Moved by Lord Lipsey
17: Clause 7, page 5, line 22, at end insert—“(d) a constituency named Brecon and Radnorshire with identical boundaries to those of the existing Brecon and Radnorshire constituency”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment creates an additional protected constituency to make this seat geographically manageable.
My Lords, we have had a long, hard afternoon and tummies are rumbling, so I genuinely will not detain the House for long. An absolutely overwhelming case was made in Committee for this amendment exempting Brecon and Radnorshire from the 5% leeway allowed, but it has not got anywhere. The noble Lord, Lord True, was gracious enough to find time to discuss it with me one on one, though he did not give me any hope. I am sad to say that Ministers in the other place were not so prepared to have a meeting with Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for the seat, and I regret that.
Anyway, one has to know when one’s goose is cooked, so I accept that this will not happen, though the people of Brecon and Radnorshire will resent the way the Government have been pursuing what they will regard as their war on Wales.
My Lords, my apologies—I was momentarily distracted. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, had come to the end of his speech. He had certainly stopped speaking. Did I not hear him?
My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Lord on this amendment and to introduce my own amendment, which is linked to it. The noble Lord spoke with passion on this matter in Committee and his commitment to Brecon and Radnorshire inspires us all. We all have our memories of the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency. It has been represented by three different parties over my political lifetime. I remember going to Patagonia in 1965 with Tudor Watkins, who was then the Labour Member of Parliament. I served with Caerwyn Roderick, who took over subsequently, and we had Richard Livsey, of course, who was a colleague in this Chamber of many noble Lords. We also had Jonathan Evans as a Conservative MP. All three parties—Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative—had their own roots in the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency and they all had representatives of calibre. It would be a tragedy if a constituency such as this, with its rural nature, was lost just to get the sums right over the whole of the UK.
My amendment links the constituency of Montgomeryshire into this equation. Montgomeryshire is also a rural county—a scattered rural county. I declare an interest as my father and all his forebears came from Montgomeryshire. My wife, Elinor, was born in Llanidloes and both her parents had all their roots in Montgomeryshire. It is a mellow county that does not look to the craggy wildness of Gwynedd to the north-west or to the industrial belt of Clwyd to the north-east. It is a county in its own right and should remain as such. I believe that the way to handle this issue is to define the county of Powys as having two integral seats in the House of Commons. By deciding that those two seats stand, you define to the north—the north-west and the north-east—an area that has a character of its own and can be adjusted to have the appropriate number of representatives in the rural west and in the industrial east; likewise to the south in the industrial belt running through south-west Wales.
I believe that getting Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire right—getting the county of Powys right—in the Bill gives the opportunity for the commissioners to do justice to the rest of Wales. That is why I am delighted to support the noble Lord’s amendment and to put forward my own.
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to both amendments in this group. In Committee, I spoke to the noble Lord’s similar amendment to add Brecon and Radnorshire to the list of protected constituencies in Wales, and I would like to expand on the comments I made then. I am very familiar with both the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency and the Montgomeryshire constituency, having campaigned and canvassed in both over many years. I can perfectly understand the motives behind these amendments and the desire to protect these constituencies’ borders. Both are in beautiful, rural mid Wales and have a long history, Brecon and Radnorshire having existed since 1918 and Montgomeryshire since an incredible 1542. It is understandable that electors feel a close affinity with their constituency and that a significant community cohesion has developed over many years.
Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire hold a special place in the hearts and minds of Liberal Democrats too, and we are proud of the way in which our MPs, Richard Livsey, Roger Williams and Jane Dodds in Brecon and Radnorshire, and Clement Davies, Emlyn Hooson and Alex Carlile in Montgomeryshire worked on behalf of their constituencies and communities over the years.
But now, of course, regrettably, all the constituencies in Wales are facing upheaval and a new reality as a result of the Government’s decisions in this Bill. However much we would like to stay within the comfort blanket of our present constituencies, we have to accept that we cannot lose eight MPs and expect constituency boundaries to remain the same. I am content with the decision that Ynys Môn will become a protected island constituency, but while that makes sense, creating another protected constituency will have an adverse impact on all the other new constituencies across Wales. We must have a fair system that is applicable to all constituencies and we must now have the confidence to allow the Welsh Boundary Commission to work within that system.
However, experience has shown that MPs who represent larger constituencies face a number of practical issues. An example is whether they should establish more than one constituency office—one in the north and one in the south of their area—so that constituents have access to them. How many staff do they need in order to run more than one office? Also, how do they deal with the media that question their expenses? The expenses of an MP in the largest constituency by area in the UK are often compared adversely with those of an MP in the smallest and most compact constituency. I hope that the Government will help to prevent this sort of unfair criticism in the future.
I finish by reiterating one other point I made in Committee. With a reduced voice from Wales in Westminster now, I hope that the Senedd will take the decision to increase the number of Members that the electorate of Wales can elect to be their voice in Cardiff. During the past few months, the Senedd has shown the people of Wales that it can use its powers effectively, and now it must give itself the tools to do so even more effectively.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has withdrawn from the debate and so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.
My Lords, these amendments draw attention yet again to the problems caused by any attempt to impose strict uniformity on constituencies based on a simple number count. I am particularly drawn to Amendment 19 as it recognises Powys as a county. The integrity of council boundaries has been the subject of much support in debates on this Bill. My noble friend Lord Tyler raised similar issues in his Amendment 15 which emphasises the territorial integrity of Cornwall and its distinct identity, which is clearly fostered by its geographical remoteness.
I feel that these debates have been too MP-centric; we should concentrate more on the needs and interests of constituents. Let me briefly explain what I mean. I was very proud to be Assembly Member for Cardiff Central for 12 years. That is the smallest Welsh constituency, in geographical terms. Out of rush hour, I could drive from one end of my constituency to the other in 15 minutes, and I could walk it in an hour. My constituents identified as Cardiffians, however, rather than as Cardiff Central residents.
I always said I had the best bits: Cardiff Castle; St David’s Hall; the magnificent Cathays Park; a whole phalanx of university institutions, such as Cardiff University—for which I declare an interest as chancellor —Cardiff Metropolitan University, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the University of South Wales, the University of Wales headquarters, the Open University headquarters in Wales; and, probably most importantly of all, the Principality Stadium. The point I am making is that all my constituents would be familiar with all those places. When they went to a pantomime at Christmas, it was at the New Theatre. They shopped at the same Marks and Sparks. On a sunny summer’s day almost all of them, it seemed, would walk around Roath Park. My point is that they had a community of interest and experience.
However, my experience as an AM was in stark contrast to Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire. Both are large rural constituencies and, importantly, together they make up the county of Powys. If you add their electorates together you get a giant 105,000, which would clearly be beyond the allowed variation to create one constituency. Their geographical size makes community of interest a more difficult issue. It takes almost two hours to drive the 72 miles from Ystradgynlais, in the south of Brecon and Radnorshire, to Llaithddu at the other end of that constituency, so, clearly, local people do not all use the same park. Montgomeryshire is in much the same vein—similarly large. But what they do have in common is the provision of similar council services and a strong rural Powys identity, and that should be preserved.
The Government have already accepted the principle that some constituencies— islands, for example—have such distinctive features that they cannot be shoehorned into the Government’s balance-sheet approach to the electorate. I welcome the inclusion of Ynys Môn in this list, but it is certainly not the same as the Isle of Wight. For example, there is a road bridge across to Ynys Môn, which makes a big difference to your awareness of it as an island. I would say that what is good for Ynys Môn is also good for Powys. I acknowledge the issues this raises, but deep rurality and sparse population are surely important characteristics that should be taken into account. I urge the Government, even at this point, to consider this issue in relation to these two constituencies.
My Lords, I must declare an interest, in that my grandfather was from Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa in the deepest rural part of Montgomeryshire. The boundary commissioners proposed in 2016 to link north Montgomeryshire with South Clwyd. I suspect that that proposal may be once more on the table following this Bill—it looks all right on a map.
Earlier this year, when I was recuperating from illness, I persuaded my wife, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to drive me over the Berwyn mountains from the valley of the River Dee. We took the mountain road from Glyndyfrdwy, in Denbighshire and in the South Clwyd constituency. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the tarmac runs out at the bwlch—the top—and that the track thereafter was unfit for motor vehicles. Naturally, I insisted on going on. It was a hair-raising experience for the noble Baroness. We bottomed out on the fissured and deeply rutted track a few “expletives deleted” times. The only vehicle we met belonged to some Midlander holidaymakers bumping along, who had lost their way blindly following the satnav and were 10 miles adrift.
When we got down the other side of the mountain and the noble Baroness had calmed a little, we were in the Ceiriog Valley in a different county, the county of Wrexham. However, we were still in the Clwyd South constituency. The River Ceiriog runs along a high-sided valley into the River Dee some 20 miles to the east at the English border. We had to go west over another mountain on a single track road, fortunately this time tarmacked, to reach Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, once in the Denbigh constituency, but now in Montgomeryshire. There, we were in the Tanat Valley. The River Tanat runs into the Severn, again far to the east over the English border.
There was another range to surmount to arrive in the valley of the River Vyrnwy and yet another range between us and the Severn valley around Newtown. To get from where we started in Clwyd South to the nearest point of Montgomeryshire by an ordinary double track road, would have been a 30-mile trip through Oswestry in England and a 60-mile trip to Newtown. The geography of Wales is such that the main rivers run from west to east. The Severn traverses Montgomeryshire to Shrewsbury and the Wye crosses Brecon and Radnor to Hereford. Between these two major river valleys there are mountains, through which there is a single winding road, the A483. This was termed the deadliest in Wales two years ago, with 4.3 fatalities per 10,000 inhabitants. To the west, over the waterfront, the rivers run the opposite direction, east to west, into Cardigan Bay in the constituency of Ceredigion. It is a long way to Aberystwyth, and I hope the Boundary Commission does not start adding or subtracting populations over there.
One cannot alter geography by Act of Parliament. Each valley contains individual communities where even the language changes and the accents vary. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, made the same point in the debate on the fifth group today. This is where the concept of strict quotas falls down. The Government suggested and will no doubt cling to the 5% variant either way. Fortunately, we have now voted to extend it, and I trust Government will not seek to reverse our decision. The Minister said he wanted Wales to be fairly represented and that really does not depend upon meeting quotas of voters.
Each of these two constituencies has approximately 55,000 voters, and each has huge and difficult terrain. If the tie between MP and constituent is to mean anything, it is senseless to carve up these communities. Over such a wide and diverse area where the geography separates communities, it is not surprising the problems for an MP are various, diverse, and unique. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, speaking earlier today, that there should be a community link, a common interest, so that an MP can speak for that community, one hopes with a single voice.
However, I must consider what effect the permanent maintenance of an untouchable pair of constituencies would have on adjoining constituencies to the north, west and south. In the end, I fear an even worse melange may be the result. In the debate on group 5, my noble friend Lord Rennard made a passionate plea for flexibility, and I entirely agree. It is for that reason only that I fear I cannot support either amendment, but I hope that the Boundary Commissioners, when they meet, take into account the special problems of the county of Powys, act flexibly and come up with something more sensible than the proposals of 2016.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken to these amendments. It has been a very good gathering of Welsh Peers—when we speak about Wales, we know what we are talking about from our experience of travelling around Wales. My noble friend Lord Lipsey has always made a very good case for keeping Brecon and Radnorshire as a protected constituency; likewise Amendment 19 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley.
These two constituencies cover a large geographic area of Wales, with Brecon and Radnorshire being the largest constituency by area in Wales or England, with a population of around 69,000 and an electorate of 53,000—we are talking about very big areas. Today, even with all the new technology, the MP needs to be seen and the constituents need access to their Member of Parliament. It is already difficult for the MPs to serve their constituencies, because of their size. A larger geographical constituency would only increase that difficulty, not only for the MPs but for the political parties that have to organise for elections and communicate with the electorate. How much more difficult will this be if the boundaries are extended?
We will continue to press on the Government that the geography and communities of Wales should be regarded as important considerations when looking at constituency boundaries. I hope the Government will listen to reason as the Bill returns to the Commons and add some flexibility, to enable these large geographical constituencies to be recognised, the main argument being that constituency boundaries are too important to be decided just on numbers. Such changes have an enormous impact on fairness, representation, and respect for local history, the people and the communities concerned. In Wales, the Welsh language is very important as well. I think a good case has been made and I trust the Minister will take note of the arguments we have put tonight.
My Lords, again I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. First, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that I am sorry if he felt disobliged by anybody. To him and to any other noble Lord who wishes to discuss an amendment to a piece of legislation, I say that as long as I am at this Dispatch Box, my door is open to any noble Lord of any party who wishes to discuss a matter before the House. I was glad of the opportunity to talk to him. It is unfortunate, from his point of view and that of other noble Lords who have spoken, that amiable conversation does not always lead to identity of view.
I will not, at this late hour, repeat to the House the fundamental arguments as to why the Government are opposed to additional protected constituencies; I point out merely that had it been the policy of the Government to entertain protected constituencies beyond the islands we have discussed—and the Government did show flexibility in relation to Wales, with the decision on Ynys Môn—and had the Government been open to protect a particular constituency, I have no doubt that your Lordships would have been detained by not two or three but 40 or 50 amendments claiming due protection for different parts of our United Kingdom. Saying that is not to disparage in any way the passion, knowledge and commitment with which this amendment was argued —as, indeed, was the earlier amendment on Cornwall. I resisted the amendment on Cornwall for the same reasons.
I will add briefly some comments on the two amendments. This evening noble Lords again repeated arguments that were put in Grand Committee relating to the challenges associated with the size of large rural constituencies. We heard again tonight from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said in Grand Committee: it takes two hours to drive from one end of Brecon and Radnorshire to the other. The noble Lord said, I think, that the Prime Minister could drive across his constituency in 10 minutes. I wonder if that is still the case, judging by the appalling delays being inflicted by Mayor Sadiq Khan on drivers in London currently.
Be that as it may, I recognise that rural constituencies present challenges. However, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra said in Committee, these can be overcome, particularly in an age of technological change. I respect the love for these communities that has been expressed in the House tonight, and I understand the factors involved. Living in a large rural area is certainly different from living in a crowded city, and not only in terms of travel and transport. Is that, however, a reason to give one voter greater influence than another in choosing the Government? If it is, then we could not stop just at Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire. Five constituencies in Scotland are between one and a half and four times the size of Brecon and Radnorshire. My noble friend Lord Blencathra also reminded us that his former constituency in the Lake District was larger than Brecon and Radnorshire, with comparably difficult terrain to contend with.
By protecting Brecon and Radnorshire, and Montgomeryshire, we would implicitly be inviting a demand to protect Ross, Skye and Lochaber; Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross; Argyll and Bute; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey; and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale—just to mention constituencies in Scotland. That would seriously affect our overall aim of voter equality.
I take the point about islands—as I drive across the Menai bridge I feel that I am entering an island. The current protected constituencies share common characteristics: they are exclusively islands with sizeable surface areas and electorates. Brecon and Radnorshire and Mongomeryshire, like Cornwall, do not share these characteristics.
I will not repeat the arguments about Welsh representation and the Union. I made those—I hope with some force—in relation to an earlier group, but I underline that we believe that Wales’s representation is strong and the Union is best served by equality of representation in this United Kingdom Parliament.
The Government are committed to delivering equal and updated constituencies so that UK electors can be confident that their votes are of equal strength. Each additional protected constituency affects the underlying principle of equally sized constituencies, whether it is 5%—the Government will respectfully reflect on what the House has said about that—or a higher number. The Boundary Commissions have substantial flexibility in the existing system and the responsibility to look at a number of the factors raised this evening.
For these reasons and those I addressed in relation to Cornwall—an equally loved part of our United Kingdom —the Government will resist the amendment, and I hope that the noble Lord feels able to withdraw it.
My Lords, I think that the friends of Brecon and Radnorshire should have a good party when coronavirus has departed and we are no longer bound by the rule of six. For all his courtesy, however, I am afraid I will not be able to invite the Minister. All that needs to be said on this subject has been said, and I therefore beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
House adjourned at 8.19 pm.