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Constituency Boundaries (Islands)

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2010

First, I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), on his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. I have known him for many years. The Prime Minister quickly recognised the many qualities that I know he possesses, and the people of the Forest of Dean also knew a good thing when they saw it: they had the wisdom to elect him in 2005, and again last month with an increased majority. I know that he will bring common sense and good judgment to his office.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss constituency boundaries for islands. Not many of us are greatly affected by the issue, but it is extremely important to those of us who are. Islands come in many shapes and sizes. There are those with a tiny population, such as the Scillies with scarcely 2,000 residents. There are islands joined to the mainland by road or rail, such as Anglesey and Hayling island, and even Portsmouth. Most important for this debate is that there are islands with significant populations that remain isolated, with no physical link to the mainland. They include Na h-Eileanan an Iar—more commonly known as the Western Isles—Orkney and Shetland, and my own constituency of the Isle of Wight.

Last month’s election was fought on boundaries with average constituency sizes of 71,000 electors in England, 66,000 in Scotland, 56,500 in Wales and just over 63,000 in Northern Ireland. The UK average was 69,500. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that England as a whole is under-represented in the current system, particularly since devolution has introduced another layer of politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With roughly 110,000 electors, my constituency is the largest by quite a margin. The constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whom I am glad to see here today, has fewer than 23,000. His, at a fifth of the size of mine, is the smallest constituency, again by a significant margin.

The coalition Government intend to increase the size of constituencies generally, creating fewer, more evenly sized and, in the majority of cases, more populous ones. I understand that the aim is to have an average electorate of 77,000, which would reduce the number of MPs by 10% and cut the cost of politics. The principle of greater equality is good, the aim of reducing the cost of politics is laudable and, from experience, I know that it is perfectly possible to represent a large constituency. My noble Friend Lord Norton of Louth’s excellent report from the commission to strengthen Parliament found that larger constituencies may foster

“a closer, longer-term relationship between member and constituents”.

We must, however, remember and examine the practicalities.

We can learn from the wisdom of those who have looked at the issues in depth before us. The Boundary Commission last reported on the Isle of Wight constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was 103,000, 33% larger than the average. The commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency, but concluded that to do so would

“disregard the historic and unique geographical situation”


“create confusion and a feeling of the loss of identity”

for islanders. It also stated that

“communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament.”

We were on the point, under the current system, of having two MPs, which I would have supported, but I understand that that proposition is no longer on the table.

If the island had one MP with 77,000 electors, 32,000 people or 12 electoral wards on the island would need to be included with a mainland seat. I have looked at all the possibilities. It could mean either a ferry from Ryde, with a hinterland from Wootton to Arreton to Bembridge, or a ferry from Yarmouth, with a hinterland from Cowes to Ventnor—the southern most point on the island—or from Cowes, East Cowes and Newport. I have to say that all of those proposals are barmy.

Experts from the Boundary Commission for Scotland have looked carefully over the years at the case for merging the Western Isles with Skye. The commission found in 1981 that that would be “unworkable or intolerably difficult”, and, in 2004, it came to the same conclusion, saying that the arguments against change

“remained as strong now as they were then.”

To get anywhere near an electorate of 77,000 would mean the Western Isles being lumped in with a huge part of the Scottish mainland. If including Skye in the constituency would prove “unworkable or intolerably difficult”, how on earth would merging the Western Isles with the mainland work in practice?

Such difficulties are even more acute in Orkney and Shetland, a constituency with a population of more than 32,000. Meeting the new quota would likely entail a union with the nearest mainland constituency, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Such a drawing of boundaries would result in a constituency that was hundreds of miles from end to end.

Part of the problem is geographical. The only access to the Isle of Wight is by sea. There is no tunnel, bridge or scheduled air service, and crossing the Solent can be expensive and time-consuming. The even bigger problem, however, is that islands and islanders are very different from the mainland and mainlanders. Those who live on islands are, by definition, more insular. The word “insular” means being of or pertaining to an island or islands, but it also means being detached, standing alone or isolated. It is clear to me why the word is used in both ways, but one must live on an island to really understand. Many people on the Isle of Wight travel to the mainland only rarely. The Solent is much more of a barrier, both physical and psychological, than any other English county boundary. If any part of the island were to be merged with the mainland, it would be reasonable for the mainland MP to live on the north island. After all, that is where the majority of his constituents—about 46,000—would live. He would not, however, be considered a part of the island community. I suspect that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar recognises that feeling in the communities that he represents. It would be a very sad outcome if people were made to feel more distant and remote from their elected representatives.

There are good reasons why both the largest and smallest UK constituencies are island constituencies, and those reasons should be respected. We should not simply disregard the work of those who have looked at the issues before, sacrificing workable and sensible proposals on the altar of principle, however good and well-intentioned that principle might be.

It might seem odd that I am arguing for more rather than less work than other Members of the House, while at the same time arguing for the continued existence of the smallest UK constituency. However, it is because I live on an island that I understand the unique nature of islands. They are very special communities and special places that need special consideration. I understand that these matters are still being deliberated and that final decisions have yet to be made about how the policy is to be implemented. Will the Minister please give me an assurance that, when the Government move forward with plans to equalise constituency sizes, they will recognise the unique nature of island electorates? I hope that his common sense and good judgment will applied in spades to this question.

Today, we see an alliance of islanders—an alliance that was perhaps created by the Daily Mail. During the election campaign, the newspaper sent one of its reporters, Mr Robert Hardman—perhaps all the reporters from the Daily Mail are hard men—to both Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight. Whether his aim was to create some mischief, I do not know—far be it from me to cast aspersions on such an august publication as the Daily Mail—but we were chosen because I represented the smallest constituency in terms of the number of voters, and the Isle of Wight is, of course, the constituency with the largest number of voters. The Daily Mail succeeded in uniting us in a common cause. The largest and the smallest numerical constituencies in the UK are of one mind: their islands are indeed special.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) spoke eloquently and forcefully for his constituency. I will confine my remarks to my constituency, other than to point out to the Minister that it is odd for a democracy to be looking to cut the elected element of Parliament while almost daily—certainly monthly—we have news of further appointments to the unelected portion of Parliament. Does that mean that, when the Government leave office, the percentage of Parliament elected by democratic means will be far smaller than when they entered office? Quite how that makes the UK look internationally, other than like a laughing stock, I am not certain. Quite how the Government feel about that, other than queasy, I shall not speculate.

My constituency is the length of Wales. The Prime Minister might want to give me a territory the size of the Yukon, but that would not serve voters well at all. Areas, of course, need coverage. When a population grows in an area, a constituency with a maximum headage is usually created, obviously with some sensible anomalies, such as the Isle of Wight. That is to ensure an equality of treatment so that all voters have the same kind of representation and access to their MP as voters have in a more urban and populated setting. I speak particularly from my own perspective in Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

To give the Minister a small example, last Friday I conducted what I consider to be a small surgery on part of one the islands in my constituency, on the west side of Lewis—actually, we went down to Harris for part of it. We had an ordinary day. We covered 279 miles that Friday—a distance just a little longer than that between Glasgow and Liverpool. That is what I have to do to serve people in a remote island rural setting. I mention that just to give an idea of what has perhaps not been considered when people look on a purely numerical headage basis.

I think that it is right that people in rural areas have the same services and access as those in an urban setting. In the islands, we are used to a poor broadband service—British Telecom has a number of exchanges in the area that it has not upgraded yet, although I hope that it will—and I would hate to see democracy and people’s expectations of democracy reach the same standards. In a democracy, everybody requires equality of treatment, representation and access to their MPs.

Finally, I wish to make a more political and perhaps more constitutional point. The Union is supposed to be a union between two nations; it does not mean having a 50:50 split of MPs between Scotland and England, as the Minister is no doubt aware. Obviously, as a Scottish National party Member, I would like there to be no MPs at Westminster who represent Scottish constituencies, but we live with the present situation and the way in which the cards have been dealt. In the meantime, I cannot allow what is proposed to proceed without protest and without making common cause with the Isle of Wight in the far south of England and alerting the Government to the dangers of exactly what the Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat friends might do if they cut the representation of the highlands and islands.

I am sure that the Government will not do that. They will reflect, particularly on the strong arguments made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, and act with thought and consideration. They will make sure that Scotland does not lose any more MPs, because that would be a retrograde step for people in the highlands and islands and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out earlier, it would be almost impossible to represent the Western Isles and Skye. We hope that such a mistake is not made, that the Minister will listen and that the right decision is reached. In the meantime, until the day of independence, I shall continue to make common cause with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Sheridan, in my first outing on this side of the House—strange though it seems, but very welcome. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) for his generous opening remarks and for how he represents his constituency so ably. I want also to mention, in passing, how he pronounced the constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) better than I just did. The hon. Gentleman will remember when I tried to pronounce his constituency in the House of Commons four years ago. I mangled it a bit then, but he gave me credit for at least trying rather than just copping out and calling it the Western Isles so I am sure that he will forgive me if I make a mess of it again.

When researching for the debate, I was interested to note that, before the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Isle of Wight was represented not as ably as it is now by my hon. Friend, but by more Members of Parliament. Indeed, eight Members of Parliament represented it in the House. The three boroughs of Newport, Newtown and Yarmouth each elected two Members of Parliament, and the rest of the island outside those boroughs was represented by the two county Members for Hampshire. The world has indeed moved on from a rather over-represented island to one that is probably under-represented given the number of Members of Parliament, but outweighed by the quality of its one Member of Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right that the Government have set out proposals for fewer and more equally sized constituencies. He is also right in saying that no decisions have been taken. He said that the Government were planning on having a quota of 77,000 electors with a 10% cut in the number of Members of Parliament. That was the policy set out by the Conservative party before the election, but Ministers are currently considering both the size of the House of Commons and the electoral quota that flows from it. As yet, no decisions have been taken by the coalition Government. I thought that it was worth putting that information on the record in case people assumed that the Conservative party’s proposals were being automatically rolled forward. My hon. Friend welcomed the general thrust of our proposals to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and to reduce the cost of politics. He is a demonstration, as are other hon. Members who represent constituencies with larger than average electorates, that it is perfectly possible to represent them very ably in the House of Commons and make sure that they receive a good service.

It is now worth picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar about the unelected House of Lords. He is right that several peers were appointed to that House in the previous Government’s dissolution honours list and that more peers might be created. He will also know that that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has set up a cross-party Committee charged with bringing forward by the end of the year a draft Bill to introduce either a wholly or a mainly elected second Chamber, which will deal with the issue that he highlighted about the number of unelected Members in that House. Those proposals will be scrutinised by a Committee of both Houses and will be taken forward. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is real, but it is in hand.

It is also worth saying that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, the work on considering boundaries, setting the size of the House of Commons and deciding on the guidance that the boundary commissioners will have as they set about their work needs to be approached with great care. Many Members of Parliament have already been lobbying me on what they think the rules should be and making cases both in the House and privately for their own constituencies, and I am listening to them intently. However, we must balance against the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman the fact that, at the moment, electors’ votes are worth different amounts depending on where they live. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in the main Chamber, it is the ultimate postcode lottery that some electors’ votes are in effect worth more than others because it takes fewer of them to elect a Member of Parliament.

Surely the way to address that anomaly is through proportional representation and perhaps the single transferable vote. Even if there are numerically even constituencies, some voters will still be worth an awful lot more if they happen to be in a swing seat. In a safe seat, the power of the voter is not as great as it would be in an area or a country where the single transferable vote is used.

I am sure that you, Mr Sheridan, would not want me to be tempted into a discussion of the various electoral systems that we could have, so I will not be tempted by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, when the Government introduce their Bill on the alternative vote and boundaries, there will be ample opportunity in the House, both on Second Reading and in a Committee of the whole House, to debate electoral systems. I am sure that he will take part in those debates with his normal vigour and good spirits, so we shall leave that question until then.

With regard to both the points that have been made, it is important, when we consider the rules and the framework that will be set for boundaries, to consider how Members of Parliament are able to do their jobs and the accessibility of their constituencies. I have looked carefully at the constituencies that are entirely constituted of islands and those that have significant islands as part of them, and it is worth saying that they do raise a number of issues, which my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman outlined clearly and which Ministers are considering carefully.

We will consider carefully how the process of the boundary reviews will be undertaken. We will listen to colleagues and, when we have published our proposals in a Bill, which we expect to introduce in the House before the summer recess, we will listen to colleagues’ representations in the Chamber. They can be assured that it is a constitutional measure, so it will have its Committee stage not in a Committee Room, but on the Floor of the House. Therefore, if hon. Members are not happy with the proposals when we have published them, they will of course have a full opportunity to debate them and raise them with Ministers on the Floor of the House.

Did I hear the Minister say that there would not be a Boundary Commission, or was that a misunderstanding on my part?

No, there would be a Boundary Commission. The decisions for Ministers are on, first, the size of the House of Commons—the Government have yet to reach a decision on that; we are considering the matter carefully—and secondly the instructions and guidance that the Bill will set out for the four Boundary Commissions for the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom as they set about their work. That will be about the quota for the constituencies, the number of electors that each constituency should have; the amount by which the Boundary Commission can vary from that number—the margin, if I can put it like that; whether there are any other considerations, as there are now, that it can take into account; and the extent to which those other considerations, such as the island nature of constituencies and the geography, are allowed to override numerical equality. We are currently considering those matters, which we shall bring before the House.

May I extend an invitation to the Minister? If his mind is wavering and not fully made up and he would like to come on a fact-finding mission, he is more than welcome to be my guest in Na h-Eileanan an Iar. We could drive from my office to my house, which is a distance of about 150 miles, using two ferries, or we could get two flights. That would perhaps underline the issue of geography in the Minister’s mind, because when a person is pondering something on paper, it may not be understood as easily as it is during a five-hour drive or two flights.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me with his very generous invitation, and I will bear it in mind. None the less, I understand the issues. I have been to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and I have grappled with the ferry, so I know how difficult it is to get to. One of the other island constituencies affected is Orkney and Shetland. I visited the Shetland islands a few years ago, and have spoke to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about the matter. I recognise the problems of constituencies that are accessible effectively only by air and at significant expense. Such points were made very ably by the hon. Gentleman, so I have an inkling of what the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has to grapple with when he meets his constituents in surgeries and has to visit different parts of his constituency. I will bear in mind his very generous invitation, but he can rest assured that I have a pretty good idea of the issues involved because of the visits that I have made to other island constituencies. This will not just be a paper exercise that takes no account of the realities. The hon. Gentleman can also be reassured that Ministers considering the matter are constituency MPs who recognise the work that colleagues have to do when they represent their constituents. We will think about our own constituencies and how those challenges are magnified in the particular circumstances that were set out.

I hope that the two Members who have spoken will recognise that no decision has been taken. Their constituents can be satisfied that they have very ably set out the unique nature of island constituencies and some of the challenges that they face in representing them both in the House and outside. Ministers will listen very carefully to those arguments as we frame the legislation and as it is introduced on the Floor of the House. We will take these very delicate matters forward with great care and attention. I thank my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman for setting out those points and for giving the House the opportunity to consider them at an early stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.