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Boundary Commissions Bill

Volume 210: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1992

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As amended, considered; reported, with amendments.

3.47 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am extremely pleased that this legislation has made its way to this stage in the parliamentary process comparatively quietly. It is a tribute to our parliamentary democracy that it has aroused relatively little controversy, and that only a small number of right hon. and hon. Members voted against its Second Reading.

The majority of right hon. and hon. Members are committed to our system of single-member constituencies as a fair way of producing a representative assembly to support the Government of the country. If we defend that system—as the majority of us do—it is important regularly to revise the numbers in each constituency to take account of demographic change, and to ensure as far as practicable rough equality between constituencies.

Our system is well trusted and impartial. The boundary commission process is fairly lengthy, and allows for considerable debate and local public consultation. It is necessary that the commissioners undertake a thorough review at rather more frequent intervals these days, because the population moves about so much across the country.

A problem exists because we have reached the stage where one person's vote is worth almost twice that of another person in England alone, because constituencies have drifted apart in size. Previous boundary commission reviews were probably too infrequent—as long apart as every 15 years—for today's demographic changes. It is therefore necessary to ensure that we keep to a sensible timetable. The present review should be completed by 31 December 1994, and thereafter we will move to an eight to 12-year cycle.

Although about 40 hon. Members were prepared to vote against the Bill on Second Reading, Members on both Front Benches were in agreement. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for welcoming the Bill. He said that it was important to put it on the statute book to ensure that the review is completed within a reasonable time, so that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House can contest at the next general election constituencies which have had time to settle down, and in which loyalties have become established.

I am sure that all the party organisations will want to know the boundaries a reasonable time before the next election, so that they can establish the various bodies and candidates.

I voted against the Bill on Second Reading. Derbyshire is in the first tranche of counties to be examined in an investigation relating to the parallel question of the local government boundaries. The three north Derbyshire seats—Bolsover, Chesterfield and Derbyshire, North-East—all conform to the normal electoral pattern, with between 65,000 and 68,000 electors. May we have a guarantee that, irrespective of what happens in regard to the local government boundary commission and anything that may happen to Derbyshire, the parliamentary boundary commission will not interfere with constituencies of that kind, which were revised in 1983? Any changes in constituencies that fitted the bill perfectly in 1983, and have not altered dramatically since then, would constitute an act of political involvement and an attempt to rig the position for the Tory party.

One of the great strengths of the system is the fact that the Home Secretary of the day cannot direct the boundary commissioners to reach any conclusions about any constituencies. The rules in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 determine the way in which the commissioners proceed, but ultimately their independent, objective judgment will decide where the boundaries lie, in Derbyshire and elsewhere. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), has made his point about the Derbyshire constituencies. As it happens, I represent a constituency with little more than 70,000 voters, which is coterminous with the borough council. No doubt, if any proposals are made to change his constituency, the hon. Gentleman will do the same as I would, and argue his case before the boundary commissioners and at the public inquiry.

I have no reason to believe that the local government boundary commission, which has not even reached Derbyshire yet—Derbyshire is merely at an early point in its timetable—has any views about local government boundaries in the county, and I certainly do not believe that the parliamentary boundary commissioners will alter constituencies needlessly. Changes should arise only when it is necessary to make constituencies conform as closely as possible to the national quota, and to ensure that there are no major discrepancies between neighbouring constituencies.

The key point is that I cannot influence boundaries in Derbyshire or anywhere else; nor should I be able to do so. The boundary commissioners must be independent, and I think that it is generally accepted on both sides of the House that they are.

Why are the two reviews not to be kept entirely separate, so that one review cannot possibly have an impact on the other? The Department of the Environment's guidance notes about the local government review state that the parliamentary boundary commission must be one of the bodies that engage in consultation. If it engages in consultation in connection with one review, it must also do so in connection with the other, and the two reviews will become intimately linked as a result.

That will affect Derbyshire, which is in the first tranche of counties to be dealt with in the local government review but not in the first tranche to be dealt with in the parliamentary review. The connection should be kept out of the picture, because it is open to manipulation under the terms of reference set out for the commissioners.

The two processes are essentially separate, except in one respect. The parliamentary boundary commissioners have always been enjoined to have regard to local government boundaries when making their recommendations, and as far as I am aware that has never been seriously challenged. The parliamentary boundary commissioners—particularly in shire counties of the kind that we are discussing—do not cross county boundaries except under carefully prescribed rules.

All of us who have spoken so far have constituencies in the east midlands. I do not recall anyone seriously suggesting the creation of constituencies that cross the boundaries between Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. When the Local Government Commission has been set up—it is not my responsibility but that of the Secretary of State for the Environment—it will seek the best organisation of local government, will consider the possibility of unitary authorities and will clearly have regard to local loyalties and the effective delivery of local services. It will impinge on the parliamentary boundary commissioners only if it starts altering county boundaries.

Although parliamentary boundary commissioners are not enjoined to do so, in our experience they have tended to try to get the constituencies to coincide with the local borough or district boundaries where that is convenient. My constituency in Nottinghamshire is the only one where it is not convenient. Other than that, I am not aware of any overlap between the two.

The Bill covers the overlap only because, if the parliamentary boundary commissioners were enjoined to avoid crossing local authority boundaries, the problem would arise of which local boundaries they should have regard to, when we are in the process of local government reform in Wales and England and, under a slightly later timetable, no doubt in Scotland. Clause 3 clarifies the position by providing a cut-off date—before that date local authority boundaries will be taken into account, and after that date, usually they will not.

We have tried to maintain reasonable bipartisanship and have tried to make the Bill straightforward, so as to clarify the timetable. In so doing, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), and I have listened carefully to some of the arguments about the drafting of clause 3, and have amended it in response to the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). I think that everyone is now happy with it.

In our previous debate, there were many exchanges about Mr. Banham and the local government boundary commission. Strictly speaking, they are irrelevant to the Bill. We are dealing with the parliamentary boundary commission, and local government reorganisation is relevant only where local government boundaries have been changed and have a bearing on the parliamentary work as described in clause 3.

May I raise the question of Scotland with the right hon. and learned Gentleman? Of course the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for the local government boundary commission and the boundary commission for Scotland. I am disappointed, to say the least, that a member of the Scottish ministerial team is not present. At the moment, a local government boundary commission is operating in Scotland, drawing up new boundaries for the existing local government structure, but in September we shall have a White Paper on the total reorganisation of local government in Scotland.

In Committee, the Minister of State implied that there was a fair chance that the 1994 regional elections would be cancelled, so that local boundary commission is operating ' to no good purpose although the boundary commission may take into account any recommendations that it makes about boundaries for local government seats.

The hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me on issues which he knows perfectly well should be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Whether my right hon. Friend is about to publish a White Paper on further local government reform, when he will do so and what it might contain are matters on which I cannot be drawn and of which my knowledge is very slight. Ministers from the Scottish Office have at times been present during our debates, usually listening to English exchanges, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my hon. and right hon. Friends in the Scottish Office. The position in Scotland is the same as that in England. The parliamentary boundary commissioners will have regard to any changes in local government boundaries which come into effect by the cut-off date described in clause 3.

One particular problem with local boundaries caused much debate in Committee. There was considerable concern about London boroughs and whether the parliamentary boundary commissioners should be enjoined to cross them. A perceived difficulty arose out of rule 4(1)(a)(ii) in schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986:
"no London borough or any part of a London borough shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other London borough".
A number of hon. Members. including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), were concerned that, if the boundary commissioners adhered rigidly to borough boundaries in London and allocated seats between boroughs on the principles sketched out, we were likely to have new constituency boundaries in London which would give rise to great discrepancies in size between one constituency and another. Other hon. Members also thought that, in London, it would make more sense to cross borough boundaries in some circumstances to achieve constituencies of a more equal size.

The case was made cogently in Committee. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, when he wound up, undertook that we would look at the matter. I assure the House that my hon. Friend and I have given considerable personal attention to the question whether the rule in schedule 2 should be deleted from the Bill. We have decided that it should not be, although we had considerable sympathy with the case put to us. One can draw up good examples of neighbouring London boroughs in which a strict adherence to borough boundaries will give rise to considerable discrepancies in size. However, I point out to those who raised the point and who wonder why the Bill is unamended on that point on Third Reading that it is our considered opinion that rule 5 in schedule 2 gives the boundary commission sufficient flexibility to behave in the way that is being urged on it by hon. Members if it judges it fit.

I have read out the strict terms of rule 4(1)(a)(ii) in schedule 2, which appears to give rise to difficulty about not crossing London borough boundaries. However, the rule is qualified clearly by rule 5 of schedule 2. Rule 5 makes it clear that
"a Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of rule 4 if it appears to them that a departure is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota, or between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies in the part of the United Kingdom with which they are concerned."
We are satisfied that the boundary commission, which will have regard to that rule, can, if it judges fit, use that rule to justify crossing borough boundaries, which it declined to do when it adjusted the London boundaries on the previous occasion.

Rule 5 gives two bases on which it is perfectly proper for the boundary commission to depart from a strict adherence to the boundaries. The first basis is when it is necessary or desirable to avoid a disparity between the electorate of a constituency and the national quota. That is less likely to arise in the London area. More importantly and relevantly in parts of London, borough boundaries may be crossed if it is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies. I am sure that the boundary commissioners will have regard to what was said in debates in the House. They have all the powers that they require.

As I said to the hon. Member for Bolsover a moment ago, it is extremely important that, in the end, the boundary commissioners themselves must decide whether it is desirable to cross borough boundaries. I have no doubt that they will do so if they judge it necessary to get a fair and proper result in London.

The Bill in its present form, which I ask the House to give a Third reading, is essentially similar to the Bill that was introduced earlier. I described it then as a straightforward measure which would make no change to the rules for the boundary commission's operations and which would confirm the timetable to which most hon. Members expected the boundary commission to adhere in any event. I said that it would help to ensure that the timetable was achieved by making arrangements for some modest extra resources to be provided and for the commissioners to be paid for their public work. We all hope that the commission will finish its work in good time to enable us to fight the next general election, whenever it comes, on sensible boundaries for which everyone is prepared.

I do not know whether there will be a repeat today on Third Reading of the modest vote against the Bill that occurred on Second Reading. I continue to fail to see why anyone should sensibly want to repeat that vote. When the Bill was first published, some Labour Members denounced it as gerrymandering. However, it seemed at the time, and it has become clear since, that they did that without studying the process upon which we were going to engage.

The only reason to vote against Third Reading would be to try to ensure some delay in boundary changes, with the result that the next election would be fought on geographical distributions that are more than 20 years old. I hope that no one will again try to take the high moral ground and argue that it is desirable to fight an election on population distributions of 1976.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook encountered some criticism. Mutterings in the corridors have reached my ears about the fact that the Opposition did not divide on Second Reading against this Bill, which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook quite rightly recognised to be a sensible measure. If there is a Division against Third Reading, that can occur only because someone has decided to vote against the Bill for the sake of it. However., for the benefit of our parliamentary democracy, I trust that there will be an uncontroversial, straightforward end to our proceedings.

I was one of those who advocated for voting against Second Reading, and I did so. I want to make it abundantly clear that I did so because the Government introduced the Bill without any consultation with other political parties. They introduced it in a spirit of partisanship, and they have substantively changed the law in respect of Scotland. Although the schedule to the Act that the Secretary of State cited makes it clear that the boundary commission in Scotland is required to have regard to local government boundaries, as a result of the Government's gerrymandering objectives, the boundary commission for Scotland will not be able to follow current local government boundaries. Those were very good reasons for voting against Second Reading.

I am glad that we have heard that last-minute explanation of what the vote was supposed to be about. However, I am not convinced by it.

As I have already explained, the Bill does not change the rules. The Scottish boundary commission will follow current Scottish local government boundaries unless new ones have come into effect by the cut-off date. Having listened to the Second Reading debate and the Committee stage, which was taken on the Floor of the House, I have yet to hear any substantive objections to the terms of the Bill from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I believe that the underlying point is accepted by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan).

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland advocated a quite different method of electing Parliaments. He believes in proportional representation. He does not support the single-constituency method of electing Parliaments. If I were to attribute to him the kind of unworthy motives that he somewhat lightheartedly attributes to us, I could say that it was in his interests to reduce the single-constituency method to the ridiculous and to have people represented in thoroughly disproportionate constituencies to provide him with an extra argument for moving to another method.

However, those of us who believe in the single-constituency method know that it has always required periodic, objective review to ensure that the constituencies remain roughly of the same size. That is what the Bill does, and I commend it to the House.

4.8 pm

I get the impression that the Secretary of State would like a vote at the end of the debate. The fact that the Bill's principle at any rate is not controversial seems to be a matter of regret for the Secretary of State. It does not suit his temperament to have to introduce a measure or see its progress completed when its principle at least is not a matter of major controversy.

The principle that we need a review is beyond question. The present boundaries are drawn up on electorates that may have been correct 20 years ago, and there is no doubt that the population has moved since then. However, we are entitled and quite right to raise questions that arise from the Bill and, in particular, to refer to the interrelationship between local government boundary structure and local government boundary reviews and the work of the parliamentary boundary commission. Those two issues are related.

The impartiality of the boundary commission is not in question. However, we are entitled to question the rules and regulations which the House, and in particular the Government, lay down. The parliamentary boundary commission is rather like a train. If one lays the tracks to lead to an eventual destination, one can hardly be surprised if the train eventually arrives there. The same principle applies to boundaries.

In the main, the local authorities are the building blocks for the parliamentary boundary commission. Therefore, in directing or attempting to influence the boundary commission, it is important for the Government to ensure that the local authority structure and the building blocks are as they would like. For that reason, we raised several issues in Committee and divided the Committee on them. We were worried about the way in which the Government proposed to operate, particularly with regard to the local government review in England, Scotland and Wales.

I am happy to vote against measures if the principle is at stake, but it is important to vote against the right measures and not the wrong ones. As I said, the principle of the Bill is that we need to review the boundaries because there have been population shifts. That is beyond doubt. So we do not object to the principle.

However, while I accept that the 1976 electorate is no basis on which to conduct a general election in 1995 or 1996, I reiterate the point that we made in Committee. There is great anxiety that the 1991 registers in England and Wales and the 1992 registers in Scotland are inaccurate. There are grounds for suspecting that in some cases the registers are grossly inaccurate. In England alone, it is expected that more than 1.5 million people are not on the register.

I repeat that it is important that the boundary commission should have regard to established under-registration. If it does not, the recommendations that it makes in 1994 will be based on electorates that are inaccurate. We shall have exactly the same problem in 1994 and subsequent years that we readily accept that we have now—constituencies are based on electorates that have changed since they were originally drawn up.

As the Home Secretary said, anxiety was expressed on Second Reading about the wide scope of clause 3, which allows the parliamentary boundary commissions to take account of local government boundaries and structure. We tabled amendments on that point, and I am glad that the Government accepted the spirit of them. We in turn did not oppose the amendment which made it clear that the parliamentary boundary commissions could have regard only to boundaries that were enshrined in an Act or other measure. That amendment ensured that the commission could be sure that Parliament had approved the boundary changes.

However, in Wales there is a curious arrangement whereby the parliamentary boundary commission is entitled to consider boundaries approved only on Second Reading. In other words, changes could take place in Committee or on Report. That is not inconceivable in matters of local government structure. Changes could be introduced by all-party agreement. Conservative Back Benchers might press changes on the Government. It would be unfortunate if the Welsh parliamentary boundary commission introduced proposals based on boundaries proposed on Second Reading which might change. It would be regrettable if we allowed that to happen.

In any event, it is a bad precedent to invite bodies which are not part of the structures of the House of Commons to have regard to a preliminary discussion. Second Reading debates are merely preliminary discussions. It would be far better to require the boundary commission to have regard to something which is on the statute book.

Notwithstanding the changes made to clause 3, problems may arise. The Home Secretary said that it was a matter of clarification, yet in London we still do not know the scale of the changes that the Government have in mind. The Local Government Act 1992 makes it clear that the review body must consider the boundaries of local government in London. Of course, the structures and boundaries that will eventually be decided by the local government boundary commission are interrelated.

If the Government asked the local government boundary commission as early as this year to examine the structure of local government in London, they must be contemplating changes which may not be major but could be significant to parliamentary boundaries. I note that a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham North-West (Mr. Banks) in column 368 of yesterday's Hansard gave the impression that the Government contemplate such changes.

It is now common ground between the parties that the boundary commission should cross London borough boundaries where necessary. Where small local authority constituencies coincide with parliamentary constituencies such as that of Surbiton, which has an electorate of 42,000, it is clearly right for the commission to exercise its discretion.

I accept that this is not the Bill in which to change the rules in the 1986 Act—the consolidating Act. I had hoped that the Secretary of State might say something about the Government's intentions as regards those rules. Again, it is common ground that the rules are in need of revision. The Home Secretary has said that the boundary commission will have discretion, within the existing rules, to consider boundaries in London. If we accept that the rules need changing, it seems odd that we do not simply change them and remove that preliminary injunction from the boundary commission.

The problems will remain in England, where there is a creeping system of review and change. By the qualifying date of 1 June 1994, it is likely that the first tranche of changes in England will have been discussed and will be on the statute book. When we consider the apparently haphazard selection in the first tranche to be reviewed by Sir John Banham's commission, it is no surprise to find included several counties which are sensitive as regards parliamentary boundaries. We shall be interested to find out whether the Government seek to influence the Banham inquiry—either through the representations made, or in any other way—and thus indirectly the parliamentary boundary commission, to make certain recommendations about boundary changes.

If I am wrong and that is not the intention of clause 3, I wait with interest to discover the real intention. It seems clear that the Government hope to use the opportunity to influence the boundary commission, which has to depend on the local authority building blocks to do its work.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said, the position is different in Scotland. A commission is set up to consider appropriate parts of England and to hear representations about what people want. In Scotland, there is no similar provision—the Government will decide what is best. They will certainly consult, but having consulted—if the way that they have behaved in Scotland in the past 12 years is anything to go by—they will decide what is best. I suspect that they will decide what is best for Government and for the Conservative cause.

The Home Secretary fairly said that he did not know what was going on in Scotland and could not let us know what the Secretary of State for Scotland had in mind, but we have some clues. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), has been touring Scotland, encouraging any district, parish or group to make proposals. From what we know about the Under-Secretary of State, his approach to politics and the way in which he has conducted himself, it is clear that he is trying to create Tory enclaves wherever he can. The Tories face an uphill battle in Scotland to make any recovery. They will lose no opportunity to make that recovery, and overlook nothing in their cause.

I am sure that the Scottish Office intends to use the review of local authority structure to try to create units of local government that can conveniently be presented to the parliamentary boundary commission as units which ought to be taken into consideration during the review of constituencies. In Scotland, local authority boundaries are also the building blocks on which the parliamentary boundary commission will have to rely. For example, if the local authority review suggests single-tier authorities, which are small enough to be constituencies in Scotland, it will invite the parliamentary boundary commission to have regard to those.

While the impartiality of the Scottish boundary commission is beyond reproach, one cannot say the same of the Government's review of local authority structure in Scotland, which is entirely partial. Nothing that we have seen from the Government leaves us in any doubt that the Conservative party in Scotland will take the opportunity to influence the parliamentary boundary commission if it has a chance to do so.

The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the building blocks of parliamentary constituencies are local authorities. That is not the case, except in so far as the envelope is concerned within which the number of constituencies is calculated—for example, the counties in England and the regions of Scotland. At a lower level, the building blocks are wards and not local authorities. It is conceivable that, as is the case throughout England, Scottish parliamentary constituencies might have wards drawn from one, two, three or even more local authorities.

That happens quite often in England, particularly in urban areas, but in Scotland the constituencies have traditionally been more neatly contained within the regions because of our geography.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is right to say that the wards are the building blocks. At the moment, the parliamentary constituency of East Lothian corresponds with East Lothian district council, which is convenient for all concerned. However, if the Government suggested a local authority block of Berwick and East Lothian, it is not inconceivable that the boundary commission for Scotland might think that that would be a convenient parliamentary constituency. Lest there be any doubt, I am confident that the Labour party would hold that constituency as well, as it did so often when it existed previously.

That example, however, gives a clue to the way in which the Government think that they can consider creating local authority units that would be convenient for the parliamentary commission to consider. Under clause 3, as amended, the parliamentary commission would be entitled to consider such new local authority structures, provided they are on the statute book by 1 June 1994. I know that the Secretary of State does not know the timetable for Scotland, but it is clear to those of us who represent seats north of the border that the Government could meet that deadline of 1 June.

I am simply canvassing before the House the fact that the Conservative party may be tempted to try to create a local authority structure that would best suit its parliamentary boundary aspirations. I do not believe that that is the proper way in which to construct such a structure in Scotland. We should create local authorities that are designed to provide services and which will East for between 20 and 30 years, not simply a local authority structure designed to meet a need in two years' time, in June 1994.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was a coincidence between the local authority and constituency of East Lothian, but he asked what would happen if one had a local authority unit that consisted of that constituency and Berwick. The answer is that that local authority would be well above the quota for Scotland; and that therefore the parliamentary boundary commission would presumably have to subtract some of the wards from one end or other of that constituency to make up the numbers in another parliamentary constituency.

The hon. Gentleman has constantly mentioned the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Perhaps the most relevant example that I can cite is my hon. Friend's constituency of Eastwood, which consists of not only the district of Eastwood, but some of the wards from the district of Renfrew. That illustrates my precise point: that the building blocks are local authority wards, not local authorities.

I had forgotten that the hon. Gentleman has a close affection for the Under-Secretary—I believe that they went to the same university and that they share a similar philosophy.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about Eastwood. I am not suggesting for a moment that the boundary commission will not use its discretion. However, the Government will not pass by this opportunity, particularly in Scotland, to create local authority units that the parliamentary boundary commission could consider if they were in place by 1 June 1994. I accept that subtractions and additions can be made, and it would be daft to suggest that the creation of such new authorities is the sole reason for the local authority review.

Equally, people would be naive to believe that the Government are totally oblivious of the consequences of that review. We are all aware that, when parliamentary boundary commissioners conduct their inquiries and write their reports, they must have some regard for their likely consequence. Those people do not come from Mars, and it is not a matter of complete surprise when their proposals contain certain conclusions.

It is important to repeat that, when considering the local authority structure in Scotland, England and Wales, the primary job of the Government is to establish councils to provide services efficiently and responsibly. Those local authority structures should remain in place for between 20 and 30 years, and should not simply be designed for an entirely different purpose.

We are, by amending the 1986 Act, asking the commission to do a great deal, and I hope that it will bear in mind the need for local inquiries to enable people to have the maximum opportunity to consider the commission's recommendations. Although the Government want the commission to have regard to the boundaries in place by June 1994, the commission should bear in mind the need to produce a coherent report that will stand up to examination.

The Secretary of State referred to the need to change the 1986 Act and, in particular, to examine the rules. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) made the valid point that, if the Government intend to change the parent Act governing the legislation on parliamentary boundaries, there should be cross-party discussions, involving all the parties in the House. I had hoped that the Secretary of State would give that commitment today.

If changes are to be made, they must be above party politics and be seen to be fair and widely accepted. It is not good enough for a Government simply to drive through changes that they think may be beneficial to themselves. I hope that, at some point, the Secretary of State will say that, if there are to be further changes, discussions will take place among the parties in the House.

My hon. Friends and I do not oppose the principle of the Bill, and we shall watch with interest to see how the practice works. On that basis, we shall not oppose its Third Reading.

4.26 pm

I welcome the fact that the Bill has reached its Third Reading so smoothly, and I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) say that the Labour party would not oppose its principle.

I do not know whether he can take along with him the representative of the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who said on Second Reading—which was, after all, the vote of principle—that he had to vote against the Bill. I see that he is not noticeably supported today by the swelling ranks on the Bench alongside him. We look forward to hearing from him shortly the present position of the Liberal party on the issue.

I welcome the Bill. I have no personal axe to grind because, so far as I am aware, it is likely that my constituency will remain largely unmoved by the boundary commission's proposals. I can therefore speak with some independence in welcoming the exercise as a whole.

We should at the outset welcome, as has been repeated across the Chamber, the independence of the boundary commission. That should be stressed so that the general public may be assured that what is being proposed is independent and not partisan or party-orientated.

Was my hon. Friend present at earlier stages of the Bill when the hon. Members for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), in a disgraceful attack on the integrity of the parliamentary boundary commission, called it corrupt? That view has now been repudiated from the Opposition Front Bench, which presumably accounts for the absence, in disgrace, of those two hon. Members today.

We have certainly noticed the absence from the Chamber of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). One can hardly fail to notice his absence, since one notices so much his presence, especially when he is participating. I note my hon. Friends remarks and agree that the repudiation to which he refers represents a welcome change.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the parliamentary democratic system is fair, and it can be fair only if the allocation of seats to votes is, roughly speaking, fairly consistent across the country. I hope that, in due course, it will be across the United Kingdom as a whole, with no difference between the different parts of it. Perhaps one day we shall even find a solution to the Isle of Wight, although perhaps the population of that island will provide the solution.

The size of a constituency and the number of votes needed to elect a Member of Parliament are of paramount importance and should constantly be corrected. That is why the Bill is important. It was suggested that we might consider the way in which some Members represent more constituents than others. I recall the hon. Member for Newham, North-West suggesting that, while he had fewer constituents to represent, he had more work to do because they were from an inner city. I, too, represent an inner city, with at least 50 per cent. more electors to represent than he. If there is to be disparity, perhaps it should be in favour of the Member who represents more electors, with one's pay or expenses reflecting that fact. It is impossible to obtain absolute parity of representation.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central mentioned the question of registration. We need to be very careful about bringing that question into this debate at all. There are many reasons for people not being registered. In the case of Hackney, which is constantly being cited, it is quite clear that past registration irregularities were being corrected by the electoral officer. He went back to the system of registering only people who had filled in a form and applied to be registered, instead of taking it for granted that people who had not applied for years should automatically be re-registered. Quite clearly that is a question of registration, which should not be taken into account in this process.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we may talk about more than one principle? The principle of equal electoral districts is very important, as is the principle that everybody who can be placed on an electoral register should be so placed. When those two principles come into conflict, we have a problem.

Everybody who is entitled to register should be enabled to do so. If anyone chooses not to do so it is not for us to question or enforce.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) talked about the number of foreign residents—in the case of his constituency, refugees—who are represented by Members of Parliament. That too is a dangerous road to go down. At present, many refugees from Somalia are coming into my constituency. There are also many Italian and French residents in the constituency, and I often wish that they could vote, as I have no doubt that they would swell Conservative support in Battersea. Although they cannot vote, I represent them as best I can. In any case, registration should not be a matter for this measure.

The Bill is urgent, as the process should be completed in good time for the next general election. That is not because of any changes that may arise. In some parts of the country, there may be increased representation for the Labour party, and in others increased representation for the Conservatives. It is important that the process be completed well before the beginning of the next election campaign, so that candidates may know what areas they are seeking to represent. It is only fair to individual Members. From experience, we know that, because of the disappearance of a seat, members of the same party will have to compete against each other. That will apply to both Labour and Conservative candidates for selection. Losers should have time to look elsewhere.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather bizarre that, whereas it was four days before the last election that the Leader of the Opposition realised that he was going to lose, Opposition Members are starting to make excuses four and a half years in advance of losing the next election?

I find nothing bizarre about the Opposition, but my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I have no doubt will be borne out when the next election takes place on the basis of the new constituencies.

It is important that the changes be put in place as quickly as possible. This is a rolling programme. As we go from one election to the next, we are going from one boundary commission to the next. The next commission exercise will deal with the boundaries of the European constituencies. We must get the building blocks of the parliamentary constituency boundaries right.

I want to make two brief points about London. First, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will make sure that the edges of constituencies take open spaces into account. I realise that this has probably more to do with local government boundaries than with parliamentary boundaries, but there is a relationship. For instance, Clapham common is a finger of Lambeth that comes into my constituency. There have recently been national music days there—great celebrations at which I was pleased to be present. However, we have sometimes had events like the Sunsplash concert, which was not as welcome to my constituents, who had no say in the affair through their local or national representatives. It is important that open spaces on the boundaries of constituencies are carefully considered.

I take on board the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman about crossing London's boundaries. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will look again and again at that because we are concerned about getting it right. We must be able to cross London borough boundaries in this exercise. He rightly pointed out that clause 5 provides for discretion in the event of disparity but said that, last time, that discretion was not used. The disparity may have grown, in which case I hope that the boundary commission will have noticed that and will use the discretion this time.

My right hon. and learned Friend said that he hoped that the boundary commission would read our proceeding avidly and take that matter on board. I have slightly less confidence in its reading matter, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will draw to its attention the fact that the House wants them not only to note that possibility but to use it in London, so that we have as fair a system in London as in the rest of the country.

With that proviso, I welcome the Bill's Third Reading, and look forward to the measure being on the statute book soon.

4.36 pm

No one can oppose the principle that we should have equal electoral districts. In Committee, I pointed out that it was one of the chartists' principles and the Secretary of State said that, in that sense, we were all chartists now, because we wanted equal electoral districts.

However, simply because a Bill is attached to a principle, it cannot be allowed to waft through. A Bill is not a principle but a detail of the measure that it seeks to pursue. This Bill has two manifest defects which should be corrected before we can advance the much needed principle of equal electoral districts.

The first defect is that there is serious under-registration on the electoral register. It would not matter if it were spread throughout the country evenly, because the quotas would then simply be smaller than they should have been, and the seats would be drawn in much the same way. However, there is a serious maldistribution, which I described on Second reading and in Committee, which shows that the register is in a bad state.

We should not use the current electoral register to work out quotas or determine boundaries in shire areas. If we cannot put the electoral register right, as would be desirable, we are dealing with another principle: the important operation of democracy. Everyone should be placed on an electoral register, and everyone should have a say in an election. If we cannot put that right because of logistical problems, timing, or a need to progress towards equal electoral districts, are there not other steps that we can take to achieve better representation and more equal districts?

We have figures for the estimated population eligible to vote. Are not those figures adequate? They are based on the 1981 census and have been adjusted since then to take account of births and deaths——

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he will know that the Bill's scope is very narrow. He now seems to be dealing broadly with other basic issues that do not appertain to the Bill.

My argument is that we should not accept the Bill, because it is based on defective electoral registration provisions for determining quotas and drawing up boundaries. Surely, I should be allowed to explain the defects in the electoral register and how, even so, there may be a way out of the difficulties by accepting the relevant estimated population figures. It is a matter of whether those figures, the 1981 census and subsequent adjustments are good enough. It is possible that those figures are more accurate than the electoral register.

There is a problem with the 1991 census, because, despite Government efforts to introduce legislation on census confidentiality, it is generally accepted that 1 million people are missing from the register. That is mainly due to the poll tax, which has had a serious impact on electoral registration. Such problems should be corrected. The manifest defect of the Bill is inadequacy of the electoral registration figures being used. There may be other figures that we could use to correct that defect.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with Plymouth, but, curiously enough, the number of names on the 1991 electoral register has been found to be between 10,000 to 15,000 less than that of the names on the community charge register. That statistic changes the argument again, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has considered that aspect in relation to the Bill.

Clearly, the 10,000 to 15,000 extra people on the poll tax register should be transferred to the electoral register and added to the figures under discussion. We need the full figures of electoral registration. I was on the Committee that dealt with the poll tax legislation, when Opposition Members tabled an amendment to do just that. The amendment would have automatically transferred those on the poll tax register to the electoral register, so the transfer was no longer merely a possibility.

Order. I must restrain the hon. Gentleman. On Third Reading, he must restrict himself to the Bill's contents.

The Bill's second manifest defect is the interconnection between the local government boundary review and the parliamentary boundary review. The Bill affects a district such as Derbyshire, which is in the first tranche of local government boundary investigations. The timing of the new changes means that Derbyshire has wobbly boundaries; it does not have precise existing boundaries within which the parliamentary boundary commission may operate and determine the correct number of seats. The current quota of seats is 10.46, so there is a problem as to whether there should be 10 or 11 seats. If some of the points raised earlier are relevant, perhaps the district should have 11 seats.

When a local government boundary review is being conducted while a parliamentary boundary review is also on the cards, districts are likely to be adjusted for parliamentary purposes, to develop local government structures, not merely to fit parliamentary boundaries into shire regions. I do not know of any former legislation that has passed through the House in which boundary reviews or parliamentary affairs have been allowed to interfere with local government boundary reviews.

Department of the Environment guidelines state that among those who must be consulted by the local government boundary review are the parliamentary boundary commissioners. Those factors must be taken into account. The problem is not those who are carrying out the review or the commissioners' work but the imprecise nature of the parameters set down. We should act on existing local government boundary structures and fit the districts into them. The next review should take account of subsequent local government changes. Unless those factors are dealt with, and unless the Minister states on Third Reading that the defects will be corrected in another place, we have no alternative but to vote against the Bill.

One of my proudest achievements in the House is to have drawn attention to the defects in the extension of the expatriate vote from five to 20 years, and my insistence on speaking and voting against the measure at every opportunity, despite the line taken by the Opposition Front Bench team.

Yes, my hon. Friend also did so.

I intend to act in the same way today, as I believe that there is a fundamental problem in the democratic system. If we decide that the principle is enough and it does not matter about the detailed practicalities of implementation, I hope that, on 12 February, the Government will adopt the same attitude towards my Bill on electoral registration, as that cannot be challenged in principle.

4.46 pm

The number of local authorities affecting my constituency means that it is 25th out of a list of 32 London local authorities in terms of the ratio of Members to electors, so I hope that I am not governed by self-interest. However, there are matters relating to my constituency that are worth sharing.

Some 3 per cent. of the working population of this country work in my constituency. My 650 colleagues in the House are good enough to look after the other 97 per cent. of them, which creates a daytime population in my constituency of 20 times the national average. I make no complaint about that; the workers' employers must have access to me as their Member of Parliament on matters relating to employment, on the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. However, during a general election, when I shake the hand of someone in the street, I have a one in 25 chance of shaking the hand of someone with the right to vote for me.

I agree with the comments made in Committee by inner-city Members about the elusiveness of inner-city electorates. When the last boundary commission sat in advance of the 1983 general election, I had an exchange with the individual appointed by the Home Office to conduct the inquiry in my constituency. I drew his attention to the small electorates in the highlands and islands of Scotland and agreed that that fact was understandable as those constituents were a long way from London and their electors were a long way from one another. I wondered whether there could be a corollary in inner London, with its enormous daytime population. The person appointed, who is now a judge, smiled and said that he understood my problem, but could do nothing about it.

London is becoming an increasingly international city, and there is a steady increase in the number of foreigners living in the capital's centre. That means that the boundary commissioner can only make my problem worse: as the residential electorate falls, the commissioner has to expand the boundaries and, as a consequence, the daytime population becomes larger. I am not complaining about that, as we are all equal in the House, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) said, we all do our best to perform for our constituents what they ask of us.

I agree with one argument advanced in Committee by hon. Members with inner-city seats, and I believe that we have a shared experience regardless of parties. In 1983, the electorate in my constituency produced the lowest poll in the country in percentage terms, which was something of an embarrassment. In 1987, I vowed that my constituency should not come 650th again; it rose to 642nd, and in the process overtook six seats near inner London and two seats in Northern Ireland. In 1992, we did better still: we advanced to 634th. One more London seat fell below us and the two Northern Ireland seats continued to be below us; but, interestingly, the eight further seats whose poll turned out to be lower than our own were inner-city seats in, for example, Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Clearly, there is a genuine problem in inner-city seats in terms of the elusiveness of the electorate. I do not know whether London is becoming more enthusiastic about voting and other parts of the country are becoming less, but I say that in response to the observation by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling).

As one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, may I ask whether the logic of his argument is that he would prefer that I voted in London against him or that I continued to vote in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to be my constituent. We in inner-city seats value every constituent we have and, in the interests of democracy, I am perfectly happy that he should choose where he votes. If he chooses to vote against me, I am happy for him to do so.

As I say, I cannot share the willingness of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central to see London boundaries blurred in the boundary commissioners' report. I have described some of the problems that exist in inner-city seats. When I became the Member of Parliament for my seat, I had four police districts and four health authorities in my small constituency. I now have fewer police districts, but the same number of consultative committees. By definition, two local authorities are involved.

Where we have made progress in the past 15 years in terms of rationalisation, I would not wish to see us slip back. The fact that health authorities now march with local government boundaries is a major plus in terms of dealing with business in inner-city seats.

My right hon. Friend is arguing from the particular to the general. In his area, there may be a coincidence between local authority and health authority boundaries, but that is not always the case.

I was not seeking for a moment to suggest that my experience is universal. I was simply remarking that, where it does occur, it is of major benefit to the Member of Parliament concerned.

But the extraordinary mismatch between the boundaries of the Benefits and Contributions Agencies under the Department of Social Security and those of the constituency demonstrates the problems which exist for inner-city Members on top of the population issues that I have described.

All I would say is that some of the problems which we in inner-city seats have to put up with are sufficiently bad for us to notice and seek to cope with, and I would not wish them to be made worse by the suggestion that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central was pursuing.

4.52 pm

The right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) drew attention to a number of important points which show how, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to formulate a system of parliamentary seats which does not involve some distortion. But I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that the coincidence of boundaries for health authorities, local authorities and parliamentary constituencies is desirable wherever possible. The one complaint that I make against the Bill is that clause 3 will make that less, not more, likely, certainly in Scotland and probably in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The sour note of disagreement with the Home Secretary which I felt it necessary to inject earlier in the debate is due to my belief that, since the British Government enjoy such extraordinary and almost unlimited power derived from the dominance of a political party in the House of Commons, there is no more important and sensitive constitutional question than how the parliamentary constituencies are defined. If there is any inequity in the definition, it can produce an imbalance in government, it can distort the will of the people and can vitiate democracy itself.

It is for that reason that I do not believe that it is appropriate for a Government to bring forward a set of proposals which manifestly will change the structure of the parliamentary constituencies—that is their intention—without consultation with other political parties.

The measure was adumbrated before the election, and, notwithstanding what the Home Secretary has said, many commentators—of such knowledge and objectivity as David Butler of Nuffield college—pointed out that changes of the kind contained in the Bill would, in so far as such matters can be predicted, give the Government party additional advantage at the next general election. That in itself is not a reason for not proceeding with the Bill, but it is a reason for consulting the other parties to ensure that what is being done enjoys broad cross-party support, for reasons of equity and because it is a convention of the constitution.

This delicate constitution of ours, this unwritten constitution, if it is not to be besmirched in the eyes of the public, must see its conventions endure. The convention to which I refer was observed by one of the most distinguished Home Secretaries, Rab Butler, in 1956, the last time that a Government thought it right to alter the period during which the boundary commission would operate and draw up its proposals.

I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point that the changes would give an additional advantage to the Government party. It is a question not of an additional advantage, but of eliminating a disadvantage which exists at the moment because the boundaries are well out of date.

Had the hon. Gentleman been present at a previous stage of the Bill—I know that he was for most of the time—he would have heard some figures to illustrate the amazing difference between the number of votes required to elect a Conservative Member of Parliament and a Labour Member of Parliament. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the situation affecting Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament but, if he reflects, he may think that it was wrong to say that the measure gave an additional advantage rather than correcting a disadvantage.

The hon. Gentleman's intervention is purely semantic. The Bill alters the number of seats which it is probable that the Conservative party will win at the next election. That can be presented as an additional advantage or the removal of a disadvantage. I accept the hon. Gentleman's intervention for what it was worth.

I do not want to lose sight of the departure of this Home Secretary from the excellent precedent and convention followed by his distinguished predecessor in 1956. The entire 20th-century history of the operation of the boundary commission, right back to 1918, rests upon multi-party agreement. The initial modern process was established by a Speaker's Conference of all parties.

The reality is that the Bill, whatever its merits—I believe that it has some merits—has been introduced for wholly partisan reasons. It is clear that, notwithstanding what the Prime Minister has said about having expected the Government to win the last election, most departmental heads were not so sure that they would win, and certainly were not sure what ministerial office they would occupy. The Home Secretary could not have put his hand on his heart before the election and told anyone that he expected to carry out his present job. It was quite clear that whoever carried the responsibilities that he carries would be charged, as a good Conservative, with ensuring that this change would come in as quickly as possible.

I was a great admirer of R. A. Butler and a follower of his, so I would not lightly depart from precedent. All the hon. Gentleman's indignation would be justified if this Bill were altering the rules upon which the boundary commissioners operate. It does not do so, and was deliberately drafted to avoid that. As I was pressed to agree by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) a moment ago, some all-party consultation and a serious attempt to reach a consensus would be required before we changed the rules under which the boundary commissioners operate. This Bill avoids that. It merely provides a timetable. It makes provision for slightly added resources by paying commissioners, and also makes clear provision for what to do as local government boundaries change, as we all know they are to change.

Otherwise, it puts in place a timetable which the vast majority of hon. Members expected to see in any event. Most people expected that the next election would be fought on new electoral boundaries. If that brings the Conservatives advantage—nobody really knows that it will—it is because of demography taking people from the cities into the suburbs; it is for no other reason planned by the Government.

Had we consulted, we would probably have put the timetable in doubt by wasting time while we did so. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman would not object to the timetable we propose.

Order. I remind the Secretary of State about the length of interventions—not, I think, for the first time.

I suppose that I should be flattered to have provoked a speech of such length from the Home Secretary by way of an intervention: qui s'excuse s'accuse. He is wrong in saying that this Bill does not change the rules. It is perfectly clear that clause 3, which is the heart of the Bill, does change the rules in their effect. It is quite clear—as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said—that, as a consequence of the Bill, boundaries drawn up by local government boundary commissioners may be in place. These cannot be followed in some parts of the country; in Wales and in Scotland, where the boundaries are out of date, because the Government are proceeding with the restructuring of local government.

The purpose of the requirement in Scotland that the boundary commission shall have regard to local government boundaries, a requirement that is tampered with by this Bill, is to ensure as far as possible the coincidence of boundaries, for the sort of reasons to which the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred. The reality is that, if the boundary commission in Scotland follows the existing boundary commissions, its definition of parliamentary boundaries will be overtaken, possibly even within a year or 18 months, by the passage of another Bill by the House of Commons following the Government's stated intention to restructure local government. This will ensure that there is no coincidence of local government and parliamentary boundaries.

I do not say that that does not present problems, for I certainly believe that the time has come for a restructuring of local government in Scotland. I also believe that we need an accelerated timetable for introducing the new parliamentary boundary commission recommendations. But it is not acceptable for this Parliament to be bounced into a particular solution, a particular timetable, on a particular issue of electoral law summoned out of many which might have been chosen to remove distortions within our system. What adds insult to injury is the suggestion that this is not a partisan act. The reality is patently clear.

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and what is not patently clear to me is the point that he is seeking to make. According to this Bill, the parliamentary boundary commission in Scotland must take account of the local government boundaries in force in Scotland when it makes its report. It may not take into account any boundaries that may be changed after 1 June 1994. It is very probable, therefore, that the present boundaries will be the ones to which it will have to have regard. I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because it will have to have regard to present boundaries or because he thinks that it might have to have regard to other boundaries, if such boundaries are brought in and legislated for before 1 June 1994. I am puzzled, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can clear the matter up.

The Minister is in a position to follow this, because I alluded to the point at an earlier stage of the Bill, when I made the position entirely clear. He must also be well aware of what this Bill contains for Scotland, albeit that the Home Secretary appears ready to disallow collective responsibility for anything that happens north of the border.

The reality is that, as the Minister says, the boundary commission will report just before the restructuring of local government in Scotland. The consequence is that we shall very probably fight the next general election on boundaries that are drawn with regard to local government boundaries which have become historical. That is a very simple point. I cannot understand why the Minister, who is a very intelligent man and follows these things closely, cannot understand it.

The hon. Gentleman, having been a Scottish Member for some time, may recall that, when the new boundaries came into effect in the 1974 general election, it was just after the boundaries had been introduced for the new local government units in Scotland. Therefore, for a very long time, from 1974 to 1983, they represented the historical pattern of local government. That is bound to happen unless there is the happy coincidence of local government reform and parliamentary reform, which has certainly not happened in my memory.

I am afraid that this is one of the troubles of operating without a proper written constitution which orders these matters so that they can be decided within broadly the same time frame and so that, where it is in the public interest to have coincidence of boundaries, that can be achieved. It is simply another argument to reinforce the more fundamental arguments in favour of a written constitution. But that certainly goes way beyond the ambit of this Bill, which is simply tinkering in a partisan fashion with something that ought to be handled in a completely different way.

I accept that it is desirable that the boundary commissions should produce their reports before the next election, and that, in view of the consequences of frequent population changes—they seem to become more frequent—there should be reassessments more often than within the periods established in 1956. But it is remarkable that the Government have introduced a Bill which does so little; remarkable that they have not even alluded to the problems which the boundary commission mentioned in bringing forward its report last year.

That report spoke of the real problems being the problem of getting people to participate in boundary commission reviews and the problem of consistency in bringing forward particular recommendations. I believe that, notwithstanding the bland assurances of the Home Secretary, this measure will be seen for what it is: partisan legislation which could have been presented to the House of Commons and perhaps have achieved all-party agreement if it had been approached in the historical fashion, but which will none the less become law and will no doubt achieve the purposes which the Home Secretary intends.

5.8 pm

I do not wish to be uncharitable to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), but I really thought that his was a shabby speech. The aspersions cast on my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary were wholly and completely unjustified. As for the suggestion that the justification for having a written constitution could be the coincidence of parliamentary and local government boundary reviews, that argument defies all belief.

I know of no instance of a country's written constitution in any way guaranteeing that boundaries will coincide to avoid difficulties between parliamentary and local government boundaries. That will depend on the local government boundaries and why they are being addressed. There will be many population changes over any given period, but most countries have a way of addressing problems and of sorting out boundaries, which may or may not coincide with parliamentary boundaries, or an equivalent redistribution system.

The hon. Gentleman used the word "shabby". I have been watching his conduct during this debate. Earlier, he engaged in a debate with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) which presupposed that the new constituency boundaries for Berwick-upon-Tweed and East Lothian would take account of local government changes. Later, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) engaged in a debate with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) which assumed that the new Scottish constituencies would not take account of local government changes. Given the hon. Gentleman's interest in the Bill, can he say whether the new constituency boundaries in Scotland will or will not take account of local government changes?

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood my earlier argument. I was not saying that local government boundaries would or would not coincide with parliamentary redistribution, but that precedents show that things can go one way or the other. That reinforces the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that the various parliamentary boundary commissions must get on with the job, taking into account the boundaries as they now stand. If changes occur in the meantime, that may create inconsistencies.

If the hon. Gentleman has been present for earlier debates, he would have heard me say that a procedure already exists for realigning constituency boundaries where minor anomalies exist. Only in the case of major anomalies are any problems likely to arise. I shall address that aspect later. If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient—at least from one old St. Andrewan to another—he may learn something to his advantage. I hope so.

An accelerating rate of population change is bound to create difficulties in devising equal electorates over a lengthy period. I regret that the opportunity was not taken to compress the time scale rather more. The 1983 general election was fought on new boundaries drawn up on the 1976 quota—which meant that, by the time we fought those constituencies, their electorates had long since changed. In my case, the quota in 1976 was about 67,000, but by the time the 1983 election took place, it had already increased to 77,000. The reverse is true in some declining inner-city areas.

The last thing that we want is a parliamentary boundary commission examining every constituency boundary at every general election. We would never know where we were. However, there is a good case for compressing the time scale between the quota year and the introduction of new boundaries, so that the gap is minimised.

Earlier, reference was made to London boroughs. I was not arguing for a change in the rules. I have always thought that it is for the commission to cross London boundaries if it so wishes. I was merely arguing that that is exactly what it ought to do, because the situation has sharply deteriorated since the last redistribution. The commission was just about able to get away with the 1983 redistribution—with the exception of Surbiton, which fell some way below the norm. Most of the other constituencies came near to meeting it. Since then, many hundreds of thousands of people have moved out of London boroughs to bordering counties. Because of the stair-step approach, that makes it more difficult to ensure that London constituencies properly represent the capital without crossing borough boundaries.

The commission will probably have to follow the precedent that it set with the metropolitan districts, of grouping two boroughs together where necessary. I hope that it will go no further than that, because if more than two boroughs are grouped, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw adequate boundaries within a reasonable envelope.

The parliamentary boundary commission rightly worked according to practice and custom as well as according to the rules. It sought to minimise the effect of change by retaining constituencies which were about right and wherever possible making no alterations. That is not always easy, because of the spin-off effect of decreases or increases on the electorates of neighbouring constituencies.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) failed to take into account in his intervention the fact that the quota in his constituency increased in the intervening period from 67,000 to 69,000, and that the integrity of seats in north-east Derbyshire cannot be guaranteed if some adjustment is necessary to deal with problems elsewhere in that county.

Equally, it is desirable to have whole boroughs within parliamentary constituencies wherever possible, but that is not always simple to achieve. Nevertheless, the parliamentary boundary commission does a pretty good job of devising as much coincidence as possible.

The parliamentary seats in north-east Derbyshire—Bolsover, Derbyshire, North-East and Chesterfield—can be affected by changes elsewhere in the county, though they could remain the same, in line with any adjustments. The danger of the Bill is its fluidity in relation to the wobbly boundaries of Derbyshire and the way in which they interlink with the local government review. The timetable means that the north-east area could be added to any other which happens to touch other county areas in Nottinghamshire or South Yorkshire.

That is a different point. It is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). The hon. Member for Bolsover has approximately 66,000 constituents—a figure below the electoral quota. It is therefore just possible that there may be changes, to bring that electorate up to the quota.

Once the commission has examined the overall entitlement of a county to a number of seats, it will have to divide that number of seats into the county's total electorate, to arrive at the county average—which might be slightly above or below the quota. One can only speculate what would happen in any particular county. That is what makes us all uncertain about our futures in terms of what may happen in our own electoral areas. That is an uncomfortable state of affairs for any politician, but it is necessary if boundaries are to be adjusted.

It is perfectly possible to deal with minor anomalies, but when it comes to major problems, the commission will have to work on the basis of the historic counties—at least for the time being. If an examination of Derbyshire's structure suggests to the commission that parts of the county should be united with the city of Sheffield, there would be a problem with the crossing of some major boundaries. I suspect, however, that in most cases of local government reform an examination will take place to decide whether there should be a single-tier or a two-tier local authority system. That need not affect the outer boundary of any historic county.

My hon. Friend is known to be an expert on this subject. Does he feel that parliamentary boundaries should keep as close as possible to city boundaries, or does he consider that rural and inner-city areas should be mixed, bearing in mind the different interests of the communities involved?

I do not want to be drawn too far down that road. In any case, I do not think that it is possible to give a single answer to my hon. Friend's question, because the position will depend on the electorates in the respective areas. Sometimes it will be appropriate to use rural areas which look towards the cities in an attempt to ensure that the number of electors is right; at other times, the boundary commission will decide to take wards away from cities and add them to rural areas in order to make the numbers equal. The city of Lincoln, for example, takes in rural wards to bring the numbers up, while the city of Cambridge loses wards to its rural areas to bring them down. I do not know what will happen—my hon. Friend's guess is as good as mine.

My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) rightly said that it was convenient for Members of Parliament to deal with single units in the case of, for instance, health authorities. He has to deal with a number of health authorities, which is a problem. Perhaps that is an argument for merging health authorities, or for dispensing with them altogether. Those of us who represent areas in the outer shires have to contend with the reverse argument: several Members of Parliament deal with the same health authority, and the logistics of getting them together for a discussion are quite different. Some of our constituents attend hospitals outside the constituencies, which leads to difficulties with the parliamentary conventions. We have to decide the extent to which we should become involved with the affairs of health authorities and hospitals outside the constituency boundaries.

Order. There may be difficulties here and now if the hon. Gentleman pursues that line much further.

As always, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your sound advice.

We in Hertfordshire have always had a problem, in that the size of the electorate has increased steadily over many decades. Because the redistributions take place at fairly long intervals, the county has never been other than under-represented: we are constantly chasing our tails. Although the present electorate is based on the 1991 rolls, I have no doubt that, by the time the parliamentary boundary commission's report has been implemented, the current high rate of population growth—especially in the east of the county—will have rendered the boundaries out of date.

I believe profoundly in a system of single-Member constituencies, which makes us answerable to our constituents. They know who to consult about their problems. If that system is to remain, the constituency boundaries will have to be as up to date as possible. They will also have to represent a number of electors, rather than a number of problems.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) dealt with that point very effectively on Second Reading when he specifically rejected the case advanced by some of his hon. Friends that, because inner cities had more problems, the system should be weighted in their favour. The corollary is, of course, that it should be weighted against other areas. Success also leads to a large postbag and many problems. Similarly, it is impossible to take into account the number of people who work in an area without recognising the corollary that an area in which no one works should be devoid of representation. That is a nonsensical argument.

The basic principle of the Bill is that equal numbers of electors are needed in constituencies throughout the country. It is important to deal with that speedily and with certainty. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said, the Bill will ensure that that happens. I commend it to the House.

5.24 pm

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) has come out with some special pleading. No doubt Ministers heard it, and will consider it accordingly.

I do not like the Bill. The Home Secretary said that there was no reason for hon. Members to oppose it, and that he hoped that there would be no Division. Our duty, however, is to express any reservations that we feel about a measure on the Floor of the House, and I do not apologise—any more than I did on Second Reading and on Report—for saying that I do not like this Bill.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that that does not mean that I consider boundary changes and reviews unnecessary, any more than my hon. Friends who take the same line as I do. Of course they are necessary, and it would be illogical and wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise. It is, however, essential for the Government of the day to give the impression—a genuine impression—that they are acting in the most impartial way possible when introducing a measure, and I do not believe that the Bill would have been presented if the Government did not believe that there were parliamentary seats to be gained.

Would the hon. Gentleman be speaking now if he did not believe that there were seats to be lost?

That question merely confirms the point that I was making. The Minister is saying, in effect, that I am complaining because I believe that seats will be lost—which implies a confirmation of my claim that the Government believe that there are seats to be gained.

As I have said, I believe that complete impartiality should be exercised. Seats are bound to be lost or gained accordingly; no politician would dispute that. So far as I am aware, I have not opposed measures of this kind in the past. Like my hon. Friends, I have been pretty logical and consistent.

Only two or three days after the general election and the substantial reduction in the Government's overall majority, we read in the newspapers that the Government intended to introduce this Bill. The implication was clear: the Cabinet had formed the view that there were 10 or 20 gains to be made. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) disputed that, and I hope that he is right; whether he is right or wrong, it is essential that the Government exercise complete impartiality.

I was going to refer the hon. Gentleman to his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who sensibly said that no one could tell how the boundary commission review would work out in regard to the interests of either party.

We have introduced the Bill because we consider it wrong to hold an election on the basis of registers that are 20 years old. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would dispute that; certainly, most of his hon. Friends have not done so. If he considers it right to hold an election on that basis, he will very properly oppose the Bill. If he considers it wrong, however, he will support the Bill.

The Minister has implied that I oppose the Bill because I do not believe that boundary reviews should take place. I said at the outset—as I did on Second Reading—that I believe nothing of the kind. What I object to is the haste with which the Government have presented the Bill, and the lack of consultation.

In a rather lengthy intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the Home Secretary said that there was no need for consultation with the Opposition because there had been no change in the rules as such. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland rightly dealt with that point in connection with clause 3.

On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said that, in 1958, the then Home Secretary was reported as saying:
"'The Government naturally thought it right in this matter of constitutional importance to discuss the proposals we had in mind with the other parties."'—[Official Report, 15 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 679.]
The Home Secretary might be technically right—although I dispute that—in saying that as there are no rule changes there is no need for consultation with the Opposition. I cannot accept that.

In fact, it is not a question whether there are rule changes at all. What prevented the Home Secretary from consulting the other parties? He could have given Opposition parties notice of his intentions and asked whether they had any representations to make before the Bill was finally drafted and came to the House. That would have been a perfectly reasonable step to take. I must tell the Minister of State that, if that had happened, my hon. Friends and I would have found it more difficult to oppose the Bill. Perhaps I would not have opposed it in the first place.

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman does not mind about the substance of the Bill, but is more concerned that discussions should take place beforehand. Does he agree that the point of parliamentary representation and democracy is that the number of electors should be as near as possible to the optimum? If that is the overriding principle, why is he so worried about discussions beforehand?

I am so worried, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, for the reason that I quoted from Mr. Butler. I know that the Conservative party today is different from the Conservative party of Mr. Butler's day. I doubt whether he would feel at home in today's Tory party, although that is a matter of opinion. The reason why Mr. Butler said what he said answers the hon. Gentleman far better than I could.

The Bill has been introduced in haste and without consultation because the Government want to be sure of the gains that they believe—wrongly, I hope—it will bring. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) smiles and seems happy about his intervention. He and his hon. Friends talk about equal numbers of electors in constituencies. Like boundary changes and reviews, such ideas cannot be dismissed out of hand, and I should not wish to do so.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the interventions on Second Reading and on Report and to those made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), he would understand our worry about the fact that many people are not on the register. The recommendations are to last for some time, and elections are to be fought on them. There is little doubt that many people have kept themselves off the register for various reasons—Ministers have their explanation, we have ours, and there are no doubt many others—so it is important that the boundary commissioners should be able to take into account the fact that the recommendations are based on inaccurate assessments and figures.

The hon. Member for South Hams and others say that we should be pleased that the impartial recommendations are to be based on figures, but what satisfaction is there if the figures are inaccurate in a given constituency?

I have a particular problem in my constituency. When it was formed in 1983, it was already too big. It now has 86,000 or 87,000 constituents. If the Bill is passed without too much opposition, it will allow the people of Devon to have much better representation because their Member of Parliament will not represent 85,000 or 86,000 people. I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. Instead of delaying the process, we should be expediting it.

The hon. Gentleman is understandably worried about his constituency. I should have thought that the United Kingdom Parliamant should be concerned with all constituencies and, as a result of the boundary commissioners' impartiality, should make recommendations in which we can have confidence. As I have already tried to explain—although this may not apply to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—in some inner-city areas many people who should be on the register are not, so I do not understand how we can have the necessary confidence. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is beginning to understand my point of view, if only to a limited extent.

I mean no disrespect to my own Front Bench spokesmen, but it is sometimes said that, if there is agreement between the Front Benches, what reason is there for a few troublemakers and dissidents to express a different point of view? It will be a sad day for Parliament and parliamentary democracy when Back Benchers who have reservations do not express them and vote accordingly. We are dealing with parliamentary democracy now, which is important to me and to all my hon. Friends.

When we expressed reservations about extending the vote to people living overseas who in most cases had no intention of returning here, it was said that we were not concerned about democracy. That was not so. We spoke and voted against the measure even although Members of our Front Bench, who are also entitled to their opinions, reached a different conclusion. I see no reason why I should lack confidence in my judgment.

The manner in which the Bill has been presented is unfortunate. The haste and lack of consultation have caused a strong feeling among my colleagues that the Government wish to obtain the maximum advantage. That is not the right way to deal with an issue about which there should be and, so far as I know, has been little or no controversy until now. The Home Secretary should ask himself why, despite some technical reservations, the Opposition in the past have not wished to argue as I and my hon. Friends are doing today and as we have done during the Bill's previous stages. Why do we feel so strongly? It is because the Government have acted shamefully in this instance, and I do not apologise for voting against the Bill.

5.36 pm

I wish to raise one or two questions which have not yet been mentioned, certainly not on Third Reading.

If one were running a company or an industry, before one embarked on a new operation or new project, one would try to cost it and decide whether one could afford it. One would consider the manpower implications, where people would be housed, and the general finance. One aspect lacking in this debate—this is perhaps true of many debates—is any talk of money. What will be the cost of the boundary commission? How many extra staff will be needed and what qualifications will they have? Where will they be housed? Will they be housed in docklands?

Those questions were perhaps dealt with in Committee, but it is important to ask them on the Floor of the House. I did not attend the Committee stage, which I understand was taken on the Floor of the House.

I ask those questions again because they are important. Before legislation is passed, we should have an idea of the increased costs to the Exchequer and the increased manpower involved. I hope that the necessary manpower can be seconded from other Government Departments rather than taken on at additional cost to the taxpayer. Can the Minister reassure us that when new legislation is introduced additional staff are not automatically detailed from the civil service and additional funds found for them but that the Government will find the staff from within their establishment for the necessary length of time? The staff could then move back to their original jobs when they finished the work.

I am concerned about the ease with which the establishment of the civil service seems to increase every time we pass legislation. I should like some reassurance that we can find the additional staff required to speed up the process without having to find more money from the Exchequer. That is my rather modest, but important, contribution.

5.39 pm

I will not try to reiterate the main lines of the debate, which have been exercised several times during the passage of the Bill. A number of questions, observations and statements were expressed in the Third Reading debate, to which I should address myself for a few minutes.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) raised three or four matters about which he was especially concerned. He was concerned about the effect of Local Government Commission changes. They will be taken into account by the parliamentary boundary commissions only if they have been legislated for and have come into effect by 1 June 1994 at the latest.

I have no idea whether any of the new boundaries, which have not yet been recommended because they have still to be decided, will favour one party or the other. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central made rather heavy weather of constructing a plot whereby the changes were bound to affect the Labour party detrimentally and were bound to favour the Conservative party. I find it difficult to believe that anyone can imagine that the local government commission, which will have to produce its recommendations after consultation, will produce boundaries that will oblige the boundary commission, when it takes them into account, to create constituencies that will favour one party or the other. I do not think that the commission could do that even if it wanted to.

The commissions are not interested in party political advantage, and it would be extremely difficult for them to act in that way even if they were. I thought that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, who was leaning forward, wanted to intervene because the thoughts that I have just ascribed to him were far from his mind. His implication that the Local Government Commission could somehow contrive parliamentary constituencies to the advantage of one party or the other is the kind of imagining which must be abandoned if one considers the role of the two commissions and the difficulty of such a contrivance even if they so intended.

There was a misunderstanding about Wales. In Wales, provisional proposals for the parliamentary boundary commission are treated exceptionally, because Wales is well down the road in the matter of local government reform. The parliamentary boundary commission in Wales may take into account local government boundaries proposed in a Bill that has had a Second Reading, but that only concerns the provisional recommendations.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central is right to say that the Bill may be amended in its passage through the House. if it is, the Welsh parliamentary boundary commission must think again, because in its final report to the Secretary of State, it can have regard only to boundaries that have at least been encapsulated in an Act. There is therefore a real distinction between what it is enabled for convenience to take into account for its provisional recommendations and what it must take into account for its final recommendations. That distinction is important and seems to have escaped the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to London, a point on which we dwelt at length in Committee. The local government boundary commission is looking at the boundaries of the London boroughs now. Its report will be available well in time for the new boundaries it recommends, if they find favour with the House, to be taken into consideration by the English parliamentary boundary commission before the cut-off date of 1 June 1994. I gathered that that was what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wished to ensure would happen when they tabled amendments in Committee.

I believe that the misunderstanding and confusion—partly due to the nomenclature—concern the future role of the local government commission. It has been given the responsibility of doing exactly what the local government boundary commission now does—reviewing local government boundaries—after it has finished reviewing local government structure in the rest of England outside London.

That was the burden of the answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment:
"We intend to ask the commission to look at cases for change to local government boundaries in London when it has completed its programme of structural reviews in the shire counties."—[Official Report, 29 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 368.]
It will not have completed those structural reviews until well into this decade. As I said in Committee, I do not believe that, apart from the local government review going on now whose results we expect to hear shortly, there will be another change to the boundaries of London boroughs until well into the next century.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central may remember better than I do whether his amendment in Committee referred to possible changes between now and 12 June 2002, 2001 or 2000. The hon. Gentleman was a bit confused about the dates when he moved the amendment. However, it does not matter which of the three years it was. After the local government boundary commission has reported on the boundaries of London boroughs in the near future, the report can be taken into account by the parliamentary boundary commission in its current review. I do not expect a change to London government boundaries until the next century.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central also made a point about registration, which his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) raised yet again today. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is persistent on the point. I make no complaint about that, because I accept that it is an important point. I stress again that, as far as the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is able to estimate, upwards of 95 per cent. of eligible people are on the registers.

We cannot alter the rules under which the boundary commission makes its review, because the boundary commission in England has already examined a third or so of the seats on the basis of the 1991 register. If we were to change the rules, the commission would have to go back to the beginning. The hon. Gentleman would then lose the point that he rightly makes—that the next election should be fought on more up-to-date boundaries.

I remind the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East of what I said when I dealt with the point more fully on Second Reading. If there is a concern simply about registers being up to date or more accurate, I should also like to see registers that are as accurate as possible. However, it would be wrong to change the rules and start the exercise again, because we would not be able to complete the rules in time.

As I suggested to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East on Second Reading, if he is concerned about party advantage, the later and more up-to-date registers would be less in the interests of the Labour party, because they would record the continuing decline in the electorate in the Labour heartlands. Even if I were able to oblige him with the kind of amendment that he is seeking, he might at least in party political terms have second thoughts. However, I cannot make that offer to him although I should like to do so, because it would mean that the commission would have to recommence the review.

The 95 per cent. figure—or the 95.5 per cent. figure that is sometimes given—is not very good. Those figures still mean that many people are missing from registers. Such figures are simply a comparison between the relevant estimated population and the people who should be on the register. However, it was not until 1 received replies from the Scottish Office and the Department of Health in February that I discovered that the two sets of figures are linked.

In the public realm, we seem to have the latest available figures and the figures that the boundary review is acting upon. If those figures are totally inadequate, the Bill should contain something to correct that. If we have to start from scratch again, then so be it. If we have to pay more money to do that, then we must do it. When it comes to democracy, we should not be all that concerned about the relevant financial element. We must get it right.

It is not a question of money: it is a question of time. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred are estimates. As there are a variety of estimates, there may be many arguments about which estimate the boundary commission should rely upon.

I do not believe the disadvantage of the inaccuracies of the 1991 registers. The 1976 registers upon which our boundaries are currently based were also inaccurate. They may have been a couple of points more accurate than the 1991 registers, but they were still inaccurate. Registers tend to overestimate populations in areas that are losing population and underestimate them in areas that are gaining population.

That is why I told the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East that it cuts both ways in party political terms. However, there is no difference between us when the hon. Gentleman said that he wants the most up-to-date registers. I look forward with interest to his Bill and his various recommendations as to how we might ensure that registers are more accurate in future.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, also referred to the guidance to the local government commission and the requirement to consult the parliamentary boundary commission. The boundary commission is one of the 30 or so statutory bodies that the Local Government Commission is required to consult. The others range from the inspectorates of schools and constabularies, health authorities, the Trades Union Congress, local chambers of commerce and all sorts of people. Some will have something useful to say, while consultation with others will simply be a matter of form and courtesy.

The boundary commission is included on the list because of its duty to take account of county boundaries. It must be kept informed of proposed reviews that may affect county boundaries. However, a new boundary will be finally taken into account only if it has been legislated for by the House. The matter comes to this House before it can be considered by the boundary commission in its final report.

If new boundaries are in force, it would be eccentric not to take them into account.

I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). He was not concerned that the boundary commission would fail to take account of existing boundaries. He was worried that, after the boundary commission had reported on existing boundaries—that might take six months, a year or two years—there would be new local government boundaries in Scotland. The safe rule is to take into account boundaries which have been legislated for and which are in effect. We will then know that those boundaries have been through the proper processes and have received the approval of the House.

My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) made an interesting and lucid speech. He said that it was difficult to draw boundaries accurately in London because there is much argument as to where those boundaries might reasonably and properly fall. He is right. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, there is sufficient guidance in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and sufficient discretion for the boundary commission to take on board all the arguments and concerns that have been raised in the House and to present boundaries that are logical and defensible and which meet the requirements of that schedule.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland because I was trying to follow his argument, and I was not sure that I was doing so properly. I hope that he will forgive me if I have misunderstood him. The Bill does not change the rules for the boundary commission, but it speeds up the changes so that they will take effect roughly when they were expected to, and certainly in time for the next general election.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, if we were going to change the rules, we would have consulted. My right hon. and learned Friend and I believe that several suggestions have been made, some during our debates, which we must consider jointly and collectively before the next round of changes. However, there is no time now to change the rules. Next time, there will be time to consider carefully between the parties what changes perhaps should be made to the rules that exist now.

I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that there will be inter-party consultations in future. However, I am puzzled about why he believes it necessary to whittle away at the convention of consultation on matters that affect parliamentary boundaries and elections. Even if the Minister is right—and I do not concede that there is no change in the substance of the rules, as I believe that clause 3 changes the substance—the change in time is a point upon which R. A. Butler consulted other parties in 1956.

I am unable to pontificate upon other precedents. However, if we had intended to change the rules by which the boundary commission makes its judgments, we would have wanted to consult. It may be right to introduce some changes, and we expect to consult about those. However, this time round, the only change is that which affects the timetable.

The consequent change is for the convenience of the boundary commission, and most particularly for the ease of those making representations to the boundary commission. While there are changes to local government boundaries, it is necessary for both of them to know the cut-off date for those boundaries which must be taken into account. That is why there is the cut-off date of 1 June 1994. Any boundary in force on that date is the one that the boundary commission must have regard to.

In the context of the historical precedents about which my hon. Friend confessed ignorance, and in the context of the speeches of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), it may be of assistance if I point out that neither in 1956 or 1958 was Mr. R. A. Butler Home Secretary. On the first occasion, it was Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, and on the second occasion it was Gwilym Lloyd-George.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Perhaps, if he would like to intervene again, he will tell me how the boundaries in London were examined by previous commissions. That was of massive interest in earlier stages of our proceedings. However, I suspect that, if my right hon. Friend did so, his comments might not be regarded as germane to the limited context of the Bill.

The right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) was undoubtedly accurate, and whoever quoted 1958 was undoubtedly inaccurate. But surely the Minister does not deny that Mr. Butler was Home Secretary. If I remember rightly, he was also Leader of the House at the same time. The fact remains that he said what he said. That he did not say it in 1958 is irrelevant.

Mr. Butler held most offices in the Government at some time or other. Undoubtedly, what he said in 1958, he said. I have to confess in all honesty that I am not familiar with what he said in 1958. However, I am interested in both the elucidation that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) gives and what my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is extremely knowledgeable on matters of boundaries. I shall not try to respond to his various arguments, although they were all interesting. However, I agree with him that a boundary commission review is an uncomfortable time for all Members of Parliament, because it affects their connection with their constituents and, indeed, whether they have a seat left to fight next time. The exception is perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), who has 68,000 constituents. That is very near the quota which is guarded by the rule in schedule 2—in so far as the boundary commission is required to have regard to it—that the commission must take the boundaries of London boroughs into account; so my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea can probably feel that much more secure than anyone else.

I had a couple of exchanges with the hon. Member for Walsall, North, because he graciously gave way to me. I was left with the distinct impression that it is not so much the purpose of the Bill as the lack of consultation of which he complains. I take it from what he said that he will oppose the Bill, even though he regards it as essentially a correct measure, simply on the grounds of amour propre. He is doing the wrong thing because he was not asked. If he thinks that I am being unfair to him, he should read what he said in Hansard. He will see that it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that I have drawn from his remarks. His position is not a particularly principled one, although we can all understand why he takes it.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) asked me some specific questions. I can tell him the specific answer, because I have now found a copy of the Bill and the answer is conveniently on the front page. He asked how much the cost of administering the commissions would be increased by the Bill. The extra cost will be about £500,000 a year for the next three years. He also asked what would be the effect on the number of staff. We expect that about 15 additional central Government staff will be needed for those three years.

Bearing in mind the size of the civil service, is it not possible to second staff from some of the many Ministries so that the job can be done without additional placements being required? If there are additional placements in the boundary commissions, could vie not reduce staff, rather than always increasing the numbers?

My hon. Friend has a good point. Many of the staff are on secondment from the Home Office. The cost to the boundary commissions will be the cost of the staff that they employ during the three years. I have not included any consequent saving to the Home Office while the staff are on loan. I cannot give my hon. Friend that figure now, but I shall be interested to know it, and when I do I shall let him know it too.

The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) cannot get away with that. It is bad enough that he did not read the Committee proceedings, as the point worried him so much. If he had done so, he would have found that the Home Secretary told the House that most of the additional expenditure would result not from employing additional staff but from the fees of barristers who are seconded to hear the hearings. The extra cost will be legal fees, not extra civil servants' time. He should not try to get away with making a rather silly point about civil servants seconded for the temporary purpose of expediting the work of the boundary commission.

I trespass into territory on which I am not certain of my facts, but logically the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) must be wrong. We are talking about the costs over three years. As the process of reviewing the boundaries is being conducted over a shorter period, it will of course cost more. However, there will not be more reviews as a result of the Bill than there would have been without it. The extra expenditure to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central referred is expenditure which is at the most displaced. Therefore, he is mistaken in the charge that he makes against my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams.

No one has argued that the Bill does not address a real problem. No one has denied that it is a problem which needs to be addressed now. That in itself should be enough to persuade the House to support the Bill. I have no doubt that by an overwhelming majority it will do so. Therefore, I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 221, Noes 55.

Division No. 45]

[6.06 pm


Adley, RobertBrowning, Mrs. Angela
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Alexander, RichardBurt, Alistair
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)Butcher, John
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)Butler, Peter
Amess, DavidCarlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Ancram, MichaelCarrington, Matthew
Arbuthnot, JamesCash, William
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)Chaplin, Mrs Judith
Ashby, DavidClappison, James
Aspinwall, JackClark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Bates, MichaelClifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Beggs, RoyCoe, Sebastian
Bendall, VivianCongdon, David
Beresford, Sir PaulConway, Derek
Blackburn, Dr John G.Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasCoombs, Simon (Swindon)
Boswell, TimCope, Rt Hon Sir John
Bottomley, Rt Hon VirginiaCouchman, James
Bowis, JohnCran, James
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir RhodesCurrie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Brandreth, GylesCurry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Brazier, JulianDavies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bright, GrahamDavis, David (Boothferry)
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterDeva, Nirj Joseph
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)Devlin, Tim

Dorrell, StephenKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKilfedder, Sir James
Dover, DenKing, Rt Hon Tom
Duncan, AlanKirkhope, Timothy
Durant, Sir AnthonyKnapman, Roger
Dykes, HughKnight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Elletson, HaroldKnight, Greg (Derby N)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)Knox, David
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Faber, DavidLait, Mrs Jacqui
Fabricant, MichaelLawrence, Sir Ivan
Fairbairn, Sir NicholasLegg, Barry
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fishburn, John DudleyLidington, David
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Lightbown, David
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Forth, EricLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)Luff, Peter
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
French, DouglasMacKay, Andrew
Gale, RogerMaclean, David
Gallie, PhilMcLoughlin, Patrick
Gardiner, Sir GeorgeMaginnis, Ken
Gill, ChristopherMaitland, Lady Olga
Gillan, Ms CherylMalone, Gerald
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesMans, Keith
Gorman, Mrs TeresaMarlow, Tony
Gorst, JohnMartin, David (Portsmouth S)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Merchant, Piers
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)Mills, Iain
Hague, WilliamMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hamilton, Rt Hon ArchieMoate, Roger
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Monro, Sir Hector
Hampson, Dr KeithMoss, Malcolm
Hanley, JeremyNelson, Anthony
Hannam, Sir JohnNeubert, Sir Michael
Hargreaves, AndrewNewton, Rt Hon Tony
Harris, DavidOnslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Haselhurst, AlanOppenheim, Phillip
Hawkins, NicholasPage, Richard
Hawksley, WarrenPaice, James
Heald, OliverPatnick, Irvine
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidPattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hendry, CharlesPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hicks, RobertPorter, David (Waveney)
Hill, James (Southampton Test)Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Horam, JohnPowell, William (Corby)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)Richards, Rod
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)Riddick, Graham
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Hunter, AndrewRobinson, Mark (Somerton)
Jack, MichaelRobinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)Ross, William (E Londonderry)
Jenkin, BernardRowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreyRyder, Rt Hon Richard
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Sackville, Tom
Jones, Robert B. (W H'f'rdshire)Shaw, David (Dover)
Jopling, Rt Hon MichaelShaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)

Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)Townend, John (Bridlington)
Shersby, MichaelTrend, Michael
Sims, RogerTrotter, Neville
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)Twinn, Dr Ian
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)Viggers, Peter
Soames, NicholasWalden, George
Spencer, Sir DerekWalker, Bill (N Tayside)
Spink, Dr RobertWaller, Gary
Spring, RichardWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sproat, IainWatts, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir JohnWells, Bowen
Steen, AnthonyWhitney, Ray
Stephen, MichaelWhittingdale, John
Stern, MichaelWiddecombe, Ann
Stewart, AllanWilkinson, John
Streeter, GaryWilletts, David
Sumberg, DavidWinterton, Nicholas (Macc'f''ld)
Sweeney, WalterWolfson, Mark
Sykes, JohnWood, Timothy
Taylor, Ian (Esher)Yeo, Tim
Taylor, Rt Hon D. (Strangford)
Taylor, John M. (Solihull)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Thomason, Roy

Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Nicholas Baker.

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thurnham, Peter


Ainger, NicholasLoyden, Eddie
Alton, DavidLynne, Ms Liz
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyMcCartney, Ian
Ashton, JoeMackinlay, Andrew
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.Maclennan, Robert
Benton, JoeMadden, Max
Boyce, JimmyMartlew, Eric
Byers, StephenMeale, Alan
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Canavan, DennisMitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Chisholm, MalcolmPrimarolo, Dawn
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Redmond, Martin
Cohen, HarryRobinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Cryer, BobSalmond, Alex
Dafis, CynogSedgemore, Brian
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)Simpson, Alan
Etherington, WilliamSkinner, Dennis
Fatchett, DerekTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Flynn, PaulTipping, Paddy
Foster, Donald (Bath)Tyler, Paul
Harvey, NickWallace, James
Hinchliffe, DavidWelsh, Andrew
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Wicks, Malcolm
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Wigley, Dafydd
Jackson, Ms Helen (Shef'ld, H)Wright, Tony
Janner, Greville
Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C & S)

Tellers for the Noes:

Kirkwood, Archy

Mr. Harry Barnes and Mr. David Winnick.

Lewis, Terry
Llwyd, Elfyn

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.