Motion A

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Commons Reasons – in the House of Lords at 1:32 pm on 26th November 2020.

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Lord True:

Moved by Lord True

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

1A: Because the Commons consider that eight years is a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly.

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

My Lords, in moving Motion A, I will also speak to Amendments 2, 6, 7 and 8, on which I shall also beg to move that the House do not insist on those amendments, to which the Commons have disagreed.

Amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. The Commons have opted to disagree to these amendments, as eight years is deemed a better balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly without disruption to local communities and their representatives.

The Commons disagree to Amendment 6, which proposes a bespoke appointment system for boundary commissioners. The Commons consider that the existing public appointments system and the requirements of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are sufficient. The public appointment system used to recruit commissioners is robust and has led to the appointment of impartial and effective candidates for decades.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has since tabled an amendment in lieu on this topic, which we will return to in more detail later. However, I wanted to take the opportunity at this point to thank the noble and learned Lord for his constructive and positive approach to engaging with me and officials, and indeed other senior Ministers in the Government, on his amendment throughout the passage of the Bill. It was a model of the approach for a revising Chamber.

We have had many conversations at every stage since this Bill entered the Lords and have thoroughly debated the aspects of the amendment. Even though the Government were unable to accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendments, I hope he has found our exchanges of a good nature and believes that they have resulted in reassurances that made them worth while.

Under Amendment 7, the number of voters in each constituency would be permitted to vary from the UK average by plus or minus 7.5%, which equates to a total tolerance range of 15%. The Commons—the elected House—consider that the existing law on this matter, that of a tolerance range of 10%, is sufficient to ensure equal parliamentary constituency boundaries.

Finally, turning to Lords Amendment 8, this required the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers. The Commons consider that the Government have provided sufficient explanation of action they have taken and are taking to improve the completeness of the electoral registers.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who so sadly passed away and who tabled the original amendment. It was a privilege to call him my noble friend when he was my Deputy Chief Whip during the years of coalition. In those Quaker values which have so enriched the Liberal party—as it was—and the Liberal Democrats over generations were rooted his principles of straight talking and straight dealing, which we all remember, as we remember his passion for his work and his good humour. He will be sorely missed, particularly by colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Since then, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who had not previously taken part in the Bill, has tabled a new amendment in lieu. The Government cannot accept this amendment for reasons I have privately explained to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, but we will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss this further.

As is quite proper, this House asked the Commons to re-examine the detail of this Bill. The House of Commons did so and have returned a Bill to us that is now ready to go to Her Majesty for Royal Assent. The elected Chamber, to which this Bill directly relates, has considered your Lordships’ amendments, and indeed accepted three in relation to the automaticity provisions, and has made its will now known. I therefore urge noble Lords not to insist upon these amendments. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister for the courtesy and pleasure, if I may say so, of being able to debate the issues that lay behind the original amendment I put forward. I am extremely grateful to him for the courtesy and the trouble to which he has gone, and to his officials, who went beyond their ordinary tasks even in these most difficult times to help me.

I have put forward today an amendment to the original clause that was carried by this House. It is plain that the original clause would have brought about a better appointment system, but the decision has been made by the other place that they do not agree. As regards the amendment I have tabled today, it deals with a narrow and specific point of some constitutional importance. That is why I have put the amendment forward: to amend the clause on a very narrow basis.

However, I wish to make it clear now that I do not intend to press this amendment to a Division because, in the ultimate analysis, it must be for the other place to accept it. However, given the times in which we live, I think it is important to record the matter formally, because it may turn out to be of great importance in the future. As regards the more general points, they are of very considerable relevance at the present time. Although in what I have to say I will be a little critical of the Government, I wish to make it abundantly clear that anything I say in no way criticises the present Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor. This is a more general point, directed at the Government as a whole, now and for the future.

The amendment today, on this narrow point, has the objective of bringing the provisions for the appointment of the deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission into line with the principles of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which changed the position of the Lord Chancellor. Noble Lords may recall that the debate on the position of the Lord Chancellor was an extensive one. There were very detailed discussions between the judiciary, at that time led by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs led by the Lord Chancellor— as he then truly was—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

A concordat was reached in 2004, which sets out very clear principles that were embodied in the Bill. Those principles were that the deployment and appointments to posts of judges were for the Lord Chief Justice. In respect of some, the Lord Chief Justice was obliged to consult the Lord Chancellor and, in the case of one or two, obtain his concurrence, but the important point is that the decision was that of the Lord Chief Justice. That was because the Lord Chancellor ceased to have any judicial functions and to be head of the judiciary. That is a basic and fundamental constitutional position. The Lord Chief Justice became head of the judiciary and responsible for judicial deployment and the allocation of responsibilities and—importantly—of cases.

The power of appointment to the post of deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission dates from a time when the Lord Chancellor was a judge and head of the judiciary. It is noticeable in the Act that the powers of the Lord Chancellor did not extend to the appointment of the deputy chairman in Scotland or Northern Ireland, because the Lord Chancellor was not head of the judiciary there. Unfortunately, though I think it is hardly surprising, having been involved myself at the time, this provision was overlooked. There were literally hundreds of posts and duties that the Lord Chancellor had accreted over the centuries; that one or two slipped by is not surprising. It is essential to rectify the position now for two reasons: first, to correct an error and, secondly—far more importantly—because the position of the Boundary Commission has changed. It is no longer advisory and its decisions are not subject to any review by Parliament; it decides and Parliament and the Executive Government carry out the decision. The position, as I made clear on the last occasion, is no different to the selection of someone to decide a case. When a judge decides a case, the matter must be enforced by the Executive and adhered to by Parliament. It is quite clear that the Lord Chancellor could not pick a judge to decide a particular case; it would be wrong.

As I could not understand why the Government were opposing this change, I asked three question that I hoped would elucidate the reasons for the decision. I asked if the Lord Chancellor was satisfied that a decision by him as Lord Chancellor, or by any successor, personally to appoint the deputy chairman would be in accordance with legal principles, given that it would be a decision in which the Lord Chancellor—unless he were a peer, which was of course the case prior to 2005—had an actual interest, as the Commission would be determining the boundaries of the Lord Chancellor’s own constituency. The answer I got was that, in making such an appointment, the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established law principles. It seems clear that the Government accept that there is a personal interest in this matter. My second question was whether it would be susceptible to a legal challenge. To that I got the answer that in making such an appointment the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established public law principles. Thirdly, I asked whether it was consistent with the duty placed on the Lord Chancellor to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. The answer was that is not inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, because the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments, it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent for the judicial appointment system. The same could be said of these appointments.

I am afraid that—as I shall explain in a moment—I must disagree with that last answer. Having received those answers drafted by his officials, I considered the matter of such constitutional importance that I asked the Lord Chancellor to confirm that he agreed with those answers, and that confirmation was given. I was told that he wanted it noted that the role of a constituency MP and Lord Chancellor were separate, and that the Lord Chancellor would always have to act consistently with public law principles.

To turn to an analysis of those answers, it seems quite clear that it is accepted—as the Government had to accept—that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor had an interest in the decision to appoint a deputy chair, as a decision is being made about his own constituency. The position is plainly different. This is a decision in which the person selecting the chairman has a direct interest. It seems quite clear, therefore, that the decision of the Lord Chancellor to appoint a particular judge is susceptible to judicial review. Obviously, one cannot predict what will happen in the future, but there must be a real risk that an appointment could be challenged, either when made or, more seriously, subsequently. It would be said that it was impossible for someone who had such a conflict of interest to make a fair and impartial decision and, as importantly, to be seen to make a fair and impartial decision. The real risk here is for the future. Let us just assume that the Lord Chancellor does this: the Boundary Commission is appointed, someone is disappointed or unhappy with the result, the decision of the Government that it is for the Lord Chancellor to make this decision would provide a perfect means of bringing a judicial review of the appointment of the deputy chairman. This would risk—to my mind a matter of great regret—leaving the decision of the Boundary Commission open to challenge by an attack on its deputy chairman. That would be a very serious inroad into this new system, with which otherwise I entirely agree.

The decision to proceed on the basis is justified by the reason that the Lord Chancellor has an role in the appointment of judges but, as the parts of the amendment that I am not speaking about today make clear—because those parts were modelled exactly upon the way in which judges are appointed—the role of the Lord Chancellor is extraordinarily limited. He can ask the appointers to think again or he can give reasons for rejection, but those reasons must be in writing. Of course, if the Lord Chancellor had any role whatever in the future career of a judge who he would be entitled to appoint to be deputy chairman, there would be a serious risk of impropriety. Some would be able to say, “He appointed Judge X; Judge X knows what may happen in the future and knows the Lord Chancellor could advance him” and therefore his decision would not be an acceptable one.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has been kind enough to write to me to confirm one matter on which the Government have relied—the practice that has hitherto existed of the Lord Chief Justice being consulted. I shall return in a moment to the way in which this is put. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for confirming that, although there is no statutory requirement, he gives an assurance,

“that I will commit to the Lord Chancellor formally consulting the Lord Chief Justice on all future appointments.”

However, that does not deal with the question of principle, which is clear in the Constitutional Reform Act that it is for the Lord Chief Justice, as head of the judiciary and the person responsible for the allocation of responsibilities in deployment, to make the decision. The consultation should be the other way around. This course of action that the Government are taking is in flagrant contradiction of well-established constitutional principles laid down in the Constitutional Reform Act.

I do not understand that, because the reasons given so far in this House and the other place, and by the Lord Chancellor, do not explain why there is to be this departure from principle. One inference could be that there is something to be gained from it. I do not understand what that could be, but of course I am not really involved in politics, so I am not sure why this is being insisted on. Possibly it could be said that the principles in the Constitutional Reform Act are somehow inapplicable. I do not understand that either. Or, more seriously, there may not be a commitment to the principles of the Constitutional Reform Act that underpin the independence of the judiciary and, as I shall explain in a moment, the rule of law. By insisting on retaining the position and not following the clear constitutional principles, Her Majesty’s Government are wrong in what they seek to do. It is a potential attack on the independence of the judiciary and thus corrosive of the rule of law.

I need not say much about that, because this House is well familiar with the attitude to the rule of law, having only recently had to consider Part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which, I will just add, has damaged the position of the judiciary in the UK. In the position I have, I am in at least weekly contact—possibly more frequently—with lawyers and judges across the world, and it ought to be clear that very substantial damage has been done by Part 5 of that Bill. People who had always highly respected our system were deeply shocked at the Government’s decision to abnegate the rule of law.

Now, apart from the question of the views that others take of us, it is also quite important to realise how damaging it is when we turn away from the rule of law.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:45 pm, 26th November 2020

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has been speaking for 20 minutes. Could he now wind up, please?

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

I will be a moment longer. I just want to add one final point—and it is this. One can see the damage done when a country such as China criticises Her Majesty’s Government for going back on a treaty. Its comments speak for themselves.

I will conclude by saying that we should be vigilant for the future. The threat to the rule of law is still there, and there are more matters to come. I hope very much that on future occasions this Government will be much more careful about the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

Photo of Lord Woolley of Woodford Lord Woolley of Woodford Crossbench

My Lords, I first apologise to the House and my fellow noble Lords for coming to this debate very late in the day. I am new to the Chamber, as many noble Lords will know, and I would argue that I and many others were thrown off track by the pandemic. I apologise, and for that reason I will not be putting my amendment to a vote—because I respect noble Lords and I respect this House.

However, I will not apologise for wanting to ensure that hundreds of thousands of young people are registered to vote and have a voice in our society. I have dedicated most of my adult life to ensuring that young people and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can be part of our society—and without a vote, you do not have a voice.

Before I go into that, I pay tribute to David, Lord Shutt, who, as the Minister said, was our friend. I knew David more than 20 years ago when I was an activist, just starting out with Operation Black Vote. We had no money—and no money any time soon. I was asked by Stephen Pittam, who was the social and racial justice director of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, to put in an application. So I did, and I was called to a panel, and David Shutt was the chair. I said to him, “You and I know that Martin Luther King had a dream. But he had more than a dream. He had a plan. And step one of that plan was to politically empower African Americans and white poor people to be in a situation where they are not asking for justice and equality but demanding it. And they demand it by voter registration, by having a strong voice”. In typical Yorkshire fashion, David turned around and said—I hope noble Lords will excuse my language—“You’ve convinced me. Give him the bloody money, and good luck”. And we then began a journey, going out the length and breadth of our nation to register our communities to vote.

Our focus has been on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities where, as many noble Lords will know, the deficit is the greatest. We laid bare about 10 years ago the fact that more than 50% of young Africans in London were not registered to vote. The average for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is 25%-plus, when the average across the board is around 15% to 17%. The problem that we are facing is not that there is a neutrality in some of our communities towards registering to vote and voting—there is antipathy towards it. People say, “Why should I vote when I do not see our institutions, locally or nationally, looking like us? There is no representation. How are they going to speak for me?” Too many say, “Why should I vote when policies are not addressing the deep-seated racial inequalities and disparities that affect our lives—in housing, education, health and many other areas? Why should I bother?” We as activists tell our communities and young people across the board, “That’s precisely why you should vote—because if you don’t have a voice, you can’t change anything”.

Twenty-five years later, from activist to one of your own as a fellow Peer, I come into this place and, once again, I bump into my old friend David, the late Lord Shutt. He says to me, “Young man, great to see you. We’ve got work to do. Your first step is to come and make a presentation to our committee”—which I did. He said, “Give us chapter and verse on how we can turn this round. Give us the tools to empower black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and young people across the board.” I said to him, “Look, it’s a no-brainer. At the very first instance, we should have automatic voter registration. You give them the insurance number and you make sure they’re registered. At least then our challenge to get them to vote is halfway done; we just need to give them the tools to do it.”

When I was presented with a proposition to come to the House and move this amendment, I jumped at the opportunity because, in terms of advising people when you give them their national insurance number on how they register to vote, this amendment is about the lowest-hanging fruit that there could be. In fact, it is so low, it is practically on the floor. Of course, I want us not just to take this low-hanging fruit. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord True; I would like to think that we have become good friends since this conversation began. He said to me—I take you true to your word, sir—that not only will we look at this, but we must look at other areas of political empowerment for our young people, including in schools, colleges and universities. We have to bridge this in full citizenship mode. We must ensure that our communities are empowered.

Noble Lords know as well as I do that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our society, particularly on elderly people, too many of whom have died, but also right across the piece. The pandemic has also had a particularly devastating effect on young people. Many will lose their jobs, as has been said. Many will be from black and minority ethnic communities, who are disproportionately losing their jobs. Given that they are dramatically affected, it is incumbent on us to give them the tools to put things right. That cannot happen unless they have a political voice to make demands on us. As parliamentarians, it is our job to make it as easy as possible for them to play a role in our society—including through registering to vote and voting—by forging a future pathway that will give them the opportunities that they deserve.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees 2:00 pm, 26th November 2020

My Lords, the following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Lords, Lord Rennard, Lord Beith and Lord Lexden. I will call each in turn, then if anyone else in the Chamber wishes to speak, they too can be called—[Interruption.] I beg noble Lords’ pardon; they are quite right. The noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Blencathra, both told me that they wished to speak; I just left them off the list because I did not write it down properly. I will call each noble Lord in turn then I will seek any other speakers in the Chamber. To begin with, I call the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the last words in this House of my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland helped to carry an amendment to this Bill by 293 votes to 215. The majority for that amendment was 78 in a vote in which more than 500 Peers took part and which was supported by more than 80% of the Cross-Bench Peers who voted—but it was not accepted. The whole House should now be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for having tabled a compromise amendment on a subject with which he has a long history of involvement and about which he spoke so powerfully and persuasively.

The suggested compromise is based on one of the key recommendations of the Select Committee, which studied electoral registration issues over many months and received evidence from more than 60 people, many of whom are experts in the field. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, was one of those experts. As he said, he has many years’ experience of campaigning with Operation Black Vote on the underrepresentation of black people on electoral registers. He pointed out in his evidence that he has been talking to such committees for more than 10 years; he said that the questions remain the same but there remains a lack of political will to deal with them. He also explained that the introduction of individual voter registration has had a huge impact in reducing the levels of registration from diverse communities.

The noble Lord’s amendment today is not the same as that of Lord Shutt and his colleagues. The Government are not asked in this amendment to consider the introduction of any form of automatic voter registration. In fact, they are not asked to do anything at all except tell us what proposals they have to do what they say they want to do anyway. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, it is the softest amendment possible. Ministers claim repeatedly that the Government want to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers. The noble Lord’s amendment simply asks them to consider inviting young people to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. Such a notification would cost nothing. The easiest way of registering to vote is with a national insurance number, so the best time to register is when you get your national insurance number.

Young people about to attain the age of 18 are all supposed to be registered and included in the calculations of the Boundary Commissions; their absence, and that of others, makes those boundaries unfair and, many would suggest, gerrymandered. These young people need to be registered in order to vote, obtain credit and be summoned for jury service. However, the latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that 75% of them are not registered to vote, as against only 6% of those aged over 65. This is an enormous disparity. The Government talk about their efforts in relation to registering young people, but if only 25% of those about to turn 18 are registered compared with 45% five years ago, those efforts are clearly failing—unless, that is, their real efforts are to reduce the number of young people registered to vote. If so, they should be honest about voter suppression, which might come from the Donald Trump playbook. Or, if this is not their aim, they should say why they have been unable to provide a single reason for not registering young people in this way. They have not been able to do so at any point in the four months that we have been considering this Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, the figures for registering young black people are even worse than they are for young people generally. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently raised concerns that 25% of black people are not registered to vote, compared with 17% of the total population. If these figures are correct, they would mean that more than 80% of young black people about to attain the age of 18 are not registered to vote—and the danger is that they may never be, and that they may never take part in our democratic society.

This issue affects our democracy. It affects social mobility, as those not registered may not be able to obtain credit when they apply for it. It affects justice, as juries drawn from the electoral registers may be unrepresentative. The criminal sub-committee of Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges recently described problems with jury service, saying that

“there are currently many who are eligible but are not registered to vote and are not called for jury service.”

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is a compromise. It does not go as far as the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended, with cross-party support. The principle of registering young people automatically, or in this way, was supported by the senior Conservative election strategist the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in that Select Committee and in the Grand Committee considering the Bill.

The same principles were strongly supported by the Conservative Party’s official historian, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in the Select Committee and on Report. I am pleased that he is again supporting the principle of the amendment today. The last Labour Minister responsible for handling such issues, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is sadly unable to attend, but he is a strong supporter of the principles of the amendment. All 133 of the 133 Labour Peers who voted on Lord Shutt’s original amendment voted for something that went far further than the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, seeks today.

I recently reread the House of Commons debate on Lord Shutt’s amendment. The principle of automatic voter registration was strongly attacked by Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg. He spoke knowing that he had vetoed MPs voting electronically in the same way that we do in this House, so he was speaking in the knowledge that the Conservative Whips could cast around 200 votes as proxies without MPs being allowed even to press a button for themselves. Even from this House we can say that that is an affront to democracy. Even with all his debating skills, Mr Rees-Mogg could voice no argument against notifying young people about how to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. That is because there is no democratic argument against it.

The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, skilfully suggested a compromise of the kind that this House should be proud to support. My noble friend Lord Tyler will ensure that there is an opportunity for Members to vote on this issue. Please use your vote today to make sure that young people can vote in future.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, for his generous and kind words about Lord Shutt of Greetland—our friend David Shutt. They were very accurate and true. I knew David for over 50 years. He was a liberal to his fingertips, a democrat in every way, a proud upholder of nonconformist and Quaker values, and a proud Yorkshireman. He was a larger than life figure in this place and we will miss him enormously. If there is anything that I can do today by casting a vote that would further the cause in which he so profoundly believed—that young people must be drawn into our democratic system—I will do so with enthusiasm.

I refer to the amendment in lieu from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. He has worked assiduously on the Bill to try to safeguard the important principles at stake. It was obvious to me and everybody else that, the moment that Parliament could not delay or block Boundary Commission proposals, attention in some political quarters would shift to those who draw up those proposals. The pressure would be on who is appointed as boundary commissioners. It therefore became important to look at that carefully. We have done so over the course of the Bill, but I do not think we have reached an ideal solution.

We are in an anomalous situation on the position of Lord Chancellor, as was pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, by detailed reference to the debates on changes to the post, which I remember vividly. I have great respect for the present Lord Chancellor, who served on the Justice Committee when I chaired it. I know that he is committed to the most important principles of our legal system, but this is not an ad hominem case; we cannot make it depend on one individual. It is about the system we have for the future. When many other changes were made, powers previously held by the Lord Chancellor shifted to the Lord Chief Justice, as head of the judiciary. This power should have gone the same way.

We are no longer in an era in which we can safely rely on people to do the right thing, if we ever could. The political context has changed significantly, and we have had some examples of that, including the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the Prorogation row. Things that people assumed would not happen happened. Positions that people assumed would not be taken up were taken up. We are no longer in an era in which we can safely assume that the holder of a political office will always put the integrity of the system ahead of pressing political concerns or matters that might seem important and high priority, but which should not be achieved by damaging the system and its fairness in the application of the rule of law.

That is why we should free the Lord Chancellor from any suggestion of political involvement in the appointment of the deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission. Put that safely in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, who is not a political officeholder and is not subject to the same pressures. I wait with interest, but not, I am afraid, a great deal of optimism, to hear what the noble Lord, Lord True, says about the position. Expressions of confidence that people would never do things that they have not done in the past can no longer be relied on.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:15 pm, 26th November 2020

My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford. Like him and other noble Lords on all sides of the House, I deeply regret that the amendment cannot be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who so effectively made the case for action to get more young people on the electoral registers just a few weeks ago on Report. Lord Shutt of Greetland will be remembered vividly and affectionately by all his colleagues, of whom I was one, who worked with him on the all-party Select Committee that considered the state of our country’s electoral system in detail, seven years after the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. It would be a fine tribute to his memory if what might be termed the Shutt-Woolley amendment was incorporated in the Bill. If it is not, I hope that something like it wins parliamentary approval before too long.

When I spoke on the earlier Shutt amendment, I asked Members of the House to bear in mind that it provided two alternative routes by which tomorrow’s voters could be brought on to the electoral registers, at the ages of 16 and 17, in readiness to cast their votes when they turn 18. The first, as we have heard, proposed automatic registration if electoral registration officers were satisfied of their eligibility when national insurance numbers were issued. The Shutt amendment offered a second way to the goal, which all supporters of democracy surely must share—that of ending the grave under- participation of young people aged 18 and over in our country’s elections. The second method, as we have heard, involved no more than providing them with information about the process by which the precious right to vote can be acquired.

In responding to the amendment, the Government chose to ignore the second part altogether. Not one word was said about it from the Government Front Bench. Its supporters were called on to vote against it, on the grounds that automatic registration was objectionable in principle—an objection that many Conservatives do not share. The same thing happened when the Shutt amendment was debated in the Commons.

The new version before us omits the provision for automatic registration on which the Government based their entire opposition to the original amendment. The amendment proposes, in modest terms, that it should be permissible for young people, on whom the future success of our country depends, to be notified of what they should do to gain the right to cast a vote and play their part in our democracy. Can there really be a serious argument for not informing our country’s youngsters, who stand at the gateway of democracy, about what they need to do to pass through it, when information can be supplied to them readily and at very little cost as a result of today’s electronic miracles?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees

For noble Lords’ information, the next three speakers will be the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Blencathra and Lord Cormack.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has said, with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and with the very eloquent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. The Minister said that the House of Commons had given a view on this, but it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to ask it to think a second time on issues where we believe that there is a very strong public interest, particularly constitutional issues, since we are a constitutional safeguard. There are not many others in our system. One is the courts, and we have heard from a former Lord Chief Justice, who also spoke extremely eloquently about the composition of the Boundary Commissions. When a former Lord Chief Justice raises concerns about possible gerrymandering of the Boundary Commissions, we should take note.

For all the reasons that have been given so far, the issue of engagement of young people in our democratic system is fundamental. It is not a peripheral issue for the future of this country, and it is all the more fundamental because of the current evidence of massive underregistration of young people. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, spoke with great passion about how ethnic minority groups are even more underrepresented than young people at large. The evidence is that in the 2017 election, only 64%—not even two-thirds—of 18 to 24 year-olds were even on the electoral register, so the rest were not even able to participate unless they went through the laborious process of registering themselves during the election. Many would then have missed the deadline, and I had not even thought about the very powerful point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that if they are not on the electoral register, they are not available for jury service either. All these attributes of citizenship, which are fundamental to the future of our democracy, they are not engaged in.

Only 64% being registered is a huge condemnation of the status quo. The Minister cannot say that the system works and therefore, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The system is fundamentally broken, and not because of changes that go back a long time and which are hard to tackle but because of the introduction of individual registration, a reform introduced only six years ago, and which was itself, in respect of young people, unnecessary because, as the second aspect of this amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to, makes clear, we know who all the 16 year- olds in the country are. It is not a mystery. They all get a national insurance card. The state thinks that it is important for them to be registered for taxation, but not to be registered to vote. These are fundamental issues, and if we have any role in our constitutional development as a country, we should be drawing them further to the attention of the House of Commons, and we should certainly be putting on the record, as emphatically as we can, that the status quo does not work satisfactorily at the moment.

In the previous two elections, since we have had individual registration playing through, there has been a fundamental underrepresentation of young people, particularly in minority and poorer groups. Also, young people are becoming increasingly politicised because of the scale of the issues affecting them—Brexit, Covid-19 and so on—and as soon as elections come, they suddenly and frantically seek to register. The figures from the Electoral Commission are that in the general election in 2019, 1.4 million young people registered after the calling of the election, and apparently most of the new registrations on 10 of the 15 days with the highest number of new registrations were of young people at that general election.

The Minister might say that this shows that the system is, to some extent, working, but I do not think that it shows that at all. It shows a massive crisis in registration. When young people realise that they are not registered, some, but only a proportion, take the active steps necessary to correct that in that very short window between the calling of the election and the final date for being able to register. This is not a system that is working, it is one that is fundamentally broken, and one where the remedies are very straight- forward. Automatic registration is very straightforward to implement. It could be done immediately and should have been done under this Bill, but the Government rejected it. The further amendment on the paper today, which I absolutely believe that we should carry, would simply draw to the attention of young people that they should be registered.

When there is a fundamental problem of this kind, one does not need to look for the motivation behind it because, in the time that I have been in this House, this is the fourth occasion on which we have addressed the issue of individual registration. It looks very straight- forward and clear to me. Not all members of the Conservative Party, but the electoral advisers of the Conservative Party think they have a direct political interest in voter suppression in general and in the underregistration of young people in particular. Looking at the tactics in this populist movement that has been sweeping the United States and Britain, unfortunately the Prime Minister, who is a representative of it—not as bad as Donald Trump but still pretty bad—is perfectly content to resort to such methods so that fewer young people are registered and vote. On all the evidence, that appears to be the case. This makes me, and, I hope, other noble Lords who take these issues to heart, all the more determined that these issues should be aired, not suppressed, and that we should send this issue back to the House of Commons a second time.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, I just popped in today to see this Bill put safety to bed, having participated extensively in Committee and on Report—speaking on it for far too long, noble Lords may wish to shout. I was therefore surprised to see the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and to hear his speech. I congratulate him on a passionate and thorough speech, but one which should have been made at Second Reading. It was a perfect example of a Second Reading speech, and it would also have gone down perfectly well in Committee.

The noble Lord has apologised to the House for coming to the matter late in the day, as he put it, for which he blamed the pandemic. We have all had to change our modus operandi because of the pandemic, but I cannot imagine why, over the past four months, he was unable to participate in any stage of this Bill, online or in the Chamber. While I participated upstairs in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, participated from somewhere in the south-west—Devon, I presume—and many other noble Lords participated online. As a new Member, I made mistakes on the procedures, etiquette and courtesies of this House and had to apologise. I know he has apologised today, but the procedure that he has adopted, coming in with this amendment out of the blue at this late stage, is not the right thing to do in this House. I hope that he has not been used as a Trojan horse by the Liberal Democrats, because this has all the smell of a Liberal Democrat ploy. Someone else moves an amendment, the noble Lord has said that he will not vote on it, but it looks as though the Liberal Democrats will force a vote on ping-pong at this stage.

Irrespective of the merits of the arguments and the passionate speech by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we should follow the usual customs and courtesies of this House at ping-pong.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blencathra makes a very important point, one that was acknowledged in his speech by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, when he said that he would not be pressing his amendment to a Division. That is right. Reversing that famous quote from TS Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”, he was doing the wrong thing for the right reason, rather than the right thing for the wrong reason. I have great sympathy with him. We should move on with this Bill now, but we cannot escape facing up to the realities of compulsory registration.

Some of your Lordships may recall the phrase, “no taxation without representation”. If you are obliged to have your national insurance number and to pay tax, you should be obliged to be on the electoral register. I would go one step further: I believe in compulsory voting. That does not mean you cannot destroy your ballot paper or write, “A plague on both your houses” on it. I believe it is a civic duty to take part in the electoral process whether by casting or spoiling your vote.

I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, will not move his amendment to the Motion. A little bird tells me that it might be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I would not support that because it would not be appropriate.

I join in paying tribute to the late and delightful Lord Shutt of Greetland. I had the honour of dining opposite him on the long table in the week before he died. He brought a rumbustious good sense and good humour to our proceedings. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, he will be sorely missed in all parts of the House.

It is important to move on. This is the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. The other place has considered our amendments. While we should not refrain from playing ping-pong for quite a long time on certain Bills, such as the infernal market Bill, as I call it, in this case we should take heed of what the Commons has said and move on.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, also said that he would not put his amendment to the Motion to the vote. However, he raised a very important point on which we should all reflect at some length. The Lord Chancellor is now not really a judicial figure at all, but a political one. The Lord Chief Justice is not. The fundamental point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made at some length and with great eloquence is valid and should be taken on board. However, for today, we should move on.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees 2:30 pm, 26th November 2020

Are there any noble Lords present who were here at the beginning of this debate who would like to take part at this stage? No? In which case, I return to the list and call the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

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

My Lords, before I concentrate on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, I will make some general comments about the Bill. The Government’s response to the improvements made by your Lordships to the Bill, with large majorities, has been profoundly disappointing. However, my disappointment will pale into insignificance when many Conservative MPs discover in a couple of years’ time just how they have been fooled into thinking that their seats will be unaffected by boundary changes. The most careful independent analysis has demonstrated that the Government’s insistence on sticking to the narrow 5% variance in the electoral quota means that some two-thirds of all seats will be changed—all for no real correction of the perceived imbalance. Those MPs will not merely be disappointed; hundreds of Conservative MPs and their constituents will suffer unnecessary disruption. Even more significantly, there will be many blue-on-blue contests for the more winnable new seats in the mid-term of the Parliament, just when the Government is least popular.

As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, Mr Rees-Mogg made no reference to that when, during an inevitably sparsely attended debate, he managed to overturn the improvements passed with large cross-party majorities in your Lordships House. It will be interesting to witness the reaction of his fellow MPs when they realise what he has let them in for. There would be an element of wry amusement for the rest of us if it were not for the avoidable impact on historic, natural and well-established communities. All being well, the political integrity of Cornwall will be protected, but such a desirable outcome will not be guaranteed elsewhere.

This was perhaps the major issue during our debates on the Bill. However, removing some of the other improvements may in due course also be recognised as counterproductive and constitutionally defective. I fear we may live to regret that the House could not endorse the proper concerns expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Beith.

I and my colleagues are especially pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, from the Cross Benches, has tabled his amendment to the Motion on the vital issue of electoral registration. Had this been at a different stage of the Bill, a quartet of senior Members from all parts of the House would have signed it. This is underlined by the strength of supporting speeches on all sides this afternoon. It is particularly appropriate that the noble Lord should lead on this. He has been a powerful champion and campaigner in non-party efforts to get more young people—especially from BAME communities and through Operation Black Vote—to take up their civic responsibilities and rights by registering. He gave evidence on the registration issue to the Select Committee of this House, chaired by our much-missed colleague Lord Shutt of Greetland.

At this point I should say how much I and my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches appreciate the tributes to David from all sides during the Commons debate and again this afternoon in your Lordships’ House. After a lifetime of principled devotion to this cause, his sincerity and clear advocacy of these practical steps towards a more comprehensive democracy shone through during his successful speech on Report.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others have emphasised, this modest proposal would give practical effect to the aims to which Ministers have committed themselves. Without this kind of simple administrative adjustment, there is a real danger that the missing millions of unregistered young citizens will remain outside the system.

Ministers have reminded us that registering to vote is a civic duty. Unlike voting, which is entirely voluntary in Britain, co-operating with the registration process is a legal obligation unless the eligible citizen has a specific reason to be exempted. As my noble friend Lord Rennard reminded the House, the register is used to select for jury service. That is an important civic responsibility, which is not entirely voluntary. Failure to co-operate can lead to a fine of £1,000.

This proposal is not a form of automatic registration. Despite the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, it is not on the table for decision today. However, if the Government continue to block sensible ways to maximise registration, it could be argued that they are in a sense condoning law-breaking.

It has been clearly indicated that many of your Lordships on all sides of House wish to support this simple improvement. Therefore, if the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is not able to move his Motion E1 to propose Amendment 8B in lieu, I should be happy to do so and to seek the opinion of the House at the appropriate moment.

I again pay tribute to all who have helped to ensure that your Lordships’ House has fulfilled its proper scrutiny function. This includes the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True. As I have said previously, that is the fundamental right and responsibility of this House, not least when MPs and the governing party may need the corrective of relatively dispassionate, non-partisan and independent scrutiny on electoral law. We do not have the same special interests to declare as they have, which could take them into very unfortunate realm of special pleading, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made apparent.

Finally, I put on record on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, particularly all those who have worked on the Bill, our thanks and admiration for all those who have assisted the House, not least our excellent legislation adviser, Sarah Pughe. I thank the two Ministers and their team, the Public Bill Office and other officials of the House, as well as Members from all sides who value the integrity of the democratic process. I add thanks to those academic experts who gave us all such well-researched, non-partisan advice through all stages of the Bill.

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)

My Lords, this has been a useful debate on some important amendments, which were agreed by your Lordships’ House but which, in their complete lack of wisdom, the Government chose to overturn in the Commons—and two of which, rightly, have merited special attention today.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for tabling their counter- propositions. The former made a persuasive and constitutionally important case, to which I will return.

Before doing so, I would like to add my tribute to the late Lord Shutt of Greetland. His contributions on 8 October were, sadly, his last in this Chamber. His untimely death was of course a shock, but it is somehow fitting that that last speech was on expanding voter registration and encouraging people to engage in the democratic process—a cause which, as we have heard, he had championed for years, and one which the Government should take up with more than just warm words. If the future of our democracy is to mean anything, it will be through the full involvement of all our citizens in elections, be they at local, regional or national level.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made reference to “no representation without taxation”. I very gently point out that his party wants to extend representation without taxation by extending the right to vote to people who left this country maybe 40 or 50 years ago and have long since ceased to pay tax. But that is not on the agenda today.

I am saddened, although not surprised, by the Government’s rejection of all five amendments. Far from making the Government’s life difficult, they sought to address genuine concerns in a constructive manner. I particularly regret the lack of a bit of greater tolerance, which would, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, have helped even Conservative MPs—but it would particularly have helped those who are drawing lines round the valleys and mountains of Wales to have seats that had coherence for the Member seeking to represent them.

However, it is clear that there is not a mood for compromise, regardless of the merit of our arguments. To borrow a famous phrase, you can lead the Minister towards a sensible position but, unfortunately, you cannot make him adopt it—or, at least, not now.

One of the major arguments that we had with the coalition Government, which of course included the Liberal Democrats as well as the Minister’s own party, was over the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600, despite the population having grown and despite almost the same number being put into your Lordships’ unelected House at the same time. We warned the two parties then and we voted against them, but they were determined. So I am delighted that they have now seen the sense of our arguments. Welcome to our viewpoint—and perhaps in due course they will see the good sense behind Amendments 1, 2 and 7.

In particular, given the cogent arguments, and the concern of this House, we had hoped in all sincerity to see some movement on the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Given that Parliament will no longer have any backstop role over boundaries, the independence of commissions —which will no longer be advisory; they will effectively be law-makers—is even more vital. The noble and learned Lord sought to depoliticise, and therefore legitimise, the appointments process.

The Government’s position is a little concerning. It is true that some might be comforted by the departure of certain personnel from No. 10; nevertheless, the only true guarantee of independence is a transparent process guaranteed in law. Indeed, dealing, as we are, with this issue just at this moment, or, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in the times in which we live, when others such as Peter Riddell and the noble Lord, Lord Evans, have questioned how supposedly independent appointments are actually made, a very clear signal in this Motion that no elected politician would have any say would have been warmly welcomed.

The noble and learned Lord’s proposal—that appointments should be made by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, rather than by the Lord Chancellor —is an obvious way of ensuring and demonstrating the required independence. As he set out, given that the old rules were made when the Lord Chancellor was a Peer—and thus had absolutely no personal interest in the boundary of any seat—and a senior lawyer with other roles in judicial appointments, bringing today’s Boundary Commission appointments in line with other such appointments would have made absolute sense. The involvement of an elected MP, possibly a non-lawyer, in a role historically held by a non-elected senior lawyer simply does not make sense.

Again, sadly, we have to recall that the Government’s record in the vow of their recent Lord Chancellor—nothing to do with today’s—to uphold the rule of law was somewhat undermined when the judges were attacked over Brexit and the then incumbent failed to rally to their support. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, the current Lord Chancellor has stated that

“the roles of constituency MP and Lord Chancellor are separate and the Lord Chancellor will always have to act consistently with public law principles”.

I hope that that will indeed be the case when the new appointments are made, but I still regret the Government’s failure to accept Motion C1.

The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is surely sensible, and is hardly in conflict with any government policy. It aims to provide information on voter registration to new recipients of a national insurance number. It could not be easier and, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, it is the right thing to do. Further, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, it is cheap—in fact, it is probably free. The text drops the original provision for automatic registration but would achieve some of that by “catch them early and then keep them”.

As has been said, participation is the lifeblood of any democracy. The Prime Minister may have struggled in recent weeks to say that every vote in a certain election should be counted, but I think that the overwhelming majority of the public takes that for granted. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, regardless of age, ethnicity or any other circumstances, everyone deserves a voice. I go further: we need to hear those voices. We should all be worried that there are groups in society, predominantly of course the young and BAME people, whose voices are not heard. They are disproportionately absent from our elections and then, I fear, sometimes from the policies that shape their lives.

There really is no reason why the Government should not accede to this amendment, unless they have some very good new initiatives that are about to be announced, or a more suitable way of achieving the same end. This would be just one step towards increasing registration but it would be helpful and, as we have said, could be done at no cost.

As I have said on other amendments and other ping-pongs, it is actually the Government, not the House of Commons, whom we are seeking to persuade. I am certain, by the way, that on a free vote this amendment would have been passed overwhelmingly in the other House, although of course on a whipped vote the original amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. So sending it back, when the whip in the Commons remains, would, I fear, achieve absolutely nothing, except perhaps some publicity for Liberal Democrat newsletters—but, seriously, no more than that. They know it and we know it—it would be back here tomorrow afternoon if we are sitting, and, if not, presumably on Monday: that sort of timing.

My plea to the Minister is to take up the suggestion, if not in legislation then in actuality, because it does not need an Act of Parliament to do what the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked. Ultimately, progress can be secured only with the support of the Government. Passing an amendment today that would be overturned in hours would simply give false hope to those who seek this change. However, more worryingly, it would be defeated down there, and that would be the worst thing to happen. For this suggestion—that all people getting their NI number should be told about how to vote—to be rejected by the House of Commons would not further the cause, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said; it would make it look as though it might be stopped. That would be regrettable for those who support the cause—we all want this to happen—and it would not help.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee 2:45 pm, 26th November 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. My brief rather optimistically said “this short debate”. In fact, it has not been a short debate because it has been an important one. Perhaps at times, as someone said, it has strayed a little closer to Second Reading than consideration of Commons Reasons, but I fully understand the passion and commitment with which all noble Lords have spoken on the amendments they are concerned with, including, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley.

Not to waste time, I turn to the two amendments before us. They are in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As we know, the amendment in lieu tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, relates to the role of the Lord Chancellor in appointing deputy chairs of the Boundary Commissions and proposes that the Lord Chief Justice appoints them rather than the Lord Chancellor. Some people have expressed concern about the nature of the Lord Chancellor, including the noble Baroness opposite, but I must remind her that it was her party which so sadly removed the Law Lords from your Lordships’ House, to its great detriment. Indeed, that created the nature of the Lord Chancellor about which she complains today. It was a creation at the back of a press release by the Labour Government. This is something that we have to deal with and people with the integrity of my right honourable friend the current Lord Chancellor are seeking to deal with it.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, provided us with some questions and I undertook to answer them. However, the noble Lord read out the questions and the answers that we had provided. I shall not go through them all. The record is there in Hansard, but I will repeat that the Lord Chancellor has confirmed that the roles of constituency MP and Lord Chancellor—and indeed any other Minister—are separate and that the Lord Chancellor will always have to act consistently with public law principles in making this or any appointment.

As for whether it is susceptible to legal challenge, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, speculated, the Lord Chancellor’s role in making such an appointment is subject to established public law principles and could be challenged by way of judicial review. The noble and learned Lord lamented that. On other occasions I have been urged in this House not to press proposals and propositions that do not allow for judicial review. That is the position and your Lordships must draw your own conclusions.

I was also asked whether it was inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that could involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord spoke at some length on this question. It is, however, the process currently for the appointment of High Court judges. The reason the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments is that it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent. Ultimately, for something so important, ministerial accountability to Parliament is of great importance. The same could be said of these appointments.

The noble and learned Lord referred to a letter that he had received from the Lord Chancellor, part of which he quoted. Perhaps with the authority of a Minister speaking from the Dispatch Box, I can read it out as binding on the Government:

“I would like to assure you”, wrote the Lord Chancellor,

“that I will commit to the Lord Chancellor formally conducting the Lord Chief Justice on all future appointments.”

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor said that he hoped that would provide the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the House with the assurance they seek. For that reason, I am pleased to hear that the noble and learned Lord is minded to withdraw his amendment and I hope he will do so.

I return to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As many noble Lords have said, it is an amendment in lieu to Lord Shutt’s original amendment. I will not repeat what I said about Lord Shutt at the start. I offered that spontaneously and I do not think I can do better than that, so I will not reiterate the fine, warm and justified words from other noble Lords in this debate. However, respect for an individual does not necessarily make a case for making law. Respect for an individual and their life’s work imposes a sense to remember the witness of that individual and to reflect on the things that they said.

My noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook and the Leader of the House in another place spoke at length in Grand Committee, on Report and in Commons consideration of your Lordships’ amendments. The Government have taken and continue to take action in great detail in this important space of increasing voter registration. Noble Lords who been taking part in these debates will know that I have said that the House will have the opportunity to return to debate electoral issues such as this again when parliamentary time allows. I cannot make any promises, but it is legislation that I hope will come sooner rather than later.

We do not see this amendment as necessary. While the Government agree that the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers is critical and have set out on numerous occasions the work we are doing, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary. We have introduced online registration, which has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register to vote. It can take as little as five minutes. We are liberating more time for EROs, on whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies, to have more time to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, including making changes to the annual canvass. Improvements have been made and will be made in legislation in future Sessions. Scepticism was expressed about that sentiment but it is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers.

Although I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, I told him at a meeting we had on Tuesday—which I greatly appreciated and the Government look forward to working with him in future, as he asked for in his speech—that when a national insurance number is issued, the individual receiving it is informed that they can use the number to register to vote. That happens now. Could this wording be made clearer? I am sure it could. I can confirm that officials are already working with their counterparts across government in DWP and HMRC to see what can be done.

However, I do not believe that this requires a statutory amendment at this late stage; it can be done through non-legislative means. Obviously, the Government will report back on the progress of that consideration: if not, we will no doubt be probed in future electoral registration in this matter. I hope, in answer to the noble Baroness opposite, many of whose remarks towards the end of her speech I agreed with, that it is possible to take this forward through non-statutory means. I hope we will do so, having put that on the record in your Lordships’ House.

I hope we will not have a Division on this. As my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Blencathra reminded us, it is not the manner in which your Lordships normally operate at this late stage. I was surprised, therefore, to hear the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who had not had the kindness to inform me, as Minister responsible, that he was proposing to do this—I use the word “kindness” rather than another. I wonder whether the noble Lord had an IT problem when it came to tabling his own amendment. I am not following my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s speculations, but it is interesting that this action is coming from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is an unusual action in this House to deny permission to a noble Lord wishing to withdraw his amendment. Surely, it is all the more unusual at this very late stage on a new amendment.

The House is facing great difficulties in conducting business in a hybrid way during the coronavirus crisis. It appears that all sides are behaving with great patience and restraint and deserve the highest praise. I believe that this is surely an occasion for restraint. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked to withdraw his amendment, and in all respect to him, I believe that he should be allowed to do so. The Boundary Commissions, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, need to start their work; the elected House wishes them to start their work. The last review was delayed by the Liberal Democrat Party, as we know, and I hope it is not going to be a case of “Here we go again.”

I do not believe that there is any reason for further delay and I remind the House that, under the Bill, the review that we in this House and the other place are endorsing will be based on the number of electors, including attainers, on the electoral registers as at 2 March 2020, so it will not be possible for the Boundary Commissions to take into account any changes to registration levels after that date for the purpose of the 2023 review. Therefore, the amendment would, in any case, be ineffective in acting on the review before us. I sincerely hope, in these circumstances, saying as I do that we will give the highest respect, now and in future, to the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will not take the exceptional action he proposes in denying permission to withdraw.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, noble Lords from all sides of the House have provided invaluable scrutiny and, in one respect at least, a major improvement through the amendment pressed by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. They have provided invaluable scrutiny and expertise, which we will carry forward when we consider electoral legislation in Sessions to come. The Government have listened to that advice and the Bill has been amended, as I said.

While we have not always agreed on the detail, this has been a novel experience for me: it is the first Bill that I have had the opportunity—the honour, I should say—of taking through your Lordships’ House. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part and tabled amendments for the brilliance and, often, the brio with which their arguments have been put. The word “passion” has been used, and I accept that word. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his team for the constructive and courteous way we have gone about things. It has meant a lot to me personally, and it has been extraordinarily helpful, productive and reflexive in carrying our public debate forward. Like others, of course I thank all the officials involved, and particularly my own Bill team for the prompt service they have given us all.

The legislation will allow the Government to deliver a manifesto commitment to updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counts the same. Current boundaries are horribly out of date and there is no time for delay. It is surely time, as my noble friend Lord Cormack wisely urged, that the Bill now passes and the Boundary Commissions will be able to begin their next review without further delay and finally have constituencies that are updated and reflective of the past two decades of demographic change.

Motion A agreed.