I am not sure that the reasons given to overturn the decision to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 are very convincing. There are many parliamentary democracies with larger populations but smaller numbers of elected representatives than is the case with our House of Commons here at Westminster.
A better reason for retaining 650 seats is that it should allow more existing constituencies to continue with their current boundaries, or with relatively minor changes. The continuing coherence of our parliamentary constituencies is more important than it is given credit for in most commentary on the Bill that I have read. The previous proposals under the Boundary Commission’s report of 2018 would have resulted in the boundaries of a large number of constituencies no longer corresponding precisely to local authorities’ boundaries. This would have been regrettable.
I have been president of the North East Hertfordshire Conservative Association for many years. Our members were not at all happy that the constituency was to be renamed Letchworth and Royston, because it was expected to incorporate small parts of both Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. There are other towns in the constituency with their own characteristics, and very many electors did not identify with either Letchworth or Royston.
Most people still identify with their county. It was a pity that, under the 2018 plan, many constituencies would have had to drop the reference to their county from their new name. My Member of Parliament, my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald, at present has to deal with only Hertfordshire County Council and two district councils, North Hertfordshire and East Hertfordshire. Under the 2018 plans, he would also have had to deal with councils in both Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
I have some sympathy with those who believe that there should be slightly more flexibility than the maximum 5% deviation from the average electorate to ensure that there is a smaller number of incoherent constituencies crossing local authority boundaries. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for the first past the post system, which I support, is that there is one Member representing all electors in one coherent single-Member constituency.
I ask my noble friend to confirm that, at present, the high sheriff of a county is the returning officer for all parliamentary constituencies in his or her county. Where a constituency will in future straddle two counties, who will decide which of the two high sheriffs will discharge this duty?
I am generally happy and agree with the Bill’s other provisions.