Amendment 15

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Lord Tyler:

Moved by Lord Tyler

15: Clause 6, page 5, line 2, at end insert—“( ) After rule 5(2) insert—“(2A) Each constituency in any part of Cornwall must be wholly in the unitary authority area of Cornwall Council, and no other authority area, except for the Isles of Scilly.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure constituencies in Cornwall remain within the unitary authority area of Cornwall, with the exception of the Isles of Scilly.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform)

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 15 in my name. Again, I am delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who has consistently endorsed my plea that the especially distinct identity of Cornwall should be recognised in this legislation. I am also pleased to have the support of my noble friend Lord Teverson, who has given great public service to Cornwall.

Members will know that every single group leader on Cornwall Council has also endorsed my proposition since we discussed this matter last, in Grand Committee. As they have reminded us, Parliament has an obligation to recognise the historic and cultural identity of Cornwall. The 2014 inclusion in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities spelt out that recognition of the unique identity and integrity of Cornwall, and the need to protect the political integrity of its territory. Uniquely, physical geography reinforces that separate identity. If you try to follow the boundary between England and Wales, or England and Scotland, or even Northern Ireland and the Republic, you find yourself following the devil’s own job. Indeed, you can find yourself endlessly crossing invisible lines. On the other hand, if you try to cross the boundary into Cornwall, you will get very wet. The constituency I served ran for miles along that natural boundary; the administrative separation is clear and logical. I would have found it unnecessarily bureaucratic and hugely time consuming to have to deal with Truro and Exeter council officials 100 miles apart, and my constituents would inevitably have suffered had the boundary been removed and a constituency crossed it.

As we all know, physical geography can determine human geography, and never more so than in the history of the Cornish peninsular. I admit that I am strongly prejudiced. As I mentioned in Grand Committee, my ancestors arrived in north Cornwall around 1066. Perhaps more significantly, I am directly descended from Bishop Jonathan Trelawny, on whose behalf the national song records that 20,000 Cornishmen threatened to march on London to secure his release from King James II’s clutches. This reminder of the extent of Cornish self-awareness, this pride in our distinct history and determination to maintain the identity and integrity of Cornwall is obviously very relevant for the Bill. Hence the support of Cornwall Council.

In Grand Committee, the Minister seemed sympathetic to our case, but then went off on a tangent about Devon and other English counties. I admit that the wording of our amendment then may have helped to create a misunderstanding. With the admirable assistance of the Public Bills Office, we have tightened up the amendment for this debate. It refers solely to the electoral integrity of Cornwall.

I acknowledge that the combination of 650 constituencies and the 7.5% margin, which we have just voted for, on either side of the expected base figure of around 72,000 electors will probably mean that breaking out of Cornwall’s traditional boundary may not be necessary in this review. However, it would surely be wholly preferable for the legislation to leave no shadow of doubt, any more than it does with the borders of England with Wales and Scotland. It could be helpful to create this clarity for future boundary reviews. Who knows how the electorates will vary in years to come?

One does not need to be a separatist to acknowledge the strength of this case. Indeed, I believe that the continuing unity of the United Kingdom depends on accepting the lessons of diversity here, as with the other Celtic nations. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Conservative

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak to this amendment, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his characteristically courteous and constructive approach in handling the Bill.

I strongly support the unity of Cornwall in parliamentary terms, so that its constituencies are solely within Cornwall. I appreciate that, as became apparent in Grand Committee, the case for Cornwall is echoed in other parts of the country. My noble friend the Minister made this point very forcefully in Committee. I think he cited Suffolk as an example, while acknowledging the distinctive nature of Cornwall. There are two aspects that make Cornwall unique. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, Cornwall is the only county that borders just one other; it is thus much easier to protect Cornwall’s unique position in any constituency review.

Secondly, and again uniquely, Cornwall has a distinct culture and language which mark it out. In 2014, this status was recognised in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. That distinctive character is underlined by the Cornish language and culture. The use of the Cornish language supports the visitor economy in Cornwall and is being used increasingly in tourism. A Conservative Government should be in the vanguard of protecting an indigenous language of these islands and indeed supporting the culture of Cornwall. This amendment presents a real opportunity to do so; a real way of accomplishing that.

I believe that in this legislation we currently protect the coherence of islands in our parliamentary arrangements, which is something that I strongly support. We do this in Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles, Ynys Môn and the Isle of Wight. If it is right to protect the integrity of specific islands in parliamentary terms, and I believe absolutely that it is, then it is right to protect Cornwall too. It is, after all, an island as well, but one that just happens to be joined to Devon.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. While he was a Minister in the Government, he did a great deal for Cornwall and visited the county on many occasions. I pay him great credit for that, as I do to my noble friend Lord Tyler for all his work while he represented North Cornwall and formerly the Bodmin constituency.

I came up from Cornwall this morning. It was pretty dark and dingy when I left, but one thing that you are absolutely clear about is when you cross the river Tamar. When I travel back to Cornwall, crossing the Tamar is something that I take note of. It is not like crossing the boundary from Wiltshire into Hampshire, Berkshire into greater London or whatever, it is completely different. It is not just a physical barrier in terms of a river that creates the boundary almost but not quite to the north coast—hence Cornwall is a peninsula rather than an island—but a boundary that marks the difference between what is a Celtic culture in Cornwall and a Saxon culture in Devon. That difference, I believe, is unique within what we refer to as England.

The amendment also refers to the Isles of Scilly. Why should we include them alongside Cornwall when we are not doing that with Devon? It is simply being pragmatic because the last time I looked, the Isles of Scilly have some 2,000 electors and I do not think that we would advocate a special parliamentary constituency for them.

This is an important amendment not just for Cornwall but for the different cultures and traditions that we have within the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, the difference in Cornwall is not just its language. It has been recognised under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities which, I stress, is not an EU measure but one from the Council of Europe of which we are still a member.

Another difference between Cornwall and Devon is one that people will be well aware of and is often celebrated: in Cornwall put jam on our scones first and put Cornish clotted cream on top and, in Devon, it is the other way around. We see that not as just a culinary difference, it is something where the Cornish culture marks itself out as being different. This amendment cannot be seen, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said in the last group, as having anything to do with political advantage. At the moment, Cornwall is represented—unfortunately in my belief—by Conservative Members of Parliament who have been properly elected. That may or may not change, but this will make no difference to party advantage. I believe that this amendment is important to our national integrity and is particularly important to the cultural history of Cornwall and that part of the south-west.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Charities), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) , Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:45 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, we have heard a Cornish voice that is almost as loud, although obviously not as musical, as the Welsh. Much of this makes perfect sense. Indeed, the issues raised here may also be felt strongly in the Ridings of Yorkshire or in the Black Country, even if they are not blessed with the same formal recognition.

The underlying problem is the Government’s refusal to understand communities, be these Welsh valleys or Cornish heritage. That is something I have heard a lot about, as my late sister-in-law, Ruth Simpson, was the first Labour mayor of Penzance. I have also spent a long time in Cawsand, which was—I hope this does not undermine the amendment—the old boundary between Cornwall and Devon, way beyond the bridge. That was a long time ago, but I certainly know the strength of that Cornish voice.

We hear these demands, but urge that we join together—as the Welsh, the Cornish and other locales—to continue to impress on the Government that communities, geography, nationhood, languages and the future of the Union matter, so that, even at this late stage, the Government might hear reason as the Bill returns to the Commons, and accept a flexibility to enable all these special areas to be recognised.

For that reason, though I think the noble Lord will not press his amendment, I hope we keep together on the main argument that constituency boundaries are too important to be decided merely numerically. They have enormous impact on the sense of fairness, representation and respect for national, regional or local history and for community.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this short debate. Its brevity does not detract in any way from the importance of the points put forward. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken. I have discovered that, as far as jam and cream are concerned, I am a Cornish man, rather than Devonian—not that I am allowed to eat such things any more; you can ask my wife about that.

I do not want to belittle the thing, but the one thing I would demur about is the suggestion that this Government do not care or have a concern about community. This Government have a profound concern for community, and every fibre of my being, in the life I have led in local government, reinforces that sense within me. I totally understand the passion, commitment and sense behind the amendment to protect constituencies in Cornwall.

I will not repeat the arguments that I made in Committee. There is a problem, and there is a reason why, in principle, it would potentially be difficult, in that other communities might argue and ask why they had not had the same protection. I mentioned Suffolk and Norfolk. I do not equate Cornwall with any other place—Cornwall is special—but, on the other hand, I remember a storm arising in a field in East Anglia when I was a very small boy, and my grandmother, who came from a long line of Lowestoft fisherfolk, as we call them these days, took my hand in hers and said, “Don’t worry, a storm can never cross the water,” by which she meant the River Waveney. There are places where boundaries are felt to be important. I believe community arises and is not measured against other people but within ourselves, within place and a range of things that make up who we are.

I understand where this amendment is coming from, and I understand the argument from community. I hope and expect that the Boundary Commission will recognise, with the latitude it has, the importance of community—including the sense of being Cornish. The Government are, however, committed to constituencies as equally sized as possible, and that aspect of the protection of constituencies, apart from with the islands, is held to be important.

The Government certainly understand the point. My noble friend Lord Bourne was manifest in this when he was a Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was kind enough to say so, quite rightly. The Government recognise the importance of Cornwall and being Cornish. Indeed, last year we provided £200,000 of financial support, I believe, to fund a range of Cornish language projects, as well as work to tackle barriers to systematic education provision around the Cornish language. Although I cannot accept this amendment, I assure the House that the distinctive nature of Cornwall is understood. I am reinforced in feeling able to advise the House that we do not need this amendment because, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, our expectation is exactly his expectation: we do not expect, given the 600 constituencies and the tolerance suggested, that there should be a case or a need for the new constituencies to cross the Tamar. It appears likely that they will remain within those bounds and, if I am allowed to express a personal view from the Dispatch Box, I hope that they will. I am sure that will be shared by many in the Government.

I respect the views expressed here, and I understand them, but I do not believe, given the potential knock-on effects, such as questions as to why other communities and places are not recognised, that we should put it in statute. I hope that, having heard those assurances— and I repeat the sense that the Government are well aware of the importance of Cornishness and Cornish sentiment—that the noble Lord, who has spoken so ably on behalf of that great county, will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform)

My Lords, I am very grateful to all Members who contributed to this short debate, particularly the Minister—and I will come back to him in a moment. In the meantime, I hope that all Members of your Lordships’ House recognise that the vote we undertook, less than an hour ago, to extend the tolerance either side of the quota norm to 7.5% actually makes it much easier for us to recognise Cornwall as a separate entity. That room for manoeuvre will, I think, as the Minister hinted just now, mean that there will not be another threat of a “Devon wall” seat. However, I do not take anything for granted: it might be that we will not have, when the Bill finally gets Royal Assent, that degree of flexibility. I just hope that we do. On the previous proposal for a seat that would cross the Tamar—the so-called “Devon wall” threat—I am sorry to say that a number of Conservatives, locally as well as nationally, just accepted it, which was very regrettable. We should have had unanimity across the parties, as we now have in Cornwall Council, as is represented by the letter it sent to us all.

The vote that took place less than an hour ago has made the situation simpler, because it is very unlikely that that threat to the boundary will happen again, as, indeed, the Minister has now accepted. I know that some would want to try to make sure that the removal of that threat became permanent. However, I am conscious, as someone who is keen to maintain the law and the constitution, that no Parliament can absolutely commit a successor, any more than a Government can. To pass an amendment at this stage might not be appropriate for the present review we are discussing and is unlikely to be necessary for a future review. Of course, that might not be a solid proposal if we get some fallback from our excellent vote of just a few minutes ago—but I think we can now be reasonably confident that there will not be another “Devon wall” seat in the immediate future.

I take seriously what the Minister has said. He said in terms, “Cornwall is special”. I have underlined that and write it in heavy type. I know he feels strongly about the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk, which I happen also to know, but it is nothing like as firmly and clearly defined and delineated on the map of Great Britain as is the boundary between England and Cornwall. But I take seriously and respect what he has said. We all want to respect communities better and, par excellence, the community, history, integrity and identity of Cornwall is special. In the meantime, I am happy to beg to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 16. I remind noble Lords that Members, other than the mover and the Minister, may only speak once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a division should make that clear in debate.