Taking account of local government boundaries

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:15 pm, 25th June 2020

We have now tapped into one of the very rich seams of community interest and detail in and around the Bill. I will make some general comments about what clause 6 does in order to accommodate explanation of what the amendment might do. I hope that will help the Committee.

I will begin by referring back to the fact that, in coming up with their proposals, the boundary commissions have a set of factors to which they are allowed to refer. I will read out the wording, which states that commissions

“may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit”.

It is very clear in the legislation that that is a “may” power —it may be used and is there if it is needed—rather than being a “must”. The relevant factors include geographical features such as rivers or mountains, community ties, existing parliamentary constituencies and local government boundaries. The Bill does not change that.

I hope that it is a firm response for me to acknowledge what hon. Members have said about the importance of getting local government ties right for the communities that often care deeply about them. My point is that the factors in the current legislation allow the boundary commissions to do that already. I will not be drawn into commenting on whether a cross-Tamar seat is right or wrong, although it would be fair to note that I suspect such a combination might not arise, given the shift from a basis of 600 constituencies to 650. We will wait and see.

The point I need to make is on what the clause does and what the amendment would do to it. To be able to do any of their work using any of the factors, the boundary commissions need to have a fixed picture of data. As we have already said, they need to get that from electorate numbers. It is also helpful to them to have a fixed picture of the other factors—in this case, local government boundaries. It makes no sense to be pursuing a permanently moving picture.

For the purposes of the clause, we are talking about only the date on which local government boundaries are understood, as opposed to whether local government boundaries should be understood. It is all about the data. I am sorry to be the dry and dusty one, but I have to go through the following content in order to address the amendment. The point is that under the current legislation, the snapshot in time of local government boundaries is the most recent ordinary council election day before the start of the review. If the date for a boundary review is 1 December of any one year, the boundary commissions in England and Wales will look at the local government boundaries as they existed on the first Thursday in May of that year. I happen to give an example from England and Wales; the hon. Member for Glasgow East need not read anything sinister into that.

The clause allows the boundary commissions to take account of both existing local government boundaries and those that are prospective at the review date. That is what the clause does. The review date is the formal starting point of the boundary review; in general, it would be 1 December, which is two years and 10 months before the commissions are due to submit their final reports. I think we will come to that issue when we debate another clause.

I need to explain what is meant by “prospective”. A prospective local government boundary will be one that has been proposed by the local government boundary commission and set out in legislation, but where that legislation has not yet come into force for all purposes—something that usually occurs on a subsequent ordinary day of election. In the case of a local government boundary that is prospective on the review date, it is that boundary, rather than any existing boundary that it replaces, that may be taken into account by a boundary commission.

The practical effect of the clause is to let the boundary commissions consider a more up-to-date picture of local government boundaries and to let them factor that into proposals where appropriate and relevant. That may well—I certainly hope it will—provide for communities to feel more confident about the alignment of the boundaries that are used, and for the process to make more common sense all round, not least on the administrative side. Councils, councillors and MPs would benefit from that, as would the public, in the sense of reducing public confusion.

The crossing of local government and UK parliamentary boundaries cannot be entirely eliminated. It is not possible to have a hermetically clean scenario, because they are on different review cycles. That is the way we set things up in our constitution. The reviews in the Bill that we are talking about will happen only every eight years. The local government boundaries are decided on a rolling basis—that is certainly the case for the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

The practical measure in clause 6 lets the boundary commissions start with a more up-to-date picture of local government boundaries, and to work on that basis. I mentioned earlier some of the preparatory work that had been done with administrators and parliamentary parties to test the measures in this Bill, and this is one where they were very supportive of being able to get that greater level of alignment.

I will now turn to what amendments 6 and 7 would actually do. I am sorry to say that I do not think they would quite do what the hon. Members who tabled them intended—I hope to be corrected. I believe they remove the wording that relates to whether the boundaries exist at all, or are prospective, which I do not think is what the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Ceredigion were hoping for. It is important that we can have that effect on prospective boundaries; I hope I have dealt with that argument already. Taken together, however, that provides a cut-off date, so it gives us a snapshot, and having that snapshot—a fixed moment in time—is in itself important. Although we have made efforts to make it as aligned as possible, we still need it to be fixed.

This is where I think amendments 6 and 7 do not do what the hon. Members intend, because they take away the logical necessity to have a fixed moment. They would effectively create perpetual motion of local government boundaries by removing the idea that those boundaries have to exist at a certain point in time. There are several arguments for why that would be undesirable, two of which jump out: the first is the very nature of working to permanently moving goalposts. That would be very difficult for the boundary commissions to do—nigh on impossible, I suggest.

That is a practical argument, but there is also a slightly more philosophical one, to which I have referred. I do not think it would be right or fair to set the boundary commissions up to fail by making them open to legal challenge, or to charges of inconsistency in the processes they follow. I fear that these amendments might produce that result, because they would create inconsistency in what any commission might choose to do at any local government boundary. There would naturally be great variation across the piece. Overall, that would be an undesirable picture: at the very least, it would lead to wasted resources and delay because the commissions would have to keep redoing work; and at worst, it would create a sense of public confusion. As I have laid out, clause 6 aims to lessen public confusion, rather than increase it.

With that, Sir David, I hope I have adequately explained what clause 6 sets out to do. Forgive me if I have come on to “stand part” territory, but I hope I have been helpful, and that I have offered some thoughtful reasons as to why amendments 6 and 7 do not achieve precisely what the hon. Members hoped for. None the less, I acknowledge what Committee members have said this afternoon about the importance of community identity and the way in which it often relates to local government boundaries. Historic counties are one example, and of course I cannot rest without putting Norfolk on the record; admittedly, we have not yet fought a war over boundaries with Suffolk, but we are just waiting for a smoking gun. These things are important to our communities and the citizens for whom we are doing all this. I therefore invite the hon. Member for Glasgow East to withdraw amendments 6 and 7.