My Lords, the Bill makes provision for the number of constituencies to remain at 650. I welcome that, as the previous recommendation for 600 seats was strongly opposed by my party colleagues. However, there should be an express provision in the legislation for a minimum of 18 seats in Northern Ireland. Concern has rightly been expressed that Northern Ireland could fluctuate up or down a seat, with a knock-on effect on the Northern Ireland Assembly, therefore causing significant unnecessary disruption to representation. Having such a safeguard is low risk but would provide certainty and stability in Northern Ireland.
Rule 7 is an important flexibility for Northern Ireland, and I welcome its retention in the Bill. Rule 7 of Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 provides for different arrangements for Northern Ireland if the commission considers that having to adhere to the maximum 5% deviation from electoral quotas in each constituency does not allow it to take account of special factors, such as geographical considerations or local ties. This discretion is vital to address our Province’s unique circumstances. Indeed, in the other place, my colleagues also supported a number of amendments to the Bill at Report, including new Clause 1, which would helpfully widen the permissible range in the constituency’s total electorate up to 7.5%, rather than 5%.
The loss of parliamentary approval—or, indeed, any parliamentary procedure—for the final proposals is, in my opinion, not acceptable. A democratic accountability mechanism is critical, and it is not appropriate for the Boundary Commissions to be given such sweeping power. The frequency of reviews in previous legislation was a concern, and I am therefore happy to see a longer, more sustainable timeframe for future reviews of eight years. The local government boundary review is something Northern Ireland will be embarking on, so this flexibility may be as relevant to us as on the mainland.
I therefore wish to give my support to the main thrust of the Bill.