Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendment 31. If the House agrees to this amendment, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Referendum on the alternative vote system
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 2.
It is no secret that the Bill has received extensive and lengthy debate both in this House and in the other place. It had eight days of debate in this House and the Lords Committee stage took place over the four months from November to February, taking 17 days and more than 110 hours. I think that, with one exception, it was the longest Committee stage of any Bill in my lifetime. I am glad that we finally now have the chance to consider the amendments made in the Lords.
The amendments in this first group encompass a range of changes that were made or accepted by the Government in the other place. I shall set out their effect and the Government’s overall approach briefly to make the best use of time available for debate. The Government have been consistently clear about the fact that we are prepared to make changes to the Bill where we believe they will make genuine improvements and will not undermine the key principles underpinning the Bill. Those principles are clear and we believe they are right. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just calm down for a moment and let me proceed? The people should be given the chance to vote on the electoral system that is used to elect Members of Parliament and we should have a system for drawing up constituencies that better ensures that voters have an equal say wherever in the United Kingdom they live.
We have made changes to the Bill in response to points that were made in this House. On the referendum, we accepted changes to the wording of the question, and we also accepted amendments from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to clarify the regulation of spending by media outlets during the referendum campaign and to remove the power that has existed since the 1940s for a Minister to modify a boundary commission’s recommendations.
In the House of Lords, we accepted or made a number of amendments on both parts of the Bill. We accepted and made technically effective an amendment in part 1, which relates to the holding of the referendum, that would allow the date of the referendum to be moved if practical reasons made it impossible or impracticable to proceed on 5 May. We brought forward an amendment to part 2 on Report to change the consultation process, on the Boundary Commission’s recommendation, so that it includes public hearings. The hearings are intended to deal with the concern raised about the need for an oral element in the consultation process. We believe that they will provide an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their views, but in a way that will allow more effective engagement than the old, legalistic inquiry system.
I do not agree with the Minister that there was ample time to discuss the matter in this House; the reason for the prolonged debate in the other House was the insufficient time here. On the oral hearings, will he tell the House how many such hearings will take place and—there is a Welsh dimension to this—whether they will take place in people’s local communities or just in large towns?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he knows as well as I do, and the view is shared by everyone in the other place, that there was an organised filibustering campaign, which is unprecedented in the way in which the other place conducts its business and of great concern to all those who value its self-regulating nature. That view is not only held by me, but shared across the other House. On his second point, we propose that there will definitely be some public hearings, and there will be up to five in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and each of the English regions. We will allow the boundary commissions to use their discretion to decide where they hold the hearings so that they can reflect the issues that people will raise.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill, as proposed by the Government and as it left this place, contained no provision for an oral process at all. The Government listened carefully to the proposals made in the other place and brought forward those changes, which were accepted without Division. He will also know that his colleagues in the other place then suggested effectively taking us back to the very legalistic process. A full debate was held and the other place decided that that was not an appropriate method and that it was content with the public hearings that we proposed.
The Minister has made the outrageous claim that there was filibustering. I attended the debates several times in the early hours of the morning to watch the noble Lords debating the issue and I am surprised that he regards some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place, such as Lord Tyler and others, who tabled amendments which were then accepted in the early hours, as having filibustered. Does he think that it was only Labour peers who filibustered, or does he make that claim just because he was forced to wait for his Bill?
There is a general acceptance in the other place, not only among Conservative peers and those supporting the Government parties, but from many Cross Benchers, that the behaviour, not of the House of Lords but of a small number of former Labour MPs who have gone to the other end of the building, was unacceptable.
Community councils in my constituency have discussed the removal of the right to make oral representations in public inquiries on parliamentary changes in conjunction with the presentation of information to them from the Boundary Commission on local council boundary changes. It will still be possible to consider local council boundary changes in a local public inquiry, so why is it wrong for a parliamentary constituency to have the right to a public inquiry over the most fundamental changes to boundaries since the 19th century?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people’s ability to have their say in person. Such provision was not in the Bill originally, but we listened carefully to the debate in the other place, and there were a number of very good arguments. Among others, Lady de Souza and Lords Pannick and Wolff were of the view that it was important to allow local people to have a say, so we tabled a Government amendment and an associated new schedule enabling an outlet for local opinion, and that was included in the Bill.
The proposed changes were accepted without a Division in the other place, but I have said—I think, accurately—that there was then an attempt effectively to turn that process of public hearings back into the largely discredited legalistic inquiry process. There was a debate, but the other place, having decided that it did not want to accept the idea, was content with our proposal for public hearings.
I do not agree that the proposals before us are anything like proper inquiries, but let us assume that the Minister is right and they are concessions. Does he not accept that Wales loses 25% of its Members while the rest of the United Kingdom loses 7%? Does he not think, therefore, that there should be more such assurance in Wales than in other parts of the country?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, which is that public hearings are different from the old discredited system of local inquiries, he is spot on. They are designed to be different, because the academic evidence is very clear: the old system of public inquiries did not lead to an improvement in the boundaries.
I am happy to take interventions, but let me at least answer the right hon. Gentleman first. Then, of course, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Wales, he is quite right that Wales’s share of the House of Commons will fall from 6% to 5%, but we debated the issue in this House, the other place debated the representation of Wales, and both Houses decided that the current over-representation of Wales is not acceptable. All parts of the United Kingdom should be treated equally—
In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we heard last week from Professor Ron Johnston, who listed examples of case after case where public inquiries and the voices of local people had changed the results of Boundary Commission studies. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) will back that up. There is no argument that the system is somehow discredited; it is a proper voice by which people can have their say.
Let me just answer the hon. Gentleman’s point first. Then, I shall try to take points from Members according to the order in which they rose.
Having read other contributions from Professor Johnston and his colleagues in their British Academy report on the matter, I note that they made it quite clear that local inquiries resulted in little change, and that those arguments raised at local inquiries which had not already been raised in writing did not have any bearing on the result.
We listened carefully to arguments for allowing people to have their say in person, however, and we particularly wanted a process that was more accessible to the public, not just to political parties and their lawyers. Those in the other place—Cross Benchers in particular—were content with our proposals.
I was also at the Select Committee hearing with Professor Johnston of Bristol university to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) referred. Professor Johnston actually said that public inquires were usually games for political parties, and that some parties were able to hire expensive barristers. The public were often frustrated by political parties and their barristers, but the hearings that the Bill proposes instead are likely to give the public more say than hitherto over the process.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose argument holds a great deal of water, because that is broadly what the British Academy report said about local inquiries. That report was produced by a team of academics headed up by Professor Ron Johnston, so if that is what he said at the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, it stacks up very well with what he said in writing.
I strongly welcome these amendments, because it is vital that people’s voices are heard, especially those of the people of Cornwall, who mounted a hugely successful campaign about our desire to keep Cornwall whole. I hope that through these opportunities for public meetings, we might yet succeed in achieving that. Does the Minister agree that it would be very desirable to have one such public meeting in Cornwall, given the strength of feeling there?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. It is obviously not for the Government to tell the boundary commissions what to do, but one of the reasons for ensuring that there can be several inquiries in various regions is that the commissions will be mindful of the areas where they suspect there will be considerable public interest. It is fairly obvious to everybody that, in the south-west of England, Cornwall will be one of those places where members of the public, in particular, and of course Members of Parliament, will be very keen to make that case.
Given that not all of us have been party to all the debates in the other place, can the Minister tell us how local people will have their say? Whatever the Government are saying about localism, I cannot see how, under the new arrangement that he is bringing to the House, people will understand how they are going to have their say. It might be all right for Cornwall, but it might not be for Stoke-on-Trent.
When the boundary commissions decide to hold their public hearings, they will of course publicise them. We have set out that the commissions will be able at the beginning of those public hearings to lay out the details of the proposals on which they are hearing from local people. I would have thought that the hon. Lady’s constituents in Stoke-on-Trent were as capable of participating as those in Cornwall and in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I will be happy to take interventions when I have made a little more progress. I think that the House would expect me to do that in a time-limited debate.
We have also amended the Bill to provide that the boundary commissions must publish all the responses to their initial consultation and allow an additional period during which people will be able to make further representations or counter-representations related to the arguments put forward by others. This is the second area where we thought that some good points had been made in the debate, and we acted in response to an amendment tabled by Lord Lipsey on the Opposition Benches. We think that this amendment, in combination with the public hearing proposals, will deliver a consultation process that represents a real improvement not only on the one that was in the Bill originally, but on that in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.
We have made other significant amendments to part 2. We have tabled amendments explicitly to empower the boundary commissions to use wards as the building blocks for constituencies—the other place got very exercised about that—and to give the commissions discretion to take account of existing parliamentary boundaries. The amendments respond to concerns about the degree of explicit guidance given to the commissions on what they could take into account. We have accepted an amendment expressly enabling the Boundary Commission for England to take account of the boundaries of the City of London.
In response to an amendment from Lord Williamson, a Cross Bencher, we will require that a review is established after implementation of the new constituencies at the next election to consider the impact of the reduction in the number of seats in this place to 600. There was extensive debate about that in the other place, where we heard all about the fears, largely of those who had been Members of Parliament, that slightly fewer—7.6% fewer—Members of Parliament in this place may place constraints on their ability to do the job. We thought that Lord Williamson’s suggestion of a review in the next Parliament to consider the effect of that reduction to see whether there were some lessons that could be learned was very sensible, and we were happy to accept it.
My hon. Friend makes what would be a good point if it were not for the coalition Government’s clear commitment to bring forward a draft Bill in the near future—early this year—to reform the other place. If we were not doing that, he would have a solid case, but given that we are proposing to do that, his case falls away and there is just a timing difference.
Would my hon. Friend be interested to know that some of us are beginning to think, in the light of the forthright position that the House of Lords has taken on the threshold, which we will come to later in the debate, that that House may be more trusted by the electorate than those on the Government Benches?
Mr Deputy Speaker, you would not expect me to be tempted to debate the threshold now, because we will come to it later. I do not agree with my hon. Friend. There is a good case for electing Members to the other place. He knows that the coalition Government have committed to a wholly or mainly elected House. We are in the process of drafting that legislation. From what he says, it is clear that he does not agree with that, but I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you do not want me to go into the case for or against House of Lords reform in this debate.
There will be an interesting debate on thresholds in due course. On the numbers, is the Minister surprised that it is dawning on people outside the House of Commons that far from being a democratic move, it is pretty anti-democratic, because the Government of the day, whoever they are, will simply have more authority? Given that even the most junior Ministers have a Parliamentary Private Secretary, there will be fewer Back Benchers to scrutinise the Government here and in Select Committees. For Governments, the fewer Back Benchers, the better.
The hon. Gentleman obliquely raises the issue of the number of Ministers. He knows that we have been clear at this Dispatch Box and in the other place that we know that there is an issue with that. However, we do not think that this Bill is the right place to deal with it, partly because of the issue of House of Lords reform. We will have to tackle how many Ministers there are not only in this place, but in the other place. As well as the number of Ministers, he touched on the number of PPSs, which currently is not regulated. We have made it clear that the Government will deal with this issue, but that this Bill is not the right place to do so.
This debate also took place in the other place and it was content with our proposals. I do not wish to speculate on the hon. Gentleman’s longevity.
Amendment (b) to Lords amendment 27 would require the arrangements for the review into the reduction of constituencies to be put in place between 1 March and 1 November this year. We do not agree with the Opposition’s thinking in that amendment, because to assess the effect of the reduction in the number of constituencies we must have seen the effects; we should not speculate about them. We think that the Cross-Bench proposal to have the review after the next election is much more sensible.
We have made a number of more minor, technical amendments, including an amendment to ensure that existing legislative powers to change the date of the poll for Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly elections are not affected by the provisions on the combination of polls on 5 May. That amendment was made in the other place, but in response to concerns raised in this House by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). We have made amendments to apply the Electoral Commission’s new civil sanctioning powers for new offences relating to loans; to give the chief counting officer the power to be reimbursed from the public purse for expenses that she incurs because it is economically beneficial to the public for her to do so—that is the debate that we had on the money resolution; to ensure that a single definition of registration officer applies throughout part 1; to place an explicit obligation on the chief counting officer for the referendum to take steps to facilitate co-operation between regional counting officers, counting officers and registration officers; and finally, to provide that an elector who registers or who is already registered for a postal vote at one of the polls combined with the referendum, and who is entitled to vote in the referendum, is automatically registered for a postal vote for the referendum.
Going back to the point that the Minister made as he rattled through that list, and to the debate that we had a short time ago, will he now confirm, as he did not take the opportunity before, that the Secretary of State will write to returning officers in Scotland to instruct them to begin the count for the Scottish Parliament election as soon as the polls close, and not to delay it?
In response to that debate, which—from memory—was about whether to include in the Bill a power to direct those counting the votes, I said that that would be out of scope and I confirmed that that was the case. If the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about some returning officers in Scotland, there is nothing in the Bill that has caused them to take that decision. It is a decision that they have taken of their own volition. Some returning officers in Scotland have confirmed that they will count overnight and that there is no problem in doing so. Some returning officers have said that they do not propose to do so, but that is nothing to do with the combination of the polls. It is to do with their judgment about how they want to conduct the count.
As I was saying, similar provision about the combination of polls and postal votes has been made for those registered for other forms of absent vote. I believe that the raft of changes made to the Bill, which the Government have accepted, demonstrate that we have been willing to listen and engage constructively with both Houses of Parliament and to agree to all the proposed changes to our proposals that we believe were merited.
I am afraid I completely disagree with the Minister’s interpretation of events over the past few months. I wholeheartedly congratulate their lordships on the process they have engaged in, and I make no apologies for the fact that Labour MPs have been holding the Government to account in this House, or for the fact that in the House of Lords there are people who were elected previously and who are able to bring a degree of expertise to the debates when discussing elections.
I note that yesterday Sky News was reporting that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, would take revenge on Labour peers. Bring it on. In legislation on the reform of the national health service, the reform of schools and public services that everybody depends on, Labour peers down the other end will do as robust a job as they have done on the Bill. If there was anything that showed that the Government have not been acting entirely in good faith, it is today’s programme motion, which allows only four hours for 104 amendments to be considered, including the time taken for votes.
I am not sure that my interpretation of what has happened is the same as the Government’s. I say to all hon. Members in all seriousness that I fear that many Members who end up voting for the Bill will regret the day that they did so. The Government have bulldozed their way through every convention so far, ludicrously combining two pieces of legislation that should never have been in one Bill—only because that was a way of keeping the coalition together—pushing forward with no pre-legislative scrutiny of a measure that had no electoral mandate, curtailing debate in this House, for the first time ever threatening the guillotine in the House of Lords, then packing the Lords with pliant new Conservative and Lib Dem Members every day and suspending all the normal rules in the House of Lords.
We will rue the way in which the Bill was pushed through and the legislation itself, because we are not legislating on the basis of long-term democratic health for this country, or on the basis of sound principle, but solely so as to meet the partisan needs of the coalition.
The hon. Gentleman sometimes suffers from amnesia himself. I was talking about guillotines in the Lords. It has been a fundamental principle of the constitutional settlement in this country that the House of Lords is a self-governing House and never has a programme motion.
When there was a Labour Government of just one political party, we never had a majority in the House of Lords. By virtue of how the Government are progressing at the moment, with a large number of new peers being appointed—117 since the general election—they are approaching the point at which they will have an absolutely majority in this House and the other House.
I am not going to give way to the Minister on that point, because I know what he is going to say—that it will not give the Government a majority. However, the coalition’s statement says that they intend to keep on appointing Members of the House of Lords until the percentage share of the vote in the general election is matched there. That will give a majority to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. If the Minister wants to intervene now, I am happy to give way.
I want to make it clear that we have appointed a number of peers, but that a number of them in the resignation honours list of the former Prime Minister were, of course, Labour peers. Even with the new peers who have been appointed, the coalition Government have 40% of peers, well away from a majority.
The Minister knows perfectly well that the Government are getting very close to the stage at which they will end up having an absolute majority in both Houses. The vast majority of peers who take part in the daily business of the House and vote with the most regularity are those who take a party Whip. Among those, there is already a majority for the governing coalition. The Labour party never had that when in government. My main point is that we have to have some brake on the Government, especially if we go forward and have an elected second Chamber. Otherwise, government becomes autocracy.
Lords amendment 104, so the Minister would have us think, effectively introduces a real opportunity for local people to have their say on proposals from the Boundary Commission. It was a Government amendment tabled in the Lords, but it was introduced in a way that was not quite as the Minister suggests. In fact, Lord Falconer had tabled an amendment and was prepared to waive it because the Government said that they would return on Report with a full process that would embody the ideas behind public inquiries. In fact, Lord Wallace of Tankerness said specifically that
“the Government’s position has been that we are open to considering reasonable improvements to the process, provided that they do not compromise the fundamental principles of the Bill, and that still remains our position.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. 1069-1070.]
I do not know what fundamental principles of the Bill might mean that local people cannot have an effective voice, but that is what we have ended up with.
Let us be absolutely clear that what the Government propose does not meet the objections made by the Cross Benchers, Labour peers or many others who believe that local people should be able to have a proportionate say after the Boundary Commission has made proposals. For a start, the inquiries will not be local. There will be five at most across the whole of Wales and five in each region. I look forward to going to one of the five in the south-west, covering an enormous region with wide diversity. Each hearing will probably cover about 10 constituencies. I say to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who spoke earlier about Cornwall, that I do not think there is a chance in hell of local people in Cornwall having their views heard properly in the process. In addition, because of how the Bill is constructed, it will be impossible for the Boundary Commission to do anything about it even if it says that Cornwall should not be split up. The principle of the Bill to which the Minister is so adherent in some parts of the country, but not in all, is that the size of parliamentary constituencies should be equalised—too aggressively, I believe.
I mean all those. There is an important distinction, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is not in his place, said earlier, was discussed in the evidence that was given to the Select Committee last week. Political parties have their views to express—in the past, some have employed a barrister to express it for them, and that is perfectly legitimate. Sometimes, local councils want to take a view because they have a role in electoral registration and so on, but often local people in a small village, such as Much Marcle or Midsomer—if anyone is still alive in Midsomer—who are independent of any political affiliation, want their voice to be heard. They want to say, “No, frankly, we in Acton Burnell don’t”—or do—“want to be in Shrewsbury constituency.” We need a process whereby the people of Acton Burnell, where Parliament was held at Michaelmas in 1283, can express their view, and that will be impossible if there are only five hearings across the whole region. There will not be a hearing for each constituency. It is not each constituency that will be considered right or wrong. That is one of the problems.
I am impressed by the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that all views expressed by anybody in his constituency should undoubtedly, at all times, be expressed solely through him. However, there is another version of democracy, whereby sometimes people disagree with their local Member of Parliament and might want to adopt a different position.
The Minister said that public inquiries are discredited—we obviously disagree with that. However, is not it interesting that in previous Parliaments, we heard no such condemnation of public inquiries from the Conservatives, whether in government or in opposition? It is the first time that that has happened.
Much as I would love to agree with my hon. Friend, I recall previous comments: when people lost the argument at a public inquiry, they tended to hold forth against them; when they won the argument at a public inquiry, they tended to support them. However, in many cases, the Boundary Commission’s original proposals were overturned through public inquiries because of the voices of local people, such as the people of Acton Burnell, of Much Marcle and so on. Sometimes it happened because of the intervention of political parties. None the less, the end result has been constituency boundaries that, in the main, are accepted by the people who are represented.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for boundary inquiries. My constituency was preserved 27 years ago by a long public inquiry. However, I am not sure whether the Minister grasped my earlier point. In Wales, there will be a 25% reduction in the number of seats—I was not arguing about the principle, but making the point that the disruption to the political and constitutional landscape in Wales is hugely greater than in other parts of the country. We should therefore have more public hearings in lieu of the public inquiries.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, there are some specific concerns. For example, it is possible that, as a result of the boundary changes, we would end up with no single constituency in Wales with a Welsh-speaking majority. That is not of particular concern to my constituents in the Rhondda, but it is of concern to the British Parliament that that voice could be lost.
One of the reasons for my losing faith in the old system of public inquiries is that, for all the arguments that the Conservative party presented for a fairer distribution of constituencies, we finished up with a manifestly unfair distribution. We need a speedier system, which can use fresher and more up-to-date data to deliver a fairer distribution of constituencies. That should happen.
One other significant problem with the Government amendment on hearings and inquiries is that there will be no process of resolution. There will be two days of hearings to consider some 10 constituencies, and a rush of people will come, make their case and leave. At the end, there will be only a verbatim transcript of what was said. There will be no process by which somebody weighs the arguments on different constituencies or the whole area, no summing up, and no report written for the Boundary Commission.
That will give the Government two problems. First, it will almost certainly lead to a much higher number and greater frequency of judicial reviews, which was raised in the House of Lords by two noble peers. Lord Woolf said:
“If there is no provision for an inquiry”—
by which he meant a proper inquiry, not just a hearing—
“I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review…If this amendment is not accepted, the issues that will be sought to be raised on applications for judicial reviews are ones which the courts will find peculiar difficulty in dealing with.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. 1067.]
The real danger, therefore, is that we will end up with a slower, more complicated process, because instead of taking their argument to the public inquiry, people will simply take it to court. That will be expensive, so those who can afford it will do better out of the system, and the process will be delayed, which the Government are keen to avoid on principle.
The hon. Gentleman just said something that simply is not true. He said that no one will weigh up the arguments that are put at the public hearing, but that will happen. The boundary commissioners will look at the oral evidence and the written representations, weigh them up and make a judgment. Mr Speaker is of course the ex-officio chair, but the deputy chairman of the commissions is a High Court judge—someone who is legally qualified and perfectly able to chair a process that makes such decisions.
Lord Pannick made similar points to the ones I just made. He said:
“It is absolutely inevitable that the introduction of such a procedure will exacerbate rather than diminish the sense of grievance that has led people to make representations in the first place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 February 2011; Vol. 725, c. 143.]
People’s sense of grievance will be exacerbated because they will make their arguments not to an independent person who weighs them up and submits a report to Boundary Commission, but third hand to the Boundary Commission, which, as the Minister says, will then make the decision. That will lead to a greater sense of grievance about the structure of parliamentary constituencies. I say this to Government Members: every single one of you will go through that process, and you will rue the day if you do not change the proposed system.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) exactly explains why the old system was dominated by clever lawyers and barristers, and clever political argument, and why it must be changed—it had nothing to do with local people. The hon. Gentleman just admitted as much.
The hon. Gentleman’s point on judicial review is a strong one. Does he agree that judicial review, and therefore delay and uncertainty, will be stopped if the Bill is certain and precise? That is why we cannot allow, for example, Lords amendment 19, which mentions circumstances of “an exceptionally compelling nature”. That is imprecise, but it is our duty to produce precise legislation, and thereby to obviate the necessity for judicial review.
Large parts of the Bill are not sufficiently precise, and the Opposition have tabled amendments to improve the quality of the legislation. The hon. Lady is a member of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, but I am not sure whether she heard Professor Johnston’s evidence last week—[Interruption.] I see that she is brandishing a document, like Excalibur. My reading of his evidence is that he felt that, in certain situations, the Acton Burnells of this world could effect change. We want that to be possible under the new system. We want the people of Cornwall, if they want to, to say categorically, “We do not want to cross the Tamar in the creation of a constituency.” However, there is no provision in the Government’s Bill, either for that voice to be heard effectively and transmitted to the Boundary Commission, or for the commission to act upon it. The commission can do absolutely nothing to act upon it because it is bound by the 5% rule, which is why I hope that the hon. Lady will support the 7.5% rule. If she has a way of improving the provision so that it is more precise, I would be delighted to sit down with her later and draft a new version.
Is not the problem with the process that, in principle, after the public hearing, the High Court judge chairing the original boundary commission is effectively the appeal judge to his own decision? I cannot think of any other process in administrative or public law in such an unsatisfactory situation.
My hon. Friend makes a perfect point. He is absolutely right. Someone cannot be judge, jury and appeal judge of their own decision. The danger is that people will go to court to try to resolve the problem. That is inevitable. All the Cross-Bench lawyers who spoke in the Lords debate made that precise point. That is why we have tabled an amendment to a Lords amendment—I hope that we can divide the House on it, unless the Government are minded to accept it—that would make it clear that public inquiries are intended not just to allow somebody to make a representation, but to effect change if necessary.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because we are on a time-limited debate and I have already given way to him once. He knows that I nearly always give way to everybody.
We have also tabled amendments to Lords amendment 27, which would allow for the creation of a committee after the next general election in June 2015 to consider the effects of the reduction of seats from 650 to 600. It is our fundamental assertion that it would make far more logical sense first to consider the role of MPs, what their job is and therefore how many MPs we need, and then to draw up the boundaries, rather than the other way around. That is why we have tabled amendments to that effect. As we have suggested many times before—Conservative Members have said this as well—there is no electoral mandate for the reduction from 650 to 600. There is no logic behind it and no Minister has ever been able to come up with a reason that figure has been chosen, other than, we suspect, the fact that if we went down to the original Conservative manifesto proposition of 585, we would lose another wodge of Liberal Democrat seats, and consequently—[Interruption.] I merely suggest to hon. Members that they might choose to table amendments to take us down to 585. However, we do not accept the way in which the motion has been advanced.
I want to refer briefly to two other issues. One is the matter to which the Minister referred in his swift run-through of minor amendments made: the issue of postal voters which was raised when we discussed the matter in Committee of the whole House. If someone is registered for a postal vote for an election in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland, will they automatically get a postal vote for the referendum? As I understand it, that is now to happen—[Interruption.] Actually, I know because I read the Electoral Commission’s report on it. Some people are concerned that others will by dint of that receive two postal votes for the referendum, because some people are registered in two places, including many MPs, who might be registered at their flat in London as well as in their constituency. They might be registered in both of those for postal votes and might then get two referendum ballot papers. That is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed. It was discussed in Committee.
That is no different from the existing system, in which those on two electoral registers might get two ballot papers, but it is very clear—Members of Parliament will be as aware of this as anyone else—that voting twice in the referendum would be a criminal offence, as would voting twice in a general election, and I am sure that no Member of this House would want to do such a thing.
The Minister is being querulous. I was not suggesting that anybody wanted to do that, but there are some unscrupulous people out there who are not Members of this House who might want to do such a thing. The danger is that we will open ourselves up to an element of fraud.
My final point is about Lords amendment 18, tabled by Lord Tyler, which adds a criterion that the Boundary Commission can look at when considering the new boundaries that it draws up, namely the boundaries of existing constituencies. I am sure that all hon. Members think it a sensible idea for the boundaries of existing constituencies to be borne in mind when drawing up new constituency boundaries. I am delighted that on that, if nothing else, we agree with the Government.
I will be extremely brief, because I come here naked, without a formal speech to give. All I would say in response to the two Front-Bench speeches that we have heard is that I think that the Lords did an absolutely magnificent job. The Bill has been rushed through this House in haste, and the Lords did exactly what they are meant to do, which is to act as a reforming and revising House. We will ignore some of their recommendations this evening at our peril.
The Prime Minister is not one for taking revenge against those who disagree with him, or perhaps delay his ambitions. I therefore disagreed with the shadow Minister when he quoted Sky News and said that the Prime Minister was gearing up great armies to swoop down on the House of Lords and duff them up a bit. However, I am concerned about the vague promises made by those on my side of the House about setting up a commission to review whether reducing the number of Members of Parliament to 600 is a good idea. This really should have been done by now, as part of the work of a far wider cross-party commission, bringing together all parts of the House to look at the proposals, because we are talking about fundamental constitutional reform. If such reform is to be successful, it will need to carry the support not just of Members of Parliament but of our constituents.
Our constituents will be concerned about what they are seeing, because in essence we propose to reduce the size of the House of Commons by roughly 10%. We do not propose to reduce the number of Ministers, and we are increasing the number of peers by 150. I am sure that some proposal or other will be made to address the question of the House of Lords—there might be a proposal for an elected upper House—but that could be kicked into the long grass and become a third-term aspiration for this coalition Government.
I will be brief in my intervention, given the time limit. As my hon. Friend has said that he thought that the House of Lords did a good job, he should know that the proposal for a review after the next election was made by Lord Williamson, a Cross Bencher. It is a proposal that we agree with, and it had broad appeal in the House of Lords, not just for those who take a party Whip, but for Cross Benchers. I hope that on that basis my hon. Friend will welcome the proposal, which the Government accepted, and which we propose to accept in this House.
I would say to the Minister that we should have shown more foresight in this House, and addressed those issues here before passing them over to the House of Lords.
I conclude by saying that I support any movement and organisation in this House that is difficult, and makes some attempt to resist the will of the Executive.
Of all the appalling aspects of this piece of legislation, for me the abolition of local public inquiries is quite the worst. No party ever proposed to abolish them before the general election. If the parties now in government had a particular concern about public inquiries, I would have expected them to express it in manifesto commitments on which the electorate could have given their verdict in the general election. However, it is only since the general election that the issue has been raised.
When the idea was raised, I was anxious to obtain the views of local people in my constituency. I highlighted to community councils—the equivalent of parish councils in my constituency—the fact that the right to deliver oral representations to a public inquiry was about to be abolished. My letter to those community councils was considered at the same time as a report from a boundary commission relating to local councils. Representations had been made by councillors of all political parties objecting to boundary commission proposals for local councils. The community councils were most concerned about the local council provisions. They then saw my letter, and became aware that the right to make representations about a parliamentary boundary change was to be taken away from them.
In Wales, public inquiries will continue to be held on matters relating to local councils and Assembly seats, but they will be removed for matters relating to parliamentary seats. The only reason why they are being removed is the electoral deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who want to remove those public inquiries because they need to get the changes through by the next general election. That is why this huge constitutional Bill was not delivered in draft; it is also why many of us on both the Opposition and the Government Benches had our right to make speeches on important issues removed through the use of the guillotine when these matters were considered before Christmas.
My hon. Friend is rightly highlighting the implications of this provision for Wales. In the context of Northern Ireland, the Bill still ignores the fact that constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly are exactly coterminous with parliamentary constituencies. The Boundary Commission’s terms of reference do not allow it to address Assembly considerations, but it will be the implications of the Bill for the Assembly that will prompt people to call for local inquiries. Villages will be cut off from their hinterland, which will raised geo-sectarian issues. Those are the controversies that people will want to put in front of a local inquiry, but the Bill will remove their right to do so.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point about Northern Ireland, and I can speak for my constituency in Wales. The Bill will have profound implications for communities across the United Kingdom. In due course, the Boundary Commission will reveal the proposals and people will see what they are. Only at that stage will people will realise the true horror of the Government’s proposals. They represent the antithesis of any form of localism, and they will take away responsibility from local communities.
The dripping sanctimony that we used to hear from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives about localism is in marked contrast to their appalling unreadiness to listen to any arguments about the Bill. They should be deeply ashamed of this legislation. All legislation should be made for the long term, and should carry as much cross-party consensus as possible. Members who support the Bill will have to explain to their constituents why they will no longer have the right to make oral representations on any proposed changes to their local constituency. Those Members will rue the day that they voted for this legislation.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) that this whole matter is being rushed. If there is one thing that should not be rushed, it is the prospect of constitutional change. The pressure of time on our proceedings on the Bill arises solely from the Government’s desire to achieve the date of 5 May for the referendum. That date is cemented into the bit of the coalition agreement that was not published, and it exists purely for political purposes. This is a purely political device, perhaps to try to get a yes vote, or to try to boost the Liberal Democrat turnout at the local elections being held on the same day. Let me be absolutely blunt: there will be barely 11 weeks between the Bill receiving Royal Assent and the referendum, even though the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 stipulates that there should be a period of six months in which to prepare for a referendum.
This referendum is being indecently rushed. Unfortunately, Lords amendment 2, which proposes that the date should be changed, does not do the trick. It does not require the date to be changed. I do not know whether the Government intend to accept that amendment, but it would have no practical effect. The House of Lords has made clear its discomfort with the fact that the referendum was to be held on the same date as the local elections and the Assembly elections. I will not detain the House on that Lords amendment if there is no Division, but I wish to draw attention to the fact that this is a shoddy way to conduct a referendum. It is unconstitutional, it is political—deeply political—and it is not an objective way to address this issue. It will undermine the value of any referendum result, and I shall certainly support a later Lords amendment to address the problem.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) said, the evidence from academics such as Professor Ron Johnston is clear. They said that in most cases inquiries made little impact, and they clearly saw them largely as an exercise in allowing parties to seek influence over the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. They also said that it would be “a major error” to assume that all inquiries of the past largely involved the public having their say. They were very clear about that, and they welcomed what the Government were doing.
On the question of how many public hearings there will be, we have trebled the time for written representations and we have added a four-week period for counter-representations, which we think will be a more effective process than the legal process that existed—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 2.
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment 2 accordingly agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Lords amendments 3 to 7, 9 to 15, 18 and 21 to 104 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendment 31.
Number and distribution of seats
The amendment would give the Boundary Commission the discretion to propose constituencies within an extended 15% range of the UK electoral quota in the event that a commission considered that exceptional local ties or geographical circumstances made it necessary for a viable constituency. That means that the plus or minus 5% rule could be extended to plus or minus 7.5% in the exceptional circumstances set out in the amendment.
The Government believe that the principle of “one vote, one value”, so that there are votes of more equal weight across the country, is paramount. That is the fundamental principle underpinning the Bill. It is not an abstract concept, nor is it, as some of our opponents like to say, about a slavish adherence to arithmetic. It is right for electors across the UK to have an equal say not just in who will be their local representative, but in who will form the Government of the day. For votes to have equal weight in a single member constituency system, the constituencies must contain a broadly equal number of electors.
The existing legislation that determines how the boundaries are to be drawn—the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986—also has that principle at its heart. Indeed, in one sense it could be argued that it involves a tighter rule, because it suggests that the Boundary Commission should aim for exact numerical equality, but the rules in that Act are contradictory and compromise the principle of equality. We see the large variations in the sizes of constituencies at the moment, which is why the Government’s proposals set a clear range for the number of electors that a constituency may contain.
I have already said that absolute equality is not practicable. There are a small number of specific exceptions, which recognise the practicalities of genuinely challenging geography: those are the two provisions that we inserted into the Bill at the beginning. I will not dwell on the subject of the Isle of Wight now; we will have an opportunity to do so later. More generally, the Bill allows for constituencies to vary by 5% either side of the quota. On the basis of the register data for 2009, that is about 8,000 electors. Within that range, commissions can take account of local circumstances.
As the Minister knows, we have debated this issue many times before, but I have not heard him explain precisely what is significantly different about the two constituencies identified in the Bill, or why they are so significantly different that they should be identified. It would be useful to have that on the record.
We have defined the difference. Both constituencies constitute groups of islands which, owing to their challenging geography, are not readily combinable with the mainland. I know that some Members, including the hon. Gentleman, wanted more exceptions to be made, but few if any argued that we should not have made the two exceptions that we did make. Although most of the argument in the House of Commons was in favour of further exceptions, we were reluctant to make many, because we believed that the general principle of equality was important.
There was a clear rationale for the Government’s proposal for 5% either side of the United Kingdom electoral quota. It is the closest to equality that we can achieve while allowing wards, which are themselves drawn with local factors in mind, to remain the building blocks of constituencies in England which account for the majority of seats. We believe that that strikes the right balance between the principle of more equally weighted votes at national level, and flexibility to allow account to be taken of specific circumstances at local level.
The amendment was proposed in a constructive spirit by Cross Benchers in the other place who wanted to ensure that exceptions were strictly limited, and it was debated at length. However, the Government disagree with the Lords, for the following reasons. First, we believe that however emphatic the drafting, attempts to limit the exercise of the discretion in exceptional circumstances are unlikely to be as successful as the proposers of the amendment hoped. Each exception would constitute a further precedent, and as the number of exceptions increases, so does the scope for argument. That is clear from the existing legislation. Boundary commissions are supposed to aim for equality, but because of all the other factors that they must take into account, the size of some constituencies varies by up to 50%.
I would be interested to know why the Government believe that they know best how to divide the country into constituencies. If the primary purpose is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament to no more than 600—a laudable aim, which I strongly support—would it not be sufficient for the Government to stick to that, and allow the Boundary Commission to do its work?
No, I do not think that it would. The existing process causes a significant variation in the size of constituencies. Even if we set aside differences between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, where there are different electoral quotas, we see within England significant differences between parliamentary constituencies that effectively mean that the weight of someone’s vote, in terms of the say that they have in the House, is significantly different from the weight of someone else’s vote. The Government do not think that that is right: we believe that constituencies should be of more equal size, so that votes are of more equal weight across the whole United Kingdom.
The Minister conveniently ignores the fact that in some constituencies, such as those containing a large number of students or a large number of second homes, people will have registered twice. Constituencies will therefore not be equal, and individual registration will bring that sharply into focus at some stage in the future.
The hon. Gentleman has raised three issues. First, I can tell him that we propose to continue to use the registered electorate data. Secondly, I can say in answer to his point about our proposal to introduce individual voter registration that—as I have made clear in the House before—the Government are as interested in the completeness of the registers as in their accuracy. The hon. Gentleman, who follows these matters closely, will know that we propose to conduct pilots this year with a range of local authorities to examine public sector databases, and the possibility of using the data to ensure that the electoral register is more complete. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman will know that ownership of a second property does not, in itself, allow people to register to vote; the electoral registration officer must be satisfied that they genuinely reside in the area concerned.
This is not just a question of second homes; it is also a question of the presence of students. Some constituencies contain 20,000 students, many of whom are dual-registered. There will not be equality of size; indeed, we will not know whether there is equality of size, because the students’ home constituencies will vary dramatically. We can only guess what the figures would be.
The Minister is kindly giving way again, in the interests of good debate.
My constituency does not contain many students. Whatever limit is set, that will be the number of people eligible and wanting to vote. Other constituencies—Sheffield, Hallam, for instance—contain vast numbers of students. There will be a big difference between the number of voters in Bassetlaw and the number of real voters in Sheffield, Hallam. What has that to do with equality of size of constituencies? The Minister has lost the argument, has he not?
No. I am not entirely certain what argument the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, and I suspect that I carry at least quite a few Members with me. We are not changing the basis on which we use registered electorate data. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a limit to the number of people who had registered to vote, but everyone in his constituency who is eligible to vote is able to register. I would encourage everyone who is eligible to register to vote in his constituency to do so, and to use that vote in an election—as, I am sure, would all Members on both sides of the House.
The argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) does not hold water at all. First, given that there are students and people with second or third homes all over the country, if someone moves from one constituency to another having registered two votes, those votes will cancel each other out. When the movement between constituencies is considered as a single total movement of population, we see that that will apply throughout the country. Secondly, that is exactly why we need a variation of about 5%.
My hon. Friend mentioned the number of votes. It is true that if someone genuinely resides in more than one location, rather than merely owning property in those locations—I know that this has been an issue in some parts of the country including Cornwall, and I urge returning officers who do not believe that someone genuinely resides somewhere to be firm about challenging that claim—even if they receive two ballot papers, they are entitled to vote only once. That is the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Currently it is possible to obtain more than one ballot paper, but it is a criminal offence to use more than one in the same election.
May I clarify a point? As the Minister said, we have debated the issue before. Does he mean “reside”—in which case people with three or four homes could presumably register in each of the places where they occasionally reside—or does he mean “primarily reside”? Surely it must be decided where people’s primary residence is, rather than where they occasionally reside. People with second homes—and third homes, and fourth homes—have a significant advantage over all other voters, in that they can choose where to deploy their vote most effectively.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises this point: it is an issue in Cornwall, where a number of voters have second properties. The case law clearly talks not about “primarily reside” but about “reside”. However, it is also clear that if a second-property owner pops there on holiday for two weeks a year, that would not count as residing. Many hon. Members genuinely live in more than one location of course, because we spend some of our time in London and some of our time in our constituency. Many Members will therefore be registered to vote in both places, but for parliamentary elections we will exercise that vote only once. I suspect that Members will tend to do as I do, which is exercise it in such a way that we can vote for ourselves, either because it makes a difference electorally or because it is more emotionally satisfying—or both.
I shall return to the point I was making before we went off on a number of interesting detours. However emphatic the drafting, we do not think that attempts to limit the exercise of discretion in exceptional circumstances are likely to be as successful as do those in the House of Lords who proposed the amendment. It may be true that the drafting will discourage a court from finding against a boundary commission that chooses not to exercise that discretion, but the commissions will be under considerable pressure to exercise it, particularly given the inclusion of the concept of “local ties”. Exceptional local ties may actually exist in the UK, but the concept is already the Trojan horse which allows political parties to make arguments that are in their electoral interest—and, frankly, in their electoral interest alone.
The Boundary Commission for England noted in its fifth general report that there was usually more debate at local inquiries about local ties, in their many varied and often subjective guises, than about any other matter. That is one of the main reasons why constituencies are as unequal in size as they are today. It seems to the Government that this amendment would in practice simply increase the amount by which constituencies and the weight of vote vary, and do so by far more than those who argue for it imagine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who is a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, made this point in the previous debate when she said it was important that we have clarity and as much certainty as possible. The Government’s view is that that will not be the effect of this amendment, which is why I am arguing that we should not agree to it.
Is it not the case that clause 11 provides for constituencies in Northern Ireland to not conform to being within the plus or minus 5% UK quota? Instead, they will vary greatly, and far more widely than that quota; the Bill makes specific provision for that. Why can Northern Ireland constituencies deviate more widely from the UK quota, and from each other, than other constituencies? These are constituencies that will also be electing six seats each to the Assembly. This completely contradicts both the Minister’s arguments and the principle of proportional representation that is in the Good Friday agreement.
I think we debated this matter at an earlier stage in the House. The reason is very simple: Northern Ireland is a very small part of the United Kingdom and there is an issue in respect of seats being allocated between the constituent parts of the UK. If a Northern Ireland constituency is on the cusp of being or not being allocated as a seat, we could end up with a situation where a boundary commission’s ability to have flexibility was constrained to a far greater degree than the plus or minus 5%. The point of the provision is to make sure that in such cases, in that very small part of the UK where there are relatively few seats, the boundary commissions are able to take proper account of local ties. In no other part of the UK is that effect likely to take place, because the next smallest part of the UK is almost twice the size. We thought this was a sensible measure to make sure the boundary commissions were not constrained to a far greater degree than they would be in other parts of the UK because of the relative smallness of the population of Northern Ireland.
This stems not from the size of Northern Ireland, but from the problem of fixing—from the fact that the Bill fixes the number of seats at 600 and 600 only, and from the way in which seats are then distributed to the different constituent parts of the UK. That is the issue. It has nothing to do with being able to take account of local boundaries or geography or anything else. It is because of this insistence on 600 and 600 only.
Well, it is certainly true that even if we allocate using the Sainte-Laguë method—which is the one we specify in the Bill, and which is generally agreed by academics who are far more knowledgeable about these things than me to be the fairest way of allocating—it is always the case that there might be a seat that is close to the cusp of allocation. As a result, in this small part of the UK the boundary commissions might find their discretion overly constrained, and far tighter than the plus or minus 5% stated in the Bill. The measures for Northern Ireland were therefore to try to make sure that its boundary commissions were not overly constrained and unable to take account properly, as they can in the rest of the UK, of those important local ties with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar.
The Government did not think that it would be possible to limit the effect of this amendment to genuinely exceptional matters. In this respect, there is an interesting Court of Appeal judgment. In Al Rawi and others v. Security Service, the judge said:
“Quite apart from the fact that the issue is one of principle, it is a melancholy truth that a procedure or approach which is sanctioned by a court expressly on the basis that it is applicable only in exceptional circumstances nonetheless often becomes common practice.”
That is exactly what we fear here.
We also think the amendment could lead to a general increase in the risk to the timetable for the review. That is important because the boundaries we used at the last general election in England were based on electoral registration data that were a decade out of date. If we do not complete the boundary review before the next general election, we will be fighting it on electoral data that are 15 years out of date, which is clearly unacceptable for those who argue that we should be using up-to-date data. We think that the terms in this Lords amendment, such as “exceptionally compelling”, “viable” and “necessary, are very subjective and would require the boundary commissions to apply new tests that they have not applied before. Because they are subjective, and also because there will be arguments between the four commissions in terms of consistency, we think they will provoke an increased number of applications for judicial review.
That incentive could diminish if, and when, the first judicial reviews are not upheld, but even though successful judicial reviews are unlikely, applications for permission would have to be dealt with, which would impact on the resources of the boundary commissions and, potentially, make it impossible to achieve what is already a challenging timetable of completing the boundary review by October 2013.
We also think that the case for the additional 2.5% either way has simply not been made. Increasing the band of tolerance in one constituency will mean there is less room to account for local circumstances in others. Therefore, the commissions would be asked in effect to trade off the rights of different communities both close to and far from each other. We think the Government’s consistent band is much more sensible. The variation in this rule also has no objective rationale, because it does not solve any real-world problems. All the specific problems that have been advanced—such as the arguments put forward for Cornwall and for Argyll and Bute—are outside that range, so this amendment would not solve any real-world problems, but would bring with it a lot of significant potential problems.
I understand why it is thought that the move to the 5% limit is required—to stop the boundary commissions going off-piste and having very different constituencies—but does the Minister agree that in many areas of the country the 5% will give greater flexibility for local ties than is currently the case, because we will be removing the requirement to try to get even closer to equality? Can the Minister also explain why once a boundary commission has satisfied the 5% requirement, he is not asking it to try to get closer to equality where possible?
This measure gives boundary commissions the range to be able to take account of issues such as local ties, but it also sets the quota. Boundary commissions should aim at the quota, but we want them to have a range so that they can take account of those local ties. I think my hon. Friend is trying to tempt me into suggesting a much tighter limit and a more aggressive move towards equality, but the Government think it is right to take account of some of those local matters, but there should also be a limit so that we end up with more equal constituencies.
But surely under the new arrangements we will not be requiring the boundary commissions to aim at equality. We will be requiring them only to get within plus or minus 5%, and once they have done that they will be able to give complete consideration to local ties without worrying about getting closer to equality.
The boundary commissions will have to draw up a scheme of constituencies and they will have examine the entire country. In some constituencies there may not be much need to vary from the quota, perhaps because there may not be many ties to take account of. However, there will be such a need in other areas, which is why this proposal to allow a much wider band would be very damaging. If they allow more flexibility in some areas, it will be taken away from others. That is why we want a consistent rule across the United Kingdom.
I wish to clarify something that I have been asked about several times. Have the Government given any guidance to the boundary commission as to whether it will work from south to north across the country or from north to south? The direction will have a significant impact on the shaping of the constituencies, so I genuinely ask the question.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there will be one scheme for the whole area. We have suggested in the Bill that the Boundary Commission for England does this by region. The regional boundaries are not absolute and it is able to propose constituencies that cross those boundaries, but given the size of England it seemed sensible to give the Boundary Commission at least a starting point from which to work. The rules that will apply are in the Bill and it would not be appropriate for the Government to try to influence how it conducts the review. If the Government were to do so, the hon. Gentleman would be one of the first to object.
I am grateful for that clarification. Has the Minister had any discussions about whether the Boundary Commission for Scotland is minded to start this from the English-Scottish border and work north? Alternatively, having exempted the highlands and islands—I will not repeat the argument about that—will it work southwards? The direction will significantly affect the shape of these new constituencies.
The hon. Gentleman was asking two questions. On the first, I have not had those discussions with the boundary commissions and I do not think it would be appropriate to do so. On the second, I am not sure that the direction would make the difference that he suggests, but he should put his question to the boundary commissions, rather than the Government.
Could the Minister clarify the precise situation, because this is slightly confusing? Surely if England is to be divided into regions, each of those regions would have to contain a set number of seats, given that a particular day would be pinpointed. The notion that a particular constituency could cross a regional boundary must be nonsense. We have to work on the basis of a particular region having a certain number of seats, for example, 35 or 45. Any decision taken at the 11th hour for a constituency to cross a regional boundary would have a huge knock-on effect on all the other seats within that region.
No, the process for allocating the fixed number of seats in the Bill is by country. So the 600 seats will be allocated between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the fair and impartial process set out in the Bill, which is generally accepted to be the best one for doing these types of divisions. The boundary commissions wanted guidance in the Bill about how to divide up England so that they did not have to do it all in one go. So they will use regions as a starting point, but nothing constrains their ability to cross regional boundaries if they think that that makes sense, taking into account the factors that they are able to consider. The regional boundaries and the allocation of seats to regions are not hard and fast things set out in the Bill.
The Minister has mentioned that the Boundary Commission for England will operate using English regions. Does that mean that it will start by clustering together English counties and then work to refine the boundaries within those counties, or will this be done specifically at regional level?
I can understand why hon. Members are asking me these questions, but these are matters for the boundary commissions. One of the things that we made very clear in the debate when we were being accused of gerrymandering by the Labour party was that in our system the boundary commissions draw the lines, whereas in some other countries those lines are drawn by political parties in legislatures. We have set the guidelines for the boundary commissions and the rules are in the Bill, which we hope will be passed by Parliament and thus enacted. The detail of how the boundary commissions go about that work is a matter for them and they are experienced in doing such work. When they have these public hearings, having published their proposals, they will set out the nature of the scheme under which they are going to listen to people, and they will be very clear about how they have reached their decisions. These are matters for the boundary commissions. I can understand why my hon. Friend is trying to tempt me on this, but it would be wrong for Ministers to try to get involved in directing the boundary commissions on how they carry out their work.
Does my hon. Friend not appreciate the concern that when we are discussing whether there should be any variance, be it of 5% or 7.5%, it is important to know how the process operates? If the entire United Kingdom—its 650 seats—were to be considered at once, there would be almost no need for any variance. If things are considered on the basis of smaller clusters, one can see the relevance of having that sort of variance, particularly if there is also a desire to avoid crossing ward boundaries. We do need to have an understanding of the process. If we do not have at least a basic understanding of how it will operate, it will be difficult for us to make any value judgment as to where the variance should lie, which is the subject of amendment 19.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis that if we were conducting a single review across the whole United Kingdom, we would not need the plus or minus 5% flexibility at all. We would still need it. At the extreme, we could say that every constituency had to be exactly the same size. We would then end up with a map with lots of straight lines on it, but I do not think anybody would think that that was satisfactory. We therefore set a plus or minus 5% variance, so that the boundary commissions can get seats pretty close to that quota, in order for votes to be of equal weight, but they can also take properly into account the things that hon. Members and those outside this place think they should be able to consider. I do not believe that he was in for the earlier debate, but he will know that the former Member for his constituency had an amendment in the other place proposing that the boundaries of the City of London can be explicitly examined, and I hope that he will welcome that. These are matters for the boundary commissions and we should not be prescriptive about how they carry out their work.
Given the nature of some of the questions that the Minister has been asked in the past few minutes, does he agree that perhaps there should be an opportunity to review the wisdom of going ahead on the basis that he is describing? Clearly many hon. Members are not fully aware that this inflexible, sanitised and homogenised approach will result in lines being drawn through constituencies where sitting Members believed that there would be no significant change to the boundaries. That will be happening across the board as a result of the very changes that he proposes.
I recall distinctly that we had this debate in the House in the first place. The boundary commissions set out clearly in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the reduction to 600 Members and the clearer hierarchy of rules would mean that there would be significant change across the country, except of course for the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and one other Member, whose constituency boundaries will remain the same. Members were very clear about that at the beginning, so I do not think that that is a new piece of information.
Arguments have also been advanced that this extra bit of discretion would mean that parliamentary constituency boundaries would not need to cross county boundaries where the area is a little bit over or under the 10% band of tolerance, but the Government do not consider constituencies that cross local authority boundaries to be a problem in principle—certainly not for electors, who should be the focus of our concern. The 7.5% discretion rule would not solve the problem: it would just move the line somewhere else.
The Government’s proposal of allowing 5% on either side of the UK electoral quota has a clear rationale: it is the closest we can get to having fair and equally weighted votes for electors while still allowing local factors to be taken into account, using wards as the building blocks in most cases. We think that is the right judgment in principle and in practice. Our reasons for disagreeing with the amendments do not detract from the usefulness of this debate, which has been valuable, but we think that the principle of one vote, one value and having more equal-sized constituencies is right. The amendments compromise that principle and would cause practical problems for the review. That is why we oppose them.
First, I point out that the Government decided that one hour should be set aside to discuss these amendments and that the Minister has taken up almost two thirds of that time. I do not criticise him, because he took many interventions, but it is a bit rich for him to accuse the House of Lords of filibustering. He should bear that in mind when we are considering constitutional Bills of this nature.
The amendments were moved by a Cross Bencher, Lord Pannick of Radlett, in the House of Lords, which is a revising Chamber, when he demolished the points that the Minister has raised this afternoon. The House needs to consider whether we are setting a precedent for how constitutional matters are taken forward—ignoring revisions made in the Lords that were moved by an expert Cross Bencher. I fear that the Minister has fallen into the trap of praying in aid the Lords, particularly Cross Benchers, when they agree with his points, but finding excuses for disagreeing with them when they disagree with him, let alone when they overturn a Commons decision by a considerable majority. For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I said on a number of occasions as the Bill went through the Commons, which was repeated by Opposition spokespeople in the other place: we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized constituencies, but we have practical concerns about the way that the Bill seeks to pursue that reasonable objective.
Lord Pannick’s amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula in the Bill for redrawing boundaries. I remind the House that the original Bill proposed that there should be flexibility in the size of constituencies of 5% either side of the electoral quota or norm, so that constituencies could vary between 95% and 105% of the electoral quota. The Bill also accepts that there should be exceptions for Northern Ireland, for Orkney and Shetland and for the Western Isles.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my disappointment and that of my constituents that the Deputy Prime Minister has sought to make special cases for the Western Isles and the Isle of Wight but has ignored Cornwall completely? Does he agree that the 7.5% differential is the best and last chance that the people of Cornwall will have to protect their historic boundary?
I agree with every word the hon. Lady has said. She has sat through many debates in the past few months without having the chance to speak in them. It is interesting that we are lectured regularly by the Deputy Prime Minister about principles but that he is willing to throw them in the bin when it suits his party political purpose.
In addition to the exception for the Western Isles and others, the Government are making a further exception for the Isle of Wight, so there will now be two seats with 55,000 voters—so much for one vote, one value. The Government have put aside their concerns about the knock-on consequences and about equality of seats where it suits them, so equality is not the only value or issue being considered. It is obvious that there have to be exceptions on equality for the Bill to be workable in practice.
Lord Pannick’s amendment 19, which was passed by a fair majority in the other House, represents a compromise. To give the amendment the justice it deserves, it is not just the average between the positions of the Government and the Opposition, but a genuine refinement of the measure. To paraphrase, it is fair, reasonable and workable. Having constituencies that can vary in size, in exceptional circumstances, between 92.5% and 107.5% of the norm allows sufficient flexibility to satisfy the concerns of many who think that the Government’s approach way too rigid. When a Bill of this constitutional significance has not had proper pre-legislative scrutiny, it is incumbent on the Government to pause and consider the criticisms made by all-party Select Committees of the Commons and the Lords.
The amendment was moved in the other place by one of the country’s leading lawyers. If we ignore it, that raises questions about the purpose of having Cross-Bench experts in the other place. It was passed by a significant majority, but the Government, rather than seeking to accommodate it, are trying to overturn it in the Commons by taking advantage of their huge majority. The amendment was passed by a significant majority in the Lords after 60 new Government peers had been placed there. That speaks volumes about the merits of the arguments behind it.
Reliance on a rigid mathematical formula could result in problems in parts of the country where there is a risk that unique geographical and historical circumstances will be disturbed and that the local legitimacy of constituencies will be undermined. That is not just our opinion; it is shared in many quarters.
I want to make some progress.
Democratic Audit, a think-tank attached to the university of Liverpool, has argued that greater flexibility is needed in the system for a number of reasons. It would lead to far fewer county boundaries being crossed, a reduction in the number of wards being split, a lower chance of towns and villages being divided between constituencies and better community cohesion. Let me throw into the mix that such flexibility would also mean that the clarion calls from Cornwall for the preservation of parliamentary representation west of the Tamar would be satisfied—no doubt to the relief of those Members who represent the fiercely proud people of that part of the south-west.
I emphasise that the amendment is not partisan, so it ought to find favour on both sides of the House.
I want to finish my contribution so that others can speak.
The wording in Lord Pannick’s amendment is designed to prevent exceptional circumstances from simply becoming the norm—a concern that the Minister has articulated—and the Opposition do not question Lord Pannick’s legal judgment. His amendment is deliberately drafted to allow the boundary commissions very narrow discretion to depart from the electoral norm by up to another 2.5% either way. They could do that only if they believed that two criteria were satisfied. First, further departure would have to be “necessary”—not reasonable or desirable, but necessary. Secondly, the departure would have to be necessary in order to address “special geographical considerations” or local ties of an “exceptionally compelling nature”.
Lord Pannick has already forcefully demolished the arguments that the Minister put forward in his lengthy contribution today. It is worth reminding the House that before Lord Pannick drafted the amendment, he met the Leader of the House of Lords, the Government spokesman on these matters Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Minister himself, and the Bill team. He then sought to address constructively in his amendment the concerns they had raised with him. I urge Members on both sides of the House to recognise the inherent sense of realism that the amendment brings to the Bill and I hope that they will see fit to support it in the Division Lobby.
I wish to make a few brief remarks on this most inflexible and rigid part of the Bill. The amendments would move things in the right direction by giving the boundary commissions greater latitude and flexibility than they would have had under the original Bill. In my view, that is a result of the intransigence of the Prime Minister, rather than the Deputy Prime Minister, in insisting that we adopt a situation in which there are just 600 MPs. A more flexible approach would have been to say that there should be no more than 600 and to allow the Boundary Commission the latitude and flexibility to interpret that alongside a clear instruction to work towards more equalised constituencies.
The Government have won that argument, and certainly the current range in electorate sizes across constituencies is intolerable and more effort must be made to achieve greater equality across constituencies. However, to do so in the sanitised, homogenised, rigid, inflexible and intransigent way that the Government propose is not the solution, because that will continue to create a wide range of significant anomalies across the country.
Given some of the interventions that we have heard, particularly from Government Members, it will be interesting to note how the work of the Boundary Commission will dawn on those Members as it does its work. They might believe that the whole town they represent, or the whole part of a shire county, for example, which they feel comfortable with, will not be changed, other than a little nibbling away at the boundaries, which they can tolerate. However, the Government’s approach will mean that we will end up with lines being drawn straight through those constituencies, and the associations that have been established over years between Members of Parliament and their towns will be divided as a result.
I do not know how it will all pan out. As we have heard, although there will be guidance for the Boundary Commission to work within what I call the Government zones, but which others have described as regional boundaries, there is no absolute requirement for it to do so.
Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that every major boundary review, including those that took place before the 1983, 1997 and 2010 elections, resulted in more than half of all constituencies changing, often substantially. That is the nature of any boundary review.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I think that the inflexibility of the proposals will result in much more significant changes across the country. Having argued that we should have far fewer MPs than even proposed in the Bill, I am not averse to the idea of significant changes being made at one time to the process by which MPs are elected, but I do not think that it should happen every five years, irrespective of what has happened before. That will happen across the country every five years, and as a result of these proposals the changes will be very significant indeed.
All I am asking is that the Government take a less intransigent and more flexible approach—the 7.5% figure is a reasonable extension, frankly. In order to be able to address many of the anomalies, from Argyll and Bute to the Cornish seats and the highlands, the Boundary Commission will need to be given a great deal more latitude than the amendment proposes, as the Minister has rightly said. We had the opportunity to extend the exceptional geographical circumstances of the Western Isles—
Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and Orkney and Shetland. When one considers the geographic arguments for those constituencies’ exceptional status, one sees that it is reasonable to argue that exceptional geographical status can be justifiably extended to other constituencies.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I am a supporter of Cornwall in that argument, and of Isle of Wight and Argyll and Bute. Following an earlier question to the Minister, I have a question for the hon. Gentleman. Given the geographical constraints on his constituency in the south-west, from where the Boundary Commission will obviously have to start moving, how much more territory will have to come into his constituency? He is restricted to the north, south and west and so can expand only eastwards to increase his electorate to roughly 80,000.
I am not engaged in special pleading. My constituency is in the bottom left-hand corner and as far away from England as one can get in Cornwall, and of course it includes the Isles of Scilly, which have some special geographical considerations, so it is clear that I do not need to worry. There will no doubt be some oscillation of the constituency’s eastern boundary. I am here not for special pleading, but because I believe that a significant injustice is going on across the whole country and that the intransigence in the way it is being handled is simply unacceptable.
I will not give way, because we have only 11 minutes left and I want to finish to allow other Members to speak. We had the option of extending to other constituencies the exceptional geographical status that is applied to Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland and the other places that have been mentioned. All the amendment would do is give the Boundary Commission reasonable latitude and discretion to accept the arguments for exceptional status that will inevitably arise. Otherwise, the Government’s intransigence will leave a legacy that I believe the House will regret.
I do not understand why the Government and the Minister are being so rigid and fundamentalist on this issue. The Minister has already accepted the principle that there can be 5% leeway in the size of the electorate and that that flexibility is the result of local ties and circumstances. Many of us wanted a flexibility of 10%, but the Government wanted 5%. After weeks of debate in the House of Lords and in this Chamber, he is for some reason sticking to the rigidity of 5%, despite knowing full well that the 7.5% flexibility would not result in the problems that he has suggested. Of course it would not, because the principles are exactly the same.
The Minister represents a constituency that has distinctive circumstances as a result of its locality—the former coal-mining area of Forest of Dean. If it was turned into Gloucestershire parliamentary district No. 3, does he think that that is how his constituents would want to be represented in the House of Commons? Of course they would not. They would want to ensure that they have someone who understands their locality and all the special reasons that make it so important. I have already named two examples from Wales, as we have a number of Welsh-speaking constituencies that, generally speaking, have Welsh-speaking MPs to represent their linguistic interests in the House. With the 25% reduction in MPs for Wales, that is no longer likely to be the case.
Does that not point to a lack of understanding about the nature of the Union? Those balances and inequalities are represented in this Chamber, because that is the price of holding together the Union, and the Government’s utilitarian approach does no favours to the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, in the sense that the unity of our kingdom is based on the recognition of the differences within it. Those differences can be reflected linguistically, culturally, socially and in other ways. The rigidity with which the Government have embarked on this course puts that Union in danger.
I set out from the Government’s perspective the reason why we settled on plus or minus 5%—a 10% range that is based on more equal seats but allows the use of wards as building blocks. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House the principled reason why he thinks that 7.5% either side of that quota is the right number?
That extra flexibility allows for the factor that I have just described in Wales and elsewhere to be taken into account—of course it does. I should argue very strongly for 10%, but the Government have a particular principle behind their legislation, which incidentally is based not in any way on logic, but on expediency.
The right hon. Gentleman is doing very well, as ever, at putting before the House what appears to be an argument based on principle, but in reality are not he and his Labour party colleagues afraid of the inflexibility of a 5% variation, because it would take away their in-built advantage under the current unfair system?
In the examples that I have just given, of Welsh-speaking constituencies in Wales, the seats are held mainly by Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrat party, so there is no advantage for the Labour party in that. I am not arguing a partisan point; I am arguing that 7.5% would provide for that flexibility throughout the United Kingdom and avoid the worst excesses of the Bill.
The Union will be weaker as a result, because the Bill will not take into account the various points that I have just described. If we do not allow the small countries within our larger country to be properly represented within the Chambers of the legislature, we will ensure a bad effect on the relations between different parts of that country.
As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I really do not believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, that the Government have thought for one second about the political impact of the changes before us on the constituency boundaries in Northern Ireland. They do not understand that, when we drew up the Good Friday agreement, much of our argument was about how we could create a sensitive balance between Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and nationalist in Northern Ireland. That balance will be upset by the rigidity on which the Government have embarked, and at this very last moment I urge the Minister and the Government to change their minds.
My problem with Lords amendment 19 is new paragraph 5A(b) of schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which states that
“such necessity arises from special geographical considerations or local ties”.
I want to focus on “local ties”, because that is why I shall vote against the amendment. It is bad law, and, looking at “local ties” and how that might be expanded, we should consider my seat, Elmet and Rothwell.
First, let us focus on Rothwell, which between 1917 and 1955 had its own parliamentary constituency. After that, it was included in others, and at the most recent election it fell outside a safe Labour seat for the first time, making me the first Conservative MP for Rothwell.
Moving on to special interests and local ties of an “exceptionally compelling nature”, however, I note that outside my constituency there is a village called Sherburn in Elmet. Many people in that part of the world, when I tell them that I am the MP for Elmet and Rothwell, say, “Ah, I live in Sherburn in Elmet; you’re my MP,” but of course, I am not, because it is not in my constituency.
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour refers to Sherburn in Elmet. I assure him that the people of Sherburn in Elmet consider themselves very much in North Yorkshire and would be appalled at the idea of being seen as part of Leeds.
Absolutely. That makes my point entirely. When considering special circumstances and local ties, would not Sherburn in Elmet, part of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, become part of a constituency incorporating Elmet? Would that not come under special interests and considerations? Would not precedent be brought forward in the courts in terms of representing that seat? The amendment is absolute nonsense which leads to grey areas in the Bill.
I want to talk about the 5% barrier. In the Leeds area, Elmet and Rothwell has 78,000 electors, and perhaps this point did not occur to the Opposition when they put their proposal together, but their variations on 76,000, the figure in the Bill, take us perilously close to the 68,000 electors in Leeds North East, a Labour seat; to the 65,000 electors in Leeds East, also held by Labour; and to the 65,000 electors in Leeds Central—Labour. The only exceptions are Morley and Outwood, which has 74,000 electors, although I believe the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) would need only a 1.5% swing to lose the seat; and Pudsey, which has 69,000 electors. The 5% barrier is fine; it allows us not to go down the path of dividing villages or streets. The idea of trying to increase the percentage is just an attempt to preserve the Labour party’s in-built advantage.
Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 16.
Lords amendment 16 disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 19.—(Mr Harper.)
Lords amendment 19 disagreed to.
The amendments concern the effect on the Isle of Wight of the Government’s proposals for votes to have more equal weight, which has been a subject of much debate both inside and outside Parliament. I know that myself, having visited the Isle of Wight at the invitation of its Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), last autumn.
As we said in the earlier debates, the Government believe that the principle of one elector, one vote—or, rather, one vote, one value—is paramount. [Interruption.] I think we all agree with the first proposition. There is consensus on that. It is right that electors across the UK should have an equal say not just in their choice of local representative, but in who form the Government of the day. As I said in the previous debate, for votes to have equal weight in a single-member constituency system, constituencies must contain a broadly equal number of electors.
Although absolute equality would be right in principle if—as was said in a previous debate—we were all desiccated calculating machines, in the real world some flexibility is needed to recognise local circumstances. Exceptions compromise equality, so the Government’s view is that the number of exceptions must be very limited. [Interruption.] Calm down. The Bill presented to the House by the Government provided for only two specific exemptions from the parity rule for two Scottish island constituencies —Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. The rationale for those exceptions was clear. They are remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland, and legislation in practice already recognises their unique geographical circumstances.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is always generous with his—with the House’s time. He mentioned the issue of the highlands. Is he not aware that in Scotland there are many islands? I look to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), where there are a large number of islands attached to the mainland. North Ayrshire and Arran also has an island.
My point was that the exemptions were for remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland. In the two examples that the hon. Gentleman gives, the islands are already combined with the mainland as a parliamentary constituency. That is a clear distinction. I do not understand the point he makes.
I represent a distinct island community. Previously, when I supported the Isle of Wight and other constituencies being lumped together, the argument was that it did not have enough electorate. Now the Government’s proposal is for two distinct seats on the Isle of Wight, with 50,000 electors each. My constituency, Ynys Môn, the isle of Anglesey, has 50,000-plus, so the rationale has changed. Will the Minister reconsider the uniqueness of islands? The existence of a bridge does not make it any less an island or a community.
The hon. Gentleman should wait to hear my argument. In the previous debate, Opposition Members made great play of the fact that when the House of Lords votes on matters, this House should consider them. The Government were clear about the Bill that we introduced. We were clear in the House of Lords about our argument. We resisted Lord Fowler’s amendment, but Members of all parties in the House of Lords did not agree with the Government. If hon. Members will allow me to make some progress in my argument, I will explain why the Government have tabled the amendments in lieu.
The Scotland Act 1998 provided a specific exemption for Orkney and Shetland. There are other constituencies that include or comprise islands, but these have either already been combined with the mainland or, in the Government’s view, such combination would be possible. Clearly, the Isle of Wight does not face the same geographic circumstances as the island constituencies in Scotland. Newport is only three hours from London, and there are regular ferry crossings. In shaping our proposals, we took account of the fact that the island increasingly looks to the mainland in pursuit of greater partnership—for example, in the creation of the Solent local enterprise partnership, which is supported by the island council and covers the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. [Interruption.] Well, I am arguing that that is why the Government thought it was perfectly possible to combine the Isle of Wight with the mainland. The House of Lords, though, took a different view.
In coming to the view that the island should not be granted a specific exemption, we concluded that the practical problems that would arise for an MP attempting to represent a constituency that is already the length of Wales, as in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, or some 12 to 13 hours from the mainland by ferry, as in the case of Orkney and Shetland, would not arise for a cross-Solent MP. We were not persuaded that an MP could not effectively represent two different communities, as a cross-Solent MP would have to do. Many Members represent constituencies that contain citizens with a range of diverse cultures, languages and interests.
We have, however, listened to the arguments put forcefully in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and in the other place, most notably by Lord Fowler, who is with us this evening in spirit, and Lord Oakeshott. We judge that the strength of opinion evidenced by the vote on the amendment in the other place, which had cross-party support, including strong support from the Labour party, is such that the Bill should be amended so as not to require a constituency shared between the Isle of Wight and the mainland.
The amendment passed by the House of Lords was intended to achieve that, but it would leave to the discretion of the Boundary Commission for England the question of whether there should be one seat on the island or two. We believe that that poses some practical problems. For a start, the amendment does not specify the basis on which the Boundary Commission should decide how many seats to allocate the Isle of Wight. Nor does it except the constituency or constituencies on the Isle of Wight from the calculation of the electoral quota. The Isle of Wight’s smaller or larger than average constituencies would therefore have an effect on the average size of other constituencies across England. If an exception is to be made for the Isle of Wight, we believe that it should be treated the same as the other exceptions in the Bill in a consistent and fair way.
Does the Minister accept that the Boundary Commission has considered the boundaries of the Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and has previously discussed whether there should be two constituencies? It has rejected that option on the grounds that it would be difficult to define where the boundary should be and what the islanders’ wishes were. If the Boundary Commission had discretion over exactly what happened, there might be a repeat of those previous processes unless it were directed to conclude otherwise.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the views of local people, when I visited the island myself and spoke to people there, they were very clear that they were not being prescriptive about whether they wanted one seat or two. The clear message that I got was that they did not want one that crossed the Solent. They did not say that they wanted only one seat—they were relaxed about whether they should have one or two. I believe that the nub of Lord Fowler’s point was about the nature of a cross-Solent seat, and our amendments in lieu reflect that.
There are, of course, other parts of the country, including Cornwall, where people recognise boundaries in precisely the same way as people on the Isle of Wight recognise their boundary on the Solent. Is the irony not lost on the Minister that when we have 650 seats in the House of Commons the Isle of Wight has one, but when the Government are seeking to reduce the number of seats in this House significantly, they double that representation?
If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my argument, which does not have very much—[Interruption.] No, I am just saying that I have not got to that bit yet. If he will let me, I will get to it.
The amendments that we have proposed in lieu of Lord Fowler’s amendments would resolve the problems that I have mentioned. The Boundary Commission would be required to create two constituencies wholly on the island. They would obviously be outside the range of 5% either side of the quota—otherwise we would not be having this debate in the first place—but each would be closer to the quota than a single island constituency would be. That would ensure that electors’ votes were closer in weight to those cast elsewhere in the UK, which we believe is important.
Our amendments also make consequential adjustments to the formula used to apportion seats to the constituent parts of the UK and to calculate the UK electoral quota, so as to be consistent with the approach taken to the other exceptions in the Bill. To pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who is not in her place, they will therefore provide the Boundary Commission for England with a clearer task than under the amendment made in the other place.
I am sadly not able to do the maths at the Dispatch Box, but we have examined the matter, and what I have just said is borne out. I will do the maths when I sit down, or maybe inspiration will strike me, but two seats would be closer to the quota than one. That is the basis for our decision, which is very clear [Interruption.] The debate in the House of Lords supporting the amendment of the—[Interruption.]
The amendment that was accepted by their lordships’ House, which we accept in principle, was supported by all parties. The Cross Benchers supported it, along with every Labour peer who voted in the Division, some Liberal Democrats and some bishops. However, we believe that the Boundary Commission needs to be given clarity and certainty so that we do not end up with a confusing and challengeable boundary review.
We might note the precedent of what the Boundary Commission has done in the past when it has had to choose whether to give, say, two or three seats to a London borough. Its decision has been based on trying to get as arithmetically close to the quota as possible. The amendment clarifies exactly that principle for the Isle of Wight. If the matter had been left to the Boundary Commission, precedent suggests that it would have given the Isle of Wight two seats rather than one.
My hon. Friend is quite right, but it is important for the Boundary Commission to be certain about the matter at the beginning, so that it can then undertake the rest of the boundary process. If the decision were up to the commission and it were to make a certain assumption in its initial proposals, and then come to a different conclusion as a result of the extensive written consultation process and public hearings that we have laid in place, it would have to make a radical change to the proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who is now back in her place, said in a previous debate, certainty and clarity are very important to ensure that the boundary review is carried out properly.
I support the amendments fully, but once the Isle of Wight has been given two seats, the argument for absolute uniformity has fallen, which it did not in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the Shetland Islands and so on. If the Isle of Wight can have special treatment, why not Cornwall and, as far as I am concerned, why not Somerset? Every county now has a special case to make that ought to be considered. In largely accepting the Lords amendment, the Government have given the game away.
I think that my hon. Friend helps my argument. As I said, this is part of the parliamentary process. The Government introduced a Bill, which did not include an exception for the Isle of Wight. When Lord Fowler tabled his amendment, the Government strongly resisted it—indeed, we were criticised for doing that—but the House of Lords took a different view. My hon. Friend mentioned Cornwall, but the House of Lords debated Cornwall, voted on it, and decided, by a considerable margin, that the case for Cornwall had not been made. I appreciate that some hon. Members disagree, but that was the view that the House of Lords reached. It did not reach the same view about the Isle of Wight. There was a majority of 74 in the other place for making an exception for the Isle of Wight. That was not the Government’s position, but a strong message from the other place.
Inspiration has now struck me, and I can answer the question that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) asked. Based on 2009 figures, one seat would be 34,366 away from the UK quota and the two seats would be 20,748 away from the quota. That is a significant narrowing of the difference.
Although the Lords are wonderful guardians of our constitution, the debate has seen any number of perfectly sensible amendments rejected, and the Government have not lost a single vote in the House. I therefore do not see the logic of saying, “We must give in to the Lords on this, but on everything else we’ll tell them they’re wrong and send the Bill back.”
I think the difference is the strength of view in the other place on the matter. [Interruption.] That view was also consistent and cross party. The Labour Lords who voted in the Division in the other place all supported Lord Fowler’s amendment. It is therefore extraordinary that Labour Members are making so much noise now. The Government have acknowledged the debate at the other end of the corridor. Given my hon. Friend’s previous comments about their lordships, I would have thought that he saw more strength in the case. On the basis of the arguments that I have set out, I hope that that case will be supported.
I am sorry, but I think that that was the shabbiest speech I have heard from a Conservative Member. The Parliamentary Secretary appeared to suggest that Labour Members are now arguing against what we supported in the House of Lords. We support what was carried in the House of Lords: we would prefer the amendment that was carried there to be accepted here. It is absolutely shoddy that the Government, to give themselves an extra parliamentary seat, will provide for two seats for the Isle of Wight. It is not so much a gerrymander as a ferrymander.
As the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) effectively said, the Parliamentary Secretary has driven a coach and horses through his own argument. His argument so far has been that there must be equalisation at all costs. It has been, “Don’t recognise local ties, county boundaries or ward boundaries.” He tries to insist on mathematical perfection, but when it comes to this one place, there must be an exception.
We agree that there should be exceptions. We believe that there should be some other exceptions, too. The argument that the Parliamentary Secretary makes could and should apply to Cornwall, Somerset and all the counties—and, indeed, ward boundaries. We should recognise more exceptions.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman could have presented that argument precisely and briefly when the Bill was previously in the House, then perhaps we could all have had the chance to debate the subject at an earlier stage. However, does he agree that the debate about Cornwall in another place focused on cultural issues rather than geographical considerations? Sadly, the Government’s approach does not address those factors.
Absolutely. Some specific geographical issues need to be borne in mind. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will hate any reference to my constituency, but a former Member of Parliament for the Rhondda, Alec Jones, was once presented with a suggestion that the Cynon valley should be included in the Rhondda constituency, even though for much of the year it is almost impossible to get from one to the other. Alec Jones wisely said, “Bloody hell, somebody’s got hold of a flat map.” Those are precisely the sort of arrangements that we will end up with.
I will not, because the hon. Gentleman voted for the programme motion. There is a short time left and we ought to hear from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who should be the only hon. Member for the Isle of Wight.
The argument that has been adduced in favour of the Isle of Wight should surely apply to Anglesey, too. There is no argument against that—except for the fact that it is represented by a Labour Member, and happens to be in Wales.
There is an additional problem with the Government amendments. Because they are trying to force two parliamentary seats on the Isle of Wight—I suspect that that does not reflect the view of the people of the Isle of Wight; they think that it should be separate from Hampshire, but they have not argued for two seats—it will be difficult to draw the boundary. We are more likely to end up with one constituency of 60,000 or 65,000 and one of 30,000 or 35,000 than an exact divide.
No, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, too, voted for the programme motion, so I shall not give way.
Someone of cynical mind could look at the list of parliamentary constituencies for which exceptions are being made and draw conclusions: one, by virtue of 13,000 sq km, to the Liberal Democrats; one, for Orkney and Shetland, to the Liberal Democrats, one, for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, to the nationalists—at the moment, but I hope for not much longer—and two for the Isle of Wight. Some have suggested that that means two Tory seats in the Isle of Wight. It may be one Tory and one Liberal Democrat: perhaps that is the rescue seat for the Deputy Prime Minister come the next general election.
I had a speech prepared to deliver today, but I do not think that I shall need it; I am using another.
Let us go over what happened. When I first heard of the proposals, I got together with the County Press, the island’s weekly paper, and Isle of Wight Radio, our local radio station, to see how “we” could fight “them”. It was energising to do that. We all met representatives from the island’s Labour party and Liberal Democrats—and, of course, the Conservatives—as well as the chamber of commerce, and the One Wight campaign was formed.
We appointed a non-political spokesman, Richard Priest, who has done an admirable job of fronting the campaign.
That is correct, but I would not use the word “international”.
Although opinion was divided on whether the ideal solution was for one or two MPs, we were united at the outset in the view that what was simply unacceptable was the notion of one and a half MPs, with one part of the island placed in an unholy alliance with a part of the mainland.
Eventually we all agreed that even if the island were to remain under-represented, that was a price worth paying. We got support from many places. Among many others, printing was done free of charge by Crossprint; Marc Morgan-Huws of the bus company Southern Vectis donated the use of the One Wight bus, which thousands of people signed, and Paul Bertie of World Leisure printed T-shirts for the campaigners. I would like to thank them all, as well as those whom I do not have time to mention. Everyone involved played a significant part.
My amendment was not debated in this Chamber and there was no vote, but I want to place on record my gratitude to the hon. Members from all parties who pledged their support for it. I like to think that we would have won if the opinion of the House had been tested. None the less, the Bill went to the other place unamended, and the island’s cause was taken up by Lord Fowler, who is a long-term resident of Seaview, on the island. His skilful management in the other place led to a significant victory and a majority of 74 in favour of keeping the Isle of Wight separate. He found support from all parties, as I did, for the island’s cause, in addition to considerable support from Cross Benchers.
I thank all the noble Lords and Ladies who supported the amendment, and I pay tribute to Lord Fowler. His many years of experience in this House and the other place stood him in good stead in fighting the island’s cause. The whole island owes him a debt of gratitude. I hope that Seaview residents, after short congratulations and celebrations, will permit him to return to a once-again peaceful island.
The fact that islanders were prepared to be under-represented added to the strength of our argument, but the Government were scrupulously fair, and once they accepted the case that we should be separate, they offered us, like the Scottish islanders, over-representation, which I welcomed.
I am in favour of whatever is voted for by the island.
I admit that I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought that I would be the last MP for the Isle of Wight, but the right decision has been made for the island and I support it unequivocally. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the arguments and for making the right choice, albeit rather late in the day.
This is a victory for the island and the islanders. Everyone who supported us can be proud of the part that they played. I look forward to joining hon. Members of all parties in the Aye Lobby.
It is a great pleasure to follow a fellow islander in this debate. I supported the Isle of Wight exception all the way through, and like the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), I have been consistent in the view that there should be exemptions for unique island constituencies such as his and Ynys Môn—the Isle of Anglesey.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, who has had a difficult job in presenting the Bill to the House. He has been courteous and amicable in taking interventions. He was rigid in his responses, and always said that he would not give an exemption to the Isle of Wight and gave his reasons for that. However, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, the Minister has now let the cat out of the bag: the exemption is a political fix, pure and simple. To argue for days and days in the House for no exemption for the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and other historic places, and then all of a sudden to make a U-turn for political advantage, is an absolute disgrace.
The people of Anglesey are proud people. It has been a seat since 1535, during which time it has been represented by four different parties, which is perhaps unique in the House. The Liberal Democrats represented Anglesey for many years, as did the Conservatives. I can tell the House that Anglesey will give its verdict in the May elections on its shabby treatment by this coalition Government of Liberals and Conservatives.
Wales has not been treated fairly in the Bill. The 25% reduction in the number of seats is an absolute disgrace. What is more, the Anglesey community is unique. It is coterminous with the county council. It has unique linguistic as well as historic characteristics, but they have not been recognised.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight was supportive of islands such as mine, and I am still supportive of his, but the Government have gone a step too far by conceding seats that will represent in the region of 50,000 to 55,000 electors. If they want to put that down as a marker, they should reconsider seats such as Anglesey. The island will be a single constituency in National Assembly for Wales, so there will be confusion at the next elections if they take place on the same day. One set of voters will be voting for the island and another set will be voting for the island-plus. That is completely and utterly wrong, and the Minister should reflect on it. He is looking at his notes, and he has been courteous all the way through, but I hope that he can now somehow please Wales, because thus far, Wales has been treated grossly unfairly.
I want briefly to reflect the view from the other side of the Solent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who has fought a magnificent campaign on the principle that the Isle of Wight should be a constituency in its own right. Indeed, the island is a unitary authority. It has close links with the other side of the Solent but it is a distinct community, council and island, with its own practices and traditions, rights and functions.
Before becoming a unitary authority the island was divided into two district authorities. As hon. Members who took any interest in that arrangement will know, the division of an island that is essentially a unitary entity proved extremely difficult. I predict that should two seats be required for the Isle of Wight, a similar difficulty in defining what part of the island goes—
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 17.
Lords amendment 17 disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 20.—(Mr Harper.)
Lords amendment 20 disagreed to.
Amendments (a) to (e) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 17 and 20.—(Mr Harper.)
Question put, That the amendments be made.
Amendments (a) to (e) made in lieu of Lords amendments 17 and 20.
Referendum on the alternative vote system
The first amendment to be moved on Report in the other place by the noble Lord Rooker and agreed to by a majority of just one vote provides that:
“If less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum, the result shall not be binding.”
The Government oppose the inclusion of this amendment in the Bill on two key grounds. First, it goes against our view that people should get what they vote for, and, secondly, it introduces the perverse consequences associated with thresholds.
Before going into those arguments, however, I should remind colleagues that we have debated the question of whether to impose a 40% turnout threshold before, when an amendment to this effect was tabled on Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I note that he has tabled an amendment today that seeks to reintroduce his proposal from Report, turning Lord Rooker’s proposal into a straightforward turnout threshold by mandating the Minister to repeal the AV provisions in the event that turnout is less than 40%. It is worth recording that, when this House voted on that proposal the first time round, it was resoundingly rejected by 549 votes to 31. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), speaking for the Opposition, said that he did not think it appropriate to bring in a threshold.
My next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), is often very wise, and I have had the chance to reconsider my position on this matter. Possibly the Minister has, too. I realise that the Deputy Prime Minister—he who has just discovered that there are alarm clocks in Britain, and who feels the pain of the cuts by shopping at Sainsbury’s instead of Ocado—is the most derided politician in the land at the moment, and that people are not exactly going to be galloping to his support, but is not a 40% threshold appropriate for a constitutional change such as this?
I shall treat the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks as political posturing and nonsense that have nothing to do with the Lords amendments. On his second point, I shall explain why I will be urging the House, in a consistent way, to take the same view on these matters that it took in Committee and on Report, whereas the hon. Gentleman, if those on his Front Bench follow suit, would seem to be demonstrating a bit of shameless opportunism.
I am sorry; I did not quite understand my hon. Friend’s point. We debated and voted on his proposal on thresholds in this House, and it was defeated by 549 votes to 31—[Interruption.] Well, my hon. Friend should have another go, because I did not really follow the point he was making.
This is an electoral reform proposal in which we are asking the electorate to decide in a referendum what they want to do. Does he not think it a little shameless that the question of whether that decision should be subjected to the 40% test should be decided by the House of Lords rather than by the House of Commons? Perhaps my hon. Friend can answer if I put it that way.
No, I think that the decision should ultimately be made by the elected House, which is why I will ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to disagree with the Lords amendment. I hope, following the logic of my hon. Friend’s argument, that he will support the Government in the Lobby.
Does the Minister acknowledge, as we are facing a considerable and potentially irreversible constitutional change, that a precedent has been set by the Scotland Act 1978, which made provision for a turnout threshold? That was among the reasons why the then Labour Government subsequently foundered, following the withdrawal of support by the Scottish National party. So a precedent has already been set for a turnout threshold.
In that case, it was not proposed by the Government, so I do not think that that makes the case. There was a clear vote in Scotland in favour of the proposal, but the turnout threshold was not reached. That did not settle the question; it merely enabled the question to fester for a number of years without being settled. I do not think that my hon. Friend is correct.
My hon. Friend says that he wants this matter to be decided by this House, but would not that be the effect of Lord Rooker’s amendment? If there were a lower than 40% turnout in the referendum, it would be for this House to decide what to do. Is that not a good idea?
The Minister is absolutely right to say that the 40% turnout threshold for the referendum in Scotland was wrong. As he said, it ensured that the will of the people was not acted upon. In fact, the will of the people was acted upon with bells on 18 years later, because the scare stories in 1979 brought us a Scottish Parliament that was far more powerful than an Assembly. The point tonight is that in a referendum on first past the post versus AV, there is a simple choice either way. If the public are sufficiently supportive of first past the post, it will win in a straight run-off against AV—and vice versa. If neither system can garner sufficient support, then so be it, but the Minister is absolutely right to say that there should be no threshold whatever. There should simply be a straight choice between the two.
The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the most convincing arguments was heard in our previous debates in this House, which is that a turnout threshold effectively makes every abstention a no vote. People abstain from voting in referendums for any number of reasons, but treating all those who abstain as effectively expressing a preference is not the right thing to do. A turnout threshold would give those in favour of a no vote a positive incentive to stay at home. As I said in our earlier debate, we should, as democrats, encourage people to go out there and vote yes or no. The important thing is that people take part, and a turnout threshold would encourage some of them to stay at home.
Such a barrier would also create some very strange mathematical scenarios. For example, if 39% of the electorate turned out, the result would not be binding, even if 75% of those votes were in favour of change. So, even if the public had expressed a clear preference, it would not count. On the other hand, a result in which 41% of the public had turned out, even if it were a narrow 51%:49% result, would count. There is no logic to that proposal; it makes no sense.
This whole argument is against a motion that was not passed in the other place. It is against one that was defeated where there was a threshold that amounted to a veto on the result if the turnout were below that threshold. Does the Minister not accept that this Lords amendment is completely different in character? All it does—although it is a very important “all”—is to ensure that if there is a turnout of less than 40% in total, the matter will come back to this House. To pick up the Minister’s example, if, say, there were a 39% turnout and 75% of that 39% had voted in favour of a change in the voting system, I cannot conceive that this House would fail to endorse it. On the other hand, if there were a 25% turnout and if it were approved by only—