Allocation of constituencies

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 30th June 2020.

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“(1) Rule 8 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (the allocation method) is amended as follows.

(2) After rule 8(5) insert—

‘(6) Notwithstanding the allocation of constituencies according to the allocation method set out in rule 8(2)-(5), there must be a minimum allocation of constituencies as follows—

(a) Wales must be allocated at least 35 constituencies;

(b) Scotland must be allocated at least 59 constituencies (including the two protected constituencies); and

(c) Northern Ireland must be allocated at least 18 constituencies; and the allocation of constituencies must be adjusted accordingly.’”—

This new clause seeks to protect representation in the devolved nations by securing a minimum number of constituencies in each of the devolved nations.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (a) to new clause 3, in line 8 leave out “35” and insert “40”.

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

I briefly seek the opinion of the Committee in discussion of the new clause. I hope that its aim is self-evident.

Most of us in Committee—my friends, the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Ceredigion excluded—would consider themselves to be Unionists and proud to be British. I certainly would. My concern is that, as the Bill stands, the Union will be placed under unnecessary and increased strain, because the three smaller nations will take the larger hit to representation here at Westminster, in the House of Commons.

Historically, we heard in evidence that Wales and Scotland were over-represented in terms of population, but that there were historical reasons why that was the case. As devolution has progressed, we have had a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, which on the passage of recent legislation became the Senedd—I look to the hon. Member for Ceredigion for approval of the pronunciation. Powers have passed to the Parliament and the Senedd so that more decisions are taken in Holyrood and on Cardiff Bay. Plenty of decisions, including large national decisions, however, still need to be taken at Westminster, on behalf not just of England but of the United Kingdom.

The important thing now—perhaps more than ever in the 20 or so years since we have had that level of devolution —is to maintain the strength of the Union and of the voices within that Union, in number as well as volume. The hon. Gentleman needs no support in terms of volume, but with number that importance is greater than ever.

I ask Members in the Conservative party—which, I think, is back to calling itself the Conservative and Unionist party—to share my concerns about all the hit being taken by the three non-English nations. We do not know the numbers yet, but we have a good idea and could make an assessment. Potentially, by transferring Welsh voices and Scottish voices to England—theoretically, Northern Irish voices too, although under the current numbers that does not look likely—we could destabilise not just the level of representation but the level of life experience from the nations.

What about areas that are more remote from Westminster? For example, and I have said this to the hon. Member for Ceredigion before, some areas of north Wales feel a little disconnected even from the Senedd on Cardiff Bay, and some areas of northern England and perhaps some in the far west, because of geographical distance, feel a little disconnected from Westminster. The more we disconnect from the national Parliament, the less legitimacy it has, and the less legitimacy it has, the less legitimacy the Union has, I fear. The unintended consequence—I genuinely believe that it is unintended—of the proposal in the Bill to transfer strength and numbers in this place from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to England is that it will damage the Union, and damage the voices within the Union, and damage the experience that all the nations bring to this Parliament.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I follow the hon. Member’s argument, but surely he should reflect on the fact that Wales did not undergo the changes that it was due to undergo at the time of the creation of the Assembly, which has since become a Parliament. Those changes now have to take place, so that we can deliver the fairness that I know he and I want.

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

I absolutely agree, which is why, to develop my argument and to answer the right hon. Lady directly, the new clause in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood does not seek to maintain the current number of constituencies in Wales. We accept—as we accepted, incidentally, with regard to the previous new clause that we talked about—that there has to be some level of equalisation of constituencies.

That means that Wales and Scotland will lose seats, but in order to manage the different pressures between getting equalisation and maintaining the integrity and strength of the Union and the diverse voices within it, the new clause seeks to maintain a balance by specifying a number of constituencies that is fewer, for example, than Wales has now, but more than it would have if absolute equalisation took place. We are therefore addressing some of the points that the right hon. Lady mentioned, and trying to strike a balance that puts the interests of the Union at the heart of the Bill.

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

I am listening to the hon. Member very carefully. It will come as no surprise to the Committee that for me, as a Scottish nationalist, the strength and harmony of the Union is not something that generally keeps me awake at night; it often helps me to get to sleep. However, there is a point here. I do not want to conduct a debate with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for City of Chester, but it is very important for members of the Committee to reflect on the fact that this is not the first chipping away of the strength and harmony of the Union in this place.

The right hon. Lady talked about powers being devolved to Scotland and to Cardiff Bay, but let us not forget that this Conservative Government has introduced such things as English votes for English laws. That in itself has been a way of ensuring that Members of Parliament representing constituencies in England can have their say and has, in many respects, already opened up a second-class or second-tier Member of Parliament. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the issue the Committee is considering at the moment is not the first time that we have seen the integrity and harmony of the Union being chipped away, albeit inadvertently, by this Government.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point. I would suggest that we have English devolution, and if we were logical in these arguments, we would reduce the number of constituencies available in those parts of England where there has been devolution but not in the parts where there has not been. In my own area, for example, we do not have an elected mayor, whereas Greater Manchester—I see the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton is present—does have an elected mayor.

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

Of course I will. I mentioned the hon. Gentleman, so I could hardly not give way to him.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Following that logical stride, the devolution settlement across the UK has been entirely piecemeal. It is uneven across the United Kingdom and part of the current problem is a result of that. For example, there was a Welsh Assembly, so there was no reduction in the number of Welsh seats in 2005, whereas there was a reduction in the number of seats from 72 to 59 in Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this situation is a natural consequence of the poorly executed devolution plan across the United Kingdom, and that now, in the interests of wider fairness, there should probably be a wider discussion about the devolution settlement for England, and each constituency in the United Kingdom should carry the same weight?

Also, does the hon. Gentleman accept as a cautionary tale that when Canada began setting quotas for certain provinces to have a set number of seats, it led to a massive expansion of the Parliament? They added 30 seats two elections ago, simply to try to keep pace with the fact that Quebec had to have a minimum number of seats.

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

To be clear, I was not proposing different sized quotas in different areas. I was just suggesting that that would be the logic of following devolution to the letter, and to the max, in terms of representation at this place. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have inconsistency in devolution in the UK. He should take it up, perhaps, with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, or his successor. [Interruption.] I am not going to go there. The hon. Member for Glasgow East is naughty, Sir David, and knows he should not tempt me to go down that route.

There is another issue. Wales and Scotland in particular have different geography and different population levels from much of England, but not all of it. I am thinking of rural Wales and rural Northumbria, for example. Wales in particular is affected by geography—the sparsity of west Wales and areas such as Brecon and Radnor or Montgomeryshire, the geographic barriers represented by the Welsh valleys, the beautiful area of Snowdonia, where, again, I spent much of my childhood, coming over the border. There is also Ynys Môn. The Committee decided this morning that it should be protected, and I supported that and we have been calling for it for a long time. However, that has a knock-on effect for other constituencies, which must themselves deal with issues other than population, such as sparsity and geography, which need to be taken into account. Because the Committee has decided on a tight 5% tolerance, it is even harder to take into account those areas, and the issues are amplified because Wales is losing so many constituencies. The problems mount one on the other. Every decision that the Committee makes puts further strain on the Welsh area in particular and therefore on the integrity of the constituencies and their viability—and therefore on the Union, because of the way they are represented here.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke this morning about a constituency measuring 97 miles from one side to the other. Whoever the Member for that constituency would be—I think that it would have happened under the 600 boundaries; if 50 constituencies were lost with a tight tolerance there might have to be a 97-mile constituency —they could not possibly do justice to such a huge expanse. It would not be fair to them or their constituents. We want equalisation as much as possible and we have had an argument today about constituents being properly served by having the same number of constituents, voters, electors or—the Minister was right—people living in the constituency. Similarly, they will also not be properly served if their Member of Parliament has to cover a constituency that is hundreds of miles wide.

It is the same for Scotland. I remind the Committee that it was previously proposed, as I believe I mentioned on Second Reading, that there should be a constituency that, if it were superimposed on England with one end at the Palace of Westminster, would have its top end at Nottingham. It would be impossible to serve that constituency or to give its residents any kind of service.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

On the point about the proposed constituency I referred to, over lunchtime I looked to see how it would fare under the new proposed quotas and the 5%. Taking the quota as around 72% we would save about 2 miles.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—or in a sense I am not, because I should have liked an answer that put my mind at rest, which his did not. It shows the severity of the problems.

I shall deal with the new clause and then the amendment to it, which is a bit of a cheeky one, if the hon. Member for Ceredigion does not mind my saying so. The new clause tries to seek a balance between the point that the hon. Member for Ceredigion made about equalising constituencies, but at the same time not making the three other nations, other than England, take all of the hit, which in turn will damage the standing of this Parliament and the integrity of the Union. It will also recognise the unique geographical circumstances that Scotland and Wales have in terms of sparsity and geography, and will therefore support whoever is elected in these new constituencies to be able to do a decent job, and will support the residents to be properly represented. A constituency that is hundreds of miles wide is just as bad as a constituency with 100,000 residents. There has to be a balance. I suspect we will not be able to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Ceredigion, which seeks to maintain the status quo.

We recognise that we cannot justify maintaining the status quo and therefore upsetting the apple cart of getting that equalisation of seats, but there has to be a balance somewhere to defend the Union, to make viable constituencies, and to be fair to the people who live in those extremely large constituencies. We have achieved that by meeting midway between the current situation and the situation that would happen with the Bill unamended.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester for such a thought-provoking speech. I have thoroughly enjoyed our debate and I am perfectly willing to accept the charge of being a constitutional geek. We have debated a range of issues that really get to the heart of democracy and the questions of representation and what that entails. What the hon. Gentleman touched upon just now is something that we have not had an opportunity to discuss too much in Committee: the different challenges that an urban Member of Parliament might face compared with a Member of Parliament in a more rural constituency. I do not downplay the challenges of either; I simply say that there are different considerations and challenges. Although we might not be able to address some of those challenges in this Bill, I am sure the House authorities will have to do so in future. In the same way that it is unfair for a Member to try to represent a constituency of 100,000 electors, it is quite a behemoth task for a Member to do justice to a constituency that is more than 90 miles wide with a continuous population throughout it.

My point in relation to amendment (a) to new clause 3 —I am also willing to admit the charge of being a cheeky chappie in proposing the amendment—is purely to spark a bit of a debate around how we go about allocating seats between the four nations of the United Kingdom, and more specifically the appropriateness or otherwise of a single UK-wide electoral quota. I am here for the debate. I have my own set of views, which Members have probably already guessed, but the amendment is worth probing and it is worth having a discussion about some of the reasoning behind the single UK quota and, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester also illustrated in some detail, the possible unintended consequences.

There has been a common theme in not only the evidence sessions but in Committee discussions about the question of Wales: the elephant in the room. We cannot deny the fact that Wales, in terms of registered electors, is over-represented in this place. If we take a single UK-wide electoral quota, there is no argument. What I am trying to probe is whether we should apply a single UK electoral quota across the four nations. Points have already been made about the differential nature of devolution across the UK. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton correctly pointed out the fact that it has been piecemeal. To quote a famous Labour colleague in Wales, devolution has very much been,

“a process, not an event”.

I am glad to get that on the record.

Something that was raised in the first evidence session stuck with me; it was presented by the representative of the Liberal Democrats. He used the line of “no reduction, no further devolution.” It made me think about the rationale behind approaching a single UK electoral quota. If I were a Unionist, I would be quite concerned and would stay up at night worrying about the potential consequences of the provisions in the Bill for future boundary reviews, given that they are based on registered electors, when demographics and population change.

The differences in population between England and Wales are illustrative of how things might transpire or are likely to transpire. Between 2001—not quite the precise time of the last register—and the mid-year estimate of 2018, the population of Wales grew by 200,000. That is not a great deal in the broader scheme of things, but it is still an increase in the electorate. I know the point is that population growth in Wales is slower than in other parts of the UK, and it is likely to remain the case that Wales will not grow as quickly as other areas. The consequence of that, should the measures in the Bill be implemented, is that we will be talking about yet a further reduction in the number of Welsh seats at the next boundary review. That is based on the projections provided by the Office for National Statistics—it is a very real likelihood. I hope things will change, but unless we see some drastic changes in demographic trends and migration within the UK, Wales is unlikely to catch up with the pace of population growth.

What does that leave us with? It leaves us with a situation in which the number of representatives who are sent from Wales to this place will initially reduce by about eight—that is the figure that is commonly agreed on for this review. A further one or two seats will then be lost at each subsequent review every eight years or so, such is the disparity in the population growth figures. I am suggesting that, in maintaining 40 Members of Parliament, we focus on what we do about the nations. How do we tackle this constitutional problem? We are a Union of four nations. Although I completely empathise with and understand the arguments made for maintaining electoral quality as far as possible, I am very conscious of the fact that, to all intents and purposes, we have a unicameral system of elected representation. Yes, the House of Lords could be a vehicle to try to top up the territorial representation side of things, but that is not an issue that is being discussed at the moment in any great detail.

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

At the risk of having a bash-the-House-of-Lords session, which I am sure the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell would enjoy, is there not a case for looking at the situation in the House of Lords—ironically—where certain demographics are protected? For example, there are 92 hereditary peers and 26 clerics. If we can protect particular demographics in the House of Lords, such as clerics and hereditary peers, why can we not do it for the four nations?

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and my views on House of Lords reform are well known. Should we be serious about trying to make the best possible use of a second Chamber, many countries across the world have shown how a second Chamber can be used to top up geographical or territorial concerns. I would like to see the House of Lords reformed in that kind of direction.

I would also be quite happy to explore further whether we need to have some sort of an agreement at this point in time about the disparities between the number of seats for each of the four nations. It is already the case that should there be anything that agitates a lot of popular sentiment in England only, there is a very good chance that it will come to pass and that a majority decision in its favour will happen in this place. That is not necessarily the case for Wales or for the other two devolved nations of the United Kingdom. Although it is unlikely that we will manage to address the issue in the Bill, it is nevertheless something to which we need to give active consideration—I say that as somebody of a particular political persuasion.

The situation in Wales is perhaps slightly different from that in Northern Ireland. The devolution settlement is not as developed and deep as the one in Scotland, or indeed the one in Northern Ireland. There are certain important spheres of policy—policing and the judiciary, for example—that are reserved to Westminster and apply to Wales. That is not the case for my colleagues and friends from Scotland, so there are plenty of arguments why there is still a special case to be made for Wales within an unreformed Parliament. When I say “unreformed”, I mean the House of Lords continuing in its current constitutional position.

I have covered my main points. I will draw my remarks to a conclusion by asking the Minister how, in the context of this Bill and in the absence of broader constitutional reform, we might ensure in future boundary reviews that there is a certain critical mass of Welsh MPs, and indeed MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland. If we hold solely to demographics, Wales will probably lose out quicker than the other two nations—we are smaller, and Northern Ireland, of course, is its own case—but those other nations will also suffer in the end. Although I appreciate that the fire is not raging at the moment, I am seeing a bit of smoke, which is something we should give a little more consideration to.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 4:00 pm, 30th June 2020

I rise to speak in support of the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. This is about representation of communities and making sure that voices are heard through the democratic process. If we were to stick rigidly to the averages as calculated and impose them on Scotland and Wales, the significant loss of seats would make people in those nations wonder, “What is the point in the Westminster Parliament if our representation is diminished by such a degree—if we lose out in this process?” That is the way the public would see it, and that would undermine local representation.

I am prepared to accept that the situation in Scotland and Wales is significantly different from my situation in London and the situation in the rest of England. If we are to represent communities effectively, different numbers may apply, and it may be wrong to make a significant reduction in the number of constituencies, particularly at this time. A minimum threshold below which we cannot go is a sensible proposal. Those who say that they want to protect the Union—the integrity of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—should think carefully about what the consequences of this process are, and the message that it sends to communities in Scotland and Wales.

The concept of making sure that we respect communities and local circumstances applies here, perhaps more than anywhere. During this debate, we have heard about constituencies that are geographically quite enormous compared with inner-city ones, in which people within a single constituency live more than 90 miles apart. When people are so distant, that cannot make for healthy democracy and healthy representation, so we have to accept some sort of limit on how large constituencies can be while still remaining a coherent, cohesive community that can be represented. I feel strongly about local representation, the link between a constituency MP and the communities they represent, which is something that Committee members on both sides of the House have referred to. We must give those MPs a racing chance of being able to represent their communities, so we cannot have constituencies that make that impossible.

I have an inner-city constituency, and although it is quite big compared with others, because there is lots of open space in it, I am able to go from one meeting to another; sometimes I do two or three meetings in an evening. That is nigh-on impossible for somebody with a constituency that is spread out over tens of miles—almost 90 miles. There has to be some sort of limitation on distance; we have to be realistic about that, whatever those who are fixed on applying mathematical formulas to this process say. There is an issue about democratic accountability and Members having strong ties to the community that they represent.

When it comes to the Bill’s impact on the number of Members of Parliament from Scotland and Wales, we have to step back and be realistic. If we want to maintain the Union, want people to value Westminster as the place where their laws are made, and want them to be well represented, there is a limit to how far we can go in cutting the number of MPs who come from Scotland and Wales to Westminster, so I support the new clause in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

It is a pleasure to make my first contribution under your chairmanship, Sir David; I seem to have missed you during our sittings. I want to pick up on the eloquent contributions of the hon. Members for Ceredigion, for Eltham, and for City of Chester. We run the risk of viewing ourselves from within a silo in this place, as if we were the only part of the democratic structure, but in fact we do not operate in a silo. Back in the 1940s, when we started reviewing parliamentary boundaries, we probably were the most significant part of that democratic structure, but of course that has changed.

This links back to the point made about the devolution settlement. Over the past 20 years, electors have got a lot more sophisticated. The hon. Member for Eltham said that people need to understand where their laws are made. Yes, they do, but a lot of people’s laws are made not here, but in Holyrood or Cardiff Bay. From the interactions I have had, I know that our electors understand that division in where their laws are made, and how we operate within the structure. There is also the role of local authorities; during the pandemic, we have seen that, and the support that they provide. Speaking from local experience, people understand the difference between the role of their local authority, and my interaction as a Member of Parliament with that local authority.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s line of argument. Is he arguing that the role of Westminster is diminishing in Scotland, and that reducing the number of MPs from Scotland is justified? It seems a strange argument for the Conservative party to make.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I am saying that we have to take a pragmatic approach to how we view our United Kingdom; as a Unionist, I would never say that the role that the hon. Gentleman speaks of is diminished. It would be remiss not to recognise that voters, particularly in the devolved nations, understand the differences I mentioned. We talk about reducing the number of constituencies in areas of the UK; in a way, we have to balance that with the democratic structures that now exist there.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a thoughtful argument, but I rather feel that he is trying to square a circle. I follow where he is going with his point on the different legislatures that are available. My constituents have a Member of the UK Parliament, a local councillor and a Member of the Scottish Parliament. The problem with his argument is that until fairly recently, they also had a Member of the European Parliament. We are leaving the European Union—certainly not a change that I approve of—and legislative powers are, by and large, coming back from Brussels to Westminster. Under the Bill, those legislative powers will remain in Westminster, and representation for people in Scotland, including in my constituency, is diminished as a result. Can he not see that he is trying to square a circle in respect of Europe’s legislative powers?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I see the hon. Gentleman’s point. It is a difficult one because it is a good point, but with respect to the line that I am following, I think the scope of what he is saying is a slightly different debate. It is slightly out of the scope of the clause but I see his point and recognise it to a degree. However, as we move into a more—without panicking Front Benchers—quasi-federal system perhaps, there needs to be a wider recognition of how we deal with these quotas. If we look at other systems—take Australia for example—and the way they set quotas between state and federal level, they differentiate. That is just how it goes. It means that areas lose seats and that loss of power is there, but it is made up for by the fact there is a system underneath and they interact with each other. I follow the argument of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but given where we are constitutionally—I do not want to turn this into a huge constitutional debate because we could do that all day—and I agree that we need to be as pragmatic as we can and review this going forward, I think there is a balance there now with the Senedd and with the Scottish Parliament. I will draw my comments to a close to allow my hon. Friend to talk.

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

It has been another very interesting debate. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Eltham, for the City of Chester and for Ceredigion and to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West for a thoughtful exposition of a much wider point—much wider than we could hope to do justice to in Committee. We have seen in the arguments, certainly on the Government side of the Committee, the desire to fix a much wider constitutional issue—namely, how England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should relate to each other. Every single one of the hon. Members who spoke knows that that issue is much larger than the Bill. They also know that it comprises the rest of my portfolio and I would be delighted to speak about it at any other time. Indeed, we will. There are many depths in that work that are acknowledged and being worked upon and about which I am sure we will have many fruitful discussions in the future. I want to do two things today. I want to say a little bit more about why the Bill is not the right place to do that and then I will talk specifically about the merits of the amendment.

The Bill is not the right place to deal with the entirety of the constitutional settlement because, very obviously, it provides for a mechanism for independent boundary reviews, and the constitutional settlement is so much larger than that. This boundary review is, indeed, only for the UK Parliament. The constitutional settlement is much wider. Hon. Members will have heard the Prime Minister’s speech today, in which he made a number of passionately pro-Unionist points. He reminds us that the interests of the citizens of the United Kingdom—their security, prosperity, welfare, and all the opportunities we want to come out of the pandemic—are much wider than what we have here today and that he is addressing them. He is seeking to do that and he has set out clearly what he intends to do. Naturally, and as the Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, I am in full-throated support of that, but that is not the subject matter today.

Let us focus a little more on what the Bill does. We all want the constituent nations of the United Kingdom to have a powerful voice. That should be the foundation for all of us in this discussion and I am sure it is. We all want those voices to be heard loud and clear. That is the fair way for the Union to function and to come together in the Parliament of the unitary state. Because that is the only fair way, the new clause does not work. I am afraid to say that it would put inequality and inaccuracy in the way of that Unionist proposition and the prosperity of our Union. If we set in legislation the thresholds proposed in the new clause and amendment (a), we would be cutting into the heart of the idea that votes should be equal, and that would damage the equality between the nations and individual people of the Union.

On the 2019 ONS data, if we remove the protected constituencies from the calculation, we end up with a difference, according to the thresholds in the new clause, of more than 7,600 electors between the nation with the highest average constituency size—England—and the nation with the lowest. Let me run through those numbers a little further. Two nations of the Union—Scotland and Wales—would enjoy a significantly more generous citizen-to-MP ratio, with approximately 66,000 electors for each MP, than their fellow nations. For Northern Ireland, the equivalent figure would be 72,000 and for England it would be almost 74,000. Hon. Members can see where the problem is. It is not right to put equality for people—individual real people—in the way of a construct that claims to strengthen the Union, but does not do that because it puts inequality in the way of it.

It is not right to see the new clause as striking a balance, in the words of the hon. Member for City of Chester. I appreciate that he was striving to argue that the balance ought to be struck between cutting this loose and allowing it to run, and preserving it as amendment (a) seeks to do. I understand his argument, but it would be inaccurate to do that. Fundamentally, it would preserve an inaccuracy for evermore by putting it into the legislation. It would say, “We are going to take a model that is not tied to the accuracy of population figures, and we are going to preserve that.” That is one problem with it. It would also be arbitrary. Let me explain why.

The current method for doing this kind of allocation between the nations of our Union is the Sainte-Laguë method—the pronunciation depends on which particular part of Belgium you go for—which is used to allocate constituency numbers to each of the four nations. It is a widely used mathematical formula and is acknowledged to be one of the fairest, if not the fairest, ways to make allocations like this.

We are only setting the rules for the boundary review and do not have its data, so we cannot precisely prejudge the outcome of the distribution, but the House of Commons Library has given it a good go. It estimates, based on the December 2019 data, that according to the Sainte-Laguë method there would be 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, 32 in Wales, 56 in Scotland and 544 in England, which adds up to 650. We may have shifted one protected constituency this morning, but that is a very small aspect in the total of 650.

The point is this. That method is the respectable way to do the distribution. The new clause and the amendment seek to say, frankly, that they know better than that method, and I am not convinced that that is the right thing to do. That is an arbitrary stance, and it preserves in aspic that arbitrary decision for evermore. It may be that the motive for the new clause comes from a very good place, but it is the wrong way to go about it, because the Sainte-Laguë method is the better one. It exists and it is ready to be used.

Finally, there has been a common theme in the Committee, which we ought to return to. It is not for us to make this kind of statement. If we believe in the independence of the boundary commissions and that they ought to be led where the evidence takes them—we expect that of them, as they are judge-led, independent and have population data—we should not seek to prejudge that decision in the Committee. That is the wrong thing to do. For that reason, I argue against this new clause. It is the wrong approach. It seeks, however, to address a topic, which is so important that it is bigger than the Bill before us. For those reasons I urge both sets of proposers to withdraw the new clause and the amendment.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:15 pm, 30th June 2020

I am grateful to the Minister and all hon. Members for taking part in an illuminating and positive debate. I was particularly taken by the intervention the hon. Member for Glasgow East made on the hon. Member for West Bromwich West, whose response was honest and positive. I welcome that. The idea of the legislative load being passed back from the European Union yet not having the legislative representation to manage that was a serious and salient point. I hoped the hon. Member for Glasgow East might have made a contribution to further develop that point, but he chose not to.

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

To make a brief correction, which should not detain us further, that is untrue. Those powers are returning to Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay—quite rightly. If we are referring to common frameworks, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Glasgow East will be intimately familiar with the detail. That is an incorrect representation.

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

I am intimately aware of that. I will take the Minister’s advice, because I do not think all of the responsibilities are coming back. Some will go back to the various different Parliaments; others will stay here in Westminster.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

One example would be agricultural policy. While the responsibility for domestic policy will reside in Cardiff, debates about funding—let us be honest, that is an important debate—will be held here.

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

I do not want to take too long, but both interventions were correct. The point is that some powers will go straight to the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, but others will remain here. We are where we are.

Let me deal with the Unionist point of view first. When England play football, rugby or cricket, I support England, but I am also British and I am proud to be so. I have a sense of identity that tells me I am British. I do worry that the Union will be weakened under the Bill, because people will feel, in the nations other than England, that their voices are being diminished. That bothers me.

The Minister is right: there is a broader constitutional issue here. We are not trying to fix the constitutional issue, but we are trying not to damage it further. I do not want this to become an English Parliament. The hon. Member for Glasgow East talks about English votes for English laws, which, let’s face it, is a hotch-potch even now. There is a danger that this becomes an English Parliament and is seen as an English Parliament in the nations that are not England. That is my concern.

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

I am immensely grateful to the hon. Member for City of Chester for giving way. It is just interesting to note that the issue of English votes for English laws might have passed hon. Members by. That particular Standing Order has been suspended during the proceedings of the virtual Parliament. I will leave it to the Committee to ponder whether it might be a good idea to bring that back when virtual proceedings end. A lot of people, regardless of whether they are Unionists or nationalists, would think that English votes for English laws is a pretty silly policy in this place.

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

I had not noticed that. You learn something new every day in this Committee. I think the Minister was unfair to characterise this idea as we think we know better. It is not that; it is simply that we are proposing to do the process differently to bring in balance. That is something that I have talked about on this clause and other clauses, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood has talked about. We are trying to find a balance between community and numbers and geography and numbers. It is difficult and we have different opinions on it, but it is a genuine attempt to create a balance between the different areas.

It is right that this House and Parliament give instructions to the boundary commissions to go away and do their jobs, and the new clause is about trying to make sure that those instructions are balanced. It was a helpful debate with positive contributions, for which I am grateful. In the light of that, it is not my intention or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood to press the new clause to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.