My Lords, I certainly support this amendment; without it the Bill would have been based on a false prescription
Repeatedly during the passage of the Bill, we heard from Ministers that through it, Boundary Commission proposals can be brought forward without political interference. The dreadful word “automaticity” entered our vocabulary —or was refreshed—repeatedly. Under the system prior to this amendment, which I hope will pass, there certainly was not automaticity; there was automaticity “up to a point, Lord Copper”. An automatic car goes up through the gears without any interference from the driver. In the case of this Bill, the Boundary Commission proposals could move forward seamlessly over the first few hurdles, but at the point where the Order in Council had to be presented, that involved the driver, who, in this case, of course, is the Minister. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young, deals with that problem to a considerable extent—not quite as far as far as I would have liked, but there we are.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young. I reread his Committee stage speech and it really was masterly. The Minister, in fairness, realised this and all but said, “game, set, match and tournament” when he was winding up. Of course, we still do not quite have automaticity, and the part of the amendment that maybe I should have put down an amendment to and do not feel too happy about is that the four-month requirement for the laying of the Order shall proceed
“unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
In his speech today, the noble Lord, Lord Young, was all too aware that the validity and strength of this amendment depends to a degree on what is meant precisely by “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. The Minister said that they would be things like the Covid crisis. No one would deny that that is an exceptional circumstance but of course, as far as I can remember in my political life, whenever there are exceptional circumstances of anything approaching that level, emergency legislation is immediately introduced. Among other things, as with the Covid legislation, this sets asides all sorts of aspects of normal political behaviour. It postpones local elections. You cannot get anything quite as interfering in the normal processes of democracy as postponing local elections.
I am quite certain that if exceptional circumstances of the sort the Minister is envisaging were ever to take place and emergency legislation were required, it would be easy to insert a provision stating that the four-month rule must be overruled. I really see no need to put in the Bill the phrase “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. It may have been one of the compromises that the noble Lord, Lord Young, acknowledged are necessary when parties are involved in discussions, but the Minister really does need to address this point when he winds up. Can he please list the exceptional circumstances the Government have in mind and are worried about? In each case, can he give me an example of when it would not be necessary to introduce emergency legislation? Any emergency legislation could easily deal with this issue—I do not think it is a problem, but it is addressed in the Bill—by allowing this “exceptional circumstances” exemption. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this, because I think it is a weakness in the amendment.