Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 6:37 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, with no disrespect to my really good friends in the Liberal Democrats or to the Greens, the Bill is not about proportional representation or alternative votes, which we have already dealt with. We had a referendum on it. Nevertheless, it is about an important matter as far as democracy is concerned. I strongly support the decision not to reduce the number of seats in the Commons to 600; it should remain at 650—or, as my noble friend Lord Harris said, thereabouts—particularly given the different landscape we have now in terms of the powers of Parliament, which we heard the Minister describe, and the increase in population. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, may have had an easy time but with some 60,000 constituents and 800 square miles to get around, I certainly had to work very hard indeed as a Member of Parliament. Most Members of Parliament continue to work very hard.

As one of the many former MPs speaking today, I have experienced the trauma rather than the excitement of a boundary review. My first major boundary change came in my very first re-election to Parliament in 1983, and I survived. However, I know of other excellent MPs whose careers have been cut short by arbitrary decisions of the Boundary Commissions, based on making up numbers to remain within that strict arithmetic boundary of the plus or minus 5% electoral quota. We have ended up with artificial boundaries with no community coherence. I have seen time and again this obsession with arithmetic exactitude, which has been given preference over natural and community boundaries, as other colleagues have said. It produces results that are less sensible and more challenging than the previous boundaries. For instance, on some occasions one side of a road has been in one constituency and the other side in another. They were within different council boundaries but the wider natural boundaries were ignored, as my noble friend Lady Gale said. Mountains and hills have been ignored, as well as other important factors such as major highways.

Regrettably, the Government said in a statement earlier this year that they will not look to change the 5% quota. I hope that they will look at it again. While they recognise that they need

“the flexibility to take account of other factors, such as physical geographical features and local ties”,

the arithmetic criteria would still remain “the overriding principle”. I believe that they should be of equal force. Without proper consideration of wider natural, infrastructural and community factors, future changes principally based on an arithmetical quota will cause significant disruption to community boundaries.

The provisions in the Bill also include amending the review frequency—I agree that it should be eight years rather than five—and conducting with automaticity the implementation of boundary changes, which I completely oppose.

As always, I want briefly to speak up for Scotland, which, like Wales, faces losing several seats in the next review. This is wrong and needs to be looked at again. It does not take account of the fact that, for example, the land area of Scotland is one-third of that of the whole United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said—[Inaudible]—similar factors ought to be taken account of.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I say that we have four Boundary Commissions because they have been able to take account of specific factors, such as in Scotland and Wales. I hope that we will look at amendments in Committee and on Report to make special protection for the special interests of Wales and Scotland.