Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 27th July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 4:30 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I welcome the Bill so ably introduced by my noble friend, even though the 1986 Act that it amends abolished the Ealing Acton constituency I represented for 23 years, making me politically homeless until the good voters of North West Hampshire offered me their hospitality.

The most controversial aspect of the Bill is its so-called automaticity. Some Peers do not like this because it goes too far; my concern is exactly the opposite —that it does not go far enough. The Government contend that this change will

“provide certainty that the recommendations of the independent and impartial boundary commissions will be implemented without political influence or interference from either government or Parliament”.

This is a worthy objective. Many noble Lords will remember—my noble friend Lady Pidding referred to it—how the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, here and in another place, joined up to postpone the boundary recommendations in 2013, even though they implemented legislation put on the statute book by Nick Clegg. Noble Lords with longer memories will recall, in 1969, Jim Callaghan laid the necessary order in the Commons and then invited his party to vote it down, described by Callaghan’s official biographer as a “a cynical partisan manoeuvre” and

“pragmatic delay, untrammelled by principle”.

He was said in later life to have regretted what he did.

Those two examples show the importance of insulating the Boundary Commission from political interference, but the Bill does not do this, because Clause 2 retains the words

“as soon as reasonably practicable”,

referring to the interval before the Government lays the Order in Council to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commission. This was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. Any Government could undermine the purpose of the Bill by simply not doing this.

We have a recent example of exactly this happening. The Boundary Commission submitted its last report in September 2018 and, under the law, Ministers should have laid the order “as soon as practicable”. It still has not been laid nearly two years later. No one could argue that it was not practicable to have done so, but there has been no legal challenge. What would prevent a future Government, who find the recommendations not to their liking, simply not laying the order?

I ask my noble friend whether he will look kindly on an amendment in Committee to replace the words “as soon as practicable” with a specific time limit to remove the possibility of gerrymandering and achieve the objective of the Bill, as set out in the quotation I referred to. That would thereby achieve objectives that I otherwise wholeheartedly support.