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You have probably never taken part in one of these sittings before, and I do not think that any of us have done so in these circumstances, so it is a big learning curve for us all, but please relax and enjoy the sitting. Colleagues are not here to interrogate you. They are trying to get information out of you to enrich the deliberations that the Committee will begin on Thursday. Professor Hazell, would you briefly introduce yourself, please?
Q 135 Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick, thank you very much for joining us. You very kindly supplied some written evidence, and I am sure we have all had a chance to look at your recent blogposts—thank you for those. Could you take us through what you see as the independence of the UK boundary review process, which in your written evidence you describe as
“among the best in the world”?
Perhaps I can kick off. Thank you, Minister, for that question, and thank you to the Committee for inviting us this morning.
As you say, the boundary commissions in the UK are unusual in international comparison in the degree to which they uphold the principle of independence. They are appointed in a process that, on the whole, upholds that principle. As we said in our submission, we have some concerns that the safeguards should be enhanced, but the process that the commissions follow is independent of Government and of Parliament, as it should be. The principle that should be followed is that those who have a direct interest in the outcome of the review process should not be able to determine the outcome of that process, so it is proper that Parliament sets the overall rules but that the process is then conducted by the independent boundary commissions. Of course, it is also proper that MPs should be able to make submissions to the boundary commissions, as they do, but that the final decisions ought to be made by the commissions.
At present, the reviews are conducted by the boundary commissions, but it is then up to Parliament to decide whether to implement those reviews. It seems to us that that is simply a very clear breach of the principle of independence. There have been three cases now—in 1969, 2013 and 2018—when the review was blocked in one way or another. That is not a desirable outcome. Whether or not partisan or personal interests were involved in those decisions, at the very least the perception is created that they could have been. That is undesirable, and we now have boundaries that at least in England are based on electoral registers from 2000—clearly, they are very out of date.
We have a strong view that it is correct to have automatic implementation of reviews, which already works very well and without any problem in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It ought to be introduced in the UK as well, alongside better safeguards to ensure that the current independence of the boundary commissions from Government cannot be taken away by Government in the future.
Thank you so much, Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick, for giving evidence to the Committee this morning. I want to thank you for your blogpost on
“safeguards against a government that wanted to interfere are relatively weak.”
Of course I am not suggesting that that is the position of the current Government, but obviously when we legislate we need to safeguard against any interference by future Governments who may wish to interfere with the process.
You explained that you have various concerns about the Bill and you suggest various solutions to strengthen it. What action do you think could be taken to improve the Bill, in order to safeguard us from political interference? Also, can you expand slightly on some of the solutions that you outlined in that blog, for example an amendment perhaps to legislate to bar members of or donors to political parties from appointment to the commission, as is the case with local government?
Shall I answer that question? The first point to make is that the greatest risk of political interference is the one that Alan Renwick referred to in his first answer—namely, the ability of Parliament at the final stage to vote down the orders made by the boundary commissioners for their proposed changes. The strongest single point in our submission to the Committee is that in future the boundary commissions’ reports should be implemented automatically, without any opportunity for Parliament to intervene at that final stage.
As we also argue in our submission, however, there is a risk that once Parliament loses the ability to control the final decision, the Government may seek to influence the work of the boundary commissions prior to that final stage. I think, Ms Smith, that was the burden of your question, and in our submission we propose four ways in which the independence of the commission in future should be strengthened, mainly through tightening up the appointments process.
Briefly, those four ways are as follows: first, that in future the commissioners should be appointed for a single, non-renewable term, as with many other constitutional watchdogs, which I can enumerate if you want further details; secondly, that they should be subject to the same political restrictions as members of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, which performs a very similar boundary defining function; thirdly, that the deputy chair of each commission should sit on the appointments panel, as indeed they did last year in the selection of two new boundary commissioners; and fourthly, that the appointing Minister should be required to appoint only from the names recommended by the panel.
Therefore, we are recommending that paragraphs 3.2 and 3.3 of the “Governance Code on Public Appointments” should be disapplied for these appointments. I remind members of the Committee that those paragraphs allow Ministers in some cases to appoint someone who has not been deemed appointable by the assessment panel, and in exceptional cases Ministers may decide to appoint a candidate without holding a competition.
Q I thank both individuals who are giving evidence this morning for doing so. It is incredibly helpful for our deliberations. I want to press them on the key point of their evidence, which is the importance of the automaticity element of the Bill, to understand why that is central to their evidence, particularly the impact on the democratic process of the three previous reviews being blocked. What has been the impact of that, and why is this matter so important to get right?
One impact is simply the delay that is introduced into the process. As I said, at present we have boundaries that were first used in 2010, and in 2005 in the case of in Scotland, which are based on electoral registers that in England’s case date from 2000. Those registers are now 20 years old, and clearly that delay is undesirable.
Secondly, as I suggested, there is at least a danger of the perception that the process is not as impartial as it should be, and it seems to me clearly undesirable to create that perception.
Thirdly, there is the danger of the reality that the process is not as impartial as it should be. I do not think it is helpful for me to speculate on what the motivations might or might not have been for the decisions that have been taken on those reviews. Perhaps it is safer to go back to the 1969 case, given that no one involved in that decision is present any longer. I think it is fairly universally accepted that that review was blocked because the Labour Government at the time thought that they would lose seats as a result of the implementation of the review and therefore they did not want that to go ahead.
There are similar perceptions in the case of the 2013 decision not to proceed with the review and the decision in 2018 not to go ahead with the review, but I do not want to speculate on whether those perceptions are correct.
Q I was not particularly pressing on the motivations, although I note Dr Renwick’s response on that. I wanted to ask about the impact. Dr Renwick, you have talked about it being undesirable to have a delay and to appear partial, but were there any further impacts on democracy in this country that you wanted to put on the record?
Some people have expressed a concern that, because the boundaries are old, they have had a marked biasing effect on election results. The evidence shows that, in fact, the effect is quite small. There are a number of factors that can mean that a vote cast for one party has more weight in the overall results than a vote cast for another party. The main factors that shape that are turnout. Turnout in Labour seats tends to be lower than turnout in Conservative seats, and therefore Labour MPs tend to be elected with fewer votes than Conservative MPs.
The second big factor is the efficiency of the distribution of votes across the country. Between 1997 and 2005, the Labour vote was much more efficiently distributed than the Conservative vote. Labour had tended to win more marginal seats and did not waste, as it were, lots of votes in constituencies that it lost, whereas in the last several elections the Conservatives have had the more efficient distribution of votes across the country. Those are the main factors that lead to biases in terms of the overall election result.
There is also some effect from the distribution of constituencies—both the distribution between the countries within the United Kingdom and the distribution within those countries. At recent elections those effects have produced small biases in favour of Labour, but those are fairly small biases. I am sure you will hear much more on this when you hear evidence from Charles Pattie and David Rossiter, who are the real experts on this, but the consensus in the literature on this is that that effect is fairly small. The effect that really matters is the effect on the democratic principles, not the outcome of elections.
Both of the principles that you have just mentioned matter, and so does the principle that there should not be too much chopping and changing of constituency boundaries from election to election. There is no single correct answer to the question of how those different principles should be balanced. The Venice Commission from the Council of Europe recommends a maximum deviation from perfect equality in numerical terms of 10%. Currently, under the UK rules we have 5%. The evidence from Charles Pattie and David Rossiter, which I am sure you will hear this afternoon, suggests that something like a deviation of 8% would allow much greater account to be taken of local community ties and much less chopping and changing between elections.
It is always dangerous to go head to head with an academic, but in terms of the 5% and the 10%, my reading of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report is that it is a 10% variation between seats, not a 20% variation. May I clarify, Dr Renwick, that when you talk about the 5% difference, that actually gives an overall difference of 10% between seats, whereas a 10% difference would give an overall difference of 20% between seats?Q
What I am referring to is the guidance from the Venice Commission. My reading of that is that it implies a 10% deviation from the average. If we look at other countries, we see that in New Zealand the deviation is permitted as 5% from the average, and in Australia it is, so far as possible, 3% from the average, and not more than 10%. Therefore, numbers around 5% to 10% seem to be fairly standard. There is no answer that an academic can give you as to what is the correct number, but something in that region is appropriate.
Q To follow that up, given that we are talking about keeping communities together, as the hon. Member for Eltham has said, does the Bill need to give more clarification to the Boundary Commission for England? In Scotland, the system is much more in-depth, with smaller building blocks. I believe that Scottish constituencies do not have as many arguments as the English ones. Do we need to give more guidance about how the constituencies are built, taking into account communities, rather than change the boundary limits based on the electorate?
The difference between Scotland and England is in the practice of the Boundary Commissions with respect to splitting wards. The Boundary Commission for Scotland is much more willing to split wards than the Boundary Commission for England. As I understand it—and you heard evidence on this last week from Tony Bellringer—it is very difficult for the Boundary Commission for England to split wards, because it does not have sufficient evidence to do that. It seems clear to me that, if you can split wards in a way that does not break community ties, that is a better way of achieving the balance between the principles of equality of votes and maintaining community ties than by increasing the margin. If the Boundary Commission for England were able to split wards more often, that would certainly help the overall process.
Dr Renwick and Professor Hazell, good morning. I have two quick questions. First, the two previous Boundary Commission inquiries, which were not voted on in the end, lacked political support because, I believe, they reduced the number of constituencies from 650 to 600. That did not have overall political support. The proposals would also have meant that some constituencies would simply not have reflected the communities that MPs represented. The Government have now recognised that by reverting back to the number of 650. Is it not therefore a good thing that we have that safety valve of final approval from Parliament to reflect the lack of community cohesion that might be introduced by boundaries that do not reflect community needs?Q
Q Secondly and finally, you are calling for what we have termed automaticity, but you are also suggesting that there are concerns in the current set-up that need to be addressed before automaticity takes place. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation: which comes first, automaticity or changes in these structures? Are you suggesting that this Bill should include changes to the way that the boundary commission is appointed and set up, or are you suggesting that we should not have automaticity this time, but should legislate for it next time, and use the intervening period to change the structure and appoint any mechanisms needed at the boundary commission?
Perhaps I could answer that, if I may? We are suggesting both. We strongly support automaticity, as Alan Renwick has said. In conjunction with that, to bolster the independence of the boundary commissions, in our submission we propose four important changes to the way in which the commissioners are appointed. Some of those are already matters of good practice, which I am glad to say are followed—for example, that the deputy chair was on the panel for the appointment of junior commissioners last year. To prevent any backsliding, we argue that those four changes should be written into law, so we are inviting the Committee, if it supports the principle of automaticity, to say that we should also have those further safeguards written into the same Bill, in order to strengthen the independence of the boundary commissioners.
I would like to ask a question about the situation in New Zealand. I was struck by the fact that you said the whole process takes no longer than six months and by what the hon. Member for City of Chester said about safeguards. Clearly, we did not get this right in the legislation to move from 650 to 600. Can you outline any concerns you have about the associated speed, in terms of automaticity and the fact that we are trying to wrap this up within six months? Surely, if we try and ram this through very quickly it is not going to result in good proposals.Q
I can take David Linden’s questions and perhaps Robert can take the second question. I think the New Zealand process is too fast. In a sense, in New Zealand it matters a little bit less because the constituencies are only part of the overall electoral system—it is a more complex electoral system, so they can get away with it in New Zealand. I do not think that would be appropriate in the UK.
In New Zealand there is essentially one set of draft recommendations, then the consultation and then the final set, whereas in the UK we go through several steps. The UK system, which the Bill proposes to maintain, provides the appropriate safeguards and assurances that MPs and others can make representations if the original recommendations are not quite right.
To answer the question from Jane Hunt, yes, it is the case that although the boundary commissions are formally chaired by the Speaker, in practice he plays no role and never has. The commissions are led by the deputy chair, who, in each of the four nations of the UK, is a High Court judge, or equivalent. To assist the deputy chair, other commissioners are appointed by the Government; for the Boundary Commission for England they are appointed by the Cabinet Office Minister. The commissioners appointed last year, for example, were appointed for a five-year term, which is renewable. In our submission, we argue that future boundary commissioners should be appointed only for a single non-renewable term, because that is now best practice in relation to other important constitutional watchdogs.
I will mention three recent changes to the law to make the appointment of those people non-renewable. The parliamentary ombudsman is now appointable for a non-renewable seven-year term; that law was changed in 2006. In 2011, the Comptroller and Auditor General appointment was made for 10 years, non-renewable. In 2012, the Information Commissioner appointment was made non-renewable for a single term of seven years.
Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick, on behalf of the Committee, I thank you very much for the time you have spent with us. We all feel cheated that we could not see your faces; nevertheless, we are very grateful for the evidence you have given us.