My Lords, technically I rise to move Amendment 12, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lennie and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, but I must say that I will withdraw it at the end of this group. However, I will move, and shall now speak to, Amendment 13, in the name of my noble friends Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott. It is on that amendment that we will seek to divide the House.
Everything that we heard in Committee made it clear that the change in the 2011 Act—setting such a very low tolerance level within which the boundary commissioners could do their work—will mean that communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and motorways will have to be crossed to engineer exactly the right mathematical numbers. Those final boundary moves—sometimes mere tweaks—to reach the required numbers make even less sense when set against the number of people not even on the electoral roll.
It is estimated that some 20% of eligible voters are not registered, which is, on average, about 10,000 per constituency; the Government are obsessed with the last 3,000 or 4,000. I remind the Minister that this is a smaller number than when there were to be 600 constituencies under the 2011 Act. The average number per constituency was therefore larger, so the 5% tolerance then gave a larger number of electors for the margin in which the Boundary Commissions work, but the very welcome return to 650 Members reduces the average number per constituency and therefore reduces the 5% either way within which the Boundary Commissions can do their work. Therefore, the last 3,000 or 4,000 the Government are so wedded to is actually very small compared with the about 10,000 per constituency who are not even on the electoral roll. Indeed, perhaps if the Government could spend as much energy on getting those 10,000 on to the register, any talk of democratic equivalence and fair votes would have a little more resonance.
The resulting splitting of communities that 5% requires also flies in the face of the reality—as we heard in the debate on today’s first group of amendments—that MPs represent areas, not just individuals. Of course, areas do not vote, but it means that MPs can best represent those individuals if they understand and have a good relationship with the organisations within those constituencies. Therefore, breaking through, for example, a school’s catchment area—sometimes for small numbers to get the percentage right—means that issues of education could pull in more than just the MP in whose seat the school is located, because the narrowness of the margin does not allow for the catchment area to be included in that seat. That will sometimes happen at the borders of constituencies, but to make it happen for a mathematical formula seems particularly unhelpful.
It can also be argued that it is not good for accountability as it does not help an MP represent the totality of an area. Communities have natural boundaries and sometimes they will have to be cut through, as I say, but we should minimise that by giving the Boundary Commissions a bit more space to allow them to respond to local circumstances.
The very slight change to an extra 2.5% either way would give the commissions an extra bit of leeway to respond to travel patterns, geographical community or the needs of an area without having the knock-on or ripple effects on neighbouring seats so that again, and sometimes for no good reason, a neighbouring community is impacted just because the numbers do not quite fit in the first seat.
This will be of particular help in rural areas or, I have to say again, communities in Wales where the mountains and valleys impose geographical constraints which perhaps are not particularly well understood in SW1, or indeed some other conurbations. Amendment 13 would make the margin 5,500 rather than 3,500 and provide some helpful flexibility—if it is needed; it does not have to be used—so that those who are holding the pencil can draw boundaries that really do represent communities and which allow people to have a community-based relationship with their Member of Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, our own amendment in this group is Amendment 14 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard, but I will refer also to others in this group which offer slightly different solutions to the fundamental problem with this Bill that all the signatories agree is so apparent. As Members of your Lordships’ House will have observed, we have modified our suggested solution in the spirit of compromise appropriate to Report. We had previously recommended a basic quota variance of 8%, but we took careful note of the developing consensus in Grand Committee, and we now endorse 7.5% as providing the essential and reasonable flexibility that so many Members are seeking and to which the noble Baroness has just referred.
From Second Reading right through our discussions, a clear majority of contributors have expressed concern about the very narrow 5% tolerance currently in the Bill. As has already been indicated, that concern is now echoed across the House of Commons. We must all hope that the Government are also determined to reach a sensible consensus by compromising on this figure. They have nothing to lose by doing so. As the forensic academic analysis by the late Professor Johnston and his colleagues has demonstrated so conclusively, the perceived electoral imbalance between Conservative and Labour constituencies would not be especially adversely affected by this simple and flexible adjustment. What would be changed would be the widespread disruption of so many constituency boundaries. Those newly elected Conservative MPs, especially from seats hitherto not held by the party in the north and the Midlands, may now recognise the attraction of a more measured approach in this forthcoming review. They may also be especially apprehensive about potential “blue on blue” contests. This was the core of the evidence presented to the Commons Bill Committee.
We take very seriously the point just made by the noble Baroness about the number of people who are currently eligible to be on the register but who are not there. We believe that in the months of the process of the review, this may be improved; in which case, of course, there might be quite considerable increases in particular constituencies. It is also true that if the Government eventually pursue their intention of increasing the franchise to those who have moved abroad, that too could mean a considerable difference during the actual process of the review. If, for example, anyone decides to move permanently from the London area to the Ancona area in the east of Italy and they wanted to retain their voting rights after 15 years, that could make a major difference to one of the boroughs in London. That may be true of other areas and for other individuals as well.
Meanwhile there is common ground across your Lordships’ House that the insistence on the 5% variance straitjacket, imposed on the four Boundary Commissions, will result in more changes with 650 constituencies than were proposed with the previously proposed 600 constituencies; then more regular changes for more constituencies at more reviews; and there would be more consequent knock-on changes even to adjoining constituencies which are themselves within the limits. Incumbents who believed themselves to be safe would suddenly find that they are far from it. There would also be more disruption of historic, geographically and socially cohesive communities. Finally, there would be more disconnection between MPs, councillors and the public at more regular intervals than is either necessary or desirable.
I know from my personal involvement in the coalition discussions that these reasons were basically those that motivated the then Conservative Leader of our House to recommend to the Prime Minister that the variance should go up to 10%. We can, perhaps, take it that there is a strong argument for more flexibility. The question in this debate is therefore how we should adjust this figure. Our amendment recommends a normal 7.5% variance in the quota, but permits each of the Boundary Commissions to explore the validity of 10% where exceptional circumstances demand it in each of the nations of the UK. This might include avoiding crossing the major administrative boundaries of English counties and unitary authorities, for example, or greater problems of rurality and limited transport links, or other special factors. The reference to Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act in our amendment is very specific and gives clear guidance to each of the Boundary Commissions.
Of course, constituencies within the four nations vary enormously. These factors may not be material in seeking to serve constituents in inner cities. However, as I mentioned in Grand Committee, in my previous North Cornwall constituency before the boundaries were redrawn, to drive from an advice surgery at one end to the next one at the other end could take 90 minutes in winter but up to 150 minutes at the height of the summer holiday season.
As has been emphasised by all participants at all stages of the Bill, our prime concern should be for the effect on individual residents, groups and communities in a distinct area rather than on their political representatives or their local parties. It is for that reason that we prefer our formulation to that in Amendments 12 and 13 on the one hand, or in Amendment18 on the other. The former pair seem to us to be a real improvement, but not to fully recognise the special local circumstances to which I have referred. Some scattered rural areas, not least in mid and north Wales, would certainly benefit from more variation than 7.5%. The latter amendment provides so much variation, but in just one part of the UK, that again it fails to accept the significance of the smaller number of potential constituencies with unusual requirements while at the same time loading extra electorates on to others.
The common cause we all recognise in this group of amendments is that the unacceptable level and regularity of disruption, implicit in the current 5% straitjacket, must be avoided. Here I must note my personal experience: the drastic change between my original Bodmin constituency and the subsequent North Cornwall constituency was very confusing for residents and for all those who were involved in trying to represent their interests. Indeed, I would say that that change was much more significant in trying to get good service to the electorate than the fact that by the time I retired, it had gone up to 87,000.
There has already been a lot of compromise on Report, and I accept that. The rest of us must now hope that the Minister will accept the strength of the case for greater flexibility that so many noble Lords are advancing, and accept that that, too, would reach a good consensus for us all.
My Lords, I shall speak to my noble friend’s amendment and I agree with every word she said. I do not have a great deal to add. I also agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. That emphasises that we are not talking about an issue of principle in any of the amendments in the group but one of degree. It is worth reminding ourselves that there is widespread agreement across the House on most of contents of the Bill. That has been recognised even on a day like today when there have inevitably been Divisions, as there always will be. We are all agreed in our opposition to huge variations in the size of constituencies and that we should aim for equality—not precise arithmetic equality but much greater equality.
As regards my background in fighting elections, if anyone is qualified to speak on the issue of huge variations in constituency size, I can probably, without too much vanity, claim that qualification. At one stage, I represented a seat with an electorate of 57,000 and at another represented a seat with an electorate of 100,000. I therefore bow to no one in my belief that there should be far greater equality in constituency size, and that is agreed across the House.
We also all agree across the House—I include the Government in this—that there is much more to it than the simple question of arithmetic when determining constituency boundaries. We know all the guidance given to the Boundary Commission but in the Bill the Government acknowledge this issue by exempting certain constituencies from the general framework in which boundaries must be drawn. There are five such constituencies, whose inclusion I support but not for the flimsy reason that the Government claim—that they are all in one category. That is true to the extent that they are all islands or groups of islands but there also is a great deal of difference between them. No obvious similarities spring to mind between Anglesey and the Shetlands, or between the Isle of Wight and the Western Isles. Many more geographic issues need to be taken into account than the category of being islands, which is the only one that the Government seem to acknowledge, with all the frailties of that argument.
I agree with my noble friend’s amendment, which seeks greater flexibility and, in particular, has the important characteristic regarding Wales mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lady Hayter. I do not hesitate to repeat what I said in Committee. I was shocked at the impact of the boundary review proposals that we are considering in the Bill on representation in Wales. The House should walk on the other side on that issue with great care.
In conclusion, there is no great issue of principle that divides the Government from those of us who feel that there should be greater flexibility. All that we are asking is that they should change the rules in the Bill to allow a little more flexibility for the Boundary Commission, and Minister should offer more flexibility when he responds.
My Lords, I very much agree with previous speakers on this group of amendments and support Amendment 18, to which I have added my name and, in the absence of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, would be happy to move it, were that to be appropriate, if the Government were unwilling to move in that direction or to adopt an amendment moving in that direction.
Amendment 18 might be seen by some colleagues as being the more extreme option within this group, which seeks greater tolerance around the mean number of electors per constituency. That amendment applies only to Wales, and I appreciate the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Grocott. All referred to the challenging situation in rural Wales. It is therefore perfectly in order for noble Lords to support the smaller variations around the mean in England or Scotland, if they so choose, and I support their amendments seeking greater flexibility there. However, the imposition of still further flexibility in Wales can be taken on board because it does not change the number of seats allocated to Wales, merely the distribution within it. As has been stated, this would allow greater flexibility in respecting natural communities, geographic sparsity and ease of travel.
Wales should have at least 36 parliamentary seats but that is not the issue at stake in Amendment 18. It gives the Boundary Commission for Wales greater flexibility, if it chooses to use it, to respond to the topography and communities of Wales. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested, constraining them into a straitjacket imposed by Westminster is not helpful. I urge the Government to accept this amendment or at least table an amendment of their own to meet these pressing arguments.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Hayter in her amendment and have added my name to the important amendment for Wales of my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, Amendment 18. I encourage them to press it to a vote. I shall not repeat the case that they made in Committee. However, the figure of 35 Members from Wales has been sacrosanct for decades in my long political career. Specifically, can the Minister say when that principle was breached in the past? Please give me the year. There may be one but it stands out as an exception.
The only matter that I wish to emphasise is that travel in south Wales is from north to south, down the valleys, and infrequently across mountains from east to west, mentioned by my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lady Hayter. My constituency for 41 years bordered that of my noble friend Lord Hain to the west. I can count on one hand the number of times that I went on political business to his constituency. Likewise, the Maesteg part of the Bridgend constituency to the east met mine on the top of a mountain. I probably went to that constituency less than half a dozen times, although many constituents from there came to work in mine. That demonstrates that the travel direction in Wales is north to south, not east to west, and that is the community interest.
The reduction in the number of Welsh seats now proposed would cause havoc in the make-up of south Wales seats, be a massive reorganisation and break up long-standing ties. The Brecon and Radnorshire constituency has been mentioned as one example where there should be special consideration. Coming from a family of sheep breeders, I enjoyed campaigning there and seeing the sheep of Breconshire. However, I travelled 40 or 50 miles there not looking for sheep but for voters—and towns, of which there are few and they are far apart. I pray in aid what Sir Alfred Mond, founder of Mond Nickel and ICI, and the MP for the old Carmarthenshire seat, once said. He later became the first Lord Melchett and his statue is in Pontardawe. He said that Carmarthen is not a constituency but a continent. The same could be said of Brecon and Radnorshire, and other large seats. There should be some flexibility and the number of seats in Wales should not stand at the figure now proposed.
My Lords, it was a delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, move the amendment. I recall her saying in an earlier debate that everything that could possibly be said had already been said. I suspect we shall hear the same in this debate. It reminds me of a time 30 years ago when I was a junior Whip in the Commons pushing through hundreds of Lords amendments. I had a deal with the opposition Labour Party; colleagues were speaking for one to two minutes each. Then the great MP, Sir Ivan Lawrence, got up and said, “Everything that could possibly be said on this amendment has been said, but not by those of us qualified to say it.” With his having spoken for 20 minutes, the deal fell through and we were there until midnight. I hope that will not happen tonight.
It was also a delight to listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. He is a wee bit older than me, but I would love to have lived in that golden era where constituents loved their MP, did not want any boundary changes, were committed to the community and must have been appalled at having general elections where their MP could possibly be lost to them. It was a wonderful era and I wish we had it now. He mentioned there are many sheep in his constituency. In my part of Cumbria, there were infinitely more sheep than voters and my opponents used to claim that it was where my majority came from. Therefore, I congratulate the noble Peers who have proposed these amendments and spoken in favour of them. I commend them because they did so with an extraordinary degree of earnestness and a straight face.
Anyone who has not participated in the boundary changes game might have been fooled for a moment into believing there was a great mass of constituents who cared passionately about the exact boundaries of their constituencies and the necessity of retaining a relationship with the same MP. Who are we kidding? Let us be honest: the vast majority of constituents have not a clue where their constituency boundaries are and could not care less. They care about the politics of the MP and using their vote to change the Government, as we saw last year. Once an MP is elected, constituents care about issues and someone to take them up on their behalf. Boundaries are irrelevant. I only ever had one constituent who cared passionately about the boundary and that was the late Earl of Lonsdale, who was deeply upset that Willie Whitelaw, as he then was, implemented the 1983 boundary report which put a bit of Lord Lonsdale’s beloved Westmorland into the Cumberland/Penrith constituency.
All of us who have been MPs in a former life have played the boundary commission game, which is a bit like Monopoly but with electors in play rather than money. We try to land a ward or a parish which gives us the voters we want and try to get rid of wards which are unhelpful to our majority. Instead of playing with hotels and railway stations, we use rivers, roads and mountain ranges. We would happily split Park Lane if it aided us and disadvantaged our opponents. The Labour and Conservative parties would give away Park Lane to Lambeth if it helped them retain the seat or win the seat of Kensington and Chelsea.
We have all produced spurious arguments why our constituency boundaries must or must not be changed and have cited ancient history, travel-to-work areas or strong community ties. While there may have been some truth in these facts, the motivation for advancing them was all bogus.
I recall in Grand Committee the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioning that the River Tamar could not be crossed because it was a boundary since pre-historic times. I can imagine the Neanderthal Lib Dem predecessor to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, a good party hack, arguing before a Palaeolithic boundary inspector that their caves in Devon were a distinct community and different from those in Cornwall.
The real motivation behind the representations made by Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Members and their parties to the Boundary Commissions and the inspectors is to carve up as many seats as possible to give the party more seats. There is nothing wrong or immoral about that, and in my experience the commission has never been fooled by any of these bogus political representations, no matter how hard or earnestly we tried.
What makes the work of the inquiry inspector more difficult is when there is a wide range of constituency sizes, thus permitting political parties to mount a range of suggestions for wards and districts to be included or excluded. I support the 10% range in the Bill, from a low of 95% to a high of 105%. My noble friend Lord Hayward, who called himself a political hack—he was a brilliant political hack—tells me that the model constituency will be 73,000 electors. This permits constituencies ranging from 69,350 to 76,650. That is almost 7,000 electors to move about and it should take care of all claimed, so-called unique communities which cannot be split, as noble Lords have argued.
Amendments 12, 13 and 14 would increase the range not to 7.5% but to 15%. Amendment 14 goes even further—to suggest an extraordinary 20% range. If the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, were accepted, one could have a constituency of 65,700 sitting next door to one of 80,300—a 15,000-elector variation. It was noticeable that all noble Lords from the Opposition who have spoken did not mention those figures. It is always: “A slight tweak here, a little difference there, a small percentage change here and there”. The figures are astronomical. I suggest that those figures are utterly unacceptable. They undermine the principle of having constituencies of similar size and electors having an equal vote. I say to my noble friend the Minister: do not play the Opposition’s Monopoly game; do not pass Go and collect 15% and 20% ranges; stick with the range in the Bill.
My Lords, I think parliamentary language allows me to use the term, balderdash. In a stroke, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, dismisses the constituency link and the identity that people have in communities with one another, speaking to their Member of Parliament and expecting that Member to speak for them. That is why dividing communities, which so often happens with the narrow range, is not about the Member of Parliament and whether people hold them in contempt or could not give a damn about the boundaries, but about the community of interest that people have in their area and the expectation of a voice to speak for them.
All of us know that political parties put forward the best possible case to the Boundary Commissions to ensure they maximise their success in parliamentary elections and local elections. However, to dismiss the notion of a small additional variation in the way that the noble Lord just did is to be contemptuous of the electorate, citizenship and identity. If we want equality in the numerics, as the Minister said in response to Amendments 2 and 3, then let us have a national list system—the noble Lord has actually made a good case for it. Let us have total equality in a crude form of proportionality: the political parties put up their list, the electorate vote, and they get straight down the line the number of seats that the electorate have allocated themselves. None of us wants that, do we? Even the Liberal Democrats do not want a national list system, because they accept the importance of the community link and the identity that goes with it.
The way in which we have started to debate this gets off the point, which is that the Government have accepted that there are five exceptions. At a stroke, they have accepted that it is important to recognise difference, identity and geography. Those who had previously pressed for a larger variation have accepted that getting as close as possible to numeric values does matter—without employing a dreadful algorithm that could do the job for us, leaving us to pick up the mess afterwards. Therefore, 5% to 7.5% gives a greater ability to the Boundary Commission and those working for it to use common sense and ensure that people do not have a boat to get across the Mersey or, in the case of Iain Duncan Smith in the last proposal, to spend three hours going around a reservoir. It is about identifying what really matters, which is common sense, and the proposal of 7.5% in Amendment 13 does that.
I will say one word on Wales. I said in the Grand Committee that I was deeply impressed with the case that was made in relation to what the proposals would mean for Wales. It would matter in terms of the valley identity; it matters greatly. People made the case that, although they had travelled well out of Wales, many people had not actually travelled between the two adjoining valleys because of the nature of the geography. As I said in Grand Committee, my great-grandfather was born on the edge of Brecon and Radnorshire, and I was impressed, again, by the way the description of the travelling time and the size of that constituency affected the ability of the Member to do their job on behalf of constituents.
If we get back to constituents, identity, citizenship and the reason we have elections and the link represented by that crucial Member of Parliament with a voice for, speaking on behalf of and understanding their community, as well as the role of Parliament, we might just take a deep breath and say “When we start arguing on the head of a pin, that is when we turn off the electorate for good.”
My Lords, I am entering the debate on this group of amendments and speaking to them because I am afraid I disagree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I find his emphasis on community and the sense in which that plays a critical part in the function of a Member of Parliament a somewhat flawed idea.
The truth is that I live in the house I was brought up in; I have had three Members of Parliament and lived in three different constituencies. My constituency has not changed, but other bits have been added on or taken away during my lifetime. They were never part of the community, which is, after all, in the fens and surrounded not by mountains but great unpopulated areas; they are no more part of a community than Welsh valley communities that may, perhaps, have been connected to communities over the mountains. However, it was fair, and it is fairness that my noble friend Lord Blencathra managed to convey in his excellent speech. There is a huge difference in the way constituencies are distributed in this country, and this is unfair to the voter. It means that, if you start off with a variation with a wide spread, you end up with an enormous variation. I believe that the top 20% of constituencies total the same as, or more than, the constituencies that make up the city of Sheffield. That cannot be right.
I think that noble Lords might well consider that these amendments are the elastic amendments; they appear to be designed to stretch the starting point, which we should emphasise, of an electoral quota being considered by the Boundary Commission from a variance between constituencies, under the current rules, of 5% either way or 10% overall. These amendments propose 7.5% or 15% overall variance and, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra explained, those figures are sizeable when it gets down to actual voters. In its second part, the Lib Dem Amendment 14 talks of a 10% start-off and a 20% overall variance. This cannot be justified. However, it is as nothing to Amendment 18, which has a special case for Wales, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, who I believe is the only one who will be speaking to us.
I should, perhaps, tell noble Lords that I have a fondness for Welsh politics since I acted as the agent for Plaid Cymru in my school’s mock election in 1959. We did not win, but we came a respectable second to the Conservatives, leaving the other parties far behind. I had not been to Wales at the time, and that may have stretched the political norms but no less than the girth that the noble Lords seek to encircle by their amendment. I suggest to them that we have an opportunity to discuss exceptionality in a number of subsequent amendments.
Meanwhile, I will go back to where I started and remind noble Lords that the electoral quota is a starting point. The differential from that quota at the beginning of a review means that any variation from the quota at the beginning can lead to very wide variations towards the end of the review period. The current rules are a sensible compromise for a practical fit between geography, community and constituency representation in Parliament. We should be very careful about departing from that principle.
My Lords, I am not going to go back over all the arguments about 7.5%, 5%, 10% and so on; they have been wonderfully rehearsed by noble Lords who are much more knowledgeable than I am. I want to take this opportunity to make a general point about the process in relation to parliamentary constituencies.
We go to great trouble, as noble Lords said earlier this afternoon, to protect the effectiveness and neutrality of the Boundary Commission. It seems to me to be in complete contradiction to that to allow the Government of the day, effectively, to decide matters that are greatly going to affect the electoral geography, such as the number of years—as we debated yesterday—for which a Boundary Commission report should apply or, in this case, the degree of variety that should be permitted in their size.
Across the Atlantic, we have a dire warning of what happens when you let politicians decide for themselves on the rules that will determine whether they are elected. The danger of appearing to be partisan when doing it our way seems to me great, and more effort should have been made by the Government and, I am sure, by others to achieve a consensus reform of parliamentary boundaries—we all agree there should be one—rather than one that can be accused of being partisan and that is, in any case, not being addressed with the seriousness that should apply.
I speak as someone who worked for the late Jim Callaghan, who was for a long time an esteemed Member of this House, as well as, briefly, an esteemed Prime Minister. In 1969, Jim Callaghan got his own party to vote down a set of recommendations from the Boundary Commissions for purely partisan reasons. Lord Callaghan, being of a different mould from many of the politicians who lead us today, had the decency in later years to admit that he had made a mistake and that he deeply regretted his actions. We are making a mistake in accepting a Bill so close to the one that was presented. It would have been very much better if there had been a process of negotiation and compromise, rather than an edict brought by a political majority. It will represent a further erosion of the esteem in which our Government and our Houses of Parliament are held.
My Lords, I cannot understand why the Government continue to insist on this reduction in the variation of size between constituencies. The original justification was the Conservatives’ complaint that the width of variation created a structural imbalance in favour of Labour. Others have pointed out that this arose from differences in levels of electoral registration, in turnout and in the size of majorities. The last three elections showed that this allegedly structural bias had disappeared. It must be inertia at Conservative Party headquarters that explains why the Government are persisting with it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said earlier, in our unwritten constitution the House of Commons is supposed to a body that represents communities throughout the United Kingdom, not just an electoral college that votes for the Prime Minister. The first-past-the-post voting system rests upon the principle that there is a close relationship between each MP and his or her constituency, which means that each MP, and each voter, needs to grasp which constituency they are in and its relatively natural boundaries. Throw that out—as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that we have begun to do—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, argued, you have made the case for proportional representation instead. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said that this widening of variation would be “unfair to the voter”. Let us have a wider discussion about what a fair voting system would be, if he wishes. This is nothing to with overall fairness for the voter.
This Government are chipping away, bit by bit, at many of the assumptions and conventions which constitute our constitution. Last December’s Conservative manifesto pledged to establish a commission
“to look at the broader aspects of our constitution” before the end of this year, which is now less than three months away. Since then, we have heard nothing about this, nor does there appear to have been any consultations with other parties about the membership and working of such a commission. I do not see how a constitutional commission could possibly gain legitimacy if it emerged only from the Government, without any wider process of consultation or consent. Can the Minister tell us if the manifesto pledge has now been dropped, delayed for the indefinite future or is about to be sprung on us without prior consultation?
In the UK’s constitutional tradition, each MP represents a place, a recognisable community. To reduce the variation among constituency sizes to the narrow band which the Government propose weakens that link between MP and local community. Honest and traditional Conservatives, those who still remember and revere Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan, should join others in this House in supporting the amendment.
My Lords, I speak briefly against the amendments in this group.
As I said in my remarks on group 2, this Bill is about balance and fairness. It seeks to redress the inequality of constituencies. Fundamentally, the purpose of boundary reviews is to ensure that constituency boundaries are of equal size and based on updated figures. In reviewing constituency boundaries, I believe that a tolerance range of 10% strikes the right balance, allowing the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies 5% larger or smaller than the quota. Any larger figure would simply mean that constituencies continue not to be properly equalised, perpetuating unfairness. I make these comments notwithstanding the exceptions made for protected constituencies, and with the addition of Ynys Môn.
In Committee and again today, some noble Lords have expressed a shared concern about the need for communities to be kept together within single constituencies, about particular geographies being respected, and, therefore, about greater flexibility being required in the redrawing of boundaries. This understandable sentiment has been balanced with the importance of ensuring that every elector’s vote carries the same weight; that every person has the same call on their local MP. The tolerance of 10% strikes the right balance, ensuring an approach that allows appropriate flexibility for the Boundary Commissions to consider important local factors such as geographical features and community ties, without introducing significant variability. Any greater tolerance for disparity between constituencies is totally inequitable. I ask noble Lords to consider that the elected Chamber—those Members of Parliament who are directly affected by any boundary changes—has agreed that the variance in seats of 10%, plus or minus 5%, strikes the right balance. I urge noble Lords not to support these amendments.
My Lords, these amendments are about equity and fairness—or, rather, inequity and unfairness.
I represented the people of Blaby—now South Leicestershire—for 23 years and I can tell those who have never been Members of the House of Commons that representing a constituency is a real privilege. Polling revealed that some 25% of people in each constituency know who their MP is. I was thrilled to be told that local polling said that nearly 50% of the people of Blaby knew who I was. Whether that was true, I cannot say; perhaps it was because they wanted to vote against me. However, I promise noble Lords that most people in this country are not bothered about who their constituency MP is. They are bothered about his or her politics and they want to know who that person is when they want some assistance: that is the truth. When my constituency lost a few wards, people said, “I’m sorry you’re no longer our MP”, and while they may have been sorry on a personal level, frankly, they could not care very much. I agree with my noble friend Lord Blencathra: every Boundary Commission review is plagued with party-political manoeuvring. I am afraid that I see that slightly in these amendments too, although they do not always work quite as well as they might.
Consistency in politics is a great thing, as it is in life. Of course, one can change one’s mind—circumstances change as a country evolves—but generally we should stick to what we say, say what we believe and believe what we say. We are discussing the electorate per constituency. I had meant to table an amendment to Clause 5, but with great efficiency I did not realise that it had to be done so swiftly, so I did not get it down, but I will speak on the percentages instead.
I stick with the Conservative manifesto upon which I was elected in 2010, which wanted to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 MPs. There was no party-political advantage in that, as far as I am aware. It was also in the Conservative manifestos of 2015 and 2017. I would love to know why it changed; perhaps the Minister can tell me. On
Mr Clegg said:
“We settled on 600 MPs, a relatively modest cut in House numbers of just less than 8%, because it saves money … and because we think it creates a House that is sufficiently large to hold the Government to account while enabling us all to do our jobs of representing our constituencies. It also creates a sensible average number of constituents—76,000, as I mentioned earlier—that we already know is manageable … That is why we feel 600 is about right.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 39.]
We are now talking about 76,000 as an average. I do not quite see why that has change either, because in the 2010 manifesto, of course, the Liberal Democrats, called for 500 MPs elected by PR—and that is why it was called the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—and on page 88 they said:
“We will … reduce the number of MPs by 150” to 500. What has changed there? There are too many Peers, I think we all agree with that, and perhaps we will all volunteer to go out the door today. There are too many Members of the House of Commons as well. Perhaps we could look at starting with a bit of a change: reducing the numbers in the House of Commons and the numbers in the House of Lords as well.
My Lords, in 2013 and 2018 plans for revisions to constituency boundaries were published. They did not find favour with MPs, the Government dare not even produce the 2018 report before Parliament for it to be considered, and these plans were never implemented. The plans themselves clearly demonstrated how much more massively disruptive all future boundaries will be compared with anything that has ever happened previously, when the boundary commissioners worked to their old rules, if they are now given very limited flexibility.
MPs on the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee looked at the issue in the light of having seen the 2013 proposals. There was cross-party agreement then that there must be greater flexibility in the numerical quota for each constituency than 5% either way. That cross-party group of MPs examined the issues in detail and concluded that in order to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries, and major disruption with every review in future, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. The amendments now being considered are a compromise between that conclusion and the position of the Government, who seek only a 5% variation.
Amendment 13, the position of the Labour Party, provides for a variation of 7.5%, which is exactly half way between the position of the Commons Select Committee in 2015 and that of the Government now. Amendment 14, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler, provides for 7.5% variation, but also allows the Boundary Commission flexibility of 10% in exceptional cases.
A short while ago the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that there was a political conspiracy in these amendments, but the academic experts studying the issues have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no party advantage at all in permitting greater variation. I draw noble Lords’ attention in particular to a Private Member’s Bill currently before the House of Commons, which proposes a 7.5% variation, with 10-yearly reviews. The sponsors of the Bill are Mr Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. These two Conservative MPs can hardly be described as champions of liberal democracy or as socialist conspirators. They may be accused of disloyalty to Boris Johnson, but I have checked, and there was nothing in the last Conservative Party manifesto about a 5% variation from the average electorate.
The aim of roughly equal-sized constituencies is one that we all share. There are international standards that can be applied to the creation of constituencies of roughly equal size. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says that
“in a majority voting system, the size of the electorate should not vary by more than approximately ten percent from constituency to constituency.”
“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion … should seldom exceed 10%”.
The additional variations proposed in these amendments are within these guidelines. Sadly, the time for deliberation about the consequences of allowing only a 5% variation was extremely limited among MPs when they debated the issues.
In Committee, the Members present heard the expert testimony of Dr David Rossiter. He explained how the Boundary Commissions must work within the boundaries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, very significantly, also within the nine recognised regions of England. With the likely population changes over the eight-year period between each review, there would be changes to the quota of constituencies to be created in eight of these states or regions. Four of them would gain a seat and see new constituencies created; four of them would lose a seat and see constituencies abolished. This would trigger major changes, in at least two-thirds of these states or regions, in constituency boundaries.
The movement of local government wards, to redistribute those voters, would trigger large-scale changes across the entire state or English region. With an abolished seat, over 60,000 voters would have to be redistributed. When added to neighbouring seats, nearly all of those would then be over quota. These surplus voters would then have to be redistributed to other seats, in turn sending many of them over quota, and so on. Similarly, with the newly created seats, around 60,000 voters must come from somewhere. Taking them from other existing constituencies will put those constituencies under the quota. The knock-on consequences of putting those voters elsewhere will also stretch across the entire state or region. Unless we change the rules, a small population shift in Kent could, for example, require major changes not just across Kent but in East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey and involve the creation of illogical seats that cross those county boundaries. In every region or state it will be the same.
Splitting local government wards may ameliorate some disruption, but for many reasons it is not generally possible to do that. Many MPs have clearly not appreciated the fact that a constituency within quota is not safe from change. Moving one ward from a constituency to the next one will not be the end of the matter. The upshot of all this is that there will be major changes to the boundaries of half or more constituencies every review. Only about one in five constituencies is likely to be unaffected by boundary changes.
Earlier in the debate, the Minister praised those who have previously served the Boundary Commissions. Let us look at what some of them have said. As the then secretary to the Boundary Commission for England told the Commons Select Committee in 2015,
“the smaller you make the tolerance level from the actual quota, the harder it becomes to take into account properly the other factors that are mentioned in the Act, such as not breaking local ties, respecting local authority boundaries, and minimising change.”
It is clear that 5% is too small a variation. It means that we will have many illogical constituencies that will ignore local ties, local authority boundaries, communities and basic geographic considerations. More importantly, perhaps, they will not last for very long because every time there is a review, there will again be massive disruption to the boundaries, with at least half the constituencies having major boundary changes. That is why we need to give the boundary commissioners a little more flexibility.
My Lords, it has been another long and interesting debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. As some noble Lords have said—I recall the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, giving a notable speech—we have to be careful about seeing it top-down. A great deal has been said about the disaster for local communities if their MP changes. That can be exaggerated. The important thing is that the political system delivers good service from elected representatives.
I remember being absolutely horrified when I lost my best polling district—it was part of East Sheen and I thought it could not be moved out by a Local Government Boundary Commission into another ward. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said, I am sure that nobody really noticed, for all my efforts over many years. I do not think we should exaggerate the sense that it is a disaster for a community if its elected representative changes.
The other thing I would say is that 5% tolerance either way is the existing position. It is not as if the Government have suddenly come out of the blue and said we must do this. Prior to 2011 there was no standard, but the coalition Government set in train the existing arrangements.
I thank those noble Lords who have put forward amendments similar to those in Committee. The arguments were much the same and I fear the response will be much the same. Amendment 12 is for a 12.5% difference, Amendment 13 is for a 15% tolerance, Amendment 14 is for a combination of 15% and 20%, and Amendment 18 is for up to 30% in the case of Wales. As I have clarified throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government believe that the current tolerance range of 10%—which is set out in existing legislation and agreed cross-party—remains the right one. This range allows the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies up to 5% larger or smaller than the average UK constituency size. It is what we know as the electoral quota.
The Government are determined to ensure that all votes carry the same weight regardless of where an elector resides. I have been surprised that so many noble Lords are concerned at how equal the size of constituencies in this country might be. I can think of many things about which your Lordships might get exercised, but the idea that, in a democracy, the size of constituencies might be too equal seems an odd thing to get so excited about. Maintaining the current 10% tolerance is critical to delivering the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge of retaining the status quo. It would be contradictory and counterproductive to wind back the current reasonable and practical 10% range.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, and again today, we have heard heartfelt and enriching anecdotes—I have enjoyed them—in efforts to emphasise the importance of community ties, local government boundaries and physical geography. The Government and the Boundary Commissions do not overlook these factors of importance. However, I repeat that the concept of equal votes—the simple idea that each constituency weight should count the same—is an equal, if not more powerful, factor. The Boundary Commission retains other criteria, and this is the cornerstone of our democracy. The only tool we have to ensure that equality—applying the electoral quota on a universal basis without introducing significant variability in constituency size—is to make the kind of provision in this Bill to sustain the current position, while simultaneously allowing an appropriate degree of flexibility to the Boundary Commissions so they can take account of some of the other important factors your Lordships have raised.
Deviations of up to 30% from a central point, as have been suggested in this House today, would cause an unacceptable disequilibrium. Deviations will indefensibly disrupt the equitable balance our current 10% tolerance range has established. We will stick to 10%. It quickly becomes apparent, as some noble Lords have pointed out, that when the 10% tolerance range is diverged from, the potential for disparity between elector numbers in each seat becomes unacceptably high. Using the House of Commons Library calculations —we all have different ones—a 15% range, as proposed by Amendment 13, which we are told may be pressed to a vote, would potentially allow one constituency to have 78,000 electors and its neighbour to have almost 11,000 fewer at 67,167. Some of the other amendments would allow greater differences. As previously argued in Committee and again today, my judgment is that there are no admissible arguments for having constituencies varying by up to 11,000 electors, or even 20,000 electors, as would be the consequence from other amendments. It is simply not just.
The Boundary Commissions would be granted room to manoeuvre within a 20% range for certain cases by the Liberal Democrat amendment. We are told that this would be in exceptional circumstances. I was taken to task earlier for “exceptional circumstances”, and up pops the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, with an exceptional circumstance amendment within 90 minutes. If a 20% tolerance were applied across the country, it would mean that more than 80% of constituencies—all but around 100 of the 650—would be untouched in the next review. That is at the opposite end of the scale from the kind of mayhem that some of your Lordships have been presenting to the House as resulting from what we propose. It would completely undermine attempts to update boundaries that are now approximately 20 years out of date. Amendment 14 proposes that that would apply only in certain districts in exceptional circumstances. However, if the Boundary Commissions were granted discretion to apply a greater tolerance in certain situations where they judge it to be needed, surely their job of constructing constituencies may in fact become more difficult and the outcome of boundary reviews considerably less certain.
It is not difficult to envisage that the Boundary Commissions would quickly come under pressure to use the discretion allowed by the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and when a commission used that discretion in one part of its territory, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, illustrated, a domino effect would ensue. It would be more than likely that other communities who perceived themselves as having cases just as viable would call for discretion also.
The Government cannot accept Amendment 18 relating to Wales. I was asked when the last time was that Wales had fewer than 35 seats: it was 1885. In that election the Conservatives, led by the Marquis of Salisbury, won 10 seats and the Liberals lost 33—so it cannot have been all bad.
We should be careful about pushing the argument that somehow this is unfair to Wales. Boundary reviews are not about losing or gaining constituencies. As I said at the outset, they are about ensuring that individual electors can feel that they make an equal contribution to deciding who will form the UK Government. The Government want Wales, like every other part of the United Kingdom, to be fairly represented. Wales has a solid system of local government. It has the Senedd Cymru, with legislative powers over a range of policy areas. It has a strong voice in Westminster, including through the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Welsh Grand Committee and voices on all Benches in the House of Lords—as we have heard again today, they are some of our most outstanding Members.
The Government are a passionate supporter of our United Kingdom. It is the most successful union of nations in history and I reject the argument that a change in representation at Westminster undermines the union. The union is strengthened by equal votes. Wherever a vote is cast, it should have the same power to decide who governs our country.
The Government are firmly committed to devolution and have devolved more powers to the constituent nations. This Government’s Wales Act 2017 strengthened the powers of the Welsh Assembly, which is now the Senedd/Welsh Parliament. In the additional layer of powerful devolved institutions, Wales is strongly represented. Currently, for each legislator, Wales has 23,000 electors, compared to 50,000 for the UK as a whole. We should be extremely cautious of talking down Wales and representing the idea that constituencies should be equal across our union as somehow a conspiracy against Wales. It is an advantage to democracy across this kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made another entertaining speech, taking us down memory lane. He mentioned Lord Lonsdale; I remember I had to wear a yellow rosette when campaigning with Lord Whitelaw in the north-west, I believe because of Lord Lonsdale—he was probably more upset about losing the yellow than he was about anything to do with constituencies.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, asked about the 2019 manifesto. I am afraid I cannot answer that. You have only to look at my grey hairs to see that it is a little while since anyone was foolish enough to ask me to help with a manifesto.
I did not agree with the response of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, passionate though it was. I always listen with tremendous respect to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is highly regarded in every corner of this House. The system this Bill enables allows for common sense; it allows latitude to the Boundary Commissions. However, we must recognise that one of the fundamental reasons the Boundary Commissions are as effective and respected as they are is that they implement clear and unambiguous rules. We have heard a lot about the attempts that political parties make to rig the system; usually, in my experience, they fail. All the clever arguments we put up are seen through, normally very skilfully, by the Boundary Commissions. When they act with clarity and transparency, steering clear of subjective judgments and rankings, the scope for disagreement and challenge will be limited.
The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill was introduced to ensure boundaries constructed in the early 2000s receive a greatly needed update and to guarantee that every vote across the United Kingdom carries more equal weight—we are all agreed on that, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, reminded us. Several other levels of tolerance—including that in Amendment 13, which was twice rejected in the elected House—were proposed, debated and rejected. That means the 10% tolerance range in this Bill, the existing system retained by the Government, has recently been reaffirmed on multiple occasions by the elected Chamber.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach made the compelling point that if you start from a wide base with a broad tolerance towards the natural evolution of constituencies to shrink and grow, you will have even greater disparity at the end of the boundary review period, which your Lordships have said should be 10 years. It is prudent to start from the sensible 10% proposition we have now. Retaining that is an important part of achieving our manifesto commitment of equalised and updated constituencies.
I therefore urge your Lordships to resist the desire to fix something that is not broken, however you look at it, in each of these amendments and to withdraw them.
I agree completely with the Minister that the union is most successful, and that we want to stay in it and keep it strong. However, I do not agree with the rest of his speech quite so much, particularly because one of the things about keeping the union strong is recognising the differences as well as the similarities. That particularly affects Wales; not just because it is Welsh, but because of its geography.
My noble friend Lord Hain, because he is working in Grand Committee on the Trade Bill, was not able to participate and therefore could not speak to Amendment 18. On his behalf, I want to say that the reason this has been put is that half the Welsh population live in just 14% of the Welsh land mass. That is different from virtually all of England. Only a small proportion of England is sparse, but 80% of Wales is. The geography is different. For a Parliament to be able to respond to a part of the nation that is so different by allowing greater flexibility about how it is represented in the Parliament of the United Kingdom strengthens rather than weakens the union. I am sorry we could not hear from my noble friend today; he had wonderful maps he could have referred to in order to show this.
As my noble friend Lord Grocott said, this is about more than just arithmetic. Just as he said, the exempted constituencies show that. Geography is about more than islands; it is about valleys, mountains and other areas. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, is wrong to say that this is about bogus arguments—I may not have called them “balderdash”, like my noble friend Lord Blunkett, but I do not believe these arguments are bogus. It is about the strength of community representation. It also depends on turnout, which is important, and the greater the feeling of some sense of community. There is no point having absolutely numerically equal constituencies if we then find that some people have to travel so far, for example in Wales, to meet their MP that the turnout ends up being much lower. The number of people voting is very different in each seat. We are trying to give the independent Boundary Commission a little more leeway to use its common sense—I am not saying that this would be for all constituencies—and not to have to split communities unnecessarily.
The noble Lord said twice, I think, that we were trying to safeguard the current position by keeping the 5%, but in fact it has never been used. It exists only on paper. The 2011 Act brought it in. It is not the “current position” other than on a piece of paper; it has not been used. Trying to pretend that this is retaining something is not true. As I said at the beginning, if 5% was right in 2011 for an average number with 600 seats in the House, almost by definition it cannot be the right number when we move to 650 seats. It may be dancing on the head of a pin, but sometimes allowing that pencil to go a bit more broadly will draw a better boundary.
I end on what my noble friend Lord Lipsey said. It would have been nice if we could have worked towards compromise in a cross-party way on this rather than by edict. Then we would have reached something that would be good for the whole of Parliament, rather than doing it this way. But this way we must do it. I will seek leave to withdraw Amendment 12 and then move Amendment 13 formally so that we can test the opinion of the House. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 12.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.