Report (3rd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 9th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:45 pm, 9th February 2011

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate. I particularly thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for the reasoned way in which he addressed the points that I have made at all stages. I hope that this House is performing its vital function in relation to constitutional matters.

The noble Lord, Lord King, said that his concern was whether the amendment would promote equality, but equality is not the only value recognised by the Bill. The Bill accepts that there should be a 5 per cent variation either way. It accepts that there should be exceptions for Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles and, as a result of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the Isle of Wight. Equality is not the only value; there are other considerations that noble Lords will wish to take into account. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, said that he would not accept any of those exceptions. That is a logical position that I respect, but it is not the position taken by the Bill. It recognises that there are and there have to be exceptions to equality.

The second concern of the noble Lord, Lord King, which was shared by some noble Lords, was about delay. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, asked me specifically whether I would advise a client that a judicial review is hopeless. My short answer-indeed, it is also the long answer-is yes; in the context of a statutory provision that confers discretion, by reference to the criteria of necessity and exceptionally compelling circumstances, I would advise that it is hopeless.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott of Foscote, expressed-if I may say so-a more nuanced view. I hope that that might demonstrate to the noble Lord, Lord King, if nothing else does, that the Cross-Benchers do not think and act as a group. If the noble Lord still has any suspicions in that respect, he may wish to look at yesterday's Division lists, which will confirm that we do not think and act as a group on these vital issues.

My point is not that judicial review can never be used to delay action in any context. My point-which, with respect, was not addressed by noble Lords who are understandably concerned about this-is that in this context, where the criteria are so narrow, subjective and political, judicial review is simply not realistic; it is not an appeal to the merits. The key point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who rightly pointed out that if noble Lords are concerned about judicial reviews holding up the process, the real concern-which I do not share-should be about judicial reviews of the exercise by the Boundary Commission of the subjective functions that it has been given already under Clause 11. Those functions are not circumscribed in the way that the amendment circumscribes this discretion.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, expressed great concern about the term "viable". The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "workable" and "practicable". It is not simply that "viable" is in the amendment; it is linked to a concept of necessity and a judgment by the Boundary Commission of what is necessary. That is the answer to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, expressed concern that, under the amendment, Boundary Commissions would set different standards for different constituencies. They would not; the same criteria would apply to all constituencies. Of course, their application would differ according to the circumstances, just as the application of the existing Clause 11 criteria-the same criteria for all-will differ according to the circumstances of the constituency, and rightly so, in the judgment of the Boundary Commission.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord King, pointed out that noble Lords should not accept an amendment simply in order to secure a compromise. He is right. I commend this amendment to the House not because it is a compromise but on its merits. It is fair, reasonable and workable. I say to all noble Lords that in the context of a Bill that makes fundamental changes to our constitutional arrangements-a context where consensus is vital if it can be achieved-it would be desirable, if possible, to give the Boundary Commission a carefully controlled discretion outside 5 per cent, which will undoubtedly give a large degree of reassurance to those who are concerned about the fundamental changes that we are making to an important aspect of our constitution. That would be a wise step for Parliament to take. My central point is that the amendment is right on its merits and I wish to test the opinion of the House.