Boundary Re-alignment

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 30 June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

“(1) Where—

(a) existing parliamentary boundaries when originally recommended by the relevant Boundary Commission contained an element of alignment with a local authority area boundary; but

(b) as a consequence of a local authority area boundary review these boundaries have ceased to be aligned; and

(c) the number of registered electors affected by the local authority area boundary change was not more than 1,000;

the relevant Boundary Commission may submit a report recommending the re-alignment of the parliamentary constituencies affected to the new local authority area boundary.

(2) The procedure in Section 4 applies to orders following a recommendation under subsection (1), as it applies to orders following reports of the Boundary Commission under Section 3, with any necessary modifications.”—

Local authority area reviews typically happen when a new housing development is built on an existing local authority boundary. The review might mean that a whole development is moved in to one authority, or other aligning changes. Without a parliamentary boundary change, this can mean a small number of electors from one local authority being in a constituency otherwise wholly within another local authority. This amendment gives a power to re-align parliamentary boundaries with the new local authority boundary where no more than 1,000 electors are affected. If there are more than 1,000 electors, then the boundary would be for consideration at the next periodical review. As the local area boundary would itself have been subject to local consultation, a further statutory public consultation in relation to the parliamentary boundary is not proposed. The relevant Boundary Commission could carry out such informal consultation as it considered necessary.

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.

This new clause is slightly easier to understand. It seeks to deal with a specific situation that arises when local authority areas are redrawn and relates not to wards but to other electoral divisions within those local authority areas. Members will see that I have listed a registered interest as the Member for Glasgow East, and I will explain why as I develop my speech.

Unlike wards, local authority areas are not periodically reviewed. The justification for a local authority area review is usually when new houses have been built over a local authority boundary, although there can be other triggers. For example, the construction of the Edinburgh bypass resulted in one farm moving from Edinburgh into West Lothian.

Sometimes areas are redrawn without any voters being affected. I understand that principal area boundary reviews elsewhere are similarly unusual and not conducted on a periodic basis. The local government boundary commission for Scotland has only carried out 10 local authority area reviews since we moved to unitary authorities in 1995. As luck would have it, two of those reviews, conducted in 2010 and 2019, affected my own constituency, and it is for that reason that I registered a specific interest in relation to this new clause.

Constituencies where there are a small number of electors in one local authority area present additional difficulties for returning officers in co-ordinating elections. They also cause issues in relation to representation. If a constituency is equally divided between two local authorities, the MP will be able to maintain a good working relationship between both sets of local authority officials and, importantly, so will their staff. If only a very small number of constituents are from one local authority, those relationships will not be established in the same way. I reflect on that particularly as someone who represents both Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, combined with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, anticipated a world where we would have elections every five years and boundaries reviewed before each election. I think some us probably wonder what on earth happened to that. With a model of the five-year elections and reviews every election in mind, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act abolished the idea of interim reviews. In the past, interim reviews of UK parliamentary constituencies were a check on whether more minor changes should be made to constituencies between the major periodical reviews. With constituencies being reviewed before each election, that process essentially became unnecessary.

The Bill looks to having reviews every two Parliaments or so. We never know when the next general election will happen—with this Government, that is fairly clear as they are looking to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Therefore, that brings back on the agenda the need to be able to set out the consequences of local authority area reviews.

My Scottish Parliament colleagues will have their constituency boundaries revised in time for the elections next year because Boundaries Scotland, as it is being renamed, retains an ability to conduct interim reviews. The 300 electors affected by the last local government area review in my constituency will move into a different Scottish Parliament constituency in May ’21. The electors affected by the earlier review were already in their correct constituency. The new clause does not attempt to bring back interim reviews, but to ensure that in those rare instances where there has been a local authority boundary change that can be reflected in the UK Parliament constituency, as it can be in the Scottish Parliament constituency as a result of the powers exercised by Boundaries Scotland.

The new clause contains a tightly drawn power that can only be used where a limited number of electors are affected by an area review. I would be happy to discuss further with the Minister the appropriate number, but in practice most area reviews involve considerably fewer electors. I hope the Minister therefore appreciates that the new clause is confined to very specific circumstances and is not an attempt to reintroduce interim reviews, and that on that basis the Government will support it.

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

I appreciate the way that the hon. Member for Glasgow East has framed the new clause—that it is not quite the same as the old policy of interim reviews but is a new policy for our times. I appreciate the way he put that. I understand the arguments he makes, but I argue that the new clause is not needed, and I will begin by looking back at what the old policy of interim reviews actually did, just to give us that context.

As I understand it, the new clause would give a boundary commission discretion to submit a report in between boundary reviews that recommends the realignment of existing parliamentary constituencies with a local authority area boundary that has ceased to be aligned with those constituencies owing to a local authority boundary change. The hon. Gentleman has been careful to try to temper that discretion by saying that it should only apply to 1,000 electors and, in effect, try to tackle the problem of orphaned electors who perhaps find themselves in a neighbouring constituency to the one they had expected to belong to. I think that the effect of this change would remain quite close to that of interim reviews and, for comparison, I will set out what those used to do.

Before the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the boundary commissions had discretion to carry out interim reviews of particular constituency boundaries. They could, for example, take into account intervening changes to local authority boundaries or to a number of registered electors that affecting the boundaries of existing parliamentary constituencies in a particular area. Provision for this was removed under the 2011 Act. It was thought unnecessary because, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, general reviews would then be held every five years.

Under the Bill, reviews will be held every eight years, so I argue—as the Committee accepts—that boundaries will be reviewed and updated regularly. That is sufficiently regular to make interim reviews not needed, so we have no need to return to that old policy. I have concerns about both the policy of interim reviews and the proposed policy which, even though the hon. Gentleman has tried to minimise disruption, would still be fundamentally disruptive, hitting local communities and their relationship with their representation in this place.

We should also accept the fundamental truth that the different governmental boundaries that criss-cross our country will never be fully aligned; it will inherently be a moving picture, and it will never be possible to align all of them at any one time. It is hard to put in place a policy that tries to align a small bit of that while acknowledging that the rest keeps evolving. Boundaries change all the time, owing to population shifts and the growth of new housing settlements. The point of a boundary review is to try to control for that by taking a snapshot in time, once every eight years, and saying that that is the point at which there will be changes—there will not be ongoing, perpetual change, but change at a key point in time.

I also do not think it cost-effective to keep going for that perpetual change. I appreciate the arguments that have been made, including the minimisation argument inherent in what the hon. Gentleman has tabled. However, there is a practical argument against asking the boundary commissions to effectively chase their tail and go after something that could move perpetually between those eight years or something that does not always come to fruition. The point has occasionally been made in the Committee about how to treat housing developments. That certainly ought to be accommodated in boundary reviews—that is the point of regular enough ones to do that—but it is also the case that sometimes housing developments do not come to fruition. Had that policy wrongly predicted a settlement, ultimately public money would have been wasted in getting the boundary commission to look at it.

The new clause is not a proportionate suggestion to deal with what might affect only a small number of electors, given the context that local government boundaries change and keep moving all the while. Indeed, when we widen that argument slightly, there are the boundaries of the devolved legislatures as well as of local government. With all the tiers of government that we have in this country, we all know that many do not always perfectly align. I therefore do not accept the argument that we ought to be trying for alignment just in this small pocket.

I hope that is a helpful reflection on the new clause of the hon. Member for Glasgow East. I have taken it seriously enough to try to distinguish it from the previous policy of interim review, and to take it on its merits. I wonder whether I might be able to persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the last new clause of the day.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:00, 30 June 2020

I have never felt so powerful as I do right now. I am grateful for the Minister’s response. This was a probing new clause. The issue has dominated my email inbox since I was elected in 2017—there is a lovely little area in my constituency called Stepps, by Cardowan, where the good people vote highly for the SNP actually, but that is by the bye. I was keen to spark some thought in Government, but when drafting the new clause, I feared that putting the number at 1,000 electors would frighten the Government off a little. I will reflect on what the Minister has said.

At one minute past 5 o’clock, I will allow the opportunity for the hard-working Clerks and Hansard staff to get some respite. As this is the last opportunity I will have to say anything in Committee, I also thank you, Sir David, and Mr Paisley for your forbearance in what have been long-drawn-out proceedings. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.