Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee 7:24 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, but I too congratulate my noble friend the Minister on introducing this excellent Bill, which I support. Last December, the general election was run with constituencies ranging from 60,000 to 99,000. No one can argue that that is fair or democratic, so we must have equally sized constituencies with no more than a 5% variation.

The Opposition want much larger variations, on the basis that they would keep special and unique local identities together. Those of us who have been through boundary changes have always used that argument to try to bend boundaries to maximise our political advantage. I have been at public inquiries here in Cumbria with my Labour and Liberal opponents, and we all argued for the most tortuous-shaped constituencies imaginable based on them conforming to local travel-to-work areas, social habits, local boundaries, communities, cultural norms, mountains and lakes, motorways, shopping habits or ancient history—such as the route followed by King Edward III when he invaded Scotland in 1356. They were all bogus arguments, as my noble friend Lord Robathan said. We were all after a constituency boundary with sufficient wards to give us a safe majority, but to give away enough of our supporters so that we could take the neighbouring seat for our party. Let no former MP now in this House deny that that was the game, because we all played it for political advantage.

Council boundaries are not nearly as important now as in the past. My former constituency of 1,500 square miles stretched from the Irish Sea to over the Pennines. I had one county council and three district councils. While all of it was in England, we had some Scottish postal codes, as well as Cumbrian pupils going to school in Northumberland. One boundary was a little stream between Cumbria and Northumberland, which ran right through the middle of the village of Gilsland.

There was no great difficulty dealing with those different authorities. Council boundaries are not sacrosanct. Politicians must not be allowed to shelve Boundary Commission reports or amend them. The more I heard Labour Members today asking for the right of Parliament to interfere, the more I became highly likely to support my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham in imposing a time limit for implementation. In 2012, we saw the disgraceful ploy by the Lib Dems to kick into touch the 2011 review. They are responsible for our boundaries being another eight years out of date. That follows the precedent of Jim Callaghan, who ditched the Boundary Commission proposals in 1969.

Boundary Commission reports must be approved automatically, in a tight timescale. There is a track record of the Labour and Lib Dem parties sabotaging them for political advantage. Some also want the December 2020 registers to be used, rather than those which we had on 2 March this year. It is a bit rich for opposition parties to demand a register that would be just eight months newer, when they have voted to keep in place registers that are 20 years out of date. The Bill is a manifesto commitment and I trust that we will not see the games that occurred in 2012 played here.