Moved by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd
11: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“The Boundary Commissions: constitution(1) Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act (the Boundary Commissions) is amended as follows.(2) At the end of paragraph 2 insert “in accordance with paragraph 3A below”.(3) In paragraph 3(a), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(4) In paragraph 3(c), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(5) After paragraph 3 insert—“3A The two members of each Commission appointed by the Secretary of State shall each be appointed in accordance with the following process— (a) a selection panel shall be convened by the Secretary of State to select the members of the Commission, which shall comprise—(i) the deputy chairman of the Commission, and(ii) two persons appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons;(b) the selection panel shall determine the selection process to be applied and apply that process;(c) the selection panel shall select only one person for recommendation for each appointment as a member of the Commission;(d) the selection panel shall submit to the Secretary of State a report stating who has been selected and any other information required by the Secretary of State;(e) the Secretary of State shall on receipt of the report do one of the following—(i) accept the selection,(ii) reject the selection, or(iii) require the panel to reconsider the selection;(f) the power of the Secretary of State to require the selection panel to reconsider a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, there is not enough evidence that the person selected is suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(g) the power of the Secretary of State to reject a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, the person selected is not suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(h) the Secretary of State shall give the selection panel reasons in writing for requiring the reconsideration of, or rejecting, any selection.”(6) In paragraph 4, at end insert “, but the term for which each member (other than the chairman) is appointed shall be a non-renewable term.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure that the appointment of members of the Boundary Commissions is made and is seen to be made independently and without the influence or appearance of influence of the Executive, to remove the possibility of political interference in the process of setting the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies.
My Lords, Amendment 11 seeks to put in place matters essential to dealing with the important consequences of automaticity. As the decision of the Boundary Commission will become final, and there will be no parliamentary veto, it is essential that the commission is, and is seen to be, entirely independent and so is its appointment processes. Although I have taken up the kind invitation of the Minister to discuss this issue with him, and have done so very cordially on two occasions, the Government have made it clear that they consider that no change is necessary to the current position. I do not believe that this accords with constitutional principle, hence I will seek to take the opinion of the House on the amendment.
In many senses, the new role of the Boundary Commission will become very much nearer to that of a judicial tribunal: sitting in a panel of three, gathering and hearing the evidence and coming to a decision. There will be no appeal from that decision and the other two branches of the state must accept it, just as they accept decisions and judgments of judges. The amendment therefore seeks to ensure that, in a manner akin to the appointment of judges, the appointment of the boundary commissioners is wholly independent and that that independence is guaranteed during their period of office. It seeks to do so in three ways, and I will deal with each in turn.
The first of these is the appointment of the deputy chairman. Under the 1986 Act, the deputy chairman must be a High Court judge. In Scotland and in Northern Ireland, that judge is appointed by the head of the judiciary in those jurisdictions—the Lord President and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, for historic reasons, the appointment is made by the Lord Chancellor. That was all very well with the old-style Lord Chancellor in 1986 when the Act was passed. At that time, he was head of the judiciary of England and Wales. There was, therefore, nothing anomalous in him making that appointment, like he appointed all judges. However, that all changed in 2005 with the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor ceased to be a judge and head of the judiciary. He became, in essence, a political Minister. All allocation of judicial responsibilities passed to the Lord Chief Justice and appointments were made independently by the Judicial Appointments Commission. For some reason—no doubt oversight—the position was not changed. Although the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, the time has come when it should now be made clear that the decision is that of the Lord Chief Justice. We should bring this provision into line with constitutional principle. The appointment of a judge who chairs a tribunal which makes the final determination of a series of sensitive issues should be in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, just as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is no reason for England and Wales to be treated differently.
As I understand it, the objection is not grounded in constitutional principle but on the view that, as all judges of the High Court go through a rigorous selection process, they must all be qualified and therefore appointable. It is, therefore, open to a political Minister to select one of them. It could not possibly be disputed that it would be the antithesis of justice if a political Minister could select a judge to try a case, let alone one where there was a party-political consideration. In principle, the position of the Boundary Commission is no different, but there is one further consideration. There is a danger to the independence of the judiciary. A decision of the Boundary Commission is always open to attack on grounds that the chair, although a judge, had been selected by a political Minister because he had shown himself sympathetic to the Government, or had some distant connection with them. We all know how the media can find those connections. We should do all we can to avoid the risk of such an attack, because attacks are so damaging to the rule of law.
I turn to the second part of the amendment on the appointment of the other two commissioners. The Act specifies that the other two members of the Boundary Commission are to be appointed by the Secretary of State, but says nothing about the manner of appointment. As I understand it—I pay tribute to Minister’s officials for their helpful assistance on this—the other two members are appointed under a process set out in the Government’s Code on Public Appointments, promulgated under the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019.
That process, as for any other public appointment, gives the Minister extensive powers: as your Lordships will know, the Minister can appoint the panel that selects the commissioners; he must be consulted at every stage; he can reject names; he can ask for the competition to be rerun; and he can even make an appointment of his own choice, without a competition, or appoint someone whom the selection panel does not think appointable, though he has to make disclosures in respect of that. Furthermore, the code does not bar the candidacy of a person who has had significant political activity, though this must be disclosed and will be investigated by the appointment panel. If those conflicts can be managed, it will not form a bar. I respectfully ask the House to consider that such a method of appointment is no longer appropriate for the new automaticity process.
Amendment 11 seeks to put the appointment on a clear statutory basis. The selection panel must contain a deputy chairman—current practice envisages this, but it should be made statutory—and the other two people who are to form the appointment panel should be appointed independently by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The panel should determine the process and should then select one name for each post. The Minister has a role: he can ask for reconsideration and even reject the name, providing he gives reasons, of course.
The process that the amendment sets out is modelled on the process for the appointment of judges, for, as I said at the outset, the Boundary Commission will be akin to a judicial tribunal. As I understand it, the argument against this part of the amendment is that the present system is entirely adequate, but I do not think that this takes into account the new and distinct position that requires the commission’s independence to be put beyond doubt. Furthermore, it is argued that having a different process for the appointment of the two commissioners might damage confidence in the public appointments system. The answer to that can be put briefly: the fact that judges are appointed by a special process does not call into question the public appointments system. It is a process designed for an office where the officeholder makes decisions to which there is no appeal, and which the other two branches of Government must accept. This process is designed to follow that. In reality, the Boundary Commission is a tribunal that is no different to a judicial tribunal. The process for appointing judges has worked well; it has not affected confidence in the public appointments system, and there is no reason think that the proposed amendment would affect confidence in public appointments in any other way.
I turn to the third part of the amendment on the term for which the appointments are to be made. The amendment does not specify the length of the term and, in light of the proceedings earlier in this debate, I am glad that it does not. All the 1986 Act does is to provide that the two members hold their appointments under the terms and conditions determined by the Secretary of State. My amendment seeks to provide that the appointment be for a non-renewable term. There are two reasons for this, which can be explained briefly. First, as has been pointed out by Professors Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit of University College London, a vital safeguard for independence is that the appointment is for a fixed, non-renewable term. Like judges, commissioners must have security of tenure for the whole period necessary for them to carry out their functions. They cannot be put at risk of being subjected to pressure or undue influence by the prospect of not being reappointed or by being offered reappointment. As they have pointed out, there are numerous posts that are now made on non-renewable fixed terms: the Civil Service Commission, the Commission for Public Appointments, HOLAC and many others.
Amendment 11 simply seeks to import this principle into the terms of the appointment of the two members of the Boundary Commission. The only objection seems to be that having a renewable term will make it easier to attract good candidates and then review their performance to ensure they are doing their job properly. In my view, the second reason is plainly contrary to principle, and the first is untenable, given the new cycle of the work of the Boundary Commission. Let me deal with that point: the move to an eight-year or 10-year cycle for the Boundary Commission—I do not wish to commit myself to either at this stage, but I take it now to be 10—means that the commission will have a period of intense activity for two to three years every 10 years. Thus, appointing a person to the office for a single term, probably for eight or 10 years, will better fit into the new cycle, rather than the shorter-term appointment renewable for a further term. The longer term will not discourage the appointment as any candidate will know of the cycle and the period in which there will be intense activity. When they are not active, they will have time to obtain the necessary skills and experience. Each of these three ways set out in the amendment will ensure that the Boundary Commission, in its new role, is fully independent and seen to be so. I beg to move.
I support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas; I do so because the impartiality and independence of the Boundary Commission assumes greater importance if automaticity of the implementation of the commission’s findings is accepted under this Bill. I readily accept that the Government understand this, as the Minister pointed out so clearly in Committee. If that is so, it surely makes sense to consider ways to strengthen the impartiality and independence of the commission to meet these new circumstances. The three proposals put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in this amendment to achieve this are simple and straightforward and he explained them comprehensively in moving the amendment.
The appointment of the deputy chairman by the head of the judiciary, rather than a political Minister, is a reversion to the practice before 2005, when the nature of the Lord Chancellor’s role changed. It brings England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into line. It would significantly reduce the scope for accusations of political interference, whether real or perceived, in the future.
Changing the appointments process to one more akin to judicial appointments follows the same logic. It is not a criticism of the public appointments system but a recognition that appointing members of the Boundary Commissions must be seen to be in a special and quasi-judicial category. They are crucial arbiters of the integrity of our electoral system. The introduction of non-renewable terms of appointment merely brings these appointments to the Boundary Commissions into line with other constitutional and political watchdogs and regulators.
As has been said, this is about reality and, above all, perception. We are talking about small changes aimed at strengthening the real and perceived impartiality of those who define the framework of our electoral system. We are talking about small changes, but they are changes that might increase trust in elections, politics and the way we are governed. I strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, I was unable to take part in the Second Reading or the Committee stage of the Bill, but I have read Hansard in full. The importance of the issue raised by this amendment is such that I had to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in this debate. What struck me was that the Minister’s reply in Committee was a stout defence of the status quo as regards the appointment of commissioners. It did not recognise the fundamental change to our democracy made by this Bill. The exclusion of any parliamentary procedure to approve the recommendations of the commissioners is presumably designed to prevent any suggestion of gerrymandering. The political party in power, with a sufficient majority, could control the alteration of constituency boundaries. I welcome, therefore, the change.
The fact, however, that the final shape of the boundaries is determined by the commissioners’ recommendations in their report, without any parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, means that they must be—and must be seen to be—completely impartial. I have attended Boundary Commission hearings where I have endeavoured to put forward the case most favourable to my party—and representatives of other parties present did precisely the same. The commissioners, who are not as familiar with the political geography of a constituency as are the party hacks pleading their cases before them, must consider the evidence of population changes and the submissions made to them. In so doing they are obviously acting in a judicial capacity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has made clear.
The boundary change that affected me most personally was in 1983, when I was the candidate in Wrexham and the sitting Labour Member of Parliament, Tom Ellis, joined the SDP. Naturally I stood down in his favour at the next election, and as it approached I thought I was out of the contest. However, the boundary commissioners stepped in and created a new constituency called Clwyd, South-West. Since Tom was born and bred in Rhosllanerchrugog, part of the new constituency, he moved there, and I, born and bred in Wrexham, fought Wrexham. Needless to say, we both lost. In Tom’s constituency, the previous Labour vote was split: 13,000 went to the SDP and Labour’s candidate, Denis Carter—the much-respected Chief Whip in the Lords in 1997—came third, with 11,000. The Tories won with 14,000. A later Conservative candidate for that constituency was an unlikely old Etonian by the name of Boris Johnson. He lost.
I hope that I may be forgiven for this anecdote: I mention it to illustrate how crucial the decisions of the Boundary Commission can be in the lives and careers of individuals and the life of political parties. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has put forward a proposal that ensures the impartiality of the Boundary Commissions. In Committee, the Minister did not explain why there should be a distinction between England and Wales on the one hand, and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other, in making appointments. Why should a political figure with his own constituency to nurse, the Lord Chancellor, appoint the commissioners in England and Wales? The only reason given by the Minister was that it has always been so. However, he knows that the nature of the office has fundamentally changed, and by this Bill so too is the role of the commissioners: they have the final say. That is a clear and obvious distinction, and is very different from the normal run of public appointments.
Secondly, the amendment calls for an independent panel to consider the applications and to put forward to the Secretary of State not a choice but a single name, which may be rejected, but only on the single ground that the candidate is unsuitable. Furthermore, if the candidate is rejected, the Secretary of State must give his reasons, and such reasons could, if necessary, be scrutinised by way of judicial review, which would test the legality and rationality of the decision. That is another safeguard against political bias.
Finally, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, proposes that the appointment should be for a single non-renewable term. That is entirely appropriate, given that the members of the panel have to make a quasi-judicial decision. That is why we give tenure, as other noble Lords have said, to our judges. The decision must be seen to be uninfluenced by the fear that it will upset the political interests of the ruling party, or by the hope of re-appointment. I wholly support this amendment.
My Lords, first I comment on the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, to “party hacks”. I shall disregard that description, given that I spent so many hours, days and weeks at so many inquiries, initially, and then hearings, and I take his comment in the spirit in which I hope it was intended.
This amendment is really divided, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, identified, into three sections—and it is important that we treat them as such. First, there is the historical accident, as I think it probably was, in 2005, when the circumstances changed. The amendment attempts to bring back the position in England and Wales to where it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland, of total impartiality.
The noble and learned Lord touched on the point that it has to be seen to be independent. Today I am wearing the rugby tie of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Many noble Lords will know that I am a fervent rugby supporter and participant; in many ways it is probably more important to me than my membership of this place. The near-neighbour of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Nigel Owens, is not allowed to referee at the Millennium Stadium except at a club match, because he might be accused of bias, if Wales were playing another country. Nobody believes that Nigel Owens would be biased, but there is that risk. Equally, Wayne Barnes, who was voted last year’s Referee of the Year, was not allowed to referee the World Cup Final, for exactly the same reason: England was in the final.
This amendment addresses an exactly parallel situation. Two years ago I went to Zimbabwe to monitor the elections. We all know that elections, if they are fixed, are fixed not on voting day but by the processes beforehand. Sad though I am, I looked at the size of the constituencies in Zimbabwe. Funnily enough, they had not been reformed for years. The most anti-Government constituencies were in Harare and Bulawayo, and they were the largest constituencies. If we Brits had said to the Zimbabweans, “You should deal with the question of boundary redistribution”, the automatic response from the Zimbabwean Government—what I would have said as a member of that Government—would have been, “Well, you have a political Minister making the appointments to your own commission”. That is why it is important that we bring the position back into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, on the second part of his amendment. I have indicated that to him. He refers to appointments by the Speaker. I discussed this with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and he said that I was over-reacting to the previous Speaker. Lindsay Hoyle has made untold improvements in that position, and we are all very pleased that he has taken us back to a traditional Speakership. Long may he continue in those efforts. I would not, however, want to put appointments in the hands of the Speaker, because of what I have seen could happen in recent years.
The third part of the amendment deals with one-off appointments. I had a view for several years—this was touched on in Grand Committee—that when you appoint somebody to a Boundary Commission they sit there for years doing virtually nothing, and then they are under extreme pressure for a period of time. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their local government boundary reviews and parliamentary boundary reviews handled by one body. Surely it would be better to do the same in England and Wales, so that these organisations would not lose the expertise acquired in handling one set of boundary reviews—it would be cumulative, and they would take it to the next review.
I have made three different comments in relation to the three different parts of the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. They tackle the problem in very different ways, but I would have hoped that the Government could have accepted, in particular, the impartiality in the first part of the amendment.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and I encourage him to press his amendment to a vote. I do not wish to repeat the observations I made in Committee in support of the noble and learned Lord, save to say that, first, as he has outlined, the office of Lord Chancellor is much more political now that it is held in the Commons. Instead of a quasi-judicial figure who sat as a judge in the Supreme Court and usually had no further political aspirations, we now have a highly political and mobile politician as Lord Chancellor in the Commons; these are not personal remarks.
As one who campaigned for the Ministry of Justice to be headed by a Commons Minister, and welcomed that, because it is a spending department, I have no complaint. But a political Minister should not have his hands on the machinery of elections—or, indeed, anywhere near it. The office dealing with elections should be manifestly independent.
There is one point that I wish to repeat: it is a parallel and wider argument. I noted the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, a few moments ago, and in Committee I gave my experience as Secretary of State for Wales in appointing the chairman of the Welsh Local Government Boundary Commission. I certainly was a political Minister, and headed my party’s campaign in Wales for six years in my tenure as Secretary of State.
Local government boundaries are one of the building bricks of parliamentary constituency boundaries. On the previous amendment, the Minister confirmed that. I once lost the eastern part of my constituency because of a new county council boundary, and I had to be compensated by the addition of a number of wards from the same county council area to the rest of my constituency. My submission, therefore, is that not only should a judicial figure appoint the Boundary Commission, but the Government should also consider doing likewise for the Local Government Boundary Commission.
Since the power of appointment might already have gone over to the Government of Wales, it would too late to legislate for Wales. But the Government could certainly legislate for England. Indeed, I believe that they should do so. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s views. Local government boundaries are inextricably linked to parliamentary boundaries, and decisions should be politically distanced on both of them.
My Lords, when the Constitution Committee considered the Bill, we took the view that the removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations was constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome. But we warned that automatic implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations would protect against undue political influence only if the commission itself is genuinely independent. This makes the selection and appointment of impartial boundary commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has, at this stage of the Bill, moved an amendment that incorporates both his own original and entirely appropriate insistence that the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor, should make the appointments, and some of the other suggestions that the Constitution Committee referred to, which have been mentioned, in particular, by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. The Minister should listen carefully to the noble Lord, who knows what he is talking about when it comes to boundary hearings. His insistence that we need to safeguard independence is entirely justified, and I hope that his disagreement with other aspects of the amendment will not deter him from continuing to support the efforts of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, to achieve the kind of independence that the noble Lord has recognised is important.
No assurances the Minister can give could possibly satisfy us that we have guarded against the danger that lurks here. That is because we are talking about any future Government, of whatever political party, who have a majority in the House of Commons, and thus the prospect of using that majority to disrupt the electoral process, or pervert it to their advantage, in ways that will always be defended on the most respectable grounds, beneath which, however, will lie political motives —motives of party advantage and protection.
What is extremely likely to happen is that, at some time in the future, a Government, recognising that they can no longer block Boundary Commission recommendations or delay them until after the next election, will say, “We’d better make sure we don’t get unwelcome recommendations that are disadvantageous to us, and which we might think are wrong in principle. We must stop that from happening by appointing to the Boundary Commission people who have got the political message—people who understand the significance of ensuring that our views remain predominant in any future Parliament.” These things happen; they are part of the reality of political life, and constitutional provisions are there to protect us from their malign influence.
Along with that, of course, goes perceived impartiality, to which the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred. We are in an era when the principle of getting one’s revenge in first seems to apply in the United States. President Trump says, “If I win the election, it’s fine, but if I lose, it’s because the election has been rigged.” So he has already started his attack on the postal ballot provisions in American election procedure. That is an illustration of the fact that the impartiality of the electoral process is easily traduced or complained about, and if there are aspects of it that, on sound authority, can be shown to be at least weak in protecting impartiality, they will be criticised and exploited, and will be used as arguments to question the validity of the democratic process, at least in some individual seats, if not in the election as a whole.
This is an important matter, and I am disappointed, because I thought the Minister had realised that something could be done about it. There is still time for a Third Reading amendment that would at least pick out some of the proposals of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. To fail to act on that is to compromise an otherwise sensible and constitutionally appropriate change, by leaving this matter open to political pressures of a kind that cast doubt on the validity of elections.
My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has argued, the amendment reflects a constitutional principle. In an effective democracy, in which the power of the Executive is limited both by the rule of law and by the scrutiny of Parliament, regulatory authorities independent of undue executive influence play a vital role. Separation of powers between legislature, courts and Executive is central to constitutional democracy —and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, they must be seen to be separate.
We are all painfully aware of the baleful impact of gerrymandering in American politics. The institution of independent Boundary Commissions is there to ensure that political representation in the United Kingdom does not follow any distance down that path. The change in the position of the Lord Chancellor that took place in 2005 makes it entirely appropriate, therefore, that the Lord Chief Justice should now inherit that role in England.
Our current Government have recently demonstrated worrying tendencies towards authoritarian populism. Their attacks on the Supreme Court and on judicial review have uncomfortable echoes of the approaches of the Polish and Hungarian Governments. The Electoral Commission is now under sustained attack, including from a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, for attempting to enforce the rules on campaign spending and political advertising. Calls from some Conservatives for its abolition suggest that they reject regulation of electoral campaigning as such.
In addition, we have seen some recent calls in the Conservative press to throw over the idea that regulatory bodies should be independent of government. The argument is made that future appointments should come from people sympathetic to the Government’s approach, as against the “liberal elite”, who are thought to dominate the BBC, Ofcom and many other regulatory bodies.
I have been sorry on several occasions to hear the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, using the language of right-wing populism to claim that this Government represent “the people” against the elite. His political life has been rooted in Richmond—a place that contains, as he will know well, an unusually high proportion of the liberal elite. I hope that he does not call them “enemies of the people” or he must face difficulties with many of his neighbours.
This amendment is therefore not only valuable in its own right but a precedent in maintaining the autonomy of regulatory bodies, free from executive influence and control. For both those reasons, I hope that the House will give it its full support.
“only protect against undue political influence” if the Boundary Commissions were “genuinely independent”. As it said:
“This makes the selection and appointment of impartial Boundary Commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.”
As we have heard, it is hard to see how an appointment by an elected politician—a member of the Cabinet—can look independent, especially, I am sad to say, when this Government seek to appoint their own to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS Test and Trace or other major bodies. Sadly, because we are all here now, we have not been able to watch Peter Riddell appear before the relevant committee in the House of Commons this afternoon, but I gather that he has interesting things to say about the expansion of appointments beyond the normal lines of restriction. As people have said, what looks bad is bad, even if it is not actually the case. However, as a good Welsh girl, I think that we should always have the Welsh to judge our rugby matches, as we would then win every single match.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon said, when the present system was set up, the appointments were overseen by the Lord Chancellor, who at that stage was a Member of your Lordships’ House and the head of the judiciary. The impartiality was guaranteed and outwith the purview of an elected politician.
Given that the recommendations of a boundary commission could affect even the seats of the Secretary of State’s own party, then no matter how much, like Brutus, they were an “honourable man”, or even an honourable woman, it is really hard to see how the appearance of disinterest could be demonstrated. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said, it is perceived impartiality, and that is vital. The solution in this amendment is surely right, in that it would demonstrate that, as the commissions now effectively make law, with no parliamentary role, their decisions were patently free from any political taint. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, now that their decisions cannot be appealed, they effectively make law with the same force as any tribunal.
The second proposal—for non-renewable terms—is equally important to ensure that there is no temptation to curry favour with the reappointing Minister, nor, again, even an appearance of that. Our Constitution Committee, without endorsing the proposal, noted that the Commons committee had discussed ideas to strengthen independence, such as by single, non-renewable terms. However, even more important than any one thing, our Constitution Committee urged us to consider
“what safeguards are required to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and their recommendations.”
Sadly—and, I think, inexplicably—the Government have refused to produce any change in response to that call. Fortunately, however, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has done so, and we are happy to support that.
My Lords, there is a short period in the life of a Minister between being thanked by your Lordships for a response and disappointing your Lordships in a response, so I have enjoyed the last 10 minutes or so.
I have also enjoyed the last 40 minutes of this debate, which of course touches on extremely important points. The issue between us is whether the current system is capable of delivering people who are of high calibre, impartial, able and suitable to perform this key public responsibility. The simple contention of the Government is that the present system is suitable for purpose. I do not accept the animadversions of those who say that our public appointments system is in any way corrupt, or indeed corruptible. Also, I have never said anything about this Government other than that they are secured on a strong mandate from the people. That is perfectly legitimate to point out, although it is not relevant to the arguments before us. Those arguments, put so ably and charmingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, are about not the nature of the mandate but the nature in which any Government carry out, and are enabled to carry out, their mandate.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, not only for raising these issues and tabling his amendment but for the meticulous research and work that he has undertaken, which he presented in Grand Committee. I also thank him for the opportunity to discuss, more than once, various ways in which one might address the conundrums that he has put forward. However, my strong contention is that the statutory approach that he suggests is not one that the Government can accept. I must politely resist it and reiterate the appropriateness and robustness of our existing appointments system.
The Government accept the importance of these posts but they argue that the processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is not room for inappropriate influence. The Government believe that the processes that we currently have in place for the recruitment of boundary commissioners are more than adequate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, says that he does not think that they are sufficient. Therefore, I must remind your Lordships of some of the systems and safeguards that apply.
Appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The commissions are listed in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for a governance code on public appointments and for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to regulate the process. The detailed governance code and the commissioner’s oversight ensure that appointments to the Boundary Commissions, and indeed to many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work, are made openly and fairly on merit.
In addition to requirements in the governance code, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has acknowledged, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. To have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will therefore have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure: their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre will have been tested in many walks of life. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to provide that the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for these appointments in England and Wales to safeguard, as he puts it, the independence of the deputy chair role. The Government do not consider this to be necessary, as the persons to be appointed are High Court judges, I repeat, and the Lord Chief Justice is consulted over these appointments. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that what people say looks bad is not necessarily bad. I believe that the system has delivered high-calibre appointees.
The second part of the amendment looks at the selection panel. The governance code has equally robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of members appointed to the Boundary Commissions. Members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, yes, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. I am advised that it has never happened that a Minister has appointed someone not found appointable by an advisory assessment panel. In accordance with the governance code, the panel will include a senior departmental official, an independent member and a board-level representative of the body concerned. In the case of the Boundary Commission, that would, in practice, be the deputy chair—I repeat again, a High Court judge.
At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity of various kinds over the previous five years—having made significant donations and so on. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations and, in the case of these particular appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. We cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, but it seems likely that recent, significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with their finding a candidate appointable.
The Government’s contention is that the public appointments system is fit for purpose. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued that this was insufficient, but I put it to noble Lords that, to date, this system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades, and the Government believe it should remain in place. To create a bespoke system, in primary legislation, for Boundary Commission appointments, as the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, sets out to do, could cast doubt, although he said it would not, on an independently regulated system that has ensured, and does ensure, that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government carrying out vital public work. Are we to doubt those people appointed in this way today? Are we to doubt those recently appointed under this system to be Boundary Commissioners for Wales?
The noble and learned Lord’s amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term of office for deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential, as he puts it, for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. We do not think it advisable to make this change, and there are specific difficulties. We consider that if an individual is to serve one term only—a single, non-renewable term—it would need to be, my brief says, for eight years to ensure that they cover a boundary review, since, in future, reviews will be held every eight years. I seem to recall that, a few minutes ago, your Lordships voted for a review every 10 years. That would mean a single, non-renewable term of 10 years to ensure that a member took part in a boundary review. We are not aware of a board appointment of such length, and it is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. Our contention is that appointments are currently based on a robust system. The system would prevent partial candidates being appointed in the first place—or, indeed, reappointed. We do not consider there to be a risk of appointing candidates who would be partisan.
In conclusion, I pay tribute again to the experience and advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I say to him that we have reflected on a number of the points he has made in conversations. His advice has been of great benefit to the House today during this debate. It has been helpful to take time to discuss these issues in further detail with him, and he has had the opportunity to discuss them with my officials. While the Government will resist this amendment if he presses it today, I am grateful for the constructive and courteous manner in which he has approached our discussions. I do not demur from the significance of the issues he has raised. Notwithstanding that disappointing conclusion, in many ways, I hope I have been able to give some assurance along the way to your Lordships that the system we have in place is strong and appropriate and deserves to stay in place. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received a request to ask a short question for elucidation from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, I have a very short question for my noble friend, to whom I have listened with great care and considerable sympathy. What can possibly be lost by putting the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom on a similar footing?
My Lords, the matter before the House is whether the system for England and Wales is sufficient and effective. The contention I put to your Lordships’ House is that it is sufficient and effective. My noble friend will know in any case that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland have long demanded different approaches.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this interesting debate and, in particular, I again thank the Minister for the courtesy he has shown me and for the time that his officials have given to looking at this matter. It seems to me, however, that four points emerge.
First, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, put is so powerfully, we are concerned to ensure that not only is the commission impartial but that it is perceived and seen to be impartial. With the change brought about by automaticity, its role has changed so fundamentally that fundamental changes are needed to ensure that there is perceived impartiality.
Secondly, as to the position of the Lord Chief Justice, it is very difficult to see any argument in principle—the Minister has advanced none—for why it is not brought into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland or, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, put it, the position is restored to the appointment of the person by the head of the judiciary. It is important to appreciate the kind of world in which we now live. Certainly, my own experience is that people will dig to find connections, however spurious they may be. Some may remember the connections that were dug up in relation to a decision on which I sat in 2017. No judge should be put in a position where his or her appointment is called into question on the basis that they may have some connection that has made them favourable to the political Minister, particularly a Minister whose own constituency might well be affected by the Boundary Commission review.
Thirdly, it seems to me that this must be put in statutory form. I have made no criticism of the current appointment process in relation to how the commission currently works, but it has fundamentally changed. No assurances—as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, pointed out—can work because assurances do not bind future Governments and this is in a code not made under statute, merely by an Order in Council.
Fourthly, as to the term, there simply is no reason why the tenure cannot move to being akin to other important constitutional watchdog posts. Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised the interesting issue of bringing together the Local Government Boundary Commission in England and Wales and the parliamentary Boundary Commission. When looking at this matter, there is much that can be said in favour of such a move. However, that should in no way affect the basic constitutional principle that the appointment should be for a fixed, non-renewable term so that, in a case, the decisions that they make are not subject to a review by Parliament, or by anyone else, and must be accepted.
In the light of the Government’s position, I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 319, Noes 224.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 12. I have to inform your Lordships that we have had three people scratch from this group, the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division should make that clear in debate.