Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 5:06 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, it is surely presumptuous that this unelected Chamber should determine the electoral process. The need for democratic legitimacy in this Chamber is far greater than the need for the Bill.

The Bill starts from a false premise, regarding the UK as a homogenous unitary state. The devolved reality requires Westminster to move forward with a more federal approach, yet the Bill replaces the individual electoral quotas of the four nations with a single UK electoral quota.

I have always seen an MP as a representative, not a delegate. For 27 years, I represented Caernarfon, including 100 miles of coastline and the Snowdon summit. It had a huge variety of environmental, economic, cultural and sociological factors. It had 93 towns, villages and hamlets, and 28 community councils, all of which rightly expected me to visit regularly. I represented farmers and fishermen, slate quarrymen, factory workers and tourist operators, and a unique cultural heritage, where 80% of people spoke Welsh as their first language. To do justice to such a variety of electors required a far greater time commitment than twice the population within a few square miles would have.

Our voting system should aim to generate an equality of representation, not numerical uniformity, and that means flexibility in constituency size. The ultimate corollary of a strict numerical approach is compulsory voting by proportional representation and multi-Member seats. It is nonsense to say that every Member must represent the same number of voters and then allow their election on a 50% turnout, winning perhaps 30% of the vote, or just 15% of eligible voters.

The electoral registration process is woefully deficient and generates less accurate population figures than do the census and the ONS estimates. The Bill also fails to deal with the multiple registration of students and second homeowners, which causes fluctuating quota numbers through the year. Under the present system, we see economically deprived areas underrepresented. This Bill does nothing to put that right. Any one of us who has canvased in an election will know that the register has massive gaps, and these are often the very people who most need an MP’s support.

When constituents came to see me in my surgeries, I would never ask whether they were a registered elector; I would take up their case if their address was in my area. An MP’s workload is not related to electoral registration, and if we are to move to an arithmetically binding formula, we are moving away from the basic premise of Britain’s representative democracy. While I accept that there has to be improvement on the present system, the Bill does not necessarily deliver the changes needed.

I have two final points. I greatly regret the reduction of Wales’s voice from 40 to an implied 32 MPs, without an increase in the number of Senedd Members in Cardiff Bay, which will be needed to undertake the augmented legislative workload. However, I welcome that the Government have accepted Plaid Cymru’s proposal to protect Anglesey’s unique status as a community. Such a community-based approach should produce a very different pattern from that likely to come from the implementation of the Bill.