Taking account of local government boundaries

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 9:45 am, 30th June 2020

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.”