Report (3rd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 9th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 9th February 2011

My Lords, I wish to address individual consciences on this matter. I do so having reflected on yesterday's debate about public inquiries and the role of lawyers and legal challenges in the Boundary Commission process, and having noted that that debate was almost entirely dominated by those from the legal profession. I speak as someone who is very much not a lawyer and who cannot possibly say that he is in any way above the political fray between parties about elections, campaigns and constituencies. However, I am someone who, over more than 30 years, has had extensive experience of fighting and organising elections in many dozens of different constituencies in every part of Great Britain, in general elections and in parliamentary by-elections, as well as extensive involvement in the Boundary Commission processes that have gone into drawing up those constituencies in the past.

I very much appreciate the very sincere efforts of the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Williamson, and other noble Lords, to try to see whether some reasonable consensus or agreement might be reached and to try sincerely to improve aspects of the Bill so that some reasonable agreement might be come to, in reasonable time, so that the Bill is agreed on the timetable that the Government want. However, there is a fundamental problem with the definition that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his noble friends have drawn up. There is simply no reasonably agreed and commonly accepted definition of the key phrase "a viable constituency". There is no agreed definition, and to try to agree on it would be a subject of great controversy. Without a definition of a viable constituency, we are simply inviting four different Boundary Commissions to devise their own definitions of the phrase, which I believe would be very controversial. Nor was it clear to me-or I think to anyone else, although I am not a lawyer-what the meaning of the phrase "exceptionally compelling nature" might be. The Boundary Commissions would have a lot of argument about what considerations of an exceptionally compelling nature are.

I can easily see large numbers of lawyers in many courts arguing for a very long time over definitions of a viable constituency and over exceptions, such as geographic ties and local considerations, which in themselves are very vaguely defined, that might be considered to be of an exceptionally compelling nature. Such phraseology will, I am in no doubt, lead to many legal challenges to the Boundary Commission's processes, which should be determined by independent boundary commissioners using the criteria given to them by Parliament. They should not be determined by lawyers in the courts arguing over these definitions. Too many problems in the past have been caused by legal arguments. A noble friend of mine, when a Member in the other place, came to me for advice on how to handle Boundary Commission processes. I gave him the best of my advice-and, of course, it was free of charge. By the time he had consulted learned counsel on how to make his representations to the Boundary Commission, a bill in excess of £10,000 had been incurred. If we pass an amendment such as this, we will have to go on by defining viable constituencies and exceptional circumstances, and there will be many legal challenges. These issues will be determined by who has access to the funds for which party, which MP, which candidate and in which constituency. That will be a wholly unsatisfactory process.

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said that he was creating a narrow definition in this amendment. With great respect to the noble Lord, it is absolutely not a narrow definition to try to say what a viable constituency is or what wholly exceptional circumstances are. They are two very widely defined concepts. He also said that he was trying to reassure Ministers who are concerned that the exception might become more general. This amendment will fail, because the exceptions will become very general.