Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Geraint Day gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:44 pm, 18th June 2020

We will now hear from Geraint Day. We come to this panel early—we are moving swiftly—so we can give it as much time as required. Geraint, could you please introduce yourself for the record?

Geraint Day:

Sure. Hello! My name is Geraint Day. I am the deputy chief executive of Plaid Cyrmu, and head of its campaigns unit.

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

Q Thank you, Geraint, for joining us today—it is great to have you here. Thank you for your participation and that of your party.

Can we talk a little about how political parties, large and small—I hope you do not mind my acknowledging that Plaid Cymru is one of the smaller ones in terms of parliamentary representation—respond to the boundary commissions? Will you talk a little about how easy parties find it to interact with the boundary commissions, and how we can encourage members of the public to interact with the boundary commissions through the consultation stages?

Geraint Day:

The boundary commissions should be praised for the way they approach their interaction with political parties and the public. On the whole, they are very open—they are available online and by phone, as well as through the more formal public hearings. I would reiterate something that one of the previous contributors said: the commissions are very open to alternative suggestions—I certainly agree with that.

Political parties start from the size of the electorate—the snapshot of the electorate. In Wales, which is the only area I feel competent to talk about, we have to start by looking at Ynys Môn. There is only one way you can go from Ynys Môn apart from the Irish sea, and that is across into Gwynedd. All boundary changes therefore start there and expand out. That has a knock-on effect—somebody referred to a domino effect earlier, and that is very true. If we decide to go one way on a proposal, it has a knock-on effect in a subsequent constituency. In the case of Wales, which is bordered on three sides by sea, with the English border on the other side, that leads to certain pressures, especially in mid-Wales, where the population is more sparse, vis-à-vis the more populous north and southern Wales.

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

Q Thank you very much. Just to be absolutely clear, the reason you start at the corner of Ynys Môn, as it were, rather than in south Wales, is that it is an island—or is it that south Wales is more populous? Can you be explicit on that point for the record?

Geraint Day:

Ynys Môn has been mentioned a number of times already today—I have been following the Committee online. It is a unique constituency. In Plaid Cymru’s view, it should be a protected constituency. It first got its franchise during the Acts of Union in 1536, and its representation has continued ever since, except during the Barebones Parliament in the English civil war. We certainly support and call for the protection of that constituency.

In previous reviews where that has not been the case and you start in the south, if you are limited by the percentage variance, you end up getting to Ynys Môn and suddenly realising that you cannot fit the remainder of the constituency within the variance that is left over, as you cross the Menai. Then you have to start again. Realistically, the only place to start when doing a boundary review in Wales is Ynys Môn. You then work your way east and south from there. You cannot go anywhere else; there is no alternative constituency. Only one constituency borders it, and that is Arfon.

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

Q Other witnesses today have indicated that Wales looks set to lose more seats than any other nation of the United Kingdom. The figure of eight seats has been suggested. Some of that is inevitable, due to population changes over the past two decades, but it does look like Wales will have quite a big overhaul in its Westminster parliamentary representation. Do you have an opinion on the introduction of some kind of protected status for Wales?

Geraint Day:

We do not believe that Wales should lose any MPs. The previous review, which would have reduced the number to 600, has in effect been scrapped, and the number has gone back to 650, yet Wales is losing Members of Parliament and England is gaining Members of Parliament. That seems like a strange place to be. It will appear very strange to the Welsh electorate when they look at this and say, “Where is the UK headed? Is it becoming more and more England-dominant?” We believe that would be incorrect, and that Wales should keep the same level of representation.

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

Q To clarify, would you agree with a protected number of constituencies for Wales?

Geraint Day:

Yes, if we were to agree on the current level of representation.

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

Q Finally, regarding the geography of Wales—I am particularly thinking of the Welsh valleys—some constituencies end up far below the threshold, but with mountain ranges between areas that might be put together. Do you have any comments to make about Wales’s geography, and whether anything could be done to mitigate disruptions and keep communities together? For example, would a slight deviation beyond the 5% threshold be helpful for maintaining community links in Wales?

Geraint Day:

Absolutely. The figure of 7.5% that has been suggested would help. I think it would still leave challenges, but it would certainly reduce the negative impact of the suggestion.

This is not just about the south Wales valleys, although it is interesting that in the last review, the first proposal from the Boundary Commission about the Rhondda constituency was to include part of Cynon Valley in it. To get there, you have to cross over the Rhigos mountain, which features heavily on winter travel reports on Radio Wales when the mountain road is closed because of bad weather. That is a common occurrence in Wales, due to its geography, and not just south Wales; it happens even more in the north, where you have the mountain ranges of Snowdonia and the Clwydian hills. They are big barriers to building constituencies, and taking a ward on the other side of a mountain away from its natural community has a big impact and is very unpopular with the local electorate.

A larger variance—7.5%, or something akin to it—would allow greater flexibility for the Boundary Commission. It must be said that the commission generally does a good job and is very open to other suggestions, but has its hands tied by the 5% rule. Giving it extra freedom to determine the best fit is a very sensible suggestion.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q Diolch, Geraint, for joining us this afternoon. This morning, we heard from a witness from the Boundary Commission for Wales, who spoke a bit about the way in which local ties affect how the commission considers boundaries and boundary changes. When it comes to local ties, do you have any particular concerns about the commission’s considerations—its rules—not encompassing all the characteristics we might want to see reflected and respected in Wales?

Geraint Day:

The biggest difference in local ties between Wales and England is the Welsh language. A large percentage of Welsh language speakers are down the west coast, but they are also in some of the upland areas in north and south Wales. Local ties do not necessarily go down the same route as that. The Boundary Commission is looking at geographical ties—shopping centres, travel-to-work areas and those types of things—whereas at times the Welsh language communities do not fit into that local-tie element.

In the past, the Boundary Commission has made attempts to address this; where it has originally proposed splitting Welsh language communities, it has made efforts to put them back together. However, I suggest that it would be better to specifically state that in the Bill, rather than just lump it in with “local ties”. If you look at the Welsh Government’s planning process and the advice it gives to local government about local development plans, those plans are required to have a language impact assessment, a requirement that originates from the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. The way the Boundary Commission operates is perfectly bilingual and it deserves great praise for the way it operates. However, it is not required under the current local ties rule to specifically consider the impact on the Welsh language. I think that should be included as a specific item in the Bill.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Thank you very much for giving evidence to us today and, very importantly, for bringing the Welsh perspective into consideration. One of the provisions in the Bill is automaticity, which means that after about two and a half years of review, the recommendations automatically get brought into being, removing the possibility of political influence from the Government or indeed from Parliament, which has been a problem for us in the past. Do you have a view on that and will you support that measure?

Geraint Day:

In one regard, it is a very simple statement to make. However, the removal of parliamentary authority and moving that decision away from Parliament to straight implementation is a big step to make. If that rule had been in place in the last two reviews, we would now have a Parliament of 600 MPs and we would not be having this conversation.

Parliament provides a track to final proposals. If we cannot get a majority in the House of Commons, that raises questions about whether it should be implemented. I understand the trouble that the previous two reviews caused, and as one of the people who contributed and spent a lot of time putting submissions to that, it is quite frustrating. There should be some way of keeping some form of parliamentary overview of the proposals without necessarily enabling it to become a party political football in the House of Commons.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Has that check not become a full stop, which has left us in the position we are in now, with boundaries that are decades out of date and huge variance? Does it not worry you that a vote in a constituency in one part of the country has more or less value than a vote in another part of the country? Does that not cause you concern?

Geraint Day:

In terms of how the Boundary Commission operates, it has been doing its job; the issue has been with Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The way in which that is solved is something that I think Parliament needs to come to an answer about, rather than the non-elected people in society, including myself. It is really a matter for Members of Parliament, but I understand where you are coming from and I have a certain amount of sympathy. I refer back to my previous point—if this rule had been in place in the past, we would already have a Parliament of 600 MPs and not 650. I think that 650 is by far a better fit and that seems to be the general opinion of the majority of the population, so I think the check has worked, to a certain degree, despite how frustrating it has been.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q I have one final question. I was brought up in Wales. I understand when you talk about the unique nature of the geography of Wales. There is nowhere more unique than Ynys Môn, where you have a very clear boundary. I am a Hampshire MP, so I have huge sympathy for the need to protect and to support those island communities. Is there anything you would like to add to your comments, in terms of the particular importance of protecting that island community?

Geraint Day:

Island communities are unique and you see that not just throughout the UK, but throughout the world, not least in the fact that they even have the Island games, where various islands of the world get together and put on a semi-Olympic games just for the islands. You see it in the identity. That is something that is quite precious and unique and that we as a society need to foster and take care of.

In terms of their numbers, if the Isle of Wight has two MPs, each one will have an electorate the current size of Ynys Môn’s. If it is good enough for the people of the Isle of Wight, why is it not good enough for the people of Ynys Môn?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Speaking as a Hampshire MP, I am sure that the people who live on the Isle of Wight would understand exactly what you are talking about. Thank you.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q Just as a quick point of principle, do you believe that voters in Scotland should have a greater representation than voters in Yorkshire, which has a similar population?

Geraint Day:

This is coming down to the constituencies of the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the nations of the United Kingdom. This is one of the consequences of our current constitutional set-up, without a parliament for England, which Plaid Cymru is quite supportive of. The other option if you have equal levels of constituencies in the UK is a reduction in the representation of the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom. Certainly, we do not support the reduction in the number of MPs.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Speaking as someone who cut his political teeth in Wales, actually in Ceredigion, the idea of language and culture is quite an important one. I am keen to understand and probe more into the language element. If we take Ceredigion as an example, when you have been faced with scenarios in previous consultations where there has been a crossover and, as in the example given before, there is a predominantly Welsh language community with one that is less so, how would Plaid Cymru engage with that process? What would be the thought process that you would go through in that scenarioQ ?

Geraint Day:

Under the rules the Boundary Commission operates with, I can give an exact example from the last review. The Boundary Commission originally proposed putting Llandrindod in with Ceredigion. Llandrindod is in Powys on the other side of the Cambrian mountains from Ceredigion. That was a very strange decision. The argument on local links was that the main trunk road to Ceredigion goes right by Llandrindod. The subsequent argument that we put together, which I think was supported by every other contributor to the response, was that that should not be the case because the linguistic links and levels of Welsh speaking in Llandrindod are much different to those in Ceredigion. Instead, we proposed to look north into Machynlleth and the Dyffryn Dyfi area and take that into the proposed constituency of Ceredigion, which was subsequently adopted by the Boundary Commission.

That worked because there was unanimity of view among those giving comments to the Boundary Commission. Where you would find difficulty is where the different parties and individuals who give evidence differ in their approach. If one or two of the parties had said, “No, we want Llandrindod to go in,” we could have ended up with a very different end result from the Boundary Commission. If it had been required to consider the impact on the Welsh language right from the start, it would not even have made the initial proposal. That is the main reasoning behind it and that is where we come from.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Q That is really helpful. In terms of the engagement of Welsh language communities in the process, historically, particularly in mid-Wales, we have seen quite high local election turnouts in Welsh language communities. I am conscious of the work Plaid has done in ensuring that those people who are in the Welsh language community are able to engage with the process, notwithstanding the provisions in the Welsh Language Act, to ensure that it is as representative as it can be for some quite unique communities.

Geraint Day:

Absolutely. I pay credit to the Boundary Commission in the first instance; every time I have given evidence without simultaneous translation, it has been able to provide written evidence in Welsh or English. It works entirely bilingually, and it deserves credit for that.

Where it engages with the Welsh-speaking communities is around where it holds public hearings, which can be slightly awkward because of the number that it is restricted to. Having the ability to arrange more public hearings, without a cap, is one way around that. For example, in some of the constituencies along the north Wales coast, there are large population centres on the coast, but the Welsh-speaking communities tend to be in the island areas and the mountains. The public hearings, naturally enough, are held where the large population centres are. Getting rid of that cap and allowing people to interact with communities in more dispersed rural areas should be encouraged, whether it is done through public hearings or through more promotion of online submissions, which might be a way forward.

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

There are no further questions from Members, so thank you very much, Geraint, for your evidence and for your time. We will move on to the next witness, whom I see waiting in the wings.