Could you speak up a little for us? It is not a problem I have, but it is one that some other people have.
Q Thank you for joining us this morning, Eamonn. It is excellent to have you with us. Can you help us to understand some of the differences that apply to your work compared with that of the other boundary commissions? I am talking from the premise that we are extremely keen to bring about equal and updated constituencies that apply within and across all the nations of the United Kingdom, but it is a fact that in the pre-existing legislation, particular provisions are made for Northern Ireland. Would you be able to talk us through those and why you think they are important?
Yes, Minister. Northern Ireland is obviously geographically the smallest part of the United Kingdom, so we literally have less room for manoeuvre when it comes to creating our modelling of the constituencies. That can be compounded by the effects of rounding during the calculations under rule 8, when it comes to allocating constituencies to each part of the UK.
That can leave us restricted in our ability to create the correct number of constituencies under rule 2. The legislation does currently, and I think the new legislation does prospectively, include a small degree of flexibility that allows us to fall beneath or outside of the plus or minus 5% tolerance from the electoral quota, but as I say, that is there because it recognises the mathematical conundrum that can sometimes present itself in Northern Ireland.
Q Thank you, Eamonn. May I also invite you to say a little about the way in which the parliamentary constituencies link to the Assembly seats, for the benefit of the Committee?
The parliamentary constituencies create the boundary under which the Northern Ireland Assembly constituency areas are formed. They are further subdivided into five areas for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. There is that coterminosity that does not exist, for example, in Scotland.
For clarity, Eamonn, you said five areas, but do you not mean five seats in each constituency?
Q I would like to ask a bit about how coronavirus might impact on the work of the commission. Given the slightly contracted public consultation period, has any consideration been given to how that work might be done if social distancing is still in place?
The most pressing impact of covid-19 for ourselves in Northern Ireland is in relation to the recruitment and training of staff ahead of the commencement of the next review. There are obviously practical implications of being face to face while still maintaining social distancing, but there is the added difficulty that commission staff are seconded from other Departments. That is our normal practice. Those Departments are under pressure to resource their response to covid-19 and to Brexit, which is coming down the line. There is a real difficulty facing us at the moment in terms of getting staff in and trained in time for the next review, but we are working with Departments on that.
We had hoped to recruit the first of the staff by September. We are a small team, so we plan to get the remaining two staff in by December of this year. We are still within a reasonable window, but time marches on fairly quickly when dealing with recruitment processes and getting staff released, so we are keen to get that work under way.
Q If I may take a different line of questioning, obviously there are unique community issues in Northern Ireland, which we all understand. How would you take those into account when drawing boundaries? Does having a tight margin make that particularly difficult, in terms of percentage variance from the electoral quota?
During our public consultations, people are free to put forward whatever local issues or local ties pertain to themselves and their local areas. The one thing that we cannot take into account—this applies across the UK, to all of the commissions—is anything that would affect or is influenced by electoral trends, electoral outcomes and things like that. Anything that would fall under a local tie is valid, in terms of what we would consider.
The second part of your question was on the electoral quota range. Again, as my colleagues have told you, the 5% presents issues in terms of accommodating local ties more roundly across Northern Ireland. As I said earlier to the Minister, we have the flexibility in rule 7 in terms of geographical limitations, because of the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. It is interesting to note that the flexibility in the 2018 review would actually have come within the plus or minus 7.5% that has been discussed previously by other people. It is not a huge degree of flexibility, but it does allow us—when we are restricted in circumstances under rule 2—to have a certain degree of flexibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Northern Ireland underwent significant local government reform about five years ago, and the number of local authorities was reduced from 26 to 11. I wonder whether any lessons were gleaned from that experience. Could Q that work be cross-applied as the boundaries are reviewed here? Linking to the point about communities, what were the community considerations that came out of that, or were gleaned from any cross-discussions that you had?
You are absolutely right that we now have the 11 local government areas, but we are working with different factors. In the last review, the 2018 review, we had 17 constituencies. While our considerations would have included trying to fit as many whole parts of local government areas into the 17 constituencies, the mathematics just do not allow for that, so we then take on board the other factors, which include local ties.
In Northern Ireland—it is similar across the UK—we have more major towns with satellite towns and villages around them. That is one thing that came to the fore in our consultation process, and we tried to accommodate that in our proposals as they went through the various consultation stages. There are similarities, but clear differences, simply because of the rules that we operate under.
Q We have heard a lot from the Boundary Commission for England in particular about how it is difficult to drill down to that local level. When you were going through that overhaul, I suppose in a way it was a bit of a blank canvas. I am interested to understand this from a data point of view. How did you go about acquiring the data from people? Was it a similar mechanism to what we heard about, utilising postcodes, or were you using other datasets? I am conscious of the community element, but I am interested to hear how that operated in Northern Ireland.
We operate with exactly—or very close to—the same operational methods as the other commissions. We all operate under the same legislation, with the requirement to carry out the three public consultations. As my colleague Tony said, the initial proposals are our best estimate as to what would be a good starting point. From there, we seek public views and, if required, we amend to accommodate those within the factors that my colleagues mentioned previously—local ties, geographical features, existing constituency boundaries. It is a very similar process to that outlined by my colleagues.
My points dovetail nicely with my colleague’s questions. We have been talking quite a bit about the necessity, or desirability, of ward splitting in England. Obviously, it is a slightly different situation Q in Northern Ireland because, in addition to wards, you have electoral areas. I want to understand what you use as the principal building blocks for drawing the new seats—is it electoral areas or wards? If it is electoral areas, at what stage do you start splitting those back down to constituent wards?
Our building block is set out in the legislation as the local government ward that exists. In Northern Ireland, our electorate in each of those wards is smaller than, for example, in England. Tony spoke earlier of wards with 10,000. Ours typically have 2,000 to 3,000.
We still face the issue of how small we are geographically, plus having Lough Neagh right in the middle of Northern Ireland, so there are times when we are balancing all the factors. Consideration of splitting a ward does arise, but, like my colleague, there is no ready-made data set through which we could split a ward. We have to take that into account, whether by looking at geographical features or through another method. For the last review, we decided not to split any wards.
Q Mr Bailey may have touched on this in his question about local government boundaries after the contraction. Mr McConville, what efforts do you make to keep the constituencies as coterminous as possible with the new boundaries? I asked two of your counterparts earlier about constituencies that cross over multiple local authority boundaries. I wonder if you have any views on that, too.
It is really a matter of mathematics. We have 11 local government areas and in the last review we had to create 17 constituencies. It is one of the methods that we try to take into account, initially and as the process proceeds.
Simply from a mathematics point of view, it will require splitting off the larger local government areas into the various constituencies. As I said, as well as the local government areas, we will take account of responses that come in from the public to inform the proposals and the creation of the constituencies as the process proceeds through the review.
Eamonn, may I take this opportunity to thank you for presenting us with this evidence and for giving us your time this morning? Right on cue, like a Swiss clock, you have managed to get us to the end of this session on time. I appreciate that. That brings us to the end of this morning’s session. The Committee will meet again at 2 pm in the same room to take further evidence.