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Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:44 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Professor Richard Wyn Jones gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:06 pm, 18th June 2020

We will now hear from Professor Richard Wyn Jones of the Wales Governance Centre. Professor Wyn Jones, you are very welcome. We will go round the table, starting with the Minister.

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

Thank you very much indeed, Richard, for joining us this afternoon. It is really valuable to have your insights.

Professor Wyn Jones:

It’s a pleasure.

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

Q I have been trying in my questions to touch on all the Bill’s major issues; I wonder if I might return to the need to get the job done and the need for updated constituencies. I know that you have a great academic interest in devolved politics and, naturally, in topics that connect to that for Wales. Would you care to dwell on the length of time since we have had updated boundaries—broadly, around 20 years across the different Boundary Commissions—and on how much political change there has been in that time in Wales?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I have to say that I have had cause to make myself unpopular with Welsh MPs when appearing in front of various Committees over the past few years, because I have argued consistently that there is no real justification for the level of Welsh over-representation in particular.

I think that there is a real issue with the boundaries being so out of date. For those who are interested in such things, there is a historical precedent going back to the first world war, when boundaries were very much out of date. That finally changed, which unleashed a period of Labour domination of Welsh politics that continued, but that was basically what people in Wales wanted and still want, to a very large extent. That is fine, but I do think that there is a real problem with rumbling on with boundaries that are clearly outdated.

There is also a real problem because there is no in-principle argument in favour of Welsh over-representation. It was never anybody’s intention, as far as I can make out; it is an unintended consequence of the rules that were put in place for the other Boundary Commission. We have ended up with a situation that was never justified beforehand, as far as I can see, and for which it is very hard to retrofit a justification now. Even though I love having lots of Welsh MPs, because it makes my life more interesting, it is hard—in fact, in my view it is impossible—to justify the current position, the current stasis and the apparent inability to move forward.

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

Q Thank you very much for putting that on the record. Can you give us your view of the provisions in the Bill?

Professor Wyn Jones:

These kinds of things are always a difficult balance. My general view is that equality of constituency sizes makes sense. I cannot see any particular reason for ensuring that the different constituent territories of the UK are over-represented here. There are different arrangements in place for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Frankly, the fact that Wales has 6% rather than 5% of MPs—I think that is right—does not make a blind bit of difference.

In terms of general principle, I think equality, with a relatively small margin of difference, is fine. I also support in principle the decision that the changes should be enacted without a further vote. It is probably better that MPs set the terms of the exercise for the Boundary Commission behind a veil of ignorance, if you like, without knowing exactly what the particular outcomes would be for them as individual MPs. It is probably preferable—I think definitely preferable—that they vote behind the veil of ignorance and set the parameters of the exercise, and then allow the exercise to play out in the way we are now used to.

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

Q Just dwelling on that last point, are you saying that essentially the process should be free of political inference and it would be wrong for MPs to mark their own homework?

Professor Wyn Jones:

You choose a particular way of phrasing it that I might not choose. It is human nature that MPs will look at any list of redrawn constituency boundaries and think, “Hang on, where do I fit in in this particular structure?” That may well colour how they then vote or agitate before the thing gets voted on, which I know happened quite a lot with the last review.

We need democratic involvement that is appropriate, in terms of setting the terms of the exercise, such as deciding how many seats there should be in the House of Commons, if you want rough and ready equality or if you want to be very precise in terms of equal constituency sizes. Those are all appropriate decisions for Members of Parliament to be involved in, and I think they should be involved in those.

However, there are in-principle advantages of allowing the Boundary Commission to get on with it, with all the safeguards that remain in place around process. The appointment of commissioners is then incredibly important, but, assuming all those things are done properly, it is better that MPs are not given the final opportunity to undermine the whole thing if they do not like the results.

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

Q Thank you for that insight. Turning to the independence of the commissions, they are judge-led and there is an extremely high standard required for those appointments. I am sure everyone here would agree that they would want that to be upheld.

Professor Wyn Jones:

I was not implying that that was not the case. I am saying that those safeguards become even more important in a context in which that final vote is removed. That was my sole point. You are absolutely right that the commissions have a very high reputation, deservedly so at present.

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

Q Yes, indeed. I suspect between our words we have made the point I was going to invite you to make, so thank you for that. For completeness, were you also in favour of there being 650 seats and there being the tolerance level that we have in the Bill?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I have no particularly strong view as to 600 versus 625 versus 650, so I do not have a particularly strong view about that, but a reasonably narrow tolerance is absolutely fine. If you are going to will the ends of relatively equal constituency sizes, you have to will the means. If I am going to be consistent in saying that that seems to be the appropriate, fair thing to do in a modern democracy, so be it. We have to will the means to allow that to happen.

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

I salute the crystal clarity of your thinking and the way you have put it to us. Thank you.

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

My question is about devolution, which looks very different in different parts of the United Kingdom. It looks a certain way in Wales and, even within England, there are huge variations. To what extent do you think that the Senedd boundaries should be taken into consideration, as opposed to ward boundaries? What do you think makes the best building blocks for Welsh constituencies that truly represent the communities and keep the communities together, while obviously striving to have constituencies as equal as practically possible?

Professor Wyn Jones:

Thank you for the question. One of the things we tend to focus on, especially in these kinds of conversations, is the relative number of MPs from each of the constituent nations, but I think it is important to point out that within Wales, the boundaries are now so out of date that we have very large differences in constituency sizes in Wales.

If you take Arfon at one end of the spectrum and Cardiff South and Penarth at the other, there are very large differences in terms of size. To the extent that the boundaries of the Senedd, or parts of the Senedd electoral system, remain tied to those of Westminster, having relatively equal constituency sizes for Westminster will probably make the Senedd electoral system a little bit fairer, too. We miss the fact that the differences within Wales are now very substantial indeed.

If you will permit me to widen the optic a bit, you are right to say that we have distinct dispensations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They now look more alike than they did in 1999, but they are still different. England has an incredibly complex—I would say pathologically complex—internal devolution system. My view is that that should be separated out from the issue of representation in Westminster.

There is room, I think, for variation within the state, but in terms of representation in the House of Commons, it seems to make sense to have a kind of equality, not least because I have never heard a good justification for the level of variation that we have. As I said earlier, why should Wales have 6% of MPs when we have 5% of the population? Why not 8% or 10%? There is no obvious logic to the current system. Equality makes more sense.

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

Q Finally, this question might stray beyond what you have considered, but what challenges do you foresee for the Welsh boundary commissioners in delivering a boundary review?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I think we all recognise that commissioners always have a terribly difficult job to do, because there will be particular communities that feel a sense of association with some communities and less so with others.

Assuming this legislation reaches the statute book, the challenge for the Welsh commissioners is particularly daunting, because Wales would see the biggest level of change. That will be an enormous challenge, and there will be communities in Wales that feel that the changes being imposed are unwelcome; there is no doubt about that. I am an Anglesey boy, an Ynys Môn boy—I can well foresee that people at home will be extremely unhappy. I am sure that there will be different valleys and different communities thinking, “Well, we don’t really have much in common with the people over the other side of the ridge”, and so on and so forth.

So the challenge will be substantial. I think that my predecessor on this call, Geraint Day, pointed to a recent example around Ceredigion, where people felt that the commissioners had got it wrong, and fair play to the commissioners—they went back and changed things in a way that was regarded as being more acceptable. And I have no doubt that there will be lots of that.

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

Q Thank you, Professor, for appearing before the Committee. Before the election, which obviously conjured up a very good result for the Conservative party, the Government were absolutely resolute in their view that they wanted to have 600 seats, and then they made quite a sudden change after the election to go for 650 seats. Why do you think that was?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I do not really have that level of insight into the minds of the people involved. All I would say is that I spoke to Conservative MPs in Wales about this—I spoke to many of them because, as you probably have guessed, my views about this issue are not always particularly popular among Welsh MPs, and several of them were very keen to put me right. But it was very clear from a very early point that the reduction from 650 was not politically viable and that the Conservatives would have real issues, in terms of whipping their own MPs to support it.

It was certainly made clear to me very early on that, in all likelihood, the last attempt at reform would fail and that we would be coming back to this issue, and that we would be coming back to it with 650 MPs as the aim. And the people who I spoke to at that time were correct.

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

Q Do you think it is particularly courageous on the part of the Government and the Conservative party, having gone from having six Conservative Welsh MPs in the 2017-19 Parliament to now having 14, to propose to remove eight seats from Wales?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I would not describe it as “particularly courageous”. The issue is that we have boundaries that are terribly out of date; I do not think that there is any argument about that. And we have a real issue, in terms of some constituencies being, by orders of magnitude, larger than others. Wales is a particularly egregious example of that, because we are over-represented to an extent that no other constituent nation is.

So the issue is that if you are going to try and redo the boundaries, on what basis do you do that? As I have said, and I apologise for repeating myself, I have never heard a good in-principle argument for Wales having, for example, 6% of MPs when it has 5% of the electorate. I have never heard an argument that makes any sense of that.

Equality seems to be a reasonable principle, and that means that the biggest impact of any change is felt in Wales. What precisely it means for continuing Conservative representation in Wales in four-and-a-half years’ time, if that is when the next election is held—you are a better man than I am if you can guess that, not least because we do not know what the new boundaries will look like—I do not know. However, that will have an impact on all the political parties; which one it impacts worst, I genuinely do not know.

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

Q Thank you. I have one final question. You are fairly clearly on record as saying that you think that the level of representation that exists at the moment in respect of Welsh MPs is too high. Would you accept, however, that, regardless of that point, constitutionally, the relationship at the moment between Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and to a certain extent Belfast, is in quite a fractured state? What do you think these proposals would do in terms of the integrity and harmony of the Union?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I agree that there are very serious tensions across the states, but I genuinely doubt that the relative numbers of MPs from the different constituent units will make much of a difference there. I would concentrate on trying to improve intergovernmental relations between Edinburgh, Cardiff, London and Belfast. That is much more likely to make a difference than having 31 Welsh MPs as opposed to 40. I am afraid that there are fundamental issues around constitutional design and the attitude of the UK Government to the devolved Governments. That is where the action needs to be. Whether we have 31 Welsh MPs or 32 as opposed to the current 40 will not make any difference in terms of dealing with the big issues.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q Diolch i chi, Athro Wyn Jones, am ymuno gyda ni y prynhawn yma. [Translation: Thank you, Professor Wyn Jones, for joining us this afternoon.]

This is a very interesting debate about representation and what we actually mean by it. You asked, Professor, what sort of logic could be applied and I suppose, if I were a Conservative and Unionist MP, I would have a particular logic of maintaining the voice of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

If you will indulge me for a moment, on that line of logic, Wales’s population is set to peak in 2023 and in the next 20 years, England’s population alone is estimated to increase by about 8 million. If we are to continue with the logic about seats, in 20 years’ time, Wales might have even fewer seats and the relative voice at Westminster would be significantly diminished. In the light of the fact that we are no longer members of the European Union, and so more decisions are now taken at Westminster that have a direct effect on Wales, do you think that we might be embarking here on a set of developments that could—down the line, if not immediately—cause quite considerable tension for the Union?

Professor Wyn Jones:

Diolch yn fawr iawn am y cwestiwn. Diddorol iawn. [Translation: Thank you very much for the question. Very interesting.]

You make an interesting point. The difficulty with thinking through the logic is what is the pay-off, in terms of an alternative arrangement? In many multinational internally differentiated states, the second Chamber is often used as a way of trying to balance territorial representation and, as I know you are very well aware, there are proposals for changing the House of Lords and making it more territorially representative in terms of its membership and in enhancing that role of its activities too. That would potentially be one way forward. There, you could follow an American Senate-style logic of giving each of the constituent territories equal representation—an idea that was promoted by Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister in Wales. That was an idea that he put forward.

However, in terms of the House of Commons, I really struggle to see the logic of how that plays out in terms of the relative numbers of MPs for each territory. Equality at the UK level—dealing with those issues that are reserved or that are not captured by English votes for English laws—seems to be a relatively straightforward way of proceeding, if you are going to maintain the Union, but then, of course, you would have potentially differentiated devolution settlements for different territories, reflecting the differences of those devolved territories, and perhaps doing something with a second Chamber. Those are probably better ways of dealing with the problem you highlight than coming up with arbitrary numbers for the different representation of the different constituent units of the UK in the House of Commons. Sorry, that was a slightly long-winded response.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q No, thank you, professor. It is incredibly interesting. I know it is beyond the scope of the Bill to talk about House of Lords reform. That is an entirely separate Bill.

One final question: we have had quite a bit of discussion this afternoon—indeed, this morning as well—on the status of Ynys Môn and the proposal for it to be a protected constituency, given its island status. I know that you are a native of Anglesey. Do you have any particular views or comments in that regard?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I am not sure that I will have any additional insight. As you are aware, and—I was listening in to the conversation earlier—as I know many other members of the Committee are aware, those of us who come from Ynys Môn view ourselves very much as “mocha Môn”, as we say in Welsh. That’s a strong identity. People from over the Menai Strait will say, “Well, it’s only a few hundred metres. What makes you so special?” You can go back and forward, as we do in the pubs of that area on a regular basis. The issue is: where do you draw the line in making special cases? At that moment, I am quite pleased that I am not an MP and that I am a mere academic. I can hand that decision back to you.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Diolch yn fawr i chi. Thank you very much.

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

Q Thank you. Good afternoon, Professor. You piqued my interest when you talked about Arfon in comparison with Cardiff South and Penarth. Knowing Arfon as I do, which is one of the most beautiful constituencies in the whole of the UK, I know that one of those is an urban area and part of a city and the other is not only a very sparse rural area but very mountainous. Is there not a trade-off between that mountainous, very sparsely populated rural area and the numbers, as opposed to an urban area where you can get the numbers quite easily? Where does the balance lie? At the moment, you are suggesting that the numbers are—and should be—the primary concern.

Professor Wyn Jones:

This is, as you know, a knotty, difficult issue. A century ago, we ended up with a system that was horribly weighted against more built-up areas and in favour of rural areas, because we had seen a lack of boundary reform. That was deeply unsatisfactory. There are, no doubt, more challenges in terms of MPs moving around in rural constituencies. On the other hand, urban areas often have different kinds of problems that may take up more time. I guess the point I am making is that you could make an argument for Powys being particularly rural. Then again, if you compare it with the north of Scotland or the isles, it looks relatively compact.

There is often a tendency for those of us who live in and who have been brought up in Wales to view ourselves as being particularly rural. Actually, in comparative terms, even Arfon is relatively built up. I really wouldn’t want to exaggerate the differences there. I am afraid I am not really answering your question directly, because I don’t think there is a “gotcha” answer to that. I still think that equality is the place to start from. Then you can say that the very northernmost parts of Scotland, or Shetland and Orkney, have rurality issues that are so obvious and pronounced that they trump the equality argument, but I struggle to make that argument in the Welsh context.

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

Q You made an interesting point about the previous proposals to reduce Parliament to 600 MPs: you said that it was not politically viable—in other words, it did not have political support. Did you think it was a good idea?

Professor Wyn Jones:

It certainly did not have the support of elected Members—that is why. Obviously, there was a manifesto commitment, and an election was won on the basis of that manifesto. The usual practice is that that is a mandate and should be enacted, but it was clear from talking to, for example, Welsh Conservative MPs that they were absolutely not keen. They did not view themselves as tied down by that mandate.

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

Q Professor, did you think it was a good idea to reduce to 600 MPs across the UK?

Professor Wyn Jones:

As I think I indicated in response to one of your colleagues, I do not really have a very strong opinion. I know that academics are meant to have strong opinions on everything, but is it 600, is it 625, is it 650? From a Welsh perspective, it is not a massive difference, because we are so over-represented at the moment. Equality is the key thing—if it is 600 or 650, it is not a massive difference in terms of the number of Welsh MPs. I have no strong feelings about that.

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

Q You did indicate support for removing Parliament from the approvals process. Are there any other areas of public life where you think Parliament should not have a say, or that Parliament should not be allowed to scrutinise?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I think I have been very clear in saying that Parliament does have a legitimate role in scrutinising and, in fact, in setting up the basic policy—forgive me if I was not clear in saying that. Parliament should very much be involved in establishing the parameters within which the boundary commissioners work. That is absolutely what Parliament should be doing.

I was saying that there is a very strong in-principle argument for removing Parliament from the final approval. In effect, I advocate a system in which MPs, in particular, are voting from behind the veil of ignorance—they do not know what the particular parameters that they are voting to approve would mean for them as individuals. They should be involved at the start of the process, but then the boundary commissioners carry out Parliament’s will.

I am absolutely not saying that Parliament should not have a role; I am saying that it should be a specific role at the start of the process. The human temptation for MPs to look at whatever the commissioners come up with through the lens of their own self-interest is too strong.

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

Q As an academic, do you ever supervise your students’ research?

Professor Wyn Jones:

All the time, yes.

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

Q You will give them parameters, but you do not then leave them to complete the job themselves, do you?

Professor Wyn Jones:

For example, you will guide a PhD student, but you do not mark their homework; you get external examiners in who decide if the standard is good enough.

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

Q It is not MPs marking MPs’ homework, but MPs marking someone else’s homework. My point is, setting the parameters and then making sure that the parameters have been set is something you are fairly used to and would understand.

Professor Wyn Jones:

But with respect, we are all human, and I think that asking MPs to look at the results of a Boundary Commission review in the abstract, without considering what it means for them as individuals, is asking for an inhuman level of self-denial. The experience of the last two reviews suggests that there is every likelihood that, if we continue with the current system, these boundaries are going to become so out of date that they actually endanger the legitimacy of the democratic process.

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

Q Okay, but the last review was, as you quoted other people as saying, “politically unacceptable”. Did we not get out of jail by, fortunately, having that pressure valve and not reducing to 600, meaning that we now have a better set of boundaries as a result?

Professor Wyn Jones:

I do not think that the pressure valve was in any way related to an in-principle view that 650 was better than 600. There was a democratic mandate for reducing the size of the House of Commons. The reason why it did not happen, at least from what I understand after talking largely to Conservative MPs, is that too many people were unhappy about what it meant for them personally. It was not a great defence of principle that won out but—forgive me for saying so—pretty naked self-interest.

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

Professor Wyn Jones, I thank you on behalf of the Committee for giving us your time and for the evidence you presented. That is very much appreciated.

Professor Wyn Jones:

My pleasure. I thank all the Members.

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

That brings us to the end of this marathon oral evidence session, in which we have taken evidence from nine witnesses. The Committee will meet again on Tuesday at 9.25 am in this room to take further evidence. Sir David Amess will be in the Chair for that session. I thank Members for their self-restraint—I think only two of you mentioned your own constituencies, which is incredible. I even got to mention Rathlin Island in my constituency, for some reason.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Eddie Hughes.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 23 June at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

PCB01 Liam Pennington

PCB02 John Bryant

PCB03 Dr Alan Renwick and Professor Robert Hazell, Constitution Unit, University College London