The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Sir David Amess, † Ian Paisley
† Afolami, Bim (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
† Farris, Laura (Newbury) (Con)
† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)
† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)
† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)
† Lake, Ben (Ceredigion) (PC)
† Linden, David (Glasgow East) (SNP)
† Matheson, Christian (City of Chester) (Lab)
† Miller, Mrs Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
† Smith, Chloe (Minister of State, Cabinet Office)
† Spellar, John (Warley) (Lab)
Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Tony Bellringer, Secretary, Boundary Commission for England
Isabel Drummond-Murray, Secretary, Boundary Commission for Scotland
Shereen Williams MBE, Secretary, Boundary Commission for Wales
Eamonn McConville, Secretary, Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 18 June 2020
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Before we begin, I have a few announcements. Please ensure your mobile devices are on silent. I allow you to bring in tea and coffee. I am not as strict as some other Chairs. You are welcome to keep refreshed during the proceedings. I call the Minister to move the programme motion in her name.
I beg to move,
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 11.30am on Thursday 18 June) meet—
(a) at 2.00pm on Thursday 18 June;
(b) at 9.25am and 2.00pm on Tuesday 23 June;
(c) at 11.30am and 2.00pm on Thursday 25 June;
(d) at 9.25am and 2.00pm on Tuesday 30 June;
(e) at 11.30am and 2.00pm on Thursday 2 July;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:
Date Time Witness Thursday 18 June Until no later than 12.20pm Boundary Commission for England Boundary Commission for Scotland Thursday 18 June Until no later than 12.40pm Boundary Commission for Wales Thursday 18 June Until no later than 1pm Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland Thursday 18 June Until no later than 2.30pm The Conservative Party Thursday 18 June Until no later than 3pm The Labour Party Thursday 18 June Until no later than 3.30pm The Liberal Democrats Thursday 18 June Until no later than 4pm The Scottish National Party Thursday 18 June Until no later than 4.30pm Plaid Cymru Thursday 18 June Until no later than 5pm Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 9.50 am Dr Alan Renwick, The Constitution Unit, University College London Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 10.10 am The Green Party Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 10.40 am Professor Roger Awan-Scully, School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 11.25 am Professor Iain McLean, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford Professor Sir John Curtice, Department of Politics, University of Strathclyde Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 2.30 pm The Association of Electoral Administrators Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 3pm The Local Government Boundary Commission for England Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 3.30 pm The Electoral Reform Society Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 3.50 pm The Democratic Unionist Party Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 4.10 pm Dr Jac Larner, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University Tuesday 23 June Until no later than 5 pm Professor Charles Pattie, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield Dr David Rossiter
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 12.20pm
Boundary Commission for England
Boundary Commission for Scotland
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 12.40pm
Boundary Commission for Wales
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 1pm
Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 2.30pm
The Conservative Party
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 3pm
The Labour Party
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 3.30pm
The Liberal Democrats
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 4pm
The Scottish National Party
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 4.30pm
Thursday 18 June
Until no later than 5pm
Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 9.50 am
Dr Alan Renwick, The Constitution Unit, University College London
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 10.10 am
The Green Party
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 10.40 am
Professor Roger Awan-Scully, School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 11.25 am
Professor Iain McLean, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford Professor Sir John Curtice, Department of Politics, University of Strathclyde
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 2.30 pm
The Association of Electoral Administrators
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 3pm
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 3.30 pm
The Electoral Reform Society
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 3.50 pm
The Democratic Unionist Party
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 4.10 pm
Dr Jac Larner, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University
Tuesday 23 June
Until no later than 5 pm
Professor Charles Pattie, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield Dr David Rossiter
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 11, the Schedule, Clause 12, New Clauses, New Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00pm on Thursday 2 July. Chloe Smith has given notice of her intention to move a motion in the terms of the Resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee [Standing Order No. 83C].
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. We all look forward to serving with you. I welcome the shadow Minister and all members of the Committee. I am grateful to everybody for their time and to the witnesses.
It is important that we have a motion here that provides for four oral evidence sessions and six sessions of line-by-line scrutiny, with the option, should we need it, for afternoon sessions to run longer, but I am sure none of us wants any midnight finishes, so we will stick to the work in hand. This gives a good amount of time for the Bill to be properly scrutinised. I really welcome the fact that we have a wide range of witnesses.
I draw the Committee’s attention to the letter that everybody ought to have received from me already, outlining a Government amendment we are making with respect to the data to be used by reviews, which I hope is welcome in the light of the impact of coronavirus.
The Minister is referring to a letter of 15 June. I assume everyone has received that.
Question put and agreed to.
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Chloe Smith.)
Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee room. I believe they are at the back of the room.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Chloe Smith.)
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Tony Bellringer and Isabel Drummond-Murray gave evidence.
Mr Bellringer, you are very welcome before us, physically, and Isabel Drummond-Murray, can you hear me? Hello.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: Hello. I can, yes.
You are very welcome with us virtually. Thank you both for taking the time to join us and for allowing the panel to proceed.
We are now in public session to hear evidence from Tony Bellringer, secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, and Isabel Drummond-Murray, secretary to the Boundary Commission for Scotland.
Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind the Committee that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We will stick to the timings in the programme order. The Committee has agreed that for this panel we will have until 12.20 pm or thereabouts.
I ask any members of the Committee who wish to declare any relevant interests in connection with the Bill to make those declarations now.
Isn’t that all of us?
I call the first witnesses. Will you please introduce yourselves? We will start with you, Isabel.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: I am Isabel Drummond-Murray, secretary to the Boundary Commission for Scotland.
Tony Bellringer: I am Tony Bellringer. I am the acting secretary to the Boundary Commission for England.
Minister, we move to you for questions.
Could you talk us through what it consists of to conduct a review? Also, given that this legislation focuses on having equal and updated boundaries, perhaps you would be able to give us some insight into the importance of updating your work, including the fact that we have a slightly shortened review for the first of the series of actions that is outlined in the Bill.
Tony Bellringer: How a review operates is set out in the current legislation. Prior to this review, the legislation was most recently and substantively amended in 2011, when the rules by which we work were changed. Essentially, we gather the parliamentary electorate from across the United Kingdom. There is a statutory formula set out, which calculates the distribution of the House of Commons seats across the different parts of the UK.
There are four commissions—one for each part of the UK. Effectively, each of us then works independently. At the end of the day, we have to come up with a report that recommends to Parliament the prescribed number of seats for that part of the UK. Currently, they must be within plus or minus 5% of essentially a mean average electorate figure for the constituencies, the official term for which is the electoral quota.
We go through a process of iterative public consultation; that process is also prescribed in the legislation. We have an initial proposal stage. We work slightly differently to the local government commissions, in that we start off by coming up with a scheme with proposals, and then we publish those and consult on them, whereas the local government commissions tend to consult first and then come up with some ideas.
The initial consultation then produces a raft of responses; we receive very many responses. We then work through all of those responses; we do genuinely consider every single response that we get. And we look at what we may need to change from our initial proposals.
Currently, we are required to do something called secondary consultation, which is publication of all the responses to the first consultation that we receive. So, there are no new proposals in there; it is simply giving people an opportunity to comment on what other people have said.
We then look at all the responses to that secondary consultation as well and come up with a set of revised proposals, which we again publish and consult on for a period of time. We then look at those again, decide whether any final changes need to be made, and then we write up our final report and recommendations. Currently, those are submitted to the Government, who are then required both to lay that report before Parliament and translate it into a draft statutory instrument, which must be actively debated by both Houses. If it is approved, those constituencies will be used at the next general election.
As for the second question about the importance of conducting a review now, the constituencies that we currently have were the result, in England, of a review that concluded in late 2006; the order was made in 2007. Those constituencies were first used in the general election of 2010. However, the process that led to that report began in 2000. Therefore, the electorate data that your current constituencies are based on dates from 2000.
A review was commenced under the new legislation, to report in 2013, and as we know from the Bill, there was also one that was held in 2018 and reported in the same year. To date, neither of those reviews have resulted in a new set of constituencies, so your existing constituencies are very out of date. So the Government have come forward with this proposal to set aside the recommendations of the 2018 review and proceed very quickly to another review, largely working to the same rules established in 2011, but with a slightly truncated timetable that I believe would see us report in July 2023, with—I guess—the idea being that you would then have about 12 months before the expected next date of a general election.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: I think that Tony has covered the legislative framework pretty well, so, no, there is nothing I would add to that.
“One of the most testing issues in the context of the revised statutory framework has been the requirement to reconcile the need to adhere to a fixed electorate tolerance (i.e. within 5% of the electoral quota) with the need to respect local ties and/or existing constituency boundaries.”
Do those concerns still stand and, if so, is there any way of alleviating the difficulties that the commission will face?
Tony Bellringer: Yes, the problem still exists. It is essentially a pragmatic problem. The smaller the tolerance level you allow, the closer you get to the pure principle of electorate equality between constituencies, and that is all to the good. The problem is that that makes it very much harder to have regard to the other factors that you specify in the legislation, such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography. Basically, the smaller you make the tolerance, the fewer options we have. That is what it boils down to.
How could you mitigate the problem? The only real way to mitigate it is to make the tolerance figure slightly larger. The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors—but obviously, the further away you are moving from the pure principle of electorate equality. You do need to strike the balance somewhere.
The commission itself does not have a view on what the correct figure should be—before anybody tries to ask me that question. However, we would highlight the fact that some academic work has been done on this. I believe that you are due to interview Charles Pattie, who was one of the authors of a report in 2014 that looked specifically at the issue. He is more qualified to say than I am.
Tony Bellringer: Yes is the short answer. As you say, particularly in England we work or we have traditionally worked on the basis of using wards as our building blocks—I am sure there will be some discussion about that in due course. But as you say, a number of wards, particularly in urban authorities in England, are larger than the entire possible range that you are permitted—the difference, I should say—so by moving one ward, you will move from being too big as a constituency to being too small, with nothing in between, so you then have to start looking at splitting the wards, which becomes more problematic for us, for reasons that I am sure we will get on to.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: It is not possible to give an answer to that until we have the electorate data that the review will be based on. I think, informally, we did look at the December ’19 register, and if that were the one being used, it did suggest a reduction in seats in Scotland. Clearly, the Bill as drafted suggests the December ’20 register. Until we get those figures published, from whichever data is finally proposed by the Bill, we cannot tell you exactly how many seats there would be. We would have to run the formula that Tony referred to, and that would allocate between the four countries.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: It was problematic in the last review, because the public hearings were held during the initial consultation and that meant that you were trying to guess in advance where there was likely to be particular interest. You were trying to cover the geography and population of Scotland with five hearings, so if you held one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow, you then had a large area to cover with the three remaining ones. The Bill proposes holding public hearings and a secondary consultation, which will help, because we will then have an idea of whether to hold the ones outwith the central belt in, for example, Inverness or Hawick. You just cannot tell. There is still an element of guessing, from the responses received, as to where people really want to come along and discuss in public what we propose, but yes, that will help. I think six also helps, geographically.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: We start the review by allocating loose groupings—they are not set out in legislation, but they enable us to divide up the country. As a preliminary step, we always look at the highlands first, because of the rule that an area bigger than 12,000 sq km can go below the minus 5% threshold. However, because of the way the legislation is worded, you would only need to go below that 5% if you could not reasonably construct a constituency otherwise, but we could. We found in the 2018 review that it was possible to stick within that plus or minus 5%, despite its being a very large constituency. I think Highlands North was the only constituency proposed in the 2018 review that was above 12,000 sq km, which is obviously geographically very large.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: We do not use polling districts, in part because there has not been an available Scotland-wide, up-to-date dataset that we could access. We create our own postcode datasets, so when we come down to split below ward level, if necessary, we do it on the basis of postcodes. We have always been able to split wards in Scotland, if necessary.
Tony Bellringer: In essence, there are two categories. One is mandatory—the plus or minus 5%—which we have to stick to and is obviously our primary factor. About half a dozen other statutory factors are set out in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. We do not prioritise any of them formally. I guess we would look first at the rule about having regard to existing constituencies. So far as possible, we actually start off by asking how many constituencies that are currently there already fit the plus or minus 5% and whether we can start by not changing those. We then look at those that are not within the plus or minus 5% and think, “Okay; that is going to have to change, and that is going to have to change”. That is why you often find, unfortunately, that you may be sitting as an MP in a constituency that perfectly meets the plus or minus 5%, but your constituency changes because some of the neighbouring ones have to change and have to take in some of yours, or vice versa.
As I say, we do not have a firm ranking, but we then probably look at local ties. To a certain extent, you would expect existing constituencies to have already respected local ties, which is why it is not higher, because local ties are generally what people feel most strongly about—in fact, probably more than the numbers, to be honest. They accept the principle of electorate parity, but if you ask most people on the ground, they are more concerned about their local communities being split off from each other in the drawing of the lines. That is what the vast majority of responses to our consultation are about, so we do look at whether we are breaking local ties.
There is also the obvious map factor of physical geography and what are termed significant geographical features. River estuaries, mountain ranges and motorways are fairly obvious bits of physical geography that can have quite a significant impact on how you would want to look at drawing a constituency. Is that enough for you?
It is, yes, thank you. Ms Drummond-Murray wanted to answer as well from the Scottish point of view.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: It is a broadly similar process. As Tony said, you weigh up the factors and go through the process of the various consultation rounds. That is an important part as well: whatever we have weighted or not at the beginning, by the time we go through the consultation, it is all open to change. In the 2018 review, by the end, only 10 of our mainland constituencies were unchanged from the initial proposals. Whatever we do at the start is open to public views on things such as local ties, names and so on.
Tony Bellringer: Er, yes. [Laughter.]
Isabel Drummond-Murray: I was going to say that we never get it wrong—we have a technically correct proposal—but as I say, in consultation, we listen to people’s responses. Certainly, in our initial proposals, we set out constituencies that were very unpopular and we listened and changed them where we could. You are then constrained by how much you can change within the legislation and all the knock-on consequences of the change that you also have to throw into the mix.
Tony Bellringer: To clarify my initial flippant response, it is largely as Isabel says. You could almost say that we deliberately put some proposals out there at the initial consultation stage that are quite radical and, yes, get quite a lot of negative responses—Mersey Banks is a classic case. The other one that I have had to talk about quite a lot is moving the city of Gloucester out of Gloucester in the 2013 review.
We do that in the full knowledge that it is only the first round of consultation and people will tell us if they genuinely think it is a really bad thing to do. There are actually reasons for doing those things, but as I mentioned earlier, you are somewhat constrained by what is happening around that constituency. It might not be an ideal solution for that constituency, but it might have allowed us to solve a number of issues in neighbouring constituencies. It is not ideal, but we put it out there and test the water, because it is the first stage of consultation and we know full well that if we get a huge pushback on it, we will change it to something better.
Tony Bellringer: Yes. We would like to get it right first, but we are cognisant of the fact that if we do not get it exactly right first time, we have a process whereby we can correct it.
We genuinely do not know. We feel that it is probably going to be unpopular in that particular constituency, but, as I say, we have had to do it there. We think that, as a whole in the wider area, it provides a better solution. It is not a good solution for that constituency, but any alternative we have been able to come up with creates problems in those other constituencies. As an overall balance, we think that is probably best, but we recognise that you are not going to like it if you live in that particular constituency, so let us test the water and see what the general public opinion is in that area. Everybody in the area could come back and say, “No, there’s a better option.”
This is your third “final”.
I will not push it to a fourth. Do you have any consideration of constituencies that have multiple local authority areas? Some Members represent two local authorities and others represent three. Do you have any rules or guidance on minimising that?
Tony Bellringer: Yes. One of the statutory roles is having regard to local authority boundaries and local government boundaries. As far as possible, we try to limit the number of local authorities that the prospective MP of the proposed constituency will have to deal with. That is very much in our mind.
Isabel, did you want to add something?
Isabel Drummond-Murray: No, I was just agreeing. That would be the approach we would take, too.
Can I follow up on one of the responses to David Linden’s questions, about splitting wards to do what this Bill is trying to do, which is to create equal and updated boundaries across the whole of the United Kingdom? I speak as one who represents a constituency of 83,000 people—well in excess of what I am sure will be the eventual quota. Isabel was talking about the importance in Scotland of using postcodes to try to get some sense of equalisation. Could Mr Bellringer outline for the Committee what the approach is to splitting wards in England, and whether any experts have looked at this to give us advice on what is a good process to follow, particularly when it comes to polling districts?
Tony Bellringer: As I mentioned earlier, we have traditionally had a general policy of using wards as our building blocks. However, as you will know from the previous couple of reviews, there have been instances in which we have been prepared to split a ward to solve a problem in that area.
As Isabel alluded to, the difficulty in England is that we do not have access to a comprehensive dataset below ward level that contains the parliamentary electorates and associates them with the boundaries of whatever that unit is—a dataset that we can then manipulate in the software and quickly move those units around to recalculate the figures, because that is how it works. When we split a ward in England at the moment, we have to go back to the local authority and get the detailed breakdown, usually on a polling district basis, and manually calculate those figures, which really slows the process. If we were to move to a much more open process of using sub-ward-level units as our building blocks, we would have to source that data from somewhere.
Tony Bellringer: At the moment, we do not have the postcode areas in England. We would have to create them; they could be created, but it would take an awfully long time to do.
Between the 2013 and 2018 reviews, one of the things with which we kept ourselves occupied was constructing a polling district-level dataset with the help of Ordnance Survey, in order to map those figures against the actual polling district boundaries. That is almost the most difficult part of the process. We sort of have the figures already because we have access to the actual registers, which are usually subdivided by polling district. However, the polling districts are not mapped in a consistent way and we have to be able to associate the electorate figure with the actual boundary of the unit you are working with, so that when you move the unit, the numbers change accordingly. You need to have mapped those polling district boundaries electronically. We did that process, and it took us and Ordnance Survey about two years to map every polling district in England.
Tony Bellringer: As I say, we went through the process between 2013 and 2018, so at one point in time we had a polling district dataset that we could use. However, as you know, polling district reviews happen all the time across the entirety of England, so that single, comprehensive polling district dataset goes out of date almost instantly. There has to be a way of keeping it up to date. At the moment, that requires us to know who is doing the polling district review and when, so we can go and find out what they have changed it to. Do they have it mapped? No—then we need to get somebody to map it into the system. At the moment, there is no process by which the results of a polling district review are notified either to us or to Ordnance Survey so that it can be incorporated and the dataset can be kept up to date.
You are being asked to write a wish list on this issue. Could you do that for us?
Tony Bellringer: Yes. We did actually approach the Government at the time. We have kind of done the work to build that and issue one. There is a requirement for a local authority that does a polling district review to publish the findings, but they just do that by publishing it on a website, and it is also not necessarily in a mapped format. All it actually requires is a bit of something tacked on to that legal requirement to publish, which says, “You also need to send it to Ordnance Survey and the Boundary Commission.”
Could you give that to us within two weeks?
Can I ask one other question—will you indulge me, Mr Paisley? I noticed that the commissions try to minimise the disruption to existing boundaries in its proposals, which is obviously a sensible thing to do. I also noted that it has said in the past that the commissions are not obliged to shut their eyes to likely future growth. That is particularly noted in section 40 of the guidance that was produced at the last review. Will both commissions outline their approach to the next review and whether it will be the same sort of approach? I declare an interest in that I represent a part of the country that is building a lot of houses. To propose boundaries that will inevitably be changed radically in the future would seem to be a waste of the commission’s time.
Tony Bellringer: Immediately before we start a review, the commission meets representatives of political parties to talk about how it plans to operate its internal policies within the framework of the statutory requirements, and that is an example of the kind of thing that we would be talking about with them.
It is unlikely that it would change significantly. The fundamental principle in doing this work is that you have to at some point draw a line and say, “That is the data that we are working with.” You cannot build a house on constantly shifting foundations and so you have to say, “That is the data and we are going to work with that data.”
At the same time, where we are looking at competing options in an area, if one is obviously more suited to an area that is clearly growing in population—maybe we know that from strategic planning approvals that have gone through in the area—that will veer us towards that option as the preferred option. That is really what it means.
What we cannot do is say, “Well, okay, the electorate that we are supposed to be working with is this and the electorate is now this, so let’s use that instead.” We still have to stick to the original electorate figure, but be alive to the fact that it is clearly growing and can be demonstrated to be growing. That is quite key as well—we draw a distinction between proven growth in an area and projected or speculative growth in an area.
Tony Bellringer: Yes and no. The distinction I am trying to draw here is that if you have had a strategic planning development approved and it has been built and people have started to move in, you can say that those figures have changed—it is clearly growing. Even though those figures have derived from a point in time after the electorate data that we are supposed to be using, there is a clear indication that the area is growing. If you have had a strategic planning development approved, but it has not been built yet at the time we are doing our review, we might go, “Well, it is not as convincing.”
Isabel Drummond-Murray: I do not think there is much to add to that. We have to work with the electorate as set out in the legislation. On the local government side—I am also secretary to the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland—the legislation sets out that we take account of the forecast for five years.
That all points to the need for regular review. We draw a line when we know there is going to be growth and there is capacity to absorb it through the existing 5% tolerance. I guess we could take account of it, but it is not something that has featured particularly on the parliamentary side, simply because of the way in which the legislation is drafted. We use the electorate at the start of the review; we do not guess what the electorate will be at a point in the future.
We have four more questions and about 11 minutes on the clock, though I will push it on to get all the questions asked, because the evidence we are getting is very good for the inquiry.
Thank you for your evidence, Mr Bellringer. It has been really informative. I want to explore the building blocks further. To pick up on the polling district, you said that you had done a piece of work and commented that it was difficult to stay on top of the reviews that came through—to be able to understand them—but, as you have also just outlined, you cannot build on shifting sands. At some point, you have to draw a line. In terms of using polling districts to build in this review, do you have a set of data sat there that you could use?
Tony Bellringer: Not this time round—because it was so expensive last time, in time and money, in the resource that had to be put in to develop it, and yet it was so instantly out of date. In the actuality, when we came to it, because in the last review we were still using wards as our building blocks—it is still our general policy to use the wards as the basic building blocks—we only split half a dozen in the final recommendations. So the times that that would need to be used under our existing policy are few compared with the amount of time and effort that needs to go into producing it, and given how quickly it goes out of date, we just felt that it was not worth doing this time around.
It is important that we get some steer on how you could get away from using wards, which is a tradition—it is not legislated that it must be wards—because it negates having to go outside the 5%, which is another Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe recommendation, that for free and fair elections seats should not vary by more than 10%, and would allow the objective of keeping communities together, of keeping county constituencies together and away from borough constituencies. In my city of Leeds, my seat is a county constituency; the other seven seats are borough constituencies. That would be giving regard to keeping those existing seats together.
I am asking both commissions about the practicalities of what recommendations you would make to the Committee before we finalise these laws—how to get to a situation in which you can use the smallest building blocks to cause the minimum disruption, which is what you are really after when looking at constituencies. I am seeking some comment on that. Mrs Miller explored it well, but just outlining—
I think he has got the question, Alec. We are really appreciative.
Tony Bellringer: The policy of using wards is fairly long standing, and it has always been discussed with the representatives of the political parties in the meetings before each review commences. In the past, they have generally been supportive of that. It goes to the statutory factor of having regard to local authority boundaries, because a ward is a local authority boundary. We view a ward as almost a representation of a local tie; generally speaking, when the Local Government Commission does its work it should try to bring people of the same communities into one ward. We use that almost as a substitute.
Isabel Drummond-Murray: We certainly had a number of complaints about large constituencies bringing together communities that did not feel that they had anything in common with each other. Where possible, we made changes to reflect that. The tight tolerance of 5% meant that, initially, we had to come up with some ideas to put out for consultation. For example, we had a constituency in our initial proposal that stretched from rural south Perthshire down to urban Fife. There was very much a feeling that, “We do not have anything in common with that part of the constituency.” So yes, I think people take account of more than just whether their local community is kept together; some people have concerns about other communities that they are associated with.
Tony Bellringer: Yes.
My question is about electoral registration. Do you find that it fluctuates between general elections? Do we get a higher registration level at the time of a general election, and should that be the point at which we count the population for future reviews?
Tony Bellringer: One of the few things that we do in between reviews is collect the electorates and see how they change from year to year, but we get only an annual snapshot. If it is around the time of a general election, the electorate numbers tend to go up. Unsurprisingly, people are encouraged to join the register and are motivated more to do so. I know there are arguments about the accuracy of the register at any given point in time. I do not feel qualified to comment on that, but it is certainly true that the numbers go up around the time of elections.
Tony Bellringer: If you are sure about the accuracy at that high point.
Tony Bellringer: I am very pleased to say that we hold ourselves up as a model of independence in the process. During the substance of a review, we do not share with the Government, Government officials or Ministers any information about the substance of what we are working on that is not communicated to the public at large.
Tony Bellringer: They did communicate and trial some of the proposals in the Bill with us in advance. They sought our views, specifically on administrative points and on deliverability.
Tony Bellringer: Those are not published, generally.
Tony Bellringer: We have been very clear in the past that we do recognise strength of local feeling. If there are lots of people locally saying a particular thing, that carries a lot of weight with us. However, it will not be an instant knockout if somebody comes up with what we feel is a very well argued solution that might not have been proposed by anybody else previously that in our view respects more of the different factors and across a wider area and provides a better solution overall—maybe not for an individual constituency, but overall.
Tony Bellringer: It is something that we always used to be able to do in the past and did do on occasion. Prior to 2011, there was not this hard maximum and minimum, but we would still be aiming to keep constituencies within a broad range. Occasionally we would breach that if we needed to, to provide a better holistic solution.
Chris, you have time for one quick question.
My question is about how to deal with county boundaries or sub-units within a region. It is specifically an English problem, obviously. I will take the north-west as an example because there are five discrete units. If we take Greater Manchester’s current electorate—I am using the December 2019 figures—we can neatly subdivide it into 27 seats that are just on the edge of quota. However, there are basically 49,000 extra voters that you could take in from Lancashire, so at what stage do you make a determination on whether to start splitting wards and have a neat compact unit within one county? Or do you start looking across county boundaries?
Tony Bellringer: As Isabel suggested, we have our nine regions in England, so we work within the regions. We start off by subdividing that as well, and we largely try and work with county units. As far as possible, we start off by trying to keep within county boundaries, but we might need to put a couple of counties together because we know that if you just do that initial mathematical calculation distribution, they end up with halves of constituencies in both counties, for example, and that will not work mathematically. You cannot have the smaller number or the higher number in either because they would be either too small or too big.
Tony Bellringer: We use the same distribution formula that is used to allocate the seats across the UK initially. We do that for the regions, and within the region we work out what we call a theoretical entitlement: if you use this agglomeration of a couple of counties, it would be allocated this many seats on the face of it.
Tony Bellringer: I do not think that it makes a huge difference to us if they do not have a legal standing. They are a recognised administrative unit, as you say, that is used by electoral administrators in the delivery of an election. That is another reason why at the moment we use wards, because, although they have more of a legal status in law, they are used as a unit by the electoral administrators to deliver elections. One thing that we do have a mind to is that somebody has to use this constituency in delivering the election, and we want to make that process as smooth as possible for the people actually running the election as well.
I am afraid that that brings us to the end of this session. As usual, it got more interesting as time went along. We probably could have had much more time, although I am sure that our two witnesses are very pleased that there is no additional time. However, it shows that there is considerable interest in this issue. More expert witnesses will come along now, so we will be able to continue some of these lines of questioning. I thank our two witnesses for coming today—you have been brilliant, informative and very helpful to the Committee. I thank you for your efforts.
Examination of Witnesses
Shereen Williams MBE gave evidence.
We will now hear from Shereen Williams, who is on the line. Shereen, can you hear us?
Shereen Williams: Hi. I can hear you.
You are very welcome. We are sorry for keeping you for a couple of minutes. I was only allowed to run over because we had a technical issue with bells ringing, and I felt that we lost a couple of minutes. We will not let that little technical difficulty deny you that time at the end of this either. Introduce yourself, and then we will move on to the Minister.
Shereen Williams: I am Shereen Williams, secretary of the Boundary Commission for Wales. I took up the role in January 2019, and I also head up the joint secretariat for Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, which is responsible for local government boundaries.
Thank you. I will call the party leads first, and then I will take questions.
Shereen, may I ask about how you hold public hearings? We have gone through some more general discussion with your two predecessor witnesses, so perhaps we might turn to this angle with you. As you will be aware, the legislation proposes moving the timing of one of the public hearings but maintains very firmly that there should be ample public consultation, which we think is really important for public accountability and public involvement. Perhaps you might give us some insight into how you manage that for Wales.
Shereen Williams: The challenge we have had in the past is that we have to pick the five areas in which to hold the public hearings quite early on, so we have to guess which areas might have the most challenge, in terms of proposed constituencies. It is hit and miss. Sometimes you could be there for two days, and you would have one full day of people turning up for the public hearings, and the next day there will be a much smaller number. It also uses up a lot of staff resources and the time of the commissioners.
The Bill proposes that that is done as part of the second round of consultation, which would give us a bit more flexibility on where we should physically choose to have these public hearings, based on the feedback and representations we get in the first round of consultation. For Wales, it is very important that we have an appropriate spread across the whole country, to make sure that people can get to a public hearing if they need to.
Thank you, Shereen. I will pause there and let other colleagues take over.
Shereen Williams: The challenge that we have in Wales is that whether we go with 600 seats or 650, Wales will take the biggest hit in terms of loss of constituencies. It would mean, I think, a massive change: across the whole country, I cannot guarantee that even seats that fit within the current limits will be able to remain intact. That is the challenge we have in Wales; the 5% does give a very tight range for us to work around.
I think the valleys will present a unique challenge for us, because you do not really want to split a valley and have half in one seat and the other half in another seat. It will require us to look at our building blocks and how we work on that, getting input from local communities and from local authorities—from our stakeholders—and asking, “If we had to go down the route of splitting a valley, what is the best combination to work?” I am aware that we had the exact same problem at the last review.
Shereen Williams: It would give us more flexibility, yes, to put communities together, but again, I think it is very clear that, as an independent body, we do not have a view as such on the electoral quota; that is something for our MPs to make.
Shereen Williams: From the commission’s perspective, it is about communities that are together. We look at your electoral wards and communities that are linked through joint programmes and projects. Also, quite uniquely, in Wales, as you are very aware, is the Welsh language. We take it into account that you have constituencies where there are lots of links to the Welsh language. That is something we would like to keep together. That, for us as a commission, is what we would consider a community tie as well.
Shereen Williams: I think it will be just as complex as the previous reviews, because we are losing quite a lot of seats. If you lost one or two seats, it might be easier to amend existing constituencies by adjusting, making small boundary changes, but the fact that the number is a bit bigger—if you lose eight rather than 11, that three will help slightly, but the complexity will remain the same.
Shereen Williams: I do not think that is something I can possibly comment on. As a commission, we are given the rules to work with, so it would not be up to the commission to comment on something like that.
Shereen Williams: In the past, we have made full use of that plus or minus 5% to make sure that communities are kept together. If the variance is changed, we would still use the same practice where possible. A constituency could have exactly 0% variance or minus 5%, minus 4%, minus 3% or minus 2%. We would work within those parameters in helping communities stay together. That would be our limit.
Shereen Williams: Like our colleagues in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we use electoral wards as our building blocks. However, if there was great difficulty, we would use community wards within the electoral ward. In the past, we have put forward proposals where one or two parliamentary constituencies had a split ward in them. It is a route that we would rather not take because it creates confusion for voters when you have a different local authority and a different parliamentary constituency compared with somebody who is in the same electoral ward as you.
Shereen Williams: The four Boundary Commissions are in regular contact. We rely on each other and we share good practice on a regular basis. In terms of those changes that have taken place in Scotland, I cannot imagine why we would not be able to invite Scottish colleagues to present to commissioners and to inform our thinking on how we deliver this report for Wales.
Going back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough raised about splitting wards, it is interesting that that seems to be something that can happen in Wales and Scotland, although the procedures are not as easy as they might be. We heard that from the commission in England. Would you be able to advise the Committee about working with Mr Bellringer on what would need to be put in place to ensure that, if it was helpful, sub-ward-level splits could take place? Would you be able to provide some more information for the Committee on that?
Shereen Williams: Scotland and Wales’s challenge is significantly different from England’s because of the number of electorates. Tony has to co-ordinate in terms of trying to get all the parliamentary constituencies set up for England. In Wales, we are used to splitting wards because we tend to do that for our local government boundary reviews, so we are quite comfortable with the practice of breaking up electoral wards and splitting up communities into sub-wards in order to create electoral wards—this is going back to community wards. In terms of sharing that practice with Mr Bellringer, that would not be an issue, but I have to acknowledge that he has a far more difficult job in hand compared with us in Wales and Scotland.
Rathlin Island. I think you are right.
I wondered whether, as somebody who was brought up in Wales and understands the importance of cultural identity within the Welsh nation and the psyche, you have thought further about how that constituency should be treated. I am a Hampshire MP, and the Isle of Wight gets particular protection because of that.
Shereen Williams: That would be something for Parliament to decide as to whether Ynys Môn becomes a protected constituency, as they have in Scotland and the Isle of Wight. It would not be for the commission to comment on that.
Understood. Sorry, I have probably pressed you too far on that.
Shereen, thank you very much for your wonderful evidence and, more importantly, for getting us back on time. You have made my chairmanship so much easier. Thank you for giving us your time this morning.
Shereen Williams: Thank you for having me.
Examination of Witness
Eamonn McConville gave evidence.
Eamonn McConville: My name is Eamonn McConville. I am the Boundary Commission secretary for the Northern Ireland commission.
Could you speak up a little for us? It is not a problem I have, but it is one that some other people have.
Eamonn McConville: Sure, no problem.
We will move to the Minister first, then to the main party spokespeople, and then Shaun Bailey is the first on my list for this section.
Eamonn McConville: Yes, Minister. Northern Ireland is obviously geographically the smallest part of the United Kingdom, so we literally have less room for manoeuvre when it comes to creating our modelling of the constituencies. That can be compounded by the effects of rounding during the calculations under rule 8, when it comes to allocating constituencies to each part of the UK.
That can leave us restricted in our ability to create the correct number of constituencies under rule 2. The legislation does currently, and I think the new legislation does prospectively, include a small degree of flexibility that allows us to fall beneath or outside of the plus or minus 5% tolerance from the electoral quota, but as I say, that is there because it recognises the mathematical conundrum that can sometimes present itself in Northern Ireland.
Eamonn McConville: The parliamentary constituencies create the boundary under which the Northern Ireland Assembly constituency areas are formed. They are further subdivided into five areas for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. There is that coterminosity that does not exist, for example, in Scotland.
For clarity, Eamonn, you said five areas, but do you not mean five seats in each constituency?
Eamonn McConville: Five seats, yes. Sorry, Chairman, that is exactly what I meant.
Eamonn McConville: The most pressing impact of covid-19 for ourselves in Northern Ireland is in relation to the recruitment and training of staff ahead of the commencement of the next review. There are obviously practical implications of being face to face while still maintaining social distancing, but there is the added difficulty that commission staff are seconded from other Departments. That is our normal practice. Those Departments are under pressure to resource their response to covid-19 and to Brexit, which is coming down the line. There is a real difficulty facing us at the moment in terms of getting staff in and trained in time for the next review, but we are working with Departments on that.
Eamonn McConville: We had hoped to recruit the first of the staff by September. We are a small team, so we plan to get the remaining two staff in by December of this year. We are still within a reasonable window, but time marches on fairly quickly when dealing with recruitment processes and getting staff released, so we are keen to get that work under way.
Eamonn McConville: During our public consultations, people are free to put forward whatever local issues or local ties pertain to themselves and their local areas. The one thing that we cannot take into account—this applies across the UK, to all of the commissions—is anything that would affect or is influenced by electoral trends, electoral outcomes and things like that. Anything that would fall under a local tie is valid, in terms of what we would consider.
The second part of your question was on the electoral quota range. Again, as my colleagues have told you, the 5% presents issues in terms of accommodating local ties more roundly across Northern Ireland. As I said earlier to the Minister, we have the flexibility in rule 7 in terms of geographical limitations, because of the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. It is interesting to note that the flexibility in the 2018 review would actually have come within the plus or minus 7.5% that has been discussed previously by other people. It is not a huge degree of flexibility, but it does allow us—when we are restricted in circumstances under rule 2—to have a certain degree of flexibility.
Eamonn McConville: You are absolutely right that we now have the 11 local government areas, but we are working with different factors. In the last review, the 2018 review, we had 17 constituencies. While our considerations would have included trying to fit as many whole parts of local government areas into the 17 constituencies, the mathematics just do not allow for that, so we then take on board the other factors, which include local ties.
In Northern Ireland—it is similar across the UK—we have more major towns with satellite towns and villages around them. That is one thing that came to the fore in our consultation process, and we tried to accommodate that in our proposals as they went through the various consultation stages. There are similarities, but clear differences, simply because of the rules that we operate under.
Eamonn McConville: Do you mean for our initial proposals, or as the process progressed?
Yes, for the initial proposals, but perhaps you could say if you were diverted as the process developed.
Eamonn McConville: We operate with exactly—or very close to—the same operational methods as the other commissions. We all operate under the same legislation, with the requirement to carry out the three public consultations. As my colleague Tony said, the initial proposals are our best estimate as to what would be a good starting point. From there, we seek public views and, if required, we amend to accommodate those within the factors that my colleagues mentioned previously—local ties, geographical features, existing constituency boundaries. It is a very similar process to that outlined by my colleagues.
Eamonn McConville: Our building block is set out in the legislation as the local government ward that exists. In Northern Ireland, our electorate in each of those wards is smaller than, for example, in England. Tony spoke earlier of wards with 10,000. Ours typically have 2,000 to 3,000.
We still face the issue of how small we are geographically, plus having Lough Neagh right in the middle of Northern Ireland, so there are times when we are balancing all the factors. Consideration of splitting a ward does arise, but, like my colleague, there is no ready-made data set through which we could split a ward. We have to take that into account, whether by looking at geographical features or through another method. For the last review, we decided not to split any wards.
Eamonn McConville: It is really a matter of mathematics. We have 11 local government areas and in the last review we had to create 17 constituencies. It is one of the methods that we try to take into account, initially and as the process proceeds.
Simply from a mathematics point of view, it will require splitting off the larger local government areas into the various constituencies. As I said, as well as the local government areas, we will take account of responses that come in from the public to inform the proposals and the creation of the constituencies as the process proceeds through the review.
Eamonn, may I take this opportunity to thank you for presenting us with this evidence and for giving us your time this morning? Right on cue, like a Swiss clock, you have managed to get us to the end of this session on time. I appreciate that. That brings us to the end of this morning’s session. The Committee will meet again at 2 pm in the same room to take further evidence.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Eddie Hughes.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.