Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:53 pm on 27th July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench 4:53 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, the problem with a first past the post system is that there is no such thing as a fair constituency, let alone a fair constituency boundary. I am not a historian in these matters but, looking at the Second Reading of the Bill in the Commons and the mutual suspicion that arose during debate of what should surely be purely technical concerns, I can imagine that this mutual suspicion goes back through the ages.

I do not blame the Government that there is apprehension over the ruling party influencing the system; that is the nature of the system. PR would of course not just be hugely fairer but would mean less political interest in the problem of coherent constituencies, since it is the number of representatives for each polling district that is crucial, not the size of the electorate or the shape of the constituency. The tussle between 5%, 7.5% or 10% quota tolerances feels like another unnecessary battle, and under the present circumstances, this would be less so if all eligible voters were registered.

In Germany, everyone has to register—including, perhaps amazingly, if you are homeless—and that is the basis both of the electoral register and the calculation of the quota. In Britain, according to Electoral Commission research, 9.4 million people are missing from the electoral register—a whopping 17% of eligible voters, including the young, those who rent and those on low incomes. There is a lot of talk at the moment about how best to ensure that black and ethnic minorities are treated equally. I point out to the Minister that surely the best way to help those who are systemically disadvantaged is systemically, and that therefore we urgently need automatic voter registration.

I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about 16 year-olds. However, up to that point, boundaries should be based on census data to improve representation in areas with lower registration. In any case, MPs represent everyone in their constituency, whoever they are. What we do not require is forcing voters to provide photographic ID at polling stations, when voter fraud was committed by 0.000063% of the population, and 3.5 million people do not have photo ID.

On parliamentary oversight, I agree with the Constitution Unit when it says that allowing politicians any role in ratifying or blocking proposals runs counter to any democratic principle and that, irrespective of the voting system we currently have for general elections, we clearly need the boundaries reviewed and based on up-to-date data. However, it also says that

“automatic implementation is clearly appropriate only if the review process itself is genuinely independent of any improper interference.”

So there is yet another question of trust: how confident can we be that that will be the case? Again, that would be less of a problem with PR because the review process would be more straightforward, with less at stake politically, and, as a matter of course, no doubt, all sides would encourage frequent consultation with communities, and at an early stage in that process.