Report (3rd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 9th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 5:15 pm, 9th February 2011

My Lords, although in better health than the last time I spoke, I am not sure that I will be able to please the noble Lord any more. When he tabled the equivalent amendment in Committee he argued that the exception was necessary for two reasons: first, there was no logical way in which the existing constituency could expand to allow it to sit within the 10 per cent band of tolerance around the UK electoral quota; and, secondly, there was a challenge of accessibility which would increase if the surface area of the constituency increased. On the first point, we certainly acknowledge that the constituency could not expand to the east, as that would mean crossing the border into England, which is prohibited under the Bill. However, on the other points that he makes about expansion in the other directions, we believe that this is a task best assessed by the Electoral Commission itself, and we will wait to see what it does on this.

That brings me to the noble Lord's argument on geography. In Committee, he said:

"It took me an hour and a half to get to a Labour Party meeting in the south of the county quite recently".-[Hansard, 24/1/11; col. 797.]

Although I was tempted to use the old joke, "I had a car like that once", I know-because I visited my late and most lamented friend Lord Livsey in his constituency-that it is an enormous place, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has acknowledged. However, I do not think that it would be useful to compare exact distances and journey times in various constituencies because one person's enormous place is another person's back garden. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, reminded us in Committee of some Australian parliamentarians whose constituencies are the size of Portugal. Nevertheless I believe that, in general terms, there is a real distinction in magnitude between a 90-minute car journey that may be undertaken at almost any time of day or night and, say, a 12-hour ferry trip from Shetland to the Scottish mainland which is possible at only a handful of times each day.

Concerning the difficulty of constituencies which cover large surface areas, it is also worth remembering that the Bill takes that into account. The Bill provides for a maximum size of around the largest current constituency area because the Scottish Boundary Commission recommended that this area was manageable for both MP and constituents. As that was the last time that this question was considered at length, and using the independent expertise of the Boundary Commission, this seemed to us the best benchmark to use in our proposals today, and it was also discussed last night.

We are open and ready to be flexible with the noble Lord's proposals where they do not contradict a key principle of the Bill. Keeping preserved constituency exceptions to an absolute minimum is important to support the Bill's fundamental aim-the degree to which votes throughout all four parts of the UK have equal value. Provided that the constituency sits within a 10 per cent band of tolerance as the Bill provides, the Bill allows specific geographical factors to be considered, as is the case today.

I do not in any way dismiss the challenge that the MP and constituents have in a constituency such as Brecon and Radnor. However, we are testing against a high bar: the principle of one elector, one value. Because the bar is set high we feel that it is justified to test these claims thoroughly and reach different conclusions. We recognise the challenges of Brecon and Radnor, but we also take the view that it does not justify exemption when compared with some of the large constituencies of the Highlands. We feel that this position sets up a reasonable balance between being sensitive to local circumstances and allowing votes throughout the United Kingdom to have a more consistent value. I therefore, sadly yet again, ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.