Amendment 11

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 3:30 pm, 8th October 2020

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.