Skip to main content

Constitutional Affairs

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

The Minister of State was asked—

Boundary Reform

20. If she will consider the merits of boundary reform to equalise voter numbers in each constituency. (76560)

The independent parliamentary boundary commissions review parliamentary boundaries every eight to 12 years. Although the electoral quota is important, it is necessary to take other factors into account, such as geographical and community issues. The boundary commissions consider all those factors when conducting their reviews.

How can it be right for, for example, Birmingham, Yardley to have an electorate of fewer than 51,000, when in the same old county of Warwickshire, Rugby and Kenilworth has an electorate of more than 83,000? The Boundary Commission for England recommends an average of 70,000 electors per constituency and is trundling through its changes. However, the Boundary Commission for Wales will still have only 56,000 electors per constituency. Will the Government review the terms of reference for all the boundary commissions of the United Kingdom to ensure that the priority is equalisation of voters, so that each elector’s vote has the same value? I suggest a standard of 80,000 electors per constituency. That would also reduce the number of politicians, which would be popular with the British people.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is volunteering to stand down—but that might be welcome in several places.

The boundary commissions take into account not only numbers but geography and community issues. There have been historic arrangements for Wales to compensate for its smaller size. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that Welsh constituencies should be the same size as English ones, he might just as logically say that the Welsh Assembly should have the same powers and authority as the Scottish Parliament.

Does my hon. Friend accept that getting equality between numbers of electors takes us only part of the way to our destination? The objective should be equality between numbers of residents, and that means getting the percentage of residents who register to vote up to nearer 100 per cent. If we do not achieve that, young people, people in rented accommodation and others are less likely to register to vote. Some constituencies, especially those in inner-city areas, have far more residents than those in the leafy suburbs.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we shall doubtless debate later today when we consider the Electoral Administration Bill, which deals with registration. I take his point seriously. The number of people who live in inner cities but are not registered and therefore not counted by the boundary commissions makes a considerable difference. He makes a good point about ensuring that everyone is counted and registered, so that we properly reflect the communities that we are supposed to represent.

Does the Minister accept that the criteria given to the Boundary Commission by the House need to change? The reason why constituencies are so hopelessly out of kilter in numbers of electors is that the commission is always working on out-of-date statistics. It is allowed to look backwards but not forwards, and this causes huge anomalies that could easily be avoided. Will the Minister give me an undertaking that this matter will be looked at?

I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking. He has made a valid point, and I shall take it on board and discuss it with the boundary commissions in due course.

Following the tone of earlier questions, may I push the Minister to consult her colleagues to see whether she can come up with a Government policy to ensure that the same number of adults are entitled to vote in every constituency across the United Kingdom for this Parliament? There can be no justification these days for a differential figure in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, if each vote is to be of equal value. Of course, the number of residents entitled to vote is just as good a test as the number who actually end up getting their names on the register.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Hon. Members have in the past raised the issue of the Isle of Wight, a constituency with a very large number of electors. If we did not take geographical issues into account, the Isle of Wight would have to be considered with at least one other part of the south of England; it would be very difficult to make it into two or more constituencies. Nevertheless, I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, and in my discussions with the Boundary Commission, I shall look at all aspects of ensuring that every constituency represents the people who live in it as well as possible.

But does the Minister not accept that there is a bit of party politics going on here? She will know that, after last month’s local elections, Sir Michael Lyons—a former Labour councillor and an adviser to the Government—said that council boundaries should now be politically redrawn to make council elections more “closely competitive”. Of course, we know what happened in those local elections. Is the Minister intending to follow this principle for parliamentary elections? Is it not the case that if Labour cannot win elections, its first instinct is to gerrymander the boundaries involved?

Dear, oh dear. I really think that the hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on what he has just said. The Labour party has won the last three general elections, I am very pleased to say—[Interruption.] The Boundary Commission is an independent, non-party-political organisation—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that the Boundary Commission, which recommends changes to the boundaries, is a neutral, non-party-political organisation. This is not done on a party basis. It is done in a logical, neutral way, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what he has said and consider whether the changes that the Boundary Commission has made over the years have also benefited his party from time to time.

Limitations of Actions

21. When the Government plan to implement the recommendations in the Law Commission’s 2001 report on limitations of actions. (76561)

Those are recommendations from the Law Commission’s report that the limitation period—the time within which one person may bring a civil action against another—ought to be made more flexible. The Government announced their acceptance in principle of the recommendations in 2002, subject to further consideration of some aspects of the Law Commission’s report. That work is now well advanced and it should end shortly. We will then seek a legislative opportunity to reform the law.

Four years is a long time to wait. My constituent, Kevin Young, was repeatedly sexually abused by a prison officer while he was in a youth offender institution 29 years ago. He wants the terms of the Limitation Act 1980 changed to make it easier for people like him to claim compensation. In a letter to me in March, Baroness Ashton said that it might be possible to use the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, if it is passed by Parliament, to change the law more quickly by statutory instrument. Will the Government will look into that?

Yes. It is correct to say that there is a fast-track provision in that Bill to introduce non-contentious recommendations by the Law Commission by statutory instrument, and that could be used to fast-track these proposals. I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend and his constituent. People who suffered sex abuse when they were children and did not appreciate its impact until much later often find themselves outside the limitation period, and therefore suffer injustice. We will certainly look at using that Bill to bring such a proposal forward; otherwise we will seek an early legislative opportunity.

The Minister referred to the four years since the Government basically accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation. Would it help to produce parliamentary encouragement for the Government if a list of all the outstanding Law Commission recommendations was published each year, outlining what progress is being made and what blockages there are to fulfilling those steps towards greater justice?

I am sure that from time to time we do indicate the progress that is being made on Law Commission proposals, and of course the hon. Gentleman can, and will, ask questions of the Department about precisely that. The recommendations went far wider than the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), as they also related to matters such as time limits on squatters’ rights, corruption, insolvency applications and compulsory purchase orders. A great deal of work has had to be done across a number of Departments, which explains the delay. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton, whose portfolio this relates to, and the Lord Chancellor are particularly keen to get on with implementing this change.

Courts Service

22. What assessment she has made of the likely impact of changes in the Courts Service’s budget on the Government’s plans for the court system. (76562)

The courts are working to deliver the Government’s plans for the court system, particularly improving public safety and increasing public confidence through simpler, speedier justice. Like all public services, the courts are facing tight spending limits this year.

I declare a relevant interest as a solicitor. What is the hope for improved administration of justice in Enfield magistrates court when the north-west London region courts were told last month that, following the Lord Chancellor’s overestimate of legal aid savings, they need to find £2 million-worth of savings this financial year? Is that not good news for fine defaulters and compensation defaulters, and bad news for court users and victims?

We have to be sure that the Department as a whole lives within its financial spending limits, but within that we can improve the services that we provide. I believe that it is possible to meet both those aims.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had an opportunity to see the evidence of Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, to the Constitutional Affairs Committee? He says that any changes in the budget will dramatically affect his ability to bring down the current casework delay in the family division. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is very keen on modernising the Courts Service and that she has great ambitions to do so, but a cut in the budget that is not agreed with the judiciary will have serious implications for the delays that are still inherent in our family justice system.

We are all concerned that there should be no unnecessary delay in court processes, especially where children are involved. I have discussed the delays with the president of the family division and his fellow judges. One of our aims is to ensure that as many cases as possible do not come to court at all, but can be agreed outside it, as well as ensuring that cases that are brought to court are dealt with more swiftly.

We understand that the £80 million cut in the court budget this year could lead to a reduction of services and the loss of up to 1,300 jobs. Last week, the Minister of State revealed to me that the courts failed to collect some £282 million-worth of fines. Does not that debacle prove once again the Government’s inability to run public services, and the inability of Constitutional Affairs Ministers to run their own Department?

No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we inherited a position in which nearly half the fines imposed by the courts were not collected, a great deal of work has been done between the police and the courts across the country, and the collection rate has been increased to more than 80 per cent. That money goes to the Treasury, which I am sure is extremely pleased to receive it. The finances of the Courts Service are not what the hon. Gentleman said that they were. In fact, the courts did not spend the full amount that they thought that they would in the previous year. Perhaps, to help hon. Members to understand the exact position, I will place in the Library a copy of the permanent secretary’s letter to all court staff. That would enable hon. Members to see the financial situation, which is challenging, but not of the dimensions that the hon. Gentleman implied.

Further to the Government’s plans for the court system, will my right hon. and learned Friend say what plans she has for the family courts, especially in relation to ending their ability to send people to prison—for example, for contempt of court for breach of a contact order—without having a public hearing?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, which she has put to me in a written question, so I know what the answer is. Last year something like 200 people were sent to prison by the family courts, which happens in complete privacy and secrecy. The idea that people are sent to prison without any reports of the proceedings makes even more important the work that we are undertaking with the family courts, and with the important intervention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, to open them up so that they act in the public interest while maintaining personal privacy.

Colchester Courthouse

The Courts Service has now purchased a site in Colchester for the new courthouse. The next step is to appoint a firm to construct the building. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Before hon. Members cheer, I must tell them that that is subject to funding discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury.

The time taken between the decision to build a new courthouse in Colchester and the present day is longer than the duration of the second world war. Does the Minister regard that as a success or a failure, with regard to the concept of the private finance initiative?

Obviously, we would have liked the hon. Gentleman’s local courthouse to have been renewed earlier. When he last made the comparison between the duration of the second world war and the time taken to build the new Colchester courthouse, the land had not yet been purchased. On that basis, at least, we are making progress. We will let him know when the construction company has been appointed, and I am sure that he will ask a question about that.

Order. The hon. Lady’s constituency is much too far from the area under discussion for me to call her.

Dr. David Kelly

The Oxfordshire coroner opened and adjourned the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 17 July 2003. He resumed the inquest on 14 August 2003 to admit post-mortem evidence from the Home Office pathologist and a toxicology report. He then adjourned the inquest as directed by the Lord Chancellor pending Lord Hutton’s public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly. Having read the Hutton report, the coroner announced at an open hearing on 16 March 2004 that there was no exceptional reason to resume the inquest.

The Minister will be aware that under the 1984 coroner’s rules, as amended in 2002, where an inquest has been adjourned for any reason, an interim certificate of death shall be issued, which accepts that the death has occurred without giving the precise reasons for the death. Why, then, did the Oxfordshire coroner, on 18 August—barely a week after Lord Hutton began taking evidence—issue a full death certificate giving reasons for the death? What was the point of the Hutton inquiry if the death certificate already gave the reasons?

The Hutton report obviously ranged much more widely, which is one of the reasons why a further inquest by the Oxfordshire coroner was not necessary.

Cohabiting Couples

25. What plans the Government have to reform the law relating to the rights of cohabiting couples. (76565)

The current state of play is that the Law Commission published a consultation paper about cohabitation on 31 May. That consultation paper poses questions on how the law in this area might be reformed, and we look forward to the outcome of the consultation and will consider any recommendations made. We expect the final report in summer 2007.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that the principle of equal rights for cohabiting couples is based on the principle of fairness? I have received an anonymous letter from a woman who has lived with a man for 17 years and has borne five of his children, but who now finds herself unable to leave him as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. She describes her position as that of a concubine. What steps is the Department taking to make people aware that there is no such thing as a common-law marriage, and that they need to protect their rights if they are embarking on cohabitation?

The Law Commission produced its paper at the request of the Lord Chancellor because of concern about the fact that there are now 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales and about 1.25 million children dependent on them. We must think about reducing the potential financial hardship suffered by cohabitants when there is a break-up.

Apparently, 56 per cent. of people who responded to a survey thought that there was such a thing as common-law marriage, and that cohabitants’ rights to property and finance were very similar to those of married people. That is not correct. We have engaged two charitable not-for-profit groups to try to make people aware of the limitations on the legal status of people who cohabit, but the important point is that the Law Commission, at our request, is considering responsibly—as is essential when so many individuals, including children, are involved—whether there should be some sort of safety net in the event of a break-up.

I welcome the Law Commission’s consultation paper. As a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on this subject tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), may I implore the hon. and learned Lady—whom I welcome to her responsibilities—to recognise the powerful case for a change in the law? Overwhelmingly, this is not about the distribution of largesse or about providing a rival to marriage, but about fairness, and, in many cases, about rescuing people from the destitution to which they would otherwise be consigned.

I entirely recognise that. Let me make what may be a partisan point, and say that it is women, usually, who are left high and dry after cohabitation, perhaps having dreamt that they did have some property rights, and they may indeed be thrown into destitution. It is important for us to examine the whole subject with a great deal of care. It involves sensitivities on numerous fronts, which is why it was appropriate for us to ask the Law Commission to consider it. We look forward to the results of the commission’s consultation, which will doubtless be followed by plenty of debate.