Examination of Witnesses

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:37 am on 18th June 2020.

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Shereen Williams MBE gave evidence.

Shereen Williams:

Hi. I can hear you.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

You are very welcome. We are sorry for keeping you for a couple of minutes. I was only allowed to run over because we had a technical issue with bells ringing, and I felt that we lost a couple of minutes. We will not let that little technical difficulty deny you that time at the end of this either. Introduce yourself, and then we will move on to the Minister.

Shereen Williams:

I am Shereen Williams, secretary of the Boundary Commission for Wales. I took up the role in January 2019, and I also head up the joint secretariat for Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, which is responsible for local government boundaries.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Q Good morning, Shereen. It is very good to have you with us; thank you very much indeed. I repeat to you the note of welcome that I sounded to your two predecessor witnesses. Mr Paisley, if I may, I put it absolutely clearly on the record, in response to something that Mr Efford hinted at, that boundary commissioners and their civil servants are independent of Government. I am absolutely clear that only in the most general sense do I say that civil servants work with them. There is nothing more to be read into that. For the sake of the record, the Boundary Commission for Wales is a non-departmental public body of the Cabinet Office. I make that clear at the outset.

Shereen, may I ask about how you hold public hearings? We have gone through some more general discussion with your two predecessor witnesses, so perhaps we might turn to this angle with you. As you will be aware, the legislation proposes moving the timing of one of the public hearings but maintains very firmly that there should be ample public consultation, which we think is really important for public accountability and public involvement. Perhaps you might give us some insight into how you manage that for Wales.

Shereen Williams:

The challenge we have had in the past is that we have to pick the five areas in which to hold the public hearings quite early on, so we have to guess which areas might have the most challenge, in terms of proposed constituencies. It is hit and miss. Sometimes you could be there for two days, and you would have one full day of people turning up for the public hearings, and the next day there will be a much smaller number. It also uses up a lot of staff resources and the time of the commissioners.

The Bill proposes that that is done as part of the second round of consultation, which would give us a bit more flexibility on where we should physically choose to have these public hearings, based on the feedback and representations we get in the first round of consultation. For Wales, it is very important that we have an appropriate spread across the whole country, to make sure that people can get to a public hearing if they need to.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Shereen. I will pause there and let other colleagues take over.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q Wales presents a unique geographical issue due to its large, sparsely populated areas with seats that have a much larger acreage. I am thinking of Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Carmarthenshire —all those rural areas with very large seats. However, you also have the geography of the south Wales valleys, with each valley currently tending to have its own constituency. Given the population change in Wales over the past two decades from when the data was last used, coupled with the very tight 5% quota, the new review is likely to mean that there will be quite a lot of change in Wales. We will potentially see constituencies with more than one valley and a mountain range in between. Are there any geographical features, such as those valleys, that you consider a priority issue when it comes to drawing Welsh boundaries?

Shereen Williams:

The challenge that we have in Wales is that whether we go with 600 seats or 650, Wales will take the biggest hit in terms of loss of constituencies. It would mean, I think, a massive change: across the whole country, I cannot guarantee that even seats that fit within the current limits will be able to remain intact. That is the challenge we have in Wales; the 5% does give a very tight range for us to work around.

I think the valleys will present a unique challenge for us, because you do not really want to split a valley and have half in one seat and the other half in another seat. It will require us to look at our building blocks and how we work on that, getting input from local communities and from local authorities—from our stakeholders—and asking, “If we had to go down the route of splitting a valley, what is the best combination to work?” I am aware that we had the exact same problem at the last review.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q Would it be easier with a wider range of percentage away from the electoral quota? Would you find that community ties would be better reflected by having a wider range?

Shereen Williams:

It would give us more flexibility, yes, to put communities together, but again, I think it is very clear that, as an independent body, we do not have a view as such on the electoral quota; that is something for our MPs to make.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Thank you, Shereen, for joining us. I want to follow up the line of questioning about how constituencies or proposed new boundaries are formulated. I am interested in how the commission approaches some of the statutory factors listed under rule 5 and, in particular, local ties. Could you elaborate a little on what in practice the commission has to consider under “local tiesQ ”?

Shereen Williams:

From the commission’s perspective, it is about communities that are together. We look at your electoral wards and communities that are linked through joint programmes and projects. Also, quite uniquely, in Wales, as you are very aware, is the Welsh language. We take it into account that you have constituencies where there are lots of links to the Welsh language. That is something we would like to keep together. That, for us as a commission, is what we would consider a community tie as well.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q That is great. I appreciate that there is a range of factors and that it is difficult to balance all of them. Indeed, the report that the commission published in response to the last review mentioned that the reduction from 40 to 29 seats in Wales would make it particularly difficult to reflect all the factors in rule 5. I appreciate that it is a little early, at the moment, to truly know how many seats Wales may or may not have, but how much of a difference would it make, in terms of your work in appreciating all the different factors listed under rule 5, if Wales were to receive more than the—well, the previously proposed 29 seats?

Shereen Williams:

I think it will be just as complex as the previous reviews, because we are losing quite a lot of seats. If you lost one or two seats, it might be easier to amend existing constituencies by adjusting, making small boundary changes, but the fact that the number is a bit bigger—if you lose eight rather than 11, that three will help slightly, but the complexity will remain the same.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

It is a pleasure to sit before you, Mr Paisley. I have a couple of questions, Ms Williams. First, the same phrase has been used in your session and in the session before. The reference has been to having a “very tight 5% quota”, but in fact that means a 10% variance. I wonder what you think about equal vote, equal value versus a larger variance, which would mean fewer constituents in one constituency and a much larger group in another if there were a more than 10% variance, and how those constituents would feel about thatQ .

Shereen Williams:

I do not think that is something I can possibly comment on. As a commission, we are given the rules to work with, so it would not be up to the commission to comment on something like that.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Q Okay, but you talk about a “very tight” 5% quota, and that is something you will also be given if this measure goes through, so how would you then deal with it?

Shereen Williams:

In the past, we have made full use of that plus or minus 5% to make sure that communities are kept together. If the variance is changed, we would still use the same practice where possible. A constituency could have exactly 0% variance or minus 5%, minus 4%, minus 3% or minus 2%. We would work within those parameters in helping communities stay together. That would be our limit.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Q Ward splitting was referred to previously. How would that work in Wales? There was some reference to some wards being too large, which gives me the idea that single-seat wards would be a good idea for the future. How would that work in Wales? Are there areas where local government wards are too large?

Shereen Williams:

Like our colleagues in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we use electoral wards as our building blocks. However, if there was great difficulty, we would use community wards within the electoral ward. In the past, we have put forward proposals where one or two parliamentary constituencies had a split ward in them. It is a route that we would rather not take because it creates confusion for voters when you have a different local authority and a different parliamentary constituency compared with somebody who is in the same electoral ward as you.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q I start by thanking Shereen for her evidence today. In your evidence, you have highlighted the specific challenges in Wales because of the beautiful geography you have. Can you and the Welsh commission learn from the experience in Scotland, when they undertook a very significant review of boundaries in the ’80s—I am sure Scottish members of the Committee can remind me exactly when that was—when there was major reorganisation? It is a challenge, but it is one that has been successfully undertaken in Scotland and perhaps now the challenge falls to Wales. Is there any learning you can get from that?

Shereen Williams:

The four Boundary Commissions are in regular contact. We rely on each other and we share good practice on a regular basis. In terms of those changes that have taken place in Scotland, I cannot imagine why we would not be able to invite Scottish colleagues to present to commissioners and to inform our thinking on how we deliver this report for Wales.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Sorry—that major change happened prior to 2005, actually. It is really reassuring to hear your comments.

Going back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough raised about splitting wards, it is interesting that that seems to be something that can happen in Wales and Scotland, although the procedures are not as easy as they might be. We heard that from the commission in England. Would you be able to advise the Committee about working with Mr Bellringer on what would need to be put in place to ensure that, if it was helpful, sub-ward-level splits could take place? Would you be able to provide some more information for the Committee on that?

Shereen Williams:

Scotland and Wales’s challenge is significantly different from England’s because of the number of electorates. Tony has to co-ordinate in terms of trying to get all the parliamentary constituencies set up for England. In Wales, we are used to splitting wards because we tend to do that for our local government boundary reviews, so we are quite comfortable with the practice of breaking up electoral wards and splitting up communities into sub-wards in order to create electoral wards—this is going back to community wards. In terms of sharing that practice with Mr Bellringer, that would not be an issue, but I have to acknowledge that he has a far more difficult job in hand compared with us in Wales and Scotland.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Very finally, in Wales you have the wonderful Ynys Môn constituency, which is the second-largest island in the United Kingdom—I am nervously looking at the Chair here—or maybe the third, depending on how you view Northern Ireland.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I wondered whether, as somebody who was brought up in Wales and understands the importance of cultural identity within the Welsh nation and the psyche, you have thought further about how that constituency should be treated. I am a Hampshire MP, and the Isle of Wight gets particular protection because of that.

Shereen Williams:

That would be something for Parliament to decide as to whether Ynys Môn becomes a protected constituency, as they have in Scotland and the Isle of Wight. It would not be for the commission to comment on that.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Understood. Sorry, I have probably pressed you too far on that.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Shereen, thank you very much for your wonderful evidence and, more importantly, for getting us back on time. You have made my chairmanship so much easier. Thank you for giving us your time this morning.

Shereen Williams:

Thank you for having me.