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Examination of witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Roger Pratt CBE gave evidence.

Roger Pratt:

Thank you.

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

I hope that you enjoy today’s session, rather than endure it. If you introduce yourself for the record, we will then move on to questions, starting with Chloe Smith.

Roger Pratt:

Thank you, Mr Chairman. I am Roger Pratt, the boundary review director for the Conservative party.

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

Q55 Thank you for joining us today, Roger. I will turn to the use of data, after the more general questions we had this morning. Can you give your view on the robustness of the sources from which we take data for the review? They have for some time and for a number of reasons been based on electoral registration data, compared with, for example, census data or other sources, and they are usually based on the canvass as the point in the year. Can you offer any comment on why that is a sensible approach?

Roger Pratt:

Thank you very much. I fully support the use of electoral registers as the basis. They are likely to be the most up-to-date information that one has—they are conducted on an annual basis and electorates have always been the basis for parliamentary boundary reviews. In fact, it was the Labour Government in 1948 who brought forward the use of electorates, following a unanimous recommendation from the Speaker’s conference of 1944 that the electorate be used, and it has been used ever since—I think that is absolutely right.

On the data that might be used, I think it absolutely right, under the very strange circumstances that we have, that the 2 March 2020 data be used rather than the December 2020 electorates, which clearly would normally be used. I thought that might be worthwhile to look at. I know there have been suggestions that one should look at either the general election figures or the December ’19 figures, but I do not think that those are robust because the December ’19 figures—the figures published recently on the Boundary Commission website and by the Office for National Statistics—and the general election electorate data, which are publicly available, differ very markedly. The difference is about half a million electors between those two figures—that is a dramatic difference, but it is not all one way.

Three hundred and eighty-eight seats were actually larger at the general election than on 1 December, but 261 seats were smaller at the general election, so it went both ways. I do not think that either the general election or December ’19 figures are robust, and I am sure that the March figures, when they can be properly checked and cross-checked by the Boundary Commission, will be much more robust and that, in my view, will be the right data to use.

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

Q Thank you very much. I am sure that when we think in terms of robust data, we all know the definitions of completeness and accuracy, which are the two terms that we use in this arena. It is not necessarily the case, as people argue, that a larger register from general elections is in itself a good thing. Would you agree that what we are looking for is completeness and accuracy? Would your view be that there is a good chance of that from the March figures and, more long term, that there is the best chance of that from the canvass data every year?

Roger Pratt:

Absolutely. Completeness and accuracy are absolutely the right words, and the best opportunity of that is to get it normally at the annual canvass and, in those special circumstances, on 2 March.

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

I have a final question to round off that set. Obviously, we all want to see as many people who are eligible to be registered as possible—and that, I trust, would be the view of the Conservative party.

Roger Pratt:

Absolutely. Every effort to drive up registration, to make sure everyone is registered, is a goal we all support.

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

We will now make our way around the group leaders, unless I signal otherwise. If anyone else wishes to speak, just catch my eye.

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

Thank you, Roger, for coming to give evidence. Are there any specific circumstances in which electoral quota could be relaxed in order to avoid splitting an electoral ward? For example, even though the vast majority of seats were within the 5%, if in one or two very localised examples a 6% variance would prevent a ward splitting, would you find that preferable?

Roger Pratt:

No, I would not: I think we have to stick to the quota. There are already exceptions in the Bill—four constituencies are clearly protected, Northern Ireland has special rules for the quota and there are rules about the area of a constituency, which in effect affects only northern Scotland. Those exceptions are in the Bill. Otherwise, it is right to have the 5% tolerance and, within the 5% tolerance, we can get constituencies that meet quota but also respect communities.

The best opportunity, as was said in the report by Mr Pattie and others, is split wards, which make a considerable difference. Splitting wards is the opportunity to make sure that constituencies are in the right place in terms of communities. I know you are to speak to Mr Pattie later—very sadly, Ron Johnston died recently—but, just so you know, in their report, they said:

“The Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were prepared to split wards where they considered that sensible; the Boundary Commission for England was extremely reluctant to do so, and many of the problems that emerged in its recommendations resulted from this.”

They went on:

“With ward-splitting, it is possible to have substantially more unchanged constituencies—and, as a corollary, substantially fewer undergoing major change—especially with the tighter tolerances. The advantages are particularly pronounced at lower tolerances with 650 seats but, as the tolerance is relaxed, ward-splitting is needed in fewer areas”.

So I believe in ward splitting, rather than in relaxing the tolerance.

The 5% tolerance—10%, either way—is right. Otherwise, we could have one constituency that is 67,000 next to another that is 78,000, so ward splitting is right. There are those few exceptions in the Bill, as is correct.

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

One of those exceptions would be the Isle of Wight, which looks set to get two MPs under the Bill. On current figures, that would come in at about 55,000 electors in each, which is about the size of many Welsh constituencies, in particular if we look at the Welsh valleys and their geography, where mountains divide communities. How do you explain the difference between those geographical features that make the Isle of Wight the exception but not necessarily the Welsh valleys?

Roger Pratt:

The Welsh valleys—I actually live in one, so I have some experience of this—are totally different from the Isle of Wight. You suggested that the Isle of Wight had similarities with the Welsh valleys, but the Isle of Wight is an island without any direct link to the mainland; all the Welsh valleys have links to the rest of Wales, and so on. It is not sensible to link the Welsh valleys with the Isle of Wight.

The treatment of the Welsh valleys is absolutely right. Unfortunately, Wales will take a hit—one has to say that—but the position is that just before 2005, Scotland was required to reduce the number of seats to the English quota. They were required to use the English quota prior to 2005 with the Scottish Parliament. That was not required in Wales with the Welsh Assembly—Wales now has a Welsh Parliament—but unfortunately that means that Wales will take a hit.

However, I think it is right that my vote in Monmouthshire should equal a vote in another part of the country. Monmouthshire is one of the largest, but my doctor’s surgery is in Blaenau Gwent, one of the Welsh valleys to which you refer. Is it right that Blaenau Gwent has 50,736 electors whereas just over the Severn bridge in Bristol West, they have 99,253? I do not think that is right, and Wales will take a hit—there is no doubt about that. However, it is right that you have a standard quota throughout the United Kingdom. That is fair and that is equal.

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

My final question. We have the representative of the Conservative and Unionist party before us, and you have acknowledged that Wales looks set to take a hit. It looks to be the most badly affected of all the nations of the United Kingdom in the review. What assessment do you make about the integrity of the Union in terms of the consequences of this boundary review and Welsh voices in this place?

Roger Pratt:

I think the Union is intact. The whole of the Union will have the same quota. It is absolutely right that everywhere in the United Kingdom has a quota and so every person in the United Kingdom has the same representation. The difference in Scotland and Wales is that they have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Parliament. They still have equal representation in the UK Parliament, which I think is absolutely right, but clearly the Members for Glasgow East and Ceredigion do not have responsibility in this place for health and education, whereas all the other Members on the Committee do.

Scotland has a slight advantage over the rest of the United Kingdom, quite rightly in terms of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. I fully support that. However, it means that—slightly—Scotland has an advantage over the rest of the United Kingdom because those are very small seats. I do not object to that in any way. The Union is intact because everybody’s vote counts equally whatever part of the United Kingdom they come from.

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

I want to follow on from the last question. On the issue of equality within the United Kingdom, it was the view of the Conservative party for quite some time that the number of seats should be reduced to 600. Am I right in thinking that your view is now in line with the Government’s—that it should be 650?Q

Roger Pratt:

Correct, yes. I am fully supportive of 650.

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

Q You are very honest about the fact that, in your words, “Wales will take a hit” as a result of the legislation—I think that is on the record. Are you also willing to place on the record that Scotland, too, will lose seats as a result of that? If so, can you say how many seats Scotland will lose?

Roger Pratt:

I cannot say how many seats Scotland will lose because we do not yet have the figures from 2 March. When we have those figures, we will know, but on certain calculations they lose two and on others they lose three. I expect it to be either two or three seats. Wales is likely to lose eight, but we will have to see.

I think it is right that Scotland and Wales do that. Scotland’s electorate has not gone up as fast as England’s. It had to use the English quota previously and now that has not caught up because England’s electorate has gone up more. In terms of Scotland, your own seat is one of the larger seats in Glasgow, but there are four smaller seats in Glasgow, one of which is 57,000. I do not believe it is right that a seat in Glasgow should have only 57,000 and two other members of this Committee in the south-east of England both have well over 80,000. It is right there is an equal quota throughout the United Kingdom.

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

Q Of course, your research will show that my seat is spread over two local authorities as well. I am the only MP in Glasgow whose constituency is not coterminous with the city of Glasgow.

I want to ask you specifically about the idea of the size of constituencies. You have hit the nail on the head in terms of some island communities, which are protected; Na h-Eileanan an Iar is a good example of that. There is also what was proposed as the Highland North constituency, which is probably the size of a country like Belgium or Luxembourg. Do you have a view on the limit of 12,000 to 13,000 sq km being the provision for a constituency? Is it the Conservative party’s view that that is a manageable size of constituency for a Member to deal with?

Roger Pratt:

Of course, your parliamentary leader represents a constituency that currently is the largest in the United Kingdom, and that is 12,000 sq km. I could not find a more accurate figure than 12,000, but it is 12,000, so I think that was why that figure was brought into the Bill as the constituency that was of that size. That is right in terms of 12,000. It cannot go beyond 13,000, but above 12,000 gives the Boundary Commission in Scotland discretion if it so wishes between 12,000 and 13,000.

There is discretion if the commission wishes to use it if a constituency is over 12,000. It is up to the Scottish commission, but that is the right balance. It is currently the largest constituency in the UK Parliament, and the Boundary Commission has discretion up to 13,000.

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

Okay, can I finish off with one question going back to the equality of the United Kingdom? You said yourself that Scotland stands to lose two or three seats. How would you, as a representative of the Conservative and Unionist party, reconcile that with what people in Scotland were told in 2014—how we were better together and we should be a United Kingdom?

Roger Pratt:

I still think you are better together, obviously. I do not think the fact that you will lose two or three seats affects that in any way. You will still have the same equal representation; actually, slightly larger because of the Western Isles—I apologise, but I cannot pronounce it in the way you did—and Orkney and Shetland, so there is a slight advantage there for Scotland. But I think it is right that it should have the same equal quota as the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is just right that Scotland should have the same quota. I do not think it means that the whole of the UK is an equal and fair place. I noticed that in the Bill brought before the House by the Member for Manchester, Gorton, there was no change in either Scotland or Wales; they would have been exactly the same. There was a change in the Bill to Northern Ireland, but no change as far as Scotland and Wales are concerned. That is absolutely right and I support that part—not others—of the Khan Bill.

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

If it helps, Mr Pratt, I believe the correct pronunciation is Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

Roger Pratt:

I am not going to try!

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

I thought I would get that one in.

I have just one question. Moving away from the numbers, what is your experience of being able to influence local proposals once they are already out? How flexible have you found the Boundary Commission and the assistant commissioners to be? What are the most useful arguments to deploy when considering the ones that perhaps resonate most with the boundary commissioners when you consider local proposals?

Roger Pratt:

Thank you very much indeed. Absolutely, the Boundary Commission and the assistant commissioners do listen. That is very important.

The whole point of this process is that it is consultative. It is a three-stage process and I think the changes to that process are right. You have got the initial proposals coming out and then you have got the secondary consultation stage, including the public hearings when people can discuss not only the Boundary Commission proposals but any alternatives that have been put forward, which I think is absolutely right for that secondary stage, and then you have got the revised proposals.

The commissioners do listen and they change their minds. I have found them to be very accommodating to what should be changed if people make a good argument. The arguments have to be based around the factors in rule 5: existing constituencies, local government boundaries, local ties and geography. Those four factors are the way in which you persuade them to change. Indeed, we changed them a number of times: in the last review, the Boundary Commission for England changed the composition of more than 50% of the constituencies. That showed they were prepared to listen.

During the Second Reading debate, you referred to the notorious Mersey Banks constituency, which illustrates the issue very well. I entirely agree with you: it was one of the strangest proposals I have ever seen from a boundary commission, but like the Labour party, the Conservative party opposed it. We all opposed it at the initial stage, and the boundary commission came out with revised proposals. They never came out with final proposals because the review was effectively suspended, but they changed Mersey Banks so there was no detached constituency. That is the whole point of the process: you have a proper consultation, then they come out with the proposals that best meet the factors within the quota tolerance level.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Thank you, Chair. First, Roger, youQ were very robust in your declaration of support for 650 seats. Were you as robust in your support for 600 when it was Conservative policy?

Roger Pratt:

I always support whatever is the Conservative party line. I am a Conservative party employee.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q You talked about the Isle of Wight as if this issue were somehow absolutely insuperable, but you also talked about the constituency that includes Skye. Until the Skye bridge was built, people had to get across by ferry, so why is it so utterly impossible to have linkage between part of the Isle of Wight—a much bigger constituency, as you have agreed—and part of the mainland, if we have achieved it in Skye?

Roger Pratt:

I think I am right in saying that the decision about the Isle of Wight followed discussion in the House of Lords about the previous Bill. The Lords decided that it was wrong for the Isle of Wight to link with part of the mainland. There is quite a large chunk of water. Those two constituencies would be made up of about 55,000 people, as you rightly say, but it is difficult: you have to get a ferry and so on. I appreciate that there is a Skye bridge, but you could not do Skye on its own. I cannot remember what the Skye electorate is, but it is not very large.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

There are lots of ferries between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, though. I was recently on a Defence Committee visit there, prior to covid-19, and the ferries are quite regular and quite quick.

Roger Pratt:

There are ferries, but if we are talking about communities, I think the Isle of Wight would feel very let down if it were linked with part of the mainland. I remember a boundary commission where it was suggested that there should be a seat crossing the Mersey between Liverpool and the Wirral, and that suggestion was very unpopular and rightly changed as a result of the consultation. With the 12,000 people from Skye, the current electorate of Ross, Skye and Lochaber is almost exactly the same as the seats in the Isle of Wight would be. The Isle of Wight seats would be very slightly larger.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q You conflated the situation in Scotland and Wales, did you not? Was not the reason why Wales retained a degree of what we accept is over-representation precisely so that the Welsh voice was heard in Westminster, because much more legislation regarding Wales was dealt with in Westminster than legislation regarding Scotland? Surely the underlying point is about the integrity of the Union and maintaining a strong voice for Wales, which is still much more directly linked with England than is Scotland.

Roger Pratt:

You are right that Wales was not required to use the English Parliament. At that time, there was a Welsh Assembly; it is now called the Welsh Parliament. That Parliament has a lot of responsibility, particularly for health and education, but for a lot of other matters as well. Members of Parliament from England have to deal with health and education, whereas those from Wales do not, so I think it is right that Wales should be on a fair and equal basis with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q I agree with you about using the electoral register as the basis for drawing this up. You mention both accuracy and completeness. Would it be right to give greater powers and direction to electoral registration officers to use their access to public data to improve the completeness of the register and, as with registrars of death removing those who have died, the accuracy as well?

Roger Pratt:

Certainly it needs to be as accurate and complete as it possibly can be. Some of those matters are beyond the scope of the Bill, but I would support all the measures that the Government are taking, as are the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government, and all the local authorities, to ensure the most accurate and complete register we can possibly get.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q Finally, you mentioned that something like 50% of the initial recommendations were altered. Is that not partly because if they followed an argument in one constituency, because of the 5% margin, there were inevitable knock-on effects on many other constituencies, which could have been perfectly easily accommodated had there been a wider margin of difference? You had a domino effect rather than dealing with a perfectly proper and legitimate cause of local complaint.

Roger Pratt:

There were some perfectly legitimate causes of local complaint, but one of the things they had to do was make sure that the knock-on effects were affected. Certainly, the Labour party and ourselves and others always put in an overall plan, so you could look at the overall plan. That is what you must do to try to get it right sometimes.

The Labour party and ourselves and other parties agreed in Dorset. All three of us came up independently with the same alternative plan for the Boundary Commission, so I do believe that it is right. I do not believe that a 7.5% quota is right.

It is a question of balance, isn’t it? It is a question of the balance you strike between getting a quota right and community ties. I think the quota at a 10% variance, rather than at 15%, which you would have under seven and a half, is the right balance to strike.

In the past, the Boundary Commission, in the rules under which you were all elected, stated quite clearly that it needs to get as near as possible to the electoral quota—that is in the Act—but it has been conflicted as to how it uses those rules. Under the new rules, it is not; it knows it has to get everything within 10%, that is 5% either side, but, in addition to that, it uses the rules to make sure that it uses the other factors. It does not need to get as near the quota as possible. Mr Bellringer made that clear this morning.

If I may, Mr Chairman, I have one other point on the 10%. The right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell referred to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights publishes an election observation handbook, which says that,

“all votes should carry the same weight to ensure equal representation. This means that each elected representative represents a similar number of registered electors. For example, in a majority voting system, the size of the electorate should not vary by more than approximately ten percent from constituency to constituency.”

I think that is the right balance to strike.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

I have a couple of questions about reviews. First, on the proposal for an eight-year review cycle, could you tell me what you think of that, and why?Q

Roger Pratt:

Yes. I think that is absolutely right. When there was an original five-year term, it was linked to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Since then, we have had two general elections not based on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and I think it is the Government’s intention to change that Act. So I think eight years is the right balance to strike, so that normally you would have two Parliaments between each review.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Q Super. And if I may, I have a second question, which is about the review process, or rather the consultation process. Again, it is proposed that that process will change slightly. What do you think of that?

Roger Pratt:

I fully support the changes. I think it is right that the initial proposals should be out there for eight weeks, and you should not be having public hearings during that period. It was very difficult to have public hearings during the initial period; I think that caused problems for parties and people. It is much better that, during the secondary consultation stage, which is six weeks, you have those public hearings, and you can discuss not only what the Boundary Commission has brought forward but any other alternatives that are brought forward in the first stage. So I think it is absolutely right.

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

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of you, Roger. Thank you very much for your time and your expertise today; they have been much appreciated.

Roger Pratt:

Thank you very much, Mr Chairman.