meeting separate from the boundary inquiry, that I was able to quell. It was not a riot, but it was pretty bad. I said to people, "Look, we might disagree, but we don't even know this guy's name or his background. He's a lawyer, and he has chaired the meeting, but at least we've been able to put our case and argue the case with the Tory party". There was a major argument about a big ward, with 20,000 electors, going in. We were able to say to people, "We've had our day in court"-the very phrase that has just been used. We were able to say that we had argued the toss with our political opponents and that it had been done openly and transparently. Everyone accepted that. Whether we won or lost, it probably did not materially affect the political outcome, but it was thought that it might.
There are probably far more people interested in this change than there have been in previous boundary changes, for obvious reasons. It is important to be able to report back to the interested public and say that their case has been listened to; that they have been able to put up a challenge, because there will be political arguments on this; and that they might have lost, but it was done openly and fairly. However, I do not think that it will be seen to have been done fairly. No MP will be able to do what I did and say to constituents, "You were able to argue and challenge the opposing views. We lost, but it was done in the open, and that's the way that it is done in Britain". That is something to be regretted.
I have a practical question that your Lordships' House needs to give some attention to. It seems to me that the danger is not successful judicial review-or any sort of legal challenge-rather, it is that all over the country the opportunity will be taken to try and delay the process, for reasons that we all understand, so that the changes will not be in place ready for the 2015 election. I have appeared at inquiries and before commissions-unpaid, of course, as I was not a lawyer. I was reminded of this by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Imagine the circumstances when a number of MPs who see their seats being changed do not necessarily think that they could be successful at judicial review but think it is worth trying to delay the process. There could be 400 applications for judicial review. That seems to be the danger.
I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is saying. I understand what other lawyers are saying. My fear is simply that this process will be undermined not by successful judicial review but by attempts to try and delay the process. If that is the game that we have to foresee, then your Lordships' House will be blamed for delaying an important process that will give equality of votes to a lot of our fellow citizens.
Does the noble Lord understand that no judicial review may be brought without the leave of the court? Does he understand that the courts are highly experienced in hearing speedily-by which I mean within days if necessary or within weeks-any case that is urgent, as these cases, if they were brought, would clearly be?
Very briefly, my Lords, I got involved in this affair with a lot of other members of the Bar and I have to say where I stand. I totally support the legal analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who is totally correct. Of course, it puts me in a very odd position because I am a Conservative and part of the coalition, but I cannot help that. I know that what the noble Lord said is right.
I intervene very briefly because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded me of appearing in the planning inquiry in mid-Wales on the drowning of Dulais valley, which was proposed by his council, Birmingham council. We were concerned because the Secretary of State for Wales, Lord Cledwyn, was to take the decision, but the person who heard the inquiry came up from London; "Who was he?" and "What does he know about Wales?". These were real concerns that affected the people who I was representing-for nothing, if it matters-in that particular inquiry. We would much have preferred to put our views before the Secretary of State for Wales directly-to the decision-maker-who we knew knew something about the issues. As it happened, the inspector held in our favour and was upheld by Lord Cledwyn, who made the final decision and announced that no valley in Wales would ever be drowned again.
That is an example of wishing to make representations not to the unknown person from London but to the real decision-maker. The government amendment would enable all the representations and the evidence given by objectors to be put in their raw condition to the boundary commissioners, without any intervening stage.
My Lords, while there has been a lot of anxiety in this House over recent weeks about what we are doing here, the debate that we have had on this very difficult amendment has shown just what an extraordinary resource of experience this place can provide.
I have three points to make. First, I would be most grateful if the Minister, in summing up this debate, could answer the forceful point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that by having the public inquiry when he plans to have it-that is to say, after five weeks before all the written representations are in-surely deprives the oral hearing of being able to respond to the points that local citizens are making.
Secondly, I was much struck by what my noble friend Lord Marks said about the virtue of the timetable proposed by the Government, which gives a full 12 weeks for written submissions, until he rightly said that most members of the public will provide their opinions by that route and will not appear at the oral hearing.
My final point is to assist the noble Lord, Lord Martin, who asked the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, whether there could be cross-examination under the Government's system, if I can call it that. The answer to that is yes. Amendment 39 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, specifically prescribes that cross-examination will be in the gift of the person conducting the inquiry under the proposals being put forward by my noble and learned friend, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.
My Lords, I think an intervention is required. The Report rules are such that Members are entitled to speak once to an amendment. There is a problem when a speech is an intervention or an intervention is a speech. However, it would be helpful if people were a bit sparing with their interventions. People ought to realise that they have one turn.
My Lords, if the rule is that my intervention denies me the right to speak, I will sit down. It was a very brief intervention and it was for information. I understand the agitation of the Liberal Democrat Whip, but the Liberal Democrats were no slouches in speaking, so I wonder whether I might make a brief speech. If the noble Lord is saying that I cannot do it-
I thank the noble Lord; I am obliged. I intervened on cross-examination but it was not my interest to worry about cross-examination by solicitors or QCs in an inquiry. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I have been to three inquiries, but they were in the city of Glasgow. They were very fair indeed. People from all walks of life turned up to put their case. Sometimes people would go along and say that they represented several community organisations. No lawyer present would have known how to test the case that was being put-that they belonged to those community organisations-but someone who lived in the community would. It was lay people who sometimes brought out in cross-examination that perhaps they were not, and could not claim that they were, truly representative of the community councils or residents' associations as they claimed to be. Those lay people had local knowledge.
It is easy to talk about splitting up wards and putting one ward into another. However, often the argument for moving a ward from one constituency into another is based on where the local facilities, such as transport and schools, are. That is often why church leaders turn up where the local churches are based. Therefore, in the course of cross-examination, lay people can paint a picture of the true local situation for the examiner. I would be just a bit worried about discretion. People should be able to cross-examine as of right.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and noble and learned Lords who have participated in this important debate. It has been a good and helpful debate, with views forcefully expressed but set out in a measured way. There is some agreement that we want to find the best way to achieve effective consultation on Boundary Commission proposals. However, it has also become clear-I made this point when I opened the debate and it was reflected on by my noble friend Lord Faulks-that the issue very much represents a choice of culture. Will we have what is essentially the old system of the local public inquiry-albeit with some timetable improvements; and I acknowledge the efforts made there-or a change of culture towards the public hearings proposed in the Government's amendment? My noble friend Lord Faulks indicated that our proposal goes with the grain of making arrangements for similar matters to be dealt with.
The process we have set out combines written representations with a new public hearing stage aimed at providing for real public engagement, and involves a counter-representation stage to allow for scrutiny. We believe that that adds up to a comprehensive and rigorous process which learns the lessons of previous reviews and allows us to achieve the key principles of the Bill, whereby constituencies will become more equal and fair and their representation in the other place will be reflected by the time of the 2015 election.
It was suggested by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Woolf, that the representations made at an oral hearing would disappear into the ether. However, it is it is important to recall that not only after the end of the period will there still be an opportunity for follow-up representations, but, in response to amendments in Committee from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, there will be an opportunity for counter-representations to be made. It is a requirement set out in the amendment that the Boundary Commission shall give consideration not only to the written representations and counter-representations, but to the record of those who engage in the oral hearings.
The process that we propose is a considerable departure from the original proposals in the Bill. That was acknowledged by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. The Government have listened to the reasonable concerns on the importance of public engagement, not least at the first review under the new rules. We have listened to the argument that our process could be strengthened if there was an opportunity for the scrutiny of arguments put forward by others. We have shown that we are willing to move in the interests of a better outcome, but not at the cost of the key principles of the Bill. That cost would include delays that could undermine those principles.
The opposition proposals-whether those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, or the suggested changes to the Government's amendments-would, in effect, restore the existing inquiry process. They require a legally qualified chair and a report back to the commissions by the legally qualified person-we have had exchanges on whether there are to be two decisions or two determinations. The opposition proposals would remove the time limit on the number of days an inquiry will last. Those old-style inquiries would take place after the submission of written evidence, as they do now-albeit for a slightly longer period-in order that the parties can send their lawyers and that their legally qualified person in the chair can cross-examine them.
Even the noble and learned Lords among us can imagine that that process is unlikely to engage the general public at large. The work of academics who have researched these issues in depth means that we do not have to imagine what that would mean, because the evidence is in their reports. An in-depth study by Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie in 2008 stated:
"It would be a major error to assume that the consultation process largely involves the general public having its say on the recommendations. The entire procedure is dominated-in influence and outcome if not in terms of the numbers of representations and petitions (many stimulated by the main actors)-by the political parties".
There has been a flavour of the political parties' heavy engagement.
It has also been said that somehow or other the public inquiry system assuages pent-up local demand. Before I came to the Chamber this afternoon, I looked at the last Boundary Commission review of the constituencies for the Scottish Parliament. In the case of East Lothian, Midlothian and the Scottish Borders, the inquiry process, which led to a recommendation from the reporter, who I think was Sheriff Edward Bowen QC, was completely and utterly dismissed by the Boundary Commission. I am not sure what that would do to promote public confidence in the system proposed by the Opposition.
I am not aware that there was a judicial review. The noble Lord said that everyone accepted it. He should consult my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood about how effective he thinks the present public inquiry system is.
The role of the chair has been much debated. It was said that the chair should be legally qualified in order to provide clarity and consistency of practice, and to make the process resistant to judicial review. It was claimed also that there must be report back. We have just heard about the pros and cons of that. The Government do not agree. The hearings that we propose are about giving the public and the political parties a chance to have their say as part of the consultation process. The legislation provides that a commission shall take into account the representations made at hearings, as it does the written submissions.
Another of my concerns about the opposition proposals is that the value of the written submissions appears to be somewhat relegated. We propose that there should be a counter-representation period. As I understand the Opposition's proposals, any written counter-representations would have to be channelled into the public inquiry: there would not be a time period for them.
It is important to remember that the commissions are independent. They exist to weigh the arguments. It will be for them to decide how best to do that. There is no need to interpose an independent lawyer between the commissions and the arguments in order to allow the public to have their say. The commissions will be chaired by a High Court judge or equivalent and will be very sensitive to those issues. It will be open to them to appoint the chair that they think best for the job. I will not detain the House at the moment by speaking to Amendment 18E in this group, save to say that we have tabled it to broaden the purposes for which assistant commissioners may be engaged.
The Opposition claim that the process is flawed because the hearings will take place at a point in the process before all the written representations are known. This point was picked up by my noble friend Lord Phillips. Again, that is a concern if one has the mindset of a public inquiry. We say that parties will be able to feed in their views of the commission's initial recommendations, and others will be able to hear them. We have provided for counter-representation that will allow scrutiny of the arguments of others. Although we do not envisage a public inquiry with a quasi-judicial cross-examination, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, that our amendment provides for the chair to put questions or allow questions to be put to a person present at the hearing and, if the question is allowed to be put, to regulate the manner of the questioning or restrict the number of questions that a person may ask. Therefore, there will be an opportunity for the kind of engagement that the noble Lord clearly feels is of value.
The noble and learned Lord stated that the Opposition are arguing that if we adjust the number of weeks for written consultation there is time for oral inquiries to be held. Putting a deadline in the Bill does not guarantee that it will be achieved. The Boundary Commission for England was set a deadline in primary legislation in 1992. However, it reported months later because it felt the need to focus on the process under the previous legislation. I do not criticise it for that: it believed that the process was important. However, I ask the House to consider that the Boundary Commissions may think that the process is important, and that whatever deadline we set may not be met. If that happens, there is a danger that one of the key principles of the Bill will be seriously undermined.
The noble and learned Lord indicated that two days was not enough for an inquiry. Past inquiries have taken 12 days, or 10 under the previous review. Under the Government's proposal, there would be a maximum of 90 days of public hearings in England: five in each region, lasting two days each. That would be the upper limit. The Opposition would remove the limit on the number of days, and the period for counter-representations, meaning that the only place for scrutinising the arguments of others would be in that oral public inquiry. Therefore, we could expect more 10 and 12-day inquiries. We believe that this proposal is simply impractical. I recognise that in toto the number of weeks is similar to ours but I fear that I am sceptical about whether it could be achieved in practice, even if it were desirable to restore the old-style, legalistic form of inquiry. I remind the House that it is not. I quote from academic literature:
"In effect, the public consultation process is 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".
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, indicated that he thought that all the key components were in fact ticked off with the Government's amendment.
In conclusion, the House is faced with a choice between a new mechanism for ensuring that the public can genuinely engage in the boundary review process through hearings or the recreation of the old inquiry process that we know can be alien to the public and would return us to the days of six-year boundary reviews. Even if it does not do that, it would certainly lead to a length of time which could undermine getting the boundary review through and the next election being fought on modern, up-to-date boundaries. I believe that the Government have moved a long way on this point and they have done so after careful consideration. I urge noble Lords carefully to consider the proposals that we are putting before the House today and to support them.
My Lords, there is a very real and important issue here. On close analysis, the noble and learned Lord's proposals are flawed, and fatally so. First, on the point about delay, I do not think that the noble and learned Lord was listening to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, were saying. In his closing remarks, he agreed that the period of time specified for his scheme and for the Opposition's scheme is broadly the same. With ours it is 26 weeks and with his it is 24 weeks. Therefore, a scheme is being proposed to enable the process to finish by October 2013. I want to spare the blushes of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, but they are probably the two leading experts on judicial review in this country and they are saying that there will be more judicial reviews. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, whom I greatly respect, is shaking his head but, with respect, I am listening to them, not to him, and they are saying that there will be more judicial reviews. They say that they do not know what form they will take but there will be more of them. Therefore, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is making his scheme more vulnerable to delay through the process that he is proposing. I say that not on the basis of my opinion but on the basis of the opinion of the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord. Therefore, with respect, his point about a delay is wrong.
Secondly, he says that this process will engage people, in that his scheme will allow people to come and say something-a process that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, described as a day in court. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, spent many days in court, but I have never known a day in court where you say something but then nothing happens. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said-in my submission, entirely correctly-that will be bound to increase resentment, not reduce it. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, someone will not be saying, "Well, I have heard your arguments and you're wrong on this and right on that". It is, with respect, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, put his finger on and it is incredibly important.
The third point that the noble and learned Lord made is that academics are all against us. They are not. They are saying, as we are saying, that we must streamline the process. We must not allow it to become abused, but we must have some process like this. The person who knows best about this is the boundary commissioner, Robin Gray, who said that if you do not have a process where the public can put their point of view and have a response to their point of view rather than complete silence, you are going to have real disquiet about an area where there is no disquiet at the moment. With the greatest of respect, I must say that the Government have moved some way, but they have moved nowhere near enough, and they have put us in a position where we have no alternative but to seek the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
Amendments 27GB to 27GJ (to Amendment 27G) not moved.
Amendment 27G agreed.
Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark
27H: Clause 12, page 13, line 40, at end insert-
"( ) of all representations received in writing or any electronic format made to a Boundary Commission, by publishing item online within 72 hours of receipt"
This amendment is similar to the one that I moved in Committee. The amendment in Committee required that all representations received should be published online within 24 hours; this amendment requires that they should be published online within 72 hours-three days-of receipt.
After listening to the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, I withdrew my amendment in Committee. However, what the Government have come back with is disappointing, because representations will be published only after the close of the consultation period. Although I accept that the majority of representations will be received towards the end of the consultation process, under the Government's proposals provisions representations could be received more than three months before they are made public. That is not good and, quite frankly, I had hoped for a little more. I also cannot find any requirement for the Boundary Commission to publish-
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord when he is so carefully introducing his amendment. I know that the House wishes to listen to him. Therefore, I invite noble Lords who are leaving the crowded Chamber to do so quietly so that we may have the full benefit of listening to the noble Lord.
I thank the noble Baroness for that. I cannot find any requirement for the Boundary Commission to publish representations received in any secondary consultation. If I am wrong in that, I hope that it will be pointed out to me. Finally, my amendment is green, makes sense and would save trees.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for moving his amendment and for again raising this issue, which was discussed in Committee. The Government support the idea of a good flow of information between the Boundary Commission and the public so that people can be informed about the review and have their say. The noble Lord has kindly amended his original proposal to allow 72 hours for publication. However, this is still likely to be impractical given the tendency that we have noted of people to respond to consultations just before the end of the consultation period. The Boundary Commission will no doubt publish representations as speedily as possible, but a deadline of 72 hours may be too stringent, particularly in cases where it has to deal with significant numbers of representations in paper form, which will have to be converted to an electronic version for publication.
Amendment 27G provides for a further consultation period of four weeks to comment on representations made to the Boundary Commission, which the commission shall be required to publish before that four-week period starts. I hope that that is a full explanation of how we hope to deal with the points raised by the noble Lord's amendment.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 27H withdrawn.
Amendments 27J and 27K not moved.
Moved by Lord Wallace of Tankerness
27L: Clause 12, page 14, line 2, at end insert-
"(1A) After Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act there is inserted the Schedule set out in Schedule (Public hearings about Boundary Commission proposals) to this Act."
Amendment 27L agreed.
Amendment 28 not moved.
Moved by Lord Wills
16HA: Before Clause 10, insert the following new Clause-
"Committee of Inquiry on Parliamentary constituencies
(1) There shall be a Committee of Inquiry, chaired by a High Court judge, comprising members of both Houses of Parliament, including representatives of the principal political parties in the House of Commons, as well as individuals with no party attachment, and others.
(2) The Committee of Inquiry shall-
(a) review the current rules for conducting Parliamentary boundary reviews (contained in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986) considering in particular-
(i) how to address the inequality of constituency sizes;
(ii) how to stabilise the size of the House of Commons;
(iii) the relative importance of electoral equality against the specific character of individual constituencies, including the rules relating to geographical considerations, local ties and "inconveniences", and the rules on crossing borough and county boundaries; and
(iv) make recommendations;
(b) examine in this context the question of the optimum size of a constituency taking into account the need to maintain the Union, the proper role of MPs in their constituencies and in Parliament, and the implications for these roles of the responsibilities of other representative bodies including local authorities and the House of Lords, and make recommendations;
(c) consider the implications of an optimum size for the House of Commons, for an optimum size for the House of Lords, and make recommendations;
(d) review the time taken to conduct boundary reviews, particularly in England, and make recommendations;
(e) review the alignment between the timing of local and parliamentary boundary reviews to ensure that stable local government electoral boundaries can form the basis for each parliamentary review, and make recommendations;
(f) examine the question of a role for keeping the operation of the rules under review and ensuring consistency of approach by the four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions, including monitoring their standards of performance, and make recommendations; and
(g) examine the arguments surrounding the statistical basis on which electoral areas are currently constructed, in particular whether the eligible population rather than electoral statistics should be used, and make recommendations.
(3) The Committee of Inquiry established under subsection (1) shall report to Parliament annually on its progress, and deliver a final report with recommendations to the Secretary of State within three years of the passing of this Act.
(4) Within 6 months of the Committee of Inquiry's report, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament, for Parliament's consideration, a scheme including draft Bills to implement the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry."
My Lords, the House will be aware that I moved an identical amendment in Committee. I did not seek to divide the House then but said that I would return to this issue on Report if the Government showed no sign of engaging with the issues raised in that lengthy debate. The Government have not engaged with the issues in any serious way and so, as I said I would, I now return to this amendment. In doing so, my approach is informed not only by my experience as a Minister in the previous Labour Government responsible for these issues but as someone-a member of a tiny minority in this House-who believes in the objectives of both parts of this Bill. I support a move to the alternative vote system not as a compromise or halfway house but as a desirable end in itself. I, of course, support any attempt to make the process of boundary revisions fairer and more efficient. I am certainly not opposed in principle to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
In Committee, I set out the case for an independent, impartial inquiry into the important and complex constitutional issues created by Part 2. I will not rehearse the case in detail again but I stress what I stressed then: this amendment does not seek to substitute my judgment for that of the Government in addressing these issues; instead, it sets up a process for an independent, fair and principled judgment to be made, which can then inform the legislation.
Over and again, as the debates on this Bill have progressed, it has become clear that the Government have not thought through the implications of their proposals. The process has been irredeemably flawed. That is all the more worrying as the measures, technical though they may often be, are of great constitutional importance. There has been no public engagement with the issues, no attempt at elucidating any underlying principles for the changes, no consideration of the implications of a referendum held after legislation, apparently no realisation that the proposals threaten community identity and no serious attempt to address the widespread belief, which has only grown as the Bill has progressed, that the Bill has been engineered to secure partisan advantage. Instead, there has been just a breakneck rush to get these half-baked proposals into law.
That, in sum, is the case for a pause-a relatively brief pause-so that an impartial inquiry can establish the principles on which these significant constitutional reforms should proceed. The Government's response to this proposal has been, to put it at its politest, inadequate. That is why I am bringing back the amendment to the House.
In responding to my original amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said that it asked the Government to,
"wait longer to turn the Bill from a Bill that is workable and achievable into a deeply analysed but almost impossible one that would then have to be taken forward".
He referred to,
"the dangers of a perfectionist approach".-[Hansard, 10/1/11; cols. 1221-22.]
I believe that that accurately encapsulates the Government's resistance to the amendment. I will happily give way to the Leader of the House if he wants to correct me. He remains seated, so I assume from that and the benign expression on his face that I have accurately encapsulated the Government's position.
I understand this argument. In certain circumstances, it can be a valid one-for example, when there is some immutable deadline or when delay can cause greater damage than action. It is true that management textbooks often have chapters titled along the lines of "The best is the enemy of the good", but they also tend to have chapters titled along the lines of "Better right than quick".
The question of when speed should take precedence over deliberation is always a matter of judgment. The case has to be made every time judgment is exercised. That case has not been made here-not even remotely. The only argument for such speed that I can recall the Government making is that the Bill addresses issues that need addressing, that they have not been addressed for too long and that they must therefore be dealt with immediately. This argument does not stand up to any sort of scrutiny. It does not follow axiomatically from the fact that a problem needs a solution that the solution has to be immediate. Indeed, if a problem has persisted so long, it could equally be argued that a few months' delay is neither here nor there, particularly when the case for further impartial deliberation rests on the real improvements that it will bring to the legislation and on the way in which it will help to ensure that the legislation endures.
There are three arguments for the value of such an inquiry that outweigh any putative disadvantage arising from delay. First, it would enable the reforms to proceed on the basis of coherent principle in a way that they manifestly do not in their current form. Secondly, it would enable them to do so following the sustained engagement with the public-whom, let us not forget, our constitutional arrangements serve-which has not been possible under the rushed timetable laid down by the Government. Thirdly, the amendment would help to deal with the corrosive suspicion that the Bill is a partisan measure, motivated not by high constitutional principle but by low self-interest. I am not in a position to make a judgment on whether that is the case, but Ministers must recognise that this suspicion was there from the start and has only grown as the Bill has progressed through both Houses of Parliament.
Let me give the House a brief example of how this might work. A principled decision on the optimum size for the House of Commons would dispel this continuing suspicion that the figure of 600 was chosen because it most advantaged the government parties. The sum of the explanations so far advanced for how this figure was decided is that both government parties were committed at the election to reducing the size of the House of Commons and so decided that the new size would be 600-a nice round number. That is a little like a child asking a parent where they came from and getting the reply, "Well, my darling, Mummy and Daddy met and fell in love, and then nine months later along you came". It may all be true but it misses out some rather crucial details about what happened in the mean time.
Why did the Conservative Party decide to increase-not decrease or reduce-the size of the House of Commons from the 585 that it pledged in its manifesto? Who suggested it? Why did the Liberals agree to it rather than insisting in the coalition agreement that the number be lower than that? They had a figure of 500. What discussions on the appropriate figure were held within the coalition? How exactly was the figure of 600 arrived at-and so on and on? We do not know the answer to any of these questions because Ministers refuse to tell us. They airily wave away all such questions as if they are not really important. They are important. The difference of 15 seats between the figure that the Conservative Party was pledged to in the election and the figure now in the Bill is the difference between one party being in government and its not being in government. It is that important. The Government must realise that, as long as they fail to produce any coherent explanation of how this figure was arrived at and why they went back on what they promised in the election, the suspicion must remain that this decision was motivated by the pursuit of partisan advantage. That suspicion could easily be dispelled by the work of the inquiry that this amendment would establish to explore the optimum size for the House of Commons.
In tabling Amendment 28A, the Government have belatedly recognised that there might be an issue here that needs to be addressed. I do not wish to pre-empt the discussion that we will no doubt have on that amendment, but it is not a substitute for this amendment. Unlike this one, that committee's remit would be imprecise and its composition vague. It would remain in the tight grip of the Executive-there would be nothing independent or impartial about it-and it would commence its work after the new system was in place. It is another ill thought-out proposal of the sort that litter this Bill.
What if this committee that the Government propose to set up decides that 600 is not the optimum size for the House of Commons? The amendment makes no commitment to action, only to publishing its finding. Will the Government act on the findings of their own committee, so inflicting further wholesale change on the electoral system, or will they ignore them, in which case the exercise is simply cynical window-dressing? Now that the Government have conceded the case for an inquiry on this issue, which is one of the most important issues in Part 2, they should abandon their amendment and support this one, which, unlike theirs, would set up an inquiry in a fair, impartial and timely way. There should be no other way.
Moreover, the relatively short delay envisaged by this amendment would also help to address deep concerns about another important issue raised by the Bill-the Government's proposals that the boundary revision should take place on the basis of a register that everybody, including the Government, accepts is deeply flawed because more than 3 million voters who would otherwise be eligible to vote are simply not on it. In doing this, they must recognise that they are creating suspicions that they are motivated by partisan considerations, as it is widely believed that doing the boundary revision on the basis of this flawed register will primarily disadvantage the Labour Party. A short delay would allow the measures that the previous Labour Government brought in to improve the register to take effect and would mean that an election could be held on the basis of boundaries on a new, truly comprehensive and accurate register.
Finally, there is no reason to think that if your Lordships' House agrees to this amendment the Government will not get their legislation in this Parliament. Under the new fixed-term Parliament proposed by the Government, they will have adequate time to digest the results of the inquiry and get the legislation through before the next election. The only cost of this delay would be that the new constituency boundaries and a new system of voting-if that is what the referendum decides-would be in place not for the next general election but for the election after that. I ask the Minister what really is so wrong about that-is that really too high a price to pay for all the improvements that just a few months' extra reflection, deliberation and public engagement could bring to this important legislation? Constitutional reforms should be built to last; they should not become subject to constant fiddling and wholesale revision from one Parliament to the next. That corrodes public trust in our democratic system because it suggests to the public that politicians are more interested in rigging the system to serve their own interests than in using it to serve the people who elect them. If these reforms are to endure, as I think they should, it should be immaterial whether they are in place for this election or the next. I ask the Government to reflect on that point.
This amendment would get the Government to the place that they want to be and with all the additional benefits that such further impartial, independent deliberation and public engagement can bring. It would help to sustain public trust in our constitutional arrangements by helping to ensure that this legislation can be viewed as genuinely principled and valuable constitutional reform rather than the product of arbitrary and partisan calculation, as so many people see it at the moment. I beg to move.
I confess that I was not proposing to speak to this amendment, but I have just listened to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who I believe was Minister for Constitutional Affairs in another place, and I have to say to him that, frankly, I have rarely read a paragraph that horrified me as much as the one on his committee of inquiry. It seems to me that he is going down absolutely the wrong route by proposing a committee of inquiry composed of,
"a High Court judge ... members of both Houses of Parliament ... representatives of the principal political parties in the House of Commons as well as individuals with no party attachment, and others".
That is a joke. The inquiry would go on for ever and would not reach sensible conclusions. We in this House and the other House are expert in what is required here.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Falconer for pointing that out. Perhaps I may also say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that this committee is based on what used to be known as a royal commission. I was told by the powers in this House that I could not refer to it as a royal commission, but the royal commission, as he ought to know, has a very long and distinguished provenance. If he has read my remarks in the earlier debate on this amendment he will have seen that the period of time provided by the amendment is pretty much the average time given to the last 12 royal commissions that have reported.
The noble Lord's amendment provides for three years after passage of the Act, but it does so on what basis? That is what really surprises me. He has been a Member of the other place as well as a Minister in the other place. I cannot understand why he feels that a committee composed of,
"individuals with no party attachment, and others", is likely, even if it reports after three years, to reach a better judgment on what is needed in the two Houses than would be achieved by the Members of this House and the other place. Frankly, I think that he has no knowledge of history. Throughout history Parliament has reformed itself, starting with King John and Magna Carta; moving on, after some centuries, to 1911 when, because of the strength of Lloyd George and the Liberal Party, changes were made which stopped this House considering financial matters; and, more recently, to the 1999 Act, which greatly reduced the number of hereditary Peers. That shows the ability of both Houses to do this work sensibly themselves, and that is vitally important.
If we go down the other road of saying to the public, "Come on, everyone. Let us all have a voice in it", you will have three years of muddle without any clear knowledge of what we should be doing. It is important that these matters are now taken forward quickly, and that is surely the point of the Bill before us. We may not like bits of it, but it is a serious attempt to move reform forward within the judgment of the two Houses themselves. So I have to say that a committee of inquiry with many people on it who are not in this place would be a fatal thing to do.
My Lords, I shall be very brief, but I do not in any way want to underplay the importance of this amendment. So far as I am concerned, it goes to the heart of the problem of this Government. Having won the election, they have decided that they will change the number of Members of the House of Commons to suit their own party political advantage. It comes from the history of the document written by Andrew Tyrie MP and various others, where the suggestion was to reduce the number by 60 or close to that figure in the first five years and then by another 60 in the following five years in order to maximise the Conservatives' advantage in winning elections. That is what is so profoundly wrong in this.
As I have said on other occasions, it is an invitation not just for this Government but for future Governments of any political complexion to do exactly the same after every election. This is an invitation to gerrymander the House of Commons by the party that wins. I shall not labour the point, but if we were investigating an election in a country emerging from a communist regime where they were trying to assess the size of a House that would benefit the reformed communist party, we would blow the whistle. We are now, shamefully, doing the same.
I do not accept that. The advantage of my noble friend's amendment is that it invites a considered response. If the noble Lord is right, although I do not believe he is for a moment, then this is the opportunity to look at it. This is the way that any future Government would, I hope, address the issue. Like my noble friend, I support a reduction of the numbers in the House of Commons, but we should not do it this way. You should not fiddle around with the constitution to suit your own party advantage. This proposal offers structure, which is very important. I give way to my noble friend.
Is it not rather remarkable that the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, has just admitted that the motive of the coalition in introducing this legislation is to achieve a more favourable political structure in the distribution of constituencies to the benefit of the Conservative Party?
There is a genuine argument about whether it automatically gives a bigger majority to the Conservative Party because all sorts of issues like turnout and so on have to be taken into account. However, the general view has been expressed consistently ever since Andrew Tyrie wrote his document in 2004 that this would benefit the Conservative Party. That is what it does. So I would say this, particularly to the Members opposite: bear it in mind that you will not be in power for ever and you will then not be in a position to complain about a Government who come in and do the same to you. I shall give way one last time, but I am anxious not to delay the House.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. Picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, will he reflect on the fact that I mentioned the word "fair"? Perhaps he may wish to reflect on why it is that in 1992 the Conservative Party achieved the largest popular vote in the history of this country and was rewarded with a majority of 21, a vote never achieved by the outgoing Labour Government who, I think I recall, achieved majorities in excess of 170.
I invite the noble Lord to read the debates held during the Committee stage, where he will find that those issues were dealt with. I do not want to repeat it all again. I would also say to him that he should read his own party's literature on this matter since 2004. The arguments are very clearly put in favour of the Conservatives reducing the number of seats not just for fairness but because a reduction would increase their majority. That is a fact, and my concern about it is that any future Government could do the same.
If the Conservative Party is then in opposition, as well as the Liberal party-although why that party is pursuing this is beyond me, because if it was on this side of the House it would fight it fiercely, and its friends in the press would support it-that party would be saying that it was the Labour Party gerrymandering. This is a gerrymandering issue. What my noble friend has done is come up with a structure so that we can take our time and deliberate on very important issues related to the size of the House of Commons. We could do it over time and we would not need to delay the Government getting their Bill. This is a very important amendment that goes to the heart of the problem that the Government have on this. In my view, the position is deeply undesirable and I would love this amendment to be taken in the spirit in which it is intended. It recognises that there is a case to review the size of the House of Commons, but not doing that to the advantage of one or other political party. If my own party tried to do this, I would feel just as strongly about it.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wills' amendment is back with us by popular demand, having achieved a very supportive hearing and interesting debate in Committee. I would imagine that that is why we are being treated to a guest appearance by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones. We are disappointed that he has not played more of a part in our debates. Had he been here, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, he would have discovered-because these points have been made on many occasions-that the reasons why the Conservatives do not do so well are threefold. First, it is because their vote is spread all over the country; secondly, there are lower turnouts in Labour seats than Tory seats; and thirdly, that yes, there is some inequality, but that is the third and most minor of the reasons. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, nodding sagely, and I am only disappointed that he has come today, because the result might have been different in the previous vote.
The amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Wills is an attempt to force the Government to face up to the reality that the issues being dealt with in this Bill need proper thought. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill provides for significant changes to the British constitution, significant changes that everyone agrees ought to be properly considered in due time and by those with the expertise and the means to disseminate the many views and opinions on these major constitutional issues. These are matters which everyone agrees need proper consideration and resolution, but they undoubtedly will not get that from this Government.
It is therefore right that Members of your Lordships' House-like my noble friend Lord Wills, who takes these matters seriously and has a proud record in what he has achieved as a Minister, particularly when he was responsible for constitutional matters, and who not only believes in good process and informed proposals but put those into practice when he was a Minister-should put forward amendments like the one before us now. I ask noble Lords to look at what, if I may say, is the rather idle government amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, which can be found on page 14 of the Marshalled List. A minimum effort has been made in order to have an inquiry and it is almost contemptible in the way it has been done. No effort of any sort has been made, despite accepting the proposition which the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, finds so difficult.
The effect of my noble friend's amendment would be to provide time for the key questions raised by the contents of Part 2 of the Bill to be answered. It would give the time for the sort of consideration that the constitutional matters at hand deserve, and time that we on this side of your Lordships' House have been trying to provide. We have given this Bill proper scrutiny, and on this side we have forced the House to provide time to allow that to happen. There are so many things that the Government have not done properly in the Bill: no public consultation, no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no respect for the usual gaps between stages in Parliament. The consequence is that parts of the Bill were not considered at all in the House of Commons. The consequence is a shambles where correspondence from Ministers arrives after we have had a debate. That feels like a corrosive process as far as constitutional change is concerned.
But there is more-and my noble friend Lord Wills made this point very effectively. Noble Lords will know that allegations have been made, not by the Labour Party, although it does make them, but by Members of Parliament who are Conservative, for example, and "Newsnight". People like that would be regarded as not parti pris. The effect is that these constitutional changes, effectively unheralded by a manifesto and effectively unmandated, would go through with an air of suspicion. The consequence is that, for the first time since the Second World War, the method by which we determine how many Members of Parliament there should be is in the hands of the majority of the House of Commons and in the hands of the House of Lords, which has received 114 new Members since May 2010. Every single one of those Members is delightful and personable, men and women of real merit, whatever party they come from or whether they come from no party at all, but I have the deepest and most profound suspicion that if we counted the numbers we would find that they have increased the coalition's majority. Looking across the House, I see many delightful new Peers, many of whom have made a major contribution to British public life, but many of them are voting in accordance with a Whip that they receive from the Government. The consequence is that the Government now have the ability to ram through their choice on the size of the House of Commons in such a way that there is real suspicion that it has been done in the interests not of the country but of a party. The consequence is that that aspect of the coalition gets into political play.
The effect of my noble friend's proposals is that there can be an independent review. We like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very much indeed, but we wonder whether his justification for there being 600 in the House of Commons-that it is a nice, round number-carries the weight that perhaps it needs when you are trying to persuade people that the reason you have reduced the number in the House of Commons is not for political but for good constitutional reasons.
We support this amendment. We think that a lot of trouble has gone into it and that it has real merit. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I think that it is entirely unfair when he said that the process would go on. I am glad that it was pointed out to him that my noble friend Lord Wills has thought about all the issues that he mentioned.
I very much hope that there will now be a change of heart and that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, one of the most powerful members of the Government, will indicate that we are now going to have a committee of inquiry.
My Lords, that was a kind and generous invitation from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, but one that I shall have to resist-and therefore I shall disappoint him. However, I shall try to explain why and give some coherence to this debate, which has been an interesting one, because this issue goes to the core of the disagreement that has taken place over this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, must wake up every morning kicking himself that he did not set up this inquiry when he was a Minister a year or two ago, because now we would be anticipating its results. Maybe he did try to set it up and maybe he could tell us a bit about that when he comes to wind up.
The main accusation being made by noble Lords opposite is not so much that we are rigging the system as that the proposals raise a suspicion that we are rigging the system. Yet nobody can bring any evidence to bear that that would be the likely effects of what we are trying to do-either reducing the number of seats or reaching an equalisation in the number of voters in each seat.
The amendment would require a committee of inquiry to conduct a wide-ranging review not only of the structure of our electoral institutions and processes but of how they interrelate. The Government have accepted the argument made by noble Lords that consideration of the impact of a House of 600 seats is important. I know that the noble and learned Lord rather pooh-poohed it, but when we get to that matter, I shall explain why I believe that it is the right way in which to look at it. Why have we done it as we have? It is because we should not allow this issue to prevent a boundary review taking place, leading to boundaries that are as much as 20 years out of date if a review does not report before the next general election.
I know that the noble Lord does not intend to delay the review, but it is still clear that accepting this amendment and setting up this new inquiry could not be fitted into the timetable to allow a boundary review to take place in time for the next election. That in itself creates a new partisan suspicion that the noble Lord does not wish that boundary review to take place before the next general election, because there would be a three-year deadline to report, six months to draft measures giving effect to recommendations, the time needed to legislate and then the time for the Boundary Commission to carry out its reviews on the basis of whatever rules are agreed by the committee of inquiry. That would take it beyond this Parliament.
We are still of the view that the amendment's attempt to balance the effect of almost every electoral procedure against every other one is a most difficult task at best and very likely unachievable. The chances of gaining consensus on any magic formula that resulted would be unlikely. That is why I think that the noble and learned Lord was hard on my noble friend Lord Renton, with all his experience in another place and here of seeing royal commissions operating in practice. I also think that my noble friend's main contention was right. Why should not Parliament, as it has done before, be able to reform itself in this manner? In 1944, the Speaker's Conference recommended that electoral equality across the constituencies of the UK should be an overriding principle, and we should allow the Boundary Commissions to commence that work without delay.
The arguments about whether 600 is the right number of seats should also not delay the boundary review. Issues such as the use of population in the boundary review have been debated at length in the course of the Bill's passage, and various good points have been made. No doubt, it is something that Parliament will wish to come back to in the longer term.
The proposals set out in the Bill are sensible, practicable and, in the words of the British Academy report, their implementation,
"should ensure a set of constituencies that are much more equal", than at present. We have accepted the case for a post-legislative review, but the inequalities and unfairnesses that would be caused if this review was delayed mean that we should not conduct an inquiry prior to the commissions commencing their task. It is unnecessary to have a review that is so comprehensive that it sees the size of the House of Lords and the choice of local government election boundaries as a matter that would all have to be decided together.
I am sure that I have not given the noble Lord the satisfaction that he would like, but it is the best answer that we can give him. I hope that in withdrawing his amendment he will give us an insight into the thinking of the last Government on these issues.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for that, and I accept his assurance that that is the best answer that we are going to get. He is right about that.
This has been an important debate. It has been limited in contributions, but they have been distinguished by their pithiness. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I do not feel that I have no sense of history-I think that I have a different sense of history from him. The instances that he gave precisely illustrate the point. All the instances of these great constitutional turning points in our recent history that he evidenced did not come out of nowhere-they were the subject of prolonged and vigorous debate in and outside Parliament. Nobody with the best will in the world can say anything like that in relation to the proposals in this Bill. That is precisely the point and purpose of this amendment: to allow space for a proper consultation to take place.
I was extremely struck by what can come across only as contempt by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Leader of the House, about consulting the public on this. We have heard very little about that in all the debates, but it is very important. We had a very good debate about local inquiries just a few minutes ago in this Chamber, but what about the broader issues? These are the electoral arrangements for the people of this country to determine how they elect their Government. It is not our Government-it is their Government.
We have had no consultation. We have had no Green Paper, no White Paper, no pre-legislative scrutiny, none of the more modern forms of engagement with the public that I would like to see, such as deliberative engagement where people come together and discuss these issues, sometimes for days at a time-none of that. I find the contempt for the British public shown by the Benches opposite profoundly depressing and, incidentally, at odds with all the rhetoric from the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister about a "new politics". This has been a pithy debate but rather a saddening one with regard to the way that the British public have been treated by the government Benches.
I want to comment on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, about remedying the unfairness. I understand how deeply the Conservative Party feels that the system is unfair, of course I do, and he has put it very well. However, he has to understand that there are other issues that come into play, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, and we all have a strong sense ourselves of what is fair. I am afraid that fairness is always a relative point. If we are going to command the respect of the British people that this is an impartial process, it is not, with respect, the noble Lord or I who should be judging what is fair and what is not; it should be an independent and impartial inquiry that is seen to be such. That is the point of this amendment.
Despite all this, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, came up with the same old argument that this measure has to be pushed through for the next general election; it cannot wait for the election after next. The sense of history of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is out the window, according to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I respectfully point out to him that great swathes of British history are not measured by the period from one general election to the next; they are measured by decades and generations. Given that sort of timeframe, why is he so bothered that it has to be the next general election rather than the one after it? He has no answer at all.
I am afraid that because of the poverty of the response that I have had from the government Front Benches-incidentally, before I conclude, I want to say that the noble Lord is right: I kick myself that we were not able to put this committee into place. Perhaps he could just intervene on me; in fact, I would be grateful if he would. If I had succeeded in my aim to set up this commission before the general election and the election had been the same, would he have scrapped it or abided by it? I will give way to him now. Will he tell me?
That is the most hypothetical of all hypothetical questions. If the noble Lord had set it up, we would have co-operated with it fully.
Clause 10 : Boundary Commissions: reports etc
Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton
16J: Clause 10, page 8, leave out lines 28 and 29 and insert ", initially by a date to be specified by the Boundary Commission, once the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible""
My Lords, this amendment would change the Bill so that the date of the next boundary review would be set by the Boundary Commission, rather than the Government,
"once the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible".
The amendment stems from a deep concern that has been expressed not just by Members on these Benches but by many noble Peers, and which is shared by the Government, about the incomplete nature of the current voter register. It makes it a flawed basis on which to redraw the electoral map in the way that the Bill proposes. The Bill states in rule 10(5) in Clause 11 that the basis of the next boundary review will be the electoral register as it stands two years and 10 months before the submission date of 2013. In plain English that means that the Boundary Commissions must use the 2010 electoral register in carrying out their redrawing.
We now know, and the Government have acknowledged during these debates, that this register is likely to be missing upwards of 3.5 million eligible voters. We also know, and the Government have also acknowledged, that the problem of under-registration is most acute among particular social groups in particular areas. As the Electoral Commission has reported,
"underregistration is concentrated among specific social groups, with registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home ... The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation".
The Electoral Commission's study was underpinned by Ipsos MORI research, which found that only 69 per cent of black and minority ethnic voters are registered, and only 44 per cent of 20 to 24 year-olds are registered, as opposed to 97 per cent of 60 to 64 year-olds. Therefore, the December 2010 register is clearly a flawed basis for the boundary review, but the Bill insists that this is the register that must be used.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, explained in Committee that it was,
That is a reasonable objective. We support the principle of more equal seats, but you cannot have equal seats on the basis of an unequal register. That goes against basic democratic principles. That is why our amendment stipulates that before the next boundary review-which will be very significant and widely disruptive-the electoral register should be brought to as complete a state as is reasonably possible. We suggest that this can be done by requiring the Electoral Commission to check that local authorities have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that this has happened. This does not seem an unreasonable or impossible demand. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, pointed out in Committee:
"electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to compile and maintain comprehensive and accurate electoral registers. It is not as if it is a voluntary activity; there is an obligation on local authorities to compile as best they can comprehensive and accurate electoral registers".-[Hansard, 10/1/11; col. 1280.]
If that is the legal obligation, what is wrong with holding those registration officers to account?
At the moment, there are self-reported performance standards, but they are not doing the trick. We know that because of the markedly different registration rates across different parts of the UK, which the Electoral Commission has itself uncovered. It seems perfectly possible and reasonable to ask the Electoral Commission to take a more proactive approach to the registration of electors. The central aim of the commission is to ensure,
"integrity and public confidence in the democratic process".
That should be our aim, too. We will fail to achieve it if we do not place some safeguard in the Bill that takes into account the problem of under-registration among particular social groups in particular places. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will not speak to Amendment 26. However, I have a question to ask the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. The boundaries are being set on the basis of the December 2010 register. Why cannot the date be January, February or March 2011, particularly since local authorities are right now registering people all over the country? Why cannot those additional signatories-registered persons-be taken into account?
My Lords, I was swithering about whether to speak to Amendment 25A in my name and Amendment 26 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I got to my feet only because of the demands of the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, who said that they missed my contributions to this debate. I am very pleased to do this request number, as it were.
However, it is very important, as my noble and learned friend, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said, to get as accurate a register as possible on which to carry out the revision of the boundaries. I am sure the Liberal Democrats would agree with that. They might not agree with our solutions and prescription, but I am sure they would agree with the thesis that it is important to get it as accurate as possible. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has suggested one option. These two amendments suggest two more. Amendment 25A suggests using the census, which fortuitously will come in 2011 and will give us a figure for those who are eligible to vote, together with updates that are available. My noble friend Lord Maxton commented in Committee on how the register could be updated.
Amendment 26 is even simpler. It would use those who are eligible to vote, not necessarily all those on the register. In Committee it was suggested that there might be some problems about identifying the numbers. With respect, I do not see how there can be when the Government cite the percentage of those in an age group who are registered. If they are able to give a percentage that is registered in each group in each constituency, they must know the number who are eligible. It would be far fairer to use figures that are more accurate and up to date, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said. I hope the Minister will respond to those two points.
My Lords, we all endorse the ambition to achieve equality between constituencies, although on this side of the House we consider that there are other factors that have been too much discounted by the Government in their proposals. However, there is the very serious question of whether the flawed data that the electoral registers provide undermine this project of seeking equalisation between constituencies. Research by Dr Roger Mortimore, investigating the 2009 electoral registers across eight study areas, found variations in the completeness of the electoral register in a range of 73 per cent to 94 cent. In some constituencies the register was thought to be that incomplete; only 73 per cent of those who should have been on the register were. His study of the accuracy of the register in those same areas found a variation of between 77 per cent and 91 per cent. In the worst instances, which could be some 50 to 100 constituencies in which the condition of the electoral register is seriously inadequate, it must cast doubt on whether the Government are realistic in seeking to achieve equality.
While we would in no way wish to discourage them from seeking to achieve equality between constituencies, we very much hope that they will conduct an energetic drive throughout the country to ensure that electoral registers are both complete and accurate. They can do this outside the terms of the legislation, so even if they do not accept these amendments they will still be free to do this if they wish. It will not be enough if they respond by saying that moving to individual registration should make a substantial contribution to solving the problem, because individual registration will improve accuracy but will certainly not improve completeness. A substantial problem will remain.
I certainly think, as we suggested in Committee, that a serious effort should be made to absorb the findings of the census, which is to be carried out next month. It would be possible for those concerned with drawing up electoral registers to begin to take account of interim findings from the census, and they should do that, just as the Government intend to use other databases to help to improve the completeness and accuracy of the register.
As it is, we are conducting this immense and controversial process of redrawing constituency boundaries on a principle that cannot in practice be carried through, given the serious inadequacy of registration. I hope we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Government have practical proposals as to how they will improve the condition of the registers to fulfil the objectives that we share on all sides of the House.
I recognise the importance of the subject raised in this group of amendments and I will speak to them all. I am grateful to noble Lords for raising their queries in the way that they have done.
Amendment 16J prohibits the first boundary review from taking place until all local authorities in the country have been certified as having taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and as accurate as possible. The amendment also leaves it to the Boundary Commission to decide when the first review should be completed. The Government's position has not changed on this issue since we debated it in Committee, because if we delay the implementation of new boundaries whereby they do not take effect before the general election in 2015, we end up with the absurd situation of electors in England coming on to the register in 2018 who were not born when the electoral data that are used to determine the pattern of representation across the UK was compiled. This should not be allowed.
As the Government made clear, action is being taken to accelerate progress towards individual registration. We are introducing measures such as data-matching schemes to help local authorities gain as complete a picture as possible of the eligible voters in their area. However, we cannot allow boundary reviews to be delayed, potentially indefinitely, which the amendment may do. It states that a boundary review could not take place until all-I stress, all-local authorities in the country had been certified as having completed all reasonable steps to ensure that the register was as complete and accurate as possible. This does not seem to be either reasonable or proportionate, given that the electoral register has been used as the basis for boundary reviews for decades. It is important that steps are taken to support registration, but we do not see this as an either/or situation; we should not tolerate out-of-date boundaries while the registration work is ongoing.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked a perfectly fair question as to why the register from January or February 2011 could not be used. The answer is that
That is not the information that we are being given by Members of the other House. They are saying that the register now carries more registered people than at any other stage. Perhaps the noble Lord can ask departmental officials to check, prior to the debates tomorrow.
My Lords, I am very happy to do so; more than that, I will try to get a letter sent to the noble Lord overnight for him to study before we reach his further amendment.
Amendment 26, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Foulkes, also seeks to require the Boundary Commission to estimate the number of people entitled to vote, based on data from the 2011 census and any other data available, and to use this as the basis for the electoral quota, or simply to estimate the number of the eligible electorate. There are practical difficulties in estimating the number of people who are eligible to register but have not chosen to do so. Again, the Electoral Commission has called estimating the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers an imprecise science, and acknowledges that all current approaches to estimating the data are imperfect. That is not a solid basis on which to draw up constituency boundaries. Even if it were possible to make estimates of the total electorate who are unregistered to vote, this amendment proposes the use of data from the 2011 census. The census is being carried out, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, pointed out, on
The Boundary Commission for England will not be able to conduct a review that allows for proper consultation and allows enough time for parties, candidates and administrators to prepare for an election on new boundaries in 2015 if they have barely begun the task at the start of 2013. Furthermore, any such estimates will doubtless be the subject of considerable critique and challenge by those with a vested interest, which might risk further delay and undermine confidence in the commissions. It is far better to base the review on the electoral register, because whatever the debate about the number of electors who should be on the registers, the number who actually are on them is a simple matter of fact.
If it is not possible to wait for the census and have new boundaries in place for 2015, then it seems to me-
My Lords, it is a nice idea that I would able to explain that now. My understanding is that it takes that long to get the figures out. If there were a way of speeding up the process, we would have done so, because we want the most up-to-date figures available for the review to use.
In that case, will the Minister confirm that the Government have therefore taken all steps to investigate how they could speed the completion of the data collection, analysis and report of the census, as far as it would relate to electoral registration? The time taken to compute this information sounds extraordinarily long. The Minister is, I think, giving us comfort that he has taken steps to do that, but it would be helpful if that were to be confirmed.
My Lords, when there is a census every 10 years, there is a great debate about how quickly the information taken by that census can be applied to policy. Every 10 years, the answer is that it will come about as quickly as possible, and Ministers are encouraged to make it even quicker than that. However, it is not always possible to make the process quicker. Those who run the census do it on the basis of trying to provide the information quickly. I am very happy try to find out from them exactly why it takes so long. I will write to the noble Lord and put a copy of that letter in the Library.
Amendment 26 proposes to amend the definition of electorate to include all those eligible to vote in the UK, even if they have not registered to do so. This would have a consequent effect on the calculation of the electoral quota of the United Kingdom, and thus the size of constituencies drawn up by the Boundary Commissions in their reviews. This is very similar to Amendment 25A. I do not need to explain its drawbacks further.
Throughout the debates on this subject, in Committee and on Report, we made it clear that we agree that it is vital that the register is as complete and as accurate as possible. That must serve our interests as well as those of Parliament and ultimately those of the people we serve. However, progress on this must sit alongside the Boundary Commission's work on updating constituency boundaries. Solving the problem of under-registration will be a long-term process in which we should all be involved. Delaying the boundary review process until it is complete would mean that the 2015 election would be likely to be fought in constituencies based on electoral data from 2000. If noble Lords are genuinely concerned that representation should reflect entitlement-and I believe that they are-they should strongly support the Government's proposals. By leaving existing boundaries in place for the 2015 election and the next Parliament, the amendments would achieve precisely the opposite. On that basis, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the noble Lord for his response. It was extremely disappointing and reflected an approach that has been taken by the Government throughout the process. They have accepted the problem but offered few proposals in relation to it. Two things need to be done. Active steps must be taken and a proposal must be made about how the date problem should be dealt with. Neither is impossible. In these circumstances, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
This amendment follows on from one that I moved in Committee. In that one, I favoured seven years, which was the time given in the original amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. However, I am a sinner who repenteth and have changed my mind, now believing that 10 years is the right period. I am trying to prevent perpetual revolution in constituencies, allowing MPs to be MPs and not-as they would be should the system under the Bill survive the 2013-15 experience, which it might well not-turning them into carpetbaggers, devoting their lives to finding new seats instead of doing what they and every Member of that House would want them to do, which is to serve their constituencies and our country.
The advantage of 10 years over any other period is that it would accord with the five-yearly elections proposed in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I think that it provides the right balance between updating population changes and so on-which we all want because we want greater equality in constituencies-and providing a measure of stability for the Members of another place that will enable them to do their jobs properly without keeping half an eye on their next move. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to the one amendment in this group that has now been moved but, first, I apologise to the House. Having studied the lead amendment in this group, which is in our name, we find that it is defective. Perhaps that is partly a symptom of the absolutely ridiculous haste with which we are being asked by the Government to table amendments for Report. The noble Lord says from a sedentary position that there is no excuse at all-he says that when the gap between Report and Committee is cut from a fortnight to in effect one sitting day. Mistakes were bound to occur. We own up to having got one amendment wrong, which is why we have not moved it. However, the matters that we hoped to raise are effectively covered by my noble friend's amendment, to which I shall speak briefly.
There is a balance to be struck on the timing of the boundary review process. The more frequent the boundary reviews, the more up to date the electoral registers on which they are based. In the light of our previous amendment and concern about the accuracy and quality of the registers, we do not judge eight or 10 years to be an advisable interval between reviews. On the other hand, frequent boundary reviews lead to more frequent disruption of the UK electoral map, especially if such reviews take place on the basis of the narrow parity law contained in this Bill. Such disruption has been confirmed in evidence to the bodies that have often been mentioned during our proceedings-the Constitution Committee of this House and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of another place. A serious issue arises from regular and widespread disruption-one can ask any Member of Parliament about that-and that is the disconnect that it might cause between Members of Parliament and the electors they represent, many of whom will find that their constituency will change at each review in each Parliament if the Government's proposals are implemented. Therefore, we are grateful to my noble friend for moving his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for moving his amendment. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for not moving his amendment, as he had spotted that it was defective. It raises remarkably similar issues, so he will get a remarkably similar answer-or he would have done if he had been able to move it.
On the question of the disconnect for Members of Parliament. I do know whether this has been said before-if it has not, it should have been-but this is not being done for the convenience of Members of Parliament; it is being done to equalise the electorate across the whole country and to try to create a fairer system. Once we have the 600 seats in place with equalisation of the electorate, I do not believe that minor changes every Parliament will be an insurmountable burden.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, requires the Boundary Commission to report every 10 years after October 2013 instead of every five, as laid out in the Bill. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 requires reports from the Boundary Commissions every eight to 12 years. The intention of the Bill is to increase their frequency, ensuring that boundaries are more up to date than at present. There is a cost implication to holding more frequent reviews, but this is offset by the estimated £12.2 million in annual savings made by the reduction from 650 to 600 MPs.
Many noble Lords have rightly spoken in Committee and on Report about the important issue of the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. That work is incredibly valuable in enabling people to participate in the democratic process, but it will not be reflected in their constituency boundaries if reviews are insufficiently frequent. That is why we advocate reviews every five years. I know that noble Lords opposite might feel that we have not gone far enough on the accuracy or completeness of the electoral register, but I hope that they will accept the logic of having reviews every five years. The Government's view is that reviews can be completed once a Parliament, giving sufficient time for the commissioners to do their work and for parties and electors to familiarise themselves with new boundaries before the next general election. If that is the case, I see no reason why we should make do with more out-of-date electoral data. We should have reviews during each Parliament so that boundaries remain refreshed; and more frequent reviews will limit the degree of upheaval each time.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was trying to be helpful and constructive, but I hope that he sees the force of the argument of having regular reviews every five years.
My Lords, I see the force of the argument; I just think that the argument for a review every 10 years is a good deal stronger. However, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Lipsey
18: Clause 10, page 8, line 29, at end insert-
"( ) If in the event a general election is not held in 2015, or in one of the subsequent five-yearly intervals thereafter, the government shall set up an independent inquiry to recommend appropriate changes to the provisions of this Act."
My Lords, this amendment seeks to deal with the following situation. At the moment we have a five-yearly review, and that accords with the timetable of elections every five years, which has been proposed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. As I understand it, when that Bill comes to us, it will contain provision for an early election in certain circumstances: for example, a vote of no confidence in the Government in the Commons. If such a vote happens and an early election is held, the timetable in the current Bill would go awry.
We have learnt, during the passage of this Bill, to accord almost religious significance to the pronouncements of the wonderful British Academy's study of the Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred earlier this afternoon in kindly accepting an amendment from me that incorporated one of its suggestions. On this subject, the British Academy says:
"Parliament may wish to consider the possible implications of an early dissolution on the timetable for reviews set out in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, either by an amendment or by ad hoc legislation should such an occasion arise".
In view of this rightful plea that Parliament should consider it, I asked the authors of the British Academy study what they suggested by way of an amendment, and they replied honestly, being academics: "It is beyond the wit of man, or at least the four men who wrote this pamphlet, to suggest how". I was therefore forced back to my own suggestion here, which is a quick independent inquiry. If that does not win favour with the Government, I have another main purpose in raising this: to bring the Government's attention to this possible situation so that appropriate contingency planning can be put in place for what the British Academy called an "ad hoc" solution, should the matter arise. With that, I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for moving that amendment. The issue that he is pursuing here is that the Government should themselves set up an independent inquiry, as the amendment says,
"to recommend appropriate changes to the provisions of this Act".
As I said in reply to the earlier amendment, the Bill requires reports every five years after 2013. Amendment 16M, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would see reports every four years. As I said earlier, the five-yearly timetable in the Bill is intended to give sufficient opportunity for the boundary commissioners to complete their task and for political parties and candidates to organise themselves ahead of the next election, which will be the case if Parliament passes the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in its current form. We would move away from the pattern of fixed-term Parliaments starting in May 2015 if the terms in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill were changed to something other than five years or if there was an extraordinary general election.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is right that the Government undertook to consider this issue further in Committee. Having done so, we remain of the view that it would be difficult to provide for every possible reason why an election might not occur at an exact five-year interval. We have also considered a power for the Minister to vary the arrangements, exercisable only in the event of an extraordinary election. However, this would place the decision in the hands of a Minister who would have just won an election on the basis of the new boundaries. I think all noble Lords would agree that this might not be a helpful principle and that we should allow Parliament to decide if it becomes necessary. Instead of involving such complexity, the Bill seeks a middle way that does not waste those resources.
I hope that that explains our thinking behind why we are doing what we are doing. I hope that that honours the commitment that we gave in Committee to reflect on the noble Lord's suggestion.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving it that consideration. He makes it plain that the Government have considered this issue and no doubt will be ready to respond to it should the situation arise. I take the force of the argument that he makes about new Ministers, and therefore beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 18 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord McNally
18A: Clause 10, page 9, line 8, leave out ", with or without modifications,"
My Lords, this series of government amendments seeks to remove any ambiguity about the discretion afforded to the Government over the Boundary Commission reports. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised these issues in an amendment in Committee, and we thank him for this. As my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace said at the time, it is not the Government's intention that the Secretary of State should have the discretion whether to accept any modifications that the Boundary Commissions wish to make to their reports. We have always been clear that we are willing to make sensible and reasonable improvements to the Bill that do not compromise on the key principles that underpin it, and this is one such example.
A government amendment in the other place made it clear that the Secretary of State could bring forward modifications only at the request of the Boundary Commission. The amendments are intended to remove any remaining potential for confusion by specifying that if the commission requests modifications, the Order in Council laid by the Secretary of State must give effect to the recommendations with the least modifications. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and all noble Lords who raised this important matter in Committee, and I ask the House to accept the amendments.
Amendment 18A agreed.
Amendments 18B to 18E agreed.
Clause 11: Number and distribution of seats
Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton
18F: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 36 and 37 and insert-
"United Kingdom electoral quota
1 The United Kingdom electoral quota shall be defined as the total electorate of the United Kingdom on the designated enumeration day divided by 650."
My Lords, Amendment 18F would replace the current provision of the Bill to fix the House of Commons at 600 seats with an alternative rule that would anchor the size of the Commons at its current membership of 650. We have touched down on this a few times this afternoon.
We contend that the Government have failed properly to explain why the figure of 600 seats has been identified as the optimum membership in the other place. They began by claiming that the House of Commons is a "bloated" Chamber and that the UK suffers from overrepresentation, but those arguments were quickly disproved. The claim that Britain is overrepresented in comparison with other similar-sized countries is based on a simple international comparison of numbers of elected representatives per head of population. In fact, the extent to which the UK has more representatives in the national legislature per head of the national population can be exaggerated.
As a briefing note from the House of Commons Library makes clear, the UK has roughly the same ratio as France and Italy. Of course, those calculations take account only of national legislatures and do not include reference to levels of representation beneath that tier. If we look below the national level, we see that the UK has far fewer elected officeholders per head of population than almost all comparable countries. One academic study found that, at the level of local government, the population per elected member is 2,603 in the UK, 350 in Germany and 118 in France. When subnational elected representatives are factored in, it is apparent that the UK does not suffer from overrepresentation.
In any event, there is a fundamental problem in seeking to draw simple comparisons between numbers of elected representatives in different national legislatures. Some countries are unitary states; others are federal. Some have a Westminster model; some have a presidential system. As a consequence, comparison is difficult.
A more sensible basis on which to decide what level of representation is right for the UK is to examine how the size of the House of Commons has changed over time. If the number of MPs was inexorably growing out of all proportion to the size of the electorate, there would clearly be a problem. The evidence shows that that is not the case. The Commons has not grown disproportionately in recent years. It has increased by about 3 to 4 per cent-that is, 25 Members-since 1950. However, the electorate and therefore the average size of constituencies have increased by approximately 25 per cent. That has produced a significant increase in the workload of MPs, which has in any event grown out of all proportion to the increase in population as a consequence of changing social norms, political developments and new forms of communication.
There is no evidence that having fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services. Assuming that that remains the same, the pressure on the remaining Members and their staff will increase. If the service that MPs provide to their constituencies is not to deteriorate, they will no doubt need greater resources-employing people as caseworkers and those assisting them. The savings made by a reduction of 50 Members of Parliament are then likely to be lost, or reduced, undermining the argument that this is worthy as a cost-cutting measure.
As the initial justifications for the proposed reduction in the other place have broadly collapsed, the government Front Bench has adopted other numbers: a nice round number, now famous in this House. No wonder your Lordships' Constitution Committee said in its report on the Bill:
"We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the basis of any considered assessment of the role and functions of MPs".
That is now confirmed by the Marshalled List of amendments, which includes, on page 14, Amendment 28A, which provides for a review into the proposed reduction in the number of constituencies. Your Lordships may note that the review is not due to begin until after the election, when the reduction will have happened.
The reduction in the number of MPs is a gamble based on no proper evidence, but it will be pursued anyway. The timeline was explained to us in discussion with the Government on the basis that it would be pointless to try to assess the impact of the proposed reduction on MPs before it had happened. If the reduction turns out to have a very negative impact, it will be too late to prevent it.
In most organisations, you consider the decision first on the evidence and then you take the decision. This Government take the decision, set up a body to look at it and then decide whether it was the right decision. Their approach to whether it affects our national Parliament to the total detriment of the people is, "Who cares?". Surely the more sensible approach would be to assess the workload and responsibilities of MPs now, with a House of Commons of 650 seats, before making a change of the sort now proposed.
We believe that the case for a 650-seat Commons has not changed since the current Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, spoke in its favour-indeed, in favour of a slightly larger elected Chamber-at the 2003 Oxfordshire boundary inquiry. Opposing proposals to alter his constituency boundaries at one of the last public inquiries to be allowed into constituency boundaries, he told that inquiry-what a valuable inquiry it was:
"Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs-I certainly hope that is not the case".
Our amendment stems from a conviction that the current Commons of 650 is the most appropriate basis on which to stabilise the size of that Chamber.
Put simply, under our proposals for alternative rules, an initial UK quota would be calculated by dividing the total UK electorate by 650. That would stabilise the House at about 650, but, with a mathematical rounding up or down involved in the calculation of seats in the four parts of the United Kingdom, it would enable minor fluctuations of up to one or two seats either side of 650, which would help the Boundary Commission to deal with remainders. That will give the Boundary Commission flexibility. That seems to be plain common sense. Unfortunately, the Government have struggled to respond positively to those common-sense views.
This is an incredibly important part of the Bill. We are being asked to cut 50 seats from the primary national political body in the United Kingdom. We are being asked to fix its size in statute in perpetuity at 600 and we are not being given any proper explanation as to why that is the most appropriate size for the House of Commons. Does anyone here honestly think that that is the right way to enact such fundamental constitutional change? I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble and learned friend, as the House has come to expect of him, has laid out all the relevant issues with magisterial authority. However, I suggest that there is one issue that he may have overlooked, which is that the population of this country is projected to grow very rapidly in the next few decades. If we fix the number of constituencies at 600, or even at 650, we will shortly find that the average number of constituents is unmanageably large. My noble friend Lady McDonagh made an interesting and thoughtful speech on the subject in Committee. We will quickly find ourselves with constituencies of 100,000 voters, trending upwards. Something has to give. You cannot have a fixed quota and a fixed number of constituencies. If the fixed number of constituencies is to be the paramount consideration, the quota will have to jump up at frequent intervals. That is unsatisfactory.
That leads me to my second point, on which I slightly take issue with my noble and learned friend. I question whether it is appropriate for the Government to invite Parliament to determine the precise number of Members that there should be in the House of Commons. That has not been our practice in the past. The Boundary Commissions have had the discretion to recommend the number of constituencies that they judge to be appropriate, which I think is more practical and more proper. If we were to look at the case of a country in Africa-it might be Zimbabwe, Kenya or Rwanda, one of those countries whose political conduct we are quite apt to criticise and where the regime wins less than universal admiration from all of us around the House-
I think that the noble Lord slightly mischaracterises my argument. The effect of my proposal is that it will be for the Boundary Commission to determine the precise number of MPs, which might not be 650. That is the same as the current position.
I am hugely relieved as a result of my noble and learned friend's intervention. However, I do not think that we should lean particularly on the Boundary Commission; it is not for Governments or politicians to suggest a desirable norm for the precise number of constituencies. Just as we would deplore the regimes of other countries whose practices we considered to be seriously illiberal determining the number of constituencies, so we should not do so here. I acquit my noble and learned friend of any such exact intention, but it is important that no one should suffer from the same misapprehension of his purposes as I did.
My Lords, I want to say a few words in support of Amendment 18H. I am sure that the Minister will say that it is defective in some way. If it is, I must apologise, but it had to be written rather quickly because of this very short period between Committee and Report, which has created tremendous problems.
Understandably, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I have affection for nice round figures. I can quite understand why he is attracted to 600. However, he has never produced a logical argument for that figure. It was alighted on; it was plucked out of the air. This amendment, which is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McAvoy, suggests that the figure should be between 600 and 650. The exact figure should be recommended by the Boundary Commission following consultation with all interested parties and then approved by Order in Council, or by Parliament by some method, in time for the general election in 2015. I am not suggesting anything that would hold up this review, which should be completed in time for the general election. The Boundary Commission-I should say the Boundary Commissions, to allow for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well-should consult and come up with a figure that they consider more appropriate, taking account of all factors. I considered whether the Electoral Commission should be the body to deal with this, which may be something for discussion.
As was said in Committee, it is unique, unparalleled and regrettable when a Government decide the number of those elected to the main Chamber of Parliament. It is quite outrageous for this to be suggested. My amendment would take it out of the hands of the Government and put it in the hands of a body with some degree of impartiality and respect that can take account of the wider view. The decision will still come back to Parliament and will be agreed in time for the election in 2015.
I also thought that this might be attractive to the Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, you have 650 as an option, while someone else might suggest 600; usually the Liberal Democrats like somewhere in between and this allows for that. However, the Liberal Democrats do not seem the same as they were in the old days, when, as I remember well, they used to like these kinds of compromises and halfway houses where human rights were so important and democracy was considered to be an important element. These days, we see them trooping through in astonishingly rigid and disciplined fashion. The Liberal Democrat Whips must be by far the most successful and powerful Whips anywhere in this Parliament. They march their Members through with astonishing ruthlessness, following this great mantra set down by Mr Nicholas Clegg, who has returned from his expedition in Europe and encourages us to follow some of its patterns of activity.
I am straying. If there was a Speaker with powers-as there ought to be, by the way-he or she, more likely she, would tell me that I was entirely out of order, as indeed I am, so I had better stop.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Straight Statistics, a group working against statistical abuse by the media, companies, advertisers and the Government. The Minister, in an earlier debate, used in justification for the cut in the number of Members of Parliament by 50 an alleged saving of £12.5 million-he will correct me if I have this figure wrong, as my hearing is not as good as it was. He is nodding in approval, but I cannot approve of that statistic.
If you take the average cost of each MP and multiply it by 50, you get to the figure of £12.5 million or thereabouts. However, that is of course is an entirely phoney way to do it. There will be more constituency cases and more people for each MP to write letters to. The workload will not change. The only thing that you save by having 50 fewer MPs is the MPs' salaries, with a total saving of about £3 million. Perhaps the difference between £12.5 million and £3 million is regarded as insignificant-
My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend would take that a little further. If the Government want to save £12.5 million, they have to make sure that costs elsewhere do not rise. The level of work needed to be done by the Electoral Commission will involve the employment of more staff-a recurrent expense year on year. I do not think that the Government have thought about that. If they are going to tell us what this measure is going to save-and the only argument that I have heard from the Government is that this will save money-I think that we have the right to know precisely what it will cost in other areas, so that we can see the real costs.
My noble friend is right. There are bags of extra costs in this Bill, including £80 million well spent on the AV referendum-well spent, that is, if it gets the result that both the noble Baroness and I would like to see. I am, however, confining myself to the saving on MPs, because that is the one argument that the Minister has made this afternoon. My point is that he has used a totally bogus figure-inadvertently, I am sure. If he wants to dispute this later, he can put a letter in the Library and we can no doubt correspond about it. It is extremely worrying if a Minister has inadvertently misled-
I know that in the past we have assumed that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has been a Member of the other place, but I can assure him from my own experience that he is mistaken if he thinks that Members of Parliament are paid by results. You do not get paid more because you have more constituents; the payment is standard. I had an electorate of 87,000 constituents at one point; that constituency is now much reduced, but my successor does not get paid less just because he has fewer constituents. The whole basis of his calculation should be taken back to his statistician friends and looked at again.
The point I hope to make clear is that I am not claiming that there will not be a saving in salary; I am claiming that the workload will remain the same but that there will be fewer people to do it. You will still need people to deal with that workload and letters will still need to be sent. Is the noble Lord saying that if his constituency had increased in size by 10 per cent, he would not have written to anyone in that 10 per cent; that their problems could go fly because he had not got the money to pay for it?
That often happens in this life. I was just coming to that. What will happen is that MPs will come back and find that they have got an increasing workload. Their staff are worked to the bone, anyway, and they will suddenly see that they have an opportunity to put in an irresistible bid for yet more of them. It will be impossible for a Government to resist that pressure from their own Members, and so the extra staff will be granted and staff allowances will go up. The probability is that this will swamp, dwarf and completely eliminate any saving made by having 50 fewer MPs.
The proof of this particular pudding will lie in the eating. I therefore ask the Leader of the House to put his calculations in the Library so that we can look at the facts when they emerge after the next general election. It would be a nice subject for the independent inquiry into the number of MPs to consider and would give it a good factual basis for saying that this huge error, justified on the grounds of cost, is a statistical howler of the utmost proportions.
I would like to pick up on one or two of the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes. I serve on the Constitution Committee, to which the Deputy Chairman and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons came and told us, perfectly truly, as others have said, that there was no big explanation of why the figure was going down from 650 to 600. That has to be said. However, after listening to the debate-and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, whom I knew for many years in the other place-I do not believe that it has been made clear that during the time that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I were in the House of Commons the amount of expenses went up hugely.
I well remember that when I became a Member of Parliament in 1974-I know that to talk about one's past in the House of Commons is not on in this debate-I had only sufficient expenses to employ a secretary for three days a week. Now we all know that Members of Parliament have expenses which, I have heard, enable them to have five or six people in their offices. It is not for me to say the precise figure or the precise number.
Certainly an awful lot of the work that I and other working MPs such as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did in our constituencies is now done by members of the office-and quite right, too. The prime job of a Member of Parliament is surely to be in Parliament, debating and making points there. However, the support that Members of Parliament now receive through their expenses is of very great value to them.
I do not know the precise reason for 600 rather than 650, but I can understand the view that there should now be fewer Members of Parliament because they have got so much support in their offices and in dealing with their constituencies. This takes away from them many of the jobs that burdened us. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is about to say something. Under those circumstances, having been 25 years a Member of Parliament, I do not find the move down to 600 from 650 odd or extraordinary. I support it.
My Lords, I have been tempted to enter the debate, to some extent, by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.
A couple of fundamental points need to be made in the context of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey. First, it is well known to those Members of the House who have been following this part of the debate that, since 1950, the electorate has gone up by 25 per cent and the number of Members of Parliament has gone up by 4 per cent, and we are speaking now against a background of a guaranteed further rise in the population and, therefore, a rise in the electorate. At the same time, there is to be a radical reduction of 50 seats in the other place and an equalisation of the number of constituents in the remaining seats. The only deduction that can be taken from that is that, all other things being equal, the workload of Members of Parliament will continue to increase-and increase additionally because of the reduction in their number, the point made by my noble friend Lord Lipsey.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, rightly said, the workload and the character of the work typically undertaken by Members of Parliament have changed substantially over the years. I was a Member of the House of Commons for 25 years and the noble Lord for 30 years, and in those long periods of time the character and the size of the caseload changed radically. Like him, in the 1970s I could afford a secretary for three or three and a half days a week, which, given our individual efforts, was sufficient to ensure that the casework of our constituents was adequately covered. There was a period early in my parliamentary career when I found the time and opportunity to go to employment tribunals, with some success. I always wanted to continue doing so but the remainder of the workload made that impossible. Now, of course, I might have a case worker in my constituency, and with a suitably qualified person I could perhaps make extra inroads into the areas of particular concern to constituents.
In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, accompanying the increase and change in the nature of the workload has been an increase, to some extent, in the staff support for Members of Parliament. That is welcome. However, it is far from the number that he guesses at. Typically it will be three: usually a qualified researcher, a secretary in Parliament and a case worker in the constituency, sometimes with part-time secretarial support. That is the size of it. Some Members of Parliament, in order to guarantee the quality of service, will go into their own resources and add to the amount officially made available for staff expenditure. I used to do that and, knowing the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I guess that he would do exactly the same.
However, in this situation, no one is proposing a guaranteed increase in staffing to run in parallel with, or as a consequence of, the guaranteed increase in the workload of Members of Parliament as a result of the arbitrary reduction in their numbers. Even without that guarantee, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey suggests, if Members of the other place take account of their increased workload and put it to whatever Government of the day that their workloads have demonstrably increased, there will be additional staff. In those circumstances, any assumed savings from the reduced number of Members of Parliament will evaporate. The picture that I paint is one of a massively increased workload, a change in the quality as well as the quantity of work undertaken and a welcome increase in staff establishing a benevolent trend which will guarantee, not too far ahead in years, a further increase in staff. All that my noble friend was pleading for was the absolute dismissal of any assumed financial advantage for the public purse arising from the change in the Bill. I suggest that the House accepts the wisdom of my noble friend's words.
My Lords, I can make my remarks in two minutes. I have had the enormous privilege of serving not only this House but two different parliamentary constituencies. In one the electorate was 100,000, in the other it was just under 60,000 when I retired. I simply report the situation to the House as accurately and genuinely as I can. Anyone who thinks there is no difference whatever in the level of service that you can give as a Member of Parliament when you are representing 100,000 people compared with 60,000 ought to try providing that service. I have tried to provide it. I say that with feeling because part of the overall justification that has been given for the various constitutional changes with which we will have to deal is that they will reconnect Parliament with the people. I seem to recall Nick Clegg using that phrase. I do not know how on earth you can reconnect Parliament with the people when you have bigger parliamentary constituencies. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right to say that staff can help with some of this work, but I would find it deeply depressing if we ended up with a House of Commons that was rather like the House of Representatives in the United States, where you do not see the representative but rather a member of his or her staff. The personal connection that we have in this country is so different from the position in many other countries. That is why I am always so wary of these comparisons.
I think that I have spoken for two minutes but I shall speak for one more. One of the things that make some of us so resistant to the raft of changes being proposed is the great opposition that exists to them. I know that as a matter of reportage. This is a friendless Bill. If there is any uncertainty about that on the Government Front Benches, they should try offering a free vote on these issues in the Commons. I have never known so many Conservative MPs-I have not heard a Liberal say this yet, but perhaps one will-telling us to keep up the debate. It is dawning on them that the number of MPs will be reduced, that fights will break out between constituencies and neighbours, and that that is guaranteed to happen every five years. I was going to say that the light is dawning, but I think that it has dawned. Perhaps it is worth the Government checking that out. I may be wrong about the view of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs-people over the other side of the Chamber have more experience in that regard than I have-but why do the Government not do a little check behind the scenes first and then demonstrate publicly that this huge constitutional change represents the will of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and they can prove it because they have given a free vote to the Members?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as a former government Chief Whip, espouses the free vote. On the whole I agree with him, but not all the time; in fact, probably not most of the time and probably not on this Bill. The noble Lord said that I should demonstrate publicly why we are doing these things and I shall try to do that. Noble Lords opposite came forward with what I thought were entirely rational arguments. However, I will try to demonstrate that, however rational they were, they start from a false premise. I will not say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, that his amendment is defective. I do not know whether it is or not. It is of no interest to me whether it is defective or not. I know what he was trying to achieve and I accept that he had limited time to get it right, and so I think it is unnecessary to say that. I greatly admire the quality of the research done by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. He went all the way back to 2003 and found a quotation from the Prime Minister himself, saying something that he would no doubt now regret. That shows just how far the noble and learned Lord has come over the past few years.
A number of amendments have been tabled to change the number of constituencies required by the Bill to more than 600. We discussed this issue at length on the ninth day of Committee, and I can understand why. I shall set out the Government's thinking for today's debate and explain why we are clear that there is a case for making what we consider to be a modest reduction in the size of the House. First, our proposal simply aims to end the upward pressure on the number of MPs and to make a modest reduction in the overall number. With the exception of the review after the creation of the Scottish Parliament, which took effect in 2005, all other boundary reviews since 1950 have seen an increase of between four and 15 seats. The fourth and fifth reviews of the Boundary Commission for England noted that the rules are currently drafted in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which contributed to this problem. The fifth general review laid out the details of the issue and noted:
"We illustrate, in paragraph 2.11, how the consequence of the interplay of the existing Rules, other than Rule 1, is a tendency for an ever increasing allocation of constituencies in England in future reviews. This could be changed if the Rules were altered".
The Boundary Commissions have no formal role in advising on the rules that they must apply. However, as the bodies which have extensive experience of the practical result of applying these rules, their views are clearly important. The changes proposed in this Bill will address those concerns, a point underlined by the British Academy which notes that the revised rules were a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions, have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory.
Secondly, making a modest reduction in the overall number of MPs will allow a saving to the public purse. We feel that it is right to lead by example at a time when the whole of the public sector is being asked to make savings. We estimate that reducing the size of the other place will save £12.2 million annually, made up of a reduced salary cost of £4.1 million and £8.1 million in reduced expenditure on MPs' expenses. I shall turn in a moment to the increased workload raised by many noble Lords. The fundamental point here is that at a time when the whole public sector is being asked to do more with less, this is a relatively modest saving but one which we think is worth making. There is no reason why MPs and the House of Commons should not be more efficient. These amendments would wipe out any prospect of reducing the cost of politics, while we believe that we should lead by example.
My Lords, there is no estimate of the increase in costs. I shall answer that point when I get to the point about workload.
On the basis that the Government want to do more with less, can the noble Lord suggest to me the reason for a very major increase in the size of this House which-setting apart the change in the allowances system-is hardly doing more for less? Secondly, as the Prime Minister was quoted earlier, perhaps I may bring the noble Lord more up to date and mention the Conservative Party manifesto and the proposed 10 per cent cut, which would take the size of the House of Commons down to 585. In those circumstances, we would have had a logical, electoral-based number to debate. In place of that and the Liberal alternative, we have the neat figure of 600. Would we not be getting more for less if we had 585, as the noble Lord's party promised?
We certainly would. Ten per cent is also a nice round figure and very convenient for working out what the reduction would have been. However, we did not win the election with the majority that we wished. We had to reach an agreement with our coalition partners and, on that basis, we came to the figure of 600.
We have accepted the case for that. We would like to do it, but it will not be in this Bill. There is a time and a place for everything.
My third point is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, raised about the manifesto of the Conservative Party, which I explained. Of course, there is also another point-that the House of Commons has voted for the figure of 600. Perhaps it was not on a free vote, but who is to say that if there had been a free vote, the House of Commons would not have voted for it? We should therefore tread carefully in questioning that decision.
Noble Lords made an entirely rational argument about workload. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that his experience has shown that the type of service that MPs can give varies according to size of constituency. We have been mindful to reflect the existing range of experience. On the basis of the 2009 electoral register data, 600 seats would create an electoral quota of around 76,000. That means that around a third of seats are already within the 5 per cent variation and will therefore generate no increase in workload. A number are considerably greater than that, and they may get a reduced workload. I wholly accept also that a number of seats will be below that. While it is logical to argue that a reduction from 650 to 600 seats will mean that everyone will have to work a bit harder, the figures do not demonstrate that.
This way of doing it would cause less disruption to current circumstances than would a reduction that is far outside the existing range of MPs and constituencies we are used to. Currently, some Members of the other place represent twice the number represented by other Members of that House. Our proposals for more equally sized constituencies will go some way to providing a more equitable workload for each MP, although I accept that different constituencies have different workloads depending on where they are and the different kinds of electorates they represent.
There are also international comparisons to be made, and the noble and learned Lord has helpfully brought those to our attention. We should decide the size of our House of Commons primarily on the basis of what is right for the specific circumstances of the UK, but we should also not reject international trends completely. The present size of the Commons makes it the largest directly elected national chamber in the EU. Six hundred seats would put us in line with some countries with comparable populations. Germany's Bundestag has 622 members and the Italian Chamber of Deputies has 630. I know that the noble and learned Lord was referring to the number of elected members right across the range, from locally elected officials up, whereas I have taken the figures for the respective countries' national Parliaments.
The Bill's key principle of delivering a more equitable value to each elector's vote in time for the next general election also informs our choosing not to provide for a sliding scale of constituencies with an independent body exercising discretion over the final number.
The timetable for delivering a boundary review and all that follows it in the run-up to the general election is tight. Minimising the risk of delay for whatever reason should be our aim. Given that the UK's population is mobile, we should now press ahead with a review before the next election, as the alternative is to fight the next election on the basis of out of date information.
Noble Lords-including the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Howarth of Newport, and the noble and learned Lord-have on many occasions asked the Government our reasons for choosing 600 as the number for constituencies. Some noble Lords have argued that it is somehow irregular for Parliament to set a finite number of constituencies. In response I would make three points.
First, the Opposition's desire to hear the reasons behind the reduction to 600 constituencies implies that we are departing from a tradition of careful and detailed weighing and benchmarking of a host of factors, including MPs' relative workloads, to arrive at an optimum number. As I explained earlier, the rules that the commissions must apply at present are predisposed to lead to increases, because the rules require them to start from the previous number of seats. Moreover, the rules are not set out in a clear hierarchy, and the way in which they been applied in the past has also led to increases.
The second point concerns Parliament setting the number of constituencies. It would similarly be useful to look more closely at the tasks given to the Boundary Commission. There are general injunctions for the number of constituencies in Great Britain not to be substantially more or less than 613, with no fewer than 25 Welsh constituencies and between 16 and 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. However, because the commissions must approach these targets by aggregating local issues, this regional starting point means that they are effectively considering the issue from one end of the telescope, restricting their ability to take into account the overall size of the Chamber. The result is this steady upward pressure and, ultimately, inequality and unfairness between seats and nations, which we believe needs to stop.
Finally, some noble Lords have argued that as the workload has increased, 650 is a better number simply because it is larger than 600 and it does matter much how it was arrived at. The Government's position is that the results of the review that they are proposing in Amendment 28A would be a much better starting point. The noble and learned Lord did not much like that, but we shall debate it, I hope, at some stage tomorrow. Such a review would allow evidence to be gathered, weighed and made public so that many questions raised by noble Lords could be addressed while not frustrating the Bill's aims-which are to clarify the hierarchy of rules, end the upward pressure on constituency numbers, lead by example in making savings and take better account of past domestic and present international experiences.
That is a very sound basis on which to make our proposals. With this review and the Bill's other aims in mind, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The noble Lord's speech was again attractively delivered and charmingly put, but it got worse and worse as a justification for 600 being the number of seats. I listened very carefully to him: he said that there were three reasons for introducing the reduction. The first was that arguments against it imply that we are departing from well known rules; the second that the current arrangements produce a "steady upward pressure"; and the third that we have a good starting point in the commission which will meet and give its report three years after the introduction of the figure 600. What he said was risible. He said that we would have as our starting point a commission that has not yet been formed and that, in order to get rid of the "steady upward pressure" in the House of Commons, the Government were reducing its size to 600 seats. Noble Lords will know that the House of Commons has never been less than 615 in the past 160 years. When it was 615, the electorate was 20,874,000. In 2004, when the number of seats was 646, the electorate was 44,245,000. The inexorable upwards pressure has in the past 25 years led to the membership of the House of Commons increasing from 650 to-blow me down-650. The arguments being advanced are risible. We are being asked to reduce our House of Commons by 7.5 per cent.
I understand the noble Lord's dilemma. He can be the stand-up comic who says that 600 is a nice round number and he likes it-he is a nice round man, and a nice round number matches that-or he can be incomprehensible, as he was today. What he cannot give-it is not his fault-is any justification for this reduction from 650 to 600. I invite the opinion of the House.