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Reports of the Boundary Commissions

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (2).—(Cat Smith.)

This is a paving amendment for Amendment 5, with the aim of maintaining the status quo of parliamentary oversight within the boundary review process.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

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

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (4).

This is a paving amendment for Amendment 5, with the aim of maintaining the status quo of parliamentary oversight within the boundary review process.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 16, leave out subsection (7).

This is a paving amendment for Amendment 5, with the aim of maintaining the status quo of parliamentary oversight within the boundary review process.

Clause stand part.

Clause 2 stand part.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Thank you, Sir David, for calling me again to continue my contribution. I was saying that it is very important for us to have accountability in this process, and some oversight to make sure the rules have been followed.

I will give an example, which does not come from a parliamentary boundary review but from a local government boundary review that happened in my borough. The commissioner took it upon himself to make every ward come within a very tight percentage plus or minus. There were no requirements within the rules for that; it was a self-imposed ordinance that he decided he was going to follow rigidly, despite local protests. What ended up happening was that one of the wards, which had roughly 10,500 residents, was given 12 properties that were on the other side of the south circular and the other side of a large green in order to come within that tight number set by the commissioner—a limit of 3% or 5% that he had set himself, not the limit within the rules, which was 10% plus or minus. These 12 houses, which had no connection at all to the rest of the ward apart from being in the same borough, were forced to be part of that ward. That is the sort of decision that requires people to come back and say, “Wait a minute, what is going on here?” We need to have some oversight of decisions such as those, which is a good reason why we should not just set this in train without being able to oversee the conclusions that the officials and academics have drawn up.

When we were going through the process of reducing the number of MPs, a lot of people were opposed to that proposal. Let us be clear: it came after a period when MPs had been vilified because of expenses, and two very young, new leaders of their parties decided to jump on to that bandwagon and start kicking MPs. “We are too expensive. There are too many of us. Let’s cut the cost of politics. Let’s cut the number of MPs.” It was an act of populism, and a very successful one, with those leaders trying to capture a political mood because they wanted to remove the Government of the time.

What came out of that was a proposal to go down to 600 MPs that had no basis in any science, or any review that had taken place; it had no basis in anything apart from the whim of these two young, ambitious politicians. It was a figure that was plucked out of the air and thrown into manifestos, and we were then lumbered with it. Of course, the Whips then came into play, and we ended up with legislation to reduce the House of Commons to 600 MPs and had to go through that process. Once MPs had looked into the abyss and saw what it all meant, Parliament came to its senses very quickly. I never supported that proposal, but when the first boundary review was released—we had two—I came out all right. I would have had quite a safe seat, with that review only adding a bit to my existing constituency, but I still opposed the proposed changes in principle.

The second review did not go so well. The problem was that the boundary commission started its deliberations in south-east London by saying, “The numbers in Bromley borough come to exactly three constituencies that can be coterminous with that borough.” That was their starting point, and the rest of south-east London had to fall into line. That was a huge problem, and during the first review, local arguments managed to convince the boundary commission to change its mind.

The second time around, the same arguments were applied and the boundary commission came out with a set of proposals. Those went out for a second round of consultation, and then somebody who had nothing to do with all the local arguments and comments came up with a mathematical equation. They did the whole of south-east London on three pages of A4. Lo and behold, because that proposal was very close to the boundary commission’s original proposals, the boundary commission flipped right back and we had a major upheaval in my part of south-east London. The commission did not listen at all to the arguments that had been made locally and had prevailed in two successive reviews of the boundaries until that point.

That is why we need to have a final overview. We cannot just abdicate responsibility for the process and leave our constituents without a voice. No matter how many people are cynical about it, we are accountable for what we say in this process. It is quite right that we, as the elected representatives of those people, should have some oversight of the final outcome, and that the commissioners should be accountable to Parliament for what they have done. The day when we just abdicate that responsibility is a dark one for our democracy.

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

It is an absolute pleasure, Sir David, to serve under your chairmanship, as it was to serve under Mr Paisley’s this morning. I shall in my remarks cover clauses 1 and 2 stand part, and amendments 2 to 4, and respond where I can to what right hon. and hon. Members have said.

Clause 1 deals with the timing of boundary reviews and the submission of the final reports by the boundary commissions. First, the clause provides for the next boundary review to take place according to a slightly shortened timetable. The clause sets 1 July 2023 as the date by which the four boundary commissions must submit their final reports. That means that they will have two years and seven months from the review date—the formal start of a boundary review—to complete the process and submit their recommendations. Usually, they would have two years and 10 months.

I will deal straight away here with a point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow East. He mentioned the question raised by Professor Sir John Curtice about why there should be a difference between the period for the immediate next review that for future reviews. I hate to say it, but there is no great conspiracy. It was set out clearly in the pages of the Conservative party manifesto, which I know the hon. Gentleman will have had as his bedside reading day in, day out since 2019. He will know from it that we have made a commitment to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. There is no secret. That legislation is inadequate and we are committed to repealing it. I will not go into further detail about that in this Committee—you would not want me to, Sir David—but it squarely answers the point. It is no great secret that according to that scheme there should then be the flexibility for the next general election to be called at the right time after July 2023, which is what is in the Bill.

The purpose of clause 1 is to give the best chance of having new constituency boundaries in place ahead of the next general election, whenever that may come. As witnesses such as Mr Peter Stanyon and Mr Chris Williams of the Green party reminded us, once the recommendations of a boundary review have been brought into effect, it takes some time for returning officers to implement the new boundaries, and for all others involved, including political parties, to make the necessary preparations to field candidates and communicate with voters. So we have to allow for that period before new constituencies will be put into use. It is not a fixed amount of time, but, as a general principle, we aspire to ensure that legislation is in place six months before a poll.. That was discussed in the evidence sessions.

As the Committee is aware, it is over a decade since the results of a boundary review have been implemented. Our existing Westminster constituencies are based on electoral data from the very early 2000s. That means that our current constituencies take no account of today’s youngest voters, which is beginning to get ridiculous, nor do they reflect nearly two decades of democratic shift, house building and all the things we want a boundary review to consider. The purpose of the provision in clause 1 is to ensure that the next boundary review, which is due to begin next year, finishes as promptly as possible, without compromising the processes of the boundary commissions, including the extensive public consultation they conduct, which I will make a brief point about. We will discuss public consultation further as we go through the clauses.

The three-month reduction in timetable, in the case referred to in the clause, will be made possible by shortening the sum of the boundary commissions’ internal operational processes. In addition, we propose to shorten the public consultation time for the next boundary review only from 24 to 18 weeks. I will address that in greater detail when we discuss clause 4, where that is laid out. I can say at this point that we have tested the proposition—a timetable of two years and seven months—with stakeholders, including electoral administrators, the parliamentary parties and representatives of other parties. There was a cross-party consensus that in this instance the change is beneficial and the right thing to do.

The second change introduced by clause 1 is to extend the boundary review cycle, moving the review from every five years to every eight. The intention here—my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell touched on this—is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly without the disruption to local communities and their representation that might occur if there was a review every election period.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as several colleagues have mentioned, it is really important that the boundary commissions takes notice of what is being said here? Hopefully, they will look at the arguments being made, whatever the outcomes are. It is all about communities and getting it right in the first instance—I refer to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Warley. If they can do that, they can shorten the timeframe and take notice, so communities can stay together.

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

That is very important indeed. I am confident that all four of the boundary commissions have been listening closely to the proceedings of the Committee since our evidence sessions, which they joined, and since then in our proceedings clause by clause. I know they will want to take into account comments made by hon. Members across the Committee, including how we can keep communities together and ensure that the public has that strong voice, which was the point I was making with regard to clause 1.

Clause 1 sets out that in future the boundary commissions will submit their final reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Mr Speaker is the ex officio chair of the boundary commissions. The reports will go to him rather than to the Secretary of State, as the commissions do now. The Speaker, not the Secretary of State, will lay the reports before Parliament.

We think that is the right change. It underlines the independence of the boundary commissions—a theme we will return to many times. It is right that the chair of those commissions—in other words, Mr Speaker—should receive and lay the reports just as they also currently receive the progress reports made by the boundary commissions. It is also right that the Government’s only role is to implement the recommendations without needing to have any hand in the process by which they are submitted.

In summary, clause 1 makes technical but important changes to the conduct of boundary reviews. It sets the cycle of eight years, establishes the Speaker as the appropriate recipient of the final report and shortens the boundary review timetable in the way that I have explained, to give us and citizens the best chance of knowing that what they have asked for—the general election being conducted on the basis of updated and equal constituencies—will happen. For those reasons, I think the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

There was some discussion right at the beginning about whether the Bill gives the Executive more power, but is the Minister saying that it removes the Executive from the process once the boundary commission has started to undertake its work?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 2:15 pm, 25th June 2020

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because she allows me to move on to the matters in clause 2. They are very important, and she presages what I am going to say.

Clause 2 changes the way in which the recommendations of the boundary commissions are brought into effect. This is the meat of the debate. The purpose of the change is to bring certainty to the boundary review process and give confidence that recommendations of the independent boundary commissions are brought into effect without interference or delay. The boundary commissions develop their proposals through a robust process involving extensive public consultation over a two to three-year period.

The right hon. Member for Warley made a very thoughtful point about checks and balances, and what he called a new set of priesthoods. Aside from the fact that this is not new—this commission has been in existence for many decades, and rightly so—the point that I want to make is this: the public are the check and balance on that body. By way of example, more than half the recommendations made by the Boundary Commission for England in the previous cycle were changed. This morning, examples were exchanged of where change was desirable or not desirable, and where it was proposed or rejected, but the fact is that that level of responsiveness to the public has been shown to be there in what boundary commissions do, so the need for check and balance is met by what the boundary commissions do in their public consultation. That is very important. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West eloquently touched on that.

It is important that the boundary commissions’ impartial recommendations are brought into effect promptly and with certainty in order to avoid wasting public money and time and to underline the independence of the process. Clause 2 provides for proposed constituencies to be brought into effect automatically. It does that by amending the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which provides for the recommendations to be brought into effect through an Order in Council made by Her Majesty following approval of the draft order by both Houses of Parliament.

As happens now, the Secretary of State would be required to give effect to the recommendations of the boundary commissions. Let me say a little about the wording that hon. Members will see in the Bill. Professor Sir John Curtice also noted this in evidence. The wording has been updated over time. In the current legislation, a Minister must submit the draft order

“as soon as may be”.

The new wording used in the clause is:

“as soon as reasonably practicable”.

I do not think that is of great interest to the Committee, but I just want to make the point that that is more up-to-date wording. There is nothing more to be read into that change of words.

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

Is there any practical difference between the two forms of worfing, or is it simply using more up-to-date language?

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

The hon. Gentleman—my friend, if I may return his compliments of this morning—has it exactly right. I thank him for aiding the Committee’s understanding on that point. I could give examples of where that kind of wording has been updated in other Acts, but I think I do not need to do so if it is as simply put as that.

As happens now, an Order in Council will be used to give effect to the recommendations, but Parliament will not play a role in approving that order, and the Secretary of State will no longer be able to amend the draft Order in Council that implements the boundary commissions’ recommendations in the event that it is rejected by Parliament.

We heard in the witnesses sessions that a number of respected academics support this change. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use a similar approach. It is the right one to use. We heard from Dr Renwick and Professors Hazell, Curtice and McLean, and there are many more who stand on that side of the argument. One of the most eloquent whom we heard in our sessions was Professor Wyn Jones from the Welsh Governance Centre, who said:

“It is probably better that MPs set the terms of the exercise for the Boundary Commission behind a veil of ignorance, if you like, without knowing exactly what the particular outcomes would be for them as individual MPs.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 57, Q117.]

I considered trying to get a joke on the record about Immanuel Kant and the ways that that surname could be used, but I thought it would be better not to test the boundaries of that at this stage of the Committee.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke went on to say, witnesses were clear that the independence of the process should not be violated—a strong word, as she pointed out. Whether Professor Curtice was also right to call Committee members and Members of the House turkeys, I could not possibly comment, but it is self-evident that MPs have an interest in the outcome. That is simply a fact.

I now turn to amendments 2 to 4 and the opposition to the clause that I assume goes with them. I disagree fundamentally with the amendments and I urge hon. Members to withdraw them. I recognise the passion with which hon. Members put their arguments. The hon. Member for City of Chester spoke about parliamentary approval being a “safety valve”, but those arguments are wrong-headed. Essentially, they say that a process should be regarded as independent if someone agrees with it, and not if they do not, which is a poor way to approach the question. The changes are important to ensure that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions are brought into effect promptly, without interference from any political quarter, without waste of public time and money, and without delay.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Essentially, the Minister is avoiding the central political reality, which is that because of the way the boundary commission went about its work, whether according to its instructions or not, the Conservative Government fundamentally lost control of their Members of Parliament. Ironically, in 1969, the then Labour Government had absolute control of their Members of Parliament, which is why they voted down the recommendation. The reason that those proposals never got before Parliament was that they were so fundamentally unsatisfactory that the Conservative Government lost control of their Back-Bench Members and some of their Ministers.

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

I have huge respect for the right hon. Gentleman; it is a credit to the Committee that we have no fewer than two former Secretaries of State on it. I am afraid that in this case, however, he is not correct. That is not the fundamental point. The fundamental point is that we need to put in place updated and equal boundaries. If his party’s heritage goes right back to the Chartists, as he hopes it does, he ought to be with that argument rather than against it. That is what we need to address today.

I want to make a few points about the nature of parliamentary sovereignty as it operates here. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said that the Government of the day set the parameters and, without the safety net of a further approval stage, we could allow for bad reviews—I think I have accurately reflected her words there. Sir John Curtice also reminded us that someone could introduce an overturning Bill if they wanted to; that is a facet of parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament can do that if it wishes. Indeed, Afzal Khan tried to do that in the last Parliament, and we spent many hours considering his Bill.

The hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for Glasgow East misunderstand, or misrepresent, the nature of Parliament and the Executive in their arguments, so I want to set the record straight. It is Parliament, not the Executive, that sets the parameters through this Bill; that is what we are doing. I may be on my feet right now as a member of the Executive, which I am deeply honoured to be, but it is Parliament in the form of this Committee and later in the whole House, and in the second Chamber, that does that job.

I merely present proposals. It is for Parliament to agree or deny them. It is Parliament that retains that sovereignty at all times, and if Parliament later disagrees with the measure, it can act. There is nothing here to prevent it from doing so, although I would advise against that for the reasons that I have set out. My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell set that out clearly to the hon. Member for City of Chester, who agreed with him, if I understood the exchange correctly.

It is the constitutional position that the Executive are composed of the largest party in Parliament. That is simply how it is. I appreciate that I am the Minister for the Constitution, so I rather enjoy such arguments, but I hope the Committee will bear with me.

It is the case that Parliament has some crossover with the Executive—of course it does; that is how we are set up. In that resides the confidence of the House and the delivery of the manifesto commitments that have put the Government in their place. That is what we are here to do in the Bill: deliver equal and updated boundaries. That is the right thing to do.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

I think that we should explore that constitutional issue, because we also need to look at the procedures of the House. Only the Government can instigate legislation, apart from the rather convoluted private Members’ Bills procedures. Indeed, even when such a Bill may be trying to proceed, it can be held up by not putting forward a money resolution. Government, as the Executive—subject, as the hon. Lady rightly says, to the constraint of a vote of no confidence—are able to stifle any of that legislation, should they so wish.

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

And in that will reside the views of the majority of Members of the House of Commons, who know what the right argument here is in this case, which is to deliver equal and updated boundaries. I am only sorry that some of the arguments we have heard this morning seem to express almost a lack of confidence in Parliament’s right and ability to set a framework at the outset and then have confidence that it can be delivered by what is a very high-quality public body, judge-led and acknowledged by witnesses to be among the best in the world in how we run our boundary commissions. Perhaps the hon. Member for City of Chester disagrees.

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

I am enjoying the Minister’s exposition of the constitution. The proof of the particular pudding she is talking about is in the fact that the last two boundary revisions did not have the support of Parliament. There was no formal mechanism in the way that she describes for hon. Members to express that disapproval and lack of support. It had to be done informally through the usual channels, until the Government realised that if they did push either of those to a vote, they would not have succeeded. There was no formal constitutional mechanism of the type the Minister is trying to outline.

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

I will say two things to that. First, we should be focusing on what we now need to do. Secondly, I am pleased to be here proposing a better way forward that demonstrates that we have listened to the opinions expressed by, among others, the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. We should therefore deliver what we have been asked to do by people in this country through the means of the Bill.

I will draw my remarks to a close. I need detain the Committee no longer. I think I have dealt with all the points put to me this morning. I recommend that the Committee reject the amendment and support clauses 1 and 2 standing part of the Bill.

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

It is lovely to see you in the Chair on this warm afternoon, Sir David. My amendments to clause 1 ask the Committee whether Parliament should vote on the review of the boundaries. As it happens, Parliament has not had the opportunity to vote on the last two reviews because they were never tabled for debate by the Government. This is a safety valve: us as parliamentarians being able to check the homework of the boundary commissions. This is not marking our own homework; this is us ensuring that the boundary commissions have executed the criteria we have given them accurately and that we are happy to proceed. I have seen it pointed out often on social media recently that the Government have an 80-seat majority. If they are so confident in their 80-seat majority, they have nothing to worry about in bringing the review that we are about to have back to Parliament for a vote.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the written evidence submitted by Dr Renwick and Professor Hazell, particularly points 15 and 16. They say that although the boundary commission has only very rarely been questioned to be biased—that would not be the case at all; we all have confidence in its independence—

“there are grounds to worry that this could change” if the automaticity is implemented. In point 16, they set out some safeguards that could protect against that. I have some concerns that while the independence of the boundary commission is not questioned at the moment, the change could have future consequences that are foreseeable, as set out by Dr Renwick and Professor Hazell, and safeguards could be put in place.

I draw the Committee’s attention to written question 5194, asked by Baroness Hayter in the other place, which I discovered as part of my research for the Bill, on 18 June. She asked about Orders in Council, and the answer was that that

“relates almost exclusively to the affairs of Chartered bodies.”

The fact is that the boundary reviews being put as an Order in Council is very different from the way that Orders in Council are usually used in this process. However, as it happens, the Opposition will not push amendments 2 to 4 to a vote this afternoon, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.