House Of Commons
Tuesday 30 June 1992
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]
Ulster Bank Bill Lords
Read the Third time, and passed without amendment.
Oral Answers To Questions
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what initiatives he proposes to take to assist conversion and diversification in the defence sector; and if he will make a statement.
We have no plans to take any such initiatives. Decisions affecting the future of a company, including its product lines, are best left to the commercial judgment of the firm's management.
About 1 million jobs in this country depend, directly or indirectly, on defence expenditure. If we are to have a peace dividend and to prevent the non-proliferation of weapons among those who should not have them, diversification and conversion are required. Why do we not adopt the approach that we take towards eastern Europe, and provide conversion know-how in this country also?
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's argument, even though he exaggerated the number of jobs that are directly or indirectly connected with defence. His idea of spending taxpayers' money on a new quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation is misguided. The best way forward for defence diversification is for ideas to come from the companies themselves.
Does my hon. Friend agree that history is littered with unrealistic socialist dreams of agencies to beat swords into ploughshares? Are not the managers of the companies concerned best placed to make long-term strategic decisions? If the Government were to intervene, would not the long-term result be unhelpful?
My hon. Friend is perfectly right. Right hon. and hon. Members with long memories will recall the disastrous experiments with taxpayers' money by the National Enterprise Board. We cannot have Government second-guessing of industry, financed by the taxpayer.
That was a very disappointing answer. Is the Minister aware that conversion and diversification policy is needed in the Cowal area in my constituency following the departure of the United States navy? Is he aware also that last week the Ministry of Defence advertised the former United States buildings for sale on the open market? Will the Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence undertake to reconsider that decision, with a view to the MOD's reaching a financial agreement with the United States navy and handing over the buildings to the local enterprise company, which is at the very heart of the recovery strategy for the area?
The hon. Lady is living in a time warp—in a bygone age. It is not for the Government to spend taxpayers' money on such diversifications. We have an interest in making sure that taxpayers' money is wisely spent. The decision to place that land on the market at a fair price is much the best solution.
Even though concern about defence employment comes ill from the Labour party in view of recent considerations, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that many jobs in the south-west are dependent on the aircraft industry and docks and, in my constituency, effective firms such as Avimo and the MOD's hydrographic division? Will my hon. Friend give whatever consideration he can to preserving those jobs where possible and to future activities where such jobs have to be run down?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that Labour has consistently advocated massive defence cuts—of 27 per cent. at its last party conference. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must consider carefully the significant number of jobs involved, but, with a procurement budget alone of £9 billion a year, there is scope for creating a strong and thriving defence industry that provides many jobs, despite the current difficulties created by the undoubtedly necessary defence spending rundown.
I am sure that all hon. Members—with the exception of a few Conservative Members—will be disappointed by the Minister's answer. I know that his predecessor washed his hands of the defence industry, but I thought that the present Minister might he a little more sympathetic. Does he not understand that workers in the industry, like service men and women, have given a lifetime of service to this country? Surely, at a time of necessary cuts, the Government can make at least the minimum contribution. May I also point out that the only mention of an agency was made by the Minister himself?
It seems from the hon. Gentleman's final point that he has forgotten that the first mention of a defence diversification agency appeared in his party's election manifesto. It is also mentioned in the question.The basic difference between the parties is this: the Government believe that it does not place the taxpayer and civil servants in the best position to try to second-guess industry's own wish to diversify. Many defence companies are doing that very successfully already and they should be encouraged to continue.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said in answer to Opposition Members. Will he reassure us, however, that he fully accepts that the Ministry of Defence has a prime responsibility in delineating the key technologies that the defence industry is likely to be asked to supply in the immediate future?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We continue to take the Defence Research Agency's work in new technologies very seriously, and we are communicating more and more openly with industry about the technologies of the future, on which we expect to spend more of the defence budget.
Range Safety Certificates
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to change the system of granting range safety certificates.
There are no plans to do so.
I am sorry to hear that, because a ludicrous situation has arisen in my constituency. A civilian gun club at Ruthin wishes to build a safe range; unfortunately, the only source of advice is the Ministry of Defence, and the gun club has no way of checking the accuracy of that advice because the handbook on which it is based is classified. Will the Minister declassify that document—or is he scared that Saddam Hussein will build safer ranges than ours?
That question is misleading. If the gun club applies through the National Rifle Association, it will be able to gain access to all the information contained in the booklet. That booklet is restricted the—lowest form of classification—because it is a training document, and we classify all our training documents.The National Rifle Association will point the way ahead. I gather that consultation is under way and that the gun club is complying with many of the regulations. We hope to be able to send a military man down soon, so that he can check the place out and give the club the cover that it wants.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation counterparts concerning the provision of advice and assistance to other countries on the diversification of defence industries.
Advice to the countries of central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on the diversification of defence industries has been provided by experts from the private sector under the auspices of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council.
All NATO Governments are committed, under the terms of the 1991 Copenhagen declaration, to providing practical support for the defence industries of eastern Europe in regard to diversification. Does the Minister agree with his German and United States counterparts that successful diversification stategies need the active assistance of Government? Will he also explain to my constituents why the Government are prepared to support diversification initiatives in eastern Europe but not similar initiatives in this country?
The hon. Gentleman may have missed some vital words in my original answer. I said that advice would be provided by experts from the private sector. Advice from the the private sector is not really necessary in a country such as ours. We do not need special Government intervention because we already have a free enterprise economy and private companies are already in touch with experts from the private sector. In the nationalised industries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some form of NATO umbrella is probably helpful, ensuring that the countries concerned consult the best private-sector experts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most useful forms of assistance that we can give the former Soviet Union countries is help with the safe dismantling and storage of their nuclear weapons? What assistance is the United Kingdom giving in that regard?
As a result of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Yeltsin earlier this year, we have now agreed to give the Russian Government 250 super-containers and 20 special vehicles for the safe and secure transport of nuclear weapons. We are also providing technical advice on the disabling and destruction of nuclear weapons in the arsenal of the former Soviet Union. We expect the first equipment in that programme to be delivered in the middle of next year. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is a very positive form of assistance for those countries and that it will encourage greater stability and security in the regions involved.
Will the Minister tell me how I should explain to workers at Cammell Laird in Wallasey the help that he is giving to eastern European countries to diversify their defence industries while there is absolutely no help for domestic defence industries? Will he also explain why, given that the peace dividend is going to all taxpayers, its results are to be visited on only a very few members of the community in areas such as Wallasey and Birkenhead?
Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., which is the main company affecting the hon. Lady's constituency interests, is already diversifying into offshore oil rigs, for example, without having to have special advice from a new quango or from civil servants. Private-sector advice in the countries of the former Soviet Union under the NATO umbrella is more easily obtained from direct contacts between industry and the private sector. That is the most effective channel of communication in this country.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Royal Air Force pilots have left within 10 years of qualifying as pilots in each of the past three years.
The number of Royal Air Force pilots leaving the service within 10 years of qualifying as pilots was 88 in 1989–90, 66 in 1990–91 and 44 in 1991–92.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that interesting and encouraging reply. Will he confirm that it costs more than £4.4 million to train a Tornado pilot these days? Is it not therefore essential that his Department goes out of its way to retain our extremely well-trained, effective and efficient RAF pilots?
Yes. The figure that I have for training is more like £3 million, but even that is a very large sum. We do all that we can to retain people who have cost so much to train. The rate at which they leave depends very much on the health of the airline business generally. There may be signs that it will pick up in future; then, of course, companies find it very profitable to bribe away our well-trained pilots rather than to train their own.
When considering the question of Royal Air Force pilots leaving early, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the proposal that anyone who is trained at public expense to fly RAF aircraft should have a duty for the rest of his flying life to make himself available as and when required, probably on a voluntary part-time basis, to the reserve forces? That seems to be the best way to get value for taxpayers' money.
Yes, I agree absolutely. Anyone who leaves prematurely has to spend four years on reserve, and in that way we get some value for the money that we spend.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much Government money has been spent on Trident since 1987; and how much more is expected to be spent before completion.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the most recent estimated total cost of the Trident programme; and if he will make a statement.
The estimated total cost of the Trident procurement programme is £10.5 billion, of which 60 per cent. has been spent so far.
Does the Secretary of State agree that he is misleading the House——
Order. I am sure that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will begin his question again.
Does the Secretary of State agree that he is being economic with the truth and that it is nonsense to talk about £10.5 billion? Given that there are four submarines, each submarine taking 128 missiles, making 512 missiles in all, given that the strategic arms reduction talks between America and Russia are expanding and given that the Secretary of State has agreed to dismantle Nimrod and Sea Harrier, could not the global cost be in the region of £33 billion?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a rather extravagant estimate made by Greenpeace which has already been substantially discredited. I prefer to rest on the conclusion of the Select Committee on Defence, which looked into the cost of Trident and commented on what it described as
"the gratifying and unusual spectacle of a major defence procurement programme coming in far below estimate."
Will the Secretary of State tell us at exactly what he intends targeting the up to 512 new Trident warheads—French trawlers? Which would be the more effective at Sarajevo airport—one of the Scots regiments which he is disbanding to save a pittance or the Trident missile system, costing up to £32 billion, which is unnecessary, badly over budget and of no real purpose? Saving Scots regiments would represent value for money; Trident missiles do not.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be unaware of the fact that even at the end of the 10-year programme of reducing strategic nuclear weapons as a result of the agreement between President Bush and President Yeltsin, Russia and the United States will still have more than 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads. He appears to be unaware that President Yeltsin said that the British and French deterrents were so relatively small in number that it was foolish to try to draw a comparison between the British and French deterrents and the agreement that he had reached with President Bush. The reluctance of the Scottish National party to dedicate its interest to the proper defence of its country is well known north of the border.
Is it not a fact that the Labour party is yet again up to—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] When it comes to discussing the estimated cost of Trident, the fact is—[Interruption.]
Order. If hon. Members would remain silent, I could hear what the hon. Lady is saying. I should then know whether she needs correcting.
I shall try again, Madam Speaker. Is it not a fact that when we are talking about the cost of Trident, the Labour party——
Out of order.
Order. Please let me give some guidance to the hon. Lady. The Secretary of State has no responsibility for Labour party policy. The hon. Lady should, therefore, frame her question in a way that gives the Secretary of State responsibility for answering.
I shall rephrase the question, Madam Speaker. Is it not correct that the real estimated costs of Trident are well below those forecast by the Opposition? I understand that they are well below 2 per cent. of the defence budget. Trident is, therefore, a deterrent well worth having for Britain.
Neither I nor the Leader of the Opposition has responsibility for Labour party policy, so no one in the Chamber could respond to that point. My hon. Friend is correct. The cost of Trident over the period of procurement is less than 2.5 per cent. of the defence budget. That puts the matter into proportion. Trident is of enormously important value in Britain's defence requirements.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the independent nuclear deterrent is the only absolute guarantee that this country will never be invaded and, as such, is the ultimate in cost effectiveness?
Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. The defence strategy that has been pursued since the end of the second world war has more than vindicated the nuclear policy of both this country and the United States. But for that policy, we should not have seen the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of a potentially free and democratic Russia.
If the Secretary of State is so keen to demonstrate to the House that his figures are accurate and that Greenpeace's figures are wrong, will he tell us, in his figures, how much he has put in for the eventual decommissioning of Trident and for making safe the nuclear material involved?
Decommissioning of all vessels, especially nuclear vessels, is ultimately required. For Trident, the decommissioning will not take place for a good 30 years. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that all the costs directly attributable to the Trident programme are included in the cost of £10.5 billion to which I referred.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the nuclear deterrent.
I have received a number of representations on this subject.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the independent deterrent has provided this country with peace and security for 47 years? Has he received any representations from the 100 hon. Members who are members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? Are not they, rather than the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), the authentic voice of the Labour party?
It is difficult to know what is the authentic voice of the Labour party. Some two thirds of the members of the shadow Cabinet have or had an association with CND. I believe that at present, however, it is the policy of both the Government and the Opposition for Britain to keep nuclear weapons. That is certainly what the Labour party said during the last election, but whether that will be the Labour's policy in future is something on which we can only speculate and one of the great mysteries of the world in which we live.
If Trident nuclear weapons and Polaris are providing such a wonderful defence for freedom, what does the Secretary of State say to other nations about their potential for nuclear deterrence? Does he tell countries in the middle east that nuclear weapons are a safeguard for peace and advocate that middle eastern countries should have nuclear weapons? Does he agree that he should abide by the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty, clause 6 of which commits this country—as we are signatories to the treaty—to get rid of nuclear weapons? When will this country and the Government stop cheating on the treaty?
If the hon. Gentleman checked his facts before making wild allegations, he would realise that not only are we signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but, over the past 12 months, either I or my predecessor has announced the ending of nuclear artillery; the ending of the application of nuclear warheads to Lance missiles; the reduction in the number of nuclear dual-capable aircraft and, only two weeks ago, the ending of Britain's maritime tactical nuclear capacity. We are perfectly prepared to see any reduction in our nuclear potential when that is consistent with the ultimate safety of this country. The hon. Gentleman's disinclination to give priority to the ultimate defence of this country is well known.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that a nuclear threat can be deterred only by a nuclear deterrent and that Britain's independent nuclear deterrent has been vital to this country for more than 40 years for that reason? Does he further agree that the size of the fearsome armoury that still remains in the ex-Soviet republics and the spread of nuclear technology to some of the ugliest regimes in the middle east further emphasise the importance of maintaining Trident?
Sadly, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. I should have thought that our recent experience in the Gulf, when it became clear that the Iraqi Government had been seeking to develop a nuclear capacity, would be a clear warning to those who seek to deny this country the ultimate right to defend its people.
Will the Secretary of State try to explain to us the rationale behind the vast increase in the number of Trident warheads? The Government have told us over the past few years that we required the 250 per cent. increase in Trident warhead numbers over Polaris because of improved Russian anti-ballistic missile systems. The same Government are now acquiescing in United States-Russian co-operation to improve those anti-ballistic missile systems in Russia even further. Can the Secretary of State explain the absurd inconsistency that lies at the heart of the Government's approach?
There is no inconsistency whatsoever. The hon. Gentleman seems to forget conveniently the decision taken by a previous Labour Government to enhance Polaris through the Chevaline project because of their realisation that the defences against the nuclear deterrent had been increased at that time. In the same way, we have had to indicate the minimum nuclear deterrent required to ensure the protection of this country against any nuclear threat that it might face.As for anti-ballistic missile defences, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is an anti-ballistic missile treaty. Any proposals to change that treaty would require the most careful attention, consistent with the credibility and effectiveness of the nuclear deterrents that we and the United States possess.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the decision taken by the Labour Government to adopt an independent nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace in post-war Europe? Does he further agree that there is a residual problem of decommissioning some of the atomic submarines? Have the Government come to any conclusions about what to do with them?
We are giving active consideration to our long-term policy on decommissioning of nuclear submarines. My hon. Friend is correct that the original decisions on nuclear weapons were shared by both sides of the House. It is unfortunate that the Labour party went through—and may still be going through—a spasm of hostility to the defence needs of Britain.
European Fighter Aircraft
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the European fighter aircraft project.
As the House will be aware, the German Defence Minister has indicated his belief that Germany should not participate in the production phase of the programme. With my Italian and Spanish colleagues, we have made clear to him our view that the EFA continues to represent the most cost-effective solution to the requirement.
While I recognise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Prime Minister, supported by the Opposition, have rightly done all that they can to persuade the Germans to stay on board, may I put it to the Secretary of State that even without the German order for more than 100 aeroplanes it is decisively in the national interest that the project should go ahead? Is it not the case that by the end of the century we shall require a new fighter aeroplane at least as good as any modified MiG 29, and that to buy an American alternative would not only cost the taxpayer more in the long run but lead to the loss of thousands of jobs and the elimination of Britain's capability in an important area of advanced technology?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute not only to the Opposition parties but to my hon. Friends who have demonstrated convincingly the virtually unanimous view of the House that the European fighter aircraft is consistent with the defence interests of the United Kingdom. We believe that it is also in the interests of Germany. Indeed, many within Germany take that view. What one finds most difficult to understand about the German position is that the Germans acknowledge that they will need a new fighter aircraft, they are not aware what their alternative to the EFA would be and, in the absence of any conclusion to that effect, it is difficult to understand how they can believe that whatever option they ultimately chose would necessarily bring any saving. With the Select Committee, we believe that EFA represents the best value for money and is absolutely consistent with our defence requirements.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the view of the German Defence Minister that it is possible to produce a simpler aircraft more cheaply using research money from the EFA project is not viable? Does he agree that we would end up with an inferior aircraft that would cost us more?
I regret to say that my hon. Friend is almost certainly correct. It seems certain that if Herr Riihe's proposal for a lighter EFA were taken forward it would result in the waste of the billions of pounds that have so far been spent on the development stage of the project. It would also probably result in up to five years' delay before the aircraft could be made available. That would not be consistent with our defence requirements.
While I in no sense devalue the military and economic arguments in favour of the European fighter aircraft progamme, does the Secretary of State agree that the political implications of a German withdrawal are equally significant? At a time when necessary and inevitable efforts are being made to strengthen the European defence pillar, would not a German withdrawal from the EFA programme prejudice those efforts?
It is difficult to understand the German position. Germany has been a good European partner over the years. It is not consistent with that reputation to consider withdrawing from the most important example of European defence collaboration that exists.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we all agree with his conclusion that the EFA is important to our future defence interests. He will also be aware of the deep anxiety which many of us feel that our ground forces have already been pared to the bone. Can he give an assurance that, whatever happens to the EFA and whatever additional cost it might involve to Her Majesty's Government, no further cuts will he made in our ground force capability?
I would hope that, whatever the ultimate German decision on the EFA, the economies that have been identified in recent weeks will still be available to us. I hope that the rationalisation of industrial production which could follow any German decision to withdraw will not have cost implications. I assure my hon. Friend that our ground forces are an important priority to me.
Can the Minister give us a guarantee that a contingency plan will be drawn up in the event of the Germans withdrawing from the EFA? As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, there could be job losses in the area that we represent and it is important for the next generation of technology that we go ahead with the project. May we have a guarantee from the Minister that we shall go ahead with it?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will appreciate that, in the event of such a German announcement, the first requirement would be for me to have discussions with my Spanish and Italian colleagues and to ensure, we hope, that they also wish the project to continue. That would be the first priority, and I hope that we would have a common purpose to continue with the project and bring it to a successful conclusion.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while the Tornado did great service in the Gulf, it is not a combat aircraft and it was never engaged in combat during that conflict? Does he further agree that all the expert advice that he receives from the Royal Air Force suggests that we must have a fighter to replace Tornado at the earliest possible time?
It is indeed the case that the Tornado is unlikely to have the capacity of the most modern Russian aircraft. As my hon. Friend will be aware, it is intended that when the EFA comes into operation it will have both an air defence and a ground attack role and will therefore be able to meet our defence requirements well into the next century.
The Secretary of State knows that the House is united in support of the programme. Will he guarantee that, in the event of a German withdrawal, we shall have the opportunity to debate the issue, and that the House will get the most up-to-date reports of the intentions of the Italians and Spaniards? We hope that they will continue with the programme. Above all else, as well as national defence, our interests in the House are in the defence of the 40,000 workers whose jobs could well depend on the project during the next 25 years. It is essential that a dialogue continues across the House and with our allies to ensure that the programme carries on, even if it is in a modified form.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that debates in the House are not a matter for me. I appreciate the important contribution that he and his hon. Friends have made in supporting the Government's representations to the German Government. I certainly hope to keep him and the House informed of progress on the matter as and when it takes place.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend needs no reminding that the allied air forces' air superiority in the Gulf war—their ability to keep the Iraqi air forces on the ground and to neutralise Saddam Hussein's ground formations—saved many thousands of lives. The EFA will be an air superiority aeroplane, able to intercept and to offer effective offensive support to our troops, and as such it will be essential to the Royal Air Force for the next 20 to 25 years. Can my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that, whatever the circumstances, the Government will procure it?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of that aircraft. The Select Committee on Defence made a valuable contribution when it concluded unanimously that there was no alternative aircraft in the world which could meet the Royal Air Force's defence requirements and do so in such a cost-efficient manner. It would be my desire that the project should continue, irrespective of the German decision, but, clearly, if the Germans decide to withdraw, the first obligation will be to discuss the implications with the allies taking part in the project and to come to a decision in the light of those discussions.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence which countries Ministers have visited in the last year for which the purpose of the visit included promotion of arms sales.
Ministers in my Department during all visits abroad take the opportunity to discuss matters of mutual concern—including, where appropriate, defence exports. I shall write to the hon. Member providing her with a list of such visits by Defence Ministers in the past year.
Does the Minister accept that the Government will have to adopt greater openness in defence matters and, in particular, provide more detailed information on arms and defence equipment sales to specific countries? If the allegations in Sunday's edition of The Observer are true concerning the GCHQ phone tap of the Lonrho organisation in 1989, under the instruction of the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, does he accept that that merely underlines the scepticism that the Opposition feel about the sudden-found commitment to open government, as claimed by the Government? We shall monitor the Government's performance in that regard with particular interest.
In general terms, the Government support greater transparency concerning arms export matters. There is no question of allowing defence exports on an indiscriminate basis. We are playing our full part in the various international discussions on arms exports that have followed the Gulf war. We are also playing a full part in terms of the new United Nations register, which was set up largely as a result of the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We, too, await the greater emphasis on new information that that register will provide. I should make it clear, however, that there must be an element of confidentiality in any form of Government-to-Government negotiation. That has been the normal practice in defence export matters under successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative.
Is my hon. Friend aware of recent reports suggesting that at least one British defence contractor has supplied equipment to India which would help that country to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in contravention of the British Government's embargo on the export of such equipment? Is it not time that British and European defence contractors were put on notice by their Governments that they cannot expect to receive Government contracts if they breach their own Government's embargoes in this particularly sensitive matter?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Any breaches of those Government embargoes are treated as a most serious matter and will be thoroughly investigated.
Does the Minister recall that during his days on the Back Benches he was an eloquent supporter of open government? Does he recall his speech to the House on 2 February 1989 on the Official Secrets Bill, when he claimed that the House had been misled 20 years earlier over the sale of arms to Nigeria? Does he not think, now that he is a Minister, that history could well be repeating itself with his refusal to come clean about our arms deals in the past decade with Iran and Iraq?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his moling in Hansard, but he draws a false conclusion from it. There has been a substantial sea change in Whitehall under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, away from the old habits of unnecessary secrecy which were championed ferociously 18 years ago by the then Labour Prime Minister and Front-Bench spokesmen. Now there is greater emphasis on a new era of more responsible openness in all matters.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on his Department's policy on the relocation of departmental staff and service personnel from sites in the south to ones in the north of the United Kingdom.
In line with Government policy, the Ministry of Defence aims to locate its work wherever best value for money can be obtained, taking account of the operational requirements of the Department.
Will the Minister pay tribute to the city of York for its long and proud history as a garrison town and its proven track record as an Army administration centre, with the regimental pay offices based there? Will he confirm that the current investigation by the Ministry of Defence into the establishment of an integrated Army personnel centre will include the city of York on the short list of possible bases for that centre?
I am happy to pay tribute to the city of York, which has been home to many units of the British Army and has played a great role as a garrison city. It has been proposed that we might do better to concentrate the entire manning and records office in one place, but it has also been suggested that we should consider more than one location. The investigation is still considering those possibilities and we hope to report on it soon.
When will the Minister make a decision on the future of Royal Navy Support Command? Is he aware that this is a crucial test of whether the Government intend to relocate facilities from the south to the north or from the north to the south, with the possible loss of about 170 jobs in my constituency resulting from the move to Bath?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are still working towards a decision on the question. I am sore about the whole idea of moving 180 jobs at RNSC Eaglescliffe from the north into the Bath area. On the other hand, it is thought that there are great economies of scale to be achieved by co-locating all those staff in one premises. We shall have to examine the matter closely and see how the cost analysis adds up.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how he intends to apply the Government's principles of open government to his Department.
My Department will fully implement the Government's policies on open government while continuing to discharge our duty to protect the material which needs to be protected.
Will the Minister give a commitment that the chief executive of the next steps agencies and. other senior officials in his Department will consult and negotiate with the appropriate trade unions at the beginning of the process of market testing and at each stage throughout the process? Does he accept that if the Government are to be really open, the process must begin with Government Departments being seen to be open and fair in all their dealings with their own employees?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last statement. The Government place great emphasis on their market testing initiative, which gives the opportunity for greater value for money and those savings being employed at the sharp end of defence spending. As for taking the unions into the Government's confidence, we are willing to be candid about what the plans are likely to be for market testing. That is the only way to approach the matter.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.
On behalf of the people of Aberdeen, South, I extend to my right hon. Friend every best wish as he prepares to take on the presidency of the European Council. Given that there is concern about too much centralism in Europe, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Maastricht treaty, with its emphasis on subsidiarity, starts to reverse many of the centralising tendencies of previous treaties? Does he recall that it was in the Single European Act that the first commitment to economic and monetary union was based and that qualified majority voting was extended to a number of key areas?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Single European Act was very far reaching. It secured, first and foremost, the single market commitments which are necessary to fair trading throughout Europe. It also represented the most far-reaching amendments since our entry into the Community under the treaty of Rome. It increased majority voting by a significant extent and did a great deal to transform relationships between members of the Community. In the Maastricht treaty, we look forward to decentralisation, and the House had ample opportunity to discuss that yesterday.
When Mr. George Nissen, chairman of the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation, honourably resigned yesterday, he said:
Why did the Government take no effective action in response to those repeated warnings from the regulatory body?"for some years we have been telling the Government of the problems of pension and trust law."
I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman said and, as he knows, we have made a series of announcements about how we propose to deal with the problem in the short term. We are still waiting for further information and we have made it clear that in due course further information will be released.
Is the Prime Minister suggesting that Mr. Nissen, who had no reason to mislead anyone, was seeking to mislead those listening to him yesterday and those reading his words today? Is it or is it not the case that over a period of years, and long before the Maxwell scandal, the regulatory body was giving warnings of the problems to the Government? As I am inclined to believe Mr. Nissen's word, as is everybody else, I again ask why the Government did nothing in response to those warnings from that authoritative body.
I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's conclusions. When Mr. Nissen resigned on 29 June, he said:
That is what he said."We have freely acknowledged that we are open to a share of reproach…although much of that criticism, to those who knew the facts, is misplaced. In these circumstances, I think it right that I should resign the Chairmanship."
Mr. Nissen also said that, while he accepted his full share of responsibility, as the Prime Minister has indicated, no one should attach the blame solely to IMRO. He then uttered the sentence that I have quoted to the Prime Minister. As Mr. Nissen has taken his share of responsibility and has honourably resigned, can we expect the Government to take their share of the responsibility? When can we expect Ministers to follow Mr. Nissen's example?
The right hon. Gentleman, as he did last year in respect of another matter, is seeking in a truly disgraceful manner to spread blame where it does not belong—[Interruption.]
Order. I insist that there be order in the house so that the Prime Minister may be heard.
The right hon. Gentleman may seek to smear, but he will have to wait until the information is available. As I said to the House the other day, the Securities and Investments Board will wish in due course to publish as much as possible of the IMRO review. We have made it clear that it may not be possible to publish the review in full, and we have made clear why that is so. I am advised that publication of the full review by the Securities and Investments Board or by the Government would be severely prejudicial to criminal proceedings. Would the right hon. Gentleman like us to damage criminal proceedings? Is he so concerned to make a party point that he is unconcerned with the law of the land?
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance to the textile industry of this country of a successful outcome to the GATT round. Can he today assure the House and the industry that during his presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Community he will endeavour to secure a successful outcome?
Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking for a successful outcome that is satisfactory to all elements of British industry and will bring the GATT round to a satisfactory and early conclusion.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the decision made by the House of Lords last week in connection with Kirklees council and the Shops Act 1950? Does not he agree that the private Member's Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) deserves the support of the whole House to ensure that Sunday is kept as a special day by defeating those vested interests who continue to trade illegally on Sundays?
I am, of course, aware of the Bill that is before the House. I think that it would he premature to take a view on any Sunday trading legislation before we know the position in Community law, which is something that we await. Before the election, we made it clear in our manifesto that once the law was clarified we would bring forward a Bill so that the House of Commons might make its decisions and put the law in a state of grace.
In view of the critical situation over the European fighter aircraft project, can my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with the Italian and Spanish Governments, and whether there is still full accord between them and the British Government about the future of that vital project?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has spoken to both the Italian and the Spanish Governments about the EFA. On more than one occasion I have spoken to the German Government, and in particular to Chancellor Kohl, about it. It is possible that a decision on the European fighter aircraft will be taken by the Germans today, tomorrow or perhaps later this week. The Government and many right hon. and hon. Members have been in close touch with the German Government to try to persuade them to stay in the project. I tried again in my discussions with the Chancellor at the weekend. It is our view, on military grounds, that there is a clear and continuing need for an aircraft with the capabilities of the European fighter aircraft. If the Germans withdraw, as I believe my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence may have indicated earlier this afternoon, we shall need to discuss the future with our Spanish and Italian partners. But we await a decision.
Is the Prime Minister aware that thousands of people throughout the country are being denied access to his social fund as the result of a mistake that is admitted by the Department of Social Security? Does the Prime Minister accept that nonsense will be made of the much-vaunted citizens charter until mistakes by public authorities and bodies are acknowledged and the people who have suffered are recompensed? What action does the Prime Minister intend to take to ensure that those thousands of people are protected from mistakes made by his Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes an assertion without backing it up. If he would care to back it up, I shall examine it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the principle of subsidiarity had been built into earlier European treaties, many of the decisions of the European Court of Justice might have been different?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, but subsidiarity exists and is legally judicable. We propose to build on it during the British presidency.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
Is the Prime Minister aware that the chief constable of Gloucestershire recently announced a 32 per cent. increase in crime, yet when he asked for 56 extra officers a year ago, the Government allowed him only one? When will the Government allow chief constables the resources that they need to crack down on crime?
The hon. Gentleman should have the grace to recognise that no party has a monopoly of concern about crime and that no Government have provided more resources to tackle crime than the Conservative Government in recent years. He should also acknowledge that the Government have consistently ensured that the police have adequate resources. We have provided almost £5.5 billion on police services in England and Wales, which is a rise of three quarters since 1979. Total manpower is up by 30,000—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not like it because their record in government was lamentable. There were many reasons why we won the last election and they lost it. One of the reasons why they lost was their criminal neglect to deal with crime in their manifesto.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government's commitment to financial rectitude and lower taxes? If so, will he remind his colleagues that, due to the continuation of the recession, receipts from revenue are falling and they must reduce their expenditure demands this year if the Government are not to be faced with increasing taxes or the public sector deficit? As a gesture of support to the Financial Secretary, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the £100 million additional spending as a result of the biodiversity treaty will have to come out of the existing overseas aid budget?
On the latter point, that is a matter for discussion in the public expenditure round when we look at all those subjects but I expect that the £100 million will, over a period, be additional to the resources currently provided in that budget. We shall look at the expenditure position as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been holding early discussions this year with Departments on how their departmental spending programmes relate to total spending plans. As usual, this year our programme will be based on what the country needs and can afford. That is absolutely essential.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
Does the Prime Minister realise that the police do not have enough money and resources to deal with the escalating problem of drug dealing and murder in the streets? If the Prime Minister visits cities throughout Britain he will find it commonplace that 12 and 13-year-old kids are involved in drug dealing. What plans has the Prime Minister to eradicate the problem of that evil trade?
The hon. Gentleman might have acknowledged the action that we took through the European Community at the summit last year and the domestic action that we have taken here. Clearly, he also missed my mentioning a moment ago the extra 30,000 policemen during the period of Conservative Government to deal with all problems of crime, including the important problem of drugs.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
While we are all greatly aware of the human tragedy and suffering in the former state of Yugoslavia and the need for humanitarian aid, is it not clear that one cannot impose peace from outside on centuries-old feuds? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the British Government will not commit infantry or armoured units to that part of the world without first having a debate and vote in the House of Commons?
I share many of the reservations on the difficulties of putting troops on the ground in Yugoslavia set out by my hon. Friend. Indeed, I set some of them out in answer to questions yesterday when I made a statement on the Lisbon summit. Following yesterday's meeting of the Security Council, United Nations forces are now at Sarajevo airport and it is hoped that the relief operation, at least, can get under way soon. We have offered up to four Hercules flights a day and our aircraft are ready to take off at short notice. That is a different operation from ground action which, as my hon. Friend suggests, would be extremely hazardous. At present, we do not have such action in mind.
To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 June.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, whereas 90 per cent. of the housing stock in Sweden is insulated to a standard as good as or better than that required for new-build houses, the corresponding figure in Britain is only 16 per cent? Does he accept that a drive to improve insulation standards would not only reduce the demand for energy, which would be favourable for the environment, but assist people such as pensioners, the disabled and those on low incomes, and create jobs in a labour-intensive industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that?
We have examined the broad principles of what the hon. Gentleman suggests and I have some sympathy with the points that he makes. The budget of the Energy Efficiency Office has been increased substantially this year to £59 million—a 40 per cent. increase on the previous year. A further increase in the public expenditure plans—to £75 million—is already set out in those plans for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman.
Points Of Order
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to seek guidance on the way in which the Government responded to the Select Committee on Social Security on the Maxwell pension scheme. Yesterday, there was a notice outside the Vote Office stating, "No papers today". In question 311 on yesterday's Order Paper, the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) asked the Secretary of State when he intended to respond. In yesterday's Hansard, the Secretary of State replied:
I went to the Vote Office earlier today, and was told that the report would not be made available to hon. Members until 3.30 pm. However, journalists received unembargoed copies yesterday. That is a case of sneaking a reply out and cheating hon. Members. It is an abuse of procedures and shows that the much-vaunted style of open government has not reached the Department of Social Security. May I request a statement from the Leader of the House on how it is that a report published yesterday is not available to us but has been made available to the Lobby? What can you do, Madam Speaker, to end such obnoxious practices?"The Government's response to the Select Committee's report is published today."—[Official Report, 29 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 432.]
Order. Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's point.What the hon. Gentleman had to say has been heard by those Ministers who are present. I deprecate the practice of documents being made available to the press before they are made available to the House. There are senior Ministers on the Front Bench who will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I am sure that, as a matter of courtesy, Ministers with responsibility for such matters will report to me.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are told that the Community's ethos has undergone a sea change towards subsidiarity, yet daily more Community instruments are being rammed down our throats.The Prime Minister told us today that shop hours are a matter for Community discretion. But more important than that, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given his assent to the possibility that VAT rates could be constrained by European considerations. My right hon. Friend is a good Chancellor of the Exchequer and I hope that he will hold office for a long time, but he might not. My understanding is that the House is responsible for making decisions on supply and that it should not be constrained in what taxes it raises and at what level it raises those taxes. You, Madam Speaker, may not wish to pronounce today, but it may be advisable for Europeans to know that decisions on taxation are for the House, not for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, points of order should relate to matters for which I am responsible, and I am not responsible for what Ministers say, whether in the House or outside.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker.
Order. I must respond to one point of order before I can take any others.As the hon. Gentleman understands, I will rule if necessary on whether or not tax proposals are in order as and when they are made, but I do not want to make advance pronouncements on a hypothetical situation derived from press reports. When the time is right, I shall pronounce on those matters.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you been notified that the Government will be making a statement to the House on the allegation that the arms embargo against Iran has been broken by the Ministry of Defence in issuing an export licence for the export of machinery which is capable of making gun barrels to a firm in my constituency? That is a matter of interest to members of the public as well as to Members of the House.
I have had no such notification from any member of the Government.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will know from your constituency how the primary purpose rule unfairly separates families. Has the Home Secretary, who, conveniently, is in his place, applied to you to make a statement to announce the conduct of a review which the Home Office is now conducting into the cases of spouses who have been waiting more than five years to enter Britain, particularly those with British citizen children? As that review effectively abolishes the primary purpose rule and clearly has important public policy implications, has the Home Secretary sought an opportunity to announce the review into the primary purpose review?
I have had no indication from the Government that they are seeking to make a statement on that matter.
As you are aware, Madam Speaker, Members of Parliament have free access to this place—a right which you would guard with your life, I suppose. But do you have any jurisdiction over the Tory Members of Parliament who were trying to enter the other place today? Tory Whips were using intimidatory tactics to stop Tory Members going to the other place to see Baroness Thatcher being ennobled and taking part in the "Monty Python" sketch. Do you have any powers to stop those Tory Whips preventing those Eurosceptics——
Order. I have sufficient responsibilities in relation to the House. Please do not burden me with any more.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Am I to understand from previous exchanges that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having apparently conceded the important power of the House in raising taxes by accepting a VAT limit of no lower than 15 per cent. for four years, is not applying to you to make a statement of what amounts to a betrayal of the British people and the handing over of power to the Common Market on an unprecedented scale?
I have already answered a point of order on that matter. We must now move on—to summer time.
Statutory Instruments, &C
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.),
That the draft Summer Time Order 1992 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.— [Mr. Boswell.]
Question agreed to.
Tattooing (Insurance Cover)
I beg to move,
You will recall, Madam Speaker, that before the election there was a considerable hue and cry about long-term waiting lists in the health service. I decided to investigate the list in my constituency, Billericay, where we have an excellent burns and plastic surgery unit. I found, to my great surprise, that a remarkably large number of the people who were waiting for two years were waiting to have tattoos removed. There were over 100 cases of that type, and they represented almost 10 per cent. of the long-term waiting list. I have subsequently been told by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that his hospital, Stoke Mandeville, has a similar experience. I made inquiries in other hospitals, including the Brighton hospital, where there are specialists in this work, and they too had close on 100 people waiting to have tattoos removed. If this is added up throughout the country, one finds that a very large number of people on long-term waiting lists are there because they very much regret having been tattooed in the first place. Mr. Patrick Hall-Smith, a specialist at the Brighton hospital, points out that taking off a tattoo can be almost as traumatic as having it put on. It causes great psychological distress and, in addition to the cost, can cause a long-term problem for the individual concerned. You will be surprised to learn, Madam Speaker, that it would cost you £25 to have "I love Teresa" tattooed on your arm; but it will surprise you even more to learn that it would cost £2,500 to have that tattoo removed under the health service. That is money which could be better spent on people who are ill, and surely that is what the health service is for. I am therefore calling for people who choose to have themselves tattooed to have first to think carefully about it and to take out an insurance policy. Tattooing is of course extremely common in the Navy. It is quite common for a jolly sailor to roll out of the Crown and Anchor with a girl on his arm, stagger across to the tattooist and, because he does not have to sign anything, have "Sharon" tattooed on his chest before he realises what he is doing. But he may wake up in the morning to find that in fact it is Tracey he loves. He is now burdened with something that he wishes to goodness he had never had done. I am told that such sailors, when they leave the Navy, are often discriminated against when they are looking for jobs, particularly if their tattoos are in a place where they can easily be seen. This is especially so when they are on the face, where, I am given to understand, many people have tattoos. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 made it necessary for tattooists to register, although apparently very few of them do so. It also made it necessary for people to be over the age of 18 before they could be tattooed. However, the journal of the British Medical Association records that the majority of tattoos are carried out on people under the age of 18, and often as young as 13. The removal of these tattoos requires the use of acid, burning, abrasion, lasers or even skin grafts, and can take place over a long period—so long, indeed, that the individual often gives up, having wasted the valuable time of a plastic surgeon who could be doing something a lot more useful. Furthermore, the treatment leaves the skin looking like a patchwork quilt. There is no such thing as invisible mending when it comes to the removal of tattoos. Tattooing has currently become very fashionable. Many prominent people in the pop world are displaying tattoos. There is a young lady called Paula Yates who apparently has a tattoo which she regularly exhibits on television. I think that it is on her arm. Surprisingly enough, Eddie Grundy of "The Archers" was recently tattooed, and he is busy persuading the young people of Ambridge to follow his example. I hate to think what the plastic surgery bills will be in Ambridge in the near future. Whole magazines are devoted to the apparently fashionable art of tattooing, but no one tells the people who undergo what is in a way enforced defilement of their skin what it will cost in pain, suffering, misery and lost jobs if they change their minds. My Bill does not seek to prohibit people being tattooed. I would be the last one to stop them. I am on record as saying that everyone should be allowed to go to hell in their own way—I just do not think that we ought to pay for the journey. My Bill would ensure that, before people are tattooed, they would obtain insurance, and would give their consent in writing, to absolve the tattooist of any responsibility. It is wholly wrong that the health service should be derided for keeping people waiting a long time for treatment, when many of those concerned are in need not of a genuine operation but only of cosmetic surgery.That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require that a person shall be insured against the cost of tattoo removal when purchasing the services of a commercial tattooist.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Gyles Brandreth, Mr. Eric Pickles, Dr. Robert Spink, Mr. Terry Dicks, Dr. Liam Fox, and Mr. David Lidington.
Tattooing (Insurance Cover)
Mrs. Teresa Gorman accordingly presented a Bill to require that a person shall be insured against the cost of tattoo removal when purchasing the services of a commercial tattooist; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 10 July and to be printed. [Bill 49.]
Orders Of The Day
Boundary Commissions Bill
As amended, considered; reported, with amendments.
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:
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"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".
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."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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
I did, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."'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.]
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.