My Lords, this is a welcome Bill and the noble Lord, Lord True, is to be congratulated on moving its Second Reading. It is certainly welcome compared with that which the Tory-led coalition Government proposed—but all things are relative. Then, the Tory Government proposed a reduction to 600 MPs while their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, had suggested in their 2010 manifesto that they would reduce the House of Commons by 150 Members. It is little wonder that they want to move on from their 2010 position, and that the Tories cannot resist the pressure from their own Back-Benchers and have torn up the proposals that would have seen the reduction to 600 Members.
The reduction to 600 Members by the Tory-led coalition would have happened just as we were preparing to leave the European Union and during—I hope—our post-Covid-19 phase. That we have been spared such a fate is a relief I share with my noble friend Lord Grocott. Had Parliament lost its right to have the final say, that would have been passed into law and done and dusted without a glance back by the then Government.
That said, as noble Lords have heard, there are still matters in this Bill with which we on the Labour Benches disagree that need to be considered in Committee and beyond. A 5% variance either way from the norm of about 72,000 electors leaves a little room for manoeuvre—something between 68,000 and 75,000 constituents—but a 5% variance causes the most disruption to seats, compared with either 10% or 7.5%. Academic studies of reviews in 2013 and 2018 show that this was the case. It was stated on both occasions that a wider margin would produce more coherent, fairer constituencies. Why do the Government not want to allow the Boundary Commission sufficient leeway to deal sympathetically with any circumstances it may find? We have heard from Wales, Scotland and England that it will find those circumstances. There are factors that the Government cannot wish away—mountains here, rivers there or motorways built. They divide or unite constituencies. Natural factors that combine constituencies can now cause separation.
Can the Minister explain why the Government want to maintain the narrow channel for manoeuvre with the plus or minus 5% tolerance level? It has been recognised, rightly, that there are particular circumstances in Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles, the Isle of Wight and Ynys Môn but they are saying that there are no other places in the country that have similar or comparable circumstances. We disagree. There are other places in England and Wales that deserve more sensitive treatment than the Bill allows. My noble friend Lady Gale reminded us that, especially in Wales, valley and hills naturally separate constituencies and make communities feel a sense of belonging. The effect of this limitation would be to split more wards and make the coherence between local authority boundaries and constituency boundaries less than it is currently.
The fact that the Bill could vote down proposals and the loss of such power are indicative of the Executive’s hostility to accountability. Why do the Government not feel that Parliament is the appropriate body to have the final say on proposals? Currently it serves as the last resort, but that would be removed by the Bill. It is not as though Parliament has stood in the way of change. The Bill increases the power of the Executive over Parliament. The fact that Parliament will lose the power to vote down proposals is indicative of the Executive’s hostility to accountability in Parliament. In fact, the only time in recent history that might have happened was when the Tory-led coalition supported changes to reduce constituencies to 600. Why do the Government feel that the Order in Council is a better, preferable system than Parliament having the final say on proposals?
In summary, the Bill is a welcome improvement on the previous Tory-led attempts to reduce Parliament’s size, but it still has some way to go to become a good piece of legislation. The Labour Party will bring forward amendments for consideration in Committee and we will seek to serve that purpose.