Having attended a number of boundary inquiries where issues of political advantage were quickly exposed, I want today to flag up the need to keep such issues in mind as we seek to amend existing legislation. Participants in these inquiries have a dilemma—political advantage or public interest. These can be difficult issues as there are pressures. Recommendations that offend the public interest may please some party activists but they undermine confidence in our electoral system.
This all came into focus when I retired after 22 years as a Member of Parliament. I will give an example. In 2007 the Boundary Commission came forward with its Cumbria recommendations. The commission’s original draft proposed a reorganisation of Copeland, my noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling’s former seat. The seat had been under quota for a number of years and therefore faced inevitable reorganisation. The commission’s response was to propose a seat, the Copeland-Windermere constituency, which stretched from the west Cumberland coast all the way to Windermere, the other side of the Lake District—an extraordinary proposal. However, there was a problem: the drive from Whitehaven in the west to Windermere in the east meant journeying over the highest mountain pass in the United Kingdom, the Hardknott Pass at the heart of the Lake District, which can close in the inclement weather of winter. The proposal was ludicrous. The problem was that the parties had to take it all seriously and hassle over it.
There have been times in history when irregular boundary changes were acceptable as MPs had a very different relationship with constituencies in former times, but that has all changed. They are now closer, reflecting local loyalties and ties with more personal representation. The monthly visit staying in the local smart hotel is no longer acceptable. That is the new reality that the commission needs to consider. The Member for Copeland surely cannot represent the people of Windermere: the geography is wrong and one part of the constituency will lose out. MPs no longer just represent constituents in Parliament; they now offer a service.
The Copeland proposal was rightly rejected. However, I use it only as an example; I wonder whether that bad experience is replicated elsewhere. The Boundary Commission needs to be more sensitive to the local links and loyalties that stand at the heart of effective parliamentary representation. I hope the commission is listening, particularly to the speech of my noble friend Lady Gale, who talked of problems in the Welsh valleys. If not, I have wasted my time engaging in this debate. I really hope that the commission is listening today.