Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 5:12 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, the Bill effectively supersedes the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and, as such, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, is admitting, is an improvement, in that it does not force through an arbitrary reduction in the number of MPs to 600. There was no rationale whatsoever for the number 600, other than that advanced by the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that it was a big round number.

The Bill does, however, set the number 650 in legislation rather than allow the Boundary Commissions discretion to make recommendations that best deliver effective representation at constituency level. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said about strengthening the role of the Boundary Commissions, because it is very important that they are able to exercise proper judgment about what is effective representation at local level. I am not worried if there is some slight variation around the 650 level, provided that the commissions’ recommendations make sense at local level in terms of the communities that our Members of Parliament are expected to represent. The essence of parliamentary democracy is that a local community elects an individual to represent it in the other place. For that to make sense at local level, the community and the boundaries should make sense for that locality.

The task the Boundary Commissions are set should not be so circumscribed that the boundaries are meaningless and represent no more than lines on a map to deliver a spurious mathematical equality. One of the elements of the 2011 Act was the requirement that the commissions were not allowed to deviate from the electoral quota by more than 5%. This reduced the flexibility that had been previously available and made it more difficult to deliver constituencies that made sense in terms of the localities on the ground. What is more, the commissions are merely permitted to consider local authority boundaries. The consequence is that far more parliamentary constituencies will straddle local council areas, and that is unhelpful. MPs need to be able to represent their constituents, and it makes sense therefore that the boundaries reflect the communities on the ground. They must recognise natural features and physical divisions in the area. None of this is easy, but it does not make sense for the commissions’ hands to be unnecessarily tied, and that is why an absolute fixed limit is unhelpful and the possibility of a larger than 5% leeway should be permitted.

The other issue is how frequently boundaries should be redrawn. The Bill substitutes an eight-year cycle for a five-year one. Five years was always far too short. No sooner had one set of boundaries been promulgated than the commission would have to start work on changing them. This in itself would undermine an MP’s relationship with those she or he represents. It would cause endless uncertainty and be destabilising for the work of Parliament, because MPs would not just have to face the electorate at the end of each Parliament but would have to spend much of the time in between defending the boundaries in their area. Eight years is better than five, but 10 years would be better and would still avoid boundaries and constituency sizes becoming too outdated.