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Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:26 am on 23rd June 2020.

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Chris Williams gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 9:57 am, 23rd June 2020

To my great relief, our next witness is here in person.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Chair, before we come on to that, we have had several references in evidence to the OSCE report. Would it be possible for the Clerks to get the link for that and send it through to members of the Committee?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

That is a splendid idea. Thank you for that suggestion. It will be done sooner rather than later.

I am delighted that Chris Williams is here in person. He is the head of elections and field operations for the Green party. We have until 10.20 am for this session, not as was indicated on the Order Paper. Mr Williams, please briefly introduce yourself.

Chris Williams:

I am Chris Williams. I work for the Green party of England and Wales as head of elections and field operations.

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

Q Mr Williams, thank you for joining us this morning. I thank all the political parties that have given some technical engagement with the Bill in its development. Please set out what you think of the Bill and any particular characteristics you would point to.

Chris Williams:

I can run through our thoughts briefly. Thank you for the involvement we have been invited to have with yourself and civil servants.

We are supportive of the change to 650 MPs. We are also pleased that the electoral register data to be used has moved back to March 2020. A minor improvement would have been to move it to December 2019, but that is still a good move. Changing the future reviews to every eight years is positive.

I have some concerns around how the constituencies will end up looking in terms of representation of the communities that we want to see well represented as part of the system we operate within. The 5% tolerance limit is potentially challenging. We have some concerns around how all this will be perceived in Wales. The last speakers spoke about automaticity. I have commented on perception and the perception that any involvement from the Government could be seen as problematic without the ability for Back Benchers to stop any recommendations once they come back from the commissions.

Finally, if I have understood things correctly, in future reviews, the Bill says the deadline in any year for the commissions to report back to the Government or the Speaker is 1 October. In future, there would not be very long before a general election—just seven months. That does not give a great deal of time for reselection and candidate selection to take place and for smaller parties and independents to get their act together, so to speak. I think moving the date forward to something more like July before a general election would provide a bit of protection there.

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

Q Mr Williams, thank you for coming to give evidence before the Committee. To push you slightly further on something you have already alluded to, what are your views on the very tight tolerance limit of 5% in the legislation that we will be moving into scrutiny of on Thursday? How does it relate to those community links, and what issues do you think that very tight tolerance will throw up when it comes to the realities for communities?

Chris Williams:

That is a good question. I guess I should say—I appreciate it is beyond the scope of this Bill—that the Green party does not support the first-past-the-post system, but one of the benefits of it is the very strong link between Members of Parliament and the communities they represent. If members of a community perceive that their constituency is of a very bizarre make-up, or that they have been stuck together for some convenience, that breaks down that benefit that currently exists with MPs.

Certainly from my experience last time around, when we were seeking 600 constituencies with a 5% tolerance limit, some very bizarre constituencies were put together. I looked at the west midlands make-up in some detail, and some of the constituencies were incredibly bizarre, with an awful lot of complaints. One was effectively a sausage-shaped constituency that was very, very long—I think it was the Birmingham Selly Oak and Halesowen constituency. The only thing that the boundary commission, bless them, could find to operate within the tolerance limit that had a community tie was a canal, but of course if you take that to its extremity, you will end up connecting some places that are very far away from each other. Giving the Commission the flexibility to have a 7.5% variance in extreme circumstances, where it is necessary, would help avoid some of those problems. I can see some real problems in rural areas as well, where I think a greater tolerance would really help.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Just before I turn to Mrs Miller, I want colleagues who are sitting in the Public Gallery to realise that I am aware that they are part of the Committee. If they want to ask a question, they should indicate to me and then speak from the microphone, as Mrs Miller has done.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Thank you very much, Sir David. I thank Mr Williams for coming to give evidence today; it is incredibly helpful to hear from a wide range of political parties. I note that in your introduction, you said you would cover issues in England and Wales, and I thought I detected a slight accent—I do not know whether you come from Wales. I wanted to press you a little further on that, because there are four protected constituencies in the Bill: two constituencies that will be the Isle of Wight, a single constituency in Orkney and the Shetland Islands, and the constituency formerly known as the Western Isles. Do you feel there is an argument to be made for protected constituencies in Wales? Other than Northern Ireland, which I think has its own set of issues, it is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have protected constituencies.

Chris Williams:

There is an argument to be made, particularly around Ynys Môn. I am worried about how all this is going to be perceived in Wales, with a drop of about 20% in the number of MPs, and I think it would be a softener if they see they have been treated equally with England and Scotland, with Ynys Môn seen as a protected constituency. There is an argument about taking into account other geographical features when protecting constituencies, but if you start to look at mountains or rivers, you then start to look at the height or width of mountain ranges, and you get in a complete mess. Certainly, there is a sea in the way between Ynys Môn and the mainland, which is exactly the same criterion that is being used for the Isle of Wight, the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. I think it should be applied in Wales as well; otherwise there would be a rightful feeling of wrongdoing to Wales.

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

Q Can I ask you specifically what the Green party’s view is on the distribution of seats that will result from this Bill? It is my understanding—the Committee has been told this previously—that Scotland stands to lose seats, and you have spoken about the 20% drop in Wales. Does the Green party of England and Wales have a view on whether or not that is appropriate, and what that does for the integrity of the Union?

Chris Williams:

Our Scottish Green colleagues will have a similar position to you on the Union. I guess we come from a perspective of wanting every vote to have the same weight and potentially the same impact on an election, in terms of determining the future Government. The difficulty we have is that whatever we do with the process and with first past the post, there is always going to be some inequity between the constituencies, even if we have no tolerance or variance limit at all. By the time they come in, the numbers will still be different, because the data is always historical and never accurate enough. If we are going to go down the line of every vote being pretty much equal, and trying to make that as equal as possible within the system, it is very hard to argue for a great deal of difference between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I would say that a vote in Hartlepool is as equal as one in Ogmore but, at the same time, I can see that this might well bring greater arguments for further devolution.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

On the same theme, Wales has roughly the same sized electorate as Greater Manchester, where I am an MP, but we have 27 MPs and Wales has 40, which means that their average electoral quota is 64,546, to 71,780 in Greater Manchester. Why do you think that 30% fewer electors are required to elect an MP in WalesQ ?

Chris Williams:

I guess I argue that there should not be that inequity, except for protected constituencies. Every vote should be as equal as possible in terms of being able to influence the future make-up of the Government.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Q So you accept that there has to be a reduction?

Chris Williams:

Yes, unfortunately, but I think that we need to consider the Ynys Môn example. Giving the commission the flexibility of a greater tolerance limit will perhaps mean that places like Wales will feel a little less hard done by, and constituencies will be a little more representative of communities.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Q What would you say to those in Greater Manchester who feel hard done by, being under-represented at the moment?

Chris Williams:

I would agree with them.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Q But that is at the expense of taking seats from Wales.

Chris Williams:

Unfortunately, yes. I dare say that England as a whole will not necessarily feel a huge benefit from about 10 extra MPs, but an area like Greater Manchester might well do so.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

No other colleagues are indicating that they wish to ask a question so, if that is the case, Mr Williams, before leaving, do you wish to add anything?

Chris Williams:

I think I have made the key points. Thank you for having me.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

On behalf of the Committee, we are very grateful for the time that you spent with us. Thank you.