Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:43 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Gavin Robinson MP gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:25 pm, 23rd June 2020

We now move on to one of our colleagues, Gavin Robinson. Gavin, we know what you look like, but we cannot see you. Will you please introduce yourself and tell us why you are giving us evidence?

Gavin Robinson:

Certainly, Sir David. I thank you and all our colleagues for hosting this session. I am a Member of Parliament and my party’s director of elections. Therefore, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked if I would participate as part of your proceedings, so I happily give evidence on that basis, as director of elections for the Democratic Unionist party.

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

Q Welcome to our Committee, Gavin. I am not sure that I could reach your shoulder to tap you on it, so it is great to have you with us virtually, at least to get me out of that. May I invite you to give the perspective of the parties in Northern Ireland? I make that plural, if you do not mind, because in preparation for the Bill I have reached out to all the Northern Ireland parties to be even-handed, and I am sure that you can give us some broad insights that go across the piece of what this looks like from the parties’ perspective in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Robinson:

Thank you for that curveball. I am very happy to speak on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party. I am a little more curtailed in hoping to assist the Bill Committee as to the position of other parties. We had engagement at party level with you, Minister, and we are grateful for that. Some of the other parties participated in that engagement. We had separate engagement with the Northern Ireland Office as well, as part of the overall consideration.

One of the perennial issues with and concerns about the previous proposals before Parliament was the reduction from 650 to 600, with the impact that it had on the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. We have 18; we were proposed to be reduced to 17 and—[Interruption.]

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

Gavin, may I interrupt you for a minute? There is a three-minute suspension. We cannot hear what you are saying clearly, so please hang on until the bell has stopped ringing.

Gavin Robinson:

There was concern about the reduction from 18 seats to 17, which was consequential on the decision to move from 650 to 600. Given the acute political divisions that we have in Northern Ireland and the history, people are easily led into surmising how that might have impacted on one community or another. I am happy for the Committee to explore that further. At least in the initial stages, it formed part of a court case that concluded within the past month on the previous boundary proposals.

In these proposals, we are satisfied and pleased to see that the 650 figure will remain, albeit highlighting the fact that in the previous Parliament legislation was introduced in 2018 that sought to solidify in legislation the 18 seats for Northern Ireland, with 632 for the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a commitment that was there two years ago, although it did not leave Committee. We believe that it is important to solidify the constituency and boundary arrangements that we have at present in Northern Ireland.

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

Q Thank you, Gavin. Will you go into the next level of detail, to do with how the rules given to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland helped to bring about their review?

Gavin Robinson:

The particular rule that we can rely on in Northern Ireland is rule 7. That rule is important for us, given the geographical nature of Northern Ireland, with the urban dimensions and restrictiveness of our small part of the United Kingdom. Rule 7 allows us, where there is unreasonable infringement, to go beyond the 5% tolerance. We wish to see that important rule maintained. That is maintained.

We are mildly concerned that the consequence of the judicial review that just emerged from the Court of Appeal may inject a level of chill in the Boundary Commission’s ability to rely on rule 7. It is an important flexibility that it should use, with the need ultimately to demonstrate the rationale for doing so.

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

Q Thank you for giving evidence, Gavin. Do you feel that a commitment to protecting the 18 seats in Northern Ireland without a similar protection for Scotland and Wales compromises the integrity of the Union in the longer run?

Gavin Robinson:

I do not think it compromises the integrity of the Union in the longer term, but I do see that some of the arguments that could be used for retaining 18 seats in Northern Ireland could naturally apply to some of the other devolved Administrations. Fundamentally, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for Assembly constituencies to be contiguous with our parliamentary constituencies. Without elections occurring at the same time, you could have a situation where you have representatives for a parliamentary constituency that no longer exists remaining in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I assume that unless there was some co-ordination between election times and reviews, that anomalous situation could occur, with representation for areas that no longer exist, depending on a boundary change and the configuration at that time. That is important for us.

You cannot really go beyond our boundaries unless you are prepared to go into extraterritorial application or the sea. Land boundaries with Scotland and Wales are obviously a little less constrained, but when you consider the impact on the devolved Administrations, I do think there is an argument that you can extrapolate from Northern Ireland to others.

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

Q Finally, is there anything else in the Bill that the DUP has any concerns about?

Gavin Robinson:

I believe it is wrong to move away from parliamentary approval. I see the proposal is to remove the ministerial ability for amendment and to remove the ability for Parliament ultimately to approve the proposals. Parliamentary approval is an important constitutional dimension that should be retained. It is a bulwark against proposals that do not rest well with our body politic, and I do not think the removal from Ministers of the ability to amend is in any way commensurate with the removal of Parliament’s ability to approve the proposals. The Minister will know better than I, but I am unaware of any fundamental use of the Minister’s ability to amend. We are all aware, however, of Parliament’s ability to inject itself and determine one way or another whether proposals should proceed. So we are concerned about the loss of parliamentary approval in the process.

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

Q I am grateful to Mr Robinson for appearing before the Committee. He is obviously a Unionist, and I am not, but can he see the fundamental problem that people in Scotland and Wales may have in seeing Northern Ireland getting to keep its 18 seats while they get lesser representation in the House of Commons, from a Unionist point of view?

Gavin Robinson:

Arguments can be made for solidifying the number of constituencies in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I do not think there should be any rationale that precludes me from advancing an argument that is important for Northern Ireland on our political context and make-up. On our number of electors, at this moment in time we have sufficient electors for 17.63 constituencies, leading to the 18 constituencies, and we have that additional flexibility on rule 7.

Mr Linden, you are more than capable of advancing arguments that are important for Scotland, as indeed is Mr Lake for Wales. I think it is appropriate that the concerns highlighted about a cyclical reduction that could potentially arise through future reviews—a cyclical reduction or increase of parliamentary boundaries, and the knock-on consequence that would have for devolved Administrations—should be considered more generally, but I will advance the argument on Northern Ireland’s behalf.

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

Q Can I draw your attention to new clause 7, which I have tabled? I appreciate that you may not have it in front of you. That new clause seeks to initiate a bit of debate about the application of rule 7, not just in Northern Ireland but other constituencies. Is there any circumstance in which you could envisage the application of rule 7 being helpful for other parts of the UK, not just Northern Ireland?

Gavin Robinson:

I am sure it could be. Again, that is an argument that could and should be advanced, and I would not hinder someone in making that argument. When we went through the process within the past two years, with the various iterations of Boundary Commission proposals for Northern Ireland, the rationale for using rule 7 was incredibly clear. The Boundary Commission’s initial draft proposals brought forward constituencies that were not in any way consistent with geographical localities, urban dimensions or local ties, and were outwith the legislative framework that I believe the commission had in its process. They commenced with a false premise, and ended up with a real mishmash of parliamentary boundaries.

I was pleased that they invoked rule 7. I mentioned the chill effect earlier: that use of rule 7 was struck down by the Court of Appeal within the past month in the case of Patrick Lynch. It was not struck down because rule 7 was used inappropriately, but because the Boundary Commission simply failed to articulate the rationale for using it. It has been proven to be an incredibly important tool to ensure the fundamentals of achieving good boundaries within Northern Ireland were attained in the last process.

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

Q One final question if I may, which is perhaps slightly mischievous. Obviously, in the last Parliament, the Government had a very different view on how many seats there should be in the House of Commons, namely that there should be 600. It is well known and on record that the DUP was opposed to that, and was part of a confidence and supply agreement. Did the DUP and the Government ever discuss those proposals, and is that perhaps why Orders in Council did not come forward in the last Parliament?

Gavin Robinson:

I think you imbue me with greater knowledge, Mr Linden, and considerably more power than the circumstances merit.

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

Q Gavin, I want to round out our session with one quite small piece of detail, but one that we have not managed to touch on with any other witness yet. That is the way in which the constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly are directly tied to UK parliamentary constituencies.

As you will have seen from a close reading, this Bill makes provision for a buffer period between recommendations from a boundary review that would come into effect for the UK, and the point at which the Northern Ireland Assembly constituencies would change to reflect those new boundaries. I wonder if you might be able to give us a little more insight into the impact of such a scenario—that is, what effect not having that kind of buffer and protection would have on constituencies and electors in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Robinson:

I think as currently outlined, with a projected Assembly election in 2022, the process is manageable. There are two considerations for further reflection; we will reflect on them, and I am sure others will as well.

The first would be a cyclical reduction in uplift from 17 and 18, which I think would be unhelpful given the knock-on consequences that would have for the Assembly elections. Fundamentally, given the difficulties we have faced over the past three years—the stagnation in the effective operation of our devolved institutions—I do not think we have fully reflected on or resolved what would happen should there be an early or emergency Assembly election and how that may be impacted by this boundary process.

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

Q Thank you. I seek to get on the record your thoughts on the vanilla scenario, if you like, of those moments in the future when Northern Ireland Assembly elections might be scheduled to clash with, or come close to, UK parliamentary elections, and on the way in which the buffer provision seeks to give some ease to administrators, campaigners and citizens in Northern Ireland from those two things being unmanageably close together. If you have not had a chance to think through that, please do not feel the need to comment further, but if you have, that will be interesting to the Committee.

Gavin Robinson:

Only that, as I indicated at the start of the answer, as currently drafted, the process will be entirely manageable.

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

Thank you very much indeed. I was keen for the Committee to note that, so I appreciate your help on that.

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

There are no other questions from the Committee to our witness. Gavin, I thank you very much indeed for enlightening us on the views of your party on the Bill and for sharing how other parties in Northern Ireland feel about this particular piece of legislation.