Examination of Witnesses

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Andrew Scallan gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:00 pm, 23rd June 2020

We will now hear from Andrew Scallan, who is the deputy chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Andrew, please introduce yourself.

Andrew Scallan:

Thank you. There is not a lot more to say. I am the deputy and I have been for a couple of years now.

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

I shall stop reading out the script as it appears in front of me.

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

Q Andrew, thank you for joining for joining us. One element of the Bill in front of us seeks to help parliamentary constituency boundaries and local government boundaries to come together as best they can. Obviously, that task will never be entirely complete, but we have endeavoured to accommodate the most up-to-date boundaries from the local government side. We have used the word “prospective”. Please talk the Committee through what that means for your side of that work and how you envisage that we can be as well co-ordinated as possible.

Andrew Scallan:

We have a rolling programme of reviews. Typically, we start 25 reviews each year. Each review, of whatever type, has a certain process resulting in a set of final recommendations. Those recommendations are turned into an order, which is signed by our chief executive after they have sat in Parliament for 40 days under the negative procedure.

Our programme has been worked out. Our reviews take about 15 months. We have a very good idea of where we will be by the beginning of December., and we know where our timetables will take us with our further reviews. The reviews take a long time. We have some contingency because some of our reviews do not finish when we expected them to, because we put in a further set of consultations where there has been something particularly contentious.

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

Q Thank you. It is very helpful to have the breadth of that on record. Drilling down into what it means to talk about prospective boundaries from the local government side, please talk through that definition for the Committee and what that might look like this year, for example.

Andrew Scallan:

It depends on how you define prospective, because for us it is our work in hand. We anticipate that 19 reviews covering 3.3 million people will be made before 1 December. Our work programme, at the moment, includes a range of reviews that will not be completed by 1 December. There are around 13 reviews covering 2.1 million people that will be close to completion but will not be ready by 1 December.

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

Q Andrew, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England presents its report to Parliament under the negative procedure. That strikes a balance between the independence of your work and the scrutiny we conduct as MPs. For local government boundaries, do you feel there is a good balance between that independence and parliamentary scrutiny?

Andrew Scallan:

Yes, we think that is exactly the case. It presents the opportunity to challenge; since 2010, there have been three discussions about our orders, but none has been overturned. They are either accepted or overturned, and the 214 that we have done since 2010 have all been approved.

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

Q I think you would argue that the local government boundary reviews are done in a robust and fair way. That obviously decides the electoral wards for local government, but it is not the same process for polling districts. Do you have any concerns about the idea of using polling districts as a potential building block for parliamentary constituencies?

Andrew Scallan:

No. The polling districts are a very useful tool. Our relationship is very different from the parliamentary process. We engage with the local authority, and, as you will know, a feature of our work is forecasting five years from the date of our final recommendations, which is not a feature of the parliamentary boundary commissions’ work. We engage very closely with local authorities and talk through the methodology for doing that forecasting, and the polling districts are a useful building block. When people come to us with proposals, they will often use the existing polling districts to shuffle around, either to create new wards or consolidate thoughts on what ward proposals should be.

Polling districts can change—I know Peter Stanyon was explaining to you the process—but for us it is very rare that we have a change of polling district during our review process. Once we have come up with our new wards, there is the need for new polling districts to be created.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q Before I move on to other things, what causes a polling district change? I think you have touched on some areas. What governs your construction of a ward? Why do you do your ward reviews, and what are you looking at when you construct new ward boundaries?

Andrew Scallan:

From my previous life, the reasons for changing polling districts vary a lot. Sometimes councils take a policy that they do not want schools to be used for polling districts, which then requires other public buildings or even locations for temporary buildings to be thought through.

In terms of what goes through our mind, the legislation is clear that we can carry out a range of reviews. Some are periodic, and those are the ones where we try to go around the country, bearing in mind the number of authorities that we deal with. We also include two-tier county councils, which do not feature in the stats that the parliamentary boundary commission will use, but they are nevertheless a feature of our workload. We have periodic reviews, we have those that can be asked for by Ministers, and local authorities can sometimes request a review because they have chosen, for example—perhaps as part of an election manifesto—to reduce the size of the council. We will go in and start the review process, which for us has a series of starting points.

First, what will the council size be? Unlike with the parliamentary boundary commissions, that is a local discussion that takes place, during which we invite local authorities to think about what their governance arrangements should be. A figure is then arrived at, and we use that to divide the forecast electorate to work out what the average number of electors per councillor should be. That sets the ball rolling.

The other features involved will be whether a local authority has one, two or three-member wards, or a mixture of those. In the starting of our process, we invite local authorities and others to put in their suggestions about what the warding arrangements might be using those divisors, because we cannot claim to know every local authority in detail. We invite wide representation for local authority-wide schemes, but also from residents’ groups and community groups, who are only concerned about their own particular patch within their local authority.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q My experience in the city of Leeds, which I represent, is that polling district changes have been splitting polling districts when they have become too big, rather than creating new boundaries. Is that your overall experience? What I am really driving at is that there is a lot of discussion in this Committee about the construction of constituencies and using wards, and obviously the Bill allows for the future shape of wards to be taken into account when being built. As you say in paragraph 27 of your written evidence, you are concerned about your timetables not being rushed. You say:

“Whilst we support the concept of using the most up-to-date local government boundaries, the Committee will appreciate our concern that doing so should not, unintentionally, compromise the independence and integrity” of our review programme, which I entirely agree with. Is it your opinion that it is vital for the boundary commission to try to stick to wards, or do you think that is irrelevant? It is useful, but with your five-year timetable and their eight-year timetable and things moving apart, do you think it really matters to constituents if the ward boundaries change and do not quite match constituency boundaries? Do you think that we are trying to blend a round hole and a square hole together?

Andrew Scallan:

I am trying to work out what a round hole and a square hole together might look like. There is a real challenge. I do not wish to complicate matters, but in the work that we do, we also take a strong view about the arrangements that exist for parish councils, which vary enormously in size and scope. As well as polling districts, as part of our test around effective and convenient local government, we try not to cause too much disruption to parish councils.

People’s strength of feeling varies enormously and I would not like to generalise. We know that people are concerned about the names of wards. We often get people very agitated about that, which you would not necessarily expect, given that they are overlaid on the real map of any local authority area.

The important point for any organisation dealing with boundaries is to try to explain why they have arrived at the decisions that they have arrived at. For a ward, it might be entirely appropriate to include a ward that has, for example, a major road down the middle of it. If that ward is split by that major road for parliamentary purposes, that needs to be properly explained in the formulation of it. It may well be that that will cut a community in two, but it may also be the only way to balance the criteria that we always juggle with, which is trying to get the electorate as close as possible to whatever quota we work to.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Mr Scallan, thank you for giving us your time this afternoon. As you will detect from the accent, I might be about to tread on some unfamiliar territory. I was wondering whether you might be able to comment on something about Cornwall. I appreciate that the work of the Local Government Boundary Commission is unlikely to have to address any cross-Tamar local government wards, but you mentioned that you have inevitably undertaken quite a lot of discussion and consultation with local communities across England as part of your main work. I was wondering whether a strong sentiment, or any sentiment for that matter, to maintain the territorial integrity of Cornwall is something that you have picked up in your work.Q

Andrew Scallan:

The strength of views in Cornwall is well known. In terms of our work, it was all self-contained in Cornwall. We try not to get involved in discussions about parliamentary boundaries when we are doing our reviews, not least because we do not want to confuse anyone, especially the community groups that we are dealing with. We have no view about crossed boundaries. We work to our legislation, which basically tells us to stay within local authority boundaries.

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

If there are no other questions from Committee members, I thank you, Mr Scallan, for the time you have spent with us. We are most appreciative of the evidence you have given us.