Taking account of local government boundaries

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 9:25 am, 30th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 6, page 4, line 37, at end insert—

“(2A) In rule 5(1)(d) (list of factors), after “local” insert “and linguistic”.”

This amendment would enable a Boundary Commission to take into account, if and to the extent that they think fit, the effect of boundary change on linguistic ties as well as local ties.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is also a pleasure to kick off this morning’s proceedings by speaking to my amendment 1, which hon. Members will have noticed is designed to probe the Government and provoke a debate on the nature of local ties, what “local ties” might mean, and, particularly with relevance to Wales but not just to Wales, linguistic ties. I will confine my remarks to the Welsh language, although I acknowledge that there are other languages within the United Kingdom to which some of the points I will make may be just as relevant. As I said, this is a probing amendment that I hope will spark some sort of debate.

The amendment would enable the Boundary Commission for Wales to take into account, if and to the extent that it thought fit, the effect of boundary change on linguistic ties, as well as local ties, when considering boundaries. We heard on 18 June, in the first evidence session, from Shereen Williams of the Boundary Commission for Wales. In answer to a question about local ties, Ms Williams mentioned that the commission in Wales looked at electoral wards and communities that are linked through joint programmes and projects. She went on to say:

“Also, quite uniquely, in Wales…is the Welsh language. We take it into account that you have constituencies where there are lots of links to the Welsh language. That is something we would like to keep together.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 20, Q37.]

My concern, in tabling the amendment, was not that the Boundary Commission for Wales takes no notice of the Welsh language and the links that communities have in certain parts of Wales—far from it. I know from past experience that the commission has been very receptive, and not just in the way in which it consults communities on proposed new boundaries; it has also taken into account, in submissions on certain proposals, what the impact of those might be on the Welsh language and the community. Rather, my concern is how the Welsh language, and indeed the local ties, will be catered for in future developments.

I know that later, when considering another part of the Bill, we will discuss the fact that Wales in particular stands to lose quite a number of seats, which has consequences for the commission’s work in redrawing the electoral map of Wales. It may be difficult for the commission to cater to all the different ties that fall under the statutory rule. In response to the next question, Ms Williams from the Boundary Commission for Wales said that

“it will be just as complex as the previous reviews, because we are losing quite a lot of seats.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 20, Q38.]

She was referring, of course, to the change to 650 as opposed to 600. We also know that demographics and the relatively slower rate of growth in the Welsh population will mean that we will probably stand to lose further seats in subsequent boundary reviews. I am quite concerned about how the commission goes about its work to try to incorporate all the different local ties, including the Welsh language and linguistic links.

If Members needed to be convinced any further about the importance of the Welsh language in Wales, in our afternoon evidence session on 23 June, in response to a question from the Minister, Dr Larner said:

“There is a lot of very well-backed-up evidence in Wales that Welsh speakers, particularly fluent, first language Welsh speakers, tend to hold slightly different opinions on a whole range of ideas…I would absolutely say that the ability to speak Welsh is a really important part of some people’s identity.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 23 June 2020; c. 128, Q245.]

I suppose that gets to the nub of the issue that I want to probe today: how does the “local ties” rule really capture the extent of the different elements that could constitute identity for some of our communities? I appreciate that identity is not something that we could ever capture perfectly, as it is very subjective. Rather, I am probing into whether under the statutory rules we can ensure that the importance and prevalence of linguistic ties, particularly in Wales, are maintained in future reviews.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

With regard to linguistic ties, how does the hon. Gentleman see dialect as being included within that—not so much the separate languages, but the separate ways and methods of communication and separate vocabulary, as seen in dialects?

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that point. The debate about dialect is very interesting, and could certainly spark quite a bit of interest in Wales. He might be aware that northerners, or gogs as we call them in Wales, hold quite proudly that their Welsh is somehow superior to that of us mere mortals in the south. Of course, I am a west Walian, so I am better than both. However, he makes a good point on the distinction between dialect and language.

For the purposes of linguistic ties in Wales, I think it would be only fair for the Boundary Commission for Wales to consider the language as a whole. It would be unfair, and perhaps impossible, to draw the commission into adjudicating which dialect is more important. People feel quite passionately about whether they speak north Welsh, south Welsh, or west Walian as I do.

It is a good point, perhaps, for other languages. I do not want to interfere in the war of the roses that we had last week between Yorkshire and Lancaster, but people feel quite strongly about their dialects and accents. I would not be opposed to that being captured by the “local ties” considerations as the boundary commissions do some of their work in different regions. That would be a perfectly appropriate consideration for them to make. In Wales, I would not want the commission to have to tie too closely to the different dialects, but certainly the language itself is something that I want it to hold true to.

I reiterate that my remarks are not a criticism in any way of the Boundary Commission for Wales, which does incredible work. I fear that subsequent boundary reviews will be of greater complexity due to there being fewer seats, but the commission’s operation is compliant with Welsh language standards, and I know that it does a lot of work to ensure that it works as bilingually as possible, both in terms of its day-to-day administrative operation and when it consults with different communities. That is so important, especially when consulting with Welsh language communities.

I should mention that the naming of constituencies is not an issue for anybody to be concerned about. I am quite relaxed about that. We have two wonderful languages in Wales and we are very fortunate in that regard. I am happy that the names are bilingual; if anything, it is a bonus and a win-win situation. It is not a matter of the naming of constituencies, although I know there was quite a bit of work on that in the commission’s previous review.

My final point is that in subsequent reviews we may find that there are a greater number of Welsh speakers in the first place. I am happy that there has been progress in recent years in encouraging more people in Wales to be bilingual. This may well be a fear we need not address in the future, but at the moment it would be good to know how the different considerations that we can capture under local ties are prioritised, whether there is a hierarchy and how that works. In future reviews, if Wales has a smaller number of seats to divide the electorate, I would be concerned that the Welsh language may be a secondary or tertiary consideration, and would be relegated in that sense. Naturally, I would oppose that.

Can the Minister say how the Welsh language will be treated in future reviews, especially when the task of allocating seats within Wales will be far more complicated? I would be grateful. Diolch, Mr Paisley.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Before I call Mrs Miller, I remind Members that Tony Bellringer submitted a paper late last night. You should have an electronic copy of that. There are no hard copies, but there is an electronic copy.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Paisley, in a much cooler room.

I commend the hon. Member for Ceredigion on his amendment. He has made an extremely strong case for the importance of recognising language. I know how important the Welsh language is. I was brought up in south Wales, albeit not west Wales, and we all have views on the parts of Wales we know and love well. Now, more than when I was at school, Welsh is a living language. I commend everybody who has made that possible.

Within the rules that are already set out in schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, “local ties” can take account of language. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman’s own advocacy for his amendment, he set out clearly that the boundary commission is already receptive to arguments made with regard to the Welsh language and it has already been shown that Welsh can be taken into account in the local ties.

The reason I have chosen to speak to this amendment is that I want to share with the Committee a way that we might think about this. There are lots of different ties that can be called local ties, including language. My concern about specifying language on the face of the Bill would be the impact that that might inadvertently have on other local ties. By having language on the face of the Bill, it might imply that other local ties that are not specified in that way may not be taken into account, or not be treated as well as they might have been in the past.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument and why he wants to put it forward, but my concern is that that might inadvertently affect the way the boundary commission views other local ties. I hope that the Minister, while listening to the point, will see that the Government should not accept the amendment at this point.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I rise to support the arguments made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the ties that are the Welsh language. I do not think it is possible to overstate the fact that the Welsh language is a cornerstone of Welsh identity. Although in the past we have seen a decline in the Welsh language, that is now reversing with the Welsh Government’s target of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. The hon. Gentleman’s arguments may one day become quite irrelevant if Wales is entirely full of Welsh speakers.

We have previously referred to the Council of Europe’s Venice commission, which recommends that boundaries be drawn

“without detriment to national minorities”.

Welsh language speakers are a national minority who require protection within this legislation. Welsh language ties are an important part of identity, and I would like the Minister to provide some clarity about the use of the Welsh language as a factor in the commission’s decisions. Language is an indicator of local ties. Although I do not speak Welsh myself—dwi ddim yn gallu siarad Cymraeg—and my life is probably all the poorer for it, I recognise the importance of the Welsh language to the Welsh identity, as does the Labour party. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on having tabled this amendment.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on having tabled this probing amendment, because our whole debate about clause 6 has emphasised the point about local ties and local communities. We must use this Committee to emphasise to the boundary commissions that although we do not necessarily need to legislate—the hon. Member for Ceredigion presented this amendment as a probing amendment, to spark that debate—we are discussing a very important section of this Bill, as I said last week, and it is incumbent on the boundary commissions to take notice of what has been said.

Rule 5 in the 1986 Act is exceptionally important. One can only draw on one’s local experience, so I come back to Leeds, because that is my area; it is where I live in Yorkshire, but there is a world of difference between inner Leeds and outer Leeds. The communities are very different. I have made reference to the long-serving previous Member for Leeds East, George Mudie, who was horrified at the thought of such different communities coming into an area that he had represented for so long. I hope that when the boundary commissions do the reviews, they take real notice of the debates about clause 6. Intelligent and sensible points have been made by Committee members on both sides of the Committee during this debate, which should act as the key guidance. Rather than us putting things on the face of the Bill, the commissions should consider the over-driving will and well-thought-out arguments in all the areas we have debated.

Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having tabled a thought-provoking and important probing amendment to this Bill, because it is important that we probe all of its aspects. Everything that has been said during this debate—even on the comical side, such as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, on the other side of the Pennines, and I joshing last week about the wars of the roses—shows the importance of local identities and how they are put together. That is a very important aspect, and I hope the boundary commissions will take notice of it when they are drawing up their first draft.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

We now have a brace of speakers. I remind Members that they should confine their comments to amendment 1 proposed to clause 6, as there will be an opportunity to speak on clause stand part.

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

It is a great pleasure to see you in the chair again, Mr Paisley. I will speak very briefly, reflecting on the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell: this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking amendment. Somebody with my own experience would not necessarily have thought of it, but I am now giving it great consideration. However, having listened to hon. Members from both sides of the Committee, my concern is that although we can discuss what is important and what we want the boundary commissions to regard as important factors when deciding boundaries, none of them is relevant as long as we have such a tight variance—5%—around the quota that trumps everything else. The Committee has already considered this. Something as important as language and identity, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion has spoken about, simply will not get a look in because nothing else matters. I ask the Committee to bear that in mind.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intends to press his amendment to a vote—we will wait and see what his decision is on that—but I ask hon. Members to think about that as we progress through consideration both of the amendment and of the rest of the Bill. Members on both sides of the Committee talk about the importance of community, of identity and of keeping together communities that share common interests, but unfortunately none of that will make a difference when the commissioners come to do their work, because of the very tight variance that we are asking them to use, which is the only consideration in the Bill.

Whether or not the hon. Gentleman presses his amendment to a vote, having provoked me and other hon. Members to think about those forms of identity and community, which I am certainly for, I hope that we will give those matters real thought and consideration and not shackle our hands and those of the commissioners when they are doing their work.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West 9:45 am, 30th June 2020

It is great to see you in the Chair again, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion for his probing amendment. I am a something of a fledgling Welsh speaker and taught myself in his constituency. Ydw, ‘dwi’n gallu siarad Cymraeg—ddim yn rhugl, ond yn iawn. Diolch yn fawr iawn. {Translation: Yes, I can speak Welsh—not fluently, but okay. Thank you very much.]

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke made a really pertinent point—my one concern is that the amendment could better limit how it define local ties— but the hon. Gentleman makes some really good points about language. Unless someone has been there and experienced a language in a community, they can never fully appreciate it, particularly in Wales. I speak of Wales because in my experience, the language, the community and the identity are so fundamentally ingrained there, meaning that the level of conversation and the way it flows is totally different depending on whether it is in Welsh or in English. That needs to be experienced as a Welsh speaker.

As many hon. Members have said, this is a really interesting probing amendment and it is great that the hon. Gentleman has tabled it so we can think about that. Hopefully, reaching 1 million Welsh speakers, which I think is an absolutely vital goal set by the Welsh Government and one with which I agree, will change the dynamic. I was pleased to hear in our evidence sessions about how the Boundary Commission for Wales takes language into account, which we saw in the proposals for the joined-up constituency of Ceredigion and Machynlleth in the aborted review; language played some role in drawing that boundary.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we cannot forget linguistic considerations. However, as my right hon. Friend for Basingstoke said, we need to be really careful not to constrain ourselves, so I cannot support his absolutely fantastic amendment, which I hope the Minister will consider carefully none the less.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I echo right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming this debate and the very thoughtful way in which the hon. Member for Ceredigion has proposed his amendment. It is important that we look at those issues, and he has given us great food for thought in the way that he has presented the topic.

That said, I will argue that the proposal should not form part of the Bill, and will do so on the basis of a point that we have covered a number of times in our deliberations so far, which is that we ought to retain the framework of factors in the schedule to the Bill at a relatively high level, thereby giving flexibility to the boundary commissioners rather than being any more specific. To be clear, we are talking about the list of factors in a specific paragraph of the schedule to the Bill. As the Committee will be aware, any boundary commission may take those factors into account when making recommendations if, and to the extent that, it sees fit. Those factors already include any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies.

I will make just one other preliminary point before I go on to how the boundary commissions have already been able to accommodate the importance of the Welsh language. It is that the amendment would have to apply to all the boundary commissions. The nature of putting something into these factors is that it would have to apply across the United Kingdom. Hon. Members might question whether that would be appropriate for the other boundary commissions to the extent that the hon. Gentleman has argued it is appropriate for Wales. There are some questions there. For example—Mr Paisley, I hope you do not mind me saying so—it is obvious that in Northern Ireland this would be quite a particular argument to put in the context of language and culture, which would have different effects from those in Wales, Scotland or England. For that reason alone, I hesitate to accept this amendment.

That said, the Welsh language is very important. It is an official UK language and one of the great inheritances of our Union, which we all have a responsibility to protect and develop. It is a manifesto commitment of this Government to support the ambition for 1 million people in Wales to be able to speak Welsh by 2050 and I am delighted that there are some in the Black Country as well, as demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West. The UK Government are working closely with our counterparts in Cardiff on that commitment. I am pleased to say that 11 UK Government Departments have implemented their own Welsh language schemes, too.

In 2017, the Boundary Commission for Wales voluntarily adopted the Welsh language standards that became applicable to its sister organisation, the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales. It reports annually on how it has delivered against the Welsh language standards. The most recent report outlined that the Boundary Commission for Wales had implemented a language preference system for all correspondence with the public and confirmed that it published all online and offline material bilingually at the same time.

A critical part of the commission’s work is its extensive public consultation. We have touched on this in other parts of the debate. Equal status is given to Welsh and English throughout these consultations. I think that is very important, because it allows people to be able to advocate for their views in whichever language they are most comfortable with.

As the hon. Member for Ceredigion set out, the Boundary Commission for Wales already seriously considers Welsh language issues and links under the “local ties” factor. At the 2018 review, the boundary commission moved to designating all constituencies in Wales with English and Welsh names, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I can give some examples for the benefit of the Committee of how the boundary commission takes account of language.

During the 2018 review, a report by the assistant commissioners into the proposed constituency of Gwynedd noted that there was strong support for including four particular electoral wards in that constituency,

“because of the strong Welsh language, social and economic ties between that area and Gwynedd.”

[Interruption.] Did my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke wish to intervene?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

No, I just cleared my throat.

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

It was so emphatic that I thought it was another marvellous point coming from my right hon. Friend. Let me meet that noise of approval with another example from the 2018 review about naming constituencies. The commission initially proposed naming two constituencies in alphabetical order: “Colwyn and Conwy” and “Flint and Rhuddlan”. However, the order of these names was reversed in the final recommendations after the commission received advice about

“a Welsh language convention of naming geographic place names from north to south and from west to east.”

I make no comments about the merits of north, south, west or east Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion has already done that very capably. I should also note that the Boundary Commission for Wales raises the issue of Welsh language links in the meetings and briefings with the various political parties at the start of any boundary review, and it is open to the parties and members of the public to raise Welsh language links in the extensive consultation carried out during a review.

I hope that I have provided reassurance that the law as drafted already gives the boundary commissions—in this case the Boundary Commission for Wales—all they need to take account of languages and how they contribute to local ties. This is a pressing case in Wales. I hope the examples I have given show that that is already happening in action. On that basis alone, I suggest that the amendment should not be accepted.

However, I will advance one other, perhaps darker and more serious argument than the one the hon. Member for Ceredigion intended, and I certainly do not cast aspersions on him for making those points. I want to highlight a slippery slope that could occur with such an argument. It is right that the legislation does not set out characteristics of people, but sets out characteristics of place. There is an important moral dimension to that. It is easy to foresee a slippery slope, whereby other characteristics of people could be argued for in terms of how constituencies ought to be drawn. Although we have not given him much time yet in our debates, we could think back to Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812 in Boston who did that. Of course he gave his name to the term “gerrymander”, because he created a constituency that looked like a salamander that had the characteristics of people that he wanted to be seen in one constituency. We should be cautious about the idea of opening up to placing people together because they have a certain characteristic, as opposed to local ties of place, which perhaps give a more respectable way to look at community. I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman certainly did not go that far in making his argument, and I would not want to say that he had done so. I am grateful to him for his thoughtful presentation of the issues, but I hope that the set of arguments I have put both demonstrate how the language is rightly taken into account, and show some of the dangers of going further with the amendment. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I will keep my remarks brief. As I set out earlier, amendment 1 was a probing amendment and I am pleased with the debate we have had. We have not only highlighted the importance of the language in Wales, but had a bit of a discussion about what constitutes local ties, and how we might try to balance them out. I agree with the Minister that the Boundary Commission for Wales has done sterling work in the conservation of the language and in adopting the Welsh language standards voluntarily. I know from experience in my own part of the world that in the proposed boundary change of 2018—or even before that; I have lost track—the Welsh language was a key consideration that informed the final recommendation. In no way did I try to criticise the work of the boundary commission in tabling the amendment. The boundary commission does very good work. My concern relates to how local ties are balanced in the future, but I accept the point about not only the appropriateness of having the language on the face of the Bill, but the possible unintended consequences for the boundary commissions. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I managed to give some of the principal arguments for clause stand part earlier, so I will not detain the Committee long. If hon. Members can bear to think back to what was said, I explained why clause 6 was important in allowing a fixed picture of local government boundaries to be taken into account, and explained the necessity of fixing that point in time. I also explained the rationale for our inclusion of prospective changes in the Bill. Having heard no further questions or comments on any of those points, I hope that the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 10:00 am, 30th June 2020

This will probably be a slightly longer speech than I would have hoped given the note that we received from the boundary commission last night. Now might be a relevant point to discuss the content of that note, although it will not necessarily be easy given that we have had it for such a short period. The reason why it is relevant to discuss it at this point is that clause 6 refers to the rules to achieve the overall objective in the Bill, which is to create constituencies of equal size, and those rules are set out in schedule 2 of the 1986 Act. Therefore, in this stand part debate I would like to talk about three different points so that the Minister might be able to respond and so that they are on the record for the boundary commission to understand the importance of these things to getting this right.

The first point is the content of the boundary commission’s note, which will help us create equal-sized constituencies by looking at sub-ward level. The second point is about protected constituencies, which I know we will come on to when we consider my string of amendments to the schedule, but I will briefly touch on it. The third point is how we take into account future growth, which I raised in an evidence session, but it was interesting that nobody really answered the question, so I am going to raise it again for the Minister to perhaps respond to.

Looking at the first issue, the number of electorates per constituency at sub-ward level, I put on record my thanks—and I am sure the thanks of the whole Committee —to Mr Bellringer of the Boundary Commission for England and his team for the note of 29 June and such a rapid response to the issues raised when he gave evidence. The lengthy note we received uncovers that we have hit upon something important. My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell and others made the point several times that it is important that, first and foremost, we look at equality in the context of local ties. I think the only issue I take with the note from the boundary commission is the assertion that wards always—they say generally—

“reflect communities of broad common interest in an area”.

I think they mostly, but not always, do that. We could all give great examples of where wards even in our own constituencies do not particularly reflect communities of broad common interest.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I thought I would intervene on my right hon. Friend rather than make a speech later because she is making absolutely the right points to sum up this stand part debate. A very important line that I picked up in the letter said that,

“wards generally reflect communities of broad common interest in an area, and to split them therefore risks splitting local ties”.

My right hon. Friend will agree that we do not want to argue with that statement, but that should also be the guidance for forming the constituencies: if the commissioners recognise that at ward level, they must recognise it at constituency level as well when choosing the wards that they are going to build constituencies from.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Again, we can all think of constituencies, either our own or in our area, where that will be a considerable challenge for the boundary commission—where, in their words, there is going to be a significant review of constituency boundaries, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where the town of Basingstoke is now, one could argue, really too big to be one constituency. The debate is important and the Committee has shown the value of the process in raising this.

I note from the boundary commission’s response that they are not against looking at sub-ward level splits, which is obviously a matter of fact and they have done that in the past. However, I sense a reticence there for the future. I hope when the Minister responds she can underline the importance of ensuring that reticence is alleviated. Mention is made of the cost of splitting wards and pulling together data at a sub-ward level. There is a great focus on polling district data, which was not the only source of information that was mentioned in the evidence sittings and our debate. Yet the focus in the Boundary Commission for England’s response seems wholly to be on that form of information. Scotland and Wales already use postcode data, yet no mention is made of that in the response.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

The boundary commission settled on the fact that it has to be units available across the entire country and then solely focuses on polling districts, which we have already said are subject to political considerations. What are not, of course, are postcode areas, which also represent, broadly speaking, cohesive communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an area that the boundary commission should consider?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

My hon. Friend is right. It feels to me that the issue needs further consideration by the boundary commission. It is a great shame that even though it has already done an extensive piece of work with Ordnance Survey, surveying polling districts between 2013 and 2018—at a cost of a quarter of a million pounds, according to the note—there still seems to be resistance to looking at that in more detail or, as my hon. Friend suggested, at other data sources, which are presumably much more readily available. I understand that the Post Office delivers post every day, and therefore must update its information on a regular basis—particularly when new houses are built. Many of us will have had constituency casework on that issue.

Perhaps individual political parties might want to pick that issue up with the boundary commission. My feeling is that the Committee would want to press further for it to look at it in more detail.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Is not the point—and the thing that we are trying to avoid—the fact that in previous boundary reviews there have been significant changes from draft 1 to draft 2, when things have moved to the evidence stages? Is not it better for the boundary commission to approach the matter with the advice and thought provided by the Committee, to try to get draft 1 right, so that there will just be minor changes in draft 2?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

There is an old adage in the business world about doing the right thing right. Yes, the commission should do the right thing right first time, and not create re-work. I note from the letter that the Boundary Commission for England wrote to the Committee that it recommends that it should give priority to mapping metropolitan areas, given the late stage we are at, and the concerns it might have about being able to map the whole country at this stage. I think that that is part of the answer, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton said, there is also room for it to look at other datasets, so that it will not be quite so focused on just one solution. I note from the submission that one member of staff was given the matter as a project. Perhaps if a little more resource was put into it, it could be turned around a little more quickly.

I am not quite sure how the Committee can put further pressure on to the boundary commission, but my ask to it would be why it is not looking at other datasets and why it cannot resource the matter more. Surely the Government, for whom the project is important, would want to look at any suggestion of additional resources that are needed to complete the work in a reasonable timeframe so that such data could be available, whether that is only for metropolitan areas or for a broader cross-section of the country.

The second issue that I wanted to turn to, briefly, is protected constituencies. Clause 6 touches on the rules in schedule 2 and I think we can be more ambitious for the Bill, in relation to using the concept of protected constituencies not just in England and Scotland but Wales. We will discuss two amendments on that later in our proceedings, when we can pick up on some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and show our understanding of the importance of community. As a kingdom of islands, sometimes we need rules in place to respect that unique nature of the United Kingdom. We will come on to that shortly.

My final point is on taking into account future growth, which I raised with a couple of our evidence givers. I suppose I am thinking about constituencies like my own, Basingstoke, which has grown significantly in the past three decades, from being a sleepy market town predominantly surrounded by the most amazing and beautiful Hampshire countryside, when it was the constituency of David Mitchell, the father of my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, to what it is today, which is one of the top 10 centres of employment in the south-east—still surrounded by the most amazing and beautiful Hampshire countryside.

To the west of the town is a major development area by the name of Manydown, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse. No houses have yet been built, but they will be, and to stop unnecessary change in the future it will be important for that in some way to be taken into account geographically in the setting of the boundaries.

Please do not get me wrong: I am not asking for that to be taken into account in the quotas, but surely with such major areas, which have already had many hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds-worth of development put into planning for the future, it would be an unnecessary change pending in the future for it not to be taken into account. I am sure every single Committee member can think of somewhere in or near their own constituency where that would be the case.

Given that one of the factors in the rules—I think I have this right—is that we can look at such things for the future, I hope that the boundary commissions will be able to think about the geographical nature of what they do, not just the numerical population-based nature of it. However, I did not get a sense from their response, or from others, that that was something they were focused on yet. I hope that we can register that with them at this early stage, to stop what my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell said in his intervention on planning for the future and instead to get things right first time.

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

I find the right hon. Lady’s contributions thought-provoking and very helpful. Mr Speaker

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

Mr Paisley! Not yet—maybe next year.

May I express a sense of frustration at what I am hearing in Committee, including from the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, who has just spoken? She was absolutely right to talk about the importance of geographical nature as a consideration for the commissions, not just numerical nature.

As with the previous section of the debate, however, I worry that we are making heavy weather of the whole process. We have been talking about splitting wards and how the Boundary Commission for England—in particular, with Mr Bellringer’s note to us from last night about splitting wards—might somehow obtain data to help it split wards more accurately, or split streets, and perhaps we can even use postcode data. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton talked about using postal districts—I think I am roughly quoting him correctly.

We are making extremely heavy weather of something that we need not make heavy weather of, because the answers are already there. The only reason we have these difficulties, these problems and this debate is that the one consideration that the Bill gives to the boundary commissions is the tight 5% tolerance. Everything else flows from that. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke rightly talked about the importance of geography, not just numbers. Unfortunately, everything else that the Bill does denies that hope. We cannot have it both ways. We are making it difficult for ourselves, and for the boundary commission, by making everything else subservient to that one numerical fact.

There is consensus that we need to equalise, as far as possible, the size of constituencies, and that the disparities in size are clearly undesirable and unacceptable. However, even if the proposal to bring us down from 10% to 7.5%—the Committee has already considered that, so I will not stray too far, Mr Paisley—would give us some level of parity and equalisation, we are tying the hands of the boundary commissions far too much. Every other consideration that hon. Members keep mentioning frankly becomes irrelevant. It is the same argument as it was for the Welsh language. It is a great idea, but unless we show a little more flexibility on the tolerance around the national average it is, frankly, unachievable.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 10:15 am, 30th June 2020

We are almost straying into new clause 2, which I think we will debate this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman is talking about how much easier it is with the 7.5%, and I hope that we can explore that further. In Leeds and in Kirklees, two West Yorkshire constituencies, 7.5% does not do it; we still have to split wards. Perhaps he can challenge my argument this afternoon.

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

I would not challenge the right hon. Gentleman. I take the advice that his local knowledge makes him an expert to give. We listen to each other and say, “Actually, in those circumstances it wouldn’t work.” However, the number of areas where we would not need to do that would be far fewer. I think that the Leeds issue, with wards of 17,000, is quite an extreme one. I suspect that some of those will have to be split anyway, but we make heavy weather by making the number of those instances, and their frequency, much greater as a result.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I am intervening only because the hon. Member referred to what I said. To be clear, what I am calling for is more rigour in the process. I do not hold with his assertion that by giving people more leeway we will get a better answer. We need more rigour in what is being done, and more detail from the boundary commission, to ensure that the commission comes up with the right answer and we get equal constituency sizes. There will always be special cases—that was the point that I was making—and they have to be recognised, but I was not calling for a more lackadaisical approach; I was calling for more rigour and detail in the system.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that clarification. The point that I was making in response to her speech and other contributions was that as long as we insist on 5%, none of the other considerations that hon. Members across the Committee are calling for will be possible or indeed relevant. I believe that it is important, for example, to have community ties. Language ties had not occurred to me until they were raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion in relation to the previous clause. I found that very thought provoking, but there has to be a balance between the aim of achieving equal-sized constituencies and achieving the community ties for which hon. Members are calling. Unfortunately, at the moment we are not hitting that balance.

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

I will keep this fairly brief, but I wish to take a moment to acknowledge the arguments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and other members of the Committee regarding the evidence that the Boundary Commission for England has now provided to us. I confirm that I will look at this matter in the Department to see whether there are any ways that the non-legislative side of it could be taken forward. I am not in a position to say anything more about that at this point, but I wanted to acknowledge it now as part of the stand part debate on clause 6.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.