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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 517: debated on Monday 1 November 2010

[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, The implications for Wales of the Government’s proposals for constitutional reform, HC 495; Third Report from the Political and constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July on the Coalition Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform, HC 358-i.]

[1st Allocated Day]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee

Clause 11

Number and distribution of seats

I beg to move amendment No 9, in page 9, leave out lines 13 to 20 and insert—

1A (1) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5 per cent. above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should.

(2) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 10 per cent. above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom.

(3) In this Schedule “the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom” means—

where U is the electorate of that part of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the areas mentioned in rule 5A and Y is the number of constituencies in that part minus the number of constituencies allocated within that part as a result of the operation of rule 5A.’.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 185, page 9, leave out lines 14 and 15 and insert—

(a) no more than 5% above or below the United Kingdom electoral quota unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be exceptional geographic circumstances, and

(b) no more than 15% above or below the United Kingdom electoral quota.’.

Amendment 200, page 9, line 14, leave out ‘United Kingdom electoral quota’ and insert ‘electoral quota for the part of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) in which the constituency is located’.

Amendment 2, page 9, line 16, after ‘6(2)’, insert ‘, 6A(2)’.

Amendment 201, page 9, line 16, leave out ‘, 6(2) and 7’ and insert ‘and 6(2)’.

Amendment 202, page 9, leave out lines 17 to 20 and insert—

‘(3) In this rule “electoral quota” means—

where U is the electorate of the part of the United Kingdom in which the constituency is located, reduced in the case of Scotland by the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6, and C is the number of constituencies allocated to that part under rule 8.’.

Amendment 182, page 9, leave out lines 18 to 20 and insert—

where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the Council areas mentioned in rule 6 and C is the number of constituencies allocated to these Council areas.’.

Amendment 184, page 9, line 20, at end insert

‘and accordingly the electorate of each part of the United Kingdom shall be treated for the purposes of this rule as reduced by the electorate of those constituencies.’.

Amendment 10, page 9, leave out lines 27 to 34.

Amendment 186, page 9, line 30, leave out from ‘if’ to end of line 34 and insert

‘the Boundary Commission is concerned that unusual geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a proposed constituency, would require an unreasonable amount of time to travel round the various communities within it.’.

Amendment 188, page 10, line 2, leave out ‘A Boundary Commission’ and insert

‘The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales.’.

Amendment 11, page 10, line 10, at end insert—

‘(1A) A Boundary Commission shall ensure that—

(a) in England, no district or borough ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(b) in Northern Ireland, no local authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(c) in Wales, no unitary authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(d) in Scotland, regard shall be had to local authority ward boundaries.

(1B) The Boundary Commission for England shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of counties and London boroughs; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs.

(1C) The Boundary Commission for Wales shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.’.

Amendment 193, page 10, line 10, at end insert—

‘(1A) The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland may take into account to such extent as they think fit—

(a) special geographical considerations;

(b) considerations arising from the co-terminosity of parliamentary constituencies and multi-member constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly under the Northern Ireland Act 1998;

(c) local government boundaries as they exist on the most recent day of an election for any district council, other than an election to fill a vacancy;

(d) any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies;

(e) the inconveniences attendant upon such changes.’.

Amendment 196, page 10, line 10, at end insert—

‘(1A) A Boundary Commission shall have power to specify, in certain specified circumstances set out in subsection (1C) below, that constituencies in areas determined by the Boundary Commission shall be—

(a) wholly within a principal local authority or authorities; or

(b) wholly within well-established historic or geographical boundaries.

(1B) The impact of any decision taken in respect of areas defined under subsection (1A) must not create constituencies within the remainder of the region or nation in which such areas fall which fail to meet the rules in this Schedule.

(1C) The coterminosity of parliamentary constituencies with boundaries as defined in subsection (1A) may be specified when the following support such a proposition—

(a) the principal local authority or authorities within the area proposed;

(b) all sitting Members of Parliament representing constituencies wholly or partially within that area; and

(c) at least two-thirds of all civil parish, community and town councils or parish meetings within that area who make a representation;

and where the Boundary Commission is satisfied, from its own soundings amongst the electorate and the business and voluntary sectors, that such a proposal is widely supported.’.

Amendment 207, page 10, line 16, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Boundary Commission for England shall take into account counties as listed in Schedule 1 to the 1997 Lieutenancies Act in so far as is possible in accordance with rule 2 above.’.

Amendment 12, page 10, line 17, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

Amendment 13, page 10, leave out lines 18 to 24 and insert—

‘Specified areas

5A (1) The following shall be allocated whole numbers of constituencies by whichever Boundary Commission is responsible for them:

(a) Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands council areas;

(b) Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council area;

(c) The Isle of Anglesey county area;

(d) The Isle of Wight county area;

(e) The County of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly council areas.’.

Amendment 183, page 10, leave out lines 18 to 25 and insert—

‘Whole numbers of constituencies

6 (1) The following shall be allocated whole numbers of constituencies by whichever Boundary Commission is responsible for them—

(a) Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands council areas;

(b) Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council area;

(c) the Cyngor Sir Ynys Môn Isle of Anglesey county area;

(d) the Isle of Wight county area;

(e) the County of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly council areas;

(f) the Highland Council area;

(g) the Argyll and Bute Council area.

(2) The number of constituencies to be allocated to each area shall be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the United Kingdom Electoral Average and rounding to the nearest whole number, unless this would mean that rule 4(1) could not be satisfied, in which case the area concerned will be allocated the smallest number of constituencies required in order to satisfy that rule. Each area must be allocated at least one whole constituency.

(3) In this rule “United Kingdom Electoral Average” means (where E is the electorate of the United Kingdom)—

?

.’.

Amendment 1, page 10, line 25, at end insert—

‘Isle of Wight

6A (1) All parts of the Isle of Wight must be included in a constituency which is wholly in the Isle of Wight.

(2) Rule 2 does not apply to any such constituency.’.

Amendment 4, page 10, line 25, at end insert—

‘Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly

6A (1) All parts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly must be included in a constituency which is wholly in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

(2) Rule 2 does not apply in relation to any such constituencies.

(3) The electorate of any constituency in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly shall be:

(a) no less than 95 per cent. of the Cornwall and Scilly electoral quota; and

(b) no more than 105 per cent. of that quota.

(4) The “Cornwall and Scilly electoral quota” means C/E where C is the electorate of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and E is the number of parliamentary constituencies which the Commission has determined should be allocated to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

(5) The number of Parliamentary seats allocated to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly shall not result in the electoral quota of any other constituency being compromised in respect of Rule 2.’.

Amendment 189, page 10, line 26, leave out from beginning to end of line 7 on page 11.

Amendment 192, page 10, line 27, leave out from ‘Ireland’ to end of line 7 on page 11 and insert—

‘ the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall establish a Northern Ireland electoral quota by dividing the electorate of Northern Ireland by the number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland as determined under rule 8.

‘(2) The electorate of any constituency in Northern Ireland shall be no less than 95% of the Northern Ireland electoral quota and no more than 105% of the Northern Ireland electoral quota except where sub-paragraph (3) applies.

(3) Where the Boundary Commission consider that they can best have regard to factors in rule 5(1A) and achieve an appropriate allocation of the seats assigned to Northern Ireland under rule 8 they may recommend that some Northern Ireland constituencies may be outside the limits in paragraph 2 above, provided that they are not less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota and no more than 105% of that quota.’.

Amendment 14, page 11, line 22, at end insert—

‘(5) The total number of seats to be allocated to any country shall not be more than 10 per cent. above or below the current number of constituencies. If the number of seats allocated by the process described in paragraphs (3) and (4) exceeds or falls below that limit then additional or fewer seats shall be allocated as appropriate sufficient to bring the allocation within 10 per cent. of the current number of seats in the country concerned.

(6) This adjusted number of seats shall be the allocation for that country for the purposes of these rules.’.

Government amendments 220 and 221.

Amendment 204, page 12, line 10, leave out ‘The United Kingdom’.

Government amendment 21.

The Government’s rhetoric suggests that all parliamentary seats should have exactly the same size of electorate, but that is not what the Bill says. It allows for a variation of up to 5% either way from the national average and creates three special exemptions for Scottish seats, one of which is held by the Scottish National party and the other two of which are held by the Liberals. We are not opposed to those exemptions, although they look dubious in the context of the Bill’s wider attempt to strive for mathematical purity.

Our argument is that although the majority of seats should indeed be within 5% each way, there are more instances than are allowed for in the Bill where the Boundary Commission should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion, because this country is made up not just of statistics on a map but of living communities with distinct historical, cultural and political identities that need their discrete representation in the House. A system that delivers mathematical perfection may be aseptically clean, and please the tidy utilitarian and the centralist, but it will in countless cases leave voters on the wrong side of a river, a mountain, a county or ward boundary, or cultural divide and, thereby, fail the fundamental tests that we should be setting.

Will those boundaries be readily comprehensible to ordinary voters? Will they match the political and cultural aspirations of the discrete communities of the UK? Will they render Members more or less accessible? Frankly, will they look like common-sense boundaries or seem like crazed contortions devised by a centralised desiccated calculating machine? The Government are not just insisting on their mathematical equation, of course; they are also subordinating any other considerations of whatever kind, such as local authority boundaries, to that calculation. Taken together, those measures will lead to ludicrous anomalies.

Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. Wyre Forest is, quite sensibly, coterminous with its district council, but it would have had 2,131 too many electors for the 5% rule. Likewise, Shrewsbury and Atcham is coterminous with the former district of that name and unchanged after a number of reviews, but it would have had 1,552 too many electors. Bath and North East Somerset council includes two constituencies, Bath and North East Somerset, but it would have had to find 1,886 electors from a neighbouring authority. Even Forest of Dean, comprising the Forest of Dean district council and one ward from Tewkesbury district council, a seat that was completely unchanged at the last review, would have been 383 voters short. That is why we want to change the Bill.

In many cases, it would be impossible to respect county boundaries. At the last election, Cumbria would have had to find 14,296 electors from neighbouring counties in order to make up its six seats. Northumberland would have had to find 22,529 electors for four seats. Warwickshire’s six seats—Kenilworth and Southam, North Warwickshire, Nuneaton, Rugby, Stratford on Avon,and Warwick and Leamington—would have needed to find 7,991 electors.

How many electors would Wales have had to find to make up its full quota of 40 seats, which the hon. Gentleman would like to maintain?

A very large number, but I am not arguing against greater parity, as I hope I have made clear on several occasions during the Bill’s proceedings. However, I am also not in favour of one area of the country having its representation in this House cut by 25%—four times more than any other part of the United Kingdom. That seems to be a swingeing cut, and it will do no good for representation in this House.

The six seats in Oxfordshire would, on average, have been 1,907 electors over the threshold, so approximately 11,000 Oxfordshire electors would have needed to be shed so that they were in a constituency that was shared with a neighbouring county. Indeed, part of the Prime Minister’s own constituency, including the Saxon village of Burford, might have had to be shifted to Gloucestershire. Even Burford priory, the house of civil war Speaker Lenthall, would have had to be summarily moved from Oxfordshire to Gloucestershire.

In Hampshire, because the rules will not allow Isle of Wight to remain a single seat, the county would have been required to provide 40,000 electors from one or perhaps two of its existing seats. Most significantly, the historic county of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly would have had to find 13,138 electors, or an average of 2,190 per constituency, from Devon to make up the number for six seats. I believe that to be wrong. King Athelstan determined as early as 936 that the east bank of the River Tamar should be the border of Cornwall, and, although it may be true, in the words of the Prime Minister, that the Tamar is not the Amazon, it certainly is the Rubicon—a river not worth crossing.

The same is true of metropolitan areas. Warrington would have had 119 too many electors for two seats—an average of 59 per seat. The five seats in Birmingham, each comprising four wards and with electorates of between 73,731 and 75,563, would have been slightly too large and would have had to shed voters elsewhere. In London, Wandsworth would have had 3,427 electors too few for its three seats, Sutton would have had 1,119 too few electors for its two seats, Barnet would have had 371 too many electors for its three seats, and Enfield would have had 219 too few electors for its three seats.

My hon. Friend is talking about the number of seats within a larger boundary area. I am based in Berkshire, and Slough is very different from the rest of the county. We are one of Berkshire’s unitary authorities. If the number were calculated on the basis of the whole of Berkshire, there would be a serious risk that the community of Slough—which is nothing like the community of Windsor and Maidenhead; that is felt by both communities—would be muddled up. I am worried that in his very powerful peroration he is not sufficiently focusing on the cultural differences between different areas in the same county boundary.

I have not got to my peroration yet—this is just the beginning—but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She is absolutely right. My whole argument is that some of the historical boundaries also represent historical cultural identities. We cannot just draw the lines on the map according to the numbers as if people were just statistics: we have to draw them in recognition of the communities and bonds that tie people together.

Does the shadow Minister recognise that this is the self-same argument that was made, probably in this House, some 170 years ago, in the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832, to justify the idea of the cultural importance of maintaining all the seats in Cornwall and Suffolk that had existed since time immemorial? It is a nonsensical argument, and we now have to look towards equality. I disagree with him in that I would like to see the three Scottish seats also taken out of this consideration to ensure that we have the proper equalisation of all 650 seats that should exist in the next Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman should not try to misrepresent my argument. I am not arguing in the slightest for tiny seats. I am not even arguing that the people of Rhondda alone have the right to elect in perpetuity, even though they have only 50,000 voters. There should be much greater parity, but we need to be able to balance the needs of parity with the needs of local communities and constituencies of interest that exist around the country. There was no constituency of interest in Old Sarum in 1831 and 1832—the only interest was that of Tory Back Benchers who wanted to ensure that they were still able to dole the seat out to one of their family members. So it is an argument not against Labour but against the Conservatives.

Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies, but with 20 wards it would end up with three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, and two constituencies of five wards, which would be too small. We would therefore have to split wards in Sheffield or cross the boundaries with Barnsley and Rotherham, which would be tough, as wards in Rotherham are about the same size as those in Sheffield and there are a large number of hills in the way. In the words of Professor Ron Johnston,

“They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this.”

Under these proposals, it is perfectly possible that one of the wards in my constituency, East Ecclesfield, could end up being split into three parts, with one part going into the seat of Wentworth and Dearne, one part into Brightside, and one part into my seat.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The wards in some metropolitan areas comprise 15,000 or 20,000 voters. Consequently, if the Government push ahead with their proposed 5% leniency either way rather than the 10% that we are advocating, they will have to split wards. Contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the House said last week, and what the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has said, there is not a single ward in England that is split between constituencies—not one. [Interruption.] The latter is chuntering very quietly, but now he is looking at his phone, so I presume he has given up on that point. He can pipe down.

The end result is that it will become impossible for wards to be used as building blocks, as they currently are without exception in England despite the fact that it is not a requirement of the rules. Voters will have to become psephological experts to know who represents them at each level of government—their councillor, their Member of Parliament and their representatives at other tiers in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Historical communities and towns will be split for negligible benefit, and because of the knock-on effects there will have to be a radical redrawing of virtually every seat in the land.

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman a third time, if he does not mind. We have very little time for this debate.

My final point is very important. The proposed reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will have the effect of increasing the electoral quota in all four countries, even England, where it will go up from 71,537 to roughly 75,800. Just 204 current constituencies have electorates within 5% of that number. The knock-on effects, however, mean that it is likely that barely a handful of seats will remain untouched. That was confirmed by the heads of the boundary commissions, who told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that the change would result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries.

Is my hon. Friend aware that because of the totalising nature of the reforms, Professor Johnston said in his evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that this was exactly the wrong point at which to abolish public inquiries?

My hon. Friend, who is on the Committee, makes a very valuable point. It was made very clear to the Committee, even in the short time that was allowed it to produce its report, that it would be ludicrous to get rid of public inquiries at this time, when so many changes would be coming up.

The complete redrawing of virtually every seat in the land will mean not just reselections but new selections for candidates around the country. More than one Conservative MP has already told me that the Conservative Whips have made it absolutely clear to them that if they do not toe the line, the party leadership will make it impossible for them to be selected under the new boundaries. What price accountability then? What price new politics, eh?

That is why our amendment 9 would provide that the vast majority of constituencies would indeed fall within the 5% rule, but that the boundary commissions should be allowed a wider degree of latitude where they believe there to be an overriding concern, up to a fixed limit of 10%. That 10% is actually the difference between the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary and that of the Deputy Leader of the House.

Our amendment 13 would make explicit provision for a whole number of seats for Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, for Anglesey and for the Isle of Wight. Amendment 11 would determine that wards could not be split between constituencies, and amendment 12 would mean that factors such as local boundaries could be considered without subordination to the 5% rule, but not going further than the 10% rule.

This country is not a Rubik’s cube devised by a mathematician, it is a complex jumble of communities. Some live in inconvenient numbers in inconvenient places that cannot be readily and symmetrically delineated in equal numbers. I am not defending the right of the Rhondda or anywhere else to its own seat in perpetuity. We need greater parity, and that will mean the amalgamation of seats in many areas, but let us not create so crude a system that 383 voters have to be found for the Forest of Dean or 59 expelled from Warrington. Let us not create such a centralised system that the idiosyncrasies of the towns, villages, islands and cities of this land cannot find their voice in this House.

I say in a genial way what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—it is a pleasure because, by definition, if I am following him, he must have stopped speaking for once. He has been difficult to avoid over the past two or three weeks in debates on the Bill, and, it seems, everywhere else. I got home on Thursday and there he was in Glasgow on “Question Time”.

Having said that, we have great sympathy with many of the principles that the hon. Gentleman enunciated. I wish to confine my remarks to amendments 182 to 184, which go together. We will seek to press amendment 183 to a vote if the opportunity arises in due course. The amendments are in my name and those of hon. Friends, all of whom are present.

I wish to speak to the amendments to add to the comment that I made when the Deputy Prime Minister made the initial statement about this whole business. I feel that it is incumbent upon me to say a word or two, as my constituency has been put up in lights as some kind of benchmark, albeit that the lighting has been somewhat distorted and much misunderstood. I wish to clarify the matter and refer to the implications that flow from it.

Over the past 27 years, my constituency has been geographically the largest in the United Kingdom. It was the largest when it was formed in 1983, and some 10 years later, at the time of the boundary changes for the 1992 election, it remained the largest and became larger. At the last general election, it remained the largest and became larger yet again. I have looked back at one representation made to the Boundary Commission about that trend and about the sheer size of what became the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency, and indeed I made the same point myself at the hearings on the boundary change. Although I did not oppose the proposals to increase the size of the constituency—one never wants to oppose the inclusion of communities where one might find oneself having to go to seek support—I felt that the increase was impractical and would create unique challenges, as I diplomatically put it, for whoever represented the seat.

I shall be quite honest with the House: having represented three such vast constituencies over the course of nearly 30 years now, I can say that the current one is by far the most impractical. It has to be said that the other two were gigantic and posed particular problems, but there comes a point at which geographical impracticality sets in and nobody can do the job of local parliamentary representation effectively. I would say that point has now been reached. It is no exaggeration to say that I can drive for five solid hours within the boundaries of the constituency, simply between point A and point B, to carry out one engagement, and then have to drive five hours back. That is just insane.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to hearings that took place following the latest boundary review. Does he agree that one of the most pernicious aspects of the Bill is that those hearings will no longer exist? The very worthwhile, and I am sure powerful, representations that were made in his community will be denied the rest of us.

I absolutely agree and endorse entirely the sentiment and substance of what the hon. Gentleman says. I think it represents a negation of democracy to go about something so fundamental in this way.

I will explain specifically what we propose in the amendments. There are a range of options, as we all know, and nobody has the philosopher’s stone. However, the Government are trying to introduce the artificial construct of a capped number of constituencies for the whole UK. Leaving aside party politics, I think the House would agree that there are distinct and unique geographical considerations in places such as the Isle of Wight, in Cornwall, with its relationships between places on each side of the Tamar, and in the highlands and islands, a vast area that is bigger than Belgium. I think the House recognises that in such circumstances, a degree of sensible flexibility is called for. This is not gerrymandering; in fact the seats that tend to be involved could not be gerrymandered in a political sense, because they are not those kinds of communities. Largely because of their sheer disparity and diversity, the individual who happens to be their Member will, irrespective of their party affiliation, represent a significant link between those communities and officialdom at the regional, national and even European level. That is being dissipated and completely overlooked in the crazy approach that is being applied, which simply is not suitable and does not make sense given the communities involved.

Given that we are not going to be partisan, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish borders are unique? It would be ridiculous to talk about Midlothian moving down to take in Peebles and Galashiels or West Lothian moving down to take in the borders. Historically, our areas have had nothing in common, and it would not make sense to make such changes now.

Yes, I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. In a moment of political frustration when he was Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King said that the problem with Canada was that it had too much geography and not enough history. If anything, we have more than our fair share of both in Scotland, and that certainly comes through in considerations of the type that the Bill gives rise to. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s point about his part of the country is very valid.

Time is tight, and I do not wish to detain the House much longer. I want to stick to principles rather than becoming formulaic. Indeed, I have far better versed colleagues on hand, who can provide chapter and verse and who would leave the rest of us goggle-eyed with their statistics and equations—all of which I endorse, I hasten to add. I am always at my best in politics in such situations. The less one understands the issue, the more confident one can sound—witness the shadow Minister tonight.

Looking at the proposals, it makes eminent sense that the Western Isles are, and should be, a distinct, unique constituency. I remember growing up when the Western Isles constituency was bisected and was answerable partly to Dingwall and partly to Inverness. That was an absolutely atrocious affront to democracy for the communities there. It is a good thing that we have a unique, distinct constituency now, and I am pleased that it will stay that way.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the council in north Lewis was Ross and Cromarty, while from Harris southwards was involved with Invernessshire? He is absolutely correct that it was a nightmare, and people still talk about it because there was a lack of accountability—as he said, people on the mainland and officialdom could not be reached.

I very much agree. A similar argument applies to the northern isles, and it is absolutely correct that these respective entities have been recognised in the Bill. That is why what is proposed for the Isle of Wight is such an affront. Although the numbers there are huge compared with the island communities that some of us represent, the sense of a natural, distinct identity in the Isle of Wight should surely be reflected in the attitude that officialdom takes. I do not claim to speak with insight for the people of the Isle of Wight, but if that is what people want—representing island communities such as Skye, I can well understand where they are coming from—who are we to pass legislation that thwarts them before they have even got off the starting block in making their argument?

Do not the right hon. Gentleman’s amendments, which specify particular communities, whether Na h-Eileanan an Iar or Ynys Môn in Scotland and Wales respectively, show that the sensible, really flexible way forward would be to leave detailed considerations to the Boundary Commission and to give it the flexibility to act, rather include in the Bill specific communities that are to be protected? That is the difference between the limited approach taken by the Government and the extended approach taken by the right hon. Gentleman.

That is a very good suggestion, and I am pleased that Labour Front Benchers are nodding in agreement. That suggestion is contained in the group of amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and me, which I mentioned.

In the Isle of Wight, in particular, there has been considerable uproar about these issues. The uproar is yet to come on the mainland highlands of Scotland, but when it does—I say this in all seriousness and I do make a party political point here— generation upon generation of communities that have stuck with the flame of Liberal tradition and history in the United Kingdom through thick and thin, when it has been all but extinguished in many other parts, will absolutely fail to comprehend why Liberal Democrats in government have put their name to such a measure, which takes no account of the very special peripheral circumstances of communities that have helped to maintain the Liberal cause over generations.

It is never too late for Governments to think again. This Government should think again, and my colleagues and I will divide the House to encourage them to do just that.

It is an enormous privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy). I have always had great admiration for him, as he knows, but the points that he has made about the Government’s intransigent and hard-line views are extremely refreshing and, if I might say so, devastating. He rightly goes to the heart of our democracy. At the end of the day, it is the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his or her constituents that, in many ways, identifies British parliamentary democracy. The drift towards an American-style district, which is purely based on numbers and not on communities themselves, is an attack on the very basis of our democracy in the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly points, as we can in Wales, to the preposterous anomalies that will result from the Government’s policy if it is allowed to continue. There will be enormous constituencies in Wales, just as there will be in Scotland. One constituency might even stretch from the south Wales valleys to Wrexham. It would perhaps not take five hours to drive from one end to the other, but it would certainly take three hours—[Hon. Members: “Five.”] It depends how fast one drives, I suppose. I take my hon. Friends’ point, and they make it very properly—it is a long way from one part of Wales to the other.

I have had the privilege of representing a south Wales valley for 23 and a half years in this place, and the valleys of Wales are very distinct. Our communities run north and south, not east and west. Dismembering those valleys or including them with others will make complete nonsense of the community basis of our constituencies, whether in Wales and Scotland, or, indeed, in Cardiff, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) will undoubtedly now talk about.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the history of the valley communities, but he may recall that when Aneurin Bevan was elected to the House in 1929, he represented three valley communities, not one or two. The right hon. Gentleman is over-stressing his point a little.

I cannot actually remember the time when Aneurin Bevan was in the House of Commons, but he is still my great hero. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that the situation he describes was exceptional because of the heads of the valleys situation, and he knows my point is valid. Our local authorities in south Wales are based on valleys, and our constituencies are based on valleys. However, the point is that our constituencies are also based on communities. What Government in their right mind could think that the Isle of Wight could be anything other than a constituency? The rigidity with which the Government are dealing with these issues is beyond belief.

I want now to talk to amendment 14 and to raise the business of Wales in so far as it is represented in the House of Commons. I had the great privilege of being Secretary of State for Wales on two occasions. The fact that I held that office at all was a recognition by our constitution that there should be territorial Secretaries of State—for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There is machinery in the House of Commons for dealing with Welsh and Scottish matters, although I must tell the Wales Secretary, who is in the Chamber, that the refusal to hold a Welsh Grand Committee on this issue is a disgrace. When I was Wales Secretary, I held 22 Welsh Grand Committees—we debated anything that the people of Wales wanted their public representatives to debate, whether they were Conservative, Liberal, Plaid Cymru or Labour.

I have not the slightest idea other than that the Secretary of State wants to avoid a debate or the difficult questions that might be raised. The constitutional aspects of the Welsh Grand Committee will be debated elsewhere in the House this week. Wales Members have taken the unusual step of calling a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party, which was established in the later part of the 19th century—it represents all Wales MPs. It will meet under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on Wednesday as an alternative to the Welsh Grand Committee, but we should never be in this position in the first place. I think the Secretary of State, for whom I have great regard, has caused more trouble by not allowing debate in the Grand Committee.

The House of Commons has special machinery for dealing with Wales business, but taking 25% of our Members of Parliament away goes completely against the devolution settlement that was voted for by the people of Wales in 1997. That settlement is that we should have not only an Assembly, but proper representation by Members of Parliament from Wales. We certainly should not have less representation than we had in 1832, when it was established that there would be 35 Members.

The Minister represents the Forest of Dean, which is a distinct community—it has historically been represented by Labour Members, but not since the previous Parliament. The miners there would have recognised, because they understood such issues, that there is a special case in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for smaller nations to be represented in the UK Parliament. Such representation guards the interests of the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government, from the Wales Secretary to the Minister who is here today, the Deputy Prime Minister and the rest of their colleagues, have singularly failed to understand that that representation, if nothing else, guarantees the Union, because Wales is properly represented as a small nation.

I am not a Welsh speaker but I very much respect those who are. Some 21% of the people in Wales speak Welsh as their first language. The Welsh Affairs Committee heard that minorities in European countries are properly represented in their Parliaments. That should also apply to Welsh speakers, but under the proposals, Welsh speakers will be less well represented in Welsh constituencies than now.

The Government have been terrible on this matter. Wales has suffered in other respects, including from the cuts, but it has suffered very badly because the Government have not understood the nature of the Union. They are supposed to be the great Unionists, but they threaten the Union by taking a quarter of Wales MPs away.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was not Members of Parliament who decided the minimum number of seats for Wales in this place but the Speaker’s Conference? We have been denied a debate on the current reforms in the Welsh Grand Committee, but is it not logical to debate changing the number of seats after a referendum on greater law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales?

Of course.

Another aspect of the Bill is the Government’s singular failure to consult the First Ministers for Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Had they held proper consultations on the Bill, it could have been different, but there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Welsh and Scottish Affairs Committees have condemned the Government for their lack of scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend makes a strong point. Does he agree that the excellent report published last week by the Welsh Affairs Committee is an indication of the strength of feeling in Wales that he describes, because it was a unanimous report?

Indeed—the Chair of the Committee is my neighbour, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). The Committee’s report condemns the Government for how they have dealt with this matter.

The right hon. Gentleman is making an astonishing argument. Does he not understand that the preservation of the Union will be best served by remedying the democratic deficit and allaying the anger that voters in England feel because they are under-represented compared with voters in Wales and Scotland?

Absolutely to the contrary. The Union is protected because it recognises the different parts within it—whether Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Devolution has strengthened the Union, but it will be weakened by these proposals, because the Bill fundamentally goes against the concept of the representation of smaller nations within a United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman served with great distinction as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as well as Secretary of State for Wales. He makes a valid point. At the times of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, it was clear that part of the settlement was that there should be no question of any change in the representation of Northern Ireland in the House. That was never raised as an issue, because everyone was agreed and settled on it. That was the basis on which devolution took place.

The Government have ripped up that settlement, as they have ripped up the devolution settlements in Wales and Scotland.

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case for Wales, but the proposals affect many communities in England. My small town of Rotherham, which has three MPs, would rather affiliate or fuse with the Western Isles or Wales than have anything to do with Sheffield. There will be huge anger, concern and distress if we are reduced to American-style districts with boundaries rejigged to suit the Government. They talk of a democratic deficit, but they are destroying the traditions of this House of Commons for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. I would not want to come between Sheffield and Rotherham Members, but I understand his point. The Bill is a two-pronged attack on our parliamentary traditions. On the one hand, it reduces the link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency and the community that that constituency represents; and on the other, the Government’s policies on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland threaten the very integrity of the Union.

I should like to put on record the fact that Sheffield would love to absorb Rotherham constituencies. Sheffield’s much greater fear is that it will end up sharing constituencies with Derbyshire or West Yorkshire or, God forbid, even Leeds.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the 88-year-old state of the United Kingdom is a very unbalanced Union? Some 8% to 10% of Members are from Scotland, and there is a percentage of MPs from Wales. However, if the UK were a proper union between nations, the percentage would be more equal between the constituent parts rather than grossly imbalanced. For the record, I would prefer it if Scotland needed to send no one down here, but this 88-year-old state is unbalanced.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that whatever his ideal, he is against a reduction in the number of Scotland and Wales MPs to represent Scottish and Welsh interests in the House.

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. I totally agree with him, and nobody is a fiercer Unionist than I am, but the way to preserve our United Kingdom is to show equal respect to all parts of it, meaning every little corner of every country in the UK. How can he argue that one Member of Parliament should come to the House with a greater weight of votes behind them than Members from other parts of the UK? That is not fair and it is not equal.

Is the hon. Lady not aware that many countries, including the United States and Spain, have proper representation of minorities and countries within countries in a very special way? But I suppose that some Members from England would not understand that.

My hon. Friend gave some excellent international examples. Is there any danger that those countries will be copying this Tory model in revised constitutions?

I very much doubt it. The whole point is that the Government have handled the matter atrociously. At the end of the day, this is not about better democracy; frankly, it is about the fortunes of the Conservative party. In taking that approach, the whole basis of our parliamentary democracy will be threatened.

I wish to speak to my amendment 207, but first may I say how much I agreed with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—I am surprised to be saying it, but he will be even more surprised—who spoke a great deal of sense about not making constituencies purely numerical compartmentalisations? This country has such a rich history of communities, and when it is a case of a few hundred here or a few hundred there, we ought to be more generous than this very rigorous and rigid approach. Many Government Members, as well as Opposition Members, feel that.

This matter ought to be looked at in a broader context and have more cross-party support. The one area on which I disagree with Opposition Members is the advantage to the Conservative party, which I think will be remarkably small.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly so early in his remarks. I have read his interesting amendment. Does he hope that the flexibility around historical county boundaries for which he is looking might find more favour in another place, if not with the Conservative Front-Bench team tonight?

It had occurred to me that I might suggest to my noble kinsman that he might wish to move a similar amendment. I look forward to doing that after this evening’s debate, if Her Majesty’s Government are not kind enough to accept my amendment.

I hope I do not bore the House by going on about history too much, but not far from here, outside the House of Lords, is a statue of Richard the Lionheart—Richard I—who was a great, noble king of England. It was in his reign that people first came from the shires to advise the king. His reign began in 1189—that means more than 800 years of counties being represented in Parliament. I am sorry to say that those Members who represent boroughs are very much the Johnny-come-latelies—they only got here in 1265. However, those of us representing counties have been here since the reign of Richard I.

I tabled my amendment because it seems a great shame to get rid of a long-standing historic tradition by accident, by a rule of the pen, by just doing something because it is there and it is tidy. I accept, as the hon. Member for Rhondda did, that we need to have a numerical approximation, but it does not need to be utterly rigid, and it ought, as far as possible, to respect our historical traditions.

Is the hon. Gentleman more and more surprised, when he reads into the Bill, that this proposal comes from the Conservative party? He understands the Conservative party and its traditions, customs and inheritance, yet this utilitarian Bill undermines all that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Reading his piece in the Financial Times, which made a similar point, I did not understand why he was not on the Conservative Benches. His views and outlook seem similar to those of what I might call a high Tory. I am delighted that there are others in the House who might be so described.

I do not want to make a long speech. I just want to make the simple point that we have these great historic traditions, within which we can adopt what the Government are trying to do. My suggestion would not run a coach and horses through the Bill; it would broadly accept most of it.

Is it not a sign of how rushed this is that the Government will not listen to any of these arguments? They are intent on smashing this Bill through before the next election.

I was going to make the cheap comment that the Deputy Prime Minister is, of course, a borough Member, so he probably has an objection to the counties, because the borough Members used to get only half the wages of the county Members. Perhaps there is a long-standing objection to the higher pay we used to get.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the historic boundary between Devon and Cornwall needs to be protected? Cornwall has a unique identity; it has its own language, and should be treated as a special case, like the Shetland Isles and the Western Isles, for geographical purposes. Cornwall’s identity is special and deserves to be protected.

I have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view, although, as I said in an earlier intervention, in 1362—I think—one Member represented seats in both Devon and Cornwall simultaneously, so there is at least some historical precedent for Devon and Cornwall having an association. It is important, however, to respect communities as far as possible, so I call upon Her Majesty’s Government to be generous, to be kind and to consider the great history of my own county of Somerset—[Interruption.] I know that they are not listening, but they might listen eventually. I ask them to be kind and allow us to maintain our great historic traditions. It would not much change the Bill, it is not a very great amendment and I hope that the Government might at least think on it.

I am not calling merely for kindness from Her Majesty’s Government; I am calling for decent, adequate representation for my home nation of Wales within my other home nation of the United Kingdom, of which the nation of Wales is part. It is ironic that tomorrow, in the United States, millions upon millions of people across that large and expansive land will elect their senators, and regardless of the size of the states from which they come, they will each elect two senators. Theirs was a constitution that developed over centuries, and those Americans realised that we ought not to enter into such changes lightly. How different from those on the Government Benches.

Once upon a time, in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, there were the words, “For Wales, see England”. That is what Government Members are saying today, because they do not understand—or perhaps they do, and this really is just gerrymandering, in which case I am being kind to Her Majesty’s Government—that we cannot get rid of 25% of the representatives of a nation within the nation of which it is part, and expect there to be no repercussions. Some Government Members will hop up and down and say, “Isn’t this a bit unfair? Aren’t some bits not truly equal?”, but that is not the point. This is about the devolution settlement, which was granted in a referendum. My party was in favour of devolution, but so-called Unionists on the Government Benches were against it—well, some sort of Unionism that shows itself to be this evening!

This is a Government who have already decided that Chesham and Amersham is part of Wales, and who decided in the past that Wokingham was too—and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) could not even sing the national anthem. They decided that a representative for Worcester could stand up for the people of Wales.

I would be delighted to, and I will give way to any Government Members if they have any points to raise.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Does she agree that the contempt in which the Conservative party holds Wales was evidenced only last week, when a Secretary of State responded to a parliamentary question by saying that the fact that Herefordshire had been given broadband services should be sufficient for Wales? What sort of Government treat an essential part of our nation in that way?

The answer is this ragbag Government, who will not stand up for the people of Wales. Indeed, it is no surprise that all this is happening at about the same time that they are showing exactly the same sort of disrespect for the fourth Welsh television channel.

As the hon. Lady develops this victimhood of Wales, perhaps she would like to reflect on the fact that there are 15,000 more electors in my constituency in Cardiff than there are in her constituency. How on earth is that fair? What do I say to my neighbour, just 50 miles away, who has 15,000 more electors? Surely the hon. Lady should recognise that fairness means that each vote, in every part of the United Kingdom, should be of equal value.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go back to his constituents and say, “Yes, of course it’s right that we are open to proper Boundary Commission changes, but we shouldn’t undersell our nation of Wales within the United Kingdom.”

Is not the point that my hon. Friend is making—and making very eloquently, I might add—that we should consider the aggregate effect of the Bill on Wales to be just as legitimate a question? We should not just compare one seat with another, but compare England with Wales.

I agree, and Government Members are showing that they have absolutely no understanding of the historic nature of Wales inside the Union.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, as I am happy to rise to her earlier challenge. She says that fairness is not the point. Is not this Bill precisely about fairness? Is it not true that we on the Government Benches are arguing for people and that those on the Opposition Benches are arguing for geography?

I have always enjoyed reading the hon. Lady’s works in the past, but this is about fact: the fact of the nation of Wales inside the United Kingdom.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher said as Prime Minister that there was no such thing as society. Are not this Tory coalition Government now suggesting that there is no such thing as community?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This Government are also saying that there is no such thing as Welsh society, and it is downright shameful to see Ministers from Wales on the Front Bench who are barely responding to the points being made.

Does my hon. Friend share my distaste, not to say disgust, at the fact that if the proposal is put through, it will be done against the wishes of both the Welsh Assembly Government and the majority of parliamentarians from Wales in this place, and without any consultation whatever with Welsh society? This Union is a fragile beast. Devolution has evolved very carefully, bit by bit. Does she agree that if what is proposed were done, it would be the first time in the history of this place that such a proposal were agreed against the wishes of the majority of our nation? Does she hope that the other place has more sense and constitutionally challenges this proposal?

I would indeed hope that that would be the case.

I do not wish to continue in the same vein, because my point has been made. Indeed, it was made by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), and many others. However, it is a sad reflection that the Government are choosing to wipe away so many centuries of history and to send the message to the people of Wales that they are sending. I do not believe that democracy will be better for this proposal. I do not believe that this proposal will better enable the people of Wales to be represented in this place, and I fear for the consequences of this measure.

I rise in support of amendment 183, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) spoke to so eloquently. I hope he was not referring to me when he said that his hon. Friends behind him had come armed with formula and fact, because I do not have those to hand. However, in supporting the amendment, I want briefly to address the principles behind it.

What we have in this debate is a straightforward collision of principle. The first principle that the Government have put forward in the Bill is that of equalisation. I have absolutely no problem with that general principle, for many reasons. It will certainly help administratively, as well as with the burden of work. There are many reasons to support that argument, but there is one that I would not have particularly supported, which is the idea it addresses a democratic deficit, because it most certainly does not. It might enshrine some of the inequalities that first past the post delivers, but it will certainly not make anything more democratic. As a broad principle, however, for equal work across the constituencies, the principle of equalisation is a very good one.

At the same time, we have long accepted an equal principle in our constitution, which is that of community, which is often related to geography. In fact, the very first speech of any substance that I made in this Palace was one that I made at the other end, of the building on exactly that subject, when I argued that we cannot have a representative democracy without considering community and geography, in addition to the mathematical numbers of people involved.

Does my hon. Friend agree that by supporting the cross-party campaign to keep Cornwall whole, this Parliament will be demonstrating that it is listening to the people of Cornwall? We have a golden opportunity in this Parliament to rebuild citizens’ confidence in our democracy and to ensure that MPs can earn their respect. In respecting the aspirations of the people of Cornwall, with our distinct culture, history and language, we will be taking a step in the right direction and building confidence in this Parliament.

My hon. Friend makes a very full point, although I would not wish to engage with her directly because I want to be brief and allow other Members to take part.

(East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Some eminent historians have already participated in this debate, so I will go for some other quotations. Groucho Marx said, “Here are my principles, but if you don’t like them, I have another set here.” In the light of the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), may I ask the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) how he can reconcile the exceptions for the Western Isles, northern isles and other areas when the Government are sticking rigidly to an arithmetical formula in this legislation?

The hon. Gentleman begins to make the precise point that I wish to develop, which is that this Bill already accepts the principle that there are geographical areas or communities that are either too disparate or too distinct simply to be left. There is nothing against that principle in the Bill. One could have argued—historically, it would have been easy to do so—for the old Norse principality of Orkney, which included Caithness. We could have gone back to Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. The Government have recognised that certain geographical difficulties make it important to have regard to them when building constituencies.

If the hon. Gentleman will let me first develop my argument, I will happily give way.

We have heard today from both sides of the House a variety of examples of why the two principles have worked in tension against each other for the benefit of the country. My broad argument is about removing that, suggesting an arithmetical figure, and making two exceptions. The exception of size is almost irrelevant, because it would change the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and mine, and Inverness would probably disappear. In the tension between those two principles, which have been dealt with by the Boundary Commission and through inquiry, we have broadly arrived at a workable set of solutions. Therefore, like the amendment, I urge that we take a similar approach while respecting all the Government’s principles.

The hon. Gentleman is making a splendid case. Some of us believe that his constituency should be called Thurso. He wants us to support his amendment, which we are happy to do, but I hope he recognises that it might be better not to make allowances just for named constituencies, but to allow greater flexibility throughout the country so that wards and communities do not have to be split. He would then have to vote for our amendment.

I am receptive to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. However, if he knew my constituency, he would know that saying it might like to be called Thurso is probably the worst insult that could be delivered to the Royal Borough of Wick and to Wickans. May I put it on record that I am entirely content with Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—or however much of Ross I may end up with?

There is a clear need for the Bill to be amended and if, given the lack of time, we cannot achieve that, I sincerely hope that the other place will take a long, strong and hard look at it. This is the sort of constitutional change that simply must not be allowed to slip through on the back of an electoral pact.

I want to speak to several amendments that I tabled in this group. Amendments 188, 193, 189 and 192 all refer to issues that arise in the context of Northern Ireland. This group includes other amendments that address issues that arise in the context of Wales and the Scottish islands, and constituencies that include such areas. There is also an amendment relating to the Isle of Wight.

My amendments are not about “ferrymanders” for constituencies with many islands, nor are they about “valleymanders” because of the geography of Northern Ireland, but they address two points. One is the principle of having a distinct quota in Northern Ireland. Amendments 9, 200 and 202 would give the four boundary commissions four discrete electoral quotas for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I have no issue with that, and I agree with it in principle, although I am not here to legislate for other parts of the United Kingdom.

I tabled amendment 192 because the Government seem to have set their face against separate electoral quotas for constituent parts. It calls for a distinct Northern Ireland quota. If the seat reduction goes through, we will end up with about 15 constituencies. Because the boundaries will be changed every five years, according to the UK quota arithmetic, it could be that under the Sainte-Laguë system for distributing seats to the four constituent boundary commissions the following boundary review might reduce the number of seats in Northern Ireland to 14, and the boundary review after that, depending on what happens with registration, might raise the number again.

Chopping and changing the number of seats in Northern Ireland every five years without any regard to either a sense of equality or a quota that relates to Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances has difficulties. My amendments, which are specifically about Northern Ireland, could stand so I ask the Government to consider them even if they combine to defeat the other amendments, which sensibly and correctly call for discrete quotas. If separate boundary commissions are to be given particular tasks for particular areas, they should at least be mandated to produce a specific quota for those areas.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point in that it underlines the general population instability in the UK. Recent scholars of the Union have pointed out that the Scottish percentage of the UK population has decreased. In the years to come, given the pattern of movement in the UK and the way in which the economy is run from south-east England, we might see more MPs from England and fewer from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman thus makes a very sensible point.

The hon. Gentleman spells out exactly the vista that is ahead of us with this Bill. Not only are the different boundary commissions not allowed to take account of the totality of circumstances within the territories for which they are responsible, but they are bound not just by the arithmetic of the UK quota but by the fixed limit of 600 seats. Part of our problem with all this is that we have a fixed limit of seats. There is not one seat more and not one seat fewer; there is just an absolute given number. I can see in that some of the conundrums that will beset this House every single time a boundary review is undertaken.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there is no recognition that in 2005, Scotland moved from 72 MPs down to 58 MPs? If the proposal goes ahead, there will be a further reduction of eight in Scotland. That is an outrageous reduction in MPs and representation throughout Scotland. It is much more than the percentage that is being talked about over here.

The hon. Gentleman has spelled out exactly what lies ahead with this Bill. There is uncertainty over the changes that will come with the introduction of this Bill but, in addition, in every single Parliament there will be an arithmetical play-off over who gets the last bundle of seats out of the 600. Does a party qualify under Sainte-Laguë for an extra seat, or does it end up losing a seat in Scotland, Wales or in Northern Ireland? The Boundary Commission will then be asked to deal with the consequences again.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s approach to this Bill, and the observations from some Government Members, profoundly misunderstands the nature of the United Kingdom? By equalising—except with some exceptions—the parliamentary constituencies, it completely ignores the fact that we are a united kingdom of nations of different sizes. In the United States, where there are equal congressional districts, the Senate balances the rights of the smaller states. There is no balancing within this Bill for the small nations, which could never ever outvote the interests of the largest nation in this United Kingdom.

I think I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. Personally, I am no fan of the United Kingdom. I am not a comfortable subject of it, and, as far as I am concerned, my small nation is not represented in the United Kingdom. My small nation is divided between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. I have no doubt that that will be work for another Bill on another day.

I want to make the point that the amendment in respect of the distinct Northern Ireland quota has its own merits, even if the Government, wrongly, unwisely and unfairly combine to defeat the other sensible amendments that would entrust boundary commissions with their own discrete quotas.

The other key area in amendments 188 and 193, and particularly in amendment 193, is to do with ensuring that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland will not just have to respect carefully things like local government wards, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has spelled out, which the Bill as it stood was already providing for, but will have to have regard to the fact that constituencies in Northern Ireland are also, absolutely by statute, constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Good Friday agreement, it was decided that parliamentary constituency boundaries would be exactly coterminous with the Assembly multi-seat boundaries, so changing the parliamentary boundaries means changing the Assembly boundaries. Under this Bill, they will be changed every five years, according to arithmetic dictated by the UK in general. We could end up with geo-sectarian issues as a result, and with the unsettling effect of boundary reviews throughout the life of every Assembly and every Parliament. Towns and villages will feel that, because of the boundary arithmetic, they are being pushed out of their natural hinterland and perhaps split between two Assembly constituencies, and that the natural base for their Assembly seat could be lost. There could also be implications for health care and other services.

My hon. Friend made a point about the people living on the periphery of a constituency chopping and changing between elected representatives at every election. What does he think that will do for the morale of those people, when they come to cast their vote? Is it good for democracy if those people feel that they are not really part of anywhere at all?

I do not believe that it is good for democracy. Thankfully, Northern Ireland now has a more settled process, but we face continuous and unsettling boundary reviews, some of which will come into play in time for the next parliamentary election but not in time for the next Assembly election. An Assembly election could therefore take place within boundaries that are about to disappear, and the next parliamentary election could be held within different ones. People will be completely confused. Equally, the number of our constituencies could go up and down, because the Sainte-Laguë method means that we are always in danger of just losing or just gaining a seat at each review.

Can the hon. Gentleman foresee a situation in which a small town or village could move one way for one election, and back again for the next? In the Northern Ireland context, that could have considerable ramifications.

Yes, it could have serious ramifications. I do not need to spell out the names of particular townlands and their hinterlands, but the consequences are obvious, especially for multi-seat constituencies.

In the various amendments that I have tabled, I am not saying that we are seeking inequality for Northern Ireland. The principle of equality of constituencies should exist, particularly in constituencies that have to elect six Members, supposedly on a PR basis. They should be broadly equal, but they should be equal in a Northern Ireland sense.

On this issue, the hon. Gentleman and I agree about the Bill’s impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly. We might not agree on how we see our future, because my party obviously sees Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. He is absolutely right to mention the Assembly constituency boundaries, however. Those boundaries will be about to change when the election is held in 2019, so anyone standing in those elections will have been representing their constituency for four years, but the boundaries will have been changed for the past three years. That is a completely unacceptable situation.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to backlight exactly the sort of anomalies that will be created by the Bill. We are meant to be legislating for the whole of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts, so let us not legislate to create anomalies.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that a great deal of negotiation and compromise led to the Good Friday agreement, which created the situation in which the parliamentary constituencies equated with the Assembly constituencies. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the actions of the Government are such that, if their proposals are accepted, all that work could be jeopardised at a stroke?

I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who served with great distinction in Northern Ireland, not only as Secretary of State but as Minister of State. He was also the person who chaired the Strand 1 negotiations. Everyone rightly praises George Mitchell for his role, but not enough praise is conferred on the right hon. Gentleman for his role, and for the patience and perspicacity that he showed at that time. I must remind him, however, that in those negotiations, some of us were advocating that Northern Ireland should be granted the alternative vote system for Westminster elections as well. He and his right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister resisted that proposal, however.

The crux of my hon. Friend’s argument is the instability that will be caused by the five-yearly boundary reviews. Does he feel that an opportunity was missed in Committee when the House rejected an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that would have established reviews every 10 years? That would have brought greater stability for mainland Members who, rather than looking over their shoulder every five years, would have had some breathing space and a continuous constituency for at least one Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, the other place might have to ride to the rescue of the Commons yet again?

Again, my hon. and Celtic colleague has spoken with great sense. Hon. Members will regret what they are doing with this Bill. They will find themselves living with the consequences, and comparing the boundary process with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority process.

The uncertainty to which the hon. Gentleman alludes has particular resonance in Northern Ireland, and extraneous matter can fill many vacuums, as we have seen in the past. Does he not agree, however, that that uncertainty, coupled with a fixed-term Parliament, would not be good for democracy, because Members elected under such a system would be interested not in representing the people but in the next stage in the development of their own electoral process?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Like so many other hon. Members, he reinforces exactly the kind of malign scenario that will emerge as a result of the Bill. Boundary reviews will take place during the life of every Parliament, with an absence of local inquiries, if the Government get their way. Also, as we know from our discussions in Committee, the Secretaries of State will be able to make modifications when laying reports. Boundary commissions will consult first on one report, then on another. The third report will then be final, but the Secretary of State may lay it with modifications.

Does my hon. Friend agree that an unforeseen consequence of this electoral hokey cokey, with villages and communities coming in and out of constituencies every five years, could be competition for additional casework between Members of Parliament, as happens under the additional Member system? It would be utterly unhealthy if a Member of Parliament were seeking to represent the area that he would be representing in the next Parliament rather than his present one.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not sure that the public would object to lots of local representatives working hard for them and their interests, but I understand the complication that he alludes to.

There is a glaring absence of any reference to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the Bill. We have not even been consulted or communicated with about the process. I have tabled amendments that deal with that. Whatever the Government’s attitude to all the other very worthy amendments, I ask them to bear in mind that they are in serious deficit in the attention that they are giving to Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who makes a case for which I have a great deal of sympathy. I should like to express the great frustration of hon. Members representing Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly that we have not had an opportunity to advance the voice of, and the case for, Cornwall in debates on a Bill that will have a significant impact on Cornwall and its future. We should really have had such an opportunity before but, because of the arcane way in which we still manage our business in the House, we are left with the clock ticking away, and with very little time to make our case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said earlier, this is a clash between two principles. The first is that of equalisation, and no one could properly argue against that. However, we must also consider the important principle of respecting tradition, history and geography.

I draw attention to my amendments 196 and 4. One deals with the principle of discretion for the Boundary Commission to apply not just to Cornwall, but to other places, too. Sometimes people are not aware of the potential consequences that flow from their own community, their own identity and their own place. It is important to have an amendment that provides the Boundary Commission with a great deal more discretion. The other amendment deals with the historic and essential boundary of Cornwall, the integrity of which must be respected and protected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution and on his amendments, to which I have appended my name. On the principle of allowing areas to opt out of the system, it is important to note the ability to opt to be under-represented. Accusations have been made that the provisions are about areas seeking to be over-represented in order to get away from the general principle of equalisation. In fact, the Liberal Democrat amendment says precisely the opposite—that the boundary may be so important in a particular area that the people in it can signal that they wish to be under-represented, as it were.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am grateful to all five of my parliamentary colleagues in Cornwall. With me, that makes six standing shoulder to shoulder together on this issue. We are not asking for a favour, only for the distinctiveness of Cornwall to be recognised. In a sense, we will be more unfavourably treated. As the statistics pan out for the electoral register for Cornwall as a whole, the best guesstimate is that, if we go for a rounding down of the constituencies, we will end up with an electorate nearly 10% higher than the quota.

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the proud duchy of Cornwall and its proud Cornishmen would feel any less Cornish or any less proud of their ancient historical traditions just because one of their constituencies happened to have in it a small part of another county. Surely Cornwall is worth more than that.

It is very nice of the hon. Lady to take an interest in Cornwall and I appreciate that. If she wants to identify the voices of Cornwall, however, she might do well to look at the three Conservative Members who represent three Cornwall constituencies. They are very clear on this issue, and they disagree with her on that particular point. The fact is that it is the thin end of the wedge and a slippery slope. We are moving in the opposite direction from the one many want to see—giving Cornwall a stronger say and enabling it to build the identity of which it is enormously proud.

I shall give way in a moment, but let me make a little more progress.

It is vital for people to understand that we are talking about a Cornwall that has a long tradition of culture and a separate language, as others have mentioned. No English counties have a language of their own in the sense that Cornwall does—and it has been recognised by the European Commission and other authorities. The language is recognised and specified in the European charter.

I remind the House that Cornwall, along with South Yorkshire, enjoyed—if that is the right word—objective 1 status because of its need for economic growth and because of the poverty from which it has suffered. Does that not suggest that Cornwall needs all the representation it can get at the moment to make sure that its economic voice can be heard in this House?

I agree. Of course we would like to have more than average representation, but we are not asking for special favours. I have said already that we are not asking for favouritism, only for the distinctiveness of Cornwall to be respected.

Would the hon. Gentleman associate his remarks about Cornwall with other areas in the south of England, such as the Isle of Wight, which are in exactly the same circumstances? The consequences of not associating his remarks with those other areas would mean that the Boundary Commission would have to take completely arbitrary decisions, not based on any community considerations, so part of the integral community would have to be redistributed elsewhere.

I am grateful for that intervention, as I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman said. Indeed, I have appended my name to amendment 183, which brings Cornwall and the Isle of Wight together. It recognises that there are already parts of the country whose geographic boundaries need to be respected. The primary principle underlying amendment 196, to which I think the hon. Gentleman alludes, is that of giving the Boundary Commission some discretion. Although amendment 183 acknowledges that there are five other parts of the country whose boundaries should be respected, we do not really know how many such areas there are. Other places elsewhere in the country might be relevant when the Boundary Commission is undertaking its work, and hon. Members, completely unaware of the situation, might find that a line has been drawn slap, bang through the middle of their constituency—and at that point, they will cry foul and ask how it happened.

When people wake up to the full reality of the way the boundaries are to be divided, they will understand that it will result in the effective pasteurisation of parliamentary constituencies. They will be homogenised and we will see the denigration of place, the denigration of identity and the promotion of placelessness and bland uniformity. The Boundary Commission should be given the discretion to recognise identity, culture, tradition, history, geography and so forth, so that places with strong identities, historic communities, historic counties and, indeed, historic boroughs do not find themselves divided up for the satisfaction of the Government’s need for so-called statistical equalisation.

The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case about Cornwall. I believe that the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would achieve what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. We all accept the need for equalisation, but we also need to allow the Boundary Commission to do what it is paid to do—to recognise that it is not all about numbers; it is also about communities. That is how democracy works: people vote for us; they understand the areas we represent, and we understand them.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned history and culture, and there is of course the Gaelic proverb:

“S fhearr caraid sa chuirt na crun san sporran”—

it is better to have a friend in court—and, indeed, Parliament —than money in the purse. With that in mind, I say to my Celtic cousins from Cornwall that Karl Marx in one of his madder moments said that the fate of the Celtic races was to be ruled by the Nordic races. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the treatment of Cornwall could thus be construed as Marxist? Did he ever imagine that when this coalition Government set out their aims, they would end up with Marxism in Cornwall?

Let me quote someone else. It was Matthew Arnold who said that it was the desire of a centralised state

“to render its dominions… homogenous”.

This issue strikes at identity, community and history—all encapsulated in amendment 183, to which I and other Liberal Democrat colleagues have appended our names. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the House should divide on amendment 183?

I do. I wish to bring my remarks to a close, as other Members wish to contribute to the debate.

I am glad that we have had the opportunity to talk about Cornwall. I hope that the Front Benchers are listening to our debate and I hope that it will not be necessary for an unelected Chamber to sort out the mess and that elected Members will ensure that we have the right type of election and the right type of boundary for elections to this place. We are not asking for any favours for Cornwall, as I have said. We just want the Government to be fair—“fair” being a favourite word of the coalition.

I shall support every amendment that achieves the objects that I have set out. I believe that it is a self-confident Government who are prepared to listen and to change their ways when the evidence is clearly opposed to the general direction in which they are proceeding.

I was prompted to speak solely by the words of the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), who said that this was about people. It is not about people; it is about dividing areas and regions into total numbers, rather than understanding the community. Communities such as those in Devon and Cornwall, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland also exist in my part of south London—homogenised suburban south London. People live in villages, they live in communities, and they want to be represented by people.

Some of my constituents do not vote. They cannot vote. They do not register. We all know that someone who is black, someone who lives in private rented accommodation, or someone who is aged between 17 and 24, is unlikely to register, but those people still need to be represented. When they come to my surgery, I do not ask them whether they are from Afghanistan or from Germany. They live in my area, and I represent them.

We know that harsh, strict, numerical determination never takes account of the value of what we all do as individuals in representing our areas and communities. Dare I suggest that that is part of the big society? A big society that has no representatives and does not understand the meals on wheels ladies, the people from Somalia, or the people who enjoy whatever it is that they enjoy will be unable to represent them. If we cannot represent and understand our areas, we are completely lost, and the value of our system is lost.

The role of constituency Member of Parliament is not respected in the House of Commons, although it is talked about a great deal. The essence of our democracy lies in encouraging people to vote when, having lost faith in parties and the system, they are still prepared to confide to their Member of Parliament—someone they do not know—the greatest secrets about their lives and their values, and to tell that Member of Parliament about a pub or post office in their community that is about to close.

If we break up our areas, whether they are urban like mine, suburban or rural, we will rue the day. We must hang on in order to continue to make our political system work—and our political system works because people see us representing them and understanding their communities.

I tabled amendment 1 to protect the Isle of Wight. The needs and interests of the people of the Isle of Wight are different from those of people living on the mainland. However, it is not only on behalf of the islanders that I oppose the change; my proposal makes better sense for the mainland as well. The island needs local representation, whether by one or two Members of Parliament. What will not do is the creation of one whole constituency with an electorate of 76,000, with the remaining 34,000 forming part of another constituency extending across the sea to the mainland.

On 15 July, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that we must

“come to terms with the need for extensive political reform in order to re-establish public trust in what we do here”.

I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s words, but it is hard to reconcile them with his actions. His aim is the establishment of 600 constituencies of more or less equal size. He says that he wants greater public trust and transparency, yet he has arbitrarily decided that exceptions will be made for some Scottish islands and not others. That is it: no discussion, no consultation, no justification. I am not criticising the Deputy Prime Minister for what he said, but he has not satisfactorily explained why Isle of Wight residents are not entitled to the consideration that is given to Scottish islanders. Like the Scottish islands, we on the Isle of Wight are physically separate from the mainland, but our uniqueness is totally ignored. We have no roads, trains or planes—

Not for the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

What we have is a limited and sometimes eye-wateringly expensive ferry service. It is necessary to live on an island to understand how limiting that can be. Some islanders rarely or never travel to the mainland, and there are times when it is impossible to reach it because of weather or sea conditions. Ferries themselves provide evidence that the interests of electors on opposite sides of the Solent are very different. The Lymington River Association is vehemently opposed to the new ferries on the Yarmouth-Lymington route, while islanders who do travel to the mainland need the improved services that the companies are trying to offer.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent an island community. Although it is linked to the mainland by a bridge, that does not make it any less an island community. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those special characteristics must be preserved, and that the Isle of Wight, with a population of 100,000, and Ynys Môn, with a population of 50,000, are equal island communities whose uniqueness should be recognised?

I understand that perfectly.

As well as the two Scottish island constituencies, there are other arbitrary exceptions to the principle of fair votes. However, it is not all about fairness or unfairness. It is about allowing people to be consulted and to have the representation that they want, even if that means keeping a larger constituency. That is why the decision should be made by the independent Boundary Commission, rather than according to the diktat of the Deputy Prime Minister.

My constituency is the largest in the United Kingdom, with 110,000 voters. I am happy to continue to be judged by those people when it comes to whether I represent them effectively. The Deputy Prime Minister paid me the compliment of saying that I was well known as an “outstanding constituency MP”. If that is the case, why is he determined to fix something that is not broken, particularly when his reforms are unwanted by the people who are affected by them?

I must end my speech, because we are running out of time. Let me finally say that it is a terrible thing to have one’s constituency divided. I recognise that that will happen in some cases, but what I do not like is the idea of the constituency being divided and part of it sent to the mainland.

So far this evening, the Government have gained no supporters for their argument. I think that there is a good reason for that. The arguments presented by Members on both sides of the House—including the persuasive argument of the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)—can be summed up very simply as “This House does not believe in the Government’s construction of a mathematical exercise in order to create constituencies”. Everyone who has articulated an argument this evening has expressed the belief that, in the case of Cornwall, Scotland, the south Wales valleys or the whole of Wales, we need to ensure that minority voices are heard loud and clear in the House.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When you called the Front-Bench spokesmen, at least a dozen Labour Members were still waiting to speak. It is clear that not enough time has been allowed for the debate. Can anything be done to enable those Members to put their points on the record?

That is not a point of order. The point about the amount of time allowed for the debate has been taken on board, but that is a decision for the Government rather than the Chair.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) knows perfectly well that I entirely agree with him. I note that at least 12 Labour Members have not yet been able to speak, and that is why I will speak very briefly now.

Let me just say this to the Government. The danger is that in their desire to create mathematically perfect constituencies and to allow only 5% of leeway to the boundary commissions, and in creating the exemptions for three seats in Scotland, they will undermine the three Scottish constituencies and make them seem like rotten boroughs. The Government will make the whole country look like a mathematical exercise, and not like anything that recognises the facts of life.

When miners went down the mines in the Rhondda in the 19th and 20th centuries, they had a number stamped on their miners’ lamps. The people of this country do not want to be just numbers on a miner’s lamp. The people of this country want to be recognised for the constituencies and the communities that are represented in it, and it is their voices that should be heard in the House rather than just the statistics with which the Minister agrees.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You said in response to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that a point about who gets to speak is not a point of order for the Chair. A point about which amendments are selected is, however, a point of order for the Chair. My amendment to this part of the Bill deals with the same kind of special privilege that other Members have addressed in their amendments, but it was not selected. I appreciate that the Chair has a difficult task. However, my point of order is: if this Bill had been taken in full Committee, would not my amendment have been allowed and debated?

The hon. Member has raised this point previously, and I stress once again that it is not a point of order. He cannot challenge what amendments are selected. The selection of amendments is the Speaker’s prerogative, and that has been decided. I now call the Deputy Leader of the House.

I withdraw that comment, but further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The point of order I am raising is that in full Committee any amendment that is put in the Committee is eligible to be taken, and it is only the time constraints that have required you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to rule out certain amendments, including my own.

Order. We are not going to push this any further. I have made a ruling, I stand by that ruling and the Member must accept it. I call Mr Heath.

This large group of amendments reflects a range of views about representation in the nations and the way in which the boundary commissions should go about the task of drawing up constituency boundaries.

Let me start with a simple statement of principle. In a single-Member constituency system, there must be broad equality in constituency size so that one elector means one vote between, as well as within, constituencies. I do not think that is a particularly controversial remark. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) calls it an attitude that is “crazed” and “desiccated”—it is interesting that one can be both simultaneously—but I do not accept that. My concern about the amendments in this group is that they would all compromise on equality for a range of motivations, some entirely understandable, others less so.

The amendments seek to make exceptions for, variously, the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Ynys Môn and the highlands of Scotland, and we recognise the pride and sense of history that underpins each of these claims for special treatment. The Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), visited the Isle of Wight on 1 October and Ministers at the highest possible level have met campaigners from Cornwall to hear their arguments. However, it is not the case that the only argument that was made was in favour of the status quo; I think the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) recognised that in a previous debate. For example, a cross-Solent constituency might have advantages. The Isle of Wight council has recently made a submission to the Government to create a Solent local enterprise partnership covering the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Where appropriate, therefore, the island is clearly willing to develop its long-term interests in conjunction with its mainland neighbours. There are a number of shared opportunities between the island and the mainland and I believe this willingness to engage could also be demonstrated in a cross-Solent constituency.

Had the Government allocated enough time for us to debate this topic this evening, the hon. Gentleman would have heard a cross-section of views not only from Wales, Devon, Cornwall and colleagues from Northern Ireland and Scotland, but from the whole country, expressing concern about communities being split up and boundaries being drawn on the basis of strange anomalies or purely in accordance with mathematics. In fact, the Government are in danger of ensuring that people such as those mentioned by colleagues are under-represented in the House, not over-represented.

I simply do not understand this argument that having equal constituencies with a margin of plus or minus 5% represents an outrageous innovation that is anti-democratic. That is simply not the case.

Let me make some progress, as we have very little time.

More fundamentally, it is the duty of each MP to represent all constituents no matter whereabouts in the constituency they live. I understand the views of my colleagues from Cornwall—my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Andrew George) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—but I simply do not accept that Cornwall will be any the less “Cornwall” if it is represented by a Member who also represents part of Devon. I believe a Member of Parliament who is doing their job can represent constituents on either side of the Tamar equally.

I have not got time to give way, I am afraid.

I also want—[Interruption.] I also want to make it plain that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) made—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member has said he will give way a little later. Let us be a little more patient. People want to hear what is being said. [Interruption.] I am sure the hon. Member can see behind him, Mr Bryant; he does not need any assistance.

I am most grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am trying to cover quite a lot of ground for colleagues in a relatively short period.

I wanted to address the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—and I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) been able to contribute to the debate he would have said very much the same thing about the highlands of Scotland. [Interruption.] May I correct the hon. Member for Rhondda? He kept on saying that there are three exceptions in the Bill, but there are not three exceptions; there are two exceptions and they are, for very clear reasons, for the two island constituencies where contacts are very difficult. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute can make a very strong case for his own constituency as well, but I do not accept that having a maximum size—which it has been said is the size of Belgium—is unreasonable for the Scottish Members representing highland constituencies.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a very important point on Northern Ireland. I expected him to make the connection between parliamentary constituencies and Assembly constituencies. Instead, he concentrated on the quota and the Sainte-Laguë formula, and he raises an important point that we need to look at. I want to make absolutely sure that the system is fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, and I will certainly look at that point.

I find it very difficult to understand the argument that the Welsh constituencies are badly treated by being treated the same as other constituencies, such as those on my side of the Bristol channel. I do not know whether changing the name of Somerset to Gwlad yr Haf would have the desired effect of giving us twice as many representatives, but I do not accept that people in the west country should be disadvantaged in that way. [Interruption.] No, what is patronising is to pretend that we cannot go from one part of a constituency to the other because there is a hill or a river in the way. That is nonsense.

I briefly want to address the effect of Government amendments in this group, which are technical in nature. Amendments 220 and 221 allow the boundary commissions to use the most up-to-date register in areas where publication is delayed. If these amendments are not agreed to, in some areas the boundary commissions would have to use the register before the results of the annual canvass were included in it. I therefore hope we can all agree that the amendments must be made.

Amendment 21 makes consequential amendments to other legislation that refers to particular constituencies by name. We need to make that other legislation consistent with the new rules for constituencies in the Bill.

I hope the House will be able to support the Government amendments, and will reject the other amendments if they are pressed to a Division, as I believe they introduce inequalities—and inappropriate inequalities at that—that I personally cannot accept.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

Amendment proposed: 11, page 10, line 10, at end insert—

‘(1A) A Boundary Commission shall ensure that—

(a) in England, no district or borough ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(b) in Northern Ireland, no local authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(c) in Wales, no unitary authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;

(d) in Scotland, regard shall be had to local authority ward boundaries.

(1B) The Boundary Commission for England shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of counties and London boroughs; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs.

(1C) The Boundary Commission for Wales shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.’.—(Chris Bryant.)

.

Amendment proposed: 183, page 10, leave out lines 18 to 25 and insert—

‘Whole numbers of constituencies

6 (1) The following shall be allocated whole numbers of constituencies by whichever Boundary Commission is responsible for them—

(a) Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands council areas;

(b) Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council area;

(c) the Cyngor Sir Ynys Môn Isle of Anglesey county area;

(d) the Isle of Wight county area;

(e) the County of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly council areas;

(f) the Highland Council area;

(g) the Argyll and Bute Council area.

(2) The number of constituencies to be allocated to each area shall be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the United Kingdom Electoral Average and rounding to the nearest whole number, unless this would mean that rule 4(1) could not be satisfied, in which case the area concerned will be allocated the smallest number of constituencies required in order to satisfy that rule. Each area must be allocated at least one whole constituency.

(3) In this rule “United Kingdom Electoral Average” means (where E is the electorate of the United Kingdom)—

?

.’.—(Mr Kennedy)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendments made: 220, page 11, line 27, leave out from first ‘on’ to ‘in’ in line 28 and insert ‘the relevant version of a register of parliamentary electors’.

Amendment 221, page 11, line 30, at end insert—

‘(None)

‘For this purpose the relevant version of a register is the version that is required by virtue of subsection (1) of section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to be published no later than the review date, or would be so required but for—

(a) any power under that section to prescribe a later date, or

(b) subsection (1A) of that section.’.

Amendment 21, page 12, line 18, at end insert—

‘( ) In Part 4 of Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 (offices disqualifying for particular constituencies)—

(a) in the entry for Member of Her Majesty’s Commission of Lieutenancy for the City of London, for “The constituency comprising the whole of” there is substituted “Any constituency comprising the whole or part of”;

(b) in the entry for Governor of the Isle of Wight, for “The Isle of Wight” there is substituted “Any constituency comprising the whole or part of the Isle of Wight”.

( ) In section 8 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (registration officers), for paragraph (b) of subsection (2) there is substituted—

“(b) in relation to any constituency part of which consists of some or all of the area of the City and the Inner and Middle Temples, the Common Council shall appoint an officer to be registration officer for that part of the constituency.”’.—(Mr Heath.)

Clause 12

Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation

I beg to move amendment 205, page 12, line 21, at end insert—

‘(A1) In relation to a report under section 3(1) that a Boundary Commission is required by section 3(2) to submit before 1 October 2013—

(a) a Boundary Commission shall make information available via their website, and if they see fit by other means, on their proposed general approach to the application of Schedule 2;

(b) representations with respect to this proposed general approach may be made to the Commission during a specified period of eight weeks; and

(c) the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made prior to the provisional determination of any recommendations affecting any constituency.

(A2) A Boundary Commission’s “proposed general approach” shall include, but need not be limited to—

(a) the processes by which they intend to seek to ensure the application of rule 2, and in the case of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland of rule 7, including the circumstances in which they will consider recommending that wards, electoral areas and divisions should be divided between two or more constituencies, and the information on which they intend to rely in determining how to carry out such a division, and

(b) the extent to which they intend to take into account each of the factors described in rule 5(1), and in the case of the Boundary Commission for England of rule 5(2).’.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 206, page 12, leave out lines 22 to 34 and insert—

‘(1) Where a Boundary Commission has provisionally determined to make recommendations affecting any constituency—

(a) they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency of the effect of the proposed recommendations and that a copy of the recommendations is open to inspection at a specified place within the constituency,

(b) they shall make available via their website, and if they see fit by other means, copies of their proposed recommendations and information on their effect, together with such information as they have on the number of the electorate in every sub-division of every ward, electoral division and electoral area in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and

(c) representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission by people whether in or outside any given constituency during a specified period of 12 weeks, and the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made.’.

Amendment 15, page 12, leave out lines 35 to 41 and insert—

‘(1A) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receives any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.

(1B) Where a local inquiry was held in respect of the constituencies before the publication of the notice mentioned in subsection (1) above, that subsection shall not apply if the Commission, after considering the matters discussed at the local inquiry, the nature of the representations received on the publication of the notice and any other relevant circumstances, is of an opinion that a further local inquiry would not be justified.

(1C) In subsection (1A) above, “interested authority” and “elector” respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.’.

Amendment 209, page 12, leave out lines 35 and 36.

Amendment 194, page 12, line 35, after ‘(2)’, insert ‘Subject to subsection (2A) below’.

Amendment 195, page 12, line 36, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act covering the whole of Northern Ireland, where any representation objecting to a report has been received from the council of a district in Northern Ireland or from a body of parliamentary electors in Northern Ireland numbering one hundred or more from two or more constituencies.’.

Amendment 210, page 12, leave out line 41.

I am glad that we are going to be able to debate all these amendments in this one debate. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, cannot be present, as he would have relished the opportunity to speak to these amendments on behalf of our Committee. I am pleased to see that other members of the Committee are in the Chamber, however, and they may wish to echo those sentiments. In the absence of the Chairman, I shall speak to amendments 205 and 206, which arise from the Committee’s report on the Bill—the nearest that we got to pre-legislative scrutiny.

The purpose of amendments 205 and 206 is to ensure that consultation by the boundary commissions is as meaningful as possible. Amendment 205 would require them to hold a one-off, short consultation on how they intended to approach the division of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into constituencies before the first review—the 2011 to 2013 review—took place. It would allow people to give their views on the extent to which, for example, county boundaries should be crossed and which ward sub-division might be desirable and, where wards are sub-divided, on the kinds of sub-division to be used. The Committee has asked the House simply to consider whether amendment 205 would—we hope that it would—increase the perceived legitimacy of the boundary commissions’ decisions, and reduce the likelihood of local frustration and the possibility of legal challenge to their recommendations.

Amendment 206 is intended to improve the quality of the consultations that the boundary commissions conduct under each proposed future review. As the Committee said in its report:

“The legitimacy of the next boundary review in the eyes of the public is likely to be strongly influenced by their ability to participate effectively.”

The amendment would allow people to make representations to the commissions on constituencies other than the one in which they live, and it would require information on the number of electors within sub-ward divisions of constituencies to be made available nationwide. I appreciate that the Government are working to a very tight timetable and we do not have very much time for debate this evening. Members wish to raise important matters, so I shall be as brief as I can.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that people have, first, the information about their locality that they need to make to the boundary commission a proposal that keeps within the rules, and, secondly, the right to make recommendations about constituencies other than the one in which they live so that that they are not prevented from making suggestions about their locality that would otherwise take their constituency outside the range of the 5% flexibility permitted. I appreciate that I have truncated the case, for the reasons that I have set out, but I am sure that hon. Members who are interested in the matter and, certainly, Ministers will already have read the Select Committee’s report and fully appreciate the importance of the points that I have put to the House.

The Government may not wish to accept the amendments, but they are intended entirely to be helpful and constructive. The Committee took a cross-party position, and the amendments are not political. Given the timetable to which the Government are working, however, they may not wish to consider these matters. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the Committee’s amendments, how will the boundary commissions ensure that consultation with local people is meaningful, and that the mass of the new rules is not so constructed that local feeling on constituency boundaries cannot be taken into account?

I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the point that I make on behalf of the Committee, and members of the Committee who sit on the Opposition Benches may wish to take those points further, but I shall move on from the Committee’s position to speak on my own behalf. We know from experience that the boundary commissions have taken a very long time to consider their reports in previous decades, and that an enormous amount of time and taxpayers’ money has been spent on consultations with them.

The Select Committee is being constructive with amendments 205 and 206, by trying to help the Government to improve the perception of the commissions’ legitimacy, but I argue, from my point of view as the representative of a constituency that has been changed by almost every boundary review over the past century, that most of the time taken up by consultation with the boundary commissions has been taken up by political parties. There has not—I defy anyone to come forward with evidence to show that there has—been an enormous outcry from individuals, saying, “I don’t want to be in Epping Forest; I want to be in Brentwood and Ongar.”

Most people in this country accept that the boundary commissions have to do the work that they do, and that, having one vote of one value and equal-sized constituencies, is the right way to a fair, modern democracy that properly represents every person who lives in any part of the United Kingdom. The boundary commissions have not been inundated with individual members of the public whose hearts have been broken by the thought of being represented by a different Member of Parliament.

I cannot speak about Epping Forest or Brentwood and Ongar, but, when the boundaries changed in Scotland in 2005, the proposal for my constituency was to take out two large wards from the town of Dumfries itself. People were so angry that they mounted their own campaign, which they took to a public inquiry, and they won the case that they should not be separated. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to say that only political parties undertake such activity. The strength and voice of communities should be heard, but the Bill will not give those communities the voice that they deserve in a democratic society.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I understand how strongly the people of Dumfries feel, but that is not the point of democracy. In a modern democracy what counts is not valleys, mountains, rivers and perceived ancient boundaries, as we heard argued in the previous debate; what counts is that every person in the United Kingdom has a voice of equal value and votes.

The hon. Lady has made the point a number of times tonight about everything being of equal value and equal size, so why does she support measures that take three seats in Scotland and count them differently? Her argument would be stronger if she opposed those measures in the Lobby.

I do not support them. The matters on which we have just voted were rather more complicated than that, and went further than three seats.

The hon. Gentleman does not know how I voted—that is my business. [Interruption.] Well, I was not in the Lobby with him. [Interruption.] It is hardly a secret, is it? The matters on which we have just voted were rather wider than that, and so I naturally loyally supported my Government—or part of my Government. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout these debates.

Well if he has, he has: I am sorry that I did not notice. [Interruption.] I have said on more than one occasion—

Order. I know that people have strong views on this, but, Mr Tami, it would help if you proceeded by intervention rather than by shouting across the Chamber: it is very distracting. Thank you very much.

Thank you for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker. Regardless of where the hon. Gentleman has been, he can have this argument with the Government, but he cannot have it with me, because I have said on more than one occasion—and I will say it again, but it does not really matter, because nobody listens to what I say—

I am much gratified by that.

I would not have had any exceptions in the Bill; I think that the exceptions are wrong. The matter at issue is that every vote in the United Kingdom should be of one value and of one weight—that every Member of Parliament who comes to this House should have, within a reasonable tolerance, the same number of potential voters, voting for them or otherwise.

I will not give way to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) again, but I give way to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).

Does the hon. Lady support—I fully presume that she does—the building of the big society, as outlined by her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench? Is not the Select Committee’s suggestion that the boundary commissions should have this arrangement for people to make representations an acknowledgement that the elimination of public inquiries is creating a vacuum and depriving citizens of the opportunity to make such representations, and therefore totally contradicts the big society in preventing expressions of disappointment or concern about the proposals from being heard?

The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, very clever in the way that he puts his point, but this has nothing to do with the big society. I take his point that the boundary commissions must be seen to be operating fairly, but I argue strongly that there is no need for them to take year after year, spending more and more taxpayers’ money, listening to political parties making points that are cleverly disguised as being about ancient boundaries, communities and so on, when in fact they are about the perceived electoral advantage or disadvantage of each particular political party. Anyone involved in politics knows perfectly well that that happens. At a time when we should be spending money on the real big society issues of which the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, we should not be spending enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money on keeping the boundary commissions doing that year after year.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s Aristotelian logic. There is no need for wide public inquiries or forced submissions if we are going to have a purely arithmetical decision on where the boundaries lie; in fact, there is no need for any submissions whatsoever. May I therefore urge her to table an amendment that would scrap any discussion or debate in this House and just move on to drawing the jigsaw that will be the United Kingdom’s parliamentary boundaries? If one takes her logic to the extreme, there is no need for any discussion or debate whatsoever.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point with which I cannot disagree. It is the arithmetic that rules. Labour Members try to find arguments against that, but the fact is that if one believes in a modern democracy where every vote is of equal value and every Member of Parliament comes here with an equal weight of potential votes behind them, one cannot argue otherwise. I would go further and say that there should have been no exceptions in the Bill.

This evening and on other occasions, Members of this House have put great emphasis on equal votes having equal value. If the coalition Government succeed in doing what they are attempting to do, the vote of every person who goes to the polling station will be equal when they enter, but a 48% turnout will give a different value to that vote than it would if the turnout were 70%. Equality is about more than just the number of bodies in a constituency—it is also about votes being cast, and that can cause a disproportionate level of representation.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is speaking from sincere and heartfelt beliefs, but that is totally illogical. If there are, say, 76,000 potential voters in a constituency and 40,000 of them decide not to vote, that is their democratic choice, just as it is the democratic choice of the other 37,000—I think I got the arithmetic wrong there—to cast their vote. People who decide not to vote are exercising their democratic judgment in the same way as people who decide to vote. There has been a lot of discussion about where the heart is, communities, boundaries, and so on—matters that appear to be anything other than purely arithmetical.

Completing the circle of logic in the hon. Lady’s argument, presumably she will want to table, or to have someone else table, an amendment that would prohibit people from registering in more than one place, because those voters, be they students or second property owners, have the opportunity to choose where they would cast their vote. Therefore their vote is not as equal as anybody else’s. Given her logic, she is presumably in favour of such an amendment and will be urging Government Front Benchers to bring it forward immediately.

I see the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, the logic and arithmetic of that is that it does of course happen, but it pretty well cancels itself out from one constituency to the next. People often, for various reasons and quite legitimately, register in more than one place, but the fact that it happens all over the country cancels it out.

No, I cannot prolong this part of the debate. I am aware that there is very little time and there are a lot of matters to be discussed.

All the other parts of this debate have been froth: the only thing that matters is that in a modern democracy every vote should have an equal value, and every Member of Parliament should come to this House with an equal number of constituents behind them.

I rise to speak to amendment 15, on which we will wish to divide the House.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). As charming as her speech was, I am reassured that we were in different Lobbies in the last Division, and I suspect that we will be again come 10 o’clock. She has sat through all five days of the Committee stage and all of today, and no doubt she will sit through tomorrow’s debates on remaining stages.

The hon. Lady should understand that many colleagues are frustrated that they have not had a chance to make certain substantive points, and they will be frustrated by the Bill when it leaves the House. That is a metaphor for what will happen when it abolishes the public inquiry. She and many colleagues are frustrated, and some Members shouted “Disgraceful” when the last Division result was announced. Citizens around the country will be shouting “Disgraceful” when the boundaries are changed without their having a chance to argue their case before the boundary commission. Their only option will be recourse to judicial review, which will make lawyers rich and citizens poorer.

I am not usually one for hyperbole, but let us be absolutely clear that the Government’s proposal to abolish public inquiries is driven by one overriding concern—the politically driven desire to rush the completion of the boundary review through by October 2013. That is against due process and natural justice, and it is partisan. I say to the hon. Lady that if there are concerns about public inquiries taking too long, the Government should speed up the process, not abolish them. There is obviously a tension between the speed of the boundary reviews, strict adherence to electoral equality and the strong tradition of consultation and public involvement in such reviews. This country is currently giving lectures to emerging democracies about the importance of voting and of involving communities in how boundaries are drawn up, but at the same time we are abolishing public inquiries.

Is it not the case that where the traditional English counties, for example, are breached, such as by constituencies crossing from Nottinghamshire into Derbyshire, Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, people will want to have a far greater say than they have for many years in a county such as Nottinghamshire? Although the boundary reviews there have sometimes been contentious, they have been within clearly defined parameters, which have been publicly available and generally publicly acceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I will come later to the evidence, which is something the Government seem scared of. It proves his point that at the time when the public inquiries are serving their greatest function, they are being abolished. One has to ask why.

A balance needs to be struck between overlapping objectives, but in the Bill the Government have managed to get the weighting wrong in almost every regard. The limits on disparities between seats are too severe and inflexible, the time scale for the boundary review is far too tight, and the abolition of local inquiries in return for an extended window for written submissions is deplorable.

As I have said, because of the programming of the Bill we have dealt inadequately with the speed of the boundary reviews and with the strictness of the adherence to electoral equality. The abolition of inquiries is entirely at odds with the concept of localism and open politics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to a moment ago and which the Deputy Prime Minister, who has called himself the great reformer, has previously professed. In a speech five months ago, which I will quote because it is important that colleagues in the other place hear it, he said:

“I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: this government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state.”

How does the abolition of local public inquiries empower people?

To suit their rushed agenda, the Government are simply withdrawing any meaningful element of public participation and consultation, thereby reducing the boundary review process to an opaque, bureaucratic and largely mathematical exercise. The loss of transparency and the ability to comment on and amend proposals will seriously damage the reputation of the boundary commissions. It will erode the high level of trust in their impartiality that they rely on for their reports to be accepted, and the quality of their proposals will be compromised.

Any significant boundary change is likely to cause some level of discontent and controversy, but that will be magnified to previously unknown levels of disquiet if the rigid new rules in the Bill are adopted and 50 seats are abolished. In a written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretaries of the four boundary commissions were clear:

“The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries.”

They continued:

“The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases”

and

“will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries…the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies.”

If there is no procedural outlet for that discontent, the boundary commissions and the entire review process will be rapidly discredited.

As the Member for Blaenau Gwent, I have a coterminous borough. If I want to get things done, I go to one chief executive and one leader. I talk to the local police inspector or the person who manages the health board locally. According to the Electoral Reform Society, if the proposed change is pushed through, I will have to work with three or four different borough councils, which will make it much harder to be effective as a local politician and to get things done. It will be much more complicated to work on behalf of my constituents, and I will be much less likely to be able to stand up for them, because I will have to deal with numerous officials in all sorts of different places. Surely that is bad for democracy.

That highlights some of the nonsense reasons given by the coalition Government for the Bill. We are told that the Bill will make MPs more effective. Clearly, it will not. We are told that the boundary changes will make things cheaper for MPs. Clearly, they will not. What is clear is that it is not only my hon. Friend who will become a number, but the citizens in his area. That is all for the partisan reasons that I have set out.

Pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I should add that, under the ERS proposals, the seat of Ogmore will disappear, and it is no coincidence that the largest majority in absolute terms for any party in Wales is in Ogmore. The seat will disappear and be subsumed into five neighbouring constituencies, all of which will be accountable to two chief executives, two cabinet systems, two sets of social services and two sets of everything, including different police authorities. In terms of simplifying an MP’s accountability to his constituents, and of constituents being able to demand good services in one area, the Government are completely shooting themselves in the foot.

I thank my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I hear the chuntering from those on the coalition Government’s Front Benches—it is funny how soon some people become arrogant. The Government should test my hon. Friend’s proposition. It would be easy: they could have a public inquiry to test whether my hon. Friend is on a frolic of his own or whether his constituents share his concerns about what the changes will bring. Why are the Government running away from local public inquiries?

I am very concerned about the points made by the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Does the shadow Minister agree that they cannot possibly be arguing that they are so inefficient and ineffective as Members of Parliament that they cannot cope with more than one local authority? I am sure they are not. For goodness’ sake, we all have to cope with different layers of local government. The hon. Member for Ogmore is wrong to say that he is any way accountable to local authority chief executives—that is simply nonsense. Such arguments have nothing whatever to do with this debate and do not hold water.

With respect, may I tell the hon. Lady why she is wrong? My hon. Friends’ constituents will have their lives changed because they will have to deal with different people as a result of the boundary changes. Those changes will be made not to make things more efficient, or to save money, but because the system has, for partisan reasons, been based just on numbers. An MP’s ability to do his or her constituency a service will be affected. More importantly, however, a constituent’s ability to contact the person he or she needs to contact to improve things will also be affected.

I find it extraordinary that we have these complaints from Members representing small constituencies. They say that it is quite impossible to do something that is normal for half the House. I have three local authorities in my constituency. That is normal on our side of the Bristol channel, but it is apparently impossible on the Welsh side.

If the Minister is so confident in his arguments, why does he not allow the public to make objections and to have a local public inquiry, rather than a bureaucrat in a quango taking only written submissions before reaching a view? The Minister has to answer that question.

Another possible outcome of the proposed consultation is legal challenge by political parties, or local cross-party or apolitical campaign groups, such as Keep Cornwall Whole. Boundary commission decisions could be subject to judicial review. It is worth noting that only one judicial review resulted from the previous boundary review, but in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Professor Ron Johnston, who is an expert on such matters, said:

“I can well see people using it”—

judicial review—as a means of addressing

“the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries.”

Excluding those cases when the only change was the name of the constituency, in the fifth periodic review of boundaries 27% of English constituencies were altered by one degree or another following a public inquiry into commission recommendations. In many cases, those inquiries looked at the local ties of a particular village or town. Most of the participants were concerned about the integrity of their local constituency.

What makes the right hon. Gentleman’s argument so unpersuasive to me is that when the people of Northumberland voted in a referendum not to replace their district councils with a single unitary authority, the Labour Government ignored the referendum, which they had organised.

I am not sure what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. We are talking about the abolition of local inquiries. In fact, his is an argument for more scrutiny and checks and balances at local level, with people giving evidence, rather than relying on written evidence in 12 weeks. If he feels that strongly, he should be embarrassed at how he will vote in an hour and a half.

It is noteworthy that Cornwall MPs tonight found their consciences when self-interest was involved, but for five days in Committee they were absent from the Division Lobby. It is also noteworthy that three Tory MPs were willing to vote in their own interests. The Opposition have been consistent throughout in saying that the Bill is wrong. It is wrong on the principle of losing public inquiries, but it is also wrong because as the Cornwall Members pointed out—there is compelling evidence—the remote communities in Cornwall previously managed to convince the commission to amend its proposals. Many of us believe that the attention given to such local issues is the strength of the current system. Here is the key point: in every single case in which the commission proposed an increase or decrease in the number of constituencies in an area, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned citizens and asked why MPs cannot do their jobs. However, this is not about our jobs becoming more complicated, but about citizens and constituents having a right to have their views heard in a public inquiry. In many cases, including Derbyshire, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made to initial proposals, as in the Deputy Prime Minister’s city of Sheffield. His predecessor appeared at the inquiry and successfully argued for changes to the provisional recommendations. Many times, the commission commented in its report that the assistant commissioner’s recommendations improved as a consequence of a public inquiry.

May I reinforce my right hon. Friend’s point? There was a public inquiry in Midlothian before the 2005 election. The commission recommended that the borders be brought into Midlothian and that we take Peebles and Galashiels into my constituency, but after public scrutiny the commission recommended that that would be inappropriate. No city of Edinburgh representative has yet complained because they represent 75,000 people and I represent 60,000 or so. Nobody questions that, because they recognise that the geographical layout of Midlothian is different to that of the city.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and colleagues in the other place will read it with interest.

In Derbyshire and Derby, the commission made provisional recommendations for the creation of a new seat, but they were rejected in favour of another that the assistant commissioner believed better reflected community ties. The amended proposals moved fewer electors and reduced the disparity. In Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, the commission proposed a division of the city of Exeter that was deeply unpopular with residents. The assistant commissioner believed that the counter-proposal better reflected local ties and reduced the electoral disparity.

In Merseyside, the commission proposed a seat containing parts of both sides of the Mersey that was opposed by almost all those with an interest, and the assistant commissioner recommended a counter-proposal that almost wholly redrew most of the constituency. The Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed a Scottish parliamentary seat crossing the River Clyde estuary that was widely opposed and rejected by the assistant commissioner in favour of a scheme of minimum change. I have many examples of where proposals have been made, local residents have looked at the proposals, there has been a public inquiry, and an assistant commissioner has heard the evidence and changed their mind.

Of all the changes made by the assistant commissioners, how many were instigated by proposals put forward by political parties?

I was coming to that. I am not embarrassed to say that political parties have a huge role to play in a democracy. We are going around the world, not only lecturing, but helping emerging democracies. They have a lot to learn from us, so hon. Members should be careful of what they throw away in the interests of victories at future general elections.

My right hon. Friend prayed in aid Merseyside, but he should not take that argument too far, because Wirral now has a lot of undersized constituencies, while Knowsley, which I represent, has a very large one. It does not always work out perfectly.

My right hon. Friend makes my point for me. There will be many people who are unhappy with how boundaries are drawn up—there always have been, and there always will be—but having a fair process at least makes people believe that they are involved in how boundaries are redrawn. If he is this disgruntled with the old system, let us imagine how he will feel if the only chance to object is by a written submission in a 12-week window that he might not have heard about.

My right hon. Friend needs to realise the fact that, because Wirral ended up with undersized constituencies, one constituency in Knowsley disappeared altogether. It was not done as a nice statistical exercise. It was basically done on the prejudices of the people of Wirral, who did not want to be seen to cross the river and be considered as part of Liverpool.

As somebody who does not get the chance to go to Anfield as much as he would like, I take my right hon. Friend’s point. I am happy for him to invite me up and show me the consequences of the changes made.

The Bill’s new inflexible rules and proposals for an arbitrary reduction in the number of constituencies will mean that the situations I have illustrated will occur in many more areas. At exactly the point when public inquiries will be at their most valuable, the Government are proposing to abolish them. Even those who hold reservations about the workings of public inquiries concede that now is not the time to end their use—quite the opposite in fact. Professor Ron Johnston told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:

“where public inquiries had a big impact from what the Commission initially proposed to the final solution was where either a seat was being added to a county or being taken away and then everything was up for grabs and, not surprisingly, there was much more fighting over it”.

He continued:

“that is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different…This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time.”

Importantly, Professor Johnston’s view was echoed by Robin Gray, the former chair of the Boundary Commission for England, who told the Select Committee:

“Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because there are going to be big changes”.

He made another important point. He noted that the main responses under the new system will come in shortly before the end of the 12-week deadline, which means that participants will not necessarily know the counter-proposals made. The main benefit of inquiries is that all those with an objection feel that they have had an opportunity to be heard, and can understand the arguments against them and why they might be unsuccessful.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about this travesty of democracy. Can one imagine what the Minister responding to this debate would have said about the proposal were he in opposition? He would have been the most vehement opponent of this denial of democracy. He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is willing to justify what is before us.

Given parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, one has to ask what sort of shabby deal was made in those five days when this Government were being formed. It is clear from the history of our country and the way in which reforms have been made that, for big constitutional change, parties either have a mandate from their manifestos or try to reach a consensus across the Chamber or between the two Houses. No such attempt has been made in this case. The Government are rushing through some of the biggest changes in my political lifetime for the sake of expediency. My hon. Friend was very temperate in his comments.

May I point out to my right hon. Friend the inconsistency in principles at work here? In Wales, we are currently redrawing the local authority boundaries. We are able to make submissions and have hearings. Some people are happy and some are not, but at least they feel that they have had the opportunity to be heard. Many Lib Dem and Conservative local associations have made submissions to that process, and that principle has been accepted by everybody, because they have had that opportunity. What is being proposed is the electoral equivalent of a poll tax, and it is going to bite some people on the bum.

One of the reasons why we have a Public Gallery and open democracy is that people can see democracy at work, even though they may not like what we say or how we vote. One of the reasons why we have open trials is to have open justice, so that people can see what happens in a trial. Not only does due process lead to better results; it also leads to people feeling that they get a fair hearing. In just five months, these guys on the Government Benches have been willing to bulldoze through some of the biggest changes in our lifetimes for the sake of stitching up the next general election.

We have heard terms such as “denial of democracy” and “inconsistency” in recent interventions, but in a democracy should not everyone ultimately have an equal vote, which should not be decided by special interest groups or the intervention of political parties?

The way it works in a democracy is that candidates stand on a manifesto and people vote for that manifesto, so that those representatives have a mandate. What is not democratic is for two parties to come up with a deal behind closed doors over five days, with no mandate from the British public, and after the election to change their views from what they had wanted to do before the election. Neither of the two parties in government talked about getting rid of public inquiries or about 300 seats, so the hon. Gentleman should ask himself whether he is proud to vote as he will in an hour and a half, to abolish public inquiries.

For the avoidance of doubt, and to answer the important point raised by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), I do not disparage the active part that political parties play in the inquiry process. It is entirely natural that they are involved and that inquiries are more effective as a result. Indeed, that is what we encourage in emerging democracies.

I actually asked the right hon. Gentleman how many of the changes in question had been the result of proposals put forward by a political party. I wonder whether he has an answer to that.

I will go one better. In a few moments, I will cite for the hon. Gentleman not what I think, but what assistant commissioner Nicholas Elliot QC concluded after he had heard evidence from political parties.

In the fifth review, both Labour and the Conservatives presented carefully researched and reasoned cases to the boundary commissions. That enabled proper arguments and options to be presented to the assistant commissioners. That was hardly illicit manipulation of the process; rather, it was open and transparent, and there was an inquiry. I ask the question: how open and transparent will the process be if people only get to write in and do not have an inquiry, where the public can see what representations are made? It is far better for political parties to get involved than just to have a rigid mathematical formula to decide how seats are drawn up.

It is important to highlight the fact that oral representations in a public inquiry will be taken away