Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee) 4:10 pm, 27th July 2020

[Inaudible]—proposal for the implementation of reports of Boundary Commissions with what has been described as automaticity, without the current parliamentary approval and, therefore, it is said, without the possibility of political influence or interference at that stage. In future, unless Parliament changes primary legislation at the time of a report’s publication, it will cease to have a role. It is said we are drawing on the experience of successful examples elsewhere, in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

The consequence of this change must be to move the focus of any risk of political interference to the Boundary Commission, as the final decision will no longer be for Parliament. This means that any risk of interference may move to the commission and the process of appointing it. It is therefore essential that the commission is not only independent but seen to be independent and appointed independently.

As noble Lords know, commissions are chaired by the deputy chairman in each jurisdiction, who has to be a High Court judge. In Scotland the deputy chairman is appointed by the head of the judiciary, the Lord President, and in Northern Ireland by the head of the judiciary there, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. However, that is not the position in England and Wales. The appointment is not by the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice, but by the Lord Chancellor, a government Minister.

For England and Wales, this anomaly—which pre-dates the change to the position of the Lord Chancellor in 2005—must be changed, in my view, so that the deputy chairman is no longer appointed by a government Minister but, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by the head of the judiciary. Although, of course, the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, in the light of the proposed change brought about by this Bill in effecting automaticity, that is no longer sufficient. That is because it is necessary to ensure that the independence of the judiciary is not undermined by any perception of partisanship or political influence in the appointment. It must be seen to be wholly independent of the political Minister that the Lord Chancellor now is.

At the same time it seems necessary to change the appointment of the two other commissioners. Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick of the Constitution Unit at University College London set out a number of alternatives in their evidence to the House of Commons Committee in June 2020. In agreement with them, I urge that the preference should be the appointment made by an independent committee, including the deputy chairman, as is present practice. That committee should then put forward a single name to the Minister, with a power to reject only if written reasons are given. That has proved a very effective mechanism for the independent appointment of judges.

If the commission’s decisions are, in effect, to be final and binding through automaticity and protected from political interference, the appointment process must be independent and therefore seen to be free of the risk of any perception of political interference and influence.