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We will now hear from Dave McCobb, the deputy director of campaigns and elections for the Liberal Democrats, with whom we have until 3.30 pm. Dave, I believe that you are joining us from down the line—can you hear us loud and clear?
Excellent; we can hear you too, which is great. Dave, you are very welcome. Could you introduce yourself for the record? I will then call Chloe Smith to ask the first series of questions.
Q Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave; it is great to have you. Thanks to you and many others on the Parliamentary Parties Panel who have also taken part in technical engagement on the Bill behind the scenes. I am using these questions to work through the major headings and themes of the Bill and, if I may, I would like to talk about the number of constituencies. Do you support the shift to 650 constituencies in this legislation?
Yes, we support the retention of 650 constituencies in this iteration of the proposals. We certainly do not believe that there should be a reduction in the number of MPs unless there is a corresponding increased level of devolution across the UK that would enable us to reduce the number of Ministers. So while there is not further devolution across the UK, we support the retention of 650 constituencies.
Q Thank you so much for joining us, Mr McCobb. Given that we do not have a Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, could you outline any concerns about the content of the Bill?
Thanks very much. Our primary concern is about the restrictiveness of the 5% threshold in terms of equalising the electorates in constituencies. There have been widespread reports of the degree of under-registration of electors in many parts of the country and of the number of people who are not correctly registered. Setting a very restrictive threshold at 5% reduces the commission’s flexibility to recognise that significant under-registration is likely in some parts of the country.
It also means that constituencies could be constructed incredibly arbitrarily. In the previous round of the review —the proposals that were ultimately never implemented— many constituencies were constructed that really bore no reference to identifiable communities with which people who lived there would identify. That impacted cities in England particularly, where, due to the size of local government wards, the number of wards that needed to be added together could not be done within local authority boundaries. So very arbitrary constituencies were constructed including chunks of some local authorities, and they really bore no reference to communities that people would identify with. That could be eliminated by having a higher threshold of 10%, for example. That would be the No. 1 concern about the proposals as they are currently outlined.
Q Thank you very much for coming before the Committee, Mr McCobb. As I have asked other representatives, because you guys tend to be the kind of folk who run numbers through spreadsheets, have you run these numbers through the spreadsheet and found the seats per nation? The reason I ask is that Scotland, for example, currently has 59 seats in the UK Parliament. Have you run the numbers to see how many seats Scotland would have under these proposals?
I have not personally, no. That would be done by a colleague who is not currently in work. In terms of the overall distribution of seats between the four nations, that is something that I would not want to comment on until we actually see the registered totals that will be published for the electoral register that will be used for this.
I would like to bring it back to the 5% threshold. When I have been involved in cross-party talks on this, colleagues from the SNP have rightly raised concerns that the 5% threshold would require the creation of some geographically enormous constituencies in the highlands of Scotland and potentially in other parts of rural England and Wales.
Anyone who knows otherwise may correct me if I am wrong, but someone once told me that the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire is larger than Luxembourg. It would require a constituency that is already that geographically large—the same applies to parts of the highlands of Scotland, too—to be 25-30% bigger to meet the 5% threshold. That is likely to make it very difficult to represent or campaign in a constituency on that scale.
Q In the evidence we have heard so far, colleagues from the Labour party and the Conservative party have broadly agreed that we could be looking at losing two or three seats in Scotland. Do the Liberal Democrats have a view on whether Scotland should remain at 59 seats?
Thank you so much for giving evidence. I want to probe further on the issue of automaticity in the Bill. We are currently working on boundaries that are decades out of date. Much of the reason for that and for problems in the past has been the way in which political parties in Parliament have blocked changes to boundaries. As a party, do you support automaticity, because of the ability to have automatic changes?Q
We support the principle that the proposals that come from the Boundary Commission should be subject to minimal potential political interference, or a majority party could use its majority to impose boundaries on other people. The critical issue is how far the whole process is as divorced from partisan political control as possible.
Q Surely the final recommendations not coming before Parliament would fulfil your criteria of not having political involvement at that crucial stage, which in the past has proved to be such a barrier.
I think that depends on the criteria that are set for the Boundary Commission’s review. Provided that the criteria are set for the Boundary Commission’s work in as non-partisan a way as possible, then not having a political vote at the end of it might be acceptable. Again, it comes back to the provisions that the Boundary Commission is required to work to also being free of party political influence to the largest degree possible.
I would like to come back to the 5% variation threshold. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe specifically recommends a variation of up to 10% when doing [Inaudible] necessary. Having that greater degree of flexibility around the way the Commission is able to be flexible, to recognise natural communities where they exist, would enable it to be more free of political direction than as the Bill is currently set out.
I think the question was, what do you think constituted pressure on a commissioner? You were going to come back to that point.
Q Following up on one of the previous lines of questioning on the premise of the Bill, which is about equal-sized constituencies and the fairness of that, I was reflecting on what Nick Clegg, when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats, said about that—very much supporting that as a principle. I was reflecting on the comments that you made earlier about the need to balance the issues of community over those of fairness. If it were possible to break down the units of work to, say, a polling-district level, to get that sensitivity on communities and on fairness, which the Liberal party has put prominently in the past, do you think that you could get a better balance, if you were dealing with polling districts, rather than wards, and you could therefore live with a far tighter tolerance of the variances between different constituencies?
You make an important point, which is specific to the way in which the commission in England worked on the last review, in that it was very clear that, apart from one or two examples in its final proposals, it was adamantly against ward splitting.
The combination of the English commission’s reluctance to split council wards and the tight 5% threshold contributed to some quite perverse constituencies being proposed in some cases, in particular in some urban areas. In parts of the country, a council ward is 2,000 or 3,000 electors, so a number of them can be added or subtracted around the threshold, but in Leeds, for example, there are 17,000 electors in a council ward and, if you are not willing to split one, in one case a lot of people had to have a random ward that really had no community links with Leeds tacked to the top of a Leeds constituency.
If the commission is given clearer direction on preferring ward splitting if that helps them to retain constituencies that relate to natural communities, that is obviously helpful. We support the principle that each MP should represent a roughly equal number of residents, but we highlight the fact that the Electoral Commission last September estimated that up 9 million potential electors are not on the register and that, while there is evidence that some particular groups might be heavily disadvantaged by under-registration, giving the commission a bit more flexibility to enable it to recognise the parts of the country where there might be major issues with electoral under-registration is the right thing to do.
It is interesting: in Wales and Scotland, there is an ability to split wards, even to go down to postcode level. It can be done, so I suppose the question is why it is not done more in England.
It is that combination of the two factors: the English commission’s reluctance to split wards, which contributed; and the 5% threshold, which, if that were 10%, would allow it the flexibility better to match natural communities and to recognise that there will be parts of the country with much greater problems of under-registration of people resident there than others.
Q I would like to go back a few topics to the allocation of seats across the nations of the United Kingdom. I appreciate, Mr McCobb, that you do not want to pass comment on any numbers, but I was wondering whether the Liberal Democrats have a view of how that allocation should be decided.
I was interested to hear your comment about the overall number of MPs at Westminster, that there should not be a reduction without further devolution. I completely agree with you. Do you have a view that you can offer us—or come back to us—on whether the differential devolution statuses across both regions and nations of the UK need to be considered when it comes to the allocation of seats?
If there are no other questions, I thank you, Dave, for taking the trouble and time to come to us today and to present your evidence before us. We look forward to receiving that written evidence over the next two weeks, if that is possible.