Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 3:31 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, despite several years spent scrutinising legislation in your Lordships’ House—and, indeed, many bad years before that drafting amendments—I must confess that this is the first Bill that I will seek to lead through the House myself. It is a great privilege to do so, and I look forward to working with all your Lordships on it in the coming months. Looking at the speakers’ list, I see that I seem to be surrounded by people responsible for organising most of the successful and unsuccessful elections for the past 50 years, so I can be sure that your Lordships’ wisdom will have great weight.

The purpose of this legislation is straightforward and, in many ways, modest. Its central aim is to enable us to achieve the Government’s manifesto commitment of delivering updated and equal parliamentary constituencies, and to do so on the basis of there being 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Bill is about the composition of the elected Chamber, and it has been backed by the elected Chamber.

Noble Lords will surely agree that the updating of our constituency boundaries is long overdue. The last parliamentary boundary reviews to be implemented in the United Kingdom were based on data—that is, the numbers of electors—from the early 2000s. That may seem like yesterday to many of us here, but the sobering fact is that our youngest voters were not even born then. Our current constituencies reflect how the UK was almost two decades ago. In those two decades, our country has changed enormously, having undergone significant demographic and migratory change. We need updated boundaries to reflect that. We also need to get back on track with boundary reviews that happen and come into effect regularly, routinely and reliably. This Bill delivers that and, in so doing, makes a number of common-sense and technical changes to update the boundary review process and the rules under which the four Boundary Commissions operate.

We have engaged with stakeholders, including the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators, as the Bill has evolved, and the provisions reflect their input. I appreciate the conversations that I have already been able to have with a number of noble Lords.

It is important to say from the outset that this is amending legislation and there are many elements of the existing legislative framework for boundary reviews that it does not seek to alter. Those elements none the less remain of interest both here and in the other place, and I will today touch on the most significant of them, such as the rules relating to constituency size. However, let me start with the things the Bill does do—the common-sense, technical changes.

First, as I mentioned, the Bill provides that future boundary reviews will be conducted on the basis of there being 650 parliamentary constituencies. To make this measure effective, the Bill brings the 2018 boundary review, which would have been the first to be based on 600 constituencies, to a close, without being implemented. Noble Lords will remember that the decision to make that reduction to 600 was taken by the coalition Government a decade ago. Since the change was brought into law in 2011, the UK’s electorate has grown and there have been significant changes in demography. Members of Parliament are representing more constituents than ever before, and they are taking on the role of scrutinising legislation and overseeing areas of policy, such as trade and immigration, that have previously been the preserve of the European Parliament. Under these circumstances, the Government think it right that the current 650 constituencies are retained. The House of Commons has assented to that.

Connected to this, the Bill also removes an obligation on the Government to make arrangements to review the effects of reducing the UK constituencies to 600. As that has not taken place, it cannot meaningfully be analysed.

Moving on to the frequency of parliamentary boundary reviews, the Bill provides for future reviews—after the next one, due to start next spring—to take place every eight years, as opposed to every five years, as currently. This new timetable will allow constituency boundaries to be updated regularly but with less disruption to local communities and their MPs as a result of constituencies changing at every general election. Let me add that a parliamentary boundary review generally takes two years and 10 months from start to finish: it is a significant exercise. The Government believe that every eight years is appropriate for something of this scale, as did the stakeholders consulted.

Still on the subject of timing, the Bill enables the next boundary review—on a one-off basis—to follow a slightly shorter timetable of two years and seven months. The formal start of the review will be in December of this year and the Boundary Commissions must submit their final reports by 1 July 2023 at the latest. Bearing in mind that it takes time for electoral administrators to implement new boundaries; for political parties to reflect them in their structures and for citizens to become familiar with them, this timing of July 2023 is important. It gives us the best chance of there being updated parliamentary constituencies in place ahead of the next general election, whenever that may be. The reduction in time is achieved by the Boundary Commissions expediting some of their processes and by shortening the public consultation process by six weeks, from 24 to 18.

The Bill also makes a small number of changes to the boundary review process—the nuts and bolts of what happens during a review. First, there is a change to the timing of public hearings. Every boundary review, as your Lordships know, includes extensive public consultation arranged over three separate periods. This engagement with the public and with political parties takes a variety of forms. For example, proposals can generally be viewed online, and comments submitted to the Boundary Commissions via their websites or by letter. In addition, there are public hearings, events at which individuals can make representations in person to members of their Boundary Commission. The commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must hold between two and five public hearings in their respective nations. The Boundary Commission for England must hold between two and five in each of the English regions.

Under current legislation, public hearings take place early in the process, during the first of three consultation periods. This means that the Boundary Commissions need to decide locations and book venues before they are able to get a sense of where feeling about their proposals is strongest. During our engagement with stakeholders, we heard that this timing could be better. The Bill therefore makes provision for public hearings to take place later, during the second consultation period, allowing the commissions to consider the responses received during the initial consultation and assess where public hearings are most needed. To make this change effective, the length of the consultation periods is adjusted, allowing more time in the second period for the public hearings to occur.

Secondly, the Bill makes some practical changes in relation to the data that the Boundary Commissions use when developing their proposals. Boundary Commissions look at a variety of data sources. First and foremost, they look at numbers of electors so that they can devise constituencies that fit within the size range set by legislation. The Boundary Commissions draw information on elector numbers from the electoral register, generally deriving that data from the version of the register that exists on the 1 December at the start of a review, known as “the review date”. This date is picked because it generally falls immediately after the completion of the annual canvass, the process by which electoral registration officers verify entries on the electoral register. I should add here that annual canvasses are not required in Northern Ireland in the same way, but a revised register is still published every year by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. The electorate data drawn from the registers in Scotland, Wales and England is then checked further by relevant government agencies: the National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics. The collated information—a complete and current picture of the number of electors in all four nations—is then published centrally by ONS. From this point it is used by the Boundary Commissions.

I hope noble Lords will see that the rationale here is that boundary reviews are based on the most up-to-date, robust and transparent information on elector numbers. This approach has been in place since the Boundary Commissions were created in 1944 and we do not seek to alter it. That said, the Bill makes one change in relation to electoral data for the next boundary review only; I hope that your Lordships will understand that it does so in direct response to Covid-19. Rather than being based on the electoral register of 1 December 2020, the next review will use the version of the register from 2 March 2020, before the pandemic. The aim is to sidestep any potential impact that Covid-19 may have on the operation of this year’s canvass or the electoral register. I am pleased to say that this one-off change has been widely supported.

Still on the topic of data, as well as elector numbers, Boundary Commissions will of course look to devise boundaries that reflect the other factors that they may take into account, including geographical features, local ties, existing parliamentary constituencies and local government boundaries.

The Bill introduces a change to the way in which the commissions take account of local government boundaries. Currently, the commissions can work only with local boundaries that have been fully brought into effect at an election before the start of a review. This means that, in places, a Boundary Commission may be looking back one, two or even three years to how the boundaries were at the time of the last local election in that area.

The Bill changes that. In future, Boundary Commissions will be able to take account of prospective local government boundaries—that is, boundaries that have been made by an order but not yet used in an election—at the review date: the 1 December formal start of the review. This measure will help keep constituency boundaries better aligned with local government boundaries, where appropriate. For the next boundary review, it will mean that new local government boundaries in London, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Devon and Cornwall may all be taken into account where previously they might not have been.

We now come to the end of the process: the point where the Boundary Commissions have done their work and submitted their final reports. Here, the Bill introduces what in the marvellous world of policy is described as “automaticity”. Automaticity is simply the idea that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, developed through the meticulous and consultative process I have described, should be implemented without political influence or interference. Recommendations will still be brought into effect by an Order in Council; however, the draft order will no longer require approval by Parliament prior to making. As part of this measure, the Government’s ability to amend the draft Order in Council if rejected by Parliament is also removed.

In the other place, there was a degree of misunderstanding about the intentions of this change. I assure your Lordships that the purpose of this measure is straightforward: to bring certainty and confidence to the citizen and the elector that updated constituencies will be implemented without interference and further delay. I suspect that I am not alone in remembering what delay and interference look like; I will not touch on anybody’s sensibilities by referring to episodes in this country’s recent history.

I am sure that others will have different interpretations of the ins and outs of why boundary reviews have been delayed in the past, but I hope we can all agree that there is a vulnerability in our current legislation in this regard, and yet also an urgent need for the next review to start in good order and deliver updated boundaries promptly and reliably. Automaticity is the answer to that conundrum, and we are not the only ones to think so. In moving to this system, we draw on the experience of countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where a similar approach is used.

We also heard support in the evidence sessions of the Public Bill Committee in the other place. Witness after witness spoke up for automaticity, including party representatives, the Electoral Reform Society and several academics. As they pointed out, the removal of Parliament from the end of the boundary review process in no way alters the fact that Parliament remains sovereign and continues to set the rules and parameters within which the Boundary Commissions operate. The contesting of a parliamentary constituency will always be about politics, but this Government believe firmly that the process by which that constituency is proposed, revised and implemented should never be.

I will finish by talking about aspects of the current legislation that the Bill does not fundamentally change. The key topic here is tolerance. Under existing law, the Boundary Commissions are required to propose constituencies that are within plus or minus 5% of the average UK constituency electorate, which is known as the electoral quota. This provision, which was introduced by the 2011 Act, ensures that constituencies across the United Kingdom are broadly equal in size, within a 10% range of the electoral quota. The Government are not changing this because we are committed to delivering not just updated constituencies but equal and updated ones. Both goals are crucial. Equal constituencies mean votes that carry equal weight. Our democracy relies on our electors having confidence that they are fairly represented, yet how can an elector in Milton Keynes South—one of 97,000—feel fairly represented when up the road in Northampton North, their fellow elector is one of only 59,000?

Within our broad ambition to achieve equal constituencies, we accept that there are a handful of locations in the British Isles whose unique geographies demand a greater degree of flexibility. The law therefore includes a limited number of exceptions to the tolerance rules. By and large, we are leaving these untouched. For example, the exception that exists for Northern Ireland remains in place, allowing in certain limited circumstances for a slightly wider tolerance to be applied. This recognises that nation’s small number of constituencies and the disproportionate impact that certain rounding effects that result from the allocation of constituencies to the four nations can have there.

Similarly, an exemption for very large, sparsely populated constituencies also remains in place, as do the four protected constituencies that were included in the 2011 legislation where the tolerance rules do not apply. Those four protected constituencies are Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland, and two constituencies on the Isle of Wight.

The one change we are making here, following an amendment supported by the Government, is to add a fifth protected constituency for Ynys Môn—Anglesey. This move addresses an anomaly and has been widely welcomed. All the protected constituencies are islands and Ynys Môn falls within the range they set in terms of both geographical and electoral size.

To conclude, we have before us a Bill whose core purpose is electoral equality and fairness, delivered through equal and updated parliamentary constituency boundaries. Debates and witness testimony in the other place have revealed a clear consensus that this goal needs to be met—and soon. We need constituencies that reflect the electorate as they are now, not as they were at the turn of the century.

The Bill makes sensible and supported improvements to the way boundary reviews operate. We are legislating for an appropriate number of seats, a better frequency of reviews, an improved set of review processes and a more certain method of implementation designed to enhance the independence of the impartial Boundary Commissions. The people of the UK deserve fair votes; they deserve effective representation; and they deserve to have trust and certainty in the boundary review process that delivers those things.

I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.