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Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:16 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Scott Martin gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:30 pm, 18th June 2020

We will now hear from Scott Martin, the solicitor for the Scottish National party. We have until 4 pm for this evidence. Scott, will you please introduce yourself, for the record?

Scott Martin:

I am Scott Martin, and I am the solicitor to the Scottish National party.

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

Q Thank you for joining us, Scott. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. Thank you for some of the prior work that your party did as part of technical engagement. Given that in Scotland there are two of the protected characteristics—I mean protected constituencies; I make that mistake all the time, as I have the Equality Act in my head—and given, too, the rule on geographical area, can you tell us a little more about what that looks like in practice? Also, what considerations have to go into the review under those headings?

Scott Martin:

I think that the considerations in Scotland are the same rules that are applied elsewhere in the UK, as far as local ties. Obviously it will be perhaps a slightly easier exercise this time round, in so far as there may be fewer constituencies that need to be changed, but certainly a reduction of either two or three will mean some changes that are significant—rather less than the last time round; but clearly the Highland North constituency, or whatever it may be called after the next review, is one that any parliamentarian would clearly find it difficult to represent, given its vast area.

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

Q Would you be able to give us a little more colour around perhaps the reasons why constituencies might be protected?

Scott Martin:

Clearly the two protected constituencies are there for fairly obvious geographical reasons. Highland North, or whatever you want to call it, is not as it were a protected constituency. It is just a constituency that comes up to the 12,000 sq km and 13,000 sq km rule.

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

Q Finally, aside from those reasons, would you take a view on whether there should be equal treatment across the nations of the United Kingdom?

Scott Martin:

I think there is a logic that says if one is reverting from a model of 600 to a model of 650, the existing distribution of constituencies between the nations of the United Kingdom should be retained. Of course, the position of the Scottish National party is that there should be zero Westminster constituencies in Scotland.

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

Thank you, Scott. I am looking forward to talking much more about that with David Linden, as the Committee goes on.

Scott Martin:

I am sure Mr Linden will be invited to the celebration of his unemployment.

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

Q Thank you so much, Scott, for giving evidence to the Committee. We have heard from other witnesses that their expectation is that Scotland will lose seats, and that England looks set to gain some. Can you outline the SNP’s view of the impact of the Bill in terms of the integrity and strength of the Union of the United Kingdom?

Scott Martin:

I suppose our view on the integrity of the Union may be different from that of other political parties that are represented there. I suspect that it may be two rather than three seats that will be lost, with the current formulas. It rather depends, I think. The numbers we have so far do not include attainers. By my calculation, the percentage of attainers in Scotland is roughly 0.957%, whereas in England it is 0.644%. When the attainers are added in, it may be that Scotland will only lose two seats, rather than three. However, as people have identified, we will not know that until all the final figures are collated after March. I suspect the reason why there are more attainers in Scotland will be questions of life expectancy. Also, because we have voting at 16 in Scotland, it is likely that we manage to get more people on as attainers than other parts of the UK.

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

Q On a slightly different issue, are there circumstances where the electoral quota could be relaxed to avoid ward splitting? The Committee has been exploring that throughout the day. For example, could you imagine it making more sense for a constituency to have a 5.5% variance than to split wards? Would that be preferable?

Scott Martin:

I certainly think that work could be done on changing the variance, which is effectively half the gains I talked about as a permissible departure in relation to the Venice Commission “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters”. The question of wards is rather different in Scotland than in England. Parliamentary constituencies in Scotland are based on wards, with no ward splitting. Of course, before the 2007 Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland, we moved to three or four-member wards. The consequence is that you cannot get sensible constituencies without splitting wards, particularly with the hard limit put in place as a result of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. It is a rather different situation in Scotland, for practical reasons, as a consequence of the size of wards we have.

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

Q I think I put on record on Second Reading that my preference was for either a minimum of 59 seats in Scotland, or zero with independence. Certainly the latter would be my preference, but I appreciate that we are not quite at that moment, though I am sure it is coming soon.

I want to ask about parliamentary approval. You will note that in the Bill, Parliament’s approval role is being removed. Can you share your view on that?

Scott Martin:

That is, in a sense, a highly political question. Do you want politicised districting—everyone has difficulty with that word—or independent districting? Do you want the model they have in the United States, where the word “gerrymander” comes from? The logic is that if you have an independent commission model, which we have had here since the commissions were put on a permanent footing, the ability for political interference is minimised. Automaticity, as it has been described, is a sensible approach to take on that—although clearly, as we have seen from a variety of reviews, including the last two, ultimately, if Parliament wants to stop a review, or wants to proceed or another basis, that can happen, but unless we move to having a written constitution, which I would obviously support, that is not something that we can legislate for.

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

Q Debate has sprung up today on the idea of building constituencies not on wards, but on polling districts. That issue is of interest to other members of the Committee too. Could you elaborate on that?

Scott Martin:

Yes. In Scotland, there is the Improvement Service, and if you go to www.spatialhub.scot, you will find a polling district map of Scotland. Not all of it is up to date—some of it was updated just before the general election, and some of it is a little bit older—but there is now a complete polling district map of Scotland. Where that data is available, polling districts are a sensible way of drawing boundaries.

The reason why the Boundary Commission for Scotland has had to take a postcode approach is because it cannot use wards, and it did not have the polling districts. I appreciate that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here, in that polling districts are supposed to be divisions of parliamentary constituencies, rather than being used the other way round, but thinking back to the first Scottish Parliament boundary review, I recall that the Boundary Commission, after its first review, was prepared to take representations from Edinburgh on realigning everything with existing polling districts. Electoral administrators and campaigners in Scotland have practical issues as a result of there being non-coterminous boundaries—it means they have some very strange polling districts—but those issues would certainly be removed if everything was built from one set of polling districts.

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

Q If I could presume on Mr Paisley’s indulgence ever so slightly, I have a final question. You touched on the much-discussed proposal for a Highland North constituency, which raised a few eyebrows after the last review. You touched on the fact that it would be almost impossible for a Member to conduct parliamentary business in that constituency without a helicopter. Do you have any ideas or proposals for ensuring slightly more manageable and sensible constituencies that do not take up a space that, in certain parts of England, would be represented by 73 Members?

Scott Martin:

There is obviously the 12,000 and 13,000 number there, and certainly some thought could be given to reducing it. My understanding was that that number was effectively taken from the size of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Clearly we could look at reducing that.

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

I do not see anyone else indicating that they wish to ask a question. Scott, you got off scot-free today. Thank you for your evidence and your time.

Scott Martin:

Thank you.