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Boundary Reform

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

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.