Examination of Witness

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:25 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Dr Jac Larner gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:41 pm, 23rd June 2020

Q I owe you an apology, Dr Larner, because I have had you waiting an awful long time for this call. There was a moment in our proceedings this afternoon where it appeared that we could have had a gap, so I am grateful that you have been on standby for so long. I hope you have not been bored but enthused by our proceedings. Dr Larner, would you please say something about yourself?

Dr Larner:

It has been very interesting, actually; certainly not boring at all. I am a research associate at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. My research focuses on electoral behaviour—how people behave around elections. A big part of that is that I am a research associate on the Welsh Election Study and the Scottish Election Study, which are big surveys around election times.

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

Q Thank you very much for joining us, Dr Larner. We really appreciate it. It is great that we have had the chance to hear from you and from your colleague, Professor Wyn Jones, last week. I will keep it extremely general at the outset. Will you give us your view on the provisions in the Bill and say whether you support them or not?

Dr Larner:

The Bill has particularly drastic changes and implications for future elections in Wales. The planned change to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 has now obviously been rethought, but proportionally, that does not really make much difference in the reduction for Wales. If we have 600 MPs, there is a planned reduction of around 12 seats. In the new plan to stay at 650, Wales’ seats will drop by eight. Either way, the proportional representation of Wales in the Commons will be around the 5% mark. That is obviously of concern.

Wales is the biggest loser here. At the same time, it is also worth bearing in mind that, in pretty much any set-up, Wales will always be, proportionally, a very small part of the representation in the Commons. It might also be important to consider things such as really strengthening intergovernmental relations between the devolved Administrations and Westminster going forward.

On whether I outrightly support the Bill or disapprove of it, that is slightly more complicated. I will leave my answer at that, if that is okay.

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

Q As you have outlined, Dr Larner, it is expected that we will see some big changes to the constituencies in Wales, and with that we will see new boundaries drawn, probably around communities that look very different. How important do you feel community identity and having communities together in one constituency are when it comes to that balance between keeping communities together and the electoral tolerance of 5%?

Dr Larner:

That is a very important question, and particularly relevant where I am from, for example, in south Wales. People talk about the valleys as one block, but I can assure you that people from one valley to the next, no matter how small, consider themselves quite different. There is the importance of people feeling that their community is being represented, without being interfered with by what they might see as people from other, different communities.

There is also the important uniqueness of Wales’s being particularly rural in its population. Given the tolerance at the moment, doing some quick maths, at the lower bound of what is being suggested at the moment— around the 69,000 voter mark—depending on which data source you use, there are only either two or four constituencies in Wales larger than that lower bound. That would necessitate really big boundary changes, and we know from some of our research that people like do not like the idea of constituencies being merged in different areas. It is really a balancing act in terms of how much importance you give to that kind of intuitive feeling of, “Oh no, I want boundaries to stay as they are,” versus the idea of fairness in the size of constituencies.

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

Q To follow up on that, for those of us who are not Welsh, could you say whether people, particularly in the Welsh valleys, identify predominantly with the valley they live in? Could you just expand slightly on that?

Dr Larner:

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone will feel like this, but there is a certain feeling that yes, the Rhymney valley is very different from the Rhondda. There is that kind of feeling—although, when confronted with anyone from north Wales, you are from the valleys, the whole thing. It changes depending on who you are talking to, of course.

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

Q I can quite relate to that, as a Lancashire MP who will have solidarity with Yorkshire when faced with a southerner. A slightly different but perhaps similar final question on identity: there are parts of Wales that have a higher percentage of first language Welsh speakers than others. Do you feel that the Bill would be strengthened by and benefit from an amendment that has been tabled to take note also of people’s language when drawing community identities? I suppose I am asking whether Welsh language counts as part of an identity.

Dr Larner:

Absolutely. There is a lot of very well-backed-up evidence in Wales that Welsh speakers, particularly fluent, first language Welsh speakers, tend to hold slightly different opinions on a whole range of ideas. They see themselves slightly differently from other people; they tend to identify not particularly as British, but more overwhelmingly as Welsh-only, whereas in more English-speaking areas there is more of a mix of Welsh and British identity. I would absolutely say that the ability to speak Welsh is a really important part of some people’s identity.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q Diolch, Dr Larner. I suppose we have had quite a bit of discussion, not just today, but last week, about the best way of allocating seats between the four nations of the UK. I wonder whether you have any views about the balance the Bill strikes as it is and whether there are any better ways to strike that balance

Dr Larner:

In terms of those who are interested in a solid Welsh representation in the Commons, I would not say that this Bill is particularly good news. On the other hand, if we took a hypothetical situation where the number of Welsh MPs was increased by 10, you would still be looking at a very small proportion of the total representation in the Commons.

Specifically with the Bill, it is tricky to see how that can be fixed. More broadly, if we want to take the nations approach seriously, we need to think about how we do devolution. We need to think about doing that properly in Wales, which has had what my colleague Ed Poole likes to call salami-sliced devolution, as opposed to Scotland. We need proper inter-governmental relations baked into Whitehall processes. Another idea commonly talked about is House of Lords reform. I know that is far beyond the scope of the Bill, but those are the things we need to think and talk about.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q Thank you, Dr Larner. I would agree with you. I tried to test the patience of the Chair last week by approaching Lords reform, but I will not do it again. I think that the point you made about the salami-sliced nature of devolution in Wales is important for consideration within the scope of the Bill when it comes to the allocation of seats between the nations.

The panellist from the Liberal Democrats suggested that there should be no reduction in the number of seats without further devolution. I think his point was that the devolution settlements across the UK—especially if we compare Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—are very different. There are perhaps more policy issues decided in Westminster that directly impact Wales.

A recent change that I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on is the UK leaving the European Union. Things that were previously decided on a European level, where Wales had four MEPs, are now being decided at Westminster. Some aspects of that touch, indirectly or directly, touch on policy fields that are commonly considered to be devolved to Wales. Should this new dynamic, now that the UK has left the European Union, in which more things will be directly or indirectly influenced at Westminster, be borne in mind when we allocate seats across the nations of the UK?

Dr Larner:

I certainly think that is something to keep in mind, not only with the allocation of seats, but with the general operation of Government. There is another important idea—related to that and other points made earlier by your colleagues—about voter knowledge in Wales: it is important for people to know who is responsible for what.

Another idea often talked about in academia is that a reduction in the number of MPs in Wales, given that people are aware that more constituencies in Wales are being scrapped than in other places, will cause people to give less importance and salience to Westminster generally. That would be the message coming from the centre, if you like. The idea is to make it very clear who is responsible for what, and that should always be taken into account.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Q Finally, some of my colleagues would argue that a fair way of allocating seats across the UK is purely to look at population or the number of electors, and that is a valid point. I was asked last week by a colleague of yours, Professor Wyn Jones, whether there was any logic in maintaining the over-representation of Wales in the House of Commons based purely on population. Since 2001, the population of Wales increased by about 5% to 2011 and again by another couple of hundred thousand to this year. It is projected to increase yet again by 2028, but in all likelihood, due to the relatively slower rate of increase than in England, Wales will continue to lose seats.

The automaticity of the Bill, should it pass, would mean that Wales would not only lose eight seats in this particular review but a further couple of seats at the next review, unless something drastic happens and everybody wants to live in Wales—there is a welcome in the hillsides, by the way. Should that scenario come to pass—I appreciate it is a hypothetical scenario at the moment—could it have any impact on sentiments within Wales and perhaps attitudes towards the Union?

Dr Larner:

It is of course hypothetical, but as I have said, there is the idea—I should point out that we do not have firm evidence on this—that a reduction in the number of MPs is seen by some in Wales as meaning that Westminster is no longer as important to them politically. I know that Professor Wyn Jones has some quite strong views about the importance of rural dynamics and things like that, which I disagree with slightly. It is certainly something to bear in mind, however, especially given the real and rapid increase in the visibility and general salience of the Welsh Government and the Senedd in the last couple of months.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Good afternoon, Dr Larner. I am the MP for the City of Chester, so I share a street with Wales. One side of the appropriately named Boundary Lane is England and the other is Wales. If I think about the areas of north-east Wales that abut the border, I am told that there is a sense within those areas close to mine that perhaps because of the geographical separation from Cardiff, they look to England—to Manchester, Liverpool and Chester—more than down to Cardiff and the south. Do you have any sense that that is the case and do you therefore have a sense as to whether Welshness, if you like, or looking to Cardiff for political leadership, is regionalised?

Dr Larner:

We have done some research on that. There is not really much geographical variation in terms of general support or attitudes towards the Senedd. Certainly among some people, there is the idea that devolution has largely profited Cardiff. I would not say that that is a unique feeling in Wales. In most systems, there is a general feeling that the further you are geographically from the centre of power, the more fed up you might feel about it.

In those areas, although people might not look to places such as Liverpool and Manchester politically, those areas and cities have a significant impact culturally. There are also more people working across the border in those areas. In a lot of those constituencies, a higher number of people were born in England and might still consider themselves to be English or British, not necessarily Welsh. That is a big divide in Wales. National identity does determine—well, not determine in a lot of ways, but is a good predictor of—your general attitude to devolution.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Secondly, Wales has some centres of population but it also has areas of sparsity, and some serious geographical issues that a boundary commission review would need to take into account. I made that point to Professor Wyn Jones as well, but I would be grateful for your take.

We have already heard about the south Wales valleys and there are parts of Snowdonia that are very mountainous. I suspect that Wales is more badly affected by losing so many seats because we are focusing solely on the numbers, and that the areas of sparsity and the geographical barriers would lead to much larger constituencies in area. How would you strike a balance between geography, sparsity, rurality and numbers?

Dr Larner:

There is an understanding that Wales is the most rural nation in terms of population in the UK. As you say, there are very large constituencies. The issue with the plus or minus 5% rule is that these areas are badly affected. I do not necessarily have a problem with the idea of levelling up constituencies in terms of population size, but I think there are certain geographic limits to what is a manageable constituency. There could be the inclusion of an upper band for the number of square miles in a constituency, or something as simple as that. I know that is a down-the-middle answer.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Q Thank you, Dr Larner, for your evidence today. It is incredibly helpful in the Committee’s deliberations.

Under these provisions there are four protected constituencies, as you know: two are on the Isle of Wight, near my own constituency of Basingstoke, and two are in Scotland, but there are none in Wales. When the proposal was to reduce to 600 constituencies, it was difficult to give protection to Ynys Môn, yet under this proposal it is easier to do so and stay closer to the potential threshold for constituency sizes. I have tabled an amendment to that affect, which I do not know whether you have had a chance to look at. Can you see any problems with introducing such an amendment into this legislation? I declare an interest as I was brought up in south Wales.

Dr Larner:

On the face of it, I certainly do not see any problems. I have also seen some people discussing the idea of some of the constituencies on the west coast of Wales, where there are far more Welsh speakers and very rural constituencies, being considered for something like that. Obviously, Ynys Môn is not as isolated geographically as some of the Scottish constituencies, but, when you consider that the Isle of Wight is involved in these protections, it is reasonable to suggest that Ynys Môn should be too.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Dr Larner, you mentioned at the beginning that you studied electoral and voting behaviour. In the evidence sessions we have heard a lot about the impact on people when they feel that local ties are not respected or that their community is being broken up by a constituency boundary.Q

Have you come across any evidence from the last few boundary reviews on what a more disruptive boundary review does to voting behaviour, as regards the parties or candidates people vote for, or whether they vote at all?

Dr Larner:

Not necessarily in the way you put it, but there is interesting evidence if you compare strategic voting in Scotland and Wales, especially at devolved elections. In Wales, constituency boundaries for devolved and UK general election elections are coterminous, which is a silly word meaning the same, and in Scotland, they are different; they do not overlap. There is a lot of very interesting evidence on those elections. When people are faced with different boundaries, how do they calculate who they will vote for? There is some evidence from Scotland that there is more confusion when faced with different boundaries and boundary changes. For example, people are not always sure which is the strongest candidate, or which is the favourite or second favourite candidate. There is evidence that those boundary changes, which are consistent and repeated—they are not one-off events—cause some confusion among voters.

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

Dr Larner, you waited a long time, but the Committee had plenty of questions for you, and we are very grateful for the time you spent with us. Thank you.