Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:49 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Charities), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) , Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 3:49 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I welcome the Minister introducing his first Bill and I welcome being able to say that I welcome it. Of course, it rectifies a bad mistake made by the coalition, which sought to reduce the size of Parliament without a corresponding reduction in the size of the Executive and which reduced the accountability of MPs to their constituencies by giving them larger electorates and by legislating for frequent re-boundarying, making it harder to build up the knowledge and contacts that make for effective representation.

Of course, these are matters more for the elected than for your Lordships’ House. But it was ironic that the reduction of the size of that House was to happen just as this one grew disproportionately by the addition of Members who were here for life and—like all of us —neither removable nor accountable. It was hard to understand the rationale for that, so I look forward to hearing former members of the coalition Government—particularly the seven Lib Dems due to speak today, of whom three are in the Chamber—who, as Hansard reminds me, voted against our amendment on this subject, to explain the conundrum. Regrettably, neither the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, nor the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who steered it though this House, is on the speakers’ list today. Anyway, it all means that we are of course delighted to see Clause 5, and to give it our wholehearted support.

Your Lordships would, however, expect us to look carefully at the rest of the Bill, to ensure that it achieves its objectives and to see whether there are amendments that we would like to table for consideration. Perhaps the major one is something that does affect us, because it is about the role of Parliament. Hitherto, as we have heard, Parliament has had to sign off the final proposals from the various boundary commissions. Indeed, it was, fortunately, because of this very power, and the then Government’s inability to get their proposals through the other House, that we do not now have a 600-seat Chamber at the other end of this building.

However, suddenly, in this Bill, without any prior consultation, that final backstop role of Parliament has vanished—and with it, any possibility for the Commons to pause the process. Instead, the Executive will simply, via an Order in Council, trigger the whole sweep of changes. The Government maintain that this is to keep the procedure completely free of any political input. But there will still be political input—from the Executive, who retain the ability of tabling or withholding that Order in Council, because that cannot be instigated by Parliament.

So, for the sake of argument, should the Government not like the outcome, and should they be planning an election—since they have also promised to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—would it not be very convenient to hold back that trigger, with Parliament unable to act? The Minister will, I am sure, say that the Government could do the same now, by delaying a statutory instrument—but at least that would be Parliament’s business, and therefore open to question.

Perhaps more fundamental, however, is the idea that Parliament—or politics—is somehow a bit grubby, and should not be able to give its final approval to something of such democratic consequence. Leaving major constitutional decisions to officials, with no parliamentary oversight, is difficult to defend. So I look forward to hearing the Minister—steeped as he is in Parliament and its ways—argue why, in this unique decision, Parliament should be shut out.

My noble friend Lord Lennie, who knows a thing or two about this, will say rather more about the issue of variance later, and will explain why the very small figure of plus or minus 5% is too restrictive to enable the boundary commissions to respect communities and geography, and to minimise disruption.

I will simply say two things. First, just as, in this House last time—thanks to the Lord Speaker, I think—we respected the Isle of Wight’s geography, and this time, thanks to a Conservative MP, Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, has been preserved as a seat, so we should enable the boundary commissions to respect equally important geographical realities, particularly in Wales.

I lived in Anglesey, in Bodedern, for a time—albeit I was unable to vote for Cledwyn Hughes, later Baron Cledwyn of Penrhos, as in those bygone days the voting age was 21, which I had not yet attained. So I know the island, and I feel its identity and cohesion. But I also know this in and around my maternal home of Ystradgynlais. My noble friend Lady Gale will say more about the valleys and their identity, as well as their travel challenges, in due course—things that necessitate some extra leeway to preserve community ties.

That brings me to the second point on variance. In their determination to have numerically equal electorates per seat, the Government have forgotten that MPs represent communities, not just individuals. MPs’ understanding of their local companies and schools, the local authority, the swimming pools, the universities, the sports teams, the churches, the charities, the culture and local history, means that they are embedded in the lives of their constituencies in a way that pure numerical determination fails to understand. So we will ask the Government to think again about the degree of flexibility allowed to the boundary commissions.

There are just two other points to make. One, in the context of this attempt to reach exact figures in each seat, is to remind the Minister that some 9 million—perhaps 20%—of those entitled to vote are missing from the register. That is a rough average of 10,000 per constituency. Given how many are missing altogether, that makes the obsession with the last 3,500—that is, of course, a smaller number for the 5%, now that we have 650 seats rather than 600—a little hard to understand.

Equally important for the representation of people in the Commons is that many simply do not get the chance to vote. The Electoral Commission recommended automatic voter registration, and the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended urgent action to tackle under-registration, including piloting automatic registration for attainers. So perhaps the Minister could respond to this proposal in advance of our tabling the relevant amendments.

Secondly, as we look to the future and to an election in, say, four years’ time—although the early date of the first boundary review makes me think the next election might be a little earlier—we have the space now to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, whose lives will be affected by decisions in the Commons. I urge the Government not to dismiss this call but to give very careful thought to the planet, and the country, that we will leave to them, and to whether it is right to give those 16 and 17 year-olds a say over who will take the decisions that shape their lives. But for the moment we welcome the Bill, which will rectify a bad mistake, and I look forward to the speeches that will follow today, as well as to our discussions in Committee.