Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:34 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 5:34 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, this Bill is far from a great piece of democratic reform—it does not start to tackle the real unfairness in our electoral system—but it has some useful measures. The population is increasing and Parliament is struggling with a huge Brexit legislative programme, compounded by emergency coronavirus-related measures—so maintaining MP numbers at 650 is sensible. However, current boundaries are now almost 20 years old and a review is needed. Reviews every five years would put constituency boundaries in a continuous state of flux, so eight years is better.

So far, so good—but I have some serious concerns. The Bill confirms a strict electoral quota for each seat, with a limit of variability of 5%. Only in a few protected constituencies is there any real consideration of rurality or local geographic features. In my home country, Wales, it takes well over an hour and a half to drive from end to end of the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. It is one of at least five geographically enormous rural Welsh constituencies, each of them with a relatively small electorate. Such constituencies should be given protected status, just as Ynys Môn has been. The formula shows that Wales could lose eight of its 40 seats. This is worrying, as the Senedd still has only 60 Members. As Lib Dems, we would like to see many more—but that is up to the Senedd itself.

I am worried about the balance of seats across the whole of the UK. Projections suggest six additional seats for south-east England and 10 for England overall. Both Houses of this Parliament are already too dominated by the interests of south-east England. The union is in a precarious state, and increased dominance by the south-east should be avoided. Lack of trust in government is higher in the north of England and in the south-west. I suggest that a variance of at least 10%, combined with instructions to the Boundary Commissions to take account of rurality, and county and local government boundaries, should be implemented. That will produce an electoral landscape much more sensitive to community needs.

Finally, boundary reviews are a pretty well-kept secret beyond political parties, and that is unacceptable, so public consultation procedures must be strengthened. Currently, 9.4 million people are missing from the electoral register, which is also unacceptable. The commissions should be given a responsibility to promote electoral registration as well as simply counting the numbers.