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Boundary Commission (Great Grimsby)

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, particularly as this is the first time I have served under your benign chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I warn against the crime that the Boundary Commission proposes to commit, namely the murder of the Great Grimsby constituency, which I represent. The commission proposes to kill the constituency by splitting it in two, with four of its eight wards going into a new constituency of Grimsby South and Cleethorpes, and the rest going north in a shotgun marriage with Barton in a new Grimsby North and Barton constituency. Barton is 10 miles from Grimsby. I do not know of any other historic constituencies that are being treated in such a way, and it is certainly the only historic constituency in Humberside to be so treated. I have been proud to represent Grimsby for 37 years. In fact, it was only under me that the constituency rose to greatness by becoming Great Grimsby, so the Boundary Commission’s proposal to abolish it is a particular blow. The great majority of my constituents, and many organisations in the constituency, feel the same way.

Representing Grimsby has been a delight, not only because it is a community within a constituency, which is fairly rare, but because it is an historic constituency. Grimsby was first represented in Parliament in 1295 by two MPs: William de Dovedale and Gilbert de Reyner. I deny the rumours that I have been here that long that one of them was actually me. I was not here in 1295—Augustinus de Mitchellius was not here—but I am sure that those two are turning in their graves. While we had two MPs at the start, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, we had one MP, who was always the borough Member, because the constituency coincided with the borough’s boundaries until the borough was abolished in 1992. I suppose that I am therefore the last of the borough Members.

Great Grimsby, therefore, is unique and historic, and it is one of the few parliamentary constituencies that is also a community. It is not a slice of a big city such as Hull or Bradford—or wherever it might be—and nor is it rural acres lumped together to build the necessary population. Destroying something as unique as Grimsby would be an act of simple political vandalism.

Grimsby’s one fault, if it has any faults—I do not think it has many faults—is that it is small. The electorate is only 61,000, which was big enough to survive all the previous redistributions, but not to reach the new norm of 76,000 electors per constituency, with only a 5% margin either way, that was necessitated by the Government’s decision to reduce the size of the Commons from 650 Members to 600. That proposal is wrong. The Government cannot economise on democracy by reducing the number of MPs to reduce expense. Reducing the number of MPs takes no account of their work load, which is increasing due to Select Committees and growing demand from constituencies.

Reducing the House in such a fashion will increase the power of the Executive by diminishing the number of Members outside the Executive. An Executive of more than 100 in a House of 600 would make them much more powerful than under the present situation. I deplore the change, and that unnecessary reduction has led to the redrawing of the constituency boundaries according to the new quota of 76,000 that has been imposed. Constituencies are now to be no more than 5% above or below that norm, which means that Great Grimsby and the neighbouring constituency of Cleethorpes have to be enlarged.

The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals would have sensibly enlarged Great Grimsby by adding two wards from Cleethorpes, and would then have compensated Cleethorpes, which encircles Grimsby like Indians round a wagon train, although I should not say that in the presence of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)

I speak as one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. He and I know that visitors to Grimsby and Cleethorpes will not know where the boundaries are because it is just one urban mass. We, of course, remember where the passport control points used to be prior to the creation of North East Lincolnshire council.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s good point that cutting Grimsby in half is totally illogical, but there was an equal strength of feeling in Cleethorpes when, as he suggests, the first proposal was to take the north end of Cleethorpes. Does he agree that the sensible thing would be to ignore the supposed boundary between Yorkshire, Humberside and the east midlands, which would then allow villages such as Holton-le-Clay, Keelby and Tetney to be brought into one of the seats?

I absolutely agree that that would solve all the problems. The problem is that the borders with Lincolnshire and Yorkshire have been so oppressive for the Boundary Commission, which says it will not ignore them. Humberside has to lose one Member, and the reshuffle results from that.

Cleethorpes was to be compensated by adding the south bank of the Humber up to Burton upon Stather and Winterton. The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals were sensible. They brought my constituency up to 78,000 electors and Cleethorpes up to 77,000, although stupidly that constituency was to be renamed Brigg and Humberston, which must have annoyed people in Cleethorpes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman could confirm. Both constituencies would have been big, and people told the Boundary Commission that they were happy with the provisional proposals, but that was to no avail, because the next stage for the commission was to review its decisions on the basis of representations made by the parties and local people.

In Humberside, the bulk of the review dealt with Hull and its surrounding area, and with Scunthorpe, which is to our west. As we were not concerned in Grimsby, we issued a statement saying only that we were happy with the provisional proposals. We left it at that, and so did the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in their national evidence—both parties recommended that Grimsby should not be split. The Conservatives, however, made more wide-reaching proposals, which included splitting up the Grimsby constituency. To our amazement, those proposals were accepted by the Boundary Commission, which I deplore. I consider that decision to be both disastrous and unacceptable; it does not make sense.

Why did the Boundary Commission change its mind so unpredictably? It gave a number of reasons that were more like excuses and had nothing to do with Grimsby. We were told that the commission wanted to accommodate some of the representations from Hull by changing its constituency boundaries, and there were therefore knock-on effects right down to Scunthorpe. The commission said that it did not want to split up the three wards of the Isle of Axholme, which is more of a geographical description than a community, so it took Burton upon Stather from the proposed Brigg and Humberston seat and gave it to Scunthorpe, thereby reducing the population of Brigg and Humberston.

The commission also used the excuse that it had received representations from Cleethorpes against splitting up that constituency. Well, Cleethorpes was not really split; it lost two wards but gained other areas along the south bank of the Humber. The constituency was supplemented rather than split, and it is silly to respond to a complaint about splitting Cleethorpes, which was losing two wards, by splitting Grimsby right down the middle. The commission’s proclaimed reluctance to split the Isle of Axholme was really an excuse for something that it wanted to do to the north and west, and we suffered the knock-on effect of those changes. Grimsby was sacrificed on the altar of change in Scunthorpe and Hull.

The commission therefore reversed its sensible provisional proposals and proposed the two new constituencies of Grimsby North and Grimsby South. Grimsby South is to go with four wards to Cleethorpes—the seat will be called Grimsby South and Cleethorpes—while Grimsby North will merge with the rural areas to the north. That proposal is unacceptable. The basic principle should be to keep existing communities together as far as possible. This is an historic constituency and a community within one constituency, which is the strongest claim for remaining a constituency. The commission has split up the one constituency in Humberside that is a genuine community.

The commission is also supposed to maintain common interests as far as possible. In Grimsby’s case, it is merging part of an industrial community with Cleethorpes, which has different interests and organisations, seaside and tourism concerns, and even a different school system in terms of the sixth-form distribution in the area. It is merging another part of Grimsby, to the north, with rural areas with which the town has little in common, given that our problems are urban—deprivation, poverty and low educational achievement.

The commission says that it has had a lot of representations on the lack of affinity that electors in rural areas feel with urban areas and vice versa, yet it proposes to ignore all that in the case of Grimsby. The commission is supposed to pay attention, too, to organisational and party links within a constituency. Our constituency boundaries are the same as the old borough boundaries, so the organisational links across borough organisations are strong and long-standing, and the political organisations in the wards are accustomed to working together. All that is now to be split up in Grimsby.

The whole procedure leaves a lot to be desired, given that the commission comes up with provisional proposals that we accept and therefore do nothing more, and then it changes them totally. No one in Grimsby has been given a chance to react to the new proposals until now. We face an uphill struggle, because the commission has published its views and we must now change a more settled view. Given that the commission is bound to be a little reluctant to change its mind again, this decision-making process means that we face an uphill struggle to upset the convenience of the commission. That is neither fair nor democratic, and I do not see how it can be viewed as reasonable by the commission.

I am therefore asking the commission not to divide Grimsby and not to abolish what I rightly see as the best constituency in the country. Some might say that Shipley has many claims, Mr Davies, but I think that Grimsby is certainly the best. The commission should go back to its original proposals.

As the commission has behaved in this unreasonable fashion and sacrificed Grimsby to suit other areas and constituencies with regard to issues that have nothing to do with us, I will be submitting evidence to show that it is perfectly possible to keep the two constituencies of Grimsby and Cleethorpes—I hope that that constituency will be called Cleethorpes, because it certainly should be—without splitting Grimsby. I will not go into the details now, but while it cannot be done by abolishing and adjusting wards, it can be done by splitting wards. I know that the commission will be loth to do that, but it can be done, and I shall be submitting evidence on a numerical basis to show that.

I know that the Minister cannot respond by saying, “Yes, the commission is wrong. You’re right, Mitchell, and the Government will intervene and help you.” I perfectly understand that she cannot speak for the commission. Several people have told me that it is a waste of time to protest about the abolition of Grimsby, however, because the commission’s proposals will not be accepted by the House of Commons. However, whether the proposals end up in force or in the dustbin, where I am happy to see that the Liberal Democrats intend to put them, they are still wrong, and yet the Government appear determined to get them through.

The position must be decided soon or we will face a farcical situation in which the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates for the next election on the basis of existing seats—they are comparatively new, after all, as the last redistribution was not too long ago—while the Conservatives select candidates for the new seats. All the fights that go on within the party about the redistribution game of musical chairs will then emerge publicly as people fight for a diminished number of seats. That is plainly ludicrous. Whether or not the Government see sense on this issue, they must make an early decision.

I want the commission to show that it has seen sense on its proposals for Grimsby by not abolishing the historic constituency of Great Grimsby. My main reason for securing the debate was to put the case for that, but I also put it to the Government that it is incumbent on them to make their decision on the redistribution clear before we have a farce in which different parties are selecting candidates for different constituencies.

My final plea must be to the commission. I do not want to be the last MP for Great Grimsby as a united constituency with one community and all the organisational links that join it together. Please rethink this in light of the evidence from Grimsby that we will be submitting and keep Grimsby one political unit and one constituency.

I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for allowing us to give these issues a good airing. It is absolutely clear that he is passionate about his constituency and its greatness, and I hear his desire not to be the last MP for Grimsby. That, however, is in the hands of others, as are so many things. I am sure that he will welcome the will of the people of Grimsby.

I will outline a few of the more factual aspects of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that I, as a Minister of the Crown, am in no position to suggest what the Boundary Commission for England ought to do or to comment on its proposals in detail. I shall have to stay carefully away from that. However, I can offer him my own experience of representing half of an extremely fine city, the city of Norwich. My constituents in the north of Norwich often confuse the boundary line. We do not have passport control; we reserve that for the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. Within Norwich and its neighbouring local authority area of Broadland, such issues are also raised occasionally.

The hon. Gentleman has focused on the proposals made by the Boundary Commission for England in the current boundary review concerning his constituency of Great Grimsby. As I said, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the conduct or content of the review. The Boundary Commission for England is independent, and rightly so. I am sure we all appreciate that about the democracy in which we live, so I will not go into the individual decisions made by the commission to date. I have no doubt that he and other hon. Members here have made known their views, and those of constituents and residents, to the commission. It is for the Boundary Commission to consider the substance of his comments and balance them with others that they receive.

The legislative position that applies is that the four boundary commissions across the UK will conduct boundary reviews and make recommendations in accordance with the statutory framework set by Parliament. We should leave it to the experience and judgment of the boundary commissions to make those proposals, in accordance with that framework.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Boundary Commission for England is consulting on its revised proposals, which it published on 16 October, and on which he has commented extensively today. The deadline for responses is 10 December, so there is still time to make further representations on the proposed boundary, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman is doing that. I urge not only hon. Members in this Chamber but anyone else who takes a serious interest in this matter to engage with that process. That is not just a matter for political parties; it should, as the hon. Gentleman said, be a matter for communities to voice their opinion on. I am sure that he is encouraging Grimsbians—he will have to let me know the word—

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is encouraging the fine people of Grimsby to do this.

Parliament will have the opportunity in due course to consider the final recommendations arising from the current boundary review, when the four boundary commissions have completed their reviews and submitted their final reports to the Government. We expect those reports in October 2013. The hon. Gentleman will know that all too well. We are in the period after the publication of revised proposals, and a written-only consultation of eight weeks follows.

All the boundary commissions are working within the proposals for a smaller House of Commons. However, in the light of the decision of the Liberal Democrats and the possibility that the legislation might not go anywhere, is it not a waste of time and money at a time of austerity? Surely the decision about whether the boundaries are going anywhere should be taken in this House, and it should be taken at the beginning of 2013 rather than in October 2013.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter, because it allows me to put on record a point that will no doubt be of interest to hon. Members. This is an example of Government underspending, which is always to be applauded. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree.

We estimated that the review would cost £11.9 million or thereabouts. Some £6.6 million has been spent by the four boundary commissions on the review and related purposes till the end of October, and £3 million remains in the budget for the rest of the review. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that coming in under budget on this exercise is to be applauded. I see that he is writing down those figures, but they have already been brought out in parliamentary questions. He may wish to consider that before he writes his own press release about them. It is important to have regard to the figures and the costs of what we do, in every case. The £9.6 million current estimated cost that I cited is less than the previously estimated cost of the review and less than the previous boundary review, which cost £13.6 million.

The legislative position is clear. The House of Commons passed the Bill that I will mention in a second so the legislation is on the statute book. There is an obligation on the boundary commissions to return with their proposals by October 2013, The expenditure that we are talking about was necessary for the conduct of the review, as required by that legislation. I think that the boundary commissions have been successful in securing value for money when carrying out their duties.

An early point always made in support of the legislation was that, contrary to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, reducing the number of MPs would bring us closer into line with other democracies and would deliver an estimated saving of £13.6 million a year, which is worth having.

Let me mention some other reasons why the Government thought it necessary to amend the existing rules for setting boundaries. Parliament debated these at considerable length, as all hon. Members know, during the passage of the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

There is a significant difference between the sizes of many parliamentary constituencies, and I can provide some particularly illuminating examples. Based on the figures as at December 2011, the East Ham constituency has 92,000 voters and Wirral West has around 55,000. The differences are even greater when compared across different nations. At the same date, Arfon in Wales had an electorate of around 40,000. I do not imagine that there is a great desire to see such inconsistency continue, because it has the effect of making some people’s votes count more than others’, depending on where they live. I am sure that the residents of Great Grimsby have their view on that, as others do. Our reforms are designed to restore equality and fairness in setting constituency boundaries. The 2011 Act seeks to achieve votes that are more equal in weight throughout the UK.

The concern has clearly been expressed today that setting boundaries should not simply be a numbers process, but should instead respect local ties and seek to unite communities. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck in boundary setting. A sense of place must be respected so that different localities and places that take account of local ties can be represented by single Members of Parliament, where that can be made to be true. However, the other side of the balance must be that we seek equality in the number of electors in each constituency, so that throughout the country votes have an equal weight—in other words, we uphold the fundamental principle of one elector and one vote. The boundary commissions are still able to take account of factors such as physical geographical features and local ties, but these are subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size to ensure we maintain that key principle.

The commission’s guide to the review states that the regional boundaries we are discussing are not inviolable, and it is open to the hon. Gentleman to make a representation accordingly. The guide to the review states that the regional approach

“does not prevent anyone from putting forward counter-proposals that include one or more constituencies being split between regions, but it is likely that compelling reasons would need to be given to persuade”

the Boundary Commission for England

“to depart from the regional-based approach we adopted in formulating our initial proposals.”

Again, we return to the fact that it is for the commission to take a view on the merits of the case, according to the legislation and other competing proposals for the area.

The consultation is open until 10 December. If the hon. Gentleman feels he has compelling reasons to put forward, he ought to do that. I would not dream of trespassing on the issue of whether Humberside or north-east Lincolnshire, or any other important aspect of the local geography, is more wanted by local people than others. That is not for me to say, as a mere Member for the fine county of Norfolk.

I think that all hon. Members agree with the principle that the boundary commissions should be independent. However, equality and fairness must be overriding principles in respect of something as important as people’s right to choose the Government of the day. The boundary reforms under the 2011 Act ensure that there is fairness in our political system and that votes carry a more equal weight throughout the country. I recognise the important points that have been made. I hope I have provided reassurance that the Government have taken and are taking these matters very seriously and that, crucially, there remains an avenue for the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and others to discuss them further with the Boundary Commission for England.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.