Taking account of local government boundaries

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 3:15 pm, 25th June 2020

It is, indeed, unfortunate that we have made such quick progress that we have come to this clause before we have had the note from the Boundary Commission for England. The discussion we are having links into every single part of the Bill. This is an important moment. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow East for bringing this amendment—even as a probing amendment, if that is what it is—because it allows us to open up some very important arguments.

We had conversations this morning about whether we should hold the final vote on the Floor of the House. Opposition Members have made some powerful arguments about what would result if the boundary commission got it wrong. We should endeavour—especially with this clause today—to use the knowledge and expertise on the Committee and the evidence that we have taken to steer the boundary commission to get this right first time around. Some of the examples that were given in the past, which were then overturned when communities—not politicians—were able to make the points as to why particular suggestions were wrong, show that these things are not difficult to do, if time and attention is given to them.

I do not like to tie the hands of a body that we have asked to do a job. Being as prescriptive as the amendment would probably go too far, but it sends an important message. One of the problems with past boundary reviews has been that in order to get the numbers right, they have kept wards whole and created some very odd-looking constituencies that do not have anything in common with the areas they represent and their history.

I return to this point about communities all the time. One piece of evidence said that politicians very cleverly argue the “communities” point to get what they want in their seat, but it is an important point; it is not a political argument, and it is not about us. We represent areas: they are our communities. When the original proposal for 600 seats came out—I think it was in 2012—it was proposed that my constituency would run from my solid rural areas right into the centre of Leeds, in the Leeds East constituency. The previous MP there was George Mudie, a man who a lot of people know—certainly in Leeds and in this House—and for whom I have immense respect. He had been in public office for over four decades, I think; he was a leader of Leeds City Council, and a very distinguished one. I do not say that lightly.

He said, “This is appalling. I am an inner-city Member of Parliament. I represent the inner city; my whole professional career has been spent representing these communities.” He was wholly opposed to the Conservative areas of my seat coming into his constituency. Believe me, he would have won; more interestingly, he was more vociferously opposed to the proposals than I was. What it came down to, George Mudie was saying, was that these communities were not like communities, and the proposals broke the bond he had. I cannot remember exactly how long he served for, but I think he had been in some form of public office in those areas of that seat for over 40 years. As I said, he was a very well-respected man, who is missed in this House and in his communities.

When the boundary commission is constructing these seats, it needs to be very careful that it has regard to rule 5 of the 1968 Act, and the five sub-parts of that. That rule is very important when it comes to geography and trying to keep constituencies roughly as they are. I know that is not possible 20 years down the line—there have to be big changes—but one way in which the commission can try to achieve these objectives is to go below ward level. I do not believe we need to prescribe that—to say, “You must start with polling districts”—but in response to the questions that we asked in the evidence sessions, the evidence that we received was legitimately, “I think you need to go below ward level to get this right.” That is not the same as “You must start below ward level”—that is probably not the best approach, anyway. We would want to start with the easiest building blocks we have, and a lot of constituencies will already have those building blocks and communities within them. However, if we go below ward level, when we need to do things with the numbers, there are ways to do so.

There is a very strange little piece of my constituency, in a ward called Kippax and Methley. It is a stand-alone ward of Leeds City Council, where there are a couple of villages called Methley and Mickletown. The odd thing is that until 2010, a person would have to leave the constituency to get to those villages. They still would have to leave the ward to get to them, because the River Aire runs right through that ward and cuts it off, so they would have to go through the Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford constituency or through a different ward. Before I had Rothwell in the constituency, they would either have to go through the Morley and Rothwell constituency or through Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. The communities are very similar: they were mining communities and the River Aire runs through them, so it is never a straightforward argument. There are some tweaks and twists around it, but the point I am making is that polling districts can be used to solve some of these slight problems.

I appreciate the amendment that the hon. Member for Glasgow East has tabled. It is an important probing amendment to get on the record why we in this Committee think it appropriate for the boundary commission to use polling districts to split wards. One of the reasons why I was persuaded that we should not prescribe polling districts as the starting point was the strength of the evidence about how those polling districts were themselves put together. I doubt it would happen, but it could create a gerrymandering situation later if those were the building blocks. That came out in the evidence. I am not saying that is what would happen, but it gives the potential for that to happen. It is therefore not right to bind the hands and to give temptation in that area, but it is important that the boundary commissions listen to the evidence. We shall explore this further when we come to the plus and minus 5% amendments later. This will be an important facet of that argument.

As I say, I do not want to support the amendment, because it ties the hands too much. However, it goes to the absolute heart of our debate in trying to help, inform and guide the boundary commission. Hopefully there will not have to be a huge number of changes when the first draft comes out, because the boundary commission will have learned the lessons of where it has had to make huge changes to previous boundaries, and it will have seen that this Parliament and this Committee are trying to present constructive ideas and ways forward, so that the commission can avoid making such changes.

I will not support the amendment. I hope the hon. Member for Glasgow East will withdraw it and see it as a probing amendment, but it has made possible a very important discussion in this Committee.