Amendment 11

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 8th October 2020

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.