Highland Constituencies

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 30 June 2020.

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‘In Rule 4(2)(a) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (Area of constituencies) for “12,000” substitute “9,000”.’—

This new clause gives further flexibility to the Boundary Commissions to design workable constituencies in the Highlands of Scotland.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

I am acutely aware of the time and the willingness on the part of all hon. Members to try to get through the remainder of the new clauses in this sitting, so I will not seek to detain the Committee. I appreciate that some Committee members, including me, do not represent a constituency that totals 12,000 sq km, but my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford does.

New clause 5 seeks to initiate some thought in Government about the size of some of the proposed constituencies. In drafting the new clause, I was thinking specifically about the Highland North constituency in the last set of proposals by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. As Mr Martin of the Scottish National party set out during our evidence session, there is provision within the rules for a constituency up to that kind of size, but put simply, such constituencies are increasingly unmanageable. The clause, which is very much a probing amendment, seeks to spark a debate about the size of constituencies we expect Members to serve while providing an efficient service to their constituents. I found myself chuckling in the last debate at the thought of people being outraged at the idea of having a constituency that was only 90 miles long.

As I mentioned earlier, the largest constituency set out by the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposals was Highland North at 12,985 sq km. That is 16.66% or a sixth of Scotland, 65% of the size of Wales, 92% of the size of Northern Ireland, about the size of Yorkshire, 8.25 times the size of Greater London, five times the size of Luxembourg and larger than Cyprus and Luxembourg put together. Indeed, the three largest proposed constituencies, Highland North, Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, and Inverness and Skye, would cover 33,282 sq km.

To put that in context, those three constituencies would cover 42.7% of the area of Scotland, which is an area larger than Belgium. The two constituencies of Highland North and Argyll, Bute and Lochaber would cover an area larger than Slovenia. Those large constituencies would also include several island areas, which makes MP travel across constituencies even harder. My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara already has five airports in his constituency.

So I have outlined, to some extent, the challenges faced by colleagues in Scotland, which is the motivation for new clause 5.

The existing rules are guided by the size of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, but they do not properly take into account how constituencies in the highlands of Scotland have to be designed. We have to start in the far north of the Scottish mainland; statute protects Orkney from invasion from the south. Effectively, the Boundary Commission for Scotland currently needs to work a constituency southwards until it reaches 12,000 sq km. At that point, it does not need to meet the UK electoral quota and can up to an extra 1,000 sq km to the constituency. This seems to be forcing the Boundary Commission for Scotland to design constituencies in a particular way, working north to south, until it stops. The new clause is a start to the conversation on this aspect, suggesting that the Boundary Commission for Scotland could stop expanding constituencies at an earlier point.

To paint a fuller picture in the UK context, the Committee might wish to note that the largest constituency by area in England is Hexham and Morpeth, at 3,343 sq km. The largest constituency outside of Scotland is Brecon, Radnor and Montgomery, at 3,624 sq km. However, Scotland has five constituencies of 3,999 sq km or more in an area.

I do not want members of this Bill Committee to view this discussion in the context of the current MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. His predecessor, Charles Kennedy, described the situation far more eloquently than I have. Before he left this place, he said that, for 27 years, he had represented the largest constituency in the House, which had twice been enlarged. He went on to say:

“Having represented three such vast constituencies over the course of nearly 30 years now, I can say that the current one is by far the most impractical. It has to be said that the other two were gigantic and posed particular problems, but there comes a point at which geographical impracticality sets in and nobody can do the job of local parliamentary representation effectively.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 661.]

Charles Kennedy was right; frankly, these constituencies have become geographically impractical. New clause 5 seeks to remedy that, and I therefore look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:30, 30 June 2020

I will keep it brief. I acknowledge the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and he made them very well and very eloquently. He is right to bring in the experience of, for example, Charles Kennedy. There is no shying away from the fact that there will be large constituencies in a place that has a more sparse population. We have to face up to these issues and to how we can design constituencies accurately.

Essentially, the new clause seeks to achieve an easement, by reducing the impact of a certain rule, and I will just quickly run through that rule. Rule 4 in the second schedule to the 1986 Act relates specifically to constituencies that are geographically very large, and is, in effect, relevant only to Scotland and to the highlands, in particular. It stipulates that if a constituency is over 12,000 sq km and has yet to reach an electorate that is within the permitted variance range of 95% to 105%, the Boundary Commission may propose a constituency that is below 95% in electoral terms. That gives extra flexibility to meet the challenge of very large constituencies. As I said, it is a matter of reality that this matter falls to the Boundary Commission for Scotland. Indeed, the history of this rule involved using the largest constituency at the time to try to set a rule or a cap, so it is all quite specific.

It is not necessary to amend the rule in the way the hon. Gentleman proposes, because it is so rarely used and because the range of constituencies that would approach largeness is so spread out that even his new clause would not make a great deal of difference. I will just explain why.

At the 2018 boundary review, albeit that it was on the basis of 600 seats, the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed only one constituency; that is the constituency of Highland North, which the hon. Gentleman has argued in this Committee is already infamous. There was only one constituency that exceeded 12,000 sq km. In that case, the additional flexibility provided by rule 4 was not even needed, because the proposed electorate was within the tolerance range.

Although we must not prejudge the proposals of the next boundary review, lowering the threshold to 9,000 sq km might bring additional constituencies in, but it might not, because the previous review was, as I have said, on the basis of 600 seats, and even it brought in only two proposed constituencies that were between 9,000 and 12,000 sq km. Their names—I am going to get my commas and “ands” wrong here—were Highland Central and Argyll. Those are two constituencies, and their names will be in the record.

There is my argument in a nutshell. Because we are dealing with such outliers in terms of size—the square metreage, and not necessarily the population—an extension to the rule is not needed. The sub-outliers, if you like, are still so far down the line from the outlier that even the hon. Gentleman’s new clause would not make a great deal of difference. That is fundamentally my point against the new clause.

To come a little more generally to the themes we have seen in the rest of the Bill, a boundary review is a balancing act. We have seen this across several of the new clauses that we have spoken about this afternoon and several of the clauses in the Bill. We have to balance important but competing goals. On one hand, there is the premise of equality, which is extremely important. We have spoken all the way through about the fundamental idea that a vote in the Scottish highlands counts the same as one in the Brecon Beacons, which counts the same as one in the Somerset levels. We have heard witness after witness back up that idea. But on the other hand, we also have to reflect local community ties and respond to specific and varied circumstances.

In this particular case, it is not an easy balance to strike, but I draw the Committee’s attention to the real nature of this part of the graph and suggest that it is not necessary to make the change the hon. Gentleman suggests, because the protection is already there through the specific protected constituencies and through rule 4 as it currently exists, which protects very large highland constituencies.

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

I am grateful. This issue genuinely plays on the mind of quite a lot of Members in Scotland, so I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it to this Bill Committee so that people can consider it. At this stage, I will not press the new clause, but I will be giving further thought to it when we come to remaining stages on the Floor of the House. I am convinced that the matter is at least on the Minister’s radar. The very fact that she has stood up and shown a degree of understanding of the challenges faced by Members in Scotland is a source of at least some comfort—but perhaps I will bring something back in the remaining stages. On that basis, I will withdraw the new clause for now, but I suspect that we might see it at a later stage of the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.