Examination of Witnesses

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:33 am on 18th June 2020.

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Tony Bellringer and Isabel Drummond-Murray gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 11:37 am, 18th June 2020

Mr Bellringer, you are very welcome before us, physically, and Isabel Drummond-Murray, can you hear me? Hello.

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

Hello. I can, yes.

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 with us virtually. Thank you both for taking the time to join us and for allowing the panel to proceed.

We are now in public session to hear evidence from Tony Bellringer, secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, and Isabel Drummond-Murray, secretary to the Boundary Commission for Scotland.

Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind the Committee that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We will stick to the timings in the programme order. The Committee has agreed that for this panel we will have until 12.20 pm or thereabouts.

I ask any members of the Committee who wish to declare any relevant interests in connection with the Bill to make those declarations now.

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

I call the first witnesses. Will you please introduce yourselves? We will start with you, Isabel.

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

I am Isabel Drummond-Murray, secretary to the Boundary Commission for Scotland.

Tony Bellringer:

I am Tony Bellringer. I am the acting secretary to the Boundary Commission for England.

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

Q Thank you, Mr Paisley. I also thank you, Isabel and Tony, for joining us this morning. In my departmental role, I look forward to continuing the work between my officials and you and yours, doing the work of this legislation behind the scenes.

Could you talk us through what it consists of to conduct a review? Also, given that this legislation focuses on having equal and updated boundaries, perhaps you would be able to give us some insight into the importance of updating your work, including the fact that we have a slightly shortened review for the first of the series of actions that is outlined in the Bill.

Tony Bellringer:

How a review operates is set out in the current legislation. Prior to this review, the legislation was most recently and substantively amended in 2011, when the rules by which we work were changed. Essentially, we gather the parliamentary electorate from across the United Kingdom. There is a statutory formula set out, which calculates the distribution of the House of Commons seats across the different parts of the UK.

There are four commissions—one for each part of the UK. Effectively, each of us then works independently. At the end of the day, we have to come up with a report that recommends to Parliament the prescribed number of seats for that part of the UK. Currently, they must be within plus or minus 5% of essentially a mean average electorate figure for the constituencies, the official term for which is the electoral quota.

We go through a process of iterative public consultation; that process is also prescribed in the legislation. We have an initial proposal stage. We work slightly differently to the local government commissions, in that we start off by coming up with a scheme with proposals, and then we publish those and consult on them, whereas the local government commissions tend to consult first and then come up with some ideas.

The initial consultation then produces a raft of responses; we receive very many responses. We then work through all of those responses; we do genuinely consider every single response that we get. And we look at what we may need to change from our initial proposals.

Currently, we are required to do something called secondary consultation, which is publication of all the responses to the first consultation that we receive. So, there are no new proposals in there; it is simply giving people an opportunity to comment on what other people have said.

We then look at all the responses to that secondary consultation as well and come up with a set of revised proposals, which we again publish and consult on for a period of time. We then look at those again, decide whether any final changes need to be made, and then we write up our final report and recommendations. Currently, those are submitted to the Government, who are then required both to lay that report before Parliament and translate it into a draft statutory instrument, which must be actively debated by both Houses. If it is approved, those constituencies will be used at the next general election.

As for the second question about the importance of conducting a review now, the constituencies that we currently have were the result, in England, of a review that concluded in late 2006; the order was made in 2007. Those constituencies were first used in the general election of 2010. However, the process that led to that report began in 2000. Therefore, the electorate data that your current constituencies are based on dates from 2000.

A review was commenced under the new legislation, to report in 2013, and as we know from the Bill, there was also one that was held in 2018 and reported in the same year. To date, neither of those reviews have resulted in a new set of constituencies, so your existing constituencies are very out of date. So the Government have come forward with this proposal to set aside the recommendations of the 2018 review and proceed very quickly to another review, largely working to the same rules established in 2011, but with a slightly truncated timetable that I believe would see us report in July 2023, with—I guess—the idea being that you would then have about 12 months before the expected next date of a general election.

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

I think that Tony has covered the legislative framework pretty well, so, no, there is nothing I would add to that.

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

Mr Bellringer, you talked about the plus or minus 5% of the electoral quota requirement that was brought in under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. However, in the 2013 report by the Boundary Commission, which looked at the lessons learned, it statesQ :

“One of the most testing issues in the context of the revised statutory framework has been the requirement to reconcile the need to adhere to a fixed electorate tolerance (i.e. within 5% of the electoral quota) with the need to respect local ties and/or existing constituency boundaries.”

Do those concerns still stand and, if so, is there any way of alleviating the difficulties that the commission will face?

Tony Bellringer:

Yes, the problem still exists. It is essentially a pragmatic problem. The smaller the tolerance level you allow, the closer you get to the pure principle of electorate equality between constituencies, and that is all to the good. The problem is that that makes it very much harder to have regard to the other factors that you specify in the legislation, such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography. Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have. That is what it boils down to.

How could you mitigate the problem? The only real way to mitigate it is to make the tolerance figure slightly larger. The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors—but obviously, the further away you are moving from the pure principle of electorate equality. You do need to strike the balance somewhere.

The commission itself does not have a view on what the correct figure should be—before anybody tries to ask me that question. However, we would highlight the fact that some academic work has been done on this. I believe that you are due to interview Charles Pattie, who was one of the authors of a report in 2014 that looked specifically at the issue. He is more qualified to say than I am.

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

Q In areas where electoral wards are much larger—some cities, certainly in England, have wards of almost 10,000 electors—would those communities be seen as more difficult to fit into the 5% without splitting wards?

Tony Bellringer:

Yes is the short answer. As you say, particularly in England we work or we have traditionally worked on the basis of using wards as our building blocks—I am sure there will be some discussion about that in due course. But as you say, a number of wards, particularly in urban authorities in England, are larger than the entire possible range that you are permitted—the difference, I should say—so by moving one ward, you will move from being too big as a constituency to being too small, with nothing in between, so you then have to start looking at splitting the wards, which becomes more problematic for us, for reasons that I am sure we will get on to.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I have perhaps three or four questions that I would like to ask Ms Drummond-Murray. First, most of us here are quite pleased that the Government have decided to change their position and let us remain at 650 seats, but I understand that even with the protection of 650 seats for the UK Parliament, Scotland would lose seats under this review. Is that a point that you can clarify, and what would be the reduction for ScotlandQ ?

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

It is not possible to give an answer to that until we have the electorate data that the review will be based on. I think, informally, we did look at the December ’19 register, and if that were the one being used, it did suggest a reduction in seats in Scotland. Clearly, the Bill as drafted suggests the December ’20 register. Until we get those figures published, from whichever data is finally proposed by the Bill, we cannot tell you exactly how many seats there would be. We would have to run the formula that Tony referred to, and that would allocate between the four countries.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q I also want to ask a question that I appreciate may be slightly more technical, but pretty much all of us on this Committee are probably minded that way. I understand that there are limits on how often hearings can be conducted for the Boundary Commission, and I think that at one point Scotland was limited to four or five hearings. I know that in evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Professor Henderson said that that was problematic for the Boundary Commission in Scotland. Is it still the view of the Boundary Commission that the limit on hearings is problematic?

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

It was problematic in the last review, because the public hearings were held during the initial consultation and that meant that you were trying to guess in advance where there was likely to be particular interest. You were trying to cover the geography and population of Scotland with five hearings, so if you held one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow, you then had a large area to cover with the three remaining ones. The Bill proposes holding public hearings and a secondary consultation, which will help, because we will then have an idea of whether to hold the ones outwith the central belt in, for example, Inverness or Hawick. You just cannot tell. There is still an element of guessing, from the responses received, as to where people really want to come along and discuss in public what we propose, but yes, that will help. I think six also helps, geographically.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Continuing on that theme of geography, which is obviously a challenge in rural Scotland, quite a number of us, regardless of what party we are in, were quite alarmed at the size of the proposal for what would be a Highland North constituency. Can you tell the Committee a little bit about how you go about drawing up constituencies in that part of the world, particularly in relation to the 12,000 sq km or 13,000 sq km size, as is the case with one constituency in Scotland at the moment?

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

We start the review by allocating loose groupings—they are not set out in legislation, but they enable us to divide up the country. As a preliminary step, we always look at the highlands first, because of the rule that an area bigger than 12,000 sq km can go below the minus 5% threshold. However, because of the way the legislation is worded, you would only need to go below that 5% if you could not reasonably construct a constituency otherwise, but we could. We found in the 2018 review that it was possible to stick within that plus or minus 5%, despite its being a very large constituency. I think Highlands North was the only constituency proposed in the 2018 review that was above 12,000 sq km, which is obviously geographically very large.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q It would be very difficult for Members to cover as well. My final question is on the idea of building constituencies not necessarily based on ward boundaries but on polling districts. Do you have a view on that, and how that would work in Scotland?

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

We do not use polling districts, in part because there has not been an available Scotland-wide, up-to-date dataset that we could access. We create our own postcode datasets, so when we come down to split below ward level, if necessary, we do it on the basis of postcodes. We have always been able to split wards in Scotland, if necessary.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Can I ask both witnesses how they prioritise the various different factors, for example, the numbers and the tolerance, the geography and the communities of interest? How do you weight each of those, and what process do you use to draw those up?

Tony Bellringer:

In essence, there are two categories. One is mandatory—the plus or minus 5%—which we have to stick to and is obviously our primary factor. About half a dozen other statutory factors are set out in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. We do not prioritise any of them formally. I guess we would look first at the rule about having regard to existing constituencies. So far as possible, we actually start off by asking how many constituencies that are currently there already fit the plus or minus 5% and whether we can start by not changing those. We then look at those that are not within the plus or minus 5% and think, “Okay; that is going to have to change, and that is going to have to change”. That is why you often find, unfortunately, that you may be sitting as an MP in a constituency that perfectly meets the plus or minus 5%, but your constituency changes because some of the neighbouring ones have to change and have to take in some of yours, or vice versa.

As I say, we do not have a firm ranking, but we then probably look at local ties. To a certain extent, you would expect existing constituencies to have already respected local ties, which is why it is not higher, because local ties are generally what people feel most strongly about—in fact, probably more than the numbers, to be honest. They accept the principle of electorate parity, but if you ask most people on the ground, they are more concerned about their local communities being split off from each other in the drawing of the lines. That is what the vast majority of responses to our consultation are about, so we do look at whether we are breaking local ties.

There is also the obvious map factor of physical geography and what are termed significant geographical features. River estuaries, mountain ranges and motorways are fairly obvious bits of physical geography that can have quite a significant impact on how you would want to look at drawing a constituency. Is that enough for you?

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

It is, yes, thank you. Ms Drummond-Murray wanted to answer as well from the Scottish point of view.

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

It is a broadly similar process. As Tony said, you weigh up the factors and go through the process of the various consultation rounds. That is an important part as well: whatever we have weighted or not at the beginning, by the time we go through the consultation, it is all open to change. In the 2018 review, by the end, only 10 of our mainland constituencies were unchanged from the initial proposals. Whatever we do at the start is open to public views on things such as local ties, names and so on.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Can I ask both of you—it may sound like a pointed question, but it is not intended to be—whether you ever feel that you have got it wrong? I will give a couple of examples. In my area, the notorious proposed Mersey Banks constituency attracted quite a lot of opprobrium and obloquy. One of Mr Linden’s colleagues, albeit under the 600 distribution, talked about having a constituency that would be equivalent in size to, in England, the area from Westminster to Nottingham. Do you ever think, “Flipping heck, we didn’t that do very well there”?

Tony Bellringer:

Er, yes. [Laughter.]

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

I was going to say that we never get it wrong—we have a technically correct proposal—but as I say, in consultation, we listen to people’s responses. Certainly, in our initial proposals, we set out constituencies that were very unpopular and we listened and changed them where we could. You are then constrained by how much you can change within the legislation and all the knock-on consequences of the change that you also have to throw into the mix.

Tony Bellringer:

To clarify my initial flippant response, it is largely as Isabel says. You could almost say that we deliberately put some proposals out there at the initial consultation stage that are quite radical and, yes, get quite a lot of negative responses—Mersey Banks is a classic case. The other one that I have had to talk about quite a lot is moving the city of Gloucester out of Gloucester in the 2013 review.

We do that in the full knowledge that it is only the first round of consultation and people will tell us if they genuinely think it is a really bad thing to do. There are actually reasons for doing those things, but as I mentioned earlier, you are somewhat constrained by what is happening around that constituency. It might not be an ideal solution for that constituency, but it might have allowed us to solve a number of issues in neighbouring constituencies. It is not ideal, but we put it out there and test the water, because it is the first stage of consultation and we know full well that if we get a huge pushback on it, we will change it to something better.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Is it not better to try to get it right first, rather than be a bit provocative and stir up public interest? Is it not better to get it right first so there are fewer changes?

Tony Bellringer:

Yes. We would like to get it right first, but we are cognisant of the fact that if we do not get it exactly right first time, we have a process whereby we can correct it.

We genuinely do not know. We feel that it is probably going to be unpopular in that particular constituency, but, as I say, we have had to do it there. We think that, as a whole in the wider area, it provides a better solution. It is not a good solution for that constituency, but any alternative we have been able to come up with creates problems in those other constituencies. As an overall balance, we think that is probably best, but we recognise that you are not going to like it if you live in that particular constituency, so let us test the water and see what the general public opinion is in that area. Everybody in the area could come back and say, “No, there’s a better option.”

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will not push it to a fourth. Do you have any consideration of constituencies that have multiple local authority areas? Some Members represent two local authorities and others represent three. Do you have any rules or guidance on minimising that?

Tony Bellringer:

Yes. One of the statutory roles is having regard to local authority boundaries and local government boundaries. As far as possible, we try to limit the number of local authorities that the prospective MP of the proposed constituency will have to deal with. That is very much in our mind.

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

No, I was just agreeing. That would be the approach we would take, too.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

ItQ is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, on what I am sure will be a really interesting Committee. I thank the witnesses for the responses they have already given, and the inevitable hard work they are facing in this area.

Can I follow up on one of the responses to David Linden’s questions, about splitting wards to do what this Bill is trying to do, which is to create equal and updated boundaries across the whole of the United Kingdom? I speak as one who represents a constituency of 83,000 people—well in excess of what I am sure will be the eventual quota. Isabel was talking about the importance in Scotland of using postcodes to try to get some sense of equalisation. Could Mr Bellringer outline for the Committee what the approach is to splitting wards in England, and whether any experts have looked at this to give us advice on what is a good process to follow, particularly when it comes to polling districts?

Tony Bellringer:

As I mentioned earlier, we have traditionally had a general policy of using wards as our building blocks. However, as you will know from the previous couple of reviews, there have been instances in which we have been prepared to split a ward to solve a problem in that area.

As Isabel alluded to, the difficulty in England is that we do not have access to a comprehensive dataset below ward level that contains the parliamentary electorates and associates them with the boundaries of whatever that unit is—a dataset that we can then manipulate in the software and quickly move those units around to recalculate the figures, because that is how it works. When we split a ward in England at the moment, we have to go back to the local authority and get the detailed breakdown, usually on a polling district basis, and manually calculate those figures, which really slows the process. If we were to move to a much more open process of using sub-ward-level units as our building blocks, we would have to source that data from somewhere.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q If you can do it in Scotland, why can you not do it in England?

Tony Bellringer:

At the moment, we do not have the postcode areas in England. We would have to create them; they could be created, but it would take an awfully long time to do.

Between the 2013 and 2018 reviews, one of the things with which we kept ourselves occupied was constructing a polling district-level dataset with the help of Ordnance Survey, in order to map those figures against the actual polling district boundaries. That is almost the most difficult part of the process. We sort of have the figures already because we have access to the actual registers, which are usually subdivided by polling district. However, the polling districts are not mapped in a consistent way and we have to be able to associate the electorate figure with the actual boundary of the unit you are working with, so that when you move the unit, the numbers change accordingly. You need to have mapped those polling district boundaries electronically. We did that process, and it took us and Ordnance Survey about two years to map every polling district in England.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q May I probe a little further? We are talking about democracy here, so it is pretty important that we get it right, and a bit of extra hard work and extra IT is what the electorate would expect to get a democratic process. I still do not really understand why you are not doing this, particularly given that I know exactly what the boundaries of my polling districts are, so I do not understand why you do not.

Tony Bellringer:

As I say, we went through the process between 2013 and 2018, so at one point in time we had a polling district dataset that we could use. However, as you know, polling district reviews happen all the time across the entirety of England, so that single, comprehensive polling district dataset goes out of date almost instantly. There has to be a way of keeping it up to date. At the moment, that requires us to know who is doing the polling district review and when, so we can go and find out what they have changed it to. Do they have it mapped? No—then we need to get somebody to map it into the system. At the moment, there is no process by which the results of a polling district review are notified either to us or to Ordnance Survey so that it can be incorporated and the dataset can be kept up to date.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Mr Paisley, I do not know if this will help, but it might be useful if the commission provided the Committee with a note on the issue and how it could be overcome. Just because it has not been done before does not mean that it cannot be done in the future, and I think this piece of legislation demands that it be done now. Could I suggest that we ask the commission to provide a more detailed note on how this could be done, with any costings that might be appropriate?

Tony Bellringer:

Yes. We did actually approach the Government at the time. We have kind of done the work to build that and issue one. There is a requirement for a local authority that does a polling district review to publish the findings, but they just do that by publishing it on a website, and it is also not necessarily in a mapped format. All it actually requires is a bit of something tacked on to that legal requirement to publish, which says, “You also need to send it to Ordnance Survey and the Boundary Commission.”

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q And any suggestions of changes in the law to do that would be really helpful.

Can I ask one other question—will you indulge me, Mr Paisley? I noticed that the commissions try to minimise the disruption to existing boundaries in its proposals, which is obviously a sensible thing to do. I also noted that it has said in the past that the commissions are not obliged to shut their eyes to likely future growth. That is particularly noted in section 40 of the guidance that was produced at the last review. Will both commissions outline their approach to the next review and whether it will be the same sort of approach? I declare an interest in that I represent a part of the country that is building a lot of houses. To propose boundaries that will inevitably be changed radically in the future would seem to be a waste of the commission’s time.

Tony Bellringer:

Immediately before we start a review, the commission meets representatives of political parties to talk about how it plans to operate its internal policies within the framework of the statutory requirements, and that is an example of the kind of thing that we would be talking about with them.

It is unlikely that it would change significantly. The fundamental principle in doing this work is that you have to at some point draw a line and say, “That is the data that we are working with.” You cannot build a house on constantly shifting foundations and so you have to say, “That is the data and we are going to work with that data.”

At the same time, where we are looking at competing options in an area, if one is obviously more suited to an area that is clearly growing in population—maybe we know that from strategic planning approvals that have gone through in the area—that will veer us towards that option as the preferred option. That is really what it means.

What we cannot do is say, “Well, okay, the electorate that we are supposed to be working with is this and the electorate is now this, so let’s use that instead.” We still have to stick to the original electorate figure, but be alive to the fact that it is clearly growing and can be demonstrated to be growing. That is quite key as well—we draw a distinction between proven growth in an area and projected or speculative growth in an area.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Presumably, it would affect your geographical boundaries, which may not have live bodies in yet, but will in the future.

Tony Bellringer:

Yes and no. The distinction I am trying to draw here is that if you have had a strategic planning development approved and it has been built and people have started to move in, you can say that those figures have changed—it is clearly growing. Even though those figures have derived from a point in time after the electorate data that we are supposed to be using, there is a clear indication that the area is growing. If you have had a strategic planning development approved, but it has not been built yet at the time we are doing our review, we might go, “Well, it is not as convincing.”

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

I do not think there is much to add to that. We have to work with the electorate as set out in the legislation. On the local government side—I am also secretary to the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland—the legislation sets out that we take account of the forecast for five years.

That all points to the need for regular review. We draw a line when we know there is going to be growth and there is capacity to absorb it through the existing 5% tolerance. I guess we could take account of it, but it is not something that has featured particularly on the parliamentary side, simply because of the way in which the legislation is drafted. We use the electorate at the start of the review; we do not guess what the electorate will be at a point in the future.

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

We have four more questions and about 11 minutes on the clock, though I will push it on to get all the questions asked, because the evidence we are getting is very good for the inquiry.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Paisley.

Thank you for your evidence, Mr Bellringer. It has been really informative. I want to explore the building blocks further. To pick up on the polling district, you said that you had done a piece of work and commented that it was difficult to stay on top of the reviews that came through—to be able to understand them—but, as you have also just outlined, you cannot build on shifting sands. At some point, you have to draw a line. In terms of using polling districts to build in this review, do you have a set of data sat there that you could use?

Tony Bellringer:

Not this time round—because it was so expensive last time, in time and money, in the resource that had to be put in to develop it, and yet it was so instantly out of date. In the actuality, when we came to it, because in the last review we were still using wards as our building blocks—it is still our general policy to use the wards as the basic building blocks—we only split half a dozen in the final recommendations. So the times that that would need to be used under our existing policy are few compared with the amount of time and effort that needs to go into producing it, and given how quickly it goes out of date, we just felt that it was not worth doing this time around.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q Your evidence is based on 600, of course, so a much bigger size. I am a West Yorkshire MP, but to look at Yorkshire as a whole region, if I take the situation in North Yorkshire, building as you say on consideration of rivers, mountains and motorways, the constituency in Richmond is knocking almost 85,000—according to the figures up to this point, which we were using in November—and you have to bash around all the North Yorkshire seats to get them roughly into an area. That means, if you are going to go with wards, you cannot get around the fact that you will have big mountain ranges in the way, that people will have to leave the constituency to get to other places in it. I am thinking one of the solutions is the Great Ayton ward in North Yorkshire, which you can look at to come into Thirsk and Malton, to make the numbers add up. The knock-on effect goes down and into West Yorkshire.

It is important that we get some steer on how you could get away from using wards, which is a tradition—it is not legislated that it must be wards—because it negates having to go outside the 5%, which is another Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe recommendation, that for free and fair elections seats should not vary by more than 10%, and would allow the objective of keeping communities together, of keeping county constituencies together and away from borough constituencies. In my city of Leeds, my seat is a county constituency; the other seven seats are borough constituencies. That would be giving regard to keeping those existing seats together.

I am asking both commissions about the practicalities of what recommendations you would make to the Committee before we finalise these laws—how to get to a situation in which you can use the smallest building blocks to cause the minimum disruption, which is what you are really after when looking at constituencies. I am seeking some comment on that. Mrs Miller explored it well, but just outlining—

Tony Bellringer:

The policy of using wards is fairly long standing, and it has always been discussed with the representatives of the political parties in the meetings before each review commences. In the past, they have generally been supportive of that. It goes to the statutory factor of having regard to local authority boundaries, because a ward is a local authority boundary. We view a ward as almost a representation of a local tie; generally speaking, when the Local Government Commission does its work it should try to bring people of the same communities into one ward. We use that almost as a substitute.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q I have one more question for both commissions. When you have a large constituency and perhaps have different authorities within it, has any member of the public ever made a complaint about other parts of the constituency, which may be tens or hundreds of miles away from where they live? Are their complaints based around their local community? Do you get complaints from elected politicians or members of the public about other areas of the constituency in those purer terms, or is it just about their local areas? Does it really matter to a constituent what the rest of the constituency takes in, as long as their local community is kept together?

Isabel Drummond-Murray:

We certainly had a number of complaints about large constituencies bringing together communities that did not feel that they had anything in common with each other. Where possible, we made changes to reflect that. The tight tolerance of 5% meant that, initially, we had to come up with some ideas to put out for consultation. For example, we had a constituency in our initial proposal that stretched from rural south Perthshire down to urban Fife. There was very much a feeling that, “We do not have anything in common with that part of the constituency.” So yes, I think people take account of more than just whether their local community is kept together; some people have concerns about other communities that they are associated with.

Tony Bellringer:

Yes.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I think it is the first time in all these years that I have been on a Committee that you have been chairing, Mr Paisley, so it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.Q

My question is about electoral registration. Do you find that it fluctuates between general elections? Do we get a higher registration level at the time of a general election, and should that be the point at which we count the population for future reviews?

Tony Bellringer:

One of the few things that we do in between reviews is collect the electorates and see how they change from year to year, but we get only an annual snapshot. If it is around the time of a general election, the electorate numbers tend to go up. Unsurprisingly, people are encouraged to join the register and are motivated more to do so. I know there are arguments about the accuracy of the register at any given point in time. I do not feel qualified to comment on that, but it is certainly true that the numbers go up around the time of elections.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q You might not want to comment on this, but would it then make sense to calculate from a high point like that, so that it is perhaps more accurate at the next general election?

Tony Bellringer:

If you are sure about the accuracy at that high point.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Could I ask about your relationship with the Minister’s office when you are carrying out a review? The Minister said in her opening remarks that she was looking forward to working with you. How much information do you share with the Minister’s office? The Bill removes the final approval from Parliament, and we would want to scrutinise how much influence the Minister’s office can have on the process.

Tony Bellringer:

I am very pleased to say that we hold ourselves up as a model of independence in the process. During the substance of a review, we do not share with the Government, Government officials or Ministers any information about the substance of what we are working on that is not communicated to the public at large.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Were you consulted on the drafting of the Bill?

Tony Bellringer:

They did communicate and trial some of the proposals in the Bill with us in advance. They sought our views, specifically on administrative points and on deliverability.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Is what you provided to the Government publicly available?

Tony Bellringer:

Those are not published, generally.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Perhaps you could add them to the notes that you are sending us. May I ask about consultation? There was a lot of consultation in my area that seemed to go reasonably well. Then one individual did a mathematical calculation, not taking any heed of all the local arguments made about common interests and geographical areas, and the Boundary Commission plumped for that at the last minute after all the consultation. That makes the consultation very frustrating. How much weight do you put on local input into consultations over the interests of somebody doing a disconnected mathematical calculation on a map?

Tony Bellringer:

We have been very clear in the past that we do recognise strength of local feeling. If there are lots of people locally saying a particular thing, that carries a lot of weight with us. However, it will not be an instant knockout if somebody comes up with what we feel is a very well argued solution that might not have been proposed by anybody else previously that in our view respects more of the different factors and across a wider area and provides a better solution overall—maybe not for an individual constituency, but overall.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Could I add a last bit on the consultation and the issue of flexibility? When you hear the arguments about local ties and suchlike, are there occasions when, perhaps in a minority of cases, you would want to go beyond 5% and would want that flexibility in order to address that local concern?

Tony Bellringer:

It is something that we always used to be able to do in the past and did do on occasion. Prior to 2011, there was not this hard maximum and minimum, but we would still be aiming to keep constituencies within a broad range. Occasionally we would breach that if we needed to, to provide a better holistic solution.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Thank you, Mr Paisley; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.Q

My question is about how to deal with county boundaries or sub-units within a region. It is specifically an English problem, obviously. I will take the north-west as an example because there are five discrete units. If we take Greater Manchester’s current electorate—I am using the December 2019 figures—we can neatly subdivide it into 27 seats that are just on the edge of quota. However, there are basically 49,000 extra voters that you could take in from Lancashire, so at what stage do you make a determination on whether to start splitting wards and have a neat compact unit within one county? Or do you start looking across county boundaries?

Tony Bellringer:

As Isabel suggested, we have our nine regions in England, so we work within the regions. We start off by subdividing that as well, and we largely try and work with county units. As far as possible, we start off by trying to keep within county boundaries, but we might need to put a couple of counties together because we know that if you just do that initial mathematical calculation distribution, they end up with halves of constituencies in both counties, for example, and that will not work mathematically. You cannot have the smaller number or the higher number in either because they would be either too small or too big.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Q What formula do you use to calculate how you divide between those sub-units? Is it just a Hare formula and you divide by the quota?

Tony Bellringer:

We use the same distribution formula that is used to allocate the seats across the UK initially. We do that for the regions, and within the region we work out what we call a theoretical entitlement: if you use this agglomeration of a couple of counties, it would be allocated this many seats on the face of it.

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

Q Do you have any concerns about polling districts having no legal standing and are just advised by local authorities for the administration of elections?

Tony Bellringer:

I do not think that it makes a huge difference to us if they do not have a legal standing. They are a recognised administrative unit, as you say, that is used by electoral administrators in the delivery of an election. That is another reason why at the moment we use wards, because, although they have more of a legal status in law, they are used as a unit by the electoral administrators to deliver elections. One thing that we do have a mind to is that somebody has to use this constituency in delivering the election, and we want to make that process as smooth as possible for the people actually running the election as well.

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

I am afraid that that brings us to the end of this session. As usual, it got more interesting as time went along. We probably could have had much more time, although I am sure that our two witnesses are very pleased that there is no additional time. However, it shows that there is considerable interest in this issue. More expert witnesses will come along now, so we will be able to continue some of these lines of questioning. I thank our two witnesses for coming today—you have been brilliant, informative and very helpful to the Committee. I thank you for your efforts.