Parliamentary Representation

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 11th January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 11:00 am, 11th January 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. Given that we are debating an issue that will have a big impact on all the Members who are currently leaving the Chamber, I am sorry that there is such an exodus from it. I am delighted to have secured the debate, which will explore many of the issues that we did not have an opportunity to explore during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-in spite of the large number of amendments that I and many others tabled. That was not due to the Government's programming of the Bill, which I do not necessarily criticise-I am sure Chris Bryant will when he gets the opportunity in a moment-but because of how we as a House managed the available time and engaged in a tremendous amount of repetition. We failed to get to grips properly with the issues that needed to be debated to improve the Bill before it transferred to another place.

This morning, I intend to explore Government policy on parliamentary representation in relation to the number of parliamentary seats, the drawing up of constituency boundaries, voter registration and the role of the House of Lords in revising what the Commons produces. The House of Lords is revising the Bill, which we passed to it after its Commons stages last year.

There are currently 650 constituencies. As I indicated to the Minister during the debate on the Bill, my concern is that the Government's approach has been far too timid, although I understand that perhaps there has to be compromise over the figures that were bandied about in advance of the general election. A figure of some 600 seats should not necessarily be hard and fast, but should be an indication of the size of the House of Commons. The current figure of 650 is an indication, and there could be more seats or fewer.

In his background reading, I am sure the Minister will have noted that seven years ago, on 15 October 2003, at columns 117 to 119 of Hansard, I brought forward a ten-minute rule Bill. The Representation of the People (Consequences of Devolution) Bill proposed a significant cut in the number of parliamentary constituencies, to about 500 in a first phase, because following devolution, and considering comparisons between the number of MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament and the number in Parliaments of similar sized countries in Europe and other western democracies, we were significantly over-represented.

There are countries in Europe in which the number of parliamentarians per 100,000 is higher than it is in the UK, but they all have significantly lower populations. All the countries with populations of about the same or more than the UK's have significantly different representation and fewer Members of Parliament. I strongly recommend that the Government revisit the figure and take a more flexible approach. Part of the reason why I wish to emphasise that point is that the figure of 600 could have been plucked out of thin air; it need not necessarily be interpreted in the hard-and-fast manner in which the Government are approaching the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

I know that the Minister is well aware of the primary issue of contention because I and my parliamentary colleagues from Cornwall have raised it. I am pleased that my hon. Friend Sarah Newton is here today. My hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) are unable to be here today but support the principle I will espouse, which is that we did not get a proper opportunity to debate constituency equality during the Bill's passage.

The Bill proposes that all constituencies have an electoral quota of approximately 76,000 with a margin of only 5% either way. It would carve up the country in a manner that would create bizarre constituencies and ignore important cultural, historic and geographic boundaries. We would end up with bits of islands, such as the Isle of Wight, attached to mainland constituencies, and place their MPs in an invidious position when two very different places they represent fail to see eye to eye on a matter of vital local importance. We do not want antiseptic constituencies with perpetually mobile boundaries. The five-yearly boundary review that would happen between each Parliament would mean an MP's attachment to their constituency being perpetually reviewed, so the sense of settlement with the communities they represent would be continually undermined.

The amendments to the Bill which I and other hon. Members tabled were unsuccessful, in that they were not selected or therefore debated. They sought to find circumstances in which the Boundary Commission was given sufficient discretion to work towards the target figure, taking into account reasonable geographic, cultural and electoral issues. We want the Government to allow places to make decisions for themselves collectively, provided that they do not request more favourable treatment, such as over-representation. I hope the Minister takes note of that. It is not about more favourable treatment but simply recognising the distinctiveness of places, which the Bill does not take into account.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that in addition to the need to reflect distinct cultural and geographical differences in various parts of the country, to which he rightly referred, there are practical considerations? Cornwall, as in Devon, has more than enough people to enable it to remain whole. However, one in 20 properties is a second home and, rightly, people who are not normally resident in the county cannot register to vote. The Electoral Commission should have flexibility to consider such specific local factors when establishing boundaries.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, and I will come to electoral registration and its inevitable impact on drawing up boundaries. The established rules follow case law to some extent, and the Electoral Commission is certainly clear about the interpretation of the relevant Acts. I agree that there is an issue that deserves further scrutiny and that will have a significant impact when drawing up boundaries.

Having said that, my hon. Friend Mr Reid and other hon. Members representing constituencies in Scotland, Wales and other areas have made the point that many of the justifications for distinctive treatment of areas such as Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and Orkney and Shetland-they are identified in clause 11(6) of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, although their distinctiveness is not elaborated on-could easily apply to other constituencies. The Government have a range of approaches for honouring and respecting the distinctiveness of many parts of the country. They could identify further specific exceptions beyond the two identified in the Bill, or they could establish a set of principles that underlie the reason for identifying those two constituencies and allow the Boundary Commission to determine where those principles might be applied.

In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, we believe that there is a self-evident case based on Cornwall's historical, geographic and constitutional significance, and that the boundary between Cornwall and Devon-many people in Cornwall consider it to be between Cornwall and England-should be respected not only with regard to parliamentary constituencies, but in all other matters. Indeed, the Government did so when drawing up local enterprise partnerships. One strong reason for that, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth will concur, is that the distinctiveness of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly was identified, but such distinctiveness seemed, at least to the Government, not to apply in Devon and Somerset. I am not making a judgment about Devon and Somerset, and perish the thought that I would ever stray into their politics. The Government recognise this important issue in Cornwall, but do not provide an opportunity for the distinctiveness of that important historical and constitutional boundary to be respected.

There is a presumption in clause 11(6) of the Bill that Orkney and Shetland, and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should be preserved constituencies. Na h-Eileanan an Iar has a population of 26,500, an area of 3,070 sq km, and geographically is apparently as long as Wales. It is a long, spread-out constituency. Orkney and Shetland has a population of 42,000 and an area of 2,450 sq km. If the decision were based purely on area, my right hon. Friend Mr Kennedy, whose constituency has a land area of 12,780 sq km, would have a case for distinctive treatment.

I often compare my travel time with that of my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael, who is entitled under the rules of the highly respected Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to travel by plane, but I am not. His travel time is significantly quicker than travelling by train from the far west of Cornwall to London, so clearly travel time is not the basis.

On the difficulty of getting around constituencies, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute will recount his experience of travelling between the many islands in his constituency. As well as the 82,000 constituents on the mainland of my constituency-there were well over 100,000 before the boundary changes for the 2010 election-I have six inhabited islands, five of which are 30 miles off the west coast. It is impossible to get around my constituency in a day. It takes two days to do so by surface transport, and it is difficult.

I am not asking for special treatment, or for my constituency to be added to the list of preserved constituencies, because there is a strong case for equalisation, and the Government are right to work towards the principle as far as possible. I also want to make it clear to the Minister that I am not seeking to undermine my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland, who is not present, and would no doubt provide a range of other arguments for why his constituency should be given special treatment. No doubt Mr MacNeil would come up with another range of arguments for his constituency being given special treatment when others are not preserved in the same way. I am simply making the point that I have spoken to them-I gave them notice that I would mention their constituencies in this debate.

I have been trying to fathom the reasons why those constituencies have been given preserved constituency status. I respect and want that because there are distinctive geographic, historic and cultural reasons for them being given special status, but if those principles apply to those constituencies, why do they not also apply to others, so that the special geographic and constitutional circumstances in which they exist are also respected?

For example, if we are looking at the whole area of a constituency, there is a significant sea area around mine, just as there is around the two I have just mentioned. My constituency is a maritime one, and a large proportion of its inhabitants exist not just on the land but in their trades at sea; those who go deep-sea fishing often go out for seven to ten days, to the continental shelf and sometimes beyond. If we were to take the whole working area of my constituency in the same way as we might take that of places where there are sheep on mountains-here there are fish in the sea-its total area would be 195,500 sq km. I have visited some of my constituents when they have been more than 100 miles out at sea and I have boarded their fishing vessels, but I reassure the Minister that I do not seek to do that weekly.

My point is simply that there are a variety of ways in which to engage with one's constituents, particularly in this modern telecommunications age when people tweet each other across the world. It is not impossible these days to communicate with people in far-flung parts of one's constituency without regularly meeting face to face. I am not saying that that should be denied, simply that I would like to get a better understanding of what lies behind the notion of preserved constituencies and, if there is a principle there, of why it cannot be equally applied to other areas.

I am aware that some people might point to unavoidable disagreements and old rivalries between places. The Government are right to continue the practice of preserving and respecting the boundaries of nation states; there is no cross-border constituency between Scotland and England. Strangely, though, the old boundaries of the regions-the Government zones as I describe them-will be respected as well; I understand that there will not be cross-border constituencies between the south-west and the west midlands, for example. However, as there are unavoidable disagreements and old rivalries there is little point in creating new ones.

For example, a point that would be emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall were she present, is that the relationship between Plymouth and South East Cornwall is both harmonious and mutually productive, largely because both distinct communities are assured of the security of existing within their own boundaries. They are ultimately responsible for their own destiny, but can, and indeed do, effectively co-operate, because they can enjoy both that mutual respect and their own security. Destroying that relationship by disrespecting the border would heighten the potential for conflict and mistrust, and would be counter-productive. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider that issue.

Briefly on voter registration, during the passage of the Bill we debated to a certain extent the fact that if the Government applied this regimented rule of equalised constituencies, it could be justified if one believed that the numerical basis on which the rule was applied regimentally was sound. The Government's own Electoral Commission report in March 2010 identified a wide range of variations in voter registration levels. The report, "The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain," states in its key findings:

"National datasets and local case study research suggest there may be widening local and regional variations in registration levels...Recent social, economic and political changes appear to have resulted in a declining motivation to register to vote among specific social groups. This is despite the fact that electors now have more options than ever open to them to register...Under-registration and inaccuracy are closely associated with the social groups most likely to move home...Each revised electoral register lasts for 12 months, from December to December; during that period, the rate of completeness is likely to decline by around 10 percentage points".

The justification for believing that we are achieving equalised constituencies is therefore rather suspect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth has mentioned, it is not just the issue of under-representation but the risk of over-representation, at least of those who choose to register and have an entitlement, to a certain extent, to register in more than one constituency because they own a second home.

In my constituency there are nearly 3,500 second homes according to the latest available figures on the 10% council tax discount for people with second homes. A large number of properties, however, have been taken off the council tax register because the owners, although they use the properties and might register to vote from them, have chosen to pay a business rate because they are also letting them. A large number of owners chose to do that for reasons of tax efficiency and the financial efficiency of their businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall has nearly 4,000 such properties in his constituency.

In a letter to me on 26 July 2010, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, stated:

"With regard to second home owners, in our view it is unlikely that owning a second property which is visited only for recreational purposes would meet the residency qualification...Owning and paying council tax on a property alone is not sufficient to satisfy the residence qualification: although this may give an indication of connection to an address, it is not evidence of residence. However, each decision must be made on a case-by-case basis by the Electoral Registration Officer".

She goes on to cite case law, and the fact that illegal registration carries a potential fine of £5,000.

Thankfully, in time for this debate, the Minister has very kindly responded to a letter I sent to him on 7 December 2010 on this issue. He notes the issues that have been raised by the electoral returning officer for Cornwall council, and the suggestion that people who are registered in more than one local authority should be required to nominate a main residence, which would then be designated as the area in which they were eligible to vote. The Minister says that he will give the matter further consideration, stating:

"I have asked my officials to explore the issues connected with dual registration and will keep you informed of any developments."

That is helpful for today's debate. We know about the parallel issues regarding student registration. The issue needs to be addressed, and I hope that the Minister will do so.

The primary theme of the debate-I will bring my remarks to a close in a moment-is the Government's justification for applying this rigid approach to equality of constituency. The Minister is aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is being debated in another place. On this occasion, as perhaps on other occasions when such constitutional issues have arisen, Members of Parliament have an interest in the legislation as it primarily affects them. In such cases, I argue that the Lords should have a greater say rather than a lesser say about the outcome, and I hope that the Government will take that on board.

House of Lords reform will be considered in due course, and we will no doubt pass comment on such reform. I fear that in the coalition agreement-something I have not entirely seen eye to eye with my party over-the Government have tended to get the issue the wrong way round and they seem to have engaged in a fashionable and populist view. Of course, superficially I can see that a directly elected second Chamber sounds attractive in many ways. However, the Government are considering how people get into the Chamber before they have considered what that Chamber is for. On Lords reform, I agree with the Government that the hereditary principle should not apply and that patronage is unacceptable. However, I hope that before we get too entangled in debates about how people might arrive in the second Chamber-if indeed we have a second Chamber, and I believe that we should-we will first have the opportunity to consider what the second Chamber is for. That might inform the debate about the best and most appropriate means by which people arrive in the House of Lords.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am delighted that he has moved on to the subject of the House of Lords and its potential reform because I feel that the issue of the House of Commons has, to a certain extent, been debated and dealt with in the Chamber. We talk a lot about individual Members and the community involvement of a representative of a particular constituency. Can it be argued that while the House of Commons represents the population and should be proportionate to that, there is potential for House of Lords reform to be based around communities or regions? For example, Cumbria or Cornwall could be represented in the House of Lords. That would be regionally based and therefore different from representation in the House of Commons.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

That helps me with the point I am making. First, we must consider what we need a revising Chamber for. I hope that it is for revision and sober second thought, but not to trump or usurp the primary Chamber. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about how to ensure that all nations and regions of the UK are properly and fairly represented within the second Chamber. That is the second stage of the debate, but first we must understand what that place is for.

The hon. Gentleman emphasises that we have debated this issue and the Bill-I have been looking back over debates on the Bill that we have had in the Commons. However, if the hon. Gentleman studies such debates, he may agree with me that we have not had adequate opportunity to explore fully the aspects of the Bill that I have highlighted today, and I hope that the Minister has taken note of that. I suspect that another place will revise some aspects of the legislation that I have just described, and I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on those amendments when they come before the Commons.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute 11:36 am, 11th January 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew George on securing the debate. I agree that when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was on the Floor of the House, we did not have an opportunity to explore the issues as fully as we would have liked. I am glad to have the opportunity to do that today.

The role and purpose of Members of Parliament can be divided into two separate functions. First, we effectively form an electoral college for electing a Prime Minister, and secondly, we represent communities. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, for example, there is no formal vote in the House of Commons to elect a Prime Minister. As a Government can exist only if they have the confidence of the House of Commons, Members of Parliament effectively form an electoral college for electing a Prime Minister. It is clear that for the fair election of a Prime Minister, Members of Parliament ought to represent constituencies that have the same number-or as near as possible to the same number-of constituents.

The other role of Members of Parliament is to represent communities. It is obvious that not every community in the country is exactly the same size, and it is fair to have slight discrepancies in the number of people in each constituency, particularly when taking into account that representational role. When the representational role was originally introduced, for many centuries Members of Parliament represented whole boroughs or counties, some of which had more than one representative. In the early days, the representational role was considered more important and boundaries were drawn to that effect. Obviously, as the years went on and people moved, it became more important to have, as far as possible, the same number of electors represented by each Member of Parliament. However, we still have those two roles. Clearly, the role of an electoral college would support having exact numbers in each constituency, while the role of representation would need a bit of flexibility. We must reconcile those two different roles.

Until this Bill, the reconciliation of those two functions was left exclusively to the Boundary Commission. It has always had the flexibility to take community boundaries into account, rather than just seek the same number of electors in each constituency.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

Could that difference not be dealt with by the ways in which Members of the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords are elected? That is a way those two issues could be reconciled.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I would like the electoral system for the House of Lords to represent larger communities-say, Scotland or the English regions. I think that the role of the House of Lords should be to represent those larger areas, rather than the smaller areas that Members of Parliament represent. I still think there is an important role for Members of Parliament in representing smaller communities.

As I was saying, the Boundary Commission has had flexibility in the past. Analysis of where the Boundary Commission has used that flexibility shows that the political effects of different constituency sizes have tended to cancel one another out. I am referring to the political effects of the Boundary Commission's decision to have flexibility, not regulations that we have had in the past about the minimum number of MPs that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must have. Obviously, having a certain minimum number of MPs for Scotland and Wales in the past has tended to help the Labour party more than any other party, but with the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, the last boundary review had the same quota for Scotland as for England, and I think it would be fair for that also to happen for Wales. However, in relation to individual constituencies, analysis shows that the political effects of different constituency sizes tend to cancel one another out.

Analysis of recent elections has shown that it takes more electors to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour MP, but that is almost entirely down to turnout. The turnout is much higher in constituencies won by the Conservatives than in those won by Labour. That is the main effect. The secondary effect has tended to be that people move from Labour-held constituencies into Conservative-held constituencies. Clearly, if there is a long time between boundary reviews, that has an effect, so I fully agree with the Government that we should be speeding up the process of boundary reviews. It would not be fair to have an election in 2020 based on electoral data from 2000, which is what we would have under the present system.

Although I agree with the Government on the issues that I have mentioned, I do not think it necessary to have the 5% straitjacket or to have exactly 600 MPs. We should allow the Boundary Commission some flexibility. The number of MPs should be, say, 600 plus or minus five. It is important to put a cap such as that on the number, because in the past, when boundary commissions have used their discretion, the number of MPs has tended to drift upwards. The number has come down only when there have been constitutional changes such as independence for the Irish Republic or the abolition of the rule that meant that Scotland had on average more MPs than England, to which I referred. When it has been left up to the Boundary Commission, the number has tended to creep up gradually over the years. Therefore, having a cap is correct, but there should be a bit of flexibility-say, 600 MPs plus or minus five.

As a country, we are fortunate in having a politically independent Boundary Commission. Many other countries have boundary commissions in which there is political interference: the United States is an obvious example. We should allow the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility than would be allowed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as it stands.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the independence of the Boundary Commission, or the boundary commissions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is vital, but they quite often get it wrong. In fact, invariably over the past few years, their first version has, as they themselves have readily admitted, not fitted the bill. That is why we think it very important to keep hold of public inquiries, whereby people can test in public the arguments about the shaping of constituencies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's argument in that regard. One of the things I have always found problematic with the present system is the fact that there are only 28 days for people or organisations to put in objections or suggestions. Many organisations-for example, community councils in Scotland-meet on a monthly cycle, and it was often just pure luck as to whether the community council was meeting at a time that would allow it to put in objections. Therefore, the Government's proposals in the Bill for a period of three months are very important. That will allow plenty of time for local debate. Twenty-eight days does not allow proper time for local debate, because by the time that a local newspaper has carried the detail of the proposal, a week of the 28 days will often be gone, and by the time that people get together and hold meetings, the whole of the 28 days will often be gone. The Government's proposal for three months but without a public inquiry will be an improvement, because it will allow local debate. Although there might not be face-to-face debates at a public inquiry, there will be local debates through the local press over a three-month period. That will allow many more people to participate than would be the case at a public inquiry. Ordinary people will not take several days off work to turn up to public inquiries, whereas they can engage in debate at local public meetings in the evening or in the columns of a local newspaper.

The 5% straitjacket that the Bill imposes is not an absolute principle, because there are exceptions for certain island groups and there is also a 13,000 sq km area cap. I fully support the clause in the Bill that says that Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have their own constituencies. Since 1918, independent boundary commissions have always allowed individual constituencies for those island groups. It was only at the last boundary review that Orkney and Shetland was written into legislation as having its own constituency, but the Boundary Commission still decided that Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have its own constituency despite its not being written into the legislation. I am fully behind the Government on that.

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, however, we would like the Government to elaborate on the principles behind where the exceptions should be. We were not able to tease out from them during the debate on the Floor of the House why the two island constituencies I have mentioned were to be exceptions, but there were not to be exceptions for other islands. As my hon. Friend pointed out, part of the Isle of Wight will share a constituency with the mainland. There is also the island of Anglesey. Under the new rules, the constituency that it would be in would include part of the mainland of Wales.

While we are talking about islands, I want to draw the Minister's attention to my constituency, which contains many islands. In fact, it contains 25 inhabited islands. Thirteen of those have a public air service or a public ferry service, or both. I visit all those islands as part of my constituency tour. I sent the Minister a copy of the itinerary for my constituency tour, pointing out to him that it takes several weeks to get round the constituency.

That factor is important. Constituents are entitled to have the opportunity to meet their Member of Parliament face to face. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives pointed out, there are electronic means of communication these days, but that is no substitute for the Member of Parliament going to individual communities in their constituency and seeing the facts on the ground-or, as my hon. Friend pointed out, at sea. It is also important that constituents be able to meet their Member of Parliament face to face in their own community. I would therefore like the Minister to elaborate on the reasons why the two island groups I have mentioned were chosen as exceptions, and not other islands.

Let me give hon. Members some statistics. As I said, my constituency contains 13 islands that can be reached only by an air or ferry service. That compares with only three in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, because of all the causeways that have been built there. That means that every island in the island group is connected to Lewis and Harris, the Uists or Barra by a fixed link. Therefore, Na h-Eileanan an Iar is in effect three islands, whereas my constituency contains 13 islands that can be reached only by air or sea. If we compare Argyll and Bute with Na h-Eileanan an Iar, we also find that Argyll and Bute has twice the land area and three times the electorate. The Boundary Commission could therefore perhaps be allowed some flexibility to take into account islands and large areas where few people live.

Elsewhere on the highland mainland, the Government have introduced the 13,000 sq km rule. It is important to note that that rule will not result in the creation of new constituencies that are more than 5% under the quota, but it will create three constituencies that are a strange shape. To get within 5% of the quota and to meet the 13,000 sq km rule, the Boundary Commission will have to create three strange constituencies, each containing part of the Greater Inverness area and a large part of the rural highlands and islands. One constituency will comprise part of Inverness, going north and west all the way to Cape Wrath. Another will contain part of Inverness and go all the way west to include the Isle of Skye. The third will contain part of Inverness and go south and east. Those three constituencies will look very strange, and there will be little shared community interest between the different communities in them. As I said, we are supposed to represent communities, but someone in a remote, rural part of north-west Sutherland and somebody in the city of Inverness have little shared community interest.

That leads me to suggest that the Government are being too formulaic in simply writing in a 13,000 sq km cap without taking into account a constituency's size and shape. Let me give the example of my constituency. Loch Fyne, which is a long sea loch, cuts the mainland part of my constituency almost exactly in two. If some miracle happened and Loch Fyne were suddenly filled in, my constituency's land area would increase, which would take it closer to the Government's 13,000 sq km cap. However, it would also make the constituency easier to drive around, because I would no longer have to drive all the way up to the top of Loch Fyne and all the way back down the other side when I went from Dunoon, where I live, to the western part of my constituency.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

The hon. Gentleman is not advocating filling the loch in, is he?

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

Loch Fyne is a beautiful loch with beautiful scenery, and I am certainly not advocating filling it in; I am just giving an example of how the land area would increase if the geography were different. That would take us closer to the Government's cap, but it would also make it easier to drive across the constituency. The point I am trying to make is that land area by itself makes for too crude a formula, and the rules should take into account the constituency's shape and the difficulties of travelling around the constituency. It is difficult to write such things into a formula, which is why we need to give the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility than the Government propose in the Bill. Islands, peninsulas, sea lochs and so forth must also be taken into account. The House of Lords will shortly re-examine the Bill, and I hope that the Government will be amenable to accepting amendments to give the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility.

To sum up, I am fully in favour of capping the House of Commons, but, again, there should be a bit of flexibility. I am also fully in favour of speeding up Boundary Commission proceedings. Furthermore, although it is important that constituencies have close to the same number of people in each, it is also important to have flexibility to deal with the small number of constituencies with unique geographic circumstances-rural constituencies in the highlands and islands, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey, and constituencies in Cornwall. Members from those places have come to the House to speak to Ministers and argue for a bit of flexibility. The constituencies where the Boundary Commission would exercise flexibility would be a tiny proportion of the whole. Making provision for such flexibility would improve the Bill and mean that we represented much more cohesive communities than we would under the Bill as it stands. I hope the Government will listen. We are fortunate in having a politically independent Boundary Commission, and we should trust it with a bit more discretion over constituency and community boundaries.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 11:55 am, 11th January 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part for the first time in a debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew George, if for no other reason than that the debate gives me an opportunity to repeat the arguments that I made on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on Second Reading. As I said then, there should be some flexibility in the 600-seat straitjacket, to borrow a phrase used by my hon. Friend Mr Reid.

Those of us who have been involved in politics for many years will have had opportunities to redraw boundaries at various stages and to make submissions to the Boundary Commission. Whether we are dealing with constituency or ward boundaries, the fact is that the jigsaw never fits together. It is a big mistake to put the commission in a straitjacket and to limit it to 600.

It is important that constituents identify to some extent with the unit of administration in which they live. That applies nationally, and I am a great believer in the idea that the nation state is the ideal unit of government. It also applies at local level. My constituency had the misfortune to be moved into the county of Humberside in the 1970s, and the legacy of that lives on. People deeply resent being moved around in that way.

I served as a constituency agent for 15 years before my move to the House. I served in the Gainsborough constituency, a large rural Lincolnshire constituency neighbouring mine, and it made me appreciate that identities vary considerably over geographically relatively short distances of 30 or 40 miles. To be perfectly honest, people in Gainsborough had no interest in what happened 30 miles down the road. Incidentally, that constituency, with the exception of one ward, had the benefit of being within one district council area.

Continually changing boundaries will impact on the vitality and sustainability of local political parties. The democratic process needs viable local parties and associations, but constant boundary changes inevitably impact on their viability. Taking one ward out of a constituency can render the local party virtually bankrupt if the ward's financial make-up means that it contributes greatly to the party. We need to think seriously about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute spoke about the step-by-step increase in the number of Members over the years. Although it is true that there has been an increase, the population itself has grown significantly. I sat in the upper House during its debate yesterday, and I was reminded that there were 33 million electors in 1945. The number of eligible voters has now risen to 45 million. So, although I have no instinctive intrinsic objection to rounding off a reduction in the number, I think that it is extremely foolish to limit it to 600.

As to the point that my hon. Friend John Stevenson made about reform of the House of Lords, I favour a predominantly elected upper House, and there is an opportunity, as he suggested in his intervention, to consider framing that House so that it clearly identifies with communities, particularly if we go along with what I regard as the misguided course of having 600 seats in the House of Commons.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 12:00 pm, 11th January 2011

I had not realised, Mrs Riordan, that Martin Vickers, would sit down quite so suddenly, even though you gave me a warning just before he began his speech that I would soon be called.

I, too, congratulate Andrew George. I think he blames me for his not having been able in previous debates to make some of the arguments he has made today. I note from the giggling at the far end of the Chamber that that is probably the tenor of his argument. However, he has been able to discuss some of the issues today. He is right that some of them are being debated in the House of Lords at the moment. As I understand it, they have another 70 or 80 sets of amendments to deal with, and of course the process there is rather different from that in the House of Commons. Rather more time is being devoted to the Bill in the Lords, and some issues are being talked through in rather more depth. I hope that in what is sometimes a less partisan environment, some of the changes that the hon. Gentleman has advocated today will come about.

I note that the hon. Members who have spoken so far have constituencies that are called "something and something"; or rather, Cleethorpes is not really like that-the constituency is just called Cleethorpes-but I note that its Member of Parliament refers to it on his website as "Cleethorpes, Immingham, Barton and the Wold Parishes". That just makes the point that in the historic past, when there were either county or borough Members of Parliament, everyone pretty much knew who represented them. If someone was described as the Member of Parliament for Manchester, someone who lived in Manchester knew that that was their Member of Parliament. However, through the passage of universal suffrage, the enfranchisement of women, and the steady process of changing the franchise and drawing up constituencies in the 20th century, we ended up with many constituencies that are incomprehensible to voters. One of my concerns is that the Bill now in the House of Lords will lead to a greater sense of uncertainty for voters about who is their Member of Parliament.

It is relatively easy in the Rhondda. Those who live in the Rhondda know they do, and the physical boundary is relatively well known, so people can work out quite easily that the person referred to as Member of Parliament for the Rhondda is their MP. In cities it tends to be more complicated. I suspect that things are fairly straightforward in Forest of Dean. My anxiety is that some of the provisions in the Bill will make it more difficult for voters to see such matters with clarity.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I am fortunate, in that I represent the city of Carlisle, which is easy to identify, but interestingly enough, in the seat of my neighbour, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, there are three district councils; one of the divisions of the county council is split between the two of us. In our experience, there does not seem to be that much of a problem in identifying which of us represents the people of the area. I question whether it is as big a problem as Chris Bryant thinks it is.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I do not question the hon. Gentleman's experience, although it is relatively new. However, things are certainly very difficult in many constituencies. I get more people thinking that they are in the Rhondda who are not than the other way round. People who live in Tonyrefail, who might one day-who knows?-be in the constituency of Greater Rhondda, but are presently in the constituency of Pontypridd, believe they live in the Rhondda. There is confusion, and my anxiety is that we should not make greater confusion for voters. Most of the time most voters do not worry about such matters. It is not the most important issue in their lives.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I entirely support the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Indeed, the boundary of my constituency changed at the 2010 election and those constituents who used to live in my old constituency still contact me. Given the arrangements in the Bill, that sort of thing would happen at every election, so there would be confusion. The point really is that while the hon. Gentleman is content about representing a constituency that is wholly the Rhondda-as is John Stevenson about representing one that is wholly Carlisle-under the Bill, at some point a line could be drawn right through the middle of either of those constituencies.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Yes. For some strange reason I seem to have been up in Oldham recently. Oldham East and Saddleworth feels as it if it has been slammed together with no consideration of what constitutes a community.

I do not want to focus too much on that issue; I really want to talk about equalisation of seats. I cannot remember which hon. Member said it, but it is absolutely right that the apparent party political advantage to the Labour party from the fact that it takes more voters to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour one is far more to do with turnout than anything else. The equalisation of seats will make barely any difference, according to calculations done by virtually every academic so far, to the partisan advantage of one political party or another. For that matter, a 5 or 10% leeway would not make a great difference, on a partisan basis, to one or other party. In Labour constituencies there have tended to be smaller majorities, but still safe seats, whereas a Conservative safe seat tends to have a very large majority, because there is a much higher turnout.

I support equalisation to an extent, and certainly as things stand the situation is not right; it is not acceptable and there should be greater equalisation. However, I worry about the Government trying to get 99% of all seats within a very tight band. That is a much tighter band than in any other country, and it is being done on the basis of registered electors, whereas most other countries use population. The hon. Member for St Ives was right when he said it would be a mistake if, because of the Bill, we ended up with-I think these were his words-"antiseptic constituencies" with permanently mobile boundaries. That would not be good for representation of views in Parliament or for ensuring that a full cross-section of British society is here. Nor would it make it easier for people to understand who represents them, and to maintain that continuity.

To give one tiny instance, if a constituent comes to a Member with a case and the Member takes it up, it might take many years, as did many of the miners' compensation cases that I took up. Someone whose Member stops representing them because of the boundary change must start all over again, from the beginning, because the data protection people have said that MPs cannot hand the file over to another MP. [Interruption.] The Minister is saying something. I do not know whether he wants to intervene; perhaps he will respond later.

On a point of information, international comparisons are often cited regarding the need for greater equalisation. In fact, in the United States of America, if the same equation is made concerning how many voters it takes to get someone elected, Wyoming has nearly 10.5 times the representation, for population, of California. They base their arrangements not on registered or eligible voters, but on population. Sometimes it is good to equalise-but only to an extent.

It is important to recognise the distinctness of various parts of the country when we are drawing up boundaries. Some have already been mentioned. The Isle of Wight was referred to in some of the debates we had in the House of Commons. We believe that the distinctness of the Isle of Wight should be recognised in the statute, and hold a similar belief regarding Cornwall. I note that yesterday was the anniversary of the crossing of the Rubicon. I do not know whether the crossing of the Tamar is still an ambition of the Government. In one sense, Cornwall is only administratively in England. It has a distinctness that should be recognised. If there were a referendum in Cornwall on whether Cornwall should have Cornwall-only seats, there would be an overwhelming majority in favour. I hope the Government will think again on that matter.

Many of the same issues apply to Anglesey, though in that case it goes the other way in being too small, as opposed to the Isle of Wight being too large. The point was made about Argyll and Bute, and, although it did not sound like special pleading, of course it was. However, the point was well made: it is in many ways a sparser constituency than the highland seats. There is a strong argument for the distinctiveness of Argyll and Bute.

Although I understand the issues about Wales-in particular north-west Wales, where there is a high concentration of people with Welsh as their first language-a drive towards equalisation may, and in some academics' views will, lead to no parliamentary seat having a Welsh-speaking majority. That would be a mistake in terms of how the British Parliament is viewed in Wales, and would incense a greater sense of nationalism. The Government should recognise that.

My final point on specifics that should be recognised concerns estuaries. Mr Reid referred to sea lochs, but it is important that wide estuaries such as those on the Mersey, the Humber, the Clyde, the Forth and the Thames should not be crossed when creating parliamentary constituencies. Some argue that that should apply to Welsh valleys, because of their peculiarities. It would seem odd if a small part of the top of a valley-even if there was no connecting road-was bunged into another constituency. However, I think most issues in the Welsh valleys can be addressed; there is no specific reason why not.

A 10% rather than a 5% leeway would mean there was no need to cross ward boundaries in the creation of seats. In some of the big city conurbations, that is important. There would be no need to cross county boundaries-all geographical and physical necessities that the land, or God or whoever has given us could be met, and there would be no dramatic harm to the representativeness that the Government seek to achieve in aiming for equalisation. I hope that, in striving towards their measures, the Government will look again at whether 10% might not be a better leeway than 5%.

I want briefly to say a couple of words about the number of seats in Parliament. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that the number has always crept up, except when the Irish Free State was created and we cut the numbers. However, the measure we should think about first is the nature of the job of a Member of Parliament. International comparisons were made by the hon. Member for St Ives. However, to compare the UK with Spain, France or Germany-where Governments are not constituted in the same way-is to compare apples with pears and is therefore mistaken. Similarly, the powers held by parliamentarians in those countries are very different. In France, much more is devolved and done by councillors. We have far fewer councillors-one for every 3,000 voters, whereas in France it is one for every 110. Those comparisons do not bear examination.

As MPs, we create the Government; we are the electoral college, as it were, for the Prime Minister and the whole of the Government. All Ministers have to come out of Parliament, because the amendment in the 1689 Bill of Rights was lost. Dramatic cuts in the number of MPs would be a mistake. The number of constituents has grown and grown over the years, as has the amount of casework we are expected to do.

I have two final points. I wonder how the AV Bill-I cannot remember what it is called-

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

From a sedentary position, the Minister has helped me out. I wonder how the Bill is doing in the House of Lords. As I understand it, the Bill has to be out of the House of Lords in February in order to have the referendum in May. With another 70, 80, 90 sets of amendments, I wonder whether it is now possible for the Bill to have the two weeks between Committee and Report stages in the House of Lords, and come back to the House of Commons. I urge the Minister-indeed, I make him an offer: if he splits the two elements of the Bill, as we urged in the beginning, we could help him get his AV referendum in time for May.

House of Lords reform has been briefly mentioned by several Members. When are we going to have that Bill? It was originally going to be before Christmas, then at the beginning of the year, then in January. We hear rumours of March, April and May. When will we get the Bill?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 12:16 pm, 11th January 2011

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Like my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, it is the first time I have done so.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew George for securing the debate, and giving me and Chris Bryant the chance to spend the entire morning in Westminster Hall, debating a fascinating range of topics.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives ranged widely across a number of constitutional issues. I hope I will deal with all the points he raised, but I might be a little pressed. I will deal first with the issues he raised, as it is his debate, and then touch on some raised by other Members. He started with the question of why the Government settled on 600 as the right number for the House of Commons. We were frank during the debate on the Bill. There is no magic about it; it is a judgment. The two coalition parties had different views before the election. They both wanted to shrink the size of the House of Commons: the Conservatives to 585, and the Liberal Democrats to 500, albeit with a change to the voting system. We settled on 600, which we thought was the right balance; as several Members have pointed out, constituencies should not be so large in population that Members could not do the job. With 600, most constituencies would be within a range that Members today would recognise, and we do not think it is an enormous leap.

The hon. Member for Rhondda said he would be against a dramatic cut in the number of MPs. The Government would be as well; we are not making a dramatic cut. We are making a modest reduction of about 7%. One can argue about it, but I do not think anyone can say that a reduction of 7% is dramatic.

I was aware of the Bill brought forward by the hon. Member for St Ives. He said that his Bill proposed a reduction to 500, primarily as a result of devolution. Prior to the formation of this Government, people argued that we should treat the parts of the United Kingdom that have a devolved Parliament or Assembly differently from those parts that do not, in terms of entitlement to seats at Westminster. That idea was put forward but the Government decided not to do that. We were keen to treat all parts of the United Kingdom in the same way, so the quota is a United Kingdom quota. Because of where we start from, the impact of the change in the number of seats will differ in different parts of the UK. That is because we want the weight of a constituent's vote to be equal across the United Kingdom, and that is an important principle.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, supported by my hon. Friend Mr Reid, wanted to know what principles guided us on the two exceptions. First, we wanted a set of principles that were widely applicable and that gave the boundary commissions the chance to allow it. We made only two exceptions out of the 600 seats for exceptional geographical reasons; the constituencies both have small populations but are large enough to sustain a Member of Parliament, as they do now, because of their dispersed geography.

I know that the matter is debatable. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute demonstrated an encyclopaedic knowledge of his constituency, as one would expect from an assiduous Member of Parliament; he certainly taught me something. None the less, I still believe that the Government have made the right judgment about the two exceptional constituencies that he selected. I would not be so churlish as to suggest that he was pleading for anything special. However, the hon. Member for Rhondda did so; he engaged in special pleading for Wales, something about which those who participated in the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill heard an awful lot. We heard much about the Welsh valleys and Welsh constituencies, as the record will show.

My hon. Friend Sarah Newton, who is not in her seat, made some specific points about Cornwall. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives spoke about what he called-I have to be careful here-the border between Cornwall and England. I think that he raised exactly the same point when we were debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He referred today to the length of that debate; we had eight days of debate in the House, and he has obviously had the opportunity today to expand on the points that he made then.

In response to that debate, I said that although that view is shared by some in Cornwall, the Government's position is that Cornwall is part of England and the United Kingdom; we do not recognise that boundary in quite the same constitutional way as does my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. I understand why my hon. Friend takes that view, but I was surprised that the hon. Member for Rhondda appeared to suggest that the boundary had constitutional significance. I do not know whether the Opposition have changed policy and are trying to separate Cornwall from England, but I do not suggest that my hon. Friend takes that view.

My hon. Friend made some good points, including about the difficulty of getting to London from his constituency. That is something that he and I can both take up with First Great Western. I see that my hon. Friend John Penrose has arrived for the next debate; he, too uses that train service and will concur. That will be the best way to deal with that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives accepted in general the strong case for moving towards equal seats. I was most impressed by his novel arguments, which I have not heard before, for claiming significant parts of the Atlantic ocean as part of his constituency. We might get into all sorts of territorial difficulties if we did so, but it was a novel idea.

My hon. Friend and his fellow Members of Parliament for Cornish seats met the Prime Minister and me to make a pitch and to explain why they believe that the nature of Cornwall is unique. I would leave him with this notion. The Government do not subscribe to the view that one cannot represent constituents in Cornwall and other parts of the country, Devon being the most obvious. We already have Members of the European Parliament who represent the whole of the south-west of England, and so represent constituents in Cornwall, in Devon and, indeed, in Gibraltar perfectly ably. Cornwall and Devon also share a police force. The border is not inviolate.

I do not accept the argument put by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, although I know that my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray shares his view, about a Member of Parliament representing, say, part of Plymouth and part of Cornwall. Of course, some things are more important to one group of constituents than to others, but that is true of many constituencies. I have a fairly large rural constituency, and at one end of it a particular range of matters will be important that have no connection with those at the other end because of the distance. Nevertheless, I have to represent them all and understand all those issues. That is part of the job of being a Member of Parliament. The Government do not share the view that it is impossible to deal with that.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Of course it is not impossible to represent Gibraltar and Cornwall; nor is it impossible to represent places on either side of the Scottish border. However, the Minister has rather inventively twisted some of my evidence on what was so exceptional about the two constituencies that have been preserved. The question that he must address is what is the problem in allowing the Boundary Commission reasonable flexibility to allow constituencies that have a clearly shared view about where their boundaries should lie? That is particularly so as those areas outside them would not be affected and certainly would not be protesting against such a settlement.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The principle that votes should be of more equal weight across the country is important. Several Members have used words and phrases such as straitjacket and the rules being too tight. If we were to say that all constituencies had to be exactly the same size, my hon. Friend's argument would have some force. However, although we are reducing flexibility there is still a 10% range in the size of constituencies. Based on the 2009 data, constituencies will broadly range from about 73,000 to almost 80,000. There is still a fair bit of flexibility, which allows the independent boundary commissions to take account of issues such as local authority boundaries, community boundaries and the geographic features that we have to contend with.

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the boundary commissions said that they would be perfectly able to deal with the rules proposed in the Bill, and that it would not present them with insuperable problems. We are fortunate that the four boundary commissions are politically independent. Those who pretend that some sort of gerrymandering exercise is going on are simply wrong. That phrase emanates from the USA. As one of my hon. Friends said, it is not that there is just some political interference there; in some parts of the United States, the boundaries are drawn up by the legislatures. It is not that there is interference, but it is a political decision on where the boundaries should be. We do not do that here. Parliament sets the framework, but decisions about where the boundaries should go are taken by boundary commissions.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

That is the nub of the debate. The exception argument for the two preserved constituencies that the Minister has advanced this morning does not deal with the question of why that principle was decided upon, and why that reasonable flexibility should not also be applied for other constituencies.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I shall deal briefly with the other two points raised by my hon. Friend, as they were important, particularly so in his part of the country. He was right to draw attention to the need for an accurate and complete electoral register. Our electoral registration system means that 91% or 92% of eligible voters are registered. Internationally, that is pretty good. However, the Government are not complacent and want to do better. That is why I wrote to every local authority in the autumn, inviting them to take part in pilots to consider using public sector databases to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register. We had a good response, and I shall announce which local authorities are to participate in those pilots in due course.

I wrote to my hon. Friend about dual registration, which I know is important in Cornwall. He referred to people who own second homes and who choose to pay business rates because they let those properties. The rules are fairly clear. People who let their property are not entitled to register to vote. There must be a residence qualification, and there is case law on the matter. Electoral registration officers have to make such decisions on individual cases, and they should do so. I have received letters from people who object to not being allowed to register to vote, but one test is for the electoral registration system to be robust with them. Those who own a second home who pop there for only a week every year for a holiday will almost certainly not fulfil the criteria for being resident and entitled to vote. Local authorities could do a lot to help with that.