Publicity and consultation

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 2:30, 25 June 2020

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.