Electorate per constituency

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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“(1) In rule 2(1)(a) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (electorate per constituency) for “95%” substitute “92.5%”.

(2) In rule 2(1)(b) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (electorate per constituency) for “105%” substitute “107.5%”.”—

This new clause seeks to widen the permissible range in a constituency‘s electorate, which may be up to 7.5% above or below the electoral quota calculated in accordance with Schedule 2, paragraph 2(3) of the 1986 Act.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Moving on from which register to use, new clause 2 is about the percentage variants between constituencies of different sizes. The Bill must proceed by ensuring a fair and democratic review. We want all the new boundaries to reflect the country as it is today, and to ensure that all communities get fair representation. Those boundaries must also take into consideration local ties and identities. Communities have never been stronger than in the recent troubling months. Right across the country, we see communities pulling together to support vulnerable residents. Now more than ever, those community connections must be valued and respected. However, the restrictive 5% quota tolerance in the Bill flies in the face of protecting those community ties.

During the evidence sessions, the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England spoke about the difficulty caused by the smaller tolerance, which makes it

“much harder to have regard to the other factors that you specify in the legislation, such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography. Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have.”

He went on:

“The only real way to mitigate it is to make the tolerance figure slightly larger. The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors”. —[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7. Q3.]

Throughout the debates on the amendments and new clauses, and the arguments that have crossed this Committee room, taking account of those other factors has played a central role, from protecting certain constituencies that have specific geographical features to reflecting specific community ties. I joked with my friend from Yorkshire, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but the truth of the matter is that some community ties mean that if we were to move some communities in together, there would be a real difficulty in making that community accept those boundaries as reflecting their community.

The wider tolerance will, by definition, create more flexibility in keeping real communities together, but the tight 5% quota gives the boundary commission a ridiculously small amount of leeway, and will inevitably lead to some ludicrous consequences. An unnecessarily narrow margin will split long-established communities from one another, erode local identities and divide neighbourhoods.

I have done some mathematics on the back of a piece of paper, as they say. Using the 2019 general election register, which is the most recent one published, but will not be used in the Bill, I have worked out which English counties—I have used the counties where we cannot fit an actual number of seats, so you end up with half seats—would be joined together when using a 5% tolerance: Bedfordshire, Bristol, Cleveland, County Durham, Cumbria, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, North Somerset and North Yorkshire. However, if that was expanded to a 7.5% variance the following counties would be removed from that list: Bedfordshire, Cleveland, County Durham, Cumbria, East Sussex, Gloucestershire and North Yorkshire. So we would not necessarily need to have those cross-county constituencies. Yes, 7.5% does not solve all the problems, and we will still have cross-county constituencies in a smaller number of seats, but it does go some way to solving the problems that, no doubt, the commissioners will face.

We know that a 5% quota, for example, will cause a particularly acute problem in Wales. Many Welsh colleagues have expressed their concern about the geographical challenges that the quota throws up, with mountains and valleys dividing constituencies. The task of creating constituencies that make sense to the communities becomes extremely difficult.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 2:30 pm, 30th June 2020

To illustrate the hon. Lady’s point, the old boundary review proposed a new boundary for Ceredigion, north Pembrokeshire and south Montgomeryshire, which would have been 97 miles from one point to the other. I want to emphasise not only the distance, but that there is a continuous range of communities throughout that 97-mile distance. It is very difficult for whoever represents that seat to really represent the constituents in the way they have grown accustomed to.

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

My hon. Friend makes a good and articulate point with his own local geography. Indeed, if constituents are perhaps struggling to see the identity of the communities around them, that may lead to people feeling disconnected from what their local MP is doing, because they are not perceived to be a local MP. Constituents may feel that the MP represents a different area, because of the size of some of those constituencies.

My example, also from Wales, is the constituency of Aberavon. The previous boundary review, which was on the 5% variants, proposed to cut through the heart of Port Talbot, separating the town’s shopping centre from its high street and cutting the steel works off from the housing estate that was built for its workforce. I spoke to my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock just before we came into the Committee this afternoon. He recalled that when he told his constituents about what the commission had proposed for his community, they fell about laughing and struggled to believe that this was actually true. It was incomprehensible to them that this proposal to split their community down the middle would come from the boundary commission.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

For my own clarity, was that on the 600 proposal?

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

It was. Obviously, the proposals that come out of this boundary review will look different because of the 650 figure. The tight 5% quota, however, still gives the commissioners a great deal of trouble in trying to keep those communities together, to ensure that people can believe that the constituency they are in represents a community.

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

My hon. Friend will recall that two academics in the evidence sessions suggested that the problems in drawing up the constituencies—linking the constituency to reflect its communities—were as much, if not more, because of the tight 5% limit as because of the reduction by 50 seats.

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

My hon. Friend must have read ahead in my speech, because this is a point that I will get to—

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

His apology is very much accepted, but my hon. Friend draws me back to the point that I was hoping to make. From the evidence that we heard, experts such as David Rossiter and Charles Pattie agreed that the 5% rule caused significant disruption to community boundaries. Indeed, they concluded that the substantial disruption on the back of the constituencies to be brought in by the sixth review is not entirely due to the reduction in the number of MPs. Their report shows in detail that disruption was caused by the introduction of this new form of national quota with a 5% tolerance.

In addition, many members of the Committee have referred to the Council of Europe Venice Commission “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters”, which states that good practice is to allow a standard permissible tolerance from the electoral quota of 10%. Internationally, a larger quota is viewed as promoting best practice to secure fair representation. This code also recommends that boundaries are drawn without detriment to national minorities, but the Government’s restrictive quota could have serious consequences for national minorities in this country. Councillor Dick Cole from Cornwall stated in his written evidence:

“The UK Government has recognised the Cornish as a national minority. This alone should lead MPs to ensure that the new legislation includes a clause…to protect Cornish territoriality.”

We do not have an amendment tabled to do that, but a larger quota allows flexibility for English commissioners to ensure that their proposals respect Cornish identity. Places such as Cornwall might then be able to identify with their seat, instead of the ludicrous Devonwall seat proposal of the previous review, which was met with much ridicule in the Cornish community and, I suspect, in Devon.

That is not just an issue for the Cornish. The UK Government recognise the Scottish, Welsh and Irish alongside the Cornish people as national minorities under the Council of Europe framework convention for the protection of national minorities, which the UK signed in 1985. The act of respecting those minorities will be made all the more difficult by a restrictive 5% quota, which could prevent the boundary commission from being able to keep those communities together. My Welsh colleagues feel very strongly that Welsh-speaking communities ought to be held together, and this would be made easier by having the larger flexibility for the commissioners.

We recognise the need for constituencies to be as broadly equal as possible, but anyone who claims that they truly believe that all constituencies should be equal means that every single constituency must be exactly the same size. I do not believe that anyone in Committee believes that, not least because this morning we had unanimous support for the protection of Ynys Môn, which will come in with a much smaller population than many other constituencies.

The evidence is strong: having wider electoral tolerance will create constituencies that are more representative of the communities that they seek to represent. A move from a 5% variance to about a 7.5% variance is a difference worth about 2,000 electors per constituency. That is a reasonable compromise to ensure that communities are kept together and that constituencies are as broadly equal as possible.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks on her new clause.

Let me start by being controversial: I believe that the plus or minus 5% should be seen as a matter of last resort, and that the boundary commission should try to do everything in its power to be bang on the money in the middle. Let me develop that argument, and I am willing to take interventions on it.

These figures are not correct, because I have not messed around with the numbers. I am using them just as illustrations. If we take that figure to be 72,165—that is not the exact figure, but I am using it for illustrative purposes—in less than 600 seats, that figure would have been 78,198, of which another 5% would be 3,909 electors. Five per cent. of 72,165 is 3,609, whereas another 7.5% of 72,165 is 5,413. I make those illustrative points because the difference between the 5% on 600 seats and the 7.5% on 650 seats is 1,500 electors more. The difference between 5% and 7.5% on the 650 seats is roughly 1,800 voters. I wanted to lay that out at the start; please do not talk about the inaccuracy of the figures because I know that they are inaccurate, but they are in the ball park.

The Bill provides for the boundaries to be reviewed and set every eight years. We know that there are several cycles going on, with local government reviews, polling district reviews and ward reviews. As my right hon. Friend the Member for—I have already forgotten her constituency.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I was going to say Billericay, but I think that is your constituency, Sir David, or was at some point—I am losing my thread. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has on several occasions drawn our attention to the planned housebuilding population changes that we all know are going to happen in constituencies. The plus 5% and plus 7.5% variances are open to interpretation about what they actually mean. Are we using them as a starting point, with constituencies at the absolute minimum or maximum to start with, knowing that within a certain time, they are going to be out of the equation?

In Wetherby, which is one part of my constituency, 800 houses are being built, and more are being built further down—a considerable number of houses. Some 5,000 are due to be built in the Leeds East constituency, which neighbours mine. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned North Yorkshire as a council that would not have to cross county boundaries if we went to a 7.5% tolerance. Some 10,000 houses are due to go in just on the boundary with my constituency—that is in just one small part of North Yorkshire—so we know that there will be a large shift in populations in a relatively short period, and certainly in that eight-year window.

Mr Bellringer said in his oral evidence—I think to a certain extent the Committee accepted his argument—that we have to draw the line at some point, so we cannot use in the figures new housing and so on. He was talking about potential ward boundaries; the point being that you have to draw the line with ward boundaries that have already been drawn, and not those that might be drawn.

Over the eight years, we will see considerable change in population in constituencies. Indeed, the driving force behind a lot of the Committee’s conversation has been that the data will be almost a quarter of a century out of date by the next election. That was always going to mean a significant movement in constituency boundaries because of the amount of time that has passed. Should the boundary commission be trying to construct seats within the plus 5% or minus 5% tolerance when, maybe with a year, that seat could be bigger than plus 5% or smaller than minus 5%?

I am not saying that we should change the Bill, but in my view, the boundary commission should try to be bang on the money at around 72,000 or 73,000, depending on the final figures. Surely, if we want a balanced electorate, we should look at how we can make that work over the cycle, so that when large housing developments are built, we tinker and make minor changes in an area every eight years, rather than the huge changes that we are making now.

My constituency has 82,000 electors and Leeds East has 66,000. Those are roundabout figures that vary quite a lot, and 10,000 houses will be built during the next five years. By definition, there will have to be a major change in eight years’ time. If we have already bumped right up to the 5% window when forming the initial boundary for the 2024 election, we are talking about elections after 2032. I cannot remember the exact phrase in the Bill regarding when the next review would come into effect. It could be 15 years from now before the next set of figures come in. There would be a lot of time in which there could be huge variation.

It therefore comes down to the question: does it matter whether it is plus 5% or plus 7.5%? I do not think that we should use the maximums to form a decent shape or size, by using wards that help us add up to that, just to be neat with the maths. We should really say, “There is the tolerance that we understand through international guidance gives you a fair election, but let’s try to get these seats bang on the average at this point so that we know, through the cycle of review, that seats across the country will roughly stay within that guidance.”

These issues will always be thrown up. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood graciously accepted my intervention regarding Aberavon to clarify that it was 600. The reason I intervened on her was because if we are dealing with much bigger numbers it does not really matter whether it is plus 5% or plus 7.5%, because we are still dealing with the far bigger number of 6,000 more voters, by my back-of-a-fag-packet calculation. We had a large scope of where they could be drawn, but of course we ended up with a set of boundaries that did not work.

The hon. Lady gave some very good examples of what is going on in Port Talbot, and about the shopping centre and the high street, and where the people who worked at the steelworks live. They are all very important points, but I am not sure that they are related to the plus or minus 5%. They are actually more related to the arguments that we have been making that the boundary commission really needs to get this right in the first draft. It needs to get it right first time, and look at the communities and understand what it has drawn. It comes back to the arguments that we had earlier about sub-ward splitting and perhaps using postcodes. We keep coming back to it, but Scotland can do it. The great nation of Scotland is more than capable of putting such things together. It is surely not beyond the wit of the English to follow that.

The reality is that we should not push into those areas, or we take a very controversial and different approach. That is really what was happening in the 1940s. If we cannot make it work, for example, with the Welsh question, which we keep developing, do we take the most squeezed constituency in terms of expansion that we could put into the Welsh valleys—let us, for argument’s sake, say that it came to 60,000—and reverse the formula and divide 46.5 million by 60,000, which would give us 780 constituencies? I am not sure that the public would flock to us for that one, but it would give us the balance of equality throughout.

We cannot have it both ways. We either set it at 650, recognising what was happening in the 1940s—I think the 1986 Bill was specifically introduced to stop that happening in the way it happened before—or we say, “We will have 650 constituencies and they need to be within tolerance of each other.” With the slightly geeky, technical maths that I have used to illustrate the point, I am hoping to say to the Committee that plus or minus 5% or 7.5% is not where our focus should be.

Our focus should be on ensuring that the boundary commission tries to get bang on the money with the average and uses the tools that it already has at its disposal in terms of sub-ward splitting and ensuring that like communities stay together. We have had lots of examples of such communities throughout proceedings on the Bill. That should be the target. Moving the boundaries out by another 2.5% should be an irrelevant argument if we focus on keeping the boundaries in internationally recognised fair and balanced elections over the period of eight years.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Mr Spellar. I do apologise. Just to explain: speeches should alternate between the sides of the Committee, and I was so enthralled by the speech of the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell that I had not noticed Opposition Members.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Thank you, Sir David. I am sure that like me you were trying to cut your way through all the contradictions and inconsistencies that were in the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. Many of the points had considerable value, except that they were not consistent. They were not even consistent with this morning’s business. We were talking about being as close as we can be—except, of course, when the seat of Ynys Môn has been won for the Conservative party. I never noticed such interest when it was a battle between Welsh nationalists and Labour for that constituency. An exception, of course, is the Isle of Wight. It is perfectly possible to visit it by ferry, and MPs can go back and forth to it. We need to get as close as possible and we can split wards, and everything else, except of course when it comes to the Isle of Wight, which, on the basis of previous electoral trends—okay, it did go Lib Dem at one stage—is probably going to leave with two Conservative seats.

Then the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell talked about taking account—which, of course, the boundary commission cannot do—of future building development. I think it is appropriate to be able to look forward. However, with a widened area of discretion, constituency A would be able to say, “We will build fairly close to the line.” Constituency B might be a bit smaller, because of the reasonable expectation, as long as builders do not sit on the land, that there would be a large number of additional people. Of course, it could not know how many of those would be eligible for parliamentary representation, because in many areas the size of the population does not necessarily match the size of the electoral register, because of the number of people who would not be eligible to be on it.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

On the point about house building going in, it goes back to the evidence that the boundary commission draws the line at that particular moment; but, again, if it is known that it is coming in, at the moment nothing stops that plus 5% being right up at the limits. Even though building the housing is in a city council’s plans, it will, within a year, almost immediately go over the limit.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

That is rather my point—exactly. With a wider area of appreciation, it is possible to take account of that. It becomes much more difficult the narrower it is. It also comes down to the size of the building blocks. I think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that some of his wards are in Leeds and some are in the country. For those MPs who represent rural areas or small towns the wards are quite often 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000. In most of the metropolitan areas they are in the 8,000 to 10,000 mark. In certain areas—not Birmingham, any more, since the change in the boundaries and all-up elections—including in Leeds, for example, my under- standing is that the number is somewhere around 16,000 to 19,000. That makes, again, for a sizeable building block.

There is, frankly—and with all due respect to our colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow East—no point talking about Scottish wards, because they are much larger, being based on a single transferable vote system, If, heaven forbid, Conservative Members now seek to move towards STV in the United Kingdom, that will be another issue entirely. However, there is not the same identity of ward members as we have when we must have much wider wards. The idea is to keep, as far as possible, structural organisation for a ward, although there may need to be some minor exceptions. The boundary commission initially crossed borough boundaries as an exception, to deal with problems in London, as I recall. Now, it seems to almost totally disregard such boundaries. That is one reason why the Labour party, unsuccessfully, still wanted to allow Parliament to act as a constraint on the self-fulfilling activities of the boundary commission.

It is enormously important to maintain some sort of coherence and identity. It is not just constituencies that should have geographic and community coherence, but wards as well. There should not be gerrymander-style wards, similar to some American constituencies, which get close to having exact mathematic equivalence but end up being utterly extraordinary shapes and sizes. That is why we should not take note of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe recommendation to look at size of population, as the United States does, rather than electoral registers. The United States bases its wards on census figures, not electoral registration. In some areas, authorities might be encouraged if they had to focus on electoral registration rather than registration suppression, as happens in a number of states, whipped on by Donald Trump.

For that reason, one probably has to have slight, and probably unjustified and unworthy, suspicions, about the vehemence with which the argument for 5% is being mounted by Government Members. We have been told, both by the Conservative party witness and by Members, that the OSCE report firmly says that the total variation should be 10%—in other words, 5% on either side. They prayed that in aid as justification for their case, but that is not what the OSCE says in its recommendation. It clearly states:

“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10% and never 15%, except”— it even says this—

“in really exceptional circumstances”.

There are practical reasons in favour of the proposal. We need to ensure the maintenance of communities and prevent considerable inconvenience similar to that experienced as a result of the previous boundary changes. We have heard evidence that 650 seats may or may not make it easier, but these very tight margins make it more difficult for the boundary commission, parliamentarians and, most importantly, the electorate.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Warley and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell. I want to make a couple of points.

Bearing in mind that my party is keen on approving of Democratic Presidents in the US these days, one of my political heroes has always been Lyndon Baines Johnson. When asked about Gerald Ford, who later became President after Nixon’s resignation, LBJ said that he was “so dumb he can’t even pee and chew gum at the same time.” The intention of keeping the 5%, while maintaining relationships between communities within a constituency, is an example of how this Bill and this boundary commission, which I trust and respect, can and will be able to pee and chew gum at the same time.

I found the speech by the right hon. Member for Warley strange as he was, in effect, making the argument for what we have now, which is a wide appreciation of the number, so as to make it easier, so he says, for communities to stay together. I understand that argument. It is not a wholly illegitimate one, but if we take that view and do not trust the boundary commission to get this right, over time—probably quite quickly, bearing in mind the speed of population movements these days—we will get to the same position we are in now. I think there is broad agreement across the House and this Committee that we should take this opportunity to make a change to this system, given that these boundaries have been out of date for 20 years or so. If we are to do so, it is very important that we have a tight margin of appreciation so we can set the dial to make sure every vote counts as equally as possible.

The shadow Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, has said that if Members or the Government wanted to make every vote as equal as possible, we would not have any margin of appreciation at all. That argument is wrong, because that would not enable us to pee and chew gum at the same time. During our debate, not just on this clause but on others, I have picked up from some members of the Committee a distrust of the boundary commission when it comes to getting this right. We have heard about the many slightly bizarre constituencies that have been created, and talked about the effect they can have on our own regions and counties.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley 3:00 pm, 30th June 2020

Would the hon. Gentleman consider the possibility that it is because we have been through a couple of boundary commission recommendations, and found how inadequate and badly based many of them are, that we distrust them?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I was about to agree with the right hon. Gentleman. However, the point of our system is that in response to arguments, the boundary commission changes what it has proposed. Members can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that during either the 2013 review or the 2018 one—as we all know, those reviews were abandoned because the House failed to approve them—almost 50% of the changes that were made were changed in response to submissions, both from Members who were in the House at the time and from other interested parties, including members of the public.

I have no doubt that the boundary commission will make mistakes, but I trust the ingenuity of those people who will be able to challenge it: not just Members, but political parties, members of the public and random geeks who do this sort of thing for fun. I trust that the boundary commission will listen to reasonable representations—particularly those regarding local ties and linguistic points, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about earlier—and that we can get this right. We need to get the margin of appreciation as tight as possible so that the votes of all members of the public in this country can count equally. That is a very important principle, and one that I support.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am listening very closely to the hon. Gentleman. The Committee has talked at great length about the importance of voters having an equal say. Does he accept, however, that until people in this House are willing to be grown up enough to address the inadequacies of the first-past-the-post system, we are—I do not want to say “unable to pee and chew gum”—putting our effort in the wrong place? Quite rightly, we are saying that we want to have equal voting in constituencies, but we are unwilling to talk about the inadequacies of first past the post.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

At the risk of straying from the measures covered by this new clause, we can have that debate. I happen to support the first-past-the-post system, but I understand that there are very good reasons for not doing so. However, that is not the place of this Bill. If people wanted another referendum on the voting system, I think first past the post would win, as it did several years ago, but I am perfectly happy to have that debate.

In relation to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East about the inadequacies of first past the post, those who do not like that system need to accept that if one is going to respect local ties and local communities and regard them as important, one cannot at the same time support moving to a system that involves much bigger regions, such as a single transferable vote system, or proportional representation generally. That would negate the original point. There are a lot of things that people say they like about the first-past-the-post system. I am not saying that they like every aspect. For example, there are people in my constituency who vote Green, and it is unlikely that the Greens would ever win in my constituency—although, of course, strange things happen in politics. Those who vote Green might say, “I never get a chance for my vote to count.” I appreciate that, but one aspect that people do like about the first-past-the-post system is the fact that community ties are respected and they feel that their Member of Parliament to some degree represents what they feel their community to be like.

We have talked about the difficulties of this. Of course the boundary commission gets it wrong sometimes, but it is up to us, members of the public, political parties and the geeks who do this stuff for fun to try to ensure that the constituencies make sense, because that, I think, is the core of the legitimacy of the first-past-the-post system. And if—this, I suppose, is a warning to the Government or, indeed, anybody else—this whole process were mismanaged and the boundary commission ended up not listening to members of the public, constituencies, Members of Parliament and so on and not making sure that the constituencies did pee and chew gum at the same time, we would get delegitimisation of the first-past-the-post system, because people would not be feeling that they would be voting for a particular Member who represented their community. Therefore I think that it is a point well made.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I support the new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. I think that we need to go back and listen to some of the arguments that we have heard in this Committee before, but also some of the evidence that we have taken. People have highlighted the problems with 5% and the rigid use of 5%. The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who just spoke, really made an argument in favour of more flexibility for the boundary commission, because he was saying, “Let’s trust the boundary commission. Let’s set the parameters and let it get on with the job.”

What the boundary commission clearly said in evidence to us was this. Mr Bellringer, when asked about tolerance of 5% plus or minus, said:

“It is something that we always used to be able to do in the past and did do on occasion. Prior to 2011, there was not this hard maximum and minimum, but we would still be aiming to keep constituencies within a broad range. Occasionally we would breach that if we needed to, to provide a better holistic solution.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 17, Q30.]

The boundary commission was clearly saying to us that it tried to keep within or close to the average, but on the rare occasions on which the local circumstances required this, it would use more flexibility. The argument from the boundary commission is clearly that it would like that flexibility in order to do a good job, and I think we should listen to it.

We have had experience of the 5%. We have just been through two reviews, and the complications and difficulties that the 5% created have given us the opportunity to have experience of that without having to implement it, fortunately, because Parliament saw reason. We have the opportunity now to correct that flaw in the process and increase the figure. I would suggest 10%, as the OSCE report suggests, but my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood has found a different solution to the problem.

We also heard from Dr Rossiter, who has investigated this issue. He talks about the situation where these tight tolerances force the boundary commission to go over local authority boundaries, and he respects the difficulties that that creates for Members of Parliament when representing different local authorities. He also made the point that the discretion of the boundary commission enables it to avoid those situations when putting forward proposals. We thus have evidence from an expert that such difficulties may be forced on the boundary commission the tighter we make the plus or minus above the average.

Dr Rossiter went on to say:

“I have noticed, when we have been looking at this, the significant help that increasing that tolerance by very small amounts will provide. As soon as you go from 5% to 6%, you have a big payback from going up by that one percentage point. That payback increases to around 8%, which is why we came to the conclusion in our previous report that a figure of 8% would be much more helpful.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 140, Q269.]

My hon. Friend’s proposal is 7.5%, which takes us close to the recommendation. That recommendation is based on expert review of the process of creating boundaries and its impact on local communities.

Returning to a point that I made in a previous debate, I firmly believe that we represent communities as much as numbers of people. Obviously, that has to be met within a certain tolerance. We cannot have a situation in which there is one enormous constituency of more than 100,000 people and one such as mine that is below the average. I also entirely accept that we cannot continue with constituencies that are 20 years out of date, which has led to some of the fluctuations in numbers.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

The hon. Gentleman said, I think, that he would be happy to go to 10% or 15% on either side. At 20% or 30% difference, these boundaries work, so there would be no need to change them within his preferred tolerances every 20 years.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I am not sure that that is correct. We have examples of differences in constituency numbers that go well beyond 10%. I would not go beyond 10%, but I accept the 7.5% that my hon. Friend the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood is putting forward. That is an acceptable figure that would give the boundary commission the flexibility it needs.

We have all experienced elections, in various numbers. I am on my ninth general election now. I do not want to put years on you, Sir David, but you have been through many more. It is clear that sections of our constituencies vote in similar patterns. I would say that that is because there is a commonality about the experience of those communities. When we start to subdivide those communities, their ability to affect an election and gain representation through their vote is diminished. That eats away at the root of the democratic process.

Those who wrongly focus virtually on numbers alone are in danger of undermining that part of the democratic process. More emphasis needs to be placed on location, community and all the common characteristics that make a community, over and above the numbers. However, I accept that there has to be a limit. I would say that my hon. Friend’s recommendation is about right.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the types of community, and Mr Bellringer has given evidence that wards generally reflect communities in an area, and that to split them therefore risks splitting local ties. However, I think the argument falls down around extending the parameters and not splitting wards. We have seen in the past that in order to stay within wards, and to get the constituency to fit within a number, some very strange constituencies get built that do not represent those communities. It comes back to the question: is it about the plus or minus figure, or is it about going sub-ward level to keep communities together, as wards are described as doing? If wards are described as doing that, why would we then bunch a lot of different, disparate wards together to make one constituency? Surely they should be the same.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 3:15 pm, 30th June 2020

We are talking about plus or minus 7.5%. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the issue of wards, but Sir David pulled me up because it is not within the scope of this debate. However, I agree that we should look at sub-ward level, particularly where it might avoid having to create a constituency with an orphan ward or community—one single ward coming in from a neighbouring local authority area. If that can be avoided that is very desirable. Again, that would go back to my point that that is why we need flexibility within the boundary commission. We also need more co-operation with local electoral registration officers who have numbers down to street level, so they could clearly do that.

However, I take the point made by the right hon. Gentleman—or the point that he from the Electoral Commission—that where that happens it has to be a community. It cannot just be a few streets from a neighbouring area that does not really relate to the rest of the constituency. It has to be something that it makes sense to take down to sub-ward level. We do not need to worry about polling districts, because we have heard from the Electoral Commission that local authorities carry out a review of polling districts immediately after parliamentary boundary reviews where necessary. Therefore, we do not need to worry about the parliamentary constituency boundary commission creating new areas at a sub-ward level if it avoids other disruption such as going out across other local government boundary areas.

To conclude, we need to provide this degree of flexibility for the boundary commission, which has made a case that that flexibility would help it. We have had expert advice that a tolerance level around 8% is most desirable; and that we get payback from each percentage point we go up from the rigid 5%, which begins to taper off if we go above 8%. I think my hon. Friend has got it right and I urge the Government to accept the amendment.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

The hon. Member for Eltham said that Mr Bellringer indicated that the boundary commission tries to work as close to the quota as possible, and only varies where there is a good reason. I can only speak from the evidence I recall, which is mostly from the north-west. Our smallest constituency is Wirral West, which is just below 6,000 and was drawn at that size to try to avoid a cross-Mersey seat between the Wirral and Liverpool. The largest is 95,000 in Manchester Central, which was drawn very close to that size at the time because it was expected to depopulate. The commission does not always stay as close to the quota as possible. It sometimes take some very odd logical steps to try and make seats seem cohesive.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, because that is exactly what Mr Bellringer said. He said that as a general rule the commission would try to get as close to the average as possible, but in exceptional circumstances it would try to provide a better holistic solution. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but that is not the norm.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

In which case, I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the 75 seats in the north-west and see how many of them are close to quota, even when originally drawn. Very few is the answer. As a thought experiment I decided to see what would happen if we applied the 2019 electoral figures, which are the most up- to-date ones we have, to the 5%, 7.5% and 10% quotas. As a sample, I took all the seats represented by Conservative Members. Only one seat falls within the 5% quota, which is the seat represented by my hon. Friend for Hitchin and Harpenden. If we extend to 7.5%, we still have only one within quota—again, the seat represented by my hon. Friend for Hitchin and Harpenden. If we get to 10%, two of us—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and me—are still over quota.

Looking at the population drift from these seats, it is not that large over a number of years. It is simply that the more the quota is extended simply to try to reduce the extent of change, the more the seats end up disproportionately large. When starting with a 5% quota variant, the maximum difference between the smallest and largest seats is 7,260. That rises to 10,912 on 10%; then 14,551 on 10%; then 21,826 voters based on the OCSE of a maximum of 15%. It is never more than 15%. The reality is that we will see population change in the seats that will be drawn, which is a natural consequence of some areas depopulating and other areas increasing in population. Drawing the quotas as closely as possible to the mean is a way of ensuring that when we review the situation in eight years’ time, the variation will not be so severe that radical change will be needed. Obviously, radical change will be required in this review because the information is 20 years out of date. We should aim to get the electorate as close as possible to that mean now, so that in the future we are not having to radically redraw the map every time we come to this exercise.

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

I speak in support of new clause 2, which I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. I have really enjoyed listening to the contributions to the debate, but I am concerned about the lack of consistency expressed by Government Members. That is partly in relation to the clause, but also in relation to the clause as it reflects other parts of the Bill. I will try not to stray too far from the clause, and I am sure, Sir David, that you will pull me back if I do.

The right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell—who, as always, makes me stop and think—talked about the boundary commission getting it right first time. I suspect that he meant in the first set of proposals as opposed to the former ones. One of the problems is that we cannot always trust the boundary commission to get it right first time. Frankly, there are occasions when it does not get it right the second time. That is why we opposed automaticity in another part of the Bill.

I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but the lack of absolute confidence—we do have confidence in the boundary commission—might have been expressed in another part of the considerations. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton discussed disparities in our own region, and about his seat and that of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke who, I think, has described her seat as being a small market town that has grown and grown over the years. She might wish to correct me. These changes do happen, and it is not simply that the boundary commission chooses to draw much bigger seats. Growth does happen, and for that reason it is projected that south-east England is likely to get extra seats as a result of population shifts.

The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden—I must get it correct—said that the situation was not what we have now, but the new clause does not propose the situation we have now—it is not proposing 10% either way. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham suggesting that we have 10%, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley suggesting that it is perfectly legitimate to propose that within the OSCE guidelines. However, the new clause proposes a balance between that very tight adherence to the variance of 5% and the need for community interest.

I listened to the debate at Second Reading, and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, and the hon. Members for Newbury and for West Bromwich West might have mentioned the importance of reflecting community interests. We have all spoken on that subject, and the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden discussed that in a question on first past the post, and spoke about maintaining the importance of community. Many Committee members have mentioned the importance of community, but the lack of consistency comes up when we reject all those arguments in favour of tight adherence. Somewhere, we have to strike a balance.

On this side of the Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, we have accepted the Government’s arguments that we must have much more equally sized constituencies. We are asking Government Members to accept, as we strive to achieve that, that the guidance to boundary commissions should say that those community ties—which all other hon. Members have said are important—should be taken into account, so that they get it right first or second time. In this Bill, we do not have the opportunity to call them back if they do not get it right.

This new clause provides balance and a safety valve, as we have discussed regarding automaticity, to ensure that community interests and ties are taken into account. It achieves a tighter tolerance around the average, so that it achieves something of the Government’s aim—which is also our aim—to secure more equalised seats, but not going so far that it completely wipes out the community interest. Across the Committee, hon. Members have talked about that. I will therefore support my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood in the vote.

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

What a good debate we have had on this part of the Bill. I think we all knew this would be one of the main dividing lines in the Committee. I am pleased we have been able to air these arguments and discuss what they mean for the Bill and, crucially, for real people—to whom we should anchor our discussion.

As we all know, we are looking at the electoral quota followed by what is stipulated in the existing legislation, namely, that constituencies subject to a small number of exceptions must be between 95% and 105% of that electoral quota. That is the 10% point range. As we know, because we have looked at it comprehensively in Committee, the boundary commissions may then take other factors into account, which are subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size.

I do not want to detain the Committee on things we have gone over, but I will underline how far adrift the UK’s current constituencies are from that principle of equality. There are some very clear examples in England. Milton Keynes South clocks in at 97,000; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Central clocks in at 54,000. That is not fair. In Wales, Cardiff South and Penarth comes in at 80,000 constituents, whereas only 43,000 electors get to have their say in Arfon. That is not fair. The Government are committed to ensuring greater fairness by updating parliamentary constituencies to ensure that across the UK votes have the same weight. That is what we care about. That is what we are delivering. That is the right thing to do.

I do not agree with the new clause tabled by the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for City of Chester. I want to make a point about the difference between theory and practice. It is easy for us to bandy about figures such as 5% and 7.5%, which seem theoretical. I pay tribute to the mathematical minds that we have in this Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton is one of the finest, but there are others in the Committee who have a great facility with numbers and have really helped us in these deliberations by looking at what those figures mean when we run them under different scenarios.

Let us remember what those numbers are for. We are talking about people. Those numbers relate to the number of voters. Even the word “electors” might seem a step away from normal people, whom we ought to think of here. These people want a chance of fairness in their democracy and for their voice to be heard as equally as the next person in the next seat or nation in the country. That is the core principle at stake. It is unfair to go far off that average point. It is undesirable and it is unworthy of the people we are trying to do this for. We want to get this right for people who have asked for a change to their parliamentary constituencies. They voted for this as a manifesto commitment of this Government; indeed, it was in all parties’ manifestos, as I understand it. That is an important commitment to deliver. We should take that very seriously.

Ultimately, we must take that step away from numbers towards a judgment. The Committee heard evidence from Professor Charles Pattie of the University of Sheffield, who has been studying elections and boundary reviews for more than 30 years, about which we joked with him at the time—he has spent a very long time doing that. His conclusion was that he would certainly endorse the notion of an equalisation rule as the top priority. Dr Alan Renwick took us further in that argument. On the exact percentage that is appropriate, he said that

“numbers around 5% to 10% seem to be fairly standard. There is no answer that an academic can give you as to what is the correct number, but something in that region is appropriate.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 23 June 2020; c. 74, Q141.]

Together, those pieces of evidence are important for two reasons. First, they confirm that our proposal in the Bill—the continuation of the status quo—for a 10% range of tolerance is the right thing to do, in the sense that it is standard in relation to comparable democracies and international good practice. Secondly, Dr Renwick underlined that academic research, although important, cannot be a substitute for judgment, decision making and leadership, to which it will come down in the Committee.

We have laid out the arguments, and my judgment—on which I am in agreement with right hon. and hon. Members—is that the specific tolerance level that we have chosen is the right one. It continues what has already been agreed on a cross-party basis in the House in 2011, which put right an accreted set of wrongs where there had not been equality in constituency sizes. I am afraid that I will launch this one at the right hon. Member for Warley: his Government never did this when he was in the Cabinet. It is right that we continue the movement started in 2011 and that is before us today. We want equal weight, updated boundaries and more equally sized seats. I urge the hon. Member for Fleetwood and Lancaster to withdraw the new clause on the basis that it is right to go to 5% as set out in the legislation.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 3:30 pm, 30th June 2020

I thank the Committee for the exchange of views on the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made the point that OSCE recommended a quota variance of 10% either way as reasonable. My new clause, which would provide for a variance of 7.5%, is a compromise. It is reasonable; I am reaching out to the Government in the spirit of working together to come out of the boundary review with equalised constituencies. There is no doubt that they will be more equal, although obviously not bang-on equal, because that would mean that every constituency was of exactly the same size.

The new clause would mean a move towards the equality for which I know we all strive. I do not believe that the Electoral Commission should be drawing constituencies that bump up against the top or the bottom of the quota. Indeed, it should aim to make constituencies as close as possible to bang on the quota, but by doing that, we would not be keeping communities together, but dividing them up. By tabling my new clause with the 7.5% variance, I am striving to find a middle ground where we can balance community ties and constituencies of equal size.

It is not that we do not trust the boundary commission to get that right. It is quite the opposite: we are trying to give the boundary commission the framework to get it right. With a restriction of 5%, we make its job much harder, and we are much more likely to end up with constituencies that divide communities rather than uniting constituencies. The new clause is reasonable. I am striving to compromise—I would be very happy with 10%, but I recognise that the Government’s position is 5%. I aim to meet in the middle, and the new clause is a reasonable attempt to get all parties to recognise the balance between equalising constituencies and recognising that community ties are incredibly important in our one member, first-past-the-post electoral system.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 2 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill — Electorate per constituency

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.