Report (3rd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:05 pm on 9th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 6:05 pm, 9th February 2011

My Lords, we have in this group two amendments which relate principally to Wales. The Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than on any other nation in the UK. Wales is projected to lose 10 seats of the 40 it currently has; that represents a 25 per cent reduction in its Westminster parliamentary representation. In Committee, we heard noble Lords from across the Chamber passionately describe the effect of that on Wales.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee in the other place produced a report in October last year that was highly critical of the proposed changes. A decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the United Kingdom-Wales-by a quarter at a stroke should be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change. The impact of the Government's proposals on Wales is a complete departure from the current legal minimum of 35 seats for Wales enshrined in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. It is also a significant reduction in the number of Welsh constituencies in place when the Welsh people voted for the devolution settlement in 1998. That settlement, as the former Welsh Secretary, the right honourable Paul Murphy, noted in debates in the other place, was a package. It was, he explained,

"not simply the establishment of the Assembly, but the continuance of Members of Parliament, at that level, here in the House of Commons to protect the interests of the people of Wales and their nation. If we have a referendum, and there are greater powers, that might change, but at least people would have voted on it. However, in 1998, they voted for the opposite-the retention of Members of Parliament".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 72.]

That point was echoed by Mr Simon Hart, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, who warned the Government that a reduction of 25 per cent in the number of Welsh constituencies ahead of the referendum on new powers for the Welsh Assembly was being decided,

"without any reference to the Welsh nation".-[Hansard, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 119.]

This speaks to the second of the amendments in this group which the opposition Front Bench also supports. We acknowledge that there was a reduction in Scottish Westminster representation when powers were devolved to Holyrood. There may need to be a reduction in the number of Welsh Westminster seats following a similar pattern, but it is right that such a reduction should take place only once further primary law-making powers are transferred. For this reason we should await the outcome of the March referendum in Wales and then make a judgment. That is the tone and purpose of Amendment 30.

Putting aside the issue of the referendum, the amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bach would in effect ensure that there was no reduction in the number of seats greater than 10 per cent in any one country in the United Kingdom at one time. The imposition of a UK-wide electoral quota of the kind imposed by the Bill is bound to create one or two enormous Welsh constituencies that will be overwhelmingly rural in nature and will cover wide, and in places, inaccessible territories. It will force the construction of new constituencies in the Welsh valleys, which will be impractical, difficult and injurious to local community ties. We are not arguing that Wales should be protected from any reduction in parliamentary representation. We are political realists and we understand that the Government have basic objectives, including the creation of more equal sized seats. We recognise the legitimacy of some of those objectives. The question is whether they need to be pursued in quite so rigid and fast a fashion and in a way that excludes almost all other factors.

As we are beginning to see in debates and votes on amendments, those things which would inject a little more flexibility in the rigid rules set out in the Bill are implacably opposed by the Government. Wales appears an obvious area where sensitivity ought to be given to its special geographical characteristics as well as to its status as a small nation within a larger union in which England is the dominant force in wealth, population and political representation. The Welsh Affairs Committee stated that its concern was,

"about how the Government's proposals will affect Wales in ways distinct from the overall picture for the UK".

While Wales will lose 25 per cent of its MPs, Northern Ireland will see a reduction of 17 per cent, Scotland 16 per cent and England 5 per cent. Our amendment seeks to assert that a more sensible approach would be to ensure that at any one boundary review no part of the United Kingdom should experience a drop of more than 10 per cent in its number of seats. If the Government profess to be interested in fairness, it is important that the interests of each region of the United Kingdom are properly heard at its national Parliament when national representation is being debated.

As I have said, the Government's proposals would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs representing Wales by 25 per cent. As the Select Committee concluded, by any yardstick this would be a profound change to the way that Wales is represented in Parliament. Our amendment does not preclude an eventual reduction to that effect but would ensure that such a change would be gradual. I invite the Government to consider accepting this amendment. I beg to move.