Publicity and consultation

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Question proposed, that the Clause stand part of the Bill.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 10, in the schedule, page 7, line 29, at end insert—

‘(1A) In paragraph 2(1) omit the words “and no more than five” in each of the subparagraphs.’

These amendments remove the cap on the number of hearings the Boundary Commissions may hold in each of the nations and in each of the English regions, leaving it for the Boundary Commissions to decide the appropriate number of hearings to hold.’.

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

It is a great pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir David—welcome to our deliberations. I certainly do not wish to detain the Committee long, not least because I see that the Minister is chewing a sweetie, and if I sit down quickly, I will put her in a difficult position. Amendment 10, which is supported by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, was tabled with a view to making the lives of the boundary commissioners a little easier by giving them some room for manoeuvre.

As the Committee will recall, during the evidence session on 19 June, Ms Drummond-Murray of the Boundary Commission for Scottish, in response to question 6, spoke of things being “problematic” in the last review because of the restrictions in the number of hearings set out in statute. She made it clear that covering a country the size of Scotland, and doing so with only five hearings, was problematic. The amendment would remove that restriction.

As I was gently discussing this with the hon. Member for West Bromwich West earlier, something that came through from the evidence sessions and over the course of this morning’s sitting was a respect for the boundary commissions and a desire to try to make their lives as easy as possible. The amendment would not alter the fundamental principles of the Bill; it seeks merely to give the commissioners the flexibility to undertake the public engagement that is welcomed—and not just by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West, but by us all in our communities. It seeks to give that flexibility to commissioners to undertake public engagement. I hope that the Government will support my amendment, and I look forward to hearing her thoughts on the proposal.

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

I will address both clause 4 and the amendment in one breath. As currently drafted, the rules governing the boundary reviews provide that there should be between two and five public hearings in each of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the nine English regions. The amendment would make the number of public hearings a matter of judgment for each of the boundary commissions. I am confident that I understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman made, and I am grateful to him for tabling the amendment in the spirit of improving and prioritising public consultation of the existing framework, which is very important.

My reservation about the amendment is that we need to give the boundary commissions clear rules that are in themselves unimpeachable. As we discussed this morning, there is of course great interest in getting the result right so that it can carry trust and command confidence. To that end, a clear and unambiguous framework is helpful; it would allow the boundary commissions to better preserve both their actual and perceived independence.

By mandating a particular number of hearings, we are saying that the commissions are able to deploy their technical expertise in a legally certain environment in which their independence could not be challenged for the wrong reasons—for example, on the grounds of process, or on grounds such as, “You didn’t do enough hearings here,” “You did too many hearings there,” or, “You didn’t give us a fair voice here and gave somebody else an overly large voice over there.”

I would put the argument at that level: instead of removing it entirely, it is right to maintain that set of guidelines for how many hearings there ought to be, because it allows for there to be a greater degree of public trust around the fairness of the process of the hearings. I hope that argument is enough to engage the interest of the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and to persuade him and the hon. Member for Ceredigion not to press the amendment.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Before the Minister moves on to clause 4, I have a question about amendment 10. Is it fair to say that the Government might be willing to consider extending or increasing the role and number of hearings—setting a higher limit, as opposed to lifting it completely?

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

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. As the witness from the Boundary Commission for Scotland said, there ought to be more hearings. That is a fair argument—perhaps a fairer argument than the one I was seeking to address just now. I note that it is not the one on the amendment paper, so it is perhaps academic for the purposes of the immediate discussion. However, I understand and note the hon. Gentleman’s point. I will discuss the full extent of what we are doing with the public hearings, which might address his point.

We are changing the timing of the public hearings so that they can be better targeted by the boundary commissions. That goes directly to the point that Ms Drummond-May made. With the number of hearings that she had, she had to decide where to hold them in what is, as we all know, a large geographical area that is sparsely populated. Being able to be more flexible about when the hearings take place addresses that point, because after having observed the first round of feedback coming from the first round of consultation, the boundary commissions will be able to say, “Right, we see where that feedback is coming from. We’re going to use the change in timing for the hearings, which will now be in the second round, to meet that feedback where it is coming from.” In effect, it will save somebody such as Ms Drummond-Murray the difficulty of deciding blindly whether to put their hearings in Hawick or Inverness.

This change addresses that point: without necessarily needing to add another hearing, it allows for them to be better targeted. I will explain a little how the clause does that. It makes a change by putting the public hearings later in the consultation process. As I say, the clause allows public hearings to be better targeted to areas where it is clear that there might be the greatest debate over possible different options. From our discussions with the boundary commissions—indeed, the Boundary Commission of Scotland told us this in Committee—we know that it is only once a review gets going that boundary commission staff are able to judge where the feeling is greatest about particular constituencies and proposals. That is where we would want to target the use of public hearings to have the greatest impact on, and responsiveness to, the public, which is a principle that we all agree on.

The trouble with the current legislation is that the public hearings take place close to the start, during the first 12-week consultation process. Bearing in mind that the hearings are events of some scale and inevitably require large venues, which can be hard to find and need to be booked ahead, this could be a particular concern in areas where there is a sparse population. Again, there is a limited number of such venues to choose from. Under the current law, the boundary commissions can therefore find themselves picking locations and having to secure the venues before the review has even begun, to ensure that they can conduct those events. In effect, they are guessing about where the interest is going to come.

The change being made by the clause addresses that issue by allowing the boundary commissions to be better able to consider the responses received, assess where the feeling is greatest, decide where the hearings should be held, and then plan and deliver those hearings for the secondary consultation period. Therefore, to make it possible to implement this change, we are adding time to the secondary consultation period. The clause has the effect of moving four weeks of consultation time from the initial consultation period to the secondary consultation period, to allow that time for public hearings.

Currently, there are three periods: they are arranged as 12 weeks, four weeks and eight weeks. The clause will change that to make three equal periods, each of eight weeks. The overall amount of consultation time will not change, which is important considering our earlier debate about the primacy of public feedback. The time for consultation is currently 24 weeks, and it will remain so under this provision.

The clause also makes a further specific change with regard to the very next boundary review in 2021. When we discussed clause 1, I said that as a result of the Bill the length of the next boundary review will be reduced slightly, by three months; we discussed that. We are making this change to give the best chance of that review being implemented, as I have explained.

As I have already said, in order to achieve that time scale the boundary commissions will compress some of their own administrative processes, focusing staff resources and doing as we would expect them to do with public time and money. In addition, we also propose that the consultation time included in the next boundary review is slightly shortened, from 24 weeks to 18, which is achieved by the clause. I said earlier that these changes have the cross-party support that we explored before introducing the Bill.

Subsection (12) modifies section 5 of the 1986 Act for the next boundary review, so that the secondary consultation period will be six weeks instead of eight, and the third consultation period will be four weeks instead of eight. These changes enable that slightly earlier deadline to be met.

The clause also makes some operational changes to the consultation process, and it makes that very specific revision to the timing of the next boundary review that I referred to, in order to ensure there is a prompt outcome, while maintaining the importance of the consultation. I hope that it addresses, in a pragmatic way, the concern that a witness directly expressed to us, and in such a way that the hon. Members for Glasgow East and Ceredigion do not feel the need to press their amendment to a vote.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 2:45 pm, 25th June 2020

Speaking to amendment 10, the hon. Member for Glasgow East made a very good point about the way in which the Bill must be able to be applied effectively in every part of the United Kingdom. In some of the regions where the commissioners will be doing their work, the geography and landscape are very different from those of other regions. In that sense, I am minded to support the amendment if chooses to push it to a vote. It would give the commissioners more flexibility to be able to respond to the needs of communities, and if we are to have communities that are confident in the boundaries that the commissioners draw, they must have had an adequate say in how the constituencies are formed.

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

First, I welcome the Minister’s explanation of the clause. I have been through a few of these boundary reviews now. I remember attending one in the mid-1990s for Cheshire, which was held in Winsford, in the geographical centre of Cheshire, along with my old mentor Lord Hoyle—as he is now is—and Mike Hall, another former MP, and the late and much-missed Andrew Miller, another former MP.

More recently, the Cheshire review was held in my own constituency in Chester, in The Queen hotel, and in that circumstance I found myself speaking against my own party’s recommendations, because the numbers had forced the party to exclude a part of the constituency from Chester that I felt rightfully belonged to it. It was a strange and uncomfortable situation, but I did what I did because it was right.

Having heard the hon. Member for Glasgow East speak to his amendment, I think there is a principle that flows throughout the Bill, which is the importance of taking into account geography, in terms of the overall impact of the Bill and its overall implications. I could easily get from Chester to Winsford and from Chester to Warrington; that would not be a problem. Speaking from my own experience, I think that Cheshire could get away with having one public inquiry.

If I think about parts of rural northern England, the far south-west, or large parts of Scotland and Wales, the sparsity of population makes it less easy to hold public inquiries than in Cheshire or in large boroughs. It is the same principle and the same argument that we will discuss later in the Bill—I do not want to wander too far off the subject of this clause—where we have numbers overriding geographical considerations. There are parts of the country that need to be treated differently because sparsity of population and geographical features make it more difficult for individuals to take part

The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked the Minister a question that had also occurred to me, about whether, in principle, she may consider a slightly different amendment, if she accepts that some areas need more attention because of their geography and sparsity of population. Obviously, the Minister cannot speak to a hypothetical amendment, but I would support that suggestion. The principle that flows through the Bill is that we cannot simply go on bare numbers. Geography, population density and the ease of people getting to, and taking part in, consultations need to be considered. I have a lot of sympathy with the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Glasgow East.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I am sorry that I did not call you “Sir David” earlier. I was not trying to de-noble you and I apologise.

I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow East. We are in a curious situation with this clause. On the one hand, the Government are saying, “Step back, set the parameters and let the boundary commission get on with it,” but when we get to this clause they become prescriptive. The clause limits the scope of the boundary commission to consult and to set up consultations with an area in a way that meets the reaction they are getting from a local community. It says that there can only be five consultations in an area. That does not seem to me to be stepping back, allowing the boundary commission to get on with its job, and reacting according to representations from the community.

The Bill sets a rigid timetable, which is acceptable, but subsection (12) says that we will have only six weeks for the second stage and four weeks for the third, because we have a rushed timetable. In the evidence, we were told time and again that this will be a major upheaval because the boundaries are 20 years out of date. Rather than truncating the consultation period in the coming boundary review, we should at least stick to the length of time we are setting for subsequent boundary reviews. Apparently we are not doing that and we can rush at this one, like a bull at a gate.

This is a substantial review that will bring about major changes because of the age of the boundaries we have, which is quite right. I am not arguing about the fact that these changes have to be made and that we have to achieve some sort of equilibrium, which at the same time recognises communities, but it will be a difficult exercise that the Government are making even more difficult because of the timescale they are setting.

Saying that the second stage of the review will have only six weeks and the final stage only four does not seem to be consistent with the idea that we set parameters and let the boundary commission get on with its job. All of a sudden we are starting to put difficulties in its way. I would support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow East if it were put to a vote. It is important that we give flexibility to the boundary commission so that the public have confidence in what the commission is doing and that their views can be heard. Even if the outcome is not the boundaries that the public support, at least they will have had the right to have their voices heard in a way that is convenient and in a location that enables them to participate. Putting restrictions on the boundary commission is a step in the wrong direction. I fundamentally disagree with the bit in subsection (12). On a boundary review that is well overdue and is going to be difficult, the Government have set a tougher timescale. The game is up. This really does expose the political considerations. This is all about the timing and choice of a general election date from 2023 onwards. It has nothing whatever to do with doing an efficient job in reviewing parliamentary boundaries.

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

I point out to the Committee that any vote on amendment 10 will be later in our proceedings. If the hon. Member for Glasgow East wishes to press the amendment to a Division, it will be later in our proceedings.

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

I thank the Minister and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood, for City of Chester, for Eltham, and for Ceredigion for their considered remarks. During our discussions I reflected that perhaps this morning, we dealt with one of the more controversial aspects of the Bill with automaticity, but we have now moved to discussing hearings and where they should take place, so I am glad to have brought the temperature down, if not physically.

I detected from the Minister, particularly in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion, that the measure is something the Government are willing to consider if there is a way that we could work together to try to table an amendment on Report. The Minister will be aware that the amendment was in no way motivated by party politics. It is about trying to assist the commissions, so I propose to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that the Government discuss with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion some form of amendment that could perhaps be tabled on Report to address the issues that I still think are outstanding and that have been put on the record by Ms Drummond-Murray. On that basis, I will not press amendment 10 to a vote.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advance warning that that is what he will do. It will be helpful as far as the administration of the Bill is concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.