Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:59 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 3:59 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, it is not my usual source for a wise text, but I shall begin with a quote from the Conservative manifesto of December 2019—significantly not repeated by the Minister this afternoon. We do believe that we should be

“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”

However, we remind the Government that any variance in the number of electors in UK constituencies pales into insignificance when compared with the way the first-past-the-post electoral system cheats voters. Some party supporters have to be hugely more numerous to secure representation than others. In December 2019, it took 33 times as many to secure an MP for one party when compared with another, so the worst ratio inequality was a staggering 33:1. We will have to return to this when we have a more comprehensive opportunity to make our system more fit for purpose, perhaps when the promised constitution, democracy and rights commission is up and running.

We can agree to some features of this Bill. The retention of the 650 MPs is now logical, and so too is the eight years between each review and redistribution; that is helpful. The base date for electoral registration totals is certainly sensible, and the overall emphasis on avoiding unnecessary, frequent and disruptive changes is very welcome indeed. That is the area which requires the most improvement in the Bill. For a start, Parliament must give a firm instruction to the Boundary Commissions to avoid, wherever practicable, crossing top-tier local authority boundaries. The classic case is the historic boundary that gives unrivalled integrity to Cornwall. The River Tamar provides a much better boundary with England than either Scotland or Wales currently enjoy. Even the Conservative MPs there now seem to have lost their enthusiasm for a “Devonwall” seat.

There are other examples. Crossing city boundaries to avoid splitting wards within them is manifestly absurd, encumbering MPs, the cities themselves and their citizens with totally avoidable confusion. MPs seem to have accepted that splitting large wards is preferable to creating constituencies that straddle more than one upper-tier local authority area, but the Bill must be totally explicit on this objective.

However, this gives added weight to the case for more realistic and flexible tolerances. As the independent academic evidence to the Commons Public Bill Committee from Dr David Rossiter and Professor Charles Pattie, drawing on the much-respected work of the late Professor Ron Johnston, made clear,

“Ward splitting certainly helped to reduce the amount of disruption, but in our estimates it did not reduce disruption anything like as much as widening the tolerances moderately.”

This is the core issue. Given that updated analysis shows that the previously alleged distortion between the electorates and voting in Conservative and Labour-held constituencies is now less significant and due more to registration levels, third-party activity and turnout as much as to any other factor, the disruption factor is all-important. Again, the academic evidence given to the Commons Public Bill Committee is absolutely explicit:

“Most of the bias that has caused comment and concern in recent years has come from other sources that are nothing to do with the constituency size issue.”

MPs on the Committee seemed to accept that and to be anxious to avoid massive pointless disruption.

I know from my own experience how important this is both for MPs and for their constituents. Between my first period in 1974 and my return in 1992, there was a massive change in Cornwall; only the long-suffering residents in the Bodmin area had to have me as their MP twice. Elementary arithmetic reveals that the tight 5% margins either side of the desirable electorate changes when—[Inaudible]—650 constituencies, compared with the 600 in the previous legislation. With a few hundred variables, the whole political geography can change. Several constituencies can experience a knock-on effect and established representation links can be arbitrarily destroyed. A 5% tolerance invites regular disruption and ever-present insecurity. No MP with integrity wants that.

For example, the proposed extension of the franchise to more UK citizens overseas, which is planned to take place while this review is under way, could distort many of the new proposals, given such narrow room for manoeuvre. As more people from the EU achieve UK citizenship, that too can alter local totals. We will want to examine meticulously the case for a 7.5%, 8% or 10% tolerance, and it looks like the Labour Party will support us in re-examining those tolerance levels. My noble friends would also have wished to have emphasised the need for greater effort to improve the completeness of the register and to bring it into closer alignment with the census. They will wish to examine the special geographical factors at work in Scotland and Wales.

This Bill is an improvement in a number of respects. However, it will succeed only if a realistic approach is adopted to prevent excessive disruption, to preserve consistency and to respect historic integrity. Ironically, in a different era, that would have been described as conservatism.