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Good afternoon, Chair. My name is Darren Hughes. I am the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. We are an independent, non-partisan research and campaigns organisation founded in 1884. Basically, we work towards fair voting rules, principally through proportional representation in the House of Commons, but also on other democratic issues where we can encourage participation. We have quite a strong belief that we should write rules that are technical and fair and that will suit political actors and players when times are good and bad, so that there is never any question about their being written in a way that favours one particular side.
We referred to accents. My accent is a New Zealand one. I served three terms in the New Zealand Parliament, so I am happy to answer any questions that Members might have about New Zealand’s experience with boundaries as well.
Q Welcome, Mr Hughes. It is great to have you here this afternoon. I am indeed going to take you up on the opportunity of talking a little bit about New Zealand with you. Would you start by giving us some general reflections on how the system currently in operation in the UK, and that which is envisaged to come into operation through the Bill, compare to that of New Zealand?
Sure thing. We welcome the change to go back to the future, as it were, with the 650 number. We were quite concerned, at the time that was being looked at, that it would have resulted in quite a high proportion of the Commons being MPs who were also on the Government payroll, which would lower the scrutiny aspect of the legislative side of the role of Members of Parliament. It would also have made the Commons even more out of proportion with the second Chamber, the membership of which gallops along at an alarming pace. I think it is better to have gone for 650.
On some of the differences, in New Zealand there has been more of a philosophical decision that a Member of Parliament’s local duty is to every citizen resident in their constituency, regardless of their age and so on, so constituency size is entirely based on the census figures, rather than on the number of people on the electoral register. We have a long-held view that a lot of constituency casework is irrelevant to the age or electoral status of the citizen in front of the MP. That is a difference.
Another difference that may be of interest is that it is so important that these things are done in a clear, straight, technically correct, robust and honest way. If you lose control of these sort of things, you will live to regret it for a very long time indeed, so it is so important to get it right. However, we also cannot deny that there is a political dynamic to the entire process. Very few industry players get the opportunity to sit around and come up with the rules for their own industry in quite the way that parliamentarians do. You are the guardians of the whole society, so recognising some of the realities there can sometimes take some of the tension out.
In New Zealand, on the Representation Commission, which is a boundary commission equivalent, in addition to those members chosen based on the positions that they hold, such as the surveyor general for mapping, the Government Statistician from our Office for National Statistics equivalent and so on, the Prime Minister is asked to nominate a representative on behalf of governing parties—I say that plural, because in New Zealand a collection of parties run the Government—and the Leader of the Opposition is invited to appoint somebody to represent Opposition parties, or to at least bring their perspectives to bear. They are obviously rightly in a numerical minority, but that blends some of those technical aspects with the political reality.
I should also say that there are reserved constituencies like those discussed this morning, in that seven constituencies are reserved for Maori indigenous voters who register on that roll. Again, taking into account some of the unique identifying features of our polity is quite an important point.
Q Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hughes. That is a very helpful depth of detail that we had not managed to get from any other witness in their international comparisons. Could I add one more comparison to that list? I understand that New Zealand does what we refer to here as automaticity. To use your own words, given that there is a political dimension to the process, and given, as you say, that no industry really gets the luxury of being able to set its own rules, is that not a good thing?
Yes. Forgive me; I should have touched on that. That is very important. That takes it out the perception or, in some examples, as Professor Curtice pointed to, the reality of political interference, based on what was happening at that particular time in politics.
As I said earlier, there are a handful of laws and rules and conventions that really need to be able to stand the test of time, regardless of any particular party’s fortunes—whenever you start to decide based on that, it is not long before it blows up in the face of those who have done it; they certainly regret it down the line. Putting that in place is important.
That is at the end of the process, and I think it creates a huge responsibility at the beginning of the process to get the scope right and the membership of the commission right, because it is handing a lot of power and say, in a democratic sense, to that institution. That is why you need to spend some time thinking about who should go on it, how long they should be there for and how you balance the need for straight demographic information versus community interests versus the political dimension that exists.
One thought I had on that was that we have consultation periods, but as we all know, consultation can be a small number of very squeaky wheels that take up the opportunity, and are then painted as being “the community”. Given the recent narrow interest in parliamentary boundaries, this might be an area for some of the more innovative techniques for consulting publics, such as citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy mechanisms, where you could take randomly selected citizens for a particular region and use them as a way of consulting. Then actual people could tell you whether they thought a bridge being in one constituency or another really mattered, as opposed to those who take the initiative to write the letter and subsequently take on a cloak of authority when they may represent a tiny fraction of the real population.
Q Thank you; that is a helpful suggestion. I know that the four Boundary Commissions are listening very carefully to these witness sessions and so may well have a moment to give some thought to that as a method.
Can I round off my international comparison questions by checking whether New Zealand or any other countries that you are aware of also run with a judge-led process, securing a high level of independence, as we do in this country?
That has been a feature in New Zealand, and I know it is in other jurisdictions as well. One of the dilemmas to resolve is whether you draw up a list of positions you want to serve on the commission and to make the decisions—and in that sense you are blind to whoever the postholder happens to be when the review is done—or whether there are particular people who you think have the skills and strength and integrity to run the decision process for that particular round. That is something for the Committee to think about, because if you nominate particular positions, you always know who will be responsible for the decision, seeing as there will not be that final parliamentary vote, and that may have an impact on recruitment decisions, because those extra responsibilities are thought about. Alternatively, if there are particular people deemed appropriate for that time, that might reflect on whether or not it is judge-led, or whether there is some other structure that might be important.
Rounding off on that point, what you have to have at the back of your mind when coming up with these systems is what happens if they fall into the hands of a bad actor or a disruptive actor, or somebody who says, “This is just a bunch of conventions. It’s not really written down anywhere. We can drive a lorry through this.” The UK system is so trusted and has not gone down the Americanised gerrymander system, so that has got to be protected at all costs. That might lead you to want to be a little bit more prescriptive at the beginning, seeing that you are conceding that final vote at the end.
Q Mr Hughes, thank you for giving evidence to the Committee this afternoon. Do you feel that the balance is right between community ties and the 5% tolerance in the Bill?
There are so many strong arguments on the threshold question. We would come down in favour of a higher threshold than the plus or minus 5%, to be able to offer some flexibility in that sense. There are two competing ways of looking at this. On the one hand, who are the people for whom communities of interest are important with respect to parliamentary boundaries? The answer is: every single Member of Parliament and all the people who are in that orbit of representation, democratic work and politics. Outside of the campaign periods, the boundaries themselves, for the most part, do not have enduring appeal or identity. It has always struck me that, on a basic thing that people need to do all the time—think about where they are going to rent or buy a property—Zoopla does not make a big thing of telling you what parliamentary constituency you will be in if you move to this particular accommodation, whereas it will talk about the borough, the schools and the other services that are available. It makes sense to, as best as possible, come up with sensible communities for a constituency because the Member of Parliament will need to be doing a lot of important work there. However, I do not think you want to stretch it too far to pretend that people’s connection to a particular constituency is the most important thing. One way of dealing with that might be to look at the threshold question.
Q I should put it on the record that I am a member of the Electoral Reform Society. I wanted that to be out there.
I want to pick up on a couple of points that have been raised. In terms of the 5% electoral quota and splitting communities, going back to the Maori electorates—which I think are arrived at by dividing the South Island’s population by 16 and then applying to the Maori electoral register—they do lead to some splitting of communities and they still stay within the 5% boundary. Is that correct? I am thinking, for example, of Te Tai Tonga, which covers the entire South Island and only part of Wellington.
That is mostly right. The number of constituencies for the South Island is set: the population on the census is taken, divided by 16, and that gives you your quota for North Island seats, plus or minus. That number is demand driven by the number of Maori New Zealanders who decide to register on the Maori electorate. For a long time, only about 50% of people did that. It has gone up a lot more in recent times and that is why it has gone from only four seats up to seven, because it is demand driven. It comes off the back of that quota formula that you quote. Therefore—remembering that New Zealand is the same geographic size as the UK—one constituency is the entire South Island plus Wellington in the North Island.
Well, they have to work incredibly hard, not just because of the geographic size, but because those constituencies will cover more than one iwi—one tribe. Finding a single Member of Parliament to represent such a broad number of Maori interests, views and citizens is a tough challenge. However, Maori electors are also on the general roll and so will have access to a general electorate Member of Parliament. Also, because New Zealand has used proportional representation for the last quarter of a century, all the political parties of size will have a significant number of Maori Members of Parliament on the list as well. I think that mixed model has certainly led to more Maori Members of Parliament being elected than there were under the previous system. For the actual geographic seats, the burden of size is absolutely something they would all willingly concede.
Q I know the ERS’s preferred system would be the single transferable vote. Were such a system to be adopted—for example, the hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned the slightly bizarre size of the Highland North seat, which was based on the 600 review —theoretically, there could be an entire seat covering the entire Highlands. We are just electing three Members. Would that be an appropriate system for Britain?
With the boundaries here we have to talk about the single-member “winner takes all” voting system. That means that many millions of people either vote for a candidate who does not win or a winner who did not need their votes. Those votes are not translated into representation. If we had the single transferable vote, you would draw the boundaries differently. Of course, they would be geographically bigger, but you would be electing a team of Members of Parliament to cover that geographic area.
That could also be of assistance for local government. As you are aware, Scotland has had the single transferable vote system of proportional representation for local government for quite some time, and that has better reflected the political views of Scotland, in terms both of parties and of communities of interest. I think it would be great to have parliamentary constituencies for which we did not expect just one person, on a plurality of the vote, to represent absolutely everybody in the area. That is too big a challenge for just one person when such quality alternative arrangements exist.
Q I have one quick follow-up. Assuming that we stay with the current system, which will be the case, would you not accept that having more equalised electorates is fairer to the electorate than having wildly disparate ones? I am thinking of Greater Manchester, for which I am an MP, where you have electorates ranging from 63,000 to 95,000.
I think that ties into the way in which the boundaries are drawn up. Using the electoral register imposes a responsibility to make sure that it is as accurate and complete as possible, so that those decisions about fairness can be looked at. In that respect, we know that, no matter how you slice it, millions of people are not on the register. Some of the work that has been done on promoting automatic voter registration—the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published a paper in April looking at how we can make sure that we find as many citizens as possible and get them on the electoral register—would achieve a lot for a fairer electoral administration, which would then leak through into the kind of decisions that would need to be taken by the boundary commissioners.
Yes, provided that we are talking about things such as the electoral register being more accurate and complete by taking proactive measures, for example automatic voter registration. Keeping the number of seats at 650 adds to that argument. So yes, but with the important caveat that you mentioned: this is not a system that we would choose if it were over the last—[Inaudible.]
I am very grateful to you, Mr Hughes, for your appearance before the Committee today. One of the things in which the Electoral Reform Society is interested is, essentially, the health of British democracy. Can you expand a little on your thoughts about the distribution of seats between the four nations of the UK, commenting specifically on the fact that under these proposals both Scotland and Wales would have less representation in the House of Commons?Q
These questions on the Union are very interesting. In our three most recent general election reports, we have been tracking the movement between the nations at elections. In addition to some of the class voting changes that Professor Curtice talked about this morning, we think that those issues of the politics and the psephology of the nations of the UK are certainly worth more attention than they probably get.
The most obvious point with respect to the Bill is that it makes a bad situation slightly better, in the sense that at once stage Wales would have fallen to 28 seats from its current 40 under the cut to 600 seats. I guess that it is important to recognise the effects of the Bill in that regard. Even so, the impact on Scotland is not exactly clear, but it would certainly be a reduction, maybe in the order of two or three seats, while in Wales, it would be more like eight. That becomes quite a significant proportion of the representation.
One thought that we have had about that, though, comes back to the previous answer that I gave to Chris Clarkson about the electoral register and making sure that more people are on it in areas where there might be under-registration or non-registration, in order to boost the entitlement to more constituencies.
Q My final question follows on from what the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said about the size of constituencies. You may have seen from some of the questions that I have asked in previous sittings of this Committee that a lot of people in Scotland were frankly outraged at the proposal for a Highland North constituency, which would have been utterly unmanageable for any MP; I mean, the current Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency is already far, far too big. Does the ERS have any views about reducing the current 12,000 sq km guideline to try to ensure slightly more manageable constituencies and a slightly closer relationship between the electors and their MP?
I think that is exactly right. These processes give us the opportunity to say, “What would the rules be and how would they apply in the majority of cases?”, and then, “Where are the outliers, whereby if we did apply the rules we could congratulate ourselves on the consistency?”, but actually we are creating a brand new representation injury, by making politics and representation so distant from people.
As we were discussing with the last set of questions, if we had multi-Member wards, these things could be addressed. Obviously, you cannot change the geographic challenges of some areas—they simply cannot be addressed by any system—but you can make decisions to make the situation worse, and sometimes that is what tends to happen.
If there was a multi-Member system, that would be of assistance, but it is also important to carve out the ability for the commissioners to look at a particular constituency and say, “This just doesn’t make sense.” Equally, you could not make a decision based on those examples and then necessarily apply it to the rest of the UK, because that would create further injustices as well. Until we know more about the effect of the new regime, given that by the time we get to the next election it will be nearly a quarter of a century since the 2000 dataset that is being used, that needs to be part of the consideration. But you point to examples or rules that you could use that would minimise that.
Thank you, Darren, for giving evidence to usQ .
One of the things we heard this morning was that US congressional districts had close to zero margin of deviation around population size, and one of the points that you made was that when people buy a house, or look on Zoopla, they are not given information about their political constituency, but they are given other very local information, for example school proximity. I just wondered whether there was any sort of empirical basis that you had in mind when you said that you thought that the 5% range, if I can call it that, was not sufficient.
Sure. The American examples are obviously the extreme ones, but they are ones to bear in mind, because they are examples of what can happen if you set hard and fast rules, so they apply everywhere no matter what, and then you also allow for a rampant politicisation of the process.
There is an author called David Daley who has written a couple of books, which are incredibly readable and accessible, about how the boundary system in American got to the state it is in. Unfortunately, one of them has such a colourful title that you will need to google it; I could not possibly say it in this forum.
However, regarding your point about the 5% versus the 10% range, these are the areas where you can go round in a lot of circles, because there are arguments in favour of each range. I just feel that if you could offer reasonable flexibility to the commission, what you would hope is that the practice would develop and that it gives them an extra tool when a particular geographic situation confronts them, as opposed to just starting out by saying, “We’ll flex our muscles wherever we can.” The thinking on that was that they are the final line in the arguments, but because you are not having that final parliamentary vote and you are not getting the commissions to do the work, it might make sense to offer them those tools.
Q We heard evidence from Professor Iain McLean this morning, who said that one of the risks of the local ties argument is that, depending on whose hands that argument is in, it can be politicised in a different way, and what the Conservatives, Labour party or Liberal Democrats might determine to be local ties would vary according to which of them you ask. Do you agree with that analysis? If you do, do you think it supports the idea of a threshold being set somewhere?
I do agree with that analysis. Sometimes things are important but not very popular, or not very—[Inaudible]— or not very engaging. When we conduct elections, they are very important to millions of people, which is why around two thirds of people on the register turn out. We all wish that that was higher, but there is still a lot of interest in elections. Some of the mechanics of how we build the demographic architecture does not result in a huge amount of engagement. I think that on parliamentary boundaries, if you were wanting to involve them in a submission process, you either hire somebody to run that for you or you ensure that tweets and letters go out and so on. As I said before, it takes on an incredible cloak of authority for that community, even though it might not be entitled to the status that it receives. I agree that it is possible to happen, and I think in some cases the community argument is very strong, but in a lot of cases it is a shield for more of a partisan argument for that particular electoral cycle, which, as I say, is the sort of thing we should avoid.
Being able to have things like citizens’ juries or —[Inaudible]—citizens who are asked to come together to assist the commissions with information, with their feelings and the values of that area, and with people saying what they think the community interests really are, might be a more real way of being able to include the community, getting better quality information and ensuring that the final decisions reflect the reasonable view of the public, as opposed to those who knew that the consultation was on.
Q Thanks, Darren, for giving evidence this afternoon. Following on from that, do you think that the Boundary Commission is incapable of telling the difference between political opportunism and genuine community concern about parliamentary boundaries and local representation?
I do not know, is the answer to that. I assume not, but sometimes when these processes are going on for a long period of time, and if people are appointed who might not have a lot of experience in dealing with active organised citizens pushing a particular view, these are the risks you run. It might not be the case in every cycle, but you would want to make sure that organised political activity dressed up as the concerned citizen was not able to take hold. That is an important thing. Secondly, if there are mechanisms to get very good quality information about what the general public think, like deliberative consultation processes enable you to do, that is pretty rich information for the commissioners to receive in addition to the demography data that they would be using as well.
Q Do you have examples of where things went wrong, where local representations were dressed up in such a way as to influence the outcome, which brought about something that was regretted later? You do not have any examples of where local representation has forced errors in boundaries.
Not that I can provide you with right now, no. I have never sat on one of those commissions, so I do not have personal experience there. There is plenty of both academic and more political-style literature that is available to describe some of the tactics that can go on. All I am saying is that those things are really easy to avoid, and we should build it into the process.
Q Can I ask about how we devise the electoral register? Do you think there should be any changes to the way we do that, and any sources of information that are currently denied EROs, that they should be able to access to help them create an accurate list?
The main suggestion I have on that would be to move proactively to an overt position of automatic voter registration where we basically said that every time a citizen makes contact, or touches base in any way, with the Government or Government agencies, there is an ability to register—and that that is proactively put to people: we do work with people before they attain registration age to explain what democracy is, why participation is important and how you can have your say, and we really try to increase the amount of information that our younger citizens have. Then, with an automatic voter registration model where they would go on the register, you would hope that that would lead to participation in elections. Even if it did not, it would then get more accurate and complete data for the drawing up of boundaries.
I think some improvements were made by using other sources of Government data and requiring DWP involvement when the IER changes were made. That is coming up to 10 years ago, so now the next step is to say, “What could we do to be more proactive?” I think this paper that the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has produced on automatic voter registration would be a good place to start.
Q Earlier you mentioned that you favoured 650 MPs. You were concerned about going down to 600 and giving the payroll a greater proportional say. You also in answer to the Minister made a reference to political interference. Was Parliament right to stop the number being cut down to 600, or was that political interference—or was trying to go down to 600 actually the political interference? I am not sure what point you were making.
I suppose it would be political involvement at both levels, would not it? It was the decision to propose going from 650 to 600, and then another decision to reverse that and go back. I think that there was a political element to that. I guess the other thing is, right at the very beginning, making sure that these things are written for all time, not just one time, one particular cycle or one particular Government or Opposition—just doing these things in a very straight way so that if you are up it works for you and if you are down it works for you as well.
I do not think the decision to go from 650 to 600 was driven by any particular democratic principle. It was part of a response to a crisis at the time, and that has not stood the test of time because it was not grounded in much more than that. Also, probably it is easy to agree to a cut in the number of MPs until you realise that it also involves the boundaries of the remaining 600. That might have focused minds a wee bit.
That is a good question, because I guess it is philosophical. The duties and responsibilities of being a citizen do not actually require much, but being on the electoral register means that you can, right at the last minute, decide whether you will vote. It also helps us with the way we structure democracy and ensures that the way the boundaries are done is open and transparent. For people who want to be involved in elected politics, it is important to know the number of people in the country for whom they can campaign with their ideas and policies. Those are all some basic responsibilities that just come with the duty of being a citizen.
Yes, we have. We have done work on that in the past with organisations that try to reach people who are not on the register. Often there is a mixture of reasons. Some people do not know about it and are just oblivious to the fact that it exists or that it is a legal requirement at the present time. Other people have not engaged with the question of why politics matters, which is why we think citizenship education is so important. Once you get people into a discussion on that, it can change things. In a large, dynamic society like this, there are always a lot of people who are in the middle of things. Their hectic lives and situations sometimes mean that registration falls off the bottom of the to-do list. We should be doing positive things, such as showing people that registration is simple and free, to promote politics as being a good thing for the country and a good thing for society.
Q Thank you, Mr Hughes, for your evidence this afternoon. It has been interesting to learn a bit more about the system in New Zealand. On that point, can I briefly clarify one thing? Am I right to understand that when the equivalent of the Boundary Commission in New Zealand approaches establishing boundaries for constituencies, it takes into account the actual population, as opposed to the number of registered electors?
Yes, that is correct. It uses the census, so everybody is taken into account for the drawing of the boundaries. There are different qualification rules to being an elector, but the way that the constituencies are put together is based on the number of people who were living in an area when the census was done.
Q In that sense, would I be right to infer that student populations would be assigned, as it were, for the purpose of drawing the boundaries, to where they are at the university?
If that is where they are on census evening, that is correct, although students are able to register at their family address, depending on when they started their study. I hesitate on that, because there was a court case about it once and I would not want to give you the wrong information. I will come back to you on that. It does take into account the place people were when the census was held.
Q My final question is on something that has already been touched on by some of my colleagues, in terms of representing rural areas. Beyond the Maori electorate and constituencies, does the boundary commission in New Zealand take into account any other factors, such as rurality? How does it cope with what I imagine are quite large constituencies, particularly in the South Island? Is that catered for by the list system, or is it something that is considered when drawing up the boundaries?
The list system helps in a peripheral sense, in that it is a way to ensure different styles of representation beyond just geography, but the commission itself has to deal with the majority of the Parliament, which consists of geographic constituencies, and it can take into account factors such as rurality. There is a threshold that enables it to do that, which is the same as in the legislation before you: plus or minus 5%. But there is always a very alive debate about whether that figure is high enough for parts of the country that are outside main population centres. As I mentioned before, New Zealand is geographically the same size as the whole UK, but it has a similar population to that of Scotland. There are far-flung places where, to be an effective Member of Parliament, a lot of travel is required.