Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 18th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Tom Adams gave evidence.

2.31 pm

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

We now move to our second witness this afternoon. We will hear from Tom Adams. Tom is the acting director of data and targeting for the Labour party. And we will have until 3 am for—[Hon. Members: “Three am?”] Sorry, I knew there was something wrong there.

Tom, we have until 3 pm with you today. I will go round the Front-Bench spokespeople first and then other Members, as they signal, will ask you questions.

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

Q Thank you for coming to join us today, Tom; it is much appreciated. I also thank all the political parties who we have before us today for some of their technical engagement with the Cabinet Office in preparing the Bill.

Tom, may I invite you to talk about the automaticity provisions in the Bill? By that, I mean the measure that we are proposing whereby the review’s recommendations should come into effect automatically, without the possibility of political influence either from the Government or from Parliament. What is your view on those provisions?

Tom Adams:

Broadly, I think there should still be some parliamentary scrutiny of the review’s recommendations at the end. Fundamentally, while the commissions are obviously independent, the advice and instructions given to them by the Government are obviously given by the Government of the day. And given that there is still some scope for whoever is in Government at that time to influence the process in some way, I think it is right that the review’s recommendations come back to Parliament.

Fundamentally, the Government have obviously now decided, rightly in my view, that there should be 650 seats and not 600, but obviously the previous reviews—two of them on 600 seats—would have been implemented automatically if these new rules had been in place at that time, which Parliament might later have come to regret if it has since changed its mind. And obviously at those times, there was no parliamentary majority for implementing the change to 600 seats, but Parliament would not have been able to do anything about it at the time.

So I think that Parliament offers a last stop-gap, and it is right that Parliament gets the final say on these matters, just as an important principle of parliamentary sovereignty on this material.

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

Q Thank you very much. You said that the Government would have the ability to influence the instructions given to the Boundary Commissions. Could you point to where that is in the Bill?

Tom Adams:

Sorry—what I mean is that obviously the Government, by proposing the Bill and passing it, will be able to set things such as the 5% threshold. That is obviously something that the Government have decided upon and Labour has taken a different position on that. That is what I mean—the Government are deciding that that is the threshold to be used. Therefore, given that the Government have some ability to influence this process—it is not completely and utterly independent, because fundamentally the commissions have to work within the guidelines that the Government have given them—I think it is right that the proposals that come back should be agreed by Parliament at the end of the process.

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

Q There is a final question in my set of questions. Indeed, we all believe in parliamentary sovereignty, but is it not Parliament that sets those rules rather than the Government?

Tom Adams:

That is true, but if a Labour Government were proposing this Bill, there might be slightly different thresholds, for example, so clearly the Government still have quite a lot of influence over what is put in the Bill in terms of these boundaries, which obviously will persist for at least—possibly—two general elections. That is why I think it is right that it does come back to Parliament at the end.

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

Q Tom, thank you so much for coming to give evidence this afternoon. In the session so far, there have been quite a lot of contributions from members of the Committee about the balance between having constituencies as equal as possible and maintaining community ties. Members have given examples from their own areas about different ward sizes making it more challenging in some areas to do that without splitting wards than in others. I just wonder what you think, having overseen this on a more national level for the Labour party, about where the balance should lie. I suppose my question is this. Can you foresee specific circumstances in which in order to avoid splitting a ward, it would be preferable to have some level of exceptional flexibility on the 5% in relation to the quota? For example, if a handful of seats across the country were at 6%, would that be preferable to having wards that were split between different constituencies?

Tom Adams:

Broadly, yes, having a constituency that varies by 5.5% from the quota makes more sense than having a split ward or, indeed, an orphan ward added to a constituency, where you have one ward from a different local authority. I think that makes more sense from the perspective of maintaining community ties and having constituencies that the public understand and have trust in. It is a question of having some flexibility in specific areas. Obviously, some wards in the country are very, very large in terms of electors, particularly in the west midlands, where some wards in Birmingham have 20,000. That obviously makes it very hard, in those areas, to come up with arrangements, so having additional flexibility on the 5% figure would make that easier. The same applies to some bits of Wales, for example, where the geography obviously makes it much more challenging.

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

Q What about things like polling districts? Do you have any concern about the use of polling districts? For instance, they have no legal standing. Does that concern you at all?

Tom Adams:

Yes, I think wards should be the building blocks for this. Obviously, where a decision is taken to split a ward, if that is absolutely necessary, it should be along the existing polling district lines, but as you say, polling districts do not have a clear legal status. Councils can amend them, basically, as and when they want. There is not a clear process for how that happens in the same way as there is for how wards are done by the Local Government Boundary Commission. Polling districts are at the discretion of the councils, and although in some areas they are based on parishes, in many others they change quite frequently.

We saw, for example, in the general election some councils that created polling districts just for the purposes of helping them to administer the general election, and then they got rid of them afterwards again. Things like that make it very hard to have a consistent process that is based on using polling district boundaries. Using wards would be much preferable, and avoiding splitting where possible; and where that is necessary, that is when you can use the polling district boundaries to do that. I do not think polling districts should be the primary building block for this process.

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

Q Finally, with regard to the register that is used to draw up the boundaries, the Government have tabled an amendment to the Bill to use the March 2020 register. What are your thoughts on that, and do you have any concerns about the accuracy of that register?

Tom Adams:

I very much welcome the move from December 2020 to March 2020. Obviously, the Minister will be aware that we have raised significant concerns about this, in the earlier engagement with political parties. We still have some concerns about the impact of people dropping off the register even between 12 December 2019 and March. Obviously that will be less significant compared with December 2020, but just in our rough estimations looking at it now, it does look likely that a few hundred thousand people will have dropped off the register in that time, because obviously there are areas where people move a lot and there is high turnover of population.

On 12 December there was a general election, so that register will be the most complete a register is going to be. To my mind, it makes sense to use that one, although obviously I strongly welcome the use of 2 March as compared with December 2020, when I think the impact on the annual canvass of coronavirus will have been quite significant. I think the 12 December one would be better: it will be more complete and a better representation of the actual electorates in these places. But 2 March is certainly preferred to December 2020.

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

Q Mr Adams, you are director of data and targeting. I think we all know that a lot of what you do is probably running numbers through spreadsheets. Have you run a number through your spreadsheet as to how many seats Scotland and Wales would lose under these proposals?

Tom Adams:

Obviously, the commissions did publish the numbers on this, but broadly, there is likely to be a loss of three seats for Scotland and a loss of eight seats for Wales. Obviously, that might change slightly, depending on exactly which register you use, but it is going to be in that region of change.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Will you elaborate on whether you think the allocation of seats between the nations of the UK is appropriate, and on whether your party has any views on the status of Ynys Môn?Q

Tom Adams:

That raises an important question, particularly when it comes to Wales, because Wales is due to lose such a significant number of seats; it is quite a drastic overhaul of the number of Wales’s constituencies. While there clearly needs to be some decrease to equalise the electorate sizes in constituencies, it seems slightly odd that Wales has no protected constituencies at all, yet there will be two constituencies on the Isle of Wight, the electorates of which will be roughly the size of an average Welsh constituency. The introduction of protected constituencies in certain places in Wales is one possible way of achieving that, and Ynys Môn would be a good example.

This big drop of eight in one go is quite significant, and we should be mindful of the impact that it will have on representation in Wales. Having additional protected constituencies—Scotland obviously has several and the Isle of Wight has two guaranteed, whereas Wales does not have any—is perhaps something to look at.

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

Q This is the same question I asked Mr Pratt: how responsive and flexible has the Labour party previously found the commission, the assistant commissioners and the consultation process, in terms of the representations that the party has made? How flexible are they in responding to the party’s representations?

Tom Adams:

The first thing to say is that I am relatively new to this responsibility in the party. However, generally, they are quite flexible and accommodating. Particular MPs clearly have quite a large role in that, and their submissions are often taken quite seriously. The commissioners clearly do an excellent job of trying to balance all the competing priorities, but they are sometimes potentially constrained by things such as the 5% threshold. However, within the guidelines that they have, I think they do a good job of taking everything into account and coming up with proposals that are genuinely reasonable for everyone.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am seeking clarification on your justification against the automaticity. You gave the example of its being at 5%, when it could be 7.5%. If the Bill went back for approval by Parliament, is it to be taken as read that, because it is set at 5%, your party would vote this down because you think it should be 7.5%? If that was to happen, the 2024 election would be fought on the current boundaries, which are 25 years out of date. Where does the balance come?Q

Tom Adams:

Whether we would vote it down is probably a question for the politicians in my party, rather than for me; I work in a technical role at head office. Obviously, it is likely that if the Government supported the proposals, they would still pass Parliament, even if Labour voted against them. I think there is a role for Parliament in finally approving those proposals when they come back, as has been the case for previous reviews.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q You rightly point out the size of the metropolitan boroughs in Birmingham and in my city of Leeds, which can easily have 18,000 or 19,000 people. A threshold of 5% or 7.5% will not stop you having to split wards in those big areas—they are enormous. Are we not talking arbitrarily about numbers, when we just need to get down to trying to get within the OSCE boundaries and working out the best way to split these enormous metropolitan wards?

Tom Adams:

In the last review, not that many wards were split in the end. I think you are hearing evidence later from academics who have done some research on the difference between 5% and 7.5%, and the better outcomes that 7.5% produces. It is not quite an arbitrary number. Their research found that even the difference between 5% and 7.5% has quite an impact on the outcomes. While there are obviously likely to be occasions when you still need to split wards, clearly any increase in the threshold will improve your ability to maintain community ties and to not have to split wards or create constituencies that seem slightly odd.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I just add that the last time, we were able to form much bigger constituency numbers.

Tom Adams:

Yes, that change will have an impact.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

I want to pick up on the point about wards and to explore your answer. Is there any particular reason why you do not think that wards should be split? An ordinary member of the public in a city often does not know what ward they live in. Prior to becoming involved in politics, I was not really aware of where I lived. What is the democratic principle?Q

Tom Adams:

It certainly creates challenges from the perspective of political parties and others who are reliant on electoral geography boundaries. Given that wards are created by local Boundary Commissions to have some sense of community ties, and they are created for a reason, if you split them you are further cutting community ties, and potentially creating more challenges, in the sense that people are cut off from people who they would see as firmly part of their community by cutting across a ward. Obviously, you cannot always come up with a perfect arrangement.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

Q To pick up on that, thinking particularly of cities, would that not vary from city to city? There is no real reason why one ward would have a distinct identity compared with the ward next door necessarily.

Tom Adams:

Local Boundary Commissions will certainly try to make that the case. They will come up with those wards for a reason, which is why I think they are sensible building blocks for the whole process. If you abandon that principle and say, “Does it really matter?”, we might as well just ignore them entirely. I do not think that is practical for the purposes of political parties or electoral administrators, who certainly find it much easier to think of wards as sensible building blocks for constituencies, rather than having entirely separate arrangements that do not bear any relation to the existing wards. Using those wards and keeping them as far as possible is sensible.

Clearly the Government recognise that to an extent, because there is the very sensible provision in the Bill of allowing the provisional wards to be taken into account. That is a fantastic reform that will help to keep some of that, so wards will continue to be in line with parliamentary constituencies. We had the problem in the past, even where we were using whole wards, that if those wards were then amended or changed only a year later, the new wards would bear no relation to the constituencies. The new provision enables you to make sure that you have wards and constituencies that are coterminous as far as possible. That does improve people’s experience of the democratic process.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

Q Are you aware of the extent of the dispute between, for example, the Labour and Conservative parties over the last boundary change exercise? Do you know what proportion of constituencies were broadly agreed or not agreed?

Tom Adams:

In terms of which ones we particularly—

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

In the 2018 exercise—sorry, I am not familiar with it myself—do you know what proportion there was broad agreement over and what proportion there was not?

Tom Adams:

Not off the top of my head. I do not know exactly; I have not studied that in detail recently. As I said, that was carried out by someone else at Labour head office, so I do not know exactly on which constituencies we agreed and which we did not.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

Q I will ask a follow-up question and if you cannot answer, that is fine. Do you know how the Boundary Commission resolves a dispute of fact between the Labour party and the Conservative party? I mention those parties because I am talking about the seats in England, but do you know how it would approach that, if the two main political parties had a different view? What would the sequencing of its thinking be?

Tom Adams:

Presumably, they are not the only two submissions that will have been put in. The Labour and Tory submissions are not the only ones that will be put in.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

Q But in the event that there was a dispute between them in a seat that the two parties contested—it is a process question—do you know how the Boundary Commission would approach that?

Tom Adams:

I am not completely sure off the top of my head, but I am not entirely sure that that is within the scope of the Bill either, to be honest. That is a matter for the commissions really, rather than a matter of law.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

Okay, that is my last question then. Thank you.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Q Automaticity—a word I have much difficulty saying—proposes that decisions on boundary changes will be put into force directly. Would that prevent a recurrence of what happened with the Labour Government in 1969?

Tom Adams:

Or equally what happened in the last few reviews. I think I have covered my views on that already, and what I think Parliament should do in terms of approving the proposals once they are put to Parliament. I do not have anything further to add.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Q Okay, so you do not think it would make any difference if the Boundary Commission made the recommendations and they went straight to the Speaker.

Tom Adams:

Well, the fact that they would go straight to the Speaker is welcome, because that would mean that the Secretary of State could no longer make amendments to them, but I still think they should be subject to parliamentary approval, as I said earlier.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q Do you find it interesting that a Government with a majority of 80 are so concerned about their inability to get through a boundary review? Might that indicate that the underlying reason for the previous review not going through was because it caused so much discontent in their own ranks—in other words, because it did not respect local community interests and local boundaries?

Tom Adams:

That gets at one reason why Parliament should ultimately have to approve boundary reviews: if you cannot even get half the House to agree to them, clearly there is not sufficient MP backing for them—not enough MPs agree that it is a sensible process. Last time, the proposed reduction to 600 seats clearly had a big impact on that backing. Keeping the number at 650 will mitigate that somewhat. I agree that that is one reason why it is important that Parliament has that oversight. If it struggles to get half of MPs to vote in favour of the proposal, that implies that people do not broadly think it would be a good outcome.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Q In your work, do you find that there is an underlying problem, in that while many Conservatives can understand the issue of local identity for rural areas and small towns, they have a complete incapacity to understand the effect of identity on neighbourhoods and communities in conurbations, which they see as sprawling, shapeless continuous masses?

Tom Adams:

I would not want to comment too much on that, but clearly there are still community ties in large urban wards, yes.

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

As no one else is signalling to ask a question, I thank Tom for taking the trouble to give us his evidence. It is much appreciated. I thank Members for asking their questions.

The witness on our third panel this afternoon, Mr Dave McCobb, is not here yet. I will suspend the Committee until 3 o’clock.

Sitting suspended.