Mr Speaker has selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and others. Under the provisions of the Business of the House (Today) motion, I will call a signatory of that amendment to move it at the conclusion of the debate.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to open this debate. The purpose of the Bill is straightforward: to meet the Government’s manifesto pledge of delivering updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same. We will do so on the basis of 650 constituencies.
The principal legislative framework set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 remains in place. The Bill makes a small number of amendments to that in order to move us forward with some aspects of the timing and the process of future boundary reviews and, as I said, returning the number of constituencies to 650.
There is a fundamental flaw, which the Minister brought out for us in her very first paragraph. I think Ministers think that by trying to rejig the constituencies they will make every vote count equally. That is not true. The only way we can do that is by having a proportional electoral system. We could make every person count equally if we counted our boundaries not by the number of registered voters in a constituency but by the number of people, which is what every other country in the world does.
A huge chunk of what the hon. Gentleman proposes is out of the scope of the Bill, but in terms of what is in scope, I hope therefore that he will reject the Labour party’s amendment, which goes against equalising the size of constituencies by arguing against the tolerance quota. I am sure he will consider that as he comes to vote tonight.
Let me pre-empt a question that might legitimately be asked: why are we doing this now, given the other challenges that are presented by the coronavirus? Of course, we absolutely rely on the electors of the UK to cast their vote and choose the Government of the day, and fundamental to that is the idea that each vote carries the same weight. We can achieve those equal votes only through a robust system of boundary reviews. They should be regular, thorough and impartial, and it is those reviews that provide us with updated and equal constituencies.
The last implemented update of Westminster constituencies was based on electoral data from the very early 2000s. That means that our current constituencies take no account of our youngest voters, and nor do they reflect nearly two decades of demographic shift, house building and migration. That cannot be right. The purpose of the Bill is to update those rules. It needs to do that so that the next review, which is due to start in early 2021, can proceed promptly and deliver, with some certainty, the updated and equal constituencies that the electorate deserves.
I will run through the main elements of the Bill. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me say at the outset that in doing this I have engaged extensively with interested parties, including representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators, to ensure that these proposals are as good as they can be.
As I mentioned at the start, the Bill will amend the existing legislation to ensure that we continue to have 650 parliamentary constituencies in the UK, as we do now. In order to achieve that, the Bill brings to a close the 2018 boundary review, without implementation. It removes the Government’s obligation to bring those recommendations of the 2018 review into effect, because those proposals would take us down to 600 constituencies.
This is a change of policy from that adopted under the coalition Government. We have listened to views expressed across the House, including that of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I am pleased that Opposition Members have stated their support for retaining 650 constituencies. We believe that the decision to move to 600 seats is no longer the right choice for the British public because circumstances have changed. In the past decade, the population has grown and we have, of course, left the European Union, which means that significant areas of policy and law making are coming back to all the legislatures of the Union, including the UK Parliament.
Although I welcome this road to Damascus conversion to having 650 seats, the Minister will recall that it was not that long ago, in the Committee of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2017-19—which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan)—that she denied that argument about powers coming back from Brussels. What has changed?
It is only a shame that we are not spending yet more time in that particular Bill Committee. I have particularly regretted the hours not spent in the company of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who is sadly not in his place; we could have continued those most enjoyable conversations. In any case, a conversion on the road somewhere near Damascus is better than none, and it is right that we maintain that 650 constituencies. This will ensure effective representation for a growing population in the new era of self-government.
The Minister will know that there are 1.2 million extra people on the registers across all four nations of the United Kingdom since they were done for the last boundary review; that is really good news. Given that huge increase, will she consider using the December 2019 date for the register, rather than a date in 2020, which would see the number drop because we are not able to run the canvasses across the country?
That is a really important point and a good argument. I will come to that shortly because it is, quite rightly, at the forefront of all our minds.
Let me first deal with the other two arguments that are put forward in Labour’s reasoned amendment. It is a little disappointing to see those arguments, because all political parties really ought to be able to get behind the Bill. It is the right thing to do and it is disappointing to see an attempt to block it, because we need to have equal and updated boundaries.
In Labour’s 2019 manifesto, the party pledged to
“respond objectively to future, independent boundary reviews.”
The first two points in the amendment do not live up to that. The first says that the Bill concentrates power in the hands of the Executive. That is not true; the Opposition are wrong and I will go on to explain why. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has left his place, the second point in the amendment argues for less equal seats, and I cannot believe that there is a political party in this House that does not wish to see itself as following in the footsteps of the Chartists, seeking equal representation across the land.
I do not know how the Labour party does want to see itself, but it ought to reflect on what it said when it was last in government, as it agreed with the then Committee on Standards in Public Life that there was inequality of electoral quotas, which would erode equal representation. Labour did not change that, and it came to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in government later to put that right, bringing in the quota of plus or minus 5%. It is that which we maintain today in this legislation, and it is that which provides more equal seats and ought to be supported.
I agree broadly with the hon. Lady that equal representation between seats is really important, but we all know that from time to time different numbers of people register in different constituencies. When the first major boundary review took place in 1911, the boundaries were based on population census data and not on the whims of who had registered that year or not. Is there not a case now to go to that data, and then 5% possibly could be perfectly agreeable?
I understand the argument on census data, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting it, but I do not think it is the right thing to do. I am very happy to explain why, notwithstanding the perhaps obvious point that censuses are only every 10 years—they are on a different frequency from even the amended cycle we have here in front of us—so straight away they are not suitable because of a different rhythm. There is an important point that we ought to recognise, which is that in a census a different group of people are counted. For example, censuses, naturally, count people who are not citizens and electoral registration must count those who are eligible to vote. That is an important distinction and I think it is right that we use electoral registers as the basis of the data. Another point on which we must all agree—I am confident that he does—is that we all ought to encourage everybody to be registered to vote, because that is the core answer to his point.
When somebody from my constituency seeks my assistance, I will represent them whether they are a citizen or not and whether they are on the electoral register or not. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) makes a fair point. We represent everyone in our constituencies and surely the electoral register should be based on that number.
And so do I. And so does every single Member of Parliament in this House if they are working hard for their constituents. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman mangled his words at the end of his sentence or if he is making a different point, which is that the electoral register ought to be based on everybody whom he helps in his constituency. That could not be so, because that would, for example, put people who are not citizens of this country on the electoral register so I do not think that that is a good argument.
Let me turn to the other key changes in the Bill. It will introduce a longer boundary review cycle, with reviews taking place every eight years. We think an eight-year cycle will provide for the regular updating of constituencies, but without the disruption of constant change. The Bill will slightly shorten the timetable of the next boundary review by three months to two years and seven months. That is a one-off change which gives us the best chance of updated boundaries being in place ahead of the next general election, recognising that political parties, electoral administrators, electors and candidates need to know those boundaries in good time.
Can my hon. Friend just clarify the eight-year cycle? My concern is that with five-year Parliaments we will eventually end up with boundaries coming into effect a couple of months before an election and we will be unable to get the legal parts in place.
Yes, I am happy to do that. I think there are two points to that clarification. First, we calculate broadly that an eight-year cycle would give us a likelihood of two elections under one set of boundaries and then a third election on a changed set. It is that to which I referred when I said it gives a balance between change and continuity. It is important for constituents to know who their MP is and to do as they wish to do, which is to hold us all to account. Secondly, we operate very carefully according to the Gould principle, which states that we should not make changes to electoral matters less than six months before the relevant election. That is a point of practicality. It is a pragmatic thing. It is something I always have in mind when working on elections with those behind the scenes as the Minister with responsibility for election policy. I can give my right hon. Friend and the House an assurance that we want the principle to be in place here. There should always be a clear six months between changes to how elections are run and the running of elections.
Yes, I certainly can, very straightforwardly. The public consultation elements of the legislation stay in place. We think that is very, very important, so that everybody the hon. Gentleman lists has that chance. There is ample public consultation where they will be able to put their views and help to get the right results for communities, which I think is very important.
I know this Bill is very much in its infancy and there is a long way ahead, but as I represent the largest geographical constituency in England and Wales, it would be remiss of me not to point out that we need to consider the needs of rural communities. Our needs are stretched and our needs are different, so I urge the Minister to work closely with rural communities as we design this Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As she rightly says, there are aspects of community that really come out when we are thinking of rural seats, just as they do in respect of urban and suburban seats. I know that all such arguments will be brought out to the boundary commissions as they undertake their work after this legislation passes. I can also reassure her that a specific point in the factors the boundary commissions have to use deals with particularly large constituencies, and that one remains the same. She may have it in mind, although I do not think her neck of the woods gets quite to that size, but she will know the one I am referring to.
Let me return to the things the Bill changes. It will improve the timings of the public hearings that form part of that extensive consultation process I was just referring to. The hearings will be moved to a little later in the boundary review timetable so that they can be targeted to areas where interest is greatest. That often becomes clear only as a review gets going. The Bill will also improve the way the boundary commissions have to consider local government boundaries. They are one factor the commissions may take account of when they develop their proposals. Currently, they may consider only those local boundaries that have been implemented at a local council election prior to the start of a review. The Bill lets the boundary commissions take into account not only the local boundaries that exist at the beginning of the review, but prospective boundaries—ones that have been formalised in legislation but not yet used in an election. That measure will help to keep constituency boundaries better aligned with local government boundaries, for example, by taking into account forthcoming amendments to council wards in London, Wales, Wiltshire and Cornwall, should the orders for those areas be made by the time of the review.
In London, a lot of boundary changes are taking place in my borough of Havering, but the pandemic has meant that they have been delayed—the decision has been delayed from December until early next year. Will the Minister confirm that that will not preclude us from using the new boundaries when we look at the constituency boundaries under this review?
On local boundaries, in Brighton our average ward size is 10,000 whereas in Birmingham some of the ward sizes go up to 20,000. The difficulty of having only a 5% variance is that inevitably in urban areas we will have seats that are cut, confusion for the electorate and MPs often having to cover three council areas. Is there not a case for allowing the Boundary Commission at least to weigh up these things on an equal standing, rather than requiring them always to be subordinate to the numbers and not to the community?
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that that remains in the legislation that is already in place. I was going to come on to that in just a moment, giving the list of factors that must be taken into account, but I can assure him he will find what he asks for in that list.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I will listen to what she says next, and I will come on to this in my speech, but I just want to get her view on it. What is the reasoning behind trying to keep the boundaries within one local authority? My constituents, for example, have no idea what the boundaries of my constituency are and whether they are within the boundaries of North Yorkshire County Council, West Yorkshire or Leeds City Council. I want to probe her on why she thinks it is important to stay within local authority boundaries.
That is not exactly what I have said. What I will make clear in just a second is that there is a list of factors that the boundary commissions must have regard to in the determination. I am not saying that any one of those factors is better than the others, and neither are the boundary commissions. There is a list of factors set out in the existing legislation dating from the 1980s, and we are simply saying that we leave that as it is. My right hon. Friend will find the answer to his concern there.
Let me talk about how the proposed constituencies will be brought into effect. It will be done automatically by an Order in Council, without debate or approval by Parliament. I know that this is of some interest to Members. The purpose of this change is to bring certainty to the boundary review process. It is to give confidence that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions will be brought into effect without interference or delay. There will be no change to the Government’s obligation to give effect to the recommendations of the boundary commissions. In fact, as part of this measure, the Secretary of State’s current ability to amend the Order in Council if it is rejected by Parliament will be removed. The Executive’s power will, if anything, be reduced.
If this Bill does not proceed today because it is blocked, as Labour Members want to do, they will leave more power in the hands of the Executive. Of course, they used that power—or, should I even say, abused that power—in 1969, when the Labour party intentionally blocked the independent boundary review’s recommendations. We do not think that that is the kind of thing that should happen.
We think that, first and foremost, the boundary commissions are independent organisations. They develop their proposals through a robust and thorough process involving extensive public consultation. It is really important that their impartial recommendations are brought into effect promptly and with certainty. That avoids wasting public time and money, and it ensures the independence of the process. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use similar approaches to those proposed in the Bill with no interference.
The Minister has mentioned several times consultation by the boundary commissions, but if their scope is limited by a plus or minus 5% variation in the size of constituencies, local communities are wasting their time invariably in putting forward those arguments. Is it not more important that people who have common interests and live in a common, identifiable community vote together than to meet these tight constraints on the size of constituencies?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I think it is a really bad argument. It argues against having equal-sized constituencies, which is fundamental. If we want to be able to say that we have a first-past-the-post system that operates as fairly and respectably as it can—as it does in the other countries that I just named, and as it ought to in this country—we need to have equality of seats. It is incredibly disappointing that the Opposition are arguing against that, and I do not really understand why they are. It goes with the other really poor argument in their reasoned amendment, which I just finished dealing with.
The Minister’s point is absolutely correct—we do have to have balanced boundaries—but does she agree that that can be achieved by having smaller building blocks, like polling districts, rather than huge wards that change from one constituency to another? If the boundary commissions used smaller building blocks like polling districts, it would avoid communities being broken up.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I had better make progress and take no further interventions. I will endeavour to speak as quickly as I can to cover the remainder of the important content.
Let me turn to the permitted tolerance in electoral quota, which relates to the plus or minus 5% point that we have just touched on. The rules on that have been in place since 2011, and they provide that the Boundary Commission has to develop proposals on the basis that all constituencies are within a 10% range of the average constituency electorate. That is known as the electoral quota. As I have been saying, that is critical to achieving equal constituencies and to votes carrying the same weight. We have systemic inequality in some of our constituencies—I could give the examples, but I will let them be seen for themselves in some of the almanacs that we normally have around us. We know that there is a problem with unequally sized constituencies.
The existing law allows a few limited exceptions to the rules, including in respect of four protected constituencies which, because of their particular geographical circumstances, may diverge from the quota. In certain circumstances, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland may propose constituencies that fall outside the range, and that is because of the fact that Northern Ireland represents the smallest discrete grouping of constituencies, so the Boundary Commission has less capacity in Northern Ireland specifically to meet the standard tolerance. We do not intend to add to those exceptions.
We are all absolutely passionate about representing our communities and our areas, and they all have distinctive natures—we all argue that and we all know that in our hearts in respect of the areas we represent—but I return to the central point that we are trying to achieve parity of representation for all electors across the Union and within its constituent nations. We do not think that additional exceptions are necessary, because the 10% tolerance range gives the boundary commissions the flexibility that they need to do the job, and they do that by taking into account the other factors that are set out in the existing legislation and will remain in place, to which I have referred a couple of times already. Those factors include local ties; geographical features and considerations; existing constituency and local government boundaries; and inconveniences caused by proposed changes to constituency boundaries.
We believe that the 10% tolerance will continue to allow the boundary commissions to consult openly and fully on their proposals and to adjust their recommendations in the light of the responses that they receive. The three separate consultation periods give significant opportunity to communities—as well as others in the process, such as political parties—to comment on proposals. Responses can be made in a number of ways and they really do shape the recommendations. For example, in the most recent boundary review more than 50% of the proposals for constituencies in England were adjusted in the light of feedback, so there is flexibility in the process and it is routinely used successfully.
Will the Minister therefore urge the boundary commissions to use common sense? In the most recent review, for example, they did not take into account many sensible things. In the proposals, the Cardiff bay barrage in my constituency was split between three different constituencies. Previous reviews had listened sensibly to different geographical requirements, and things like the most recent proposals simply do not make sense.
I can promise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that is the last intervention I will take, but it does give me the chance to say that the boundary commissions will listen to the debates in Parliament and will perhaps hear at a different level of detail the arguments that right hon. and hon. Members put. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s having said that; I am sure it will be listened to by those who operate the rules that we give them through the legislation.
Let me turn to the data, which is very important. Again, we do not intend to alter the long-established practice of reviews being based on the electoral register as updated by the annual canvass. The canvass is the process by which those who are registered to vote in an area are checked and verified every 12 months. Electoral data drawn from the registers in Scotland, Wales and England is further checked by the relevant agencies— National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics—and the collated information, including on Northern Ireland, is then published centrally by the ONS, so it is a complete and current picture of the situation in all four nations. From that point on, it is used by the boundary commissions. As a general rule, the data that comes after the annual canvass represents the most up-to-date, robust and transparent information source on which to base a boundary review.
Let me turn to the impact of coronavirus on this year’s annual canvass, because it is very important. This is where the reasoned amendment tabled by Opposition Members contains a good point. To state the obvious, it relates only to the immediate next review, rather than to the principles of the Bill. I assure the House that I have been looking at the issue for some time and am considering carefully the options for the next boundary review to be based, on a one-off basis, on an alternative dataset not affected by the coronavirus pandemic. I will update the House on that in due course. I hope that reassures right hon. and hon. Members that we will be able to return to the issue during the later stages of the Bill, thereby allowing us to take the time to observe the problem and get it right as a one-off this year.
In closing, let me give a further reassurance that I am working extremely closely with what we call the electoral community.
It is a logical question. I have said that I will update the House in due course on that. I am looking at several options to get the most complete and accurate data for us to use in the boundary review this year. I am not seeking to avoid answering the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will be in a position to bring the information forward during the Bill’s later stages, when I look forward very much to completing the reassurance I am giving the House that we want to use the best data that is unaffected by the pandemic. That stands slightly separately from arguments that perhaps he or other colleagues would like to make about other types of data that should be used. I am talking specifically about how to handle coronavirus. I know that he will understand that that needs to be kept in mind.
I was about to go on to say that I am in contact with the electoral administrators throughout the sector to see, up to the very latest moment, the challenges they face and how they can be dealt with in the publication of canvass data to give the best input to the Bill and for all the other purposes for which canvass data are used—mainly helping people to register to vote.
The Bill is very important. It is technical, but its goal is simple: to ensure 650 equal and updated constituencies. The people of the UK deserve fair votes and effective representation, and to have trust in and certainty about the boundary review process that delivers those things. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House whilst supporting the retention of 650 parliamentary constituencies declines to give a Second Reading to the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill because the Bill would disproportionately and undemocratically concentrate power over constituency sizes and boundaries in the hands of the executive, because the Bill fails to create a more flexible electoral quota allowing greater consideration to be given to local ties and community connections when drawing constituency boundaries, and because the proposed numeration date for the boundary review of 1 December 2020 risks boundaries being based on an incomplete register owing to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the preparation of electoral registers.”
Every single one of us in the House today represents a constituency that has been drawn up based on the electorate data of nearly two decades ago. Twenty years ago, our country and our communities looked very different. Some of our communities have grown and others have seen population decline. Indeed, in that time, 2 million more electors have come on to the electoral roll and it is time we counted them when it comes to the constituencies we represent.
We hope that the review can be completed before the next general election and that there will be no further delay. After two shelved boundary reviews, the public will not want more taxpayers’ money to be wasted on a review that does not see the light of day. We need a boundary review, and the Opposition stand ready to work with the Government on that if it is fair and the rules are not inserted or omitted on the basis of any perceived political advantage for any party.
The Bill must proceed with the aim of delivering a fair and democratic review. We want the new boundaries to reflect the country as it is today and ensure that all communities get fair representation. Those boundaries must also take into consideration local ties and identities.
I welcome the Government’s decision to reverse their previous position of reducing the number of MPs to 600. As we have left the European Union and the work of the UK’s 73 MEPs falls to this House, it would have piled a heavier workload on to fewer shoulders. More importantly, it would have handed further power to the Executive, because reducing the number of MPs while refusing to cut the size of the Government payroll would create a dangerous level of Executive dominance at the expense of Parliament and our democracy.
Welcoming the return to proposing 650 MPs brings me to the last two wasted reviews on the 600 figure. With two abandoned reviews, we are in a farcical situation with boundaries. While Tory Ministers argued with their Back Benchers, public resources flooded down the drain. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted. The unfinished 2013 review cost British taxpayers £7 million. It wasted the time and expertise of the boundary commissioners in working towards a target that was destined to be scrapped, and the 2018 review was equally wasteful. In a written question, the Government estimated the cost at £8 million. The Government have not provided a recent figure on that, but I have given the Minister the opportunity to do so by tabling a written parliamentary question asking just that.
However, one of the biggest concerns that the Opposition have about the Bill is the Government’s decision to end parliamentary oversight of the process. It is yet another attempt to diminish scrutiny of executive power. Parliamentary oversight is fundamental to the democratic passing of a Bill, and this Bill is no different. The Minister says that it is to stop MPs blocking new boundaries, but in the last Parliament it was her Government who never tabled that review for a vote, so we will never know the outcome of a vote that never took place.
The process of needing MPs to vote for the final report from the commission is an important safety net, because without it we would now have just 600 MPs here today. When the Government wanted to go back to 650, it was that safety net that allowed them to do so and make that happen, but removing parliamentary scrutiny is worrying for the future integrity of our democracy. This loophole allows a power grab, with no parliamentary backstop to limit the dominance of the Executive. The Government have not shown any regard for the primacy of Parliament. Indeed, the unlawful prorogation of Parliament is a case in point.
I note the remarks that the Minister made about the enumeration date in the Bill of December 2020. I am glad that she is looking at this, and I look forward to her update to the House, because after 20 years of delay, the boundaries must reflect the electorate with the best possible accuracy. I urge her to consider ditching the 1 December 2020 register in light of the unprecedented covid-19 crisis that we are currently living through. Our councils are working flat out to support our communities at the present time, and to ask them to undertake an annual canvass at a time of social distancing when they have stretched capacity risks that register being patchy at best. So I welcome the Minister’s remarks and put on record my thanks for the hard work that all our councils are doing in supporting some of our most vulnerable residents at this time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be a case to always link the register to the last general election? We know that that is a credible register. Other crises might come up in the future, and the Government will always have to be changing, whereas if the register is always based on the last election we will know that it is based on a mandate that people have exercised.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very sensible point. What he notes, of course, is that we see a spike in voter registration when we have a general or a local election. Of course, this year there are no elections because of the coronavirus crisis, but just six months ago we had a general election in this country and we know that the December 2019 register is incredibly accurate because we saw a spike in voter registration.
We are also aware that electoral registration officers are already expressing concern about the impacts that coronavirus will have on the December 2020 registers, and the prevailing opinion is that the annual canvass is likely to be impacted in some significant way. I urge the Minister to favour using the very recent general election data of December 2019. The Office for National Statistics released that data just last week, and we saw more than 1 million people register between December 2018 and December 2019, indicating that the December 2019 register is much more accurate than the December 2020 register will potentially be.
The fact that the data was published last week demonstrates the lag in collating that data. So if, for example, the Government were to continue to use the December 2020 register, commissioners would probably be waiting until May 2021 before they had collected that data from EROs and could get on with their work. Let us help the boundary commissioners begin their important work as soon as possible by using the data published last week, which we already have, relating to December 2019 and the general election.
Does the hon. Member accept that one of the key issues is to ensure that the electoral officers are properly sourced, supplied and located across the various constituencies? One of the problems in the last election was that because there had been a refurbishment and, indeed, a reduction in the number of election officers, there were errors in sending out people’s polling cards and some people did not know who in their household could vote. Does she agree that this is a good opportunity to ensure that electoral officers are properly supplied and in the right locations?
I thank the hon. Member for giving me the opportunity to put on record my concerns about the overstretched nature of electoral returning officers in our councils right across the country. Cuts to local government have not protected electoral returning officers and the resources that they are working with.
Turning to the issue of the electoral quota, I know that Members across the House will want to highlight their concerns about the impact of this boundary review on communities in their constituencies. Community has never been stronger than during these troubling months. Right across the country, we are seeing communities come together to support vulnerable people, and now more than ever, community connections must be valued and respected. However, the restrictive 5% quota tolerance in the Bill flies in the face of protecting community ties. I know that many of my Welsh colleagues are planning to speak this afternoon, and they will highlight some of the geographical challenges the quota throws up—by which I mean mountains dividing constituencies. In Devon and Cornwall, the Government have repeatedly ignored the historic and proud identities of those counties. Boundaries based on strict numbers that ignore identities do not carry community support, as we have seen with the so-called Devonwall seats in the last review. Will the Minister ensure that there is no Devonwall seat in this Bill? I suspect that Cornish MPs might want to table an amendment to protect Cornish identity. If they were to do so, would the Minister back them?
As the Minister knows, there is consensus among respected experts such as Ron Johnston, David Rosser and Charles Pattie, who agree that the 5% rule causes significant disruption to community boundaries. Indeed, they concluded that the substantial disruption on the map of constituencies in the aborted sixth review was not entirely the result of the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600; their report showed in detail that disruption was caused by the introduction of the uniform national quota and the 5% tolerance. I commend to the Minister the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), which suggests a 7.5% quota. Communities across the UK will be more representative if a wider quota is introduced. Why is the Minister refusing to accept the evidence and introduce a quota that would be better for everyone?
Is this not an example of the prayer of St Augustine—grant me chastity and continence, but just not yet? If we are going to do this, let us do it right and let us do it now. The hon. Lady is making an argument for perpetuating inequity.
I completely dispute the hon. Member’s argument; that is absolutely not the case. I am very keen that the Government should be able to get on with this boundary review. I want new boundaries to be in place ahead of the next general election, because at the moment we stand in this House representing constituencies based on data that is two decades old. We should absolutely move on from the status quo, but I am saying that we should ask for a quota of 7.5%, because we could then keep community ties together and represent constituencies that actually look like the communities we stand here and claim to represent.
The hon. Lady has come on to the 5%, rather than moving on from that, but the OSCE standard around the world states that there should be a variance of no more than 10% from constituency to constituency if there is to be a fair election. Would the hon. Lady like to develop her argument in relation to that international standard?
The Opposition recognise the need for constituencies to be broadly as equal as possible, but anyone who stands up in this House and says that they truly believe that all constituencies should be equal should look at the data from December 2019. If we were to take that data on how the electorate looked and say that every constituency had to be exactly equal, every constituency would have to have an electorate of 72,613; not 72,614 or 72,612—those figures would be outside the quota. There will always need to be a variance, and it is a question of striking a balance between having constituencies that are broadly equal and constituencies that represent their community ties.
The amendment does not mention 7.5%. If that is Labour party policy, would it not lead to a situation where there could be two constituencies side by side with a 15% difference in their numbers, thereby totally undermining the argument that every vote should have equal weight?
The 7.5% I drew attention to is in the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Wellingborough, so if the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) wants to know where the figure comes from, I suggest he speaks to his hon. Friend.
I am conscious that you want to get all Back Benchers into this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. There are many aspects of the Bill that make sense and that we welcome—for example, giving the boundary commissioners more flexibility to use local government and ward boundaries that are yet to come into force. We also welcome the move to hold reviews every eight years. The longer cycle will limit the disruption caused to parliamentary constituencies, potentially resulting in savings, but ensuring that MPs remain accountable to their constituents, so that we are not elected to this place and our constituents are never given a chance to hold us to account in a further election.
I look forward to hearing the contributions from all Members to this important debate. It is time for a democratic boundary review, and the Labour party will not stand in the way of that. However, the Bill must not strengthen the power of the Executive at the expense of Parliament. I hope the Minister will consider changing the numeration date, given the extraordinary circumstances of covid-19.
I am aware that boundary changes can make a difference to MPs and their prospects. When the boundary changes came in before the 1997 election, the ones proposed in my former seat were the best possible for me, but adverse—I would have stood and lost.
At the last moment, there was a deal between the Tory leader of Greenwich Council and the Labour leader to bring in the worst possible ones, so there was a major boundary change that allowed the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) to be elected, having not succeeded the previous time—although there is a rumour that in the previous election he held a victory party at 10 o’clock and then had to come and hear my victory speech.
The self-interest when people consider these matters is epitomised by the background paper written by the Liberal Democrats in 1982. They wanted to have multi-member constituencies, with the exception of the Orkneys and Shetland, Isle of Wight, and probably Isle of Ely as well—all three Liberal-held constituencies.
In the same way, people look at the article by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, published in Parliamentary Affairs, volume 47, issue 3, in July 1994, in which they describe very calmly what the Labour Government tried to do in 1969, which was put through primary legislation to avoid the boundary commission proposal being implemented.
When the House of Lords blocked that, the Government were not going to take any action at all until court action forced the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, to put it to the House of Commons; and then they had a three-line Whip on Labour Members to vote against the boundary changes. I regard that as showing that some people look at these matters in the light of self-interest.
If we had made the change to 600 MPs, the Worthing constituencies—that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my own—would not have changed; we had the right number of electors. I would be disappointed if, with 650, there had to be changes, but I doubt they would be very significant.
However, the next time we have a Bill like this one, the Government may want to consider whether they really want to say to the Electoral Commission that the number has to be exactly 650 or 600-and-something, or whether they could allow a margin of appreciation if that would help to solve a particular problem. Last time, the Isle of Wight argument resulted in two proposed seats; that sort of flexibility could be useful. I am not saying that we should change the Bill now, but when we consider what to do in the future, we should do that.
My last point is perhaps the most important one. We ought to use the electoral register as the Government propose, but much, much more effort should go in to making that register full.
I have attended various discussions over the years in which people say we should use mobile phone records and other ways of checking and double checking, and actually inviting people to come on to the register, and saying that if they do not, they are not complying with the regulations and the law.
I hope that people will realise that going on the electoral register is right, necessary and helpful. Then, we will not have to face the argument that we ought to use a previous general election register, which with five-year Parliaments or anything like that would be three, four or five years out of date, instead of being as up-to date as possible.
Each of us has a great relationship with our constituents and our constituencies. I would like to mention an NHS hero, the Reverend Father Dr Biji, who for many years was the vicar of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in Harold Hill in Romford, who was also a hospital chaplain on the south coast, and who has sadly died. In his memory, I use the words on his church website, which come from John 10:11:
“The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep”.
I am glad to see that the Lord President of the Council is back in his place, because I want to put this on the record in relation to this afternoon’s conduct. We were told we were coming back to the House so that we would have more time for parliamentary and legislative scrutiny, but rather ironically the time we have for this debate has been curtailed by chewing up the best part of two hours to vote. I want to let the Leader of the House reflect on that.
Coming into the Chamber today gave me a sense of déjà vu. That is not because it is the first time I have been back in Parliament since lockdown started, but because I feel that we have been debating boundaries for many years now.
It is genuinely a delight to be Front-Benching today alongside the Minister and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), because in the last Parliament the three of us spent what felt like a huge portion of our lives on the Public Bill Committee that considered the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which was brought forward by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). I would be willing to wager that it is the only Bill in parliamentary history where all three Front Benchers went away and had children during the consideration of the Bill. However, little Rosamund, Eli and Jessica now have the dubious title of being children of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill.
While the Bill of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton fell during not one, but two Prorogations—one of which was deemed unlawful—it was certainly helpful in setting down a marker for where we are today. His Bill sought valiantly to fight off plans from the Government to reduce the number of seats in this House from 650 to 600. As many of us argued back then, reducing the number of MPs, particularly with new legislative powers coming back from Brussels, would have been a bonkers proposal and flies in the face of the argument about cutting the cost of politics, particularly given the ever-expanding House of peers along the corridor.
I genuinely welcome the U-turn made by the Government to stick to 650 seats, although I say again to the Government that if they are genuinely interested in constitutional reform and want to slim down the size of the UK legislature, some of us would be very glad to see 59 fewer seats in the House when Scotland becomes independent.
I am glad that the Government have seen sense and abandoned the proposal to cut the number of MPs with the implementation of new boundaries. The boundaries do need reviewing and on that the Minister will find cross-party support. Indeed, my current constituency boundaries have been in place since I was 15 years old, and the constituency has seen significant house building since then. One street in my constituency—Sword Street—has three Members of Parliament. Like the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, I disagree profusely with elements of the Bill, and for that reason the SNP will support the reasoned amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer).
My first and immediate concern with the Bill relates to Scottish representation in the House. As I alluded to earlier, Scotland currently is entitled to 59 seats in Parliament. Although many of us would not wish to see Scotland being governed from London at all, that is the current constitutional reality for now. Based on the proposed electoral quotas, we would probably see Scotland going down by two or three seats to the advantage of England, which strikes me as being wholly unfair.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the electoral quotas proposed in the Bill risk reducing representation in rural Scotland even further, particularly in the highlands? I already face a 110-mile round trip to conduct my advice surgeries. My colleagues have to travel on small boats and go to overnight stays to conduct their duties in their constituencies. The quota proposals are a real risk for the representation of people in Scotland, particularly in rural areas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has put that on record, and it rather serves to reinforce the view that when legislation is drafted up in the Cabinet Office by Ministers, they take no cognizance at all of the situation in rural Scotland, from where Members of Parliament, such as him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), have had to travel for probably the best part of a day to get here—some of that just within their own constituencies. It is a point well made and something that the Government would do well to reflect upon.
When the hon. Gentleman speaks about constituencies and large areas, he will obviously be aware of the Scottish Parliament, where regional Members in the Highlands and Islands represent 44% of the landmass of Scotland, which is bigger than Belgium. The Parliament he is so keen that all Scottish representatives should go to currently has a system that is represented by MSPs covering large geographical areas.
I am afraid that on this one the hon. Gentleman is at risk of comparing not just apples and oranges, but apples and avocados. He knows quite well that the Scottish Parliament has a system whereby there are constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament and regional Members of the Scottish Parliament. I am afraid that he is conflating two issues, and perhaps doing so deliberately.
As I say, based on the current electoral quotas, we would probably see Scotland going down by two or three seats. That would be to the advantage of other parts of the UK, which seems wholly unfair. It certainly does not ring true with what people in Scotland were told in 2014, during the independence referendum. Back then, we were told that we should lead the United Kingdom in the event of a no vote. On the contrary, we have probably never felt more excluded, more isolated and ignored in the UK, as has certainly been highlighted by the Brexit process.
To be clear to the Minister, we must remain with 59 seats in Scotland. I think any Member of Parliament who represents Scotland in this House should be getting behind that argument, regardless of party. However, the Government are not guaranteeing that at the moment, so I will seek to push this by way of amendment when the Bill goes upstairs to the Committee corridor.
Secondly, I want to turn to clause 7 of the Bill, and in particular the enumeration date, which causes difficulties for us. The registration numbers are clearly a little off at the moment, and I would expect registration in Scotland to increase next year as we approach a Scottish Parliament election, so I am concerned about the cut-off date of December 2020. I appreciate what the Minister has said about going back and reviewing that. We will certainly hold the Government’s feet to the fire on that in the Public Bill Committee.
Thirdly and finally, I am deeply concerned about the provision in clause 2(3), which I believe is a power grab, removing the role of both Houses of Parliament. It was not that long ago that Ministers, including the Lord President of the Council, spent huge amounts of time talking about the sovereignty of Parliament, saying that Parliament is sovereign and Parliament has taken back control, yet clause 2(3) specifically removes the role of both Houses of Parliament. Frankly, it is alarming to see the Executive trying to grab power over boundaries, which has led in places such as America to nonsensical partisan electoral maps. Any Members who want to do a bit more research on that should just look at the 4th congressional district of Illinois, which is frankly gerrymandering on steroids.
The Government’s explanatory notes for the Bill gloss over the fact that boundaries will
“no longer be subject to any parliamentary procedure or approval”,
instead being in the gift of the Cabinet Office and its Ministers. That is fundamentally an Executive power grab.
I am listening carefully to the points the hon. Gentleman is making powerfully, but does he not accept that with our parliamentary system, in which the governing party will normally have an overall majority, this is the reverse of that? It is moving power away from the Government-controlled House of Commons and giving it to an independent Boundary Commission. Personally, I have confidence in it: I have not had problems with its proposals in the past, even when they have disadvantaged my party.
The one flaw in that argument is that in the last Parliament the Government started with a majority, and the majority disappeared. I do not think it happens to be a bad thing that we put things in front of Parliament, and if Parliament does not want them, it rejects them. I think all of us who served in the last Parliament remember the inconvenience of that and the stress that it caused the Government. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, who I understand is a Brexiteer, cannot have his cake and eat it. He cannot say that Parliament is sovereign and Parliament should be taking back control, and then bring forward legislation that removes the role of Parliament. That, I am afraid, is a massive contradiction.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once again. Under these proposals, the reviews will only be carried out every eight years. That would take no account of cities such as Inverness, which I represent, where we have had exponential growth in the estimated total of population. It is now sitting at 64,000, and only today it has been highlighted in The Inverness Courier as the fastest growing city in Scotland. If that is given away, there is no ability to adjust those things.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Again, the Government must go back and look at this matter.
I want to come back to that point about the size of constituencies, because the Bill does not address the fact that it still allows for constituencies of up to 12,000 square kilometres. That is about eight times the size of Greater London, which has 73 MPs, with much more challenging transport links. We will seek to amend that in Committee. I hope the Government will not just use their majority to ram the Bill through, because a majority in Parliament does not mean a monopoly on wisdom.
This Second Reading debate provides an opportunity to comment on the principles of the Bill, which I have now dealt with, but, while we are on this topic, I want to speak more broadly about electoral reform. We have the opportunity now to look again at some of the injustices within our political and electoral system—perhaps we could even call it levelling things up. A new Parliament means another opportunity to test the will of the House on votes at 16, leaving behind the broken first-past-the-post voting system, which, although it has benefited me, is morally wrong and something that we need to look at again. We also need to look at abolishing the tainted House of Lords. These are issues that fall within the remit of the Minister at the Dispatch Box, for whom I have great personal respect. Although we have had disagreements about the merits of reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600, I genuinely believe that she is someone who listens and considers an argument on merit. When she had clearly done that, she came back to the House with a revised number of 650 seats.
Although I accept that the Bill will probably pass Second Reading, I very much hope that, when it goes upstairs to Committee, we can make the necessary changes to ensure that Scotland has proper representation and sensible, up-to-date boundaries that are fit for purpose for so long as we need to be here.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and I also welcome the Bill. As the Minister will know, Northern Ireland currently has 18 parliamentary constituencies and it is our view that that should continue to be the case. If one looks at the 2019 register used for the general election, one will see that, certainly, 18 seats are justified on the basis of a UK-wide quota. Indeed, the previous Bill introduced in the last Parliament proposed that Northern Ireland should continue to have 18 seats. Therefore, the main purpose of a Boundary Commission in Northern Ireland at this time will be to examine the disconnect between the local government ward boundaries, which were reviewed under the reform of local government in Northern Ireland and which have been in place now for the past couple of Parliaments, and the current parliamentary boundaries in Northern Ireland, which are based on the previous local government ward boundaries. In my constituency, for example, the village of Dunmurry is in the Lagan Valley constituency but it is also part of the new ward in Belfast City Council. Therefore there is a disconnect between the local government ward and the parliamentary ward, which causes confusion for people when they are voting at two elections, as often happens in Northern Ireland.
It is very important that the constituencies are named, and named correctly, so that people can recognise those constituencies in terms of who they represent. In Northern Ireland, we are very blessed to have 18 constituencies, which our constituents seem to understand and recognise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the naming of the constituencies, wherever they may be across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is very important so that they can be recognised by people?
I dare anyone to try to change the name of the Strangford constituency, because they will incur the wrath of my hon. Friend in at least 10 Adjournment debate interventions.
There are indeed some variations in the electoral quota of constituencies in Northern Ireland, which will need to be corrected. The largest constituency in Northern Ireland in terms of electorate is Upper Bann, with a current electorate of 82,887. The smallest constituency is that of East Antrim, with an electorate of 64,830. There is a disparity between the two electorates of almost 20,000. It is with good reason that Northern Ireland continues to enjoy the added flexibility of the 10% variation on the quota, given our distinct geographical circumstances and given the fact that there are limitations to what changes you can make in a place such as Northern Ireland, which has a land frontier with another country. Therefore, we welcome the Government’s commitment to maintain that added flexibility for Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the need to bring more constituencies within that 10% tolerance. Almost half the seats in Northern Ireland are within the 5% tolerance of the UK quota, and a further five are within 10%, so it is only six of the 18 seats that are currently outside the 10% tolerance that will need to be brought back into line.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that to keep within that tolerance, it is sometimes better to use small building blocks, such as polling districts, rather than wards? In that way, it can be done much more successfully than creating bigger areas and will help to keep communities together.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and the interest he takes in Northern Ireland. He will be interested to know that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland seems to have conspired to create polling stations that are almost exclusively a single ward anyway, and that we no longer really have polling districts that are different from the wards, in terms of where people vote, and the division and subdivision of wards. That is the nature of our local government electoral system. However, I take his point and it brings me on to my next point, which has been mentioned by other right hon. and hon. Members, and it concerns the importance of ensuring that communities have an affinity with the constituency that they represent. We really do not want to see a boundary commission splitting villages between two constituencies. That is entirely wrong. It goes to the heart of our parliamentary democracy that communities have an affinity with their constituency and their Member of Parliament, and I hope that that kind of flexibility can be included within the arrangements.
We also welcome the fact that the next boundary review, following the completion of this one, will be eight years on. I think that that is a good thing. It gives us a degree of continuity and ensures that we have approximately two Parliaments between boundary reviews. It is a sensible arrangement that we support.
I note what the Minister said in relation to datasets in Northern Ireland. Our canvass has been postponed to 2021, and our view is that the general election datasets are the most accurate, because more people register in Northern Ireland—as I am sure is the case across the UK—for a general election. Therefore, the December 2019 dataset is very accurate. I commend that to the Minister’s thinking as she considers the options available to her. I echo the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made earlier that we should consider making that the norm for datasets and looking to the previous general election, unless there is some exceptional reason why we would not.
The new boundaries in Northern Ireland will also apply to the Northern Ireland Assembly because, of course, our electoral system means that in each of the parliamentary constituencies, we elect five Members of the Assembly by proportional representation. On the current timeframe for the review, it is unlikely that the changes will be in force in time for the next Assembly election scheduled for 2022, but it is worth bearing in mind that this is relevant not only to parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland, but to an Assembly election.
Finally, I say again that we welcome the retention of 650 seats for the UK. Given the extra responsibilities that this Parliament will have post Brexit, we believe that that is the right approach and it is one that we fully support.
I do not want to stop the cut and thrust of debate, but I remind right hon and hon. Members that interventions possibly have the effect of stopping not only others, but oneself from speaking, because there are a lot of people who want to get in on the debate. That is just a gentle reminder.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I rise to speak on behalf of the people of Moray. I am very attached to my constituency, which is coterminous currently with the Moray Council boundary, which is a council that I represented originally from 2007 until 2017 and then subsequently for three more years on my election to this place. I also accept that two decades is a long time to go without any discussion, debate or consultation on the boundary of Moray and the other 649 seats represented in this Parliament. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that he was 15 when the last boundary changes were made in his seat. While I was not 15, I was not old enough to vote in Moray the last time the boundaries were changed, so I think this is important. We have heard so far in this debate, and I am sure we will continue to hear, cross-party support for the need to look at the boundaries.
I listened intently, and I will look at amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman in the Bill Committee on maintaining the 59 seats in Scotland, but we cannot ignore the fact that the average Scottish constituency has 67,200 electors, which is 5,000 fewer than the average English constituency has. It is important that there is equality across the whole of the United Kingdom—
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are particular constituencies in Scotland, namely Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, where there is a reason why there are smaller numbers. The figure he has quoted is therefore perhaps inaccurate; it is artificially different because of those island constituencies.
I accept that point, and it is therefore important that the Government proposal respects the two constituencies that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—Orkney and Shetland, and Na h-Eileanan an Iar. In supporting this Bill on Second Reading and throughout the process, it is important that we recognise the geographical implications of those island communities that are represented here.
However, since the hon. Gentleman makes the point of comparing constituencies, I add that his Glasgow East constituency has an electorate of just over 67,000, yet my Moray constituency has an electorate of over 71,000, so there are variances in constituencies within Scotland as well, and it is important that we look at that going forward.
I welcome the fact that these boundaries will be reviewed on an eight-yearly basis. As I have said, the last review was two decades ago, which is a long time. Given my own circumstances in the past seven days and my own movement throughout politics in this Chamber and in this Government, I have come to consider the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” a lot; if a week is a long time in politics, two decades—20 years—is a lifetime, and I do not think it is right that we continue to represent constituencies that were made up before I could vote and certainly before the hon. Member for Glasgow East could.
I want to praise a group of people who are often unsung heroes in each of our constituencies: our local election staff. They do a power of work, and not just on elections—and sometimes elections that are not timed at the best time of year for many people. In Moray, we have an outstanding team, with our returning officer Denise Whitworth and our elections team headed by Moira Patrick and Alison Davidson. They work all year round to ensure that the democratic decision of people in Moray and in constituencies across the country is heard. It is right that we recognise that they put in a lot of work not just during an election campaign and the count, which is always important to us, but all year round. Whether in by-elections, in updating registers, or in ensuring that people have a voice and continue to be heard, the work they do is crucial.
I was encouraged to hear the point made by the Minister—who has done an outstanding job on the Bill so far, and I am sure will continue to do so—about the improved timing of the public hearings. I have been involved in public hearings for boundary commissions, and they may not be the sexiest thing for people to go along to, but people are engaged; they are very connected with their local constituencies. Whether it is a constituency’s name, a constituency’s boundaries or the fact that a line drawn somewhere pleases some and displeases others, it is right that they have the opportunity to express their views. While they may not be happy with the final outcome, they feel franchised and involved in the process up to that point.
I welcome the cross-party support we have heard so far during the debate, but I am left confused by the Labour position. Although the shadow Minister made a good speech, having listened to it I am unsure what the Opposition are calling for in the reasoned amendment they will be pressing to a Division. Are they calling for 7.5% tolerance, because that is in the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)? In response to an intervention, the shadow Minister could not tell us if that was the Labour party position. The 7.5% figure has been proposed from the Dispatch Box but they are not saying whether that is the Labour party position. I hope that during the course of the debate, and perhaps in summing up, we get more information on that, because whether it is 5% or 7.5%, or, as others have said, the international standard of 10%, we are always drawing a line somewhere and people will not be happy just over or under one side of that line. It is important that we have that clarification from the Opposition, because that point was left hanging in the opening remarks.
I was keen to get involved in this debate because it was another opportunity to mention Moray. In some way or another, Moray will continue after the next boundary change. It is important that we can all take this Bill forward and support it on Second Reading, and I look forward to seeing its future progress through the House.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for her vital work in persuading the Government to U-turn on the vital issue of how many MPs there should be. It is absolutely right that we should remain at 650. Reducing the number to 600 would have reduced MPs’ ability to properly fight our constituents’ causes, particularly at a time when Brexit will increase the amount of legislative work that we do in this place; it would have created a significant and unfair advantage for the Conservative party, given how the new borders would probably have fallen; and it would have driven a coach and horses through the geographical logic of dozens of constituencies. I am proud of my party and our Front Benchers for securing that vital U-turn.
Nevertheless, I have a number of serious concerns about the Bill, which is why I will vote for the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. First, I have grave reservations about the proposal that the variance should be limited to 5% higher or 5% lower than the average constituency size of 72,600. That gives the boundary commissions a ridiculously small amount of leeway, which will inevitably lead to some ludicrous consequences. The unnecessarily narrow margin will split long-established communities from one another, erode local identities and divide neighbourhoods.
Many of our constituencies are built on strong local bonds. If they were not, we might as well name every constituency from one to 650 and be done with it. My constituency is a case in point. The valleys villages are linked to town hubs by local transport routes. For instance, the Afan valley connects directly to Port Talbot, while the Neath valley links with Neath town centre. A boundary change would split either of those pairings, with the geography of the area meaning that a constituent might have to travel miles to see their MP and might not know which of the two local MPs to contact about a particular issue.
This kind of painting by numbers approach to the boundary review would erode trust in our democratic processes. Polling shows that trust in politicians and politics is worryingly low, so breaking our historic communities up along artificial lines would be utterly self-defeating. I therefore urge the Government to increase the electoral tolerance from plus/minus 5% to either 7.5% or 10%. I think this issue needs to be hammered out in Committee—I would like to see detailed proposals on it—but plus/minus 5% is clearly too low.
My second concern is about parliamentary oversight. If we want to protect our democracy, why will the Government not allow the boundary commissions’ changes to be brought back to Parliament for it to scrutinise? This is nothing short of a constitutional outrage, but it should come as no surprise; we have seen how the Prime Minister likes to play fast and loose with democratic principles. We saw his Prorogation of Parliament last year—not once but twice. The first was deemed illegal, and during the second he misled not only Parliament but the Queen. We also saw his reluctance to allow scientific advisers to answer perfectly legitimate questions at the 5 pm press conference last Tuesday.
There is the potential for gerrymandering. The process is too opaque, and there are concerns and scepticism about the possibility of pressure being applied by the Government on the boundary commissions. If the Government have confidence in this process, why will they not allow Parliament to scrutinise the final proposals?
The final point I would like to make is about which electoral register will be used to reshape the constituencies. The Government say that they will use the register as it stands from 1 December 2020, but there is a danger, with the pandemic and the recovery absorbing so much focus, that people may drop off—particularly students—and the lists may not be an accurate representation of numbers. It would make far more sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made clear, to use the electoral register from the 2019 general election, to have more accurate data.
I hope the Government will heed the concerns of myself and others. We cannot allow arbitrary lines to divide our communities. We must complete this process in a truly democratic manner by debating the final changes in both Houses, as is customary, and we must use the most accurate data available.
We all know that boundary changes are long overdue. We have all heard about the anomalies around the country, with some seats knocking on 80,000 to 90,000 electors, and others having only 40,000 to 50,000 electors. That cannot be right. The debate should be about what will happen later, when we are rowing with the boundary commission about its recommendations for our particular area, rather than the principle of changing the boundaries. This is all about fairness. It is about ensuring that, when you go to a polling station on election day, your vote is as worthy as that of somebody else in a neighbouring constituency. That seems to be the basic principle behind this.
I very much agree with what the shadow Minister said about the principle of changing from 600 seats to 650 seats. It is a welcome measure, because since that policy was introduced by the coalition Government, we have had the Brexit referendum, when it was decided that we were going to be leaving the European Union. As a consequence, more laws will be dealt with here, requiring more scrutiny in this House, as opposed to the European Parliament. It would seem odd to have fewer MPs here trying to scrutinise more legislation.
Surely keeping 650 seats will make it easier to keep communities together, rather than split them up. One of the problems with the proposal of 600 seats was that communities were split up, and communities are the basis of our constituencies.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point, because having 650 Members of Parliament means that we represent fewer constituents.
The Labour party manifesto had only one clear commitment about boundary changes, and that was to have 650 seats. They have got that, and yet still they want to refuse to give the Bill a Second Reading, even when they have been successful on the main policy in their manifesto on boundary changes.
I agree with the Labour party that, had we stuck with the original policy and gone back to 600 MPs, we would have seen a decrease in the size of the legislature, but the Executive would have stayed the same size. That is a valid argument for saying that there would be a disproportionate impact on the House if we went back to 600 seats. But that is not happening, and I therefore find it slightly odd that we are not seeing some support from the Labour party.
We have been accused of not paying enough interest in local communities by not having an electoral quota of plus or minus 7.5% or 10%—I am not quite sure what the Labour party policy is on that. If that were the case, we could have simply taken the electorate of the whole country and divided it by 650, and that is what the boundary commissions would have had to implement. That is far from what we are doing. What we are doing is recognising that in three separate areas of the country, there are particular circumstances which mean that they do not have to comply with that leeway, but around the rest of the country, there is the ability to have plus or minus 5%.
The Labour party should be following us through the Lobby—after an hour or so—and supporting us in this. We should be together on this, because I think we can all support the general principle that each person’s vote has equal weight. I accept that MPs are naturally nervous when it comes to boundary changes. Nobody likes them, and we should not have them too often. We work very hard to try to get to know towns, villages and individuals, to build the important bond that exists between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents. That is a fundamental principle of British politics. Every time that we have a boundary change, we can lose whole communities with the stroke of a pen. It is therefore only natural that we should be very nervous about the whole process. But those arguments come later down the road, when the recommendations come from the Boundary Commission. The commission is, by the way, an independent organisation that is chaired by Mr Speaker, whose deputies are judges who will scrutinise the whole process. It is a non-political process that is entirely independent and free from this House. We should be proud of the system that we have in this country, as it cannot be gerrymandered easily.
I ask the Labour party to reconsider its position. It has got what it said it wanted in its manifesto; that is now the policy of the Government. There is nothing in the Labour manifesto or its official policy about plus or minus 7.5%. The only thing that the amendment specifies is the number 650, and we have got that. The rest of it is platitudes and generalisations that we can argue about in Committee and so on. The basic principle—that we need boundary changes in this country because we are 20 years and counting behind—remains. That is a general principle that the Labour party should be able to get behind.
I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). If he had been here in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, he would have heard many of the arguments that he has made today in the debate then.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett). I presume that back in 2010, in spite of what Labour was telling him, he voted for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which proposed reducing the number of seats down to 600, and he now says that it was actually that reduction which meant that communities got split up. But actually, from looking at each individual region in the Boundary Commission’s proposals, it was very clear where it had started its work and where it had finished. The work at one end of the region was quite neat, but by the time the commission had got to the last few seats there were really odd constituency boundaries, because of the narrowness of that plus and minus 5%.
The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) spoke about the importance of every vote being equal. He ought to be careful; the way he was talking, he sounded like a bit of a proponent of proportional representation, and I am sure that that was not quite what he meant. There is a reason why some of us are against that, and it is that precious constituency link. All of us who have been Members of Parliament and have gone back to ask for votes on second and subsequent occasions—and know how important the work that we have done for our constituents has been in that regard—will recognise the importance of the link between a voter and the place that the Member seeks to represent.
I am very lucky. I am the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, and what Chesterfield is is very clear. The vast majority of people in my constituency are in the Chesterfield borough. Two wards of the Chesterfield borough are in the North East Derbyshire constituency, but most people in my constituency are very clear about where they are from. There are many other constituencies where it is much more opaque, and the more narrowly we draw the plus and minus tolerance level, the more difficult it is for the Boundary Commission to put together proposals that take those things into account.
When we remove the parliamentary scrutiny, many of the people who are speaking up for absolutely the right reasons now may come back and say, “I still think I was right to vote for that Bill, but it is the Boundary Commission that has come up with these proposals. If only they had done it different in my constituency and given me this ward, it would all have been okay.” But it is the domino effect of all the other different constituencies that makes this very difficult to achieve. Members of Parliament are taking their constituencies and communities in their hands when they propose and vote for this narrow tolerance level, alongside the removal of any element of parliamentary scrutiny.
The hon. Member for Dartford said a few moments ago that there should not be any disagreement about the overall principle that we need boundary changes, and of course there absolutely is not. I recognise that boundary changes are an integral part of reflecting the fact that our communities change in size and that there is population shift over any period of time, so I absolutely recognise that the process needs to happen. It is all about how narrow the constituencies are, so that we retain the importance of that constituency link, and how regular the boundary changes are, because if voters move into different constituencies from one election to the next, it takes quite a long time to educate people about who their new Member of Parliament is and for Members to build up a relationship with new communities and to understand the issues in those communities. The principle of whether we have boundary changes is not at stake; what is at stake is how we operate. If many of the things that the Labour party argued for when we discussed parliamentary constituencies in the 2010 Parliament had been supported, the Government would have got the boundary changes they wanted, rather than finding 10 years on that they were never actually introduced. That should disappoint all of us who believe in democracy.
I shall make one final point. The likely outcome of the Bill will be that a city like London, where we have seen huge growth in population size but which has a transient population that is less likely to register than the population in some other areas, is likely to see a reduction in its number of seats. That cannot be right in a democracy if we actually want constituencies to reflect the number of voters. I would really like the Government to consider that issue in Committee.
As one of the new intake of MPs from the 2019 general election, I was not able to contribute to the debate when the Boundary Commission published its previous proposals, but I do know that those proposals impacted heavily on the Jarrow constituency—from gaining more wards from the neighbouring Gateshead area to losing the Cleadon and East Boldon ward to the neighbouring constituency of South Shields. I am immensely proud to represent the Jarrow constituency, and with that in mind I will closely monitor the Bill as it proceeds through the House and see what proposals are introduced. I assure my constituents that if any proposals would have a negative impact on the Jarrow constituency, I will dispute them every step of the way.
My constituents are proud of their history but, as with large parts of the north-east, they will never forgive prior Conservative Governments for decimating their proud industries and Conservative Governments to this day always leaving the north-east behind. I believe that the north-east is one of the regions that will be most negatively impacted by the boundary review, although I hope that I am proved to be wrong. Our local councils have been stretched to breaking point throughout this pandemic. How do the Government expect local authorities to provide the up-to-date electoral information necessary for a boundary review when they are working on the frontline of this crisis, providing vital support to our communities? I will closely scrutinise any future boundary review proposals, because all proposals must benefit our democracy and not just the Conservative party.
I am pleased that the Government have agreed to Labour’s call to scrap plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. The previous plans to remove 50 MPs would have weakened Parliament’s role. With MPs’ workload set to increase after Brexit and the current global health crisis, it would have been wrong to go ahead with such changes. A reduction in the number of MPs is quite simply a threat to Government accountability.
However, I certainly will not support the Government’s undemocratic proposals to remove any parliamentary scrutiny from the boundary review process. Parliament has always had the final say over such crucial legislation, and the removal of parliamentary scrutiny is worrying for the future integrity of our democracy. The proposals from the most recent boundary review, based on 600 seats, did not go ahead because they did not command a majority in Parliament. Had the 600-seat review been in this Bill, it would have passed with ease. I remind the House that this is the same Government who prorogued Parliament illegally, so we know all about what they are capable of. We cannot assume that the Government will not use the lack of parliamentary oversight to push through detrimental changes to the number of MPs. We will and must resist any attempt to gerrymander the electoral map, but if the Government force the changes through, they can be sure that I will fight any negative proposals against my constituency of Jarrow every step of the way.
It seems that this afternoon in some of the debate we are dancing on the head of a pin. We all seem to be in favour, and we are now down to whether the variance should be 5% or 7.5%. I come back to the point I made earlier. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe international standards recommend a variance of 10%.
It is clear from the debate so far that people are worried about the splitting of communities. A lot of that is because the Boundary Commission takes the approach of building on wards. I probed the Minister on this earlier, and was grateful for the analysis that she gave. As she said, the Boundary Commission is following the rules that have been set down. What needs to change is the idea of following county boundaries and local authority boundaries. You know what? Our constituents really do not care whether their MP happens to have in other parts of the constituency council areas from another authority. Today constituents just tap in their address to find out who their MP or councillor is. I doubt that people in the south of my constituency know the small villages in the north of it.
In fact, many of my constituents are surprised at the size of my constituency in the city of Leeds. There are eight constituencies in the city. One seat is a third of the geographical area. So it is difficult to see where the argument lies for the Boundary Commission saying, “We must keep constituencies within a local authority because it confuses people if we don’t.” It does not. People are only interested in who their MP is and who empties their bins. They really do not care which other bits of the constituency might have other bits in it.
On that basis, by far and away the most sensible thing that the Boundary Commission can do in this electoral review is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has said several times, to build on polling districts, which are much smaller. To put that into perspective, in the city of Leeds the wards are simply too big to build at 650 seats, even with plus or minus 7.5%. The commission has to split wards. Oddly, I have a polling district in my constituency, not just a ward, that is split between me and the Leeds East constituency.
The reality is that we all love our constituencies. I absolutely adore my constituency. It is my home, my community. I am into my third decade of living in my constituency. It is a matter of huge pride and honour every day I come into this place that I represent my home area and people. It is breaking my heart to lose any of my constituency. No one wants to say, “Well it is time to lose this bit here”; the reality is that my constituency is too big. It will have to have areas chopped off it. That breaks my heart because I love every single part of my constituency, from the mining heritage to the farming heritage to all the areas around. I have seen how it has grown in the years I have lived there—decades, now. It is very important to me, and I represented it on Leeds City Council before I was honoured to become its MP.
If we build on polling districts, a great number of constituencies will not have to have huge changes made to them. We may be able to keep the majority of the seats as they are and take just some areas out and put them in other constituencies. The vast majority of constituencies may be able to stay the same. That is important, because for me it is a matter of huge pride, honour and love for every single one of my constituents. It will be deeply upsetting to lose some of them, but it is going to have to happen. If we build on polling districts, we can limit the impact that the boundary review will have.
I must confess that when I heard the Labour Front-Bench spokesman begin her remarks my heart soared. It sounded as though there had been an outbreak of agreement and peace across both sides of the aisle that we have to get on with this; that was wonderful. We all agree on the number of MPs we are going to have. That is also wonderful. Then, rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), I started to think, “Hang on a second, if we agree on so much, how come there is a reasoned amendment?” I come back to a point that I made earlier in an intervention. I just worry that people looking into this place from outside will see a bunch of MPs arguing their own book and not being honest about it. It is the point that the Father of the House made when he said that it is very difficult for any Parliament—this one or any previous one—to talk about boundaries without seeming to be mired in self-interest. It is extremely difficult to do and it is noticeable that the process comes unstuck when either the proposals of the independent Boundary Commission are so contrary to the views of the Government of the day that they start looking for excuses not to pass them, or the Government of the day do not have enough of a majority, as happened repeatedly in the past couple of years, to get the proposals through and the majority of the House’s self-interest beyond the Government operates to stop a statutory instrument going through. None of that makes our democracy, MPs or Parliament look good.
There is an old saying about the difference between a hedgehog and a fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many small things. We need to be more like the hedgehog and remember that there is one big thing that matters above all: fairness and equal weight of votes. It is all very well to say, “Yes, but there are all these other technical problems”, and there are—there are definitely technical problems with getting enough people to register on time and stay registered and we need to fix those—but it is not good enough for us to stand here and claim that as an excuse for not having fairness and equal votes. To use that as an excuse is like the prayer of St Augustine:
“Give me chastity and continency—but not yet.”
It is time—it is past time. We need to do this now. We need to lock it in to ensure that future Parliaments, no matter who is in government, cannot act out of self-interest to scupper this fundamental point about our democracy. If we do not get this right, our democracy’s credibility, fundamental fairness and underpinnings are fatally weakened and undermined.
We have gone on too long without fixing the problem. I will therefore support Second Reading. I urge Labour Members to reconsider their position and cleave to this idea, while at the same time, as the Father of the House said, it is up to Government Members to accept that there are other—less important but still crucial—points about trying to ensure that we get our registration process right and better voting rolls. If we can do both those things, we will have a democracy that works and of which we can proud. We do not accept that there is a trade-off between security and accuracy when we do online banking. We should not do it when we vote at the polling booth.
I start by echoing a point that the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) made about today’s proceedings and pay tribute to the House and parliamentary staff who ensured that we were able to do what we have done today. Whatever our views, they have done a fantastic job in ensuring that while we are back here, we can participate as we need to.
Equal-sized constituencies with one Member, one vote and all Members being equal has been a core tenet of our democracy for nearly 200 years. I am proud of the fact that the communities I represent were at the heart of that battle 200 years ago to ensure that every individual had their voice heard, no matter where they came from, how much money they had in their wallet or how much property they owned. The likes of the Chartist council at Princes End, the Chartist council in Wednesbury, John Wilkes from Tipton Green, Richard Cooper from Princes End, George Browning from Wednesbury, and later Black Country suffragettes such as Hilda Burkett and Emma Sproson led the fight to ensure that a working class lad from a council house, who was told that he would amount to nothing, can stand here today in this Parliament and represent those people’s descendants.
I want to ensure that that chartist and suffragette legacy is carried on. I am proud of the fact that in my constituency, community groups such as the WMA community centre in Tipton Green and Q3 Academy in Tipton ensure that our young people can continue to access democracy. I believe that the Bill honours that tradition. If we look at what it tries to resolve, we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.
Is it right that in town A, half as many people can vote for an MP as those in next-door town B? Is it right that the difference between the 20 smallest and the 20 largest constituencies in this country is 675,000, which I believe, looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), is about the size of the city of Leeds? Is it right that 27 million people are reportedly being under-represented because they live in constituencies where they are above the average threshold?
I am slightly confused by the Opposition’s position on this matter. My hon. Friends have touched on the history of the Labour party in trying to block this levelling up of our electoral system. The Minister mentioned the 1969 Labour Government’s attempt to block the independent boundary review, and in 1982 Labour tried to take things to the courts but failed. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is not in his place, but he made the good point that common sense needs to be applied to this at all times. I totally agree on that, but I wish to address some of the comments the Labour party has made. For example, Labour Members say that this Bill is an Executive power grab, but the basis of this is an independent, judicial-led Boundary Commission; this is taken out of the power of the Executive and given to an independent body. In addition, this is primary legislation and Parliament can of course amend or abolish it at any time. It is a basic principle of our parliamentary democracy that we, as Members, can do that if we need to, so I must disagree with the Labour party on that point.
I am conscious of the time and I wish to allow colleagues to speak, so I will just make the point that the last time the boundaries in my constituency were amended I was five years old. A lot has changed since then. Many of us have changed, with some probably changing more than others. It is time that we got this done. I say to right hon. and hon. Members from across this Chamber that if we truly believe that everyone’s vote is equal and we truly believe in ensuring that our democracy continues to grow and thrive, we must pass this legislation.
I would like to talk briefly about the last boundary review process and the failings I believe occurred regarding the Bradford constituencies. I am not criticising the commission, as I think it did an excellent job within the constraints of the rules that were set out in the previous legislation. I do, however, want to propose some changes that will improve the process.
The initial proposals of that review were extremely unsatisfactory for Bradford, producing constituencies that did not reflect the communities of our area. For example, they split my constituency across four local authorities—Leeds, Calderdale, Kirklees, and Bradford. The commissioners noted a
“strong depth of feeling against our initial proposals and a distinct ‘Bradfordian’ identity”.
Their report also said:
“Our assistant commissioners, faced…what they considered was an exceptionally challenging task in constructing constituencies in Bradford that would be acceptable to local respondents”
“that did not cause split wards.”
Their final recommendations accepted many of the arguments put forward by my constituents, and the commissioners moved a considerable way within the constraints that had been set for them. I have learnt from that experience the value that people place on their constituencies matching in the closest possible way their established community identities. That is why I believe this Bill must be used to improve the process that draws up our next set of constituency boundaries.
The commission faced two major constraints in creating constituencies that voters can readily identify with. The first was the use of whole wards as the building blocks for constituencies. In some large metropolitan authorities, these building blocks are far too big for this purpose. In Leeds, for instance, wards can contain more than 17,000 voters, and both Bradford and Kirklees have wards in excess of 13,000 electors. Working with building blocks of this size within the electoral tolerance of 5% made it impossible to create constituencies that people felt strongly attached to. I believe that local authority boundaries and people’s sense of place should take precedence over ward boundaries. To achieve this, the commission should be allowed to make use of split wards in drawing up new boundaries. The second constraint is having such a small electoral tolerance. As I have said, a 5% tolerance does not give the necessary flexibility to the commissioners. I urge the Government to give the commissioners the wider discretion of using a 10% tolerance where necessary.
Finally, I too am concerned about the impact of covid-19 on the process. Under the legislation, the boundary redrawing will be based on the electoral register from 1 December 2020. Given the Minister’s opening remarks, I say to her that there is no better time than today’s debate to update the House more fully on that point and to get on the record the options she is considering.
The Bill should give the Electoral Commission the tools it needs to produce constituencies of approximately equal size that, crucially, keep communities together within coherent boundaries. I believe the measures I have referred to would improve the Bill and produce a more democratic process for all.
I rise to support the Bill knowing that I may well be a turkey voting for Christmas. I am a new MP, but I am reliably informed by my predecessor that when the boundary commission previously turned its attention to my seat, of its various proposals, none helped. Perhaps that enhances the force of my support for the Bill, because I give it without much to gain.
In the six months I have been a Member of this House, I have thought carefully about what it means to represent and what it means to be represented. Before consideration of this Bill, I had not been fully aware of the extent of the population disparity between the various seats. It is striking how closely the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) resemble my own. I did not know that the seat of Ashford, with its 90,000 constituents, had more than double the constituents of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat. I acknowledge the sensible remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) that there are important geographical considerations, but we cannot avoid the fact that a vote in Caithness has twice the value of a vote in Ashford, and to me that distorts representation. When he wrote “Of True and False Democracy”, John Stuart Mill said that in a “really equal democracy” every community is represented in equal proportion. Without this, he added, there are those
“whose fair…share of influence in the representation is withheld from them…contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality at its very root”.
For that reason, it seems right to me that we equalise seats based on number and that the margin for variation is deliberately circumscribed.
My second point relates to the retention of 650 seats, rather than the reduction to 600. All the way through, three issues concerned me. First, I had grave concerns about whether the new super-constituencies could offer the sort of quality of representation that people deserve, just at the time we were losing the Members of the European Parliament. I was glad to see that reflected in the impact assessment prepared on 4 May. Secondly, one thing I knew about my own seat is that the 600 seats proposal lacerated some of our communities, cleaving villages from towns that had deep historical links. I hope—I will make submissions as the Bill proceeds—that we can use the preservation of 650 seats to put that right.
Thirdly, I welcomed the coalition Government’s intention to manage the cost of Parliament, but I felt it was directed at the wrong Chamber. The other Chamber comprises 783 Members and costs the taxpayer less but almost as much as our Chamber. If the Members of this House spoke honestly to their constituents and asked them how many Members of the Upper Chamber they could name, they might find that some could name none at all. I know that some Members of that Chamber are brilliant and bring expertise; I know that some of them serve in the Government and in the shadow Cabinet, and are very active in that Chamber; and I know that the vast majority adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct. But when they fall short—and some do—there is absolutely nothing the public can do, and to me that conflicts with the whole principle of parliamentary democracy.
As Ted Heath once said, those who have been appointed to or inherited seats have done in the main
“a tremendous task and we owe them a great deal”,—[Official Report, 2 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 761.]
but I hope that in this Parliament, we will make the move—
I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words in this important debate. I have been privileged to be involved in Bexley borough since 1983, as the MP for Erith and Crayford until 1987 and for Bexleyheath and Crayford since 2005. I have seen many boundary changes, and I know how difficult they are for communities and for Members of Parliament, as well as how difficult they are administratively.
Our 2019 Conservative party manifesto pledged to ensure that
“we have updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same”.
That is surely a cornerstone of our democracy, and frankly, we need to get on with this. I welcome the fact that the Government are delivering on their promise, and this Bill has my strong support. It is necessary, it is sensible, and it is important. I was disappointed with the comments from Labour Members, because there are basic principles that they support. They can discuss and debate some minor areas of the Bill in Committee, but I was disappointed that they could not give their total support to the principle.
The last boundary review proposed reducing the number of seats to 600. I believe that that was arbitrary tokenism, rather than valuable to democracy. With Britain now thankfully having come out of the European Union, we have more work to do as Members of Parliament. The Government’s decision to maintain 650 seats is therefore a good one, and I strongly support it.
A reduction in the number of seats would also have meant that communities were split up, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), which is not good for representation. My constituency in the Borough of Bexley is a collection of small towns—Bexleyheath, Welling, Crayford, Erith and Slade Green. Those communities are valued and supported by residents, local businesses and community activists. Historical and community ties matter. The boundary commissions must make those a top priority, because together with the numbers, the community interest is so important.
I welcome the fact that there will be an electoral quota. Whether it is 5% or 7.5% is something we need to discuss, and I am sure the Leader of the House will take that on board when the Bill goes into Committee. I think 5% is fine, but we can debate these things. I also believe that we need to have the most up-to-date electorate possible, to ensure that we are not looking at out-of-date registers for the size of constituencies, as we have too often in the past. That is sensible.
In terms of the review process and what the Minister said about the initial consultation period, it is good that the public hearings will be after the second proposals, which gives more time for constituents, community groups and other organisations to give feedback to the commissions before the final recommendations.
This is a good Bill, and we need to get on with it. It is a Bill that improves democracy. Change is often difficult for all of us, but it is important that this Bill goes through, that we get down to some business and that we implement our manifesto commitment. I give this Bill my wholehearted support and look forward to its passage through the House.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, as electoral boundaries have a special place in my heart—not just as a newly elected MP, but as someone whose career prior to being elected to Parliament included a thoroughly enjoyable stint some 20 years ago working for the Local Government Commission for England on periodic electoral reviews of local government boundaries. I am still friends with many of the other boundary geeks who worked there, and it is right that I declare an interest in that some of those friends and colleagues moved on to work more recently for the Boundary Commission for England on parliamentary reviews.
It would be remiss of me not to mention or thank all the hard-working electoral administrators working across our local authorities. Good democracy requires good administration, and it is important to recognise the immense efforts that many of these officers continue to make to ensure that all our constituents are accurately and appropriately registered to vote and that elections are well run and within the law—all against a backdrop of ever diminishing council budgets during the decade of austerity.
I speak in this debate with some experience of the process of making boundaries and an understanding of the public’s response to both well-made and poor boundaries, and as a politician with a keen eye on the outcome of any boundary changes for the length of time I may have to serve in this place. However, I want to focus on the first two points in supporting the reasoned amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). First, the legitimacy of our democracy rests on public confidence in the process as much as in the outcome. As part of that, the process of making boundaries must be as transparent as possible so that the public can have as much ownership of the structures of elections as of the outcome. For this reason, I believe that the removal of parliamentary approval from the process is a backward step. Parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals ensures transparency of the process within the public domain and avoids any perceptions, right or wrong, of power grabs by the Executive.
Secondly, I welcome the Minister’s comments about the proposed enumeration date being set at 1 December 2020, but I recognise that the annual canvass for the electoral register this year in late summer or autumn is likely to be significantly impacted by coronavirus. If the electoral register for December 2019 is to be looked at, she might also want to look at the ONS figures, which stated that almost 500,000 people joined the register between 1 December and 12 December, so it will be really important to get accurate data.
My final point is about the variance from the electoral quota. This can have a detrimental impact on the representation of communities and on effective administration, as has already been said. If the number of MPs is fixed and the electoral quota is fixed, the only element of flexibility to support community identity and community connections is the percentage variance from the quota. That can be reflected in whether it is moved further away to 7.5% or 10%, which is something that can be debated. It can also reflect the topography in more rural areas, and it can help to better reflect the community connections in urban areas. The numbers are quite small when we look at them in the round. Finger in the air, if the quota is around 73,000, a 5% variance would give around 3,500 electors. A 7.5% variance would be around 5,500 electors. That is not much of a difference. In fact, people in this Chamber have smaller majorities than that. Maybe that is why they want to stick with the 5%. Some would say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I would suggest that greater flexibility in the quota helps to create better constituencies by providing for better community identity and connections with constituencies, and by ensuring greater public buy-in to any proposals.
The imperative to review our boundaries is absolutely essential now. We are talking about an electoral register of 20 years ago. I know that every Member of the House will agree that it is time to get this job done, and I commend the Government for moving forward on this as fast as possible. The Bill will create a new political map for the United Kingdom that will see us through at least the next two general elections, but there is one area that needs to change, and I will focus my remarks on that.
We have an opportunity to create not only 650 constituencies based on equal numbers, but ones that are based around actual towns, communities and places of genuine social, historical, geographical and cultural connections, giving greater recognition to local ties, which unfortunately the current system often prevents. The cause of this is simple. It is the lack of flexibility that results from rigidly using whole local government wards as the main building blocks, when smaller building blocks such as polling districts could be used instead. I commend the Boundary Commission for its independence, but apart from a few exceptions, its unwillingness to divert from using entire wards instead of smaller areas such as polling districts leads to unnecessary changes and upheavals, mass confusion and people who are accustomed to being in one constituency suddenly finding themselves being transferred to an area with which they have much less or no connection. We often see communities divided as a result, and a loss of local identity.
The dismay people feel when they are shunted from their traditional constituency into another one, from which they feel totally disconnected, is damaging to our democracy, as is the failure to have continuity of elected representation. I therefore say to the Lord President of the Council, who is in his place, that I hope the Boundary Commission will be willing to include parts of wards and make smaller, incremental changes that still meet the requirements of the Bill, but make larger changes much less likely and allow communities to unite within one constituency.
It is wrong to force communities to go through massive upheavals when small changes can satisfy the numbers within the scope of the Bill, and prevent a radical and unwelcome change for both constituents and the Member of Parliament, who may have spent many years looking after a community and become familiar to local people. I could provide many examples of that. In the Rush Green community in my constituency, 3,000 people from a polling district could have been moved into the area. Instead, the Boundary Commission chose to bring in an entire ward, dividing up other communities. That approach has to change.
The Boundary Commission needs to review the way it does things to make them more sensible and more community-orientated, while keeping within the numbers set out by the Government in the Bill. This really does matter. I hope the Government will use their influence to ensure that a more flexible approach is used and mandate the Boundary Commission to alter its criteria to allow judgments based on local ties, using smaller areas, polling districts or even a road or a house if it means a smaller area being moved to meet the criteria. It could ensure that we avoid communities being broken up and avoid the radical upheavals that have caused so much unnecessary division in previous boundary reviews.
One final request: one more MP, for Gibraltar, please. They have asked for it. Let us have one more MP.
Contrary to what we are hearing from Government Members, I warmly welcome the Bill and its main provision, which is the reversion back to 650 Members of Parliament—as, I think, do many colleagues on the Opposition Benches. It is a misrepresentation to suggest that we are opposing the Bill tonight. The Opposition are entirely within their right to put down a reasoned amendment that suggests areas where we would like to see improvement. We will not be opposing the Bill on Second Reading, although we do have concerns.
I have to say that I am also a bit frustrated to hear Government Members saying that we need to get on with the process. We could have been getting on with the process two years ago, with the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). It was the Government, with the lack of a money resolution, who held that process up, so we will have no more of that in the debate.
I absolutely support the idea of an independent Boundary Commission that will work independently. We do have confidence in the Boundary Commission. What is not independent, however, is the instructions that are given to the Boundary Commission. That is where the manipulation by the governing party comes in, and that is why the Opposition are right to question the judgment being made tonight. The obvious example is the strict adherence to the numbers and the primacy of the numbers over every other consideration, such as communities of interest or geographical size. That strict adherence will give distorted constituencies, especially with a tight variant from the national average. We will lose community cohesion. We will have very large geographical areas that make it extremely difficult for hon. Members to represent them. That is why—I think the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) touched on this—there has to be some disparity in the numbers to take into account other factors.
We talked about the December 2020 cut-off date being far too late and said that people will fall off the register. At this stage, I was going to talk about other areas where I believe the Conservative party, the governing party, has introduced measures of voter suppression to stop people from getting on to the register or voting. However, the Minister made a significant concession, almost, or recognition—she is not in her place now—about the possibility of having to use the 2019 snapshot, which is the most up-to-date, accurate snapshot we have. It has been published only this week, because that is how long it takes. I welcome what the Minister said, and I hope we can work with her on that.
I am suspicious of anything that removes Parliament from these processes—from any process, frankly. Parliamentary scrutiny is absolutely essential. I do not like the idea of Parliament being sidelined, even when we are discussing matters concerning our boundaries, because these matters are central to our democracy. If Parliament had been removed from the issue of boundaries, then in my area we would now have the notorious Mersey Banks constituency—it was one of those constituencies where we would have had to go out of the constituency, through another, and back into it—because the proposals would not have been able to have been challenged in this House.
I want to raise one final issue: the future of the Union. It is imperative that the Government do not allow us to get into a situation where Wales and Scotland, because of their geographical sizes and the rurality of some of their areas, take a bigger hit than England in terms of reduction in constituencies. The Union matters to me, and I believe that it matters to many Members in this House—it certainly matters to Members on the Labour Benches. If we have fewer Welsh MPs and fewer Scottish MPs, the strength of the Union will be damaged. That may be an unintended consequence, but it is a consequence that Ministers must bear in mind.
It is great to have the opportunity to take part in this debate and I very much welcome the Bill, but, following on from what the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said in relation to adherence to numbers, and I agree with him on that, may I also raise the issue of the 650 figure being absolutely set in stone? The jigsaw that we are trying to put together is very complex. If we gave the Boundary Commission a bit of flexibility, we might find that the jigsaw fits together perfectly with 652 seats or 648 seats. Giving it a bit of discretion—perhaps five or six seats either way—might make a big difference.
I think that that would also impact on the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and others about community identity. Too often, the numbers have taken priority over identity. My own seat has within it the seat of Great Grimsby: the Grimsby seat is an island in my constituency; it can get the extra 10,000 votes that it needs to reach the quota only by making inroads into my own seat. That also means that my seat of Cleethorpes will have to move further out. And we have a problem—this is the main point that I want to get across—with the regional boundaries, which were supposedly abolished. In actual fact, the two unitary councils in the north of Lincolnshire are part of the Yorkshire and Humberside region, and Greater Lincolnshire, the older Lincolnshire County Council and the districts, is in the east midlands. A great number of the suburbs of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes metropolis are actually in a different region. In the past two reviews, that has prevented the Boundary Commission from looking at some of the villages, which clearly identify with the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area, but which are not able to be considered because the Boundary Commission, which, understandably, has to have a template to work to, has used the regions as a boundary. There are now moves within Greater Lincolnshire towards more devolution and combined authorities. All sorts of things are being talked about, but, basically, the point is that the two unitaries and the county council area are coming closer together in terms of policy and economics.
The discretion that I spoke of earlier would give more ability to follow local identities. I mentioned Grimsby and Cleethorpes because, obviously, that is my area. There are streets in Grimsby where the footpath is in Grimsby and the road is in Cleethorpes. Woe betide anybody on one side of the road if they tell someone that they live in Grimsby or Cleethorpes. They have a distinct identity and they want to relate to the town. Grimsby is an ancient borough. Its first charter was granted by King John. It is one of those seats that have not changed their boundaries since world war two and now it will have to be judged, quite reasonably, because we have to balance the numbers, which is important.
I agree with the comments that have been made about the final decision not coming back to this House. Too often we are faced with decisions by outside bodies—independent commissions, agencies and so on—where we are told, “You, as an MP, know that the Government or Parliament have no say. We cannot overturn that.” This matter should eventually come back to Parliament.
Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on a topic that I know elicits strong feelings on both sides of the House.
Colleagues will be aware that I have only recently become a Member of this place—although it feels like much longer—and since the election the coronavirus pandemic has rightly been at the forefront for us all. As I continue to receive hundreds of emails every day—some relating to coronavirus, some on local issues, many on the movements of a certain special adviser—I am reminded of just how important it is that the voices across the UK are fairly represented in this place.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) in welcoming the Government’s decision to agree to the Opposition calls to scrap the plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. I will be voting on the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It is clear that the current proposals will see a reduction in representation in Welsh constituencies. The Government claim that the people of all four nations in the UK will have equal representation in Parliament, but I disagree, and the situation in Wales is murky to say the least.
In Wales, the proposals are likely to see a reduction to about 31 seats, with many of Wales’s losses being added to England’s total. The Electoral Reform Society Cymru has been critical of the proposals, and I share its concerns that a cut in the number of Welsh MPs puts additional pressure on the already overstretched Senedd. The Senedd has faced a decade of cuts, thanks to this Tory UK Government and the coalition that came before.
It is also clear that the Barnett consequential funding formula for devolved nations such as Wales is hugely outdated and leaves Wales without its fair share. I genuinely struggle to see how Members representing seats in Wales on the Benches opposite me here can actively support and encourage a Bill that will weaken Wales’s voice in this Chamber. From a Conservative party that places so much focus on defending the Union, I am disappointed and dismayed to see Wales’s voice undermined in the Bill.
On a logistical point, a cut in representation will have a real impact on the work that MPs and their staff can take on. Tory social security cuts over the past decade, coupled with a cut in the number of representatives for Wales, will only further stretch the ability of MPs to assist constituents with pressing casework issues, including welfare support and immigration matters. A cut in the number of representatives will put pressure on many of our caseworkers, who are already overstretched.
As an MP proud to be representing my home town, I stand in this place today as a proud Unionist. The Welsh Labour Government have made excellent advances on devolved issues and protecting our close relationship with the whole of the Union across the UK. The various responses to the coronavirus crisis offer a key example of the divergence that our devolved nations can take on a particular issue. I am sure that Welsh colleagues on both sides of the House will agree that a reduction in parliamentary constituencies in the devolved nations and an increase in seats in England will only put further strain on the integrity of the Union. It is crucial, essentially and especially given our recent departure from the EU, that our democracy continues to effectively represent the Union that still exists across the UK. I am clear that Wales’s voice should not be left behind here in Westminster.
Although I listened carefully to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), there does seem to be the common theme that both Labour Governments and Labour in opposition seek to put up smokescreens for more and more delay, whether in getting Brexit done or indeed updating our boundaries. They are determined to delay, and one does have to wonder why.
Our seats across this nation have changed a lot since the last boundary changes over 20 years ago, and it will take a Conservative Government once again to bring about fairness and equality for the people who have put their trust in us. We see such a disproportionate size-balance across constituencies, and our electors need fair representation; it is simply not fair that some seats have as few as a few tens of thousands of electors, yet others have well over 100,000, with both just having one Member representing each group.
Dudley has just shy of 62,000 electors and last saw a marginal change in 2010, following a bigger change in 1997. I appreciate that my seat, should I—as I hope, obviously—retain it at the next election, will need to increase in size by approximately 10,000.
It would also make sense for constituencies to align more closely with local government boundaries. For example, at present, I have a single lone ward that sits with an MP in Wolverhampton, while it sits in fact in Dudley. We should be keeping communities together, and that would of course help and make sense.
Finally, the covid-19 pandemic will have had an impact on our local communities well above and beyond the awful, tragic loss of life, but the proposed review presents an opportunity to take full consideration of every aspect that the virus could have had an impact on.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. However, I believe that basing the review on the number of registered electors as of 1 December 2020 will not provide an accurate or up-to-date picture of our current electorate and will have huge implications for cities such as mine with universities. The 1 December 2020 register is the enumeration date for the review, meaning that the size of the electorate on 1 December will be used throughout the new boundary review as the officially recognised size of the current electorate. I believe that that will cause many issues, as the electoral register is likely to be severely impacted by the current crisis. The coronavirus is likely to have a significant effect on the annual canvass, meaning that the registers will be less accurate and complete than other recent registers.
The constituency that I represent—Liverpool, Riverside —has an electorate of almost 73,500 and three universities, with an estimated 70,000 students living in the city. The data proposed is two decades old, but it is estimated that the electorate has increased by at least 2 million since the last boundary changes. There are also widespread concerns that, due to the coronavirus, many students will not return to their universities by December 2020, meaning that thousands of students from across the country will not be registered to vote. This will significantly skew the electoral size of university towns, where the student population is dense. As a result, constituency boundaries will not reflect the true size or make-up of the constituency under normal circumstances.
To conclude, I urge the Government to consider using the December 2019 electoral register as the enumeration date for the review. This would capture a highly representative snapshot of the electorate in the run-up to the 2019 general election. That date would also prevent any delay to the review, thereby allowing new boundaries to be in place for the next general election.
I start by outlining my great support for the Government’s position, in terms of increasing the number to 650. My predecessor and many Welsh MPs have been labouring that point ever since the initial policy of reducing the number to 600 came out, and now we are leaving the European Union and the tier of politicians that once were MEPs in this country is being removed, the fact is that we need more Members of Parliament covering devolved areas, in terms of seats.
I have listened to a lot of people contributing to the debate. At the outset, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on the points that they made, in particular, about the Union and communities being built up from the bottom. Most of my wards are a lot smaller than their polling districts. That is the nature of local government in Wales, so I certainly appreciate that. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) was a little unkind to say that Wales needs to retain the 40 seats, given that some constituencies have fewer than 40,000 electors in Wales. Clearly, there needs to be some review, especially given the fact that we now have our own Welsh Parliament. There is no need for constituencies of 40,000; that needs to be addressed within this.
I am in a privileged position, having represented one of the smallest geographical constituencies with the highest electorate, and now representing one of the largest geographical constituencies with the smallest electorate. I will put a steer into the Boundary Commission about Montgomeryshire. It was formed in 1542 by the royal charter of Henry VIII, which gives Montgomeryshire some legs in this Chamber. The point I want to make to Government Front Benchers is about the variance and the geographical challenges, as well as population. Montgomeryshire is, for the initiated farmer, 537,000 acres big. For the uninitiated, that is a large constituency, so it involves a lot of travel. That is a challenge, as are large electorates and populations.
The 5% variance could do with a little kick. I have heard that the norm internationally is 10%; I would push for 7.5%, and I hope we go into that matter in some detail in Committee.
I have alluded to the point made by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about the Union. Some thought has to be given to how the Bill interacts with the constituencies of our nation in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. In Wales, we have two forms of electing Assembly Members—the next time, they will be Members of the Senedd—as there are regional and constituency Members. Crossing first-past-the-post constituencies with the regions in Wales will cause even more confusion than currently exists, and I implore the Boundary Commission to look at that.
I will end, Mr Deputy Speaker—I want to allow colleagues to come in and I can see that you will be up on your feet shortly—with a plea about Montgomeryshire and other rural constituencies. This contribution could be considered as the first submission to the Boundary Commission, but we must look at the huge geographical areas, variance and the freedom to protect those communities and constituents who find it hard to relate when Members are travelling for close to two hours. It is easier to attend this Chamber in London than to get to the south of my county council area. To get from the top of Montgomeryshire to the bottom at Brecon and Radnor takes several hours.
The Government’s general election manifesto made the following commitment:
“making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy.”
The Government are right. Our votes do not count the same. In December, it took 33 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as to elect an SNP MP—33 to one. That is a staggering inequality right at the heart of our electoral system, so I am very much in favour of making each vote carry the same weight. It seems that Members across the House agree that democratic equality is a matter of importance. To combat that properly, the only response is electoral reform, but I will leave that debate until my time with the Minister next week.
What the Government really mean by making every vote count the same is tightening the boundaries so that each constituency has the same number of potential voters. In principle, that sounds like it makes sense, but the Government’s plans do not achieve that. They propose to base the boundaries on the number of people on the electoral roll. That is not the same as the number of potential electors. Indeed, the Electoral Commission estimates that up to 9 million potential electors are not currently on the electoral roll. As we know, that marginalises groups for whom there are structural difficulties in getting on to the electoral roll. I am hopeful that the Government will consider using the December 2019 electoral roll. We should take advantage of the fact that the upcoming electoral event encouraged people to register and be enfranchised. We should promote that engagement with our process. An obvious solution to all this is automatic voter registration. I do not see why the Government refuse to pursue it. Perhaps they are following their instincts.
The single most important argument for first past the post—I think this is why many Members fail to look at electoral reform in the way that I do—is that Members represent identifiable local communities. I think that Members would agree that if we cannot achieve a sense of local representation, the idea of a one-Member constituency is undermined.
As someone who advocates a proportional voting system, were I to design a flaw in first past the post, it would be this: creating rules so stringent that MPs represent random chunks of the country and so delicately responsive that a tiny change in one part of the country will lead to a ripple effect spreading from constituency to constituency, with completely new boundaries every eight years. I agree that basing the building blocks of seats on wards leads to shotgun constituencies. My own constituency boundary splits the high street in Leven in North East Fife, but at least it is all under Fife Council. During the covid pandemic, I have hugely valued engagement with NHS Fife and Fife Council, as have my constituents.
One of the Government’s manifesto promises is to abolish the 15-year rule on the eligibility of overseas electors, and presumably legislation will be brought forward over the coming Session. They will be able to vote in the next general election, but whether the date of the electoral register used for the boundary review is this year or last, they will not be on it. My colleague, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has tabled written questions asking the Government to estimate the number of overseas electors, and there is no estimate. We are walking blind into this. We are putting restrictive percentages in place now and then adding in an unknown number of voters at a later point, completely undermining what the Government are trying to achieve. As I touched upon earlier, the incredibly sensitive flexibility conditions will create further upheaval.
I return to where I started: the “Protect our democracy” section of the Conservative manifesto. There are a number of commitments in that section. The Bill represents the first brick in the wall, but clearly, as the issue with overseas voters illustrates, there are foreseeable problems in terms of what comes after. This may be the first brick, but the wall will end up being unstable.
I commend the Minister for her powerful speech in presenting the Bill to the House. We all come here with equal power vested in us by our communities, but my voice represents a constituency of 83,000 people, while the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) represents a constituency of 61,000 people. It is difficult for us to explain to our constituents why that inequity is there. I hope that all of us here would agree that that is not right, and that we should have in our democratic system an inherent equity between Members of Parliament in terms of the number of people who are able to vote for them.
I fully support the Government’s move to automaticity, if that is the right word—to bring in boundary changes without Members of Parliament having to get involved. Indeed, the 5% tolerance ensures that equality will be ingrained in the future and moves us away from having to have these debates on a regular basis. We should all just come clean: this is a difficult issue for Members of Parliament. We have an inherent interest in the outcome of boundary reviews, which makes it difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) made the point incredibly well. We need to put those decisions outside this place to be made.
One thing that has not been discussed is that new Office for National Statistics data estimates that six new constituencies will be generated in the south-east region of this country. This place needs to give some thought to how those new constituencies should be constructed. Constituencies should have a sense of purpose. They should have a sense of history and a sense of community.
When my constituency was first part of a boundary review, back in the 1940s, just 13,000 people were living in Basingstoke. There are now 83,000 people living in my constituency, and Basingstoke sprawls across four constituencies. My challenge to the Boundary Commission is simple, and I think the Minister needs to help it with this. Constituencies should not just be numerical constructs; they should be constructed for communities first and foremost, and we should construct them for the future, not simply salami-slice away what has gone before. That is the right thing for us to think about now, because this boundary review will be seismic in some areas of the country, and we need to ensure that we grasp the opportunity.
At the moment, the provisions in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are very sparse in terms of the directions they give to the Boundary Commission. They talk notionally about local ties, and those often figure large in the consultations that follow, but is there an opportunity here to give more direction to the Boundary Commission about their importance for constituencies, and about the importance of mid-sized market towns such as Basingstoke, which saw significant boundary changes in 2010? We have done the right thing and built new houses, but we have been rewarded with a fragmentation of our constituency, which is not necessarily healthy for the future.
Why are towns in certain parts of the country split east-west and north-south, and others simply salami-sliced away? We need a better approach to constructing our constituencies for the future.
I think I win the prize for patience this evening. Many of my points have already been made, but I make no apology for reiterating them because this Bill will have an important impact on all of us in this House.
The onset of the covid-19 pandemic and its continued impacts in Newport West and across the United Kingdom —indeed, across our whole world—have shown now more than ever that strong and constructive scrutiny of the Government is vital. That is how we must approach this Bill, and this debate, as it works its way through the House. As such, I am pleased that the Government’s plan to cut the number of MPs has been scrapped, because this is not the time to engage in less democracy. As we leave the EU, it is even more vital that the increased workload of MPs is reflected in the make-up of our national Parliament and the design of its constituencies.
I am concerned about the removal of parliamentary approval and scrutiny from the process. Under the current rules, Parliament has the ultimate authority to accept or deny boundary changes. The draft boundaries order must be agreed by both Houses of Parliament before being approved by Her Majesty at a meeting of the Privy Council. However, the measures contained in the new Bill will remove Parliament from the process, which means that Parliament will no longer be required to approve the draft order before it is made by Her Majesty at the meeting of the Privy Council. We all remember what happened the last time the Government attempted to bypass Parliament as they sought to illegally prorogue Parliament, and this is not a good way to go.
Another key part of the Bill is the fact that the review will be based on the number of registered voters on 30 December 2020. This means that the size of the electorate on 30 December 2020 will be used throughout the new boundary review as the officially recognised size of the current electorate. We know the pressures that will be triggered by Brexit and covid-19, and we know about the uncertain housing situation at the moment. This risks the data on which these major changes will be based being flawed and incomplete. We all remember what we were doing in December 2019 and can testify to the obvious fact that a general election acts as a major driver of registering to vote. As has already been said, we see huge spikes in voter registration during national elections and during local elections, too. We now know that there will be no election between today and 1 December 2020, so we will lose that ability to ensure that the voter roll accurately reflects those entitled to vote. Let us stick to the December 2019 data.
My final point is that we must take account of geography, not just numbers of voters. Mountains and valleys, rivers and reservoirs make a difference, and I urge the Minister to remember this. I will not be opposing the Second Reading today and I am pleased the Government have made some concessions, but I caution them to take the politics out of this process, and to give the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the House of Commons they need and deserve.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall try my best to fit what I have to say into the minute and a half or so that I have.
I welcome the Bill, and I am glad to see that it has been brought forward. It has been a long time coming, even for those of us who are relatively new in this place. It provides clarity on a national level, or will do, and it also provides clarity on a local level for constituencies and seats, such as mine, that have been moved around in the proposals over the past 10 years or so. It will be good to get a final, clear view about what is going to happen and when.
If I may, I will make two brief points before the wind-ups begin. First, I support the principle of equalisation. One person one vote is important, but so is the representation of those people being equal in this place. As competent, as capable and as excellent as my colleagues are in other parts of Derbyshire, it cannot be right that one Member of Parliament in Derbyshire has 10,000 people less than me and another Member of Parliament has nearly 9,000 people more than me. That variation does raise questions about how we represent our constituencies in this place. It is why I am not convinced by some of the arguments that have been made in this Chamber on this matter, including, unfortunately, by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones).
Secondly, it is vital that we have up-to-date information and data on this. While the data itself came later, the processes for starting the data in the fifth periodic review, on which I was elected in December, were done before I even became eligible to vote. Since then, I have voted in six general elections, I have stood in three of them and I have had the privilege of being elected in two. It cannot be the case that we continue to use data that is that far out of date. It undermines the legitimacy of this place, and I look forward to its being corrected in the Bill when it goes through the House.
I would like to thank all the hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate this afternoon. My particular thanks go to my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for their speeches, which demonstrated their depth of commitment both to democratic representation and to the communities they serve, and raised important issues about the detail of this Bill.
Several Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester and for Pontypridd, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), raised important points about the impact of this legislation on representation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Strong devolved representation within the nations is critical to the integrity of our United Kingdom. A Bill that reduces the number of parliamentary constituencies in the devolved nations while increasing the number of English seats risks putting further strain on the integrity of the Union. I hope that the Leader of the House will address that point directly when he responds to the debate.
Members from all parties agree that the periodic review of constituency boundaries is a vital part of our representative democracy, and that this review is long overdue. It is our constituencies that give shape and meaning to our democratic process, and they ensure that the concerns of each part of our diverse United Kingdom are given voice and representation. For that reason, it is crucial that long-held community ties form the basis of constituency boundaries, bringing together communities that share common interests and needs. That point was made well by a number of hon. Members who spoke of the risk of villages being split or severed from the towns that they rely on. These things matter to our communities. It is therefore extremely disappointing that the Government have again refused to compromise on the issue of the 5% electoral tolerance. What response can the Leader of the House provide to the apolitical academic experts who have highlighted the restrictive and damaging impact that the 5% quota will have on constituency boundaries? Just a slight widening of the electoral quota to 7.5%, as supported by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, will vastly improve the geographic and community coherence of new boundaries and as a result ensure better representation for communities.
When the Government introduced the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in 2010, a pre-legislative inquiry heard evidence from several witnesses that the proposed number of 600 constituencies chosen by the Government was not based on clear evidence. The Hansard Society told the Committee that the number had been
“plucked from thin air—600 simply being a neat number.”
The Government have now made a U-turn on that arbitrary number but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) mentioned, the 2013 review based on 600 constituencies cost the taxpayer in the region of £700 million, and the 2018 review is likely to have a cost of upwards of £8 million. Does the Leader of the House accept that the Government’s political indecision has been a waste of taxpayers’ money? Will he clarify for the record how much the 2018 boundary review cost?
Many Members have raised the issue of the alarming removal of parliamentary oversight from the process. Parliament has an important role to play as an emergency backstop to prevent power grabs by the Executive, but the Tories are attempting to remove that backstop, thereby threatening serious unforeseen consequences for the future of our democratic process. Such a move is of deep concern for the integrity of our parliamentary democracy. In response to concerns, the Government assert that removing Parliament from the process will ensure that the boundary commissions’ reports will be implemented without interference from either Government or Parliament, but that is not strictly true. The Government make the legislation that instructs the boundary review process, and Ministers have already taken political advantage of the process by creating a loophole in the Bill. Without parliamentary oversight, the handbrake that previously prevented the Tories from removing 50 MPs on an entirely arbitrary basis no longer exists. If passed, the new legislation will allow the Tories to force through reductions to the number of MPs without any backstop in place to prevent it.
We are talking about a Government found by the highest court in this land to have unlawfully shut down Parliament, suspending democratic accountability and attempting to gag democratic opposition. This is not hyperbole or idle speculation; it happened just last year. In such a context, there can be no guarantee that Ministers will not take advantage of the silencing of Parliament in favour of strengthening their own executive power. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to confirm that the Government will not simply use the loophole to force through a reduction in the number of constituencies, or any other changes that are not included in the Bill, further down the line?
My final point is about the electoral registration dataset on which this review will be based. We are currently facing exceptional circumstances. I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that the 2020 electoral register will be heavily affected by the current coronavirus crisis, but this is still the enumeration date set out on the face of the Bill. We cannot expect local councils to do the proactive outreach work that is needed to maintain an up-to-date and fully accurate register while providing an emergency response to a global pandemic. The costs of fighting coronavirus have taken an immense financial toll on councils, and they now face a £10 billion funding gap, which the Government are unwilling to fill. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will accept an amendment to the enumeration date to December 2019? This pragmatic change—in the context of a review for which we have waited 20 years, taking place in unprecedented circumstances—will avoid the new constituency boundaries being based on an incomplete and potentially unrepresentative register.
The Labour party supports the democratic principle of the boundary review, but the Government must consider the implications of the restrictive 5% tolerance along with the 1 December 2020 enumeration date. We remain deeply concerned about the removal of parliamentary oversight from a process that has always had this scrutiny. I encourage Members from across the House to support the reasoned amendment and to reject the continued centralisation of power in the hands of the Executive at the expense of Parliament.
May I begin by thanking all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed, and particularly thank the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for opening the debate? It is a pleasure to wind up. I also apologise to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for missing part of her speech because I had to go out for other Government business.
This is a key Bill, which will update and equalise parliamentary boundaries, and ensure that every vote counts the same on the basis of 650 constituencies. I am pleased that there has been widespread support from across the House for key elements of the Bill, including from the Opposition, although that does not mean that they are not opposed to some elements of it. There was also support for improvements in the review process, such as changing the times of public hearing and consultation periods.
I am particularly grateful for the support from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), the Father of the House, who said that it was very hard for the House to be judge in its own interest, which is a fundamental point. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who thanked local election staff and agreed with our proposal for eight-yearly reviews.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) emphasised the equality of votes and thought that the 5% leeway was plenty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) reminded us all of the enormous personal affection that we have for our constituencies. It is always true of boundary changes that, however much we recognise that the general principle is right, when it is suggested that a village or street should be excised from our constituency, we always find it disagreeable. That is one of the key reasons that the Boundary Commission has to be so independent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who told us that we should all be hedgehogs. I am not sure that I am that prickly, but his point that fairness is at the heart of this matter is a fundamental one. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) quoted the Chartists, and I thought I saw Opposition Members blush. Perhaps my spectacles need cleaning, but I thought that they must have blushed at that point because the Chartists, of course, were all in favour of equalising electorates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) rather splendidly warned that she might be abolishing herself, which I hope turns out not to be the case, and made a spirited defence of the Bill on that basis, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), who I am glad to say gave his wholehearted support to the measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I am sorry to say, rather dangerously made points that I made when I was a Back Bencher and the legislation was going through the first time in 2010-11, but which are not necessarily Government policy nowadays. I am afraid that I have repented the errors of my ways, but sadly he has not yet repented his, although I hope that that will come.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) spoke about the importance of communities, and that is a general point. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) spoke about smaller units and, of course, there being a seat for Gibraltar, which he has said in the House once or twice before. The Boundary Commission has the power to look at smaller units. That is something people can raise as it goes through its processes and is an important safeguard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) said that his seat has existed since 1542. I am very jealous, because mine has only existed since 2010, and I like seats with a long continuity and history. He made a very fair point about large rural seats, which I am aware of.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point so clearly that she summed up the debate in her opening sentence, when she said that her seat has 83,000 voters within it, and the seat of the Member who spoke before her, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), has 61,000. There is an obvious unfairness in that, which is being put right.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who is slightly subject to speaking as if he were on “Just a Minute”, managed to make the key point about variations being too big, which is being addressed by the Bill.
I am very grateful for all the points that have been made in support of the Bill, but I am sorry about the reasoned amendment put down by the Opposition. I ought to point out to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who said that he was going to support the Bill by voting for the reasoned amendment, that that is not how reasoned amendments work. Reasoned amendments are only orderly and selectable if they are fatal to the passage of the Bill, so anybody who votes for the amendment is voting against the whole Bill and cannot cover the nakedness of what they are doing by saying that they are supporting the Bill. [Interruption.] I am not going to give way, partly because I gave way so many times earlier on in the day, but also because time is short.
The changes should give people confidence. I must confess that the hon. Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) really did get it wrong on the matter of automaticity. In the 1832 Reform Bill, every single constituency that was being changed was listed in an annex to the Bill, if I remember rightly, and that was decided by Parliament—it decided what the size of each constituency would be. We have increasingly handed that over to make it more independent because of the fundamental point that nobody should be a judge in his own cause, and we should not be a judge in our own cause. We should allow it to be done by an independent body.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said that the Government make legislation. No, they do not—Parliament makes the legislation, which is then implemented. It is implemented in such a way that there is no ability for the Government to alter the recommendations of the Boundary Commission and they have a duty to present it to the Privy Council for its approval by the sovereign. Automaticity means what it says. It is automatic, without the Executive having the ability to stop it, the House of Commons having the ability to stop it or, even worse, the House of Lords having the ability to stop it undemocratically because the Lords do not like the results and are worried about what might happen. Automaticity improves impartiality and the fairness and independence of this proposal. Although Parliament will not play a role in making the order, nor will Her Majesty’s Government.
Another key point made in the debate was on the Union. We heard from a number of Members about the impact of the tolerance level and equalisation on parts of the Union. The Bill does not change the tolerance level, which was put in place by Parliament in 2011. We must bear in mind that it is plus or minus 5%, so it is effectively a total of 10%. It is about 7,000 voters, if we take the total swathe from the central point. That means that the independent boundary commissioners will give a fair review, and it is worth noting that the two specific protected seats which are very small are Scottish seats. I am very glad that one of them is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, because I think the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is a national treasure, and it would be a great pity if he did not maintain his seat. That is being done to benefit the Union.
It is too late, I am sorry to say.
That is to the benefit of the Union, and it is fair that every vote across our United Kingdom should have the same weight. That is the fundamental point. That underpins everything that is being done. Eight years is the right amount of time. It means that communities can be reasonably stable. It means that communities can carry on. It means that MPs can build up that association with their communities, so I urge Members to support the Bill and reject the amendment.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 2 July 2020.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Question agreed to.
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Question agreed to.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am afraid there are three parts to this, the first of which relates to the voting we have already done. I was a Teller in one of the earlier Divisions this afternoon. It is up to others to judge quite how ludicrous the whole process looks to the outside world, but to my mind it looks preposterous. I feel that one of the oldest Parliaments in the world should be the best and most able to adapt to modern circumstances, not the worst, but that is a battle for another day. There were some specific order issues during those Divisions, with one being that the Speaker adopted a new version of what we had to wear when voting. I just wonder whether we could have some clarity on that for the future, as, historically, people, including some Whips, have been able to vote in the Lobby when they have been to the gym.
Secondly, one Member tried, during one of the Divisions, to vote in both directions. I know that historically that has not been allowed, but the Member is certainly under the belief that that was recorded. As I understand it—I was one of the Tellers—we were not including that as one of the votes on either side, so it would be good to have some clarity on that.
The other point is that the Leader of the House said earlier in today’s debate that we were going to have a motion on the Order Paper tomorrow for us to debate enabling some Members of the House to participate not, I think, in debates, but in urgent questions, questions and statements. Obviously, I would welcome that, but as I understand it the Government have not so far announced what kind of debate it will be, whether any time will be allocated for it tomorrow, whether it is expected that this should be agreed to on nod or nothing, whether we are able to table amendments, or whether we have to submit to be able to take part in that debate. There are many of us who feel deeply concerned that the Government have tabled a motion that suggests the only people who will be able to participate are those who self-certify as having a medical need. I do not think that disabled people, or people who are shielding or have shielding responsibilities for others, should be treated in that way. I do not think that they should have to justify themselves for wanting to participate from a distance. In particular, parents who have childcare responsibilities should certainly not have to claim that there is some kind of medical reason. Some of us would therefore like to have a full debate.
I am sorry that that is a long point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, but you are a very indulgent man.
Thank you very much, Mr Bryant. As far as the first point is concerned, you said it was a battle for another day and clearly it will be. On the dress code during a Division, you are absolutely right. In the past, people have come straight from the gym and worn what they were in when the Division Bell rang. I will ensure that that gets raised tomorrow, so that clarity is brought to how people should dress when there is a Division, as I will on voting both ways. We do not have the opportunity to abstain or, for whatever reason—we can only hazard a guess as to why people do it—vote both ways.
As far as the motion tomorrow is concerned, I have not seen that motion yet, but you have raised several points as to why people would want to at least make known their anger, one way or another, as to what may or may not happen in that motion. I hope that Members will get an opportunity to at least express their views, however that motion is brought forward. I hope that is okay. [Interruption.] Thank you very much, Mr Bryant. The thumbs up will do me fine.