Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 27th July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 7:47 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, including those who have ventured to be kind about me. I have found in life that it is not the smile you get at the front door when you arrive that really counts but the curses you hear when the front door closes behind you when you go, so I will try to serve the House as well as I can.

There have been some incredibly important and thoughtful contributions. I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and my noble friend Lord Naseby in pointing out that probably never so many wise contributions have been made on elections by people who do not have the right to vote in them. It has been fascinating.

If your Lordships will forgive me, I will concentrate on those areas that are in scope of the Bill. We heard a lot about, for example, PR. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said that it is an argument for another day. I thought it was an argument that had already had its day. I hope that we can concentrate on some of the important issues that have been raised in the debate. I am pleased by the support voiced across the House for many of the key elements of the Bill—there have been doubters and how could there not be doubters in this great House?—in particular for maintaining the number of constituencies at 650. Although I noticed a small number of those voices on my side—I see my noble friend Lord Hayward in his place—I think the majority were for 650. I am also glad of the general support of the House for the new eight-year cycle and the addition of Ynys Môn as a protected constituency.

Let me come to the first issue which has been a matter of interest, to use a value-free word, to your Lordships’ House in debate, which is the so-called automaticity. I anticipated this in my opening remarks and that proved to be correct. My noble friends Lord Dobbs, Lord Mancroft, Lord Pickles, Lord Hayward, Lord Young of Cookham, Lady Pidding and many other noble Lords supported the changes to allow the automatic implementation of boundary review recommendations, as we propose. We believe that automaticity will give the public confidence and certainty that the boundaries recommended by the commissions will come into effect without risk of interference or further delay.

I note the opposition, ably expressed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Barker, my noble friend Lord Empey, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, and other noble Lords. However, the purpose here is to remove both Government and Parliament from the process, so that those finalised recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions are brought into force promptly, with no opportunity for blocking or meddling of any kind. Under current legislation, the citizen does not have certainty that this will happen, and the boundaries of constituencies are now woefully out of date as a result. I repeat that other countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia have similar arrangements for implementing boundary reviews which do not involve the final approval of the legislature. I hope that, on reflection, your Lordships will come to see that that does not present the dangers that some fear.

Under the Bill, the Government will still be required to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions. As now, an Order in Council will be used for this purpose. As noble Lords have said, the change, which some have objected to, will be that Parliament will not play a role in approving the draft order and Ministers will no longer be able to modify the proposals in the event that it was rejected by Parliament. We are reducing the role of both Parliament and government. However, Parliament does remain sovereign and can amend the primary legislation, providing the parameters for reviews as it sees fit.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, followed by other noble Lords, queried the possibility of future Governments delaying implementation of the Boundary Commission recommendations—as has happened before —by taking more time than is necessary to submit the draft Order in Council for making. I am conscious of the hour, but I will give a bit more detail, because I was asked to respond. The wording of this requirement has been modernised to reflect current drafting practice. As some noble Lords have pointed out, the current legislation says,

“as soon as may be”,

and the Bill includes the more common, up-to-date language of

“as soon as reasonably practicable”.

However, the meaning remains the same: any Government would be legally obliged to make the Order in Council promptly and without unreasonable delay.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, supported by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, and other noble Lords proposed that there should be a fixed time limit in which a Government should lay an Order in Council. We are not minded to go in that direction, purely in order to maintain some flexibility for the necessary work in preparing the draft boundary order and the associated order that designates the returning officer for each newly drawn constituency. Time would be needed to allow for this preparatory work, and setting hard time limits can cause practical difficulties down the line. I reassure the House that there would be little scope for undue—certainly not unreasonable—delay. Any Government who sought to drag their heels over the submission of a draft Order in Council would be at risk of legal challenge. With something as high profile as a boundary review, it seems likely that the move to challenge would be swift. We believe that to be an effective and appropriate safeguard against delay. However, I have no doubt that noble Lords will return to this in Committee. I assure the House that this Government’s firm and sole intention is to deliver the updated and equal constituencies that are now long overdue and to implement the recommendations made by the independent Boundary Commissions.

I do not wish to try the patience of noble Lords, but the other issue is tolerance and limits. During the Bill’s evidence sessions in the other place, witnesses pointed out that the setting of tolerance is a matter of judgment. The House has heard differing judgments today; some noble Lords have agreed with leaving it as it is now, which is plus or minus 5%. This is, effectively, a variation of 7,000 or more in the size of electorates, as pointed out by some noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lord Dobbs and Lord Sheikh, with whom I agree.

We believe that the current tolerance level strikes the right balance between achieving equal and fair boundaries and allowing the Boundary Commission the flexibility to take account of other factors. There are other factors and noble Lords have spoken about them, such as physical, geographical features and local ties. However, this is subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size. For something as critical as the right to choose the Government of the day, surely equity and equality must be the overriding principles. The fundamental principle of “one elector, one vote” should be upheld as nearly as possible. The same should be true in Bangor as it is in Blyth. We intend to uphold that principle. The elected Chamber voted on three separate occasions against amending the 5% variance. I urge noble Lords to consider this as the Bill progresses through the House.

Many noble Lords spoke up for the union and were concerned about the impact of this legislation on the union. There was particular mention in this context of rural constituencies with sparse populations. I understand where such noble Lords are coming from; I was particularly struck by the very powerful speech on this by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. Our union of nations is the most successful in history. This Government are determined to sustain it and of course I share that desire to see it at its strongest. It is a matter of judgment, which we can test in Committee, but the Government believe that equal votes for all the electors of the union is an important part of maintaining its strength and the democracy at its heart. That is why the Bill does not change the tolerance level put in place by Parliament in 2011 with, at the time, very strong support from the Liberal Democrats. The purpose of the Bill is to achieve parity of representation for all electors across the union and within its constituent nations. Surely, wherever a vote is cast, it should have the same power in deciding who governs our country. That principle is a solid one and the Government continue to support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lord Bourne, asked about Cornwall, mentioning the controversy caused by the 2018 review, when a constituency that crossed county boundaries was proposed. It is important to recognise that that review was based on 600 constituencies. While this will be a matter for the independent Boundary Commission, the changes under review are based on 650 constituencies and are likely to be less dramatic. I welcome the comments made about public hearings and the move to allow the public to come in later in the proceedings, although I take note of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, that the Boundary Commission must be flexible.

On the question of the Boundary Commissions, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Taylor of Holbeach all raised the independence of the Boundary Commissions. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred to this as well. They all wondered how important this is in the light of automaticity. I agree—and the Government agree—that the commissions are independent and neutral; they must and will remain so however their recommendations are implemented. When Ministers formally appoint commissioners, it is done only after a rigorously fair and neutral recruitment process under the Governance Code on Public Appointments and overseen by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Finally, some noble Lords talked about the building blocks on which constituencies are based. No doubt we will return to this in Committee as well, particularly the question of whether or how the Boundary Commissions might split wards into smaller geographical units. Other noble Lords spoke about polling districts. I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, on the specific points she raised about the local government reviews. As far as the 20 March date is concerned, as I explained in my opening remarks, this is because we do not wish to wait to use the December 2020 date, given the potential impact of Covid. Therefore, that is effectively the latest date not affected by Covid.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, spoke powerfully—as always—about community, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and others. I recognise that that matters; I have spent most of my lifetime representing a ward and was proud to do so. Whether or not to divide wards is an issue for the independent Boundary Commissions when conducting their reviews. It is already within their power to do so if they judge it to be necessary, in their expert opinion, and after receiving representations. Political parties and individuals will be able to make representations.

A number of noble Lords returned to the issue of underregistration. This was a widely and properly expressed concern in the House. Online registration has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register. It can take as little as five minutes and there are no significant boundaries, if you have access to a computer. But not everybody does, and it is vital that we get to the hard-to-reach people. We all want eligible electors to be registered, but we do not wish to compel people to register. That is a matter for the individual, not the state, and we are not tempted by the course referred to of compulsion. I have no doubt that we will have other discussions on this, not only on this legislation but later in the Parliament. Without going into it at length at the moment, there are a number of ways in which the Government are looking for ways to increase the level of registration.

In response to those who raised the possibility of using alternative data to estimate electors—for example, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, floated the issue of census data—again, we can perhaps get into the detail of this in Committee. However, the Government consider that the current process of using data from the electoral register represents the most robust and transparent picture of the electorate on which to base proposals. Boundary reviews have always been based on registered electors, and we believe that that approach should continue.

On votes at 16, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I see is in his place—I owe him a reply, since he asked for it and is here—I have great respect for noble Lords who have long campaigned to lower the voting age in parliamentary elections to 16. However, the Government have no plans to do so and were indeed elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current franchise at 18. We may differ on the principle—I see from the noble Lord’s expression that we do—but that is the position which the Government have adopted.

In summary, I am incredibly grateful to noble Lords for their excellent and constructive contributions. I have not been able to find an answer to my noble friend Lord Trenchard on high sheriffs, but I will write to him on that point. If I have not answered any of the points in the debate, I will try to make sure that a letter is made available to all those who have taken part covering points that, on reflection, I feel that I have not addressed. I realise that I will not have convinced everybody to withdraw from the positions they have taken up—positions that I respect. I look forward to discussing the Bill in greater detail in Committee, but I hope that I have made the Government’s position clear.

The provisions of the Bill have been endorsed by the elected Chamber, to which it relates. To be frank, our current boundaries are horribly out of date and we do not see a case for further delay. We believe that this legislation will help the Government to meet a manifesto commitment to deliver updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counts the same, and to do so on the basis of 650 constituencies. I urge noble Lords, on reflection, to support the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

House adjourned at 8.05 pm.