Consideration of Lords amendments
Reports of the Boundary Commissions
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 3 to 5.
Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 8, and Government motion to disagree.
The Government’s commitment to ensure that the House has updated and equal parliamentary constituencies has been reflected in the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution. I apologise to the House that I am a mere stand-in for her today, because her efforts to legislate to that effect have been unstinting throughout this Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend think it appropriate just to take this moment to send our best wishes to the Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is suffering very bad ill health at this moment?
Yes; my hon. Friend has momentarily pre-empted me, because that is exactly what I was about to do. The whole House has noted our hon. Friend’s positive approach to the challenge that prevents her from being here today. She is a wonderfully popular and singularly effective Minister, and I know that Members across the House wish her the speediest of recoveries. None the less, she is continuing to work very hard, and I have therefore had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with her. I am pleased to report to the House that she is delighted, as am I, that the principle of updated and equal constituencies is shared by both Houses and across parties. That is in no small part down to the efforts of my noble Friends Lord True and Baroness Scott of Bybrook, and I extend our thanks for their sterling efforts in taking the Bill through the other place.
It is of course right that this short but important Bill has enjoyed extensive debate and scrutiny in both Houses, and we will always welcome the thoughts of their lordships, but it is important to remember that this is a Commons Bill about the composition of the House of Commons based on the mandate of the elected Government. This is an area in which I have taken a great interest during my years as a Member of Parliament, so it is with a spirit of gusto that I now roll up my sleeves and prepare to delve into the detail of their lordships’ amendments. I will speak to each amendment in turn.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. This is a significant change from the current legal requirement for a review every five years. The Government’s approach, as in the Bill before it was amended, is to mandate a boundary review every eight years. The Government’s aim, as set out in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly, but without the disruption to local communities and their representatives that might occur with the current five-year reviews.
While developing this Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution discussed the Government’s proposal for an eight-year cycle with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators and shared with them our broad plans for the Bill. Concerns were expressed about the importance of up-to-date data—particularly local government boundary data, hence clause 8—but the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party representatives from the parliamentary parties panel were among those content with our approach.
If reviews were to happen only every 10 years, as these amendments propose, the data used in boundary reviews would be older and less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic change. That would also create an unfair situation for electors, because where boundaries were not regularly updated to ensure that they more accurately represented changing demographics, there is a risk that some would feel that their vote was not of equal value to the votes cast in a neighbouring constituency. We believe that the middle ground of eight-year cycles, as proposed in the unamended Bill, is the right way forward. It removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but as not too much time will pass between reviews, it also delivers boundaries that are up to date and fair. I therefore trust that the House will disagree with these Lords amendments.
Under Lords amendment 6, members of the Boundary Commission would be chosen using a bespoke appointments procedure that would sit entirely outside the existing public appointments process. The Bill as originally drafted did not make changes to the current processes, and there has been no dispute or controversy to date with the manner in which the commissioners have been appointed. The automatic implementation of the boundary commissioners’ final recommendations is crucial to achieving regular and effective boundary reviews.
Automatic implementation also shines a light on the boundary commissioners themselves. As parliamentary scrutiny is not involved in the process, we must be able to trust that the commissions are effective and independent. We need to be able to satisfy ourselves that the process of appointing all Boundary Commission members is thorough, independent and fair and that there is no room for any undue influence of any kind. I can reassure the House that our current processes fulfil all those criteria. Let me first outline how the deputy chairman and the ordinary members of the commission are appointed at present and then look at how the amendment would change the status quo.
The deputy chairman position in each Boundary Commission must be filled by a High Court judge. The amendment is unnecessary for two reasons. First, the judges appointed to the Boundary Commission have already undergone a rigorous recruitment procedure that gives reassurance that they are able to act independently and impartially. Secondly, the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice over these appointments in any case. This provides the views of the head of the English and Welsh judiciary. The appointment of ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The four commissions are listed alongside many other public bodies and independent offices in the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019. The order is the legal basis for the governance code on public appointments and the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who regulates appointments processes.
The governance code and oversight of the commissioner ensure that appointments are made openly, fairly and on merit to the Boundary Commission and many hundreds of other public bodies. The governance code includes robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of the two ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions. These members are appointed by Ministers, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel that includes a representative of the organisation in question. For Boundary Commissions, the representative is the deputy chairman or an ordinary member if the deputy chairman cannot attend. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity over the previous five years. Future advisory assessment panel decisions should not be prejudged, but it would seem likely that recent significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with the panel finding a candidate appointable as a boundary commissioner.
The Bill, as amended, creates a bespoke system for Boundary Commission appointments in primary legislation. There are three main reasons to oppose that amendment. First, the existing public appointments system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commission for decades; in simple terms, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Secondly, a separate appointments regime could cast doubt on those appointed to public office under the current system. That doubt would be unjustified, as the current system is independently regulated and ensures that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government to carry out vital public work. We should use it wherever possible and resist the urge to create new, niche systems.
Thirdly, I have already mentioned that the deputy chairman’s previous appointment as a High Court judge will have been sufficiently robust to ensure their ability to act impartially. The Government are also unconvinced by the argument that the Lord Chancellor cannot be trusted to act impartially when making such appointments. The role of the Lord Chancellor—the Lord High Chancellor—occupies a unique and significant position in our constitutional firmament, defending the judiciary and its independence through a duty to rise above party politics where required.
I am spoilt for choice. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I heard him marginally earlier, probably because of the distance factor.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks about how independent the Lord Chancellor has been of late. Given the attacks on the judiciary by this Government and the attempts to break international law, does he really think that stands up to scrutiny?
I think it is of fundamental importance; the Lord Chancellor is there to say to Ministers that they should not criticise judges. That is one of his roles, to ensure that proper application of the separation of powers. The current Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend, carries out his job with absolute aplomb, but he is not alone in this; Labour Lord Chancellors have done exactly the same.
Unfortunately, now that the Lord Chancellor is, rightly or wrongly, in the House of Commons, can they not be subjected to political pressures? Indeed, has a previous Lord Chancellor not been expelled from his party and therefore, in effect, expelled from Parliament?
The Lord Chancellor being in the House of Commons is something that happened earlier in our history, too. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Thomas More was Lord Chancellor in the House of Commons, so it is hardly unprecedented for this to happen, although there may be quibbles about the constitutional reforms that took place under the Government headed by Tony Blair. I think that the ability of the Lord Chancellor to be the voice of judicial independence and of the rule of law in the highest councils of government is one of fundamental constitutional importance.
Where I draw different conclusions from those of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman is that I think the role should be enhanced, protected and recognised as being one of exceptionality and above the cut and thrust of day-to-day party politics. I would mention distinguished Lord Chancellors from other parties here. Jack Straw and Lord Irvine of Lairg were two particularly distinguished Lord Chancellors, as were Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Hailsham. They were great figures who all recognised that they had a political affiliation but that their solemn responsibility required them to rise above the fray. We should defend this as something precious about our constitution.
The gravity of the responsibility placed upon their shoulders means I have no doubt that future Lord Chancellors, one of whom could one day come from the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish nationalists—[Interruption.] The Scottish National party may be pushing it a bit, and one from the Lib Dems is not much more likely, but the principle is that the gravity of the responsibilities placed upon their shoulders means that Lord Chancellors will continue to uphold the highest traditions and respect for the judiciary. The notion that they would seek to undermine or compromise this through appointments to the commission is anathema to us all and would certainly be unconscionable to all past and present keepers of the Queen’s conscience—one of the roles of the Lord High Chancellor.
The amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term for boundary commissioners as a way to avoid any potential for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by their desire for re-appointment. If an individual were to serve only one term, it would need to be for 10 years to align with the current cycle of 10-year reviews—or eight years if the House agrees to overturn their lordships’ change to 10 years—which is a long term of office. We are not aware of any similar examples for non-executive style roles such as this. It could be off-putting to some worthy candidates from an inevitably not limitless pool of applicants for such positions. It may also be beneficial to retain the experience of a commissioner after their initial term, which is a principle that applies across public appointments. Not prescribing a non-renewable term in law would retain flexibility in the event that a commissioner did or did not wish to serve longer than the current norm of a four or five-year term.
As appointments are based on the current robust system that would prevent partisan candidates from being appointed in the first place, the risk of appointing candidates who might not act impartially would be very low. Indeed, that is reflected by reappointments to the commissions. To take but one recent example, a commissioner of the Boundary Commission for Scotland was appointed by a Liberal Democrat during the coalition and subsequently reappointed under a Conservative Government. Quite simply, the system works as it is.
In conclusion—[Interruption.]. Do not get too excited as this is merely the conclusion on this set of amendments. I see the breath being bated around the House as hon. Members think I am going to finish, but I am afraid I have a bit more to get through. It is appropriate that the boundary commissioners, as well as for many other important public appointments, remain as they are and stay in place. I urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendment.
Under amendment 7, the number of voters in each constituency proposed by the boundary commission would be permitted to vary from the UK average by plus or minus 7.5% or a total tolerance range of 15%. The Bill as originally drafted made no change to the current permitted variation from the UK average—also known as the electoral quota—of plus or minus 5% or a total tolerance range of 10%.
Let us remind ourselves of the numbers involved. Using electoral figures from 2019, a 15% tolerance range would allow one constituency to have 78,000 electors—actually, 78,059—and its neighbour to have 67,167, or almost 11,000 fewer. I cannot think of any arguments that justify the manifestly unfair situation of constituencies varying by 11,000 electors at the point at which a review is done. That is simply not just. More important than numbers is the principle of equality on which our manifesto commitment is based. The Government have been clear from the outset on that point. Equal and updated constituencies are a cornerstone of our democratic system and it is a matter of fundamental fairness that all votes should count the same regardless of where the elector lives. A 10% tolerance range achieves that aim. It allows the boundary commissioners to take into account factors such as geography and community ties, but it also puts equality and fairness centre stage. For something as important as our right to choose the Government of the day, that is the right order of priorities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be the aim of the boundary commissions to try to hit the electoral quota number as closely as they can and that the tolerance is, as he outlined, merely for circumstances that may be out of their control? The message from the House to the boundary commissions should be true equality and please try to hit the number as well as they can.
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. We all recognise that the numbers will diverge from the moment the commission finishes its work as people move around the country. Therefore, the tolerance of 5% either way—10% in total—gets the balance about right in the knowledge that, by the time of an election, it will inevitably have changed regardless A 15% tolerance range has been thoroughly debated in both Houses and twice rejected by this one—in Committee and on Report—so the settled view of the elected Chamber, to which, after all, the Bill relates most directly, should prevail. I therefore urge the House to disagree with the amendment.
As I turn to amendment 8, I will first pay tribute to Lord Shutt of Greetland, who tabled the amendment in the other place and sadly died recently. Lord Shutt was a stalwart campaigner and advocate on electoral issues, as reflected in his recent excellent chairmanship of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say he will be much missed and offer my condolences to his family on behalf of the House. The amendment would require the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for the purposes of boundary reviews. It suggests two possible ways in which the issuing of national insurance numbers could trigger 16 and 17-year-olds being included on the registers. I will look first at the completeness of the registers and then discuss how the amendment proposes to register 16 and 17-year-olds. It is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers, despite the removal of 1 million ghost entries from the register when the transition from household registration to individual registration was completed in December 2015. People who want and are eligible to register to vote find it easy to do so.
The Government believe that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be on the electoral register, but that it should be up to each individual to decide whether to engage with the democratic process. The Government seek to make registration as easy as possible and to work with many others to reduce any barriers to registration. For example, we introduced online registration. As a result, it became simpler and faster to register to vote; it now takes as little as five minutes to register. Similarly, we are focused on ensuring that electoral registration officers—with whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies—have the tools they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. For example, the Government have made many resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration freely available on gov.uk. Furthermore, our changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain will improve its overall efficiency considerably. The data-matching element of the initiative allows electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups. This is the first year of the reformed canvass, and anecdotal reports so far suggest that administrators have found the new processes much less bureaucratic.
The amendment makes two suggestions on what the Government may include in the proposals they would be required to lay before Parliament to improve the completeness of the registers. The first would see a form of automatic registration introduced for attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who can register to vote in preparation for attaining voting age—and their inclusion in the electorate data used in boundary reviews. We are opposed to automatic registration for attainers or any other group, in both principle and practice, as we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties. People should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. That was one reason why we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. The evidence shows that an individual system drives up registration figures. After individual registration was launched, the registers for the 2017 and 2019 general elections were the largest ever. Electoral registration has worked.
There are a number of practical concerns about automatic registration. Among others, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on the grounds of the significant security and privacy implications of holding that much personal data in one place, as well as the significant cost that such a system would impose.
But surely the electoral registers are held by the local electoral registration officers and the local councils, and if they are provided with that information, they can automatically register people. That is what is in the amendment. A virtual national database would be a good idea, but it is not inherent in the proposition. It would mean that we did not have to spend a lot of money chasing those people up. Will the Minister explain why he thinks it desirable that we have such low registration rates of youngsters when we should surely want to engage them in the democratic process at an early stage?
I point out that we have record levels of registration. The right hon. Gentleman undermines his own argument, because as soon as the Government have all that information, they have it. If they send it out to electoral registration officers, that does not mean that they have lost, forgotten or abandoned it; it might do under a Labour Government, but it would not under a Conservative Government. I seem to remember some Inland Revenue figures were lost under the last Labour Government, but that is all ancient history and a long time ago. If the Government have that information, they have it; if has not been forgotten or wiped from the central mind just because they have sent it out to local officers. The risk of having a large, centralised system is that it would be expensive, and there would be risks in terms of security and privacy implications.
National insurance already has a national database—that is inherent to that system. That information would not be distributed to every local authority; information would be distributed on those who are resident within the postcodes in the local authority. What the Leader of the House is saying makes no sense at all. There is already a national database of national insurance numbers; logically, that has nothing whatsoever to do with telling local councils who is in their particular area so that they can chase them up.
That is not actually accurate. The national insurance database does not consist purely of voters; it consists of people who have national insurance numbers because they are eligible for tax in this country, and they may be foreign nationals. That is another problem: we would be trying to match together a database that is held for an entirely different purpose. It would have to be scrubbed to turn it into an electoral database, at which point we would have an electoral database held centrally, which is exactly the problem we are trying to avoid. I think we are on strong ground on this one.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although we want to encourage mass participation in the democratic process among the young, old and everybody in between, it is an inherent right in our democracy that people get to choose whether they partake in that democracy? If someone chooses not to register to vote, that is up to that individual, and that is something that we respect.
Freedom of the individual in participation is of fundamental importance. People have to decide whether they wish to vote—whether they wish to be actively involved. It is worth saying, again, that individual electoral registration has increased the number of people who are registered and increased the accuracy of the database. As I said, a million ghosts—phantom voters—were removed, and that is important. The integrity of the electoral register is of fundamental importance to the confidence that people have in the honesty of our system, and we have a very robust system.
I note that the Leader of the House has not yet made any reference to Wales, where we are extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. We value the voice of young people—16 year-olds—in Wales, and I have long supported that idea for the whole of the UK. Will the Leader of the House set out what steps the UK Government are taking to support the Welsh Government in the democratic process of ensuring that 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to vote in the Senedd elections in May?
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Devolved matters are for the devolved authorities to take care of, not for Her Majesty’s national Government to take care of. The Welsh Government have made that decision and will be able to implement it. If they cannot implement the decision, one has to ask why they made it.
The Leader of the House is trying to have it both ways as well. The reality is that the UK Government hold sources of information—whether it is the national insurance database or one of many others—that can assist in ensuring accurate electoral registration in all parts of the UK. Would it not be better for the UK Government to co-operate with the Welsh Government? They might take a different view for England, but they should co-operate with the Welsh Government to ensure that that democratic mandate is fulfilled.
It is a matter for the Welsh Government to decide how they draw up their register. If they want help from HM Government, I am sure they will have ways and means of getting in touch to ask for it, but it would be disrespectful of HMG to involve themselves, without being invited, in decisions that have been made by the Welsh Government. If we were doing something like that in Scotland, the fury of the Scottish National party would know no bounds—but then it has to be said that the fury of the SNP usually knows no bounds.
Let us take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration: the point that I was trying to make in response to interventions is that registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. Automatic voter registration would lead to less accurate electoral registers, especially if people had recently moved homes. Computers and—dare I say it—algorithms might add to electoral rolls people who did not live in the area, because of out-of-date entries held on other databases. They might also add people who had a residence but were not eligible to vote.
The Government are not prepared to undo all the benefits of our individual registration system by introducing the errors and inaccuracies that automatic registration would make more likely. After all, inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud and undermine faith in the integrity of our democratic processes. [Interruption.] The one point at which those on the somnolent Opposition Benches wake up is when I say that inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud.
They clearly want inaccurate and phantom voters. The only thing that seems to excite them is phantom voters. That is why I urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendment.
However, Mr Speaker, sometimes this House is agreeable. [Interruption.] Oh, it is Madam Deputy Speaker; the flowers bloom, if I may say so. I turn to amendments 3, 4 and 5, which we commend to the House. I am grateful to Lord Young of Cookham—particularly as he was a previous Leader of the House, and a very distinguished one at that—for engaging with us so that we could agree on amendments that the Government can support. With the amendments, the Bill sets out a clear deadline by which the Government must submit the draft boundary Order to Her Majesty in Council. Any opportunity for the Government to delay unreasonably after the Boundary Commission’s final recommendation is therefore also removed. This adds further strength to the independence of the review process.
The Bill sets out that the draft Order in Council must be submitted
“as soon as reasonably practicable”
after all four reports have been laid before Parliament. As amended, the Bill also requires that “in any case” this must happen
“no later than the end of the four month period unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
We believe that a deadline of four months is reasonable, as it allows sufficient time to draft the boundary order and associated orders, and to submit the draft boundary order.
There is significant policy and legal work involved in the drafting of a boundary order, the associated orders that designate returning officers for all new constituencies in Great Britain, and the charges orders, which set out the fees and expenses payable to returning officers at an election. The returning officers order also require some consultation with existing returning officers, local authorities and the Electoral Commission. As my noble friend Lord True emphasised in the other place, the words
“as soon as reasonably practicable”
remain in the Bill under these amendments. While I cannot bind future Governments to commit resources to contingent preparations, automaticity in this regard is a Government policy. I intended to set four months as the very last deadline, rather than it being an ambition to take that long. Regardless, we will of course work to ensure that the draft boundary order is submitted to Her Majesty as soon as reasonably practicable.
I hope that these Government-backed amendments bring additional certainty that the recommendations of the Boundary Commission will be implemented without political interference or unnecessary delay. I therefore trust that the House will agree to these particular Lords amendments, and commend them to the House.
I welcome the Leader of the House to his place this afternoon. He is, of course, standing in for the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who, given her recent health diagnosis, is taking some time away from this House, but not from her work. I want to put on the record how much the Labour party wishes her a speedy recovery, because I agree with the Leader of the House that he is a poor substitute for the formidable Minister!
The Labour party supports a boundary review in time for the next general election. Throughout all stages of the Bill, Opposition Members and their noble lordships have worked constructively to use this opportunity as a chance to improve and enhance the UK’s democracy. I thank the noble Lords for the constructive amendments that we are considering, and urge all Members to support them. The amendments all have the same central aim, which is to ensure that our parliamentary constituencies are drawn using data that is as complete and accurate as possible.
As I watched the US election unfold last week, I was reminded that our democracy and strong constituency links should not be taken for granted, and that we should be working constantly to improve and defend our system of parliamentary governance in this country. At every stage of the Bill, the Government have had ample opportunity to improve democratic representation— from filling the gaps in our electoral register to ensuring that our constituency boundaries properly reflect the communities within them. Sadly, though, the missing 9 million people from our electoral roll will now not be included in next constituency map of the UK.
Turning to the Lords amendments before us, I want to begin by addressing Lords amendment 6, which ensures that the appointment of members of the Boundary Commissions is made and seen to be made independently of Executive influence. This amendment is important because of the significant change of removing parliamentary oversight. In the past, Parliament has always played a democratic role in the boundary review process. This Bill will remove the very backstop that secured the existence of the 650 constituencies we all represent in this House today.
The passage of this amendment would ensure that, much like the appointment of judges, the appointment of boundary commissioners was wholly independent. Deputy chairs of the boundary commissions for England and Wales would be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor. Commissioners would be appointed by a selection panel comprising the deputy chair of the relevant commission and two others appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. A report would be submitted to the Secretary of State saying whom the panel had recommended. As it stands, this Bill allows Government Ministers to have undue influence over their appointments, and the Government’s track record on appointing their close friends to positions of public authority speaks for itself. I simply do not trust a Government who have shamelessly appointed their mates to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS Test and Trace and other major bodies.
I would also like to address Lords amendment 7, which seeks to alleviate the inevitable break-up of communities resulting from a too narrow 5% quota. While this might seem dry, at its heart the change has a real consequence for communities in the UK. Constituencies must be of broadly equal size in a fair and representative democracy—and on that point, I hope we all agree—but international best practice recommends that flexibility should be baked into the system to allow for consideration of geography and community ties. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission code of good practice in electoral matters recommends allowing a standard permissible tolerance from the electoral quota of plus or minus 10%.
UK experts who gave evidence to the Bill Committee recognised that the tight 5% quota will force constituency boundaries to cut across communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and of course motorways to engineer the right mathematical numbers. Indeed, the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England admitted that a smaller tolerance makes it
“much harder to have regard to…factors…such as the importance of not breaking local ties, and having regard to local authority boundaries and features of natural geography.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7, Q3.]
When the 5% variance was first introduced in 2011, the Government at that time were committed to having a 600-seat Chamber. The average number of electors per constituency therefore would have been much higher, meaning that the 5% that the boundary commissioners would be working with would actually include more electors to work with in the margins of these seats. This is an important point, because by failing to widen the tolerance while increasing the size of the Chamber back up to 650, the commissions actually have far fewer electors to work with—roughly in the region of just 3,000 electors. If we consider that the average urban ward in England is about 8,000 electors, we can appreciate the significance of needing at least 4,000 electors either side of the quota to prevent the breaking up of wards and communities.
Does the hon. Member agree with me that, arguably, having such a narrow tolerance could create a butterfly effect, whereby a housing development in one constituency might then tip it over the edge? In fact, we are looking at two thirds of the current constituencies being changed as a result of this strict limit.
Indeed. The hon. Member is right about the butterfly effect, because of course we cannot change one parliamentary constituency without having a knock-on effect on all the neighbouring constituencies too.
The truth is that constituencies should look like communities. I thought that point was made very effectively on Second Reading by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I hope she does not mind if I quote what she said then:
“Constituencies should not just be numerical constructs; they should be constructed for communities first and foremost”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 804.]
I completely agree.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was quoted. Does the hon. Lady agree, though, that a variance of up to 10,000 voters will actually give the Boundary Commission more than ample flexibility to be able to accommodate communities? The figures she was citing earlier were not, I think, entirely accurate.
I hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to expand on that in her contribution; she is next on the call list to speak. However, I do not quite understand the point that she is trying to make, because there is always going to be a balance between—[Interruption.] If she would like to listen, there will always have to be a balance between hitting the quota and getting as close as we can to 0% from the quota—it would be desirable if every constituency had the exactly the same number of electors—while keeping communities together. I do not think that the idea of dividing a street or a housing estate arbitrarily to create exactly the same size constituency boundaries would cut the mustard with the public. The 5% rule runs a coach and horses through those community ties. It creates a kind of painting-by-numbers approach to the boundary review, and it will lead to long-established communities being split from one another and will erode local identities and divide neighbourhoods. Quite simply, we cannot have it both ways; we cannot protect local ties and enforce a strict quota.
Throughout the Bill, the Government have argued that a 5% tolerance will make every vote count equally, but I would argue that even a 0% quota would not make every vote carry the same weight. Leaving aside the fact that millions of voters are effectively disenfranchised every election owing to the existence of so-called safe seats, it is simply not true that every vote would count equally as a result of this Bill, because at any election we now know that in the region of 9 million eligible electors are incorrectly registered and are losing out on their chance to vote. Millions more will potentially join them if the Government’s plans to roll out voter ID come into force, as we have seen, similarly, in US elections.
I turn to Lords amendment 8, which was tabled by Lord Shutt, who, very sadly, died two weeks ago. He was passionately committed to improving our democracy and it is quite fitting that his last contribution was in support of this amendment. I was speaking to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) earlier today and he told me that he was a down-to-earth, humble, funny and genuinely nice bloke. I would like to put on record the Opposition’s condolences to his family at this sad time.
Lord Shutt’s amendment would represent a significant step forward in voter registration and, hopefully, participation among young voters. As we all know, electoral registers are the fundamental building blocks for constituency boundaries. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can register as attainers head of their 18th birthday. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who have been registered has fallen from around 45% in 2015 to just 25% last year. This amendment would enable the Government to ask local authorities’ registration officers to add 16-year-olds to the electoral register when they get their national insurance number or, alternatively, ensure that 16-year-olds would be provided with information on how to apply to join the electoral register on receiving their national insurance number.
This sensible arrangement could radically improve the number of young people registering to vote, hopefully helping them to develop a habit of a lifetime of voting, and—more relevant to this legislation—mean that our constituency boundaries are representative of younger voters. The 16 and 17-year-olds that are considered when it comes to drawing constituency boundaries are likely to be the electors at a subsequent general election. For that reason alone, the Minister should give the amendment great consideration.
In conclusion, the Labour party fundamentally rejects the Government’s attempt to end the parliamentary approval of the new constituency boundaries, and we ask that Members think hard about the impact of the restrictive 5% quota. Ministers know very well exactly what needs to be done to enable greater democratic engagement, and the fact that they have consistently failed to take any action tells us all we need to know.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). We also seem to have a number of Members of the Public Bill Committee in the Chamber today. It was a vigorous and very compelling Committee and I am sure that the debate today will follow that.
The hon. Lady chose to quote me from the Committee. Perhaps I could make the quote more complete. I also pointed out that constituencies such as Basingstoke, which now has almost 83,000 voters, could ask the Boundary Commission to consider splitting it into two instead of its continual desire to “doughnut” constituencies. Although I believe that constituencies should represent a community, there are many – Reading, Swindon and others – that enjoy being two separate constituencies because then Members can work together. We know that teamwork is an important part of the job we do.
I join other right hon. and hon. Members in sending very good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). Her attention to detail on this important constitutional change has been second to none and we miss her in this debate. She would not want a better stand-in than my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I hope that he has done as much homework as I know she would have done. From his comments today, it looks as though that is the case. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend back at the Dispatch Box very soon. We miss her.
There has been much deliberation of the Bill in the other place because it is an important set of changes. Hon. Members will find it particularly interesting to see members of the House of Lords paying such close attention to how democratic elections work. Of course, many of them have expertise in standing for election and I hope that that is something about which they will think more in the future. Let us be clear. This debate relates to a manifesto pledge of the Government. Less than 12 months ago, we on the Government Benches stood on a platform to update our constitutional legislation to ensure that we have equal boundaries so that every vote counts the same in each constituency, with some important exceptions.
The right hon. Lady talks about manifesto commitments. It was not that long ago that there was a manifesto commitment to have 600 seats in the House of Commons. What changed for the Government? [Interruption]
As one of my hon. Friends says from a sedentary position, it was a different manifesto. Even more importantly, one fundamental change that the hon. Gentleman will know more about is that we are choosing to leave the EU and, as a result, Members will have more work to do.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me not to give way, this is not a debate between the two of us. The Leader of the House has set out important responses to these amendments which deserve a great deal of consideration. He has given a comprehensive analysis of these Lords amendments. Taking into account the fact that the Government have accepted amendments 3, 4 and 5 already, I would like to confine my comments to amendment 7 but also join him in agreeing that all the other amendments are manifestly unnecessary. Indeed, the Committee considered those issues in detail and found that the Bill should remain as it is.
Amendment 7 would undermine the essence of the Bill because it increases, not reduces, the opportunity for differences between constituencies. I referred to Basingstoke during my intervention on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Currently we have almost 83,000 voters in Basingstoke, whereas a constituency such as Rhondda has just over 50,000. That shows starkly the necessity for change and for us to take this opportunity to make that change work as well as it can. It is as much to do with the way the current system works, in terms of Parliament being able to intervene in these measures. The difference between those constituencies is stark. But it is incumbent on us to ensure that any changes we put in place do not build another raft of problems for the future.
The right hon. Lady’s example of the Rhondda does not hold, I am afraid, because the allocation of seats to Wales will be based on the number of registered electors. Therefore, there may be some variations within Wales, but her seat in Basingstoke and constituencies in Wales are covered by another part of the Bill. Yet again, why have this dislocation when it does not actually impact in the way that she is describing?
I think my voters, and I am sure others, would want to be aware of the difference between constituencies, and whether they are in Wales or Hampshire, each voter should have the same ability to be represented in this place. That is manifestly not the case at the moment.
We had no end of evidence from experts on that point, and I think we should all thank those who took the time, not only to give written evidence to the Committee, but to appear before the Committee in person too. It was clear from that evidence to the Committee that there was no compelling reason to deviate from the Government’s proposals; it is important to put that on the record today.
Dr Alan Renwick from University College London said in oral evidence that no academic expert would be able to decide that what was on the face of the Bill should be changed. It is clear also from the evidence that there is room for accommodating those rules that we discussed at length, that there is sufficient flexibility in practice, and that the Boundary Commission will still be able to adhere to community ties.
I now come to the main point that I want to make to the Leader of the House, because it really perturbed the Committee. I absolutely agree that the amendment should not be made, but I want to be opportunistic and take the opportunity to land this point once more with the Government. We were concerned about the evidence that we saw from the Boundary Commission for England, and its ability to work within the way that the Bill sets out.
The oral evidence from Mr Tony Bellringer from the Boundary Commission for England very much underlined the commission’s current approach of working with wards as “building blocks”, and emphasised that currently that organisation does not hold a system or a dataset that could allow it to work in any other way. Yet, on the other hand, we heard—I think on the same day—that the Boundary Commission for Scotland does just that: it holds datasets that allow it to work at a sub-ward level. It is important that my right hon. Friend addresses that point, so that we may send a very loud message to the Boundary Commission for England that our democracy is important to us, that the Bill is all about equally sized constituencies, and that the commission needs to work with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) reminded us in Committee that it was the chartists who, in the people’s charter of 1838, called for the principle of electoral equality, and said that that should remain the cornerstone of our democracy now and in future. I hope that the Leader of the House will reassure the House that no historical approach by the Boundary Commission for England will stand in the way of that organisation’s creating equal constituencies following the coming into force of this legislation, so that a vote in whichever part of the United Kingdom we live, from here to Ynys Môn and beyond, can count equally.
The right hon. Lady wants equality. Did she not move the amendment that said that Ynys Môn should stand alone, even though it would be much smaller than the quota?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to be the person from the Labour Benches to tell the people of Ynys Môn that Labour does not believe that theirs should be a unique constituency.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker and I hope the Leader of the House can answer my questions.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller).
I start by sending my best wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who has been a formidable but good-natured opponent on the Bill. Naturally, there is much for me to disagree about when it comes to my dealings with Britain’s Constitution Minister, but personal health always transcends politics, and I know I speak for us all when I wish her all the very best for her treatment in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to seeing her back at the Dispatch Box.
I also welcome the Leader of the House to our proceedings on the Bill. He is always incredibly entertaining and I have certainly enjoyed watching his transition from a robust and consistent Back Bencher to a member of the Cabinet having to participate in the parliamentary gymnastics of Government U-turns that have become a hallmark of this Government.
The particular U-turn that this Bill legislates for is in reference to clause 5. That undoes the 2011 legislation, which I think the right hon. Gentleman voted for and which would have reduced the number of constituencies in the House from 650 to 600. With new legislative powers coming back from Brussels post Brexit, it would surely have been bonkers to reduce the number of MPs while increasing the legislative power of the Executive. Let me respond to the point of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke. I know that she did not want to have a debate about it, but her point was that the Government changed their position as a result of Britain’s exit from the European Union. In actual fact, as someone who served on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, a Bill brought forward by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), I know that, until December last year, the Government opposed that Bill every single way by withholding the money resolution. By that point, Britain was already leaving the European Union, so I am afraid that the right hon. Lady’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny on that part.
The fact that, under new calculations, Scotland will lose out on two to three constituency seats is making a mockery of the promises made after the 2014 independence referendum. In fact, it seems that all the devolved nations will now stand to lose out on constituency seats under the new calculations. The nation, of course, that is due to lose the most seats under these proposals is Wales, with all witnesses in Committee, including the CCHQ representative, Mr Pratt, saying that Wales would, in his own words, “take a hit”. I am sure that Welsh Conservative MPs were delighted about that being placed in Hansard. Again, it has been widely acknowledged that, under the current formula, Wales would lose seats to the benefit of the south-east of England. But this is not the only UK nation that stands to have diminished representation in the House of Commons.
Scotland is currently represented by 59 MPs and although I continue to work every single day of the week to ensure that Scotland is no longer governed by Westminster, until that day comes, I will fight to ensure that Scotland’s voice is fairly heard in this Chamber. Based on the proposed electoral quotas, we would see Scotland losing two or three seats to the advantage of England, which strikes me as being wholly unfair and flies in the face of the rallying calls that Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, rather than leave it. After the 2014 referendum, Scotland was promised that it would be considered an equal partner in this Union. However, the fact that Scotland is now set to lose three constituency seats should continue to highlight the promises made post 2014 that have been proven to be empty again.
I welcome all the amendments made in the House of Lords and commit my party to voting for them when the Division bells ring tonight, but there were some real missed opportunities for their lordships to dramatically improve the Bill. First, I am bitterly disappointed that their lordships did not remove the provisions of clause 2, which deals with the issue of automaticity or parliamentary approval of commission recommendations. Too often in earlier debates, the Government got away with suggesting that MPs should not be marking their own homework when it came to the approval of new boundaries, but I am genuinely surprised that the other House, which has a role in approving recommendations as well, has also relinquished that right. When it comes to Scottish peers—most if not all of them have never been elected—there was a hugely missed opportunity to try to protect the voices of devolved nations in future Parliaments. It should have been a priority for Members of the House of Lords to protect Scotland’s 59 seats in this Parliament and to protect our ability to represent our constituents and not to diminish Scotland’s voice. I see that some Conservative Members look quite perplexed at this idea of protecting seats, but of course it was 1980s legislation under Margaret Thatcher that protected Scotland initially at 73 seats and then they were reduced to 59 under devolution. Therefore, for those who look a bit perplexed about this, it was actually something that was advocated by a Conservative Government.
Having set out our position in the Bill, I will confine my remarks to the amendments for consideration from the other place. I turn to amendments 1 and 2. My party supports the amendments to review the boundaries every 10 years, as opposed to the shorter timeframe of eight years, mainly due to the increased certainty that it gives to constituents and representatives alike. Moving from eight to 10 years does not strike me as being an unreasonable compromise and I am therefore content to offer my party’s support for the amendment being made permanent to the Bill.
On amendment 6, I also support the change to have an independent appointment process. Earlier in my remarks, I made reference to authenticity and the Government’s argument that MPs should not have a role in approving the commissioner’s recommendations. If we follow the logic of the argument about removing perceived self-interest, then the same is surely true for Ministers—in this case, the Lord Chancellor appointing boundary commissioners. Amendment 6 would see the power to appoint commissioners transferred from a politician to the Lord Chief Justice. That would, in effect, stop future Tory Ministers from appointing their chums to the Boundary Commission. By keeping clause 2(2) in the Bill but voting against Lords amendment 6, the Government would, in effect, be having their cake and eating it, and be charged with rank hypocrisy. I know the Leader of the House is a good man, and I am sure he would not want to be portrayed as a hypocrite by voting for such a fundamentally contradictory proposition.
I now move on to Lords amendment 7. A 5% tolerance is not appropriate, and I want to offer my support to this amendment calling for a modest increase to 7.5%. In our evidence session in Committee, Mr Bellringer of the Boundary Commission for England spoke about the difficulty caused by a smaller tolerance, which makes it
“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.”
Indeed, Mr Bellringer, who was quoted by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), went on to say:
“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”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7.]
I thus again urge the Government to increase the tolerance to give the commissioners wider discretion.
I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend.
I thank my hon. Friend—and he is a friend. Does he not agree that what we are trying to achieve is ensuring that each vote in this country is, as far as possible, equal to the next one? The more that we increase the tolerance, the less equal everybody’s vote becomes, and so we move further and further away from what we are trying to achieve by going through this process in the first place.
What I am trying to make sure is that I and my hon. Friend are made unemployed fairly soon—but that is a separate matter. The point is that it was previously enshrined in legislation that Scotland would have 73 seats and then it would rightly be reduced to 59 in the light of devolution. Government Members cannot have their cake and eat it; in one respect they are enshrining in legislation a certain number of seats, but locking that down in legislation means that there will be a degree of difference. However, I have a huge amount of respect for my hon. Friend, and he has put his point on the record.
I return to the point made by Mr Bellringer in the evidence session that there is a need to move towards a tolerance rate of, say, 7.5%. That is why I urge the Government to increase it to give commissioners the wider discretion that they asked for when they gave us that evidence. I know that the Government are not particularly fond of listening to experts these days, but I am very hopeful that this afternoon they could just make a wee exception for the Boundary Commission for England.
Finally, I want to make reference to Lords amendment 8. Before doing so, I offer my sincere condolences, on behalf of my party, to the family of Lord Shutt, who, as we have heard, passed away only in the past couple of weeks, but was responsible for securing this amendment in the other place. By using the electoral registers as the data source to draw parliamentary constituencies, the Bill also seeks to disadvantage young people, as the data is less likely to include the names of young people than it is older people, since young people are often not registered to vote. Registration rates for eligible 16 and 17-year-olds were estimated to be 25% in 2018—a drop from 45% in 2015. In contrast, 94% of those aged 65-plus were estimated to be registered. The SNP therefore supports this amendment, which requires the Government to bring forward proposals to improve the completeness of the electoral register in relation to attainers. Only then can we ensure that we are not disadvantaging young people in the electoral process.
The Leader of the House has spent the majority of his time in this House on the Back Benches advocating Brexit and talking about Parliament taking back control from an all-powerful Executive—something this Bill makes worse. I therefore want to finish by paraphrasing something a wise man once said in this House many years ago about standing up for democracy:
“’Stiffen your sinews, summon up the blood and imitate the action of a tiger, for that is how you should behave towards our European partners, not like Bagpuss.’” —[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 109.]
I would like to start by commenting on Lords amendment 7 and the flexibility. We keep hearing this mathematical argument, but we seem to be getting away from the overarching principle. Already this afternoon, we have heard that it is difficult to keep local communities together unless we move to a tolerance of 7.5%, which strikes me as odd when it would mean going from a difference of roughly 7,500 voters to one of 11,000. Many electoral wards in this country have fewer than 7,500 voters, so are we now making the argument that wards themselves split communities and that they are wrong as well? There is a fundamental principle: if we went to 7.5%, one vote could be worth one 67,000th and another could be worth one 77,000th. That is quite a significant difference.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I very much enjoyed working with him in Committee and having the debates that we had, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. He made a very important point about equal representation. He said that by losing seats, Scotland will not have equal representation. I would argue that the exact opposite is true: it is equal representation—and of course there are two protected seats in Scotland; recognition has been made of the geographical reasons why the Outer Hebrides and Orkney and Shetland are separate. It is not fair to say that Scotland is getting less representation and that it needs to be equally represented, because there will be equal United Kingdom representation. That is what this is about: the United Kingdom’s Government.
The hon. Gentleman and I are never going to agree on his nationalistic views and my Union views—that is why I sit on the Conservative Benches and he sits on the SNP Benches—but we just seem to be plucking figures out of the air for the 7.5% and the 5%. Again, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and I have a huge deal of respect for her. She made an argument about the 600 seats and how that changed the number of voters when dealing with the 5%. However, away from the numbers, the fundamental principle must be to get as close as possible.
I made the point in intervening on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about trying to get as close to the quota as possible. It should be possible to do that if the Boundary Commission for England, especially, takes the approach that the Boundary Commission for Scotland takes and decides that it does not have to draw some very strange shapes and lines using ward boundaries, but that it can work with smaller electoral segments.
We heard the argument in Committee that polling districts can be changed by local authorities and can lose that representation—that they could be gerrymandered —but of course there will come a point when the Electoral Commission looks at where they are today. It has already said that it will go on where they are today; it is using the March 2020 register and those units as they exist today. If, in eight years’ time, there have been changes to those polling districts, for whatever reason, that can be taken into account at that time, and the Electoral Commission is an independent body.
I will happily support the Government in disagreeing with Lords amendment 7. Fundamentally, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are trying to give equality of vote. In my mind, the tolerance is there not to try to draw the most convenient shape using wards, but purely to allow the flexibility for which a need will inevitably build up over the eight years, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, with new housing developments and so on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has made the point many times that development, especially in certain parts of the country, is huge, and it leads to such housing developments. That is what the tolerance should be about; it should not be about trying to draw the shapes to have one just creeping in at the bottom end and one just meeting the higher end. The flexibility should allow a 5% tolerance of the share of that vote over the eight years; it should not get there straight away. If a constituency is made at the higher end, within eight years, it will almost certainly be above that number and we will be back in the same situation.
My constituency of Elmet and Rothwell has 79,316 electors. The neighbouring constituency of Leeds East has 65,693. The neighbouring constituency to that of Leeds Central has 82,211. It simply cannot be right to have such variation within less than 10 miles as the crow flies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) is in his place and cannot speak in the debate. [Interruption.] I can still smell and taste; it’s all right. He and I have represented Leeds electors since the early 2000s. We have seen great differences in the city and how it is set up. His constituency is on the higher side of the number of electors in Leeds. My voters are getting almost one 80,000th of a vote, whereas in the neighbouring seat they are getting one 65,000th of a vote. It is right to reject Lords amendment 7 simply because we should see it not as a way to fill the gap and make constituencies work, but purely as a way to give people a vote that will change plus or minus 5% over the eight-year period to try to keep things roughly similar.
Lords amendment 1 is about moving from eight to 10 years. The reality is that that means we would probably go through three general elections on those boundaries. We have heard a lot in these debates about how big the boundary changes are probably going to be when they come through, but that is because nothing has happened for a quarter of a century. The changes will be of that size; they will be disruptive.
It is better to go in a cycle of two general elections so that, hopefully, from this point on, with the Government amendments to try to make the whole system more robust and far less open to political shenanigans in the House, we will not see such major changes in future. It is better that the system can be, for want of a better word, tinkered with to make sure that we get back to roughly within those tolerances. We all accept that there will be demographic change and housing change. Big things are happening, including the ambition to build so many houses, which will cause change.
What seems like a small amendment would have a huge impact. Very large changes would have to be made simply by adding those two years and getting into a three-general-election cycle.
Lords amendment 8 is about registrations. It is a fundamental right of people in this country to choose whether they want to register for a vote or not.
It is absolutely, certainly not. It is actually a criminal offence not to return a registration form.
The reality is that people who do not want to register to vote can do that. They have to register for council tax and those processes.
That is absolutely wrong. It is an offence not to return the electoral registration form. The fact that councils do not enforce that and do not think it is worth it may be another matter, but it is a prosecutable offence not to return a registration form.
Well, the right hon. Gentleman has made a point there that I stand to be corrected on.
I also stand to be corrected on this point. I do not want to mislead the House; these figures can be checked. For the European referendum, in my constituency, 1,500 extra people went on the register and have now come off. They chose to register to take part in that ballot, which meant a lot to them, but they do not want to take part in other ballots. They worked out how to register; they registered; they legally took part in the ballot; they have not registered going forward. It has to be right that people have that choice. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the amendments would lead to a far greater complication of the system, and centralised data, which has not exactly worked well in other areas—including, quite frankly, some of the things that people are trying to achieve at the moment in this crisis. We have seen some of the problems and weaknesses that can occur.
The system works, and it works better than it ever did. We have seen millions of phantom registrations come off through individual voter registration, and that gives it robustness. Where does it go next? Are we going to move to the Australian system of fining people if they do not vote? That is a tax on choice, and it is not right. People can choose to opt out of taking part in the system. When it does matter to people—when something big happens, such as the referendum—we get a huge turnout, like in the American election. We have just seen a record turnout of voters in the American election.
My final point is about the boundary commissions. Many of the points about how schemes are built and put together were discussed in Committee. It is important that the boundary commissions work in the regions. That works very well, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and I now have a famous quote between us about Lancashire and Yorkshire not mixing. I hope the Boundary Commission for England picked up on the point during the debate that it must be more creative than just doing some squiggly lines trying to get wards to work, and looking at splitting wards.
For those reasons, coming back to Lords amendment 7, it is important that we do not change the tolerance level. There should be flexibility for the changes that occur over the period, and rather than trying to get to either the bottom end or the top end, we should try to get it in the middle.
I join others in paying tribute to and sending condolences to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). There is, however, one upside to her absence, which is that, with the Leader of the House, we have the Conservative Trumpist philosophy, red in tooth and claw, absolutely out there in the open. We had it again just now on ghost voters on the register. At the same time, the Government reject any attempt to make a more rational, accurate and comprehensive registration process. We have seen that all the way through, with attempts on voter suppression and attempts to make things more difficult at the polling station, in spite of the complete lack of evidence—in the same way that Donald Trump has been trying to discredit the American election, claiming that there are fraudulent voters, particularly in postal voting. It is the same old song. For those on the Government Benches, here is a breaking news story: Donald Trump has lost the election.
I do not think anybody on these Benches will disagree that Donald Trump has lost the election.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which many of us have taken part in, produced its report. It is not fair of the right hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on the Government about suppressing voter registration. The changes that were made to the postal voting system in this country were made as a direct result of OSCE reports on previous elections. I have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman —I consider him a friend—and I know he would not wish to cast such an aspersion. I hope he will reflect on that.
It may not be fair, but it is perfectly accurate. The reality is that in neither country has there been a shred of evidence of fraud in postal voting or personation at the ballot box.
It was not so long ago that Richard Mawrey, QC, the electoral commissioner, in a case in Birmingham—Birmingham in the west midlands, not Alabama—said that he had heard evidence of electoral fraud
“that would disgrace a banana republic”.
Furthermore, I suggest that Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in Slough, where convictions for electoral fraud were made, and Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where a further conviction on electoral fraud was made.
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that in Slough it was Conservative party members who were convicted, but we can always check that. There has been very, very little evidence of fraud from either postal votes or votes in person. We repeatedly challenged Ministers to come up with the data. When the Electoral Commission reports on election after election, when tens of millions of people are voting, we end up with one or two cases each year.
I think my right hon. Friend will find that the evidence shows there have been only nine cases of postal vote fraud since 1998—one every two years.
Moving on to constituency size, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) rightly points out the disparities between seats in the Leeds area. Basically, the fundamental reason for that was David Cameron’s proposals to try to get electoral advantage out of reducing the number of seats and making a very tight margin of difference. To be quite clear, the reason they were not carried was that they impacted on many Conservative Members of Parliament as well. Many of the newer Members here probably think, “It don’t apply to me, it’ll be all right” but it is the butterfly effect mentioned by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). When we have such tight margins, and if we are not going to be disrupting wards as the building blocks, then we will find that there will be gratuitous disruption.
Everyone understands that movement of population results in some disruption to constituencies and Members of Parliament. That happened in 1997 when I had my seat carved three ways, with part of it going to the then Speaker, Madam Boothroyd—it was not a good option to try to run there—so I fully understand how disruptive that can be. The reason why the proposals did not go through, and why we have had such a long delay, is precisely because, stubbornly, two Prime Ministers insisted on trying to go ahead. It was not just Members on the Opposition Benches who were opposed to it, but many Government Members who can understand when population change sometimes leads to disruption, but really do not understand it when it gratuitously causes great disruption to communities, Members of Parliament and their electorates.
The other thing about the proposals and very tight margins is that we very often lose a sense of identity and place. Even within urban areas, there is very often a great sense of identity in parts of a city. They are not all homogeneous. Herbert Morrison described London as a collection of villages. There is a great sense of identity. Again, everyone understands that there will be some difficulties at the margins, but to impose arbitrary lines on far more constituencies than necessary to achieve equalisation is resented, and rightly so.
I come to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) comparing Basingstoke and Wales. The Boundary Commission, when it gets the national registration figures, divides them up to create a quota. It then allocates the number of seats to a region based on that quota. The changes to the situation in Wales have nothing whatever to do with Basingstoke or what happens in the Rhondda, whether it is 5% or 10%, because the number of seats in Wales—that region’s share—will be fixed by the national quota. Incidentally, I would gently point out that in the previous Parliament the Conservatives opposed our attempts to have Ynys Môn as a separate constituency when our good friend Albert Owen was the Member of Parliament. Albert retired and the Conservatives unfortunately won the seat. Lo and behold! Suddenly, their interest in the concerns of Ynys Môn rocketed up. I am sure Conservative Members can explain why that change took place.
Finally, I find strange, and to a degree reprehensible, this opposition to trying to get the most complete register. We know that, not just in the UK but around the world, those who are under-represented on the register are those such as teenagers and people in their early 20s. We know that those who live in private rented accommodation are under-registered, and that many of those in our BME communities and in our inner cities are under-represented on the register. We urge councils to spend large sums of money to try to track those people down and get them to register. Why not take a course of action that is straightforward, cost-effective and cheap to ensure that they are registered? Please do not wrap this up in some great constitutional issue about the divine right to register. Whether people choose to vote is another matter, but on registration this is about naked party political advantage. It is the same in the US, and it is the same here. It is time for this Trumpery to end.
May I add my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)?
In life, theory and practice can often be two separate things, and in my relatively short time in Parliament I have found that to be the case. In theory, all Members of Parliament are equal and have the same basic duties, and while I accept that some Members of the House are perhaps more equal than others, it is a reasonable assumption that we ought to have some of the same basic responsibilities, including the number of constituents we represent. I appreciate that there will be certain geographical challenges to that, such as with island constituencies, but I believe that general principle should hold firm. I suggest that the existing system does not do that. To give an extreme example, Milton Keynes South has 97,000 electors, compared with Newcastle upon Tyne Central’s 54,000.
As originally drafted, the Bill would ensure a broad equality, subject to some tolerance, in the number of electors in each constituency, so that they are more or less of equal weight. Equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle on a matter such as this.
I agree that we need equality. On that basis, and given that all Members should be equal in this House, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the system of English votes for English laws is currently suspended. Will he call on the Government to ensure that that system does not come back, so that his hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) can cast his vote in exact same way as him in a Division?
I had not realised that EVEL had been cancelled for the moment, but I look forward to its reinstatement shortly.
Lords amendment 7 would increase the tolerance from the proposed plus or minus 5%. I appreciate that that may have been guided by a desire to help maintain a sense of place and distinct locality when drawing constituency boundaries, but I submit that the Government’s proposals are enough to draw fair and equal constituency boundaries. Secondly, equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle, but as with any review, there will be scope for communities to have their say, and for local ties and considerations to be taken into account as part of that process. I note that the tolerance proposed by the Government is in line with international guidance from the Venice Commission and the OSCE.
Lords amendment 8 proposes two ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved, and it is important that as many people who are entitled to vote register to do so.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Venice Commission and the OSCE, and that came up during our deliberations. They said:
“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10% and never 15%”.
That is the departure, which implies 10% either way. We are not even asking for that.
I believe that the guidance sets a maximum, and I think we are within that guidance. I am not sure that the conclusions the hon. Gentleman has drawn on that are entirely correct.
Just to confirm that the Venice Commission’s “Code of good practice in electoral matters” states that the permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10%, and I think that is a very good point.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for confirming my recollection. Lords amendment 8 proposes ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved. It is important that one registers to vote and does so. That should be encouraged; it is one’s civic duty. However, underpinning any civic duty is the notion that one takes some steps to actually engage with the process. Registering to vote is now very straightforward: one can, as we have heard, log on to one’s council’s website and do it in a matter of minutes. While it is good that registration should be easy, it should require some degree of citizen participation, which amendment 8 would remove. The amendment also fails to recognise the introduction of individual voter registration.
I have some practical concerns about what is proposed by amendment 8. Department for Work and Pensions data has been compiled for an entirely different purpose than proposed here, and it is not clear whether that data would translate easily to electoral purposes. Indeed, has consent been given for data given to the DWP to be used for an entirely different purpose? Might data protection issues arise if that data is used by an entirely different body? There are also concerns about how up to date any data would be. The amendment would task registration officers with deciding whether a would-be elector should be automatically included on an electoral roll, but there is a danger that people could be added on the basis of out-of-date information. Those registered but not eligible to vote might also be added by mistake.
If automatic voter registration leads to less accurate electoral registers, confidence in the electoral system will be diminished, not strengthened. Unsolicited poll cards sent to households with the highest turnover, such as student accommodation, could lead to greater voter fraud. Indeed, I submit that it could be a gold mine for potential electoral fraudsters in certain areas. I propose that individual voter registration, which helped to create the largest ever register for the 2017 election, and which is a relatively new concept, continues to be monitored and, if necessary, finessed.
I also do not accept Lords amendment 6, which would amend the provisions for appointing boundary commissioners. Across Government, many public appointments are made, and they are made under the governance code on public appointments, regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, whom I had the pleasure to hear from shortly after my election to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. These public appointments are made in a fair and trusted way, and it is unclear to me why boundary commissioners should be treated entirely separately from any other public body, with a conflicting appointments system. In any event, the deputy chairman of the commission will be a High Court judge who will have been through a rigorous process to achieve that position.
Finally, on Lords amendments 1 and 2, I believe that regular reviews are important. In urban areas particularly, the number of people living in a neighbourhood can change considerably over a short period of time, and constituency boundaries must reflect that. However, there is a competing need for some continuity. Constantly shifting boundaries are confusing for the average voter, who might not be an assiduous follower of politics. Assuming a general election every five years—I appreciate that that is rather a large assumption these days—an eight-year review will generally mean that updated constituencies are in place for two general elections and are then reviewed for the third. I understand that it has been said that that has some support from parliamentary parties. I am unclear on what an increase of the review time to 10 years will meaningfully achieve. Based on recent history, it would not cause a neat alignment between boundary reviews and election dates, even with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which might not be with us for very long. While I cannot support these amendments, I look forward to the Bill proceeding and to the fairer Parliament that will result.
I stand to speak to the amendments and to a number of the points raised in relation to them. It is vital that we have this debate, not least in the light of the events of the past few days in the United States and elsewhere but also because the security and sanctity of our democracy and ensuring that it thrives is important not only for our own country, but is vital for the example that we set a globally. When democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under threat around the world, as we have tragically seen in a number of instances in Africa and elsewhere in recent weeks, it is all the more important that we are seen to be leading the way with a strong democracy and strong representation for people.
Indeed, that view is shared by President-elect Biden, who has been clear about the need for a coming together of global democracies to defend democracy and democratic systems and the rule of law around the world. He called for a global summit for democracy, and he rightly said in his speech in Copenhagen in 2018 that “Democracy demands diligence”. That is why it is all the more important that we are scrutinising the Government on these measures.
The comments from the Foreign Secretary the other day were deeply disappointing when he refused to agree with the importance of counting all the votes. It was extraordinary that he had to be asked that question multiple times by Sophy Ridge at the weekend. That was an extraordinary example to set. It was particularly disappointing to hear the comments today from the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) about fraud and so-called ghost votes. As hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), have said, that is Trumpian language and it has no place in our democracy. It is also not borne out by the clear facts and the evidence in the Electoral Commission’s report of 30 September this year, which stated:
“The UK has low levels of proven electoral fraud.”
It reported that in all the elections that took place in 2019, including many local elections and, of course, the general election, there were just three instances of proven electoral fraud and just one caution out of all of those. The report went on to state:
“There remains no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud in 2019.”
I would therefore caution the Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and others who seek to use those words to stir up the idea that there is fraud or ghost voting, that this is deeply concerning and does not reflect the facts on the ground. It is very much the type of language and the sort of nonsense we hear from Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and others, and I am afraid that their time is coming to an end.
I want to turn to some of the specific points in the Lords amendments. First, on the question about the commissioners, it is crucial that the independence and integrity of the process is respected by individual citizens across the country, and that we do not have the Lord Chancellor appointing the commissioners. We have already seen that the Lord Chancellor was willing to put his principles to one side when it came to the rule of law over the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and I therefore do not have much confidence in him or other members of the Executive having oversight of that process, particularly when the other parliamentary safeguards are being removed from the process. It is crucial that we have boundary commissioners who are independent and who maintain the confidence not only of the public but of all those who stand for elected office, whatever their political party and whatever legislature, including this House, they are standing for.
Secondly, I want to refer to the questions about electoral registration. I have to say that we again heard some erroneous information from the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell on this. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said earlier. I like the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but he was simply wrong. He asked to be corrected, and I will correct him: there have been fines for the non-return of electoral canvass forms since the Representation of the People Act 1918. Whether or not those fines are enforced is another matter, but the law is very clear. I have just had my electoral registration canvass form come through. The Welsh Government and our councils are doing their job before the crucial Senedd elections in May, and a big caution is set out clearly on the front saying that we must return the form and not ignore it. It is also made clear that we must not provide false information, and that there will be penalties for those who do so. We ought to be taking steps to strengthen and enhance our electoral registration systems in whatever way is possible.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that not returning a form that has been sent to someone is an offence that they can be fined for. However, it is not an offence not to voluntarily register to be on the electoral register, which is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell was making earlier.
But surely the whole point is that we should be encouraging people to take part in the democratic system, particularly our younger people. I have mentioned 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales, and I welcome the fact that the Senedd has passed our Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which makes amendments to the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to bring in that right. It is right that young people should have a voice in our democracy. I have supported amendments on that in relation to this place on many occasions.
I would just point out to my hon. Friend that when a council is not sure who is living at a particular address, or if it knows that someone has moved, it will send the form to “the occupier”, which will still have the same legal effect. Assuming that councils are doing their job and sending forms to all residences, that covers the point.
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend has made strong points on that issue. I suggest that people look at the excellent House of Commons Library briefing on this issue that sets out all the information clearly.
Just to clarify, the Conservatives are saying that it is okay to break that law in a very “specific and limited” way.
I am not going to put assertions in the mouth of the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell—that would not be right for me to do—but the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has made his point.
Let me turn briefly to Wales, which will lose out in terms of the number of constituencies. We all support the principle of bringing greater equality among constituencies, but the point about Wales is really important. I think the Leader of the House misinterprets the guidance from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. I have read it and it is clear that departure from the specified point should seldom be 10% and definitely should not be over 15%. We are talking about 7.5%.
Evidence has been heard not only in respect of this Bill—I looked at that—but in previous Committee hearings in the House. For example, in 2014-15 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was clear on this issue, as was the evidence from the Boundary Commission for England itself about the difficulties for the boundary commissioners. I put on the record my thanks to all the staff who are involved in what is a very difficult process. They do an excellent job that is not easy—it is extremely complex and complicated—and I praise them for the work that they do.
There are specific issues in relation to Wales and geography, as indeed there are in certain other parts of the UK. It is absolutely right that distinct geographical exemptions are made for Ynys Môn, the Isle of Wight and Na h-Eileanan an Iar—I do not know whether I have pronounced that correctly; my Welsh pronunciation is a lot better than my Gaelic—because of water boundaries and islands, but distinctions also need to be made in relation to, for example, valley boundaries and mountains, which really do split constituencies.
We can end up with some very odd circumstances. We are not saying that the tolerances should be used as a matter course, just that the allowance should be there when it is a common-sense decision for the benefit and integrity of communities. I think of the circumstance in my own constituency in respect of the boundary review that was not put into place: the Cardiff bay barrage was split between three constituencies, thereby splitting apart the docks communities of Cardiff bay that sit together. A person would literally have passed through three communities as they walked along the barrage, which is only about 1 km long. It was absurd. We have to allow the boundary commissioners to take such things into account.
I have made the points that I wanted to make on the Lords amendments, so let me return to what President-elect Biden said:
“Democracy is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal. It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity.”
Those are words that I completely endorse and that we should have in our minds as we consider these important matters relating to our democracy. I support the position that we are taking on the Lords amendments.
I add my well-wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She was an integral part of the process in the Bill Committee and will be sadly missed during this process, but we look forward to seeing her again soon.
At the beginning of October, the NHS Track and Trace app told me that I had to self-isolate for 12 days. It was inconvenient, yes, but it did mean that on 8 October I was at home, glued to BBC Parliament as their lordships considered the Bill on Report in the other place, my psephological exuberance undiminished—possibly even enhanced—by my isolation.
I shall speak to their lordships’ amendments in turn. Some are predictably partisan and an attempt to achieve what their colleagues were unable to do in this place; others are genuine attempts to improve the workings of the Bill, although I do not believe that they would all actually manage that goal.
As we have heard, Lords amendments 1 and 2 seek to change the proposed cycle of reviews to once every 10 years rather than once every eight. The rationale offered by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock was that this is to enable MPs to
“get to know their constituency”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 October 2020; Vol. 806, c. 714.]
Quite what Lord Foulkes thinks we have been doing in the interim is a mystery to me. I humbly suggest that if a Member has not managed to establish themselves in a constituency after eight years, an extra 24 months will not make much difference. I chuckled when Lord Rennard began his oration in support of that amendment by saying:
“I would like you to imagine the position of a newly elected MP in a general election in 2025.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 October 2020; Vol. 806, c. 714.]
Of course, the noble gentleman would have to imagine, wouldn’t he? He set out a scenario whereby a newly elected MP would have won their seat on one set of boundaries, and just four years later, they would be engaged in a two-year process to reset those boundaries, which would define the seat they contested next time. Lord Rennard made an impassioned entreaty on behalf of these poor, doe-eyed freshman MPs: how would they cope? Well, I am just 11 months into the job and engaging in that very process right now. I can assure our noble friends that my colleagues and I are quite capable of keeping pace without their assistance.
The quality of our democracy should not be tempered for the convenience of hon. Members who might not be putting in the hard work. In most cases, eight years will enable a review in every other Parliament and will reduce the chances of radical change by keeping on top of the figures. Although seemingly simple, the addition of two years to the process could see some sets of boundaries in place over three Parliaments, leading us back to the situation we have now, with a 57,000-voter disparity between the smallest and largest mainland electorates.
Lords amendments 3 and 5 are simple and sensible, setting out a revised timescale for reports to the commission. As I understand that the Government will accept these amendments, I shall not labour the point beyond thanking their lordships for this improvement.
Lords amendment 6 is one of those species of amendments to which I referred earlier—that is, well-intentioned, but ultimately not an improvement. I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward, who I know is watching, for an extremely engaging discussion on this amendment that helped to clarify my thinking. He and I both have real trouble with the idea of members of a selection panel for commissioners being appointed by the Speaker. Although I think that we can all agree that the current holder of that office is a fair and honourable man who is capable of discharging his role in an even-handed and dispassionate way, one need not look too far back in time to find an example of someone who used the office to promote their own ideology and contorted every convention in this place to frustrate the settled will of the British people. This kind of patronage is not appropriate. Although Ministers currently formally appoint commissioners, that is only done after a rigorous, fair and open recruitment process that is conducted under the Government’s code and is regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Lords amendment 6 would remove that safeguard, so I will not support it.
I am also far from satisfied that limiting commissioners to a single non-renewable term is a wise move. Boundary reviews are highly technical, and it strikes me as somewhat bizarre that their lordships are pushing for in-built obsolescence. Surely institutional memory is an advantage.
Lords amendment 7 is an example of that other species of amendment—the partisan. We rejected a similar Opposition amendment in Committee, and we articulated quite properly the reason that 5% variance from the mean was appropriate, fair and practical. I reiterate the belief among Government Members that splitting wards in England, as the commission in Scotland does there, will address the challenges around the larger ward sizes in metropolitan boroughs—what I have called the martini paradox. I encourage the English commission to prepare postcode-level data to enable this as a matter of priority.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore regret that the amendment that I tabled in Committee to that very effect was not supported by his own Government?
I will stand to be corrected by the hon. Gentleman, but was that not a probing amendment, which he withdrew?
The hon. Gentleman is right, but the Minister said that it was not something that the Government were willing to entertain. The fundamental point is that the Conservative Government do not support that principle.
The hon. Gentleman can find out my views over a glass of wine once the Smoking Room reopens.
I am afraid that the argument that a wider variance will minimise disruption is entirely specious. We know that regions will differ in the number of seats necessitating significant change across the piece, and I demonstrated in Committee that even if there had been a 15% variance—the maximum allowed under the Venice Commission—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and I would still have been representing seats outwith the permitted tolerance. Such is the outdated nature of the current constituencies that I was not eligible to vote when the boundaries of my seat were last approved.
That brings me neatly to Lords amendment 8. There is a marvellous American expression: “Decisions are made by the people who show up.” However well-intentioned this amendment might be, I fear that it misses the point. We would all like to see greater participation in our democracy, but the right way to do that is not simply to add everyone’s name to the register. Individual electoral registration was brought in to combat electoral fraud, and I fully support that. I appreciate Opposition Members say that there have only been nine instances of fraud, but that is nine too many.
Quite right. Someone’s choice to exercise their franchise should be a positive affirmation and a conscious choice. If we want more people to vote, we should be increasing awareness and improving education. Simply adding names to a register will not increase participation and could lead to a form of stealth malapportionment, whereby certain constituencies would appear on paper to have an on-quota electorate, only for the number of people actively voting to be akin to a rotten borough.
Extrapolating, estimating or automatically registering people is not an answer. We know from countries such as Canada—which, by any measure, we must consider a mature democracy and one with which we would like to be compared—that automatic registration has not been effective and there are high levels of dissatisfaction with the accuracy of preliminary lists.
I have no doubt that their lordships have sent us back a Bill that they consider to be improved. Some of them will be drawing on their own experiences as Members of this place, and I must thank them for their time and consideration, while politely disagreeing with all but new clause 2. The Bill will enable a much-needed review of constituencies, some of which are 20 years out of date, and it will do so in a fair and robust way. The next general election should take place on the basis of boundaries that lend equal weight to every voter, and we have the means before us to enable that now.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and his passionate defence of the Government position and opposition to the majority of the Lords amendments. It is also a pleasure to join so many of my colleagues in sending best wishes to one of the most liked Members of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). We send her our best wishes for a speedy recovery and we cannot wait to see her back at the Dispatch Box. I will not start to compare the performances of Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government, but I am sure that the Leader of the House would agree that she would have given a stellar performance at the Dispatch Box today to which he could only aspire.
What we are trying to do today is based on two fundamental principles, those of fairness and equality. This Government and the Conservative party believe that every vote in this one nation, this United Kingdom, should, as far as is possible, count as much as the next. It is essential if we are to stand here with any semblance of respectability in the eyes of the public that they know that we are here with as much right as the next Member of Parliament, representing, as closely as is possible, the same number of electors as the next person in here. That is the aim of the Bill and it is why we are driving towards a new boundary review.
In Scotland’s case, such a review is nearly 20 years overdue. My beautiful West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency came about as a result of the 2004 boundary review Scotland process. My constituency’s population has increased from 81,000 in 2004 to 97,000 today, with the electorate increasing from about 61,500 to 72,000. Although that places it slap bang in the middle of the range the Bill proposes, it shows the difference between where we are now and where we were 20 years ago and how out of date the current boundary proposals are. The situation in my constituency is nowhere near that of Linlithgow and East Falkirk, which now has 86,000 electors, whereas Glasgow East has about 54,000. [Interruption.] Sorry, I meant Glasgow North, and I apologise deeply to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). We can therefore see that this Bill is much-needed.
As I say, the Bill is about equality and fairness. On Lords amendment 7, although the difference between 95% and 97% might not seem much on the face of it, it poses a huge difference in the size of constituencies. We are talking about a 15% tolerance; it would not be just 7.5%, but 7.5% either way, and so the difference would be 15%. That could allow some constituencies to have up to 78,000 electors, which is slightly above where mine is, and others to have as few as 67,000. Surely, any Member of this House would see that as unpalatable and unfair, and something we should combat.
I am going to move on quickly to Lords amendment 8, as I know we have a lot of speakers and we need to get through this. Everybody in this House who is involved in the democratic process, at whatever level, wants to see higher turnouts in elections and more engagement in the political process, but it is also a right of any citizen in this country to choose not to take part in the political process. Although the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) might have been right to say that it is an offence for someone not to return an electoral registration form if they have been sent one, it is not an offence not to volunteer to go on to the electoral register. It is up to us all to encourage people across this country to get involved, to register, to vote or to join a political party, but it is surely not incumbent on this Government or any Government—in fact, I think that it would be a rather dangerous path to go down—to insist that every single citizen in this country is automatically put on the electoral roll. I think that would be dangerous and damaging, and as I have said, it is a fundamental principle that people get to choose whether or not they engage.
I will finish where I began. This is about fairness and about equality. This Government are determined to make sure that every voter in this country counts for the same as the next one, and that is why I oppose the Lords amendments, with the exception of Lords amendment 2. I support the Government’s position in trying to get this Bill through as quickly as possible. It is a simple and necessary Bill, and one that is very much overdue.
May I start by re-echoing the comments of Members from across the House in wishing the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution well at this difficult time? I hope her treatment progresses well.
I would like to speak in favour of all eight Lords amendments. The Bill has been much improved since it left the House back in July, and I am pleased the Government have supported Lords amendments 3 to 5, but I am particularly keen, in the time I have, to touch on Lords amendments 7 and 8.
On the flexibility quota, all the evidence suggests that a 5% quota will lead to huge upheaval. Just one in five constituencies will remain the same and about two thirds risk being changed completely. That presents a huge change to our parliamentary map, as we head into 2024, which we all know is just over three years away. An end to the pandemic might be in sight, given yesterday’s good news, but the economic damage will still be being felt in two years’ time, so I ask whether it is responsible to unleash a wave of reselection battles between Members of Parliament—although likely to be on the Government side of the House—once the new boundaries have been unveiled and many MPs find that their constituency has been significantly changed. The 2013 boundary review caused such disquiet that it was rejected by this House for exactly that reason, and the report from 2018 was not even laid before the House because there was no chance it would have been passed.
On the automaticity conditions in the Bill, Members must realise that this is really the last chance to scrutinise the Bill as it stands. Once the touch paper is lit, that is the end of our role in this process.
Today, on Report and on Second Reading, I think proponents of both the 7.5% and 5% flexibility conditions have been mischaracterised. Some Members are talking as though 5% is the ideal of electoral equality, while 7.5% is at exactly the other end of the scale, but the truth is that they are variations on a theme: 5% will not mean complete equality between voters, and 7.5% will not mean that voters in one constituency have far more of a say than those in another.
On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is no longer in her place, pointed out that her constituency has 83,000 electors, while mine has 61,000. There is significant variability in my own constituency related to the University of Saint Andrews and the registration of students at their term-time addresses, but it is right that inequity should be addressed, and there are many more examples across the country of similar cases.
It is important to remember that whether we adopt 5% or 7.5%, the constituencies I have mentioned, including my own, become more equal, but there will still be variation under either quota, and we account for that variation because we accept that strict numerical equality is not the only basis on which to draw up constituencies. We recognise that other factors are important and should be taken into consideration, such as language, geography, cultural ties, and these are all on the statute book. For a small handful of constituencies, we judge these factors to be so important that we have decided that numerical equality should not apply to them at all.
One of the arguments regularly put forward in relation to first past the post is the politics of place. Strict numerical equality arguably makes that much harder to achieve. I would argue—I know you are conscious of time, Madam Deputy Speaker—that if we want to achieve politics of place and equality of voters, we should look for a more representative voting system in the first place. I find it strange that the Government are insisting that, for the rest of the country, we should impose numerical equality so strict that it will be difficult for the Boundary Commission properly to take these factors of geography and cultural ties into account. That is not just the view of Opposition Members. I note that the 7.5% condition is included in the Private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir Peter Bone), no doubt because he recognises the disruption that 5% will cause to such a high proportion of existing boundaries.
We must ask how important those ties are compared with the goal of numerical equality. Not only will 7.5% prevent excessive disruption, but it will allow the boundary commissioners better to account for those other factors. Given the arguably small difference, which is within the norms mentioned by the Leader of the House, that seems like a reasonable compromise.
Secondly, I wish to discuss Lords amendment 8, a cross-party amendment tabled by Lord Shutt of Greetland, which received significant support in the other place. As hon. Members have mentioned and are aware, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Shutt sadly passed away at the end of October, just a few weeks after steering this amendment through the House of Lords. David was a no-nonsense politician and a proud Yorkshireman and was passionate about democracy and electoral reform—displayed through his excellent chairmanship of the committee that considered the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. Its report originally recommended this amendment. It is fitting that, as a Liberal Democrat, his last political act was championing the representation of young people. His friends and family, including many people across the Houses and parties, will miss him dearly.
It is disappointing that the Government want to remove this amendment. They say that they want to register attainers. In fact, the Government’s stated aim is a complete register and I would argue that it is up to people whether they choose to vote, not whether they are registered to do so. The Government place much emphasis on doing their civic duty and one example is that electoral registers are used to identify people for jury service. Yet registrations for attainers have declined from a rate of 45% in 2015 to only 25% in 2019. Additional measures are taken in other parts of the UK, most notably—supported by the Government—in Northern Ireland. In the United States, young people have turned out in much bigger proportions for the first time and that can only be a good thing for democracy. We should all be determined to increase the franchise commitment to our young people.
During Report stage I tabled an amendment designed to capture all eligible voters in the boundary review. I was not satisfied with the Government’s response that they were doing all they can to ensure that the electoral register is complete. Eight million people are missing. Just 66% of 18 and 19-year-olds are registered, compared with more than 94% of over-65s. As the late Lord Shutt pointed out, the Minister is desperate for near-precision in prescribing all boundaries to be within 5% of the average size, but the baseline and building blocks are in danger of being wildly imprecise if the bulk of young people is omitted from the registers.
This amendment requires the Government to lay proposals to improve the completeness of the register—one of their stated aims. That is something to which the Government are committed and they have a chance to prove that today. As a Member of Parliament, I represent and support everyone who lives in North East Fife, not simply those registered to vote there.
Like many hon. Members I send my best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She has been a friend for many years and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with her and wishing for her swift recovery.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) have all made excellent points, echoing many of the points that I wish to make. On Lords amendment 1, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton. I cannot understand, when we are seeing huge population growth and massive development in some constituencies, why one would want to have 10 years rather than eight. When I stood for the council in Tower Hamlets in 2008, I remember looking at the huge differences in population growth in east London that had occurred as a result of massive regeneration. That threw out not only council wards but some parliamentary constituencies by tens of thousands.
Most of my comments today relate to Lords amendment 7—or, for reasons that will become self-evident, what I call the Borat amendment. As the Venice Commission outlines in its core principle, the equality of voting power is a crucial standard of the concept of electoral integrity. That is important. There has been much talk about tolerance today, but it is a tolerance around a mean. Seven and a half per cent on either side makes a difference of 15% and that is a significant change from 10%. Page 21 of the Venice Commission’s 2017 report highlights two nations. One is Malta, whose constitution allows no more than 5% departure on either side of the average in order to take account of geographical vicinity. However, Kazakhstan allows 15% tolerance. Britain is in exactly the right place when it is more aligned to Maltese rules on different constituency sizes than it is to Kazakhstan’s rules.
What we all want is simple: equal representation as far as possible, but taking into account reasonable geographical changes.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am speaking only briefly, so I am afraid not. Finally, I am glad that the Government have accepted Lords amendment 3, because we all know what happened in the late 1960s when Harold Wilson delayed and delayed in an attempt to deny democracy and hold Britain back in the 1950s—it did not serve him well. I am glad the Government are moving forwards and I urge all hon. Members to support the Government tonight.
I welcome the Government’s decision to agree to Labour’s call to scrap plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. The pandemic has shown us that strong and constructive scrutiny of the Government has never been more important, and the plans to remove 50 seats would have weakened our democracy to the advantage of the Executive. I stood in this place four or five months ago to stress my concerns about how the original proposals would have impacted heavily on the Jarrow constituency, which would have gained more wards from neighbouring Gateshead and lost the Cleadon and East Boldon ward to the neighbouring constituency of South Shields.
I fully support Lords amendment 7, with my reasoning very different from that of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who I see is no longer in his place. It would widen the deviation from the quota for constituency electorates from 5% to 7.5%—not 10%. During the Bill’s evidence session, the secretariat of the Boundary Commission for England stated that it makes it
“much harder to have regard to the other factors…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…The larger you make it, the more options we have and the more flexibility we have to have regard to the other factors”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 7, Q3.]
I am a firm believer that constituency boundaries should mirror the communities they represent. We know that boundaries that cut across several councils and geographical borders, including valleys, mountains and rivers, do not fit local people’s community ties and make it difficult for us to represent our areas effectively.
An increase in the tolerance size is supported by international best practice, which recommends that flexibility should be worked into the system to allow for consideration of geography and community ties. Based on an algorithm prediction by Electoral Calculus—I know it is a prediction—my seat would be redrawn to have a ridiculous divide between parts of Jarrow south of the River Tyne and parts of North Tyneside north of the River Tyne. That would affect not just my constituency but neighbouring constituencies as well. Those predictions aim to satisfy the main legislative constraints of 250 parliamentary seats, with each of those seats having an electorate within 5% of the national average. That is a prime example of what the secretariat of the Boundary Commission for England meant when it stated
“the smaller…the tolerance, the fewer options we have”.
I will also support Lords amendment 8, which, while not giving 16 and 17-year-olds a vote, would take a big step towards improving registration rates among young people, increasing electoral engagement and hopefully ensuring that more young voices are heard. It would also increase the likelihood that young people participate in political life from an early age because they would be registered to vote, regardless of whether they choose to exercise their right to vote, as many Opposition Members have said.
I will also support Lords amendments 1 and 2, which require a boundary commission report every 10 years rather than the eight envisaged in the unamended Bill. Boundary reviews cause uncertainty for councils, councillors, local organisations, MPs and—of course—their constituents and could mean that most MPs would face a review in every second Parliament. Finally, I will also support Lords amendment 6 as it would put measures in place to mitigate the dangerous consequences of ending parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), and I join Members from all around the House in sending my best wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). She is not only a fantastic Minister, but an exceptionally kind Member of the House, and she has been very kind to lots of new Members in particular.
Tragically, I was not on the Bill Committee, but the Whips have seen me right on the Order Paper tonight, as I will be on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, in which I look forward to engaging with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is not in his place, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). However, like the Bill Committee, I have spent the last few weeks studying maps with arbitrary boundaries, straight lines cutting through the middle of cities, districts drawn in extraordinary shapes and parts of marginal areas split up by huge lakes. At the end of all that, we do seem to have a clear result, so I warmly congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris on their triumph and achievement, and particularly Kamala Harris’s achievement as the first woman and first woman of colour to succeed to the vice-presidency.
I do not make this point just as a joke, but because the present US experience demonstrates some of the real concerns about legislating in this area and the politicisation of boundaries and electoral arrangements. Politicising these things undermines the independence of the process. It undermines its integrity, transparency and fairness and, as we have regrettably seen in the States, it also tends to undermine the acceptance of the result, which is absolutely fundamental to any democracy.
Here in the UK we have much to be proud of, but we should not be self-satisfied, because the boundaries on which I, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and many others were elected were set in 2006 for England, and that was based on data that was even older than that. When I was elected last December, the boundaries were already 13 years out of date. Two subsequent reviews have had to be abandoned. The first was abandoned, very clearly, on political grounds, I regret to say—not that it did the Liberal Democrats much good, but there we go.
I strongly welcome the Bill. I particularly welcome its automaticity and Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5, which strengthen that automaticity. I hope that this will be the last time that I need to debate these matters in the Chamber. Parliament is ultimately sovereign and it needs to lay out a framework for elections for parliamentary constituencies, but once we have a framework, I think that process should proceed by clockwork. There should be no parliamentary vote to stop the process that has been put in place.
I shall briefly speak to a couple of amendments with which I and the Government disagree. Amendments 1 and 2 are about the number of years. I think that eight years is a reasonable cycle length, for the reasons that many of my hon. Friends have given today, and it also means that there should be no need for interim reviews. They are a complication of the process that I do not think we need, but given the population growth that we are seeing, eight years allows us to get reviews on a reasonable cycle length.
So many Members have spoken to amendment 7, on tolerance. I am a tolerant man, but I think that 7,000 votes is more than enough tolerance between the smallest and largest constituencies in the country. An 11,000 difference when we have the opportunity to make it less than that seems over the top to me. I fundamentally believe in equal voting power for all Members in this place, as far as possible.
I will try to be brief—I also disagree with the other Lords amendments but I will not elaborate on the reasons why; they are basically the reasons that the Leader of the House set out in his excellent opening speech. Finally, just to reiterate my points on automaticity, let this Bill be the last time for a very long time that this House needs to legislate on these matters. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) said that this is our last chance and that once we pass the Bill, it is done. Well, I say: good, that is how it should be. Let the convention be re-established that boundary changes are a process that should not be interfered with by MPs.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the House not interfering with the Boundary Commission’s process going forward. Why, then, did the Government not table the Orders in Council that allowed the last Parliament to have a vote on those boundary proposals?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There are two points. The one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke about the EU referendum was well made, and I regret to say that the Government—I was not a Member at the time—probably felt that there were not the votes in the House to get the proposals through. That is principally the same reason that the previous review was abandoned. I am trying to make the point that we should not rely on votes in the House to get a boundary review through. A boundary review will undoubtedly be bad news for certain Members and good news for others. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) might get a lovely SNP ward added to his seat, whereas I might lose a lovely rural ward, but it should not be for me to vote on that with my self-interest at heart. We need to create a fair, independent process, which is what the Bill does. I therefore commend it to the House and urge us to reject the Lords amendments, with the exception of the ones on automaticity.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). I send my good wishes to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith).
I listened with great interest and, dare I say it, increasing incredulity to the speech by the Leader of the House, particularly his comments on the appointment of the Boundary Commission, given the context of the vote that we are to have tonight on the Committee on Standards, but also events surrounding the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the appointment of the Chair of the Liaison Committee, the appointment of the chief executive of Track and Trace and the role of Kate Bingham; the list is endless. I appreciate, however, that there is a long-overdue need for us to review the boundaries. The 2011 proposals were made by a coalition Government under the leadership of David Cameron, but I never understood the desire to reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600 while increasing the number of unelected Members in the other place to around 800 to 850—I do not quite get that, in terms of the argument around democracy.
Given the time, I want to focus on Lords amendments 7 and 8. Amendment 7 is about the deviation from quota from 5% to 7%. I would stress—as has been done widely around the House, certainly by Members on the Opposition side of the Chamber—the importance of community and identity, and relations between those communities.
Warwick and Leamington is a very good example. When the previous review was undertaken, there were moves to divide the constituency, so that Warwick would become part of a constituency with Stratford, and Leamington would become part of a constituency with Kenilworth. If you knew the geography, you would say that Warwick and Leamington were twinned; they are close relations. There is a symbiosis between those two towns that makes them mutually dependent. That desire to change the boundaries would have driven those closely linked towns apart.
The Council of Europe, through the Venice Commission, said that the standard permissible tolerance should be plus or minus 10%. I believe that is crucial in understanding the communities that we represent, because that is what it is about—the people, and how they have formed communities. The 5% rule creates too small a tolerance to take account of that. Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry noted that the 5% rule caused huge disruption. It noted that the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 was not a cause of substantial disruption, but it was mostly
“caused by the introduction of the uniform national quota and the 5% tolerance.”
In the study of the 2013 review, the Committee found that the easing of the tolerance to 7% to 9% gave the commissioners much more flexibility.
Looking at Wales, which has perhaps the most constituencies to lose, the topography and the geography are critical. They shape our communities. They shape our economies. It is impossible to understand that when you are looking, perhaps, at the levels of Somerset or at cities such as London—the way in which those community ties are formed. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) cited Rhondda at 50,000, but we really do have to revisit how the communities, say in the valleys, are formed. They face one way. They are discrete, distinct communities. We must not mess with the arbitrary and artificial association. You only have to look at the US congressional districts to see exactly what that means.
Finally, I commend Lords amendment 8, which perhaps we might refer to as the Lord Shutt amendment, and the work that went into it. We must connect with young people. They are so disillusioned by democracy. We must use this opportunity to drive young people’s engagement with the political process, That is why that amendment is fundamentally important, and why I shall vote for it.
I will make a few final comments, because many have been made in the Chamber today. The effectiveness and legitimacy of the democratic process is contingent on the public’s confidence in the processes and the commitment of elected representatives to upholding its principles. So I agree that a boundary review must go ahead, as the current constituency boundaries are two decades old, but it is crucial that the review strengthens the functioning of democracy. Lords amendments 7 and 8 are important steps forward in defending and advancing the key principles of representation and voting rights in our democratic process.
I reiterate the important point that I and many others made on Second and Third Reading of the Bill, and here today, that the Government could still change course on amendment 7, which would widen the variance from quota from 5% to 7.5%. As a boundary geek, having worked for the Local Government Commission on ward boundaries, I have done the work of trying to make good boundaries. A strict 5% inhibits the ability of the Boundary Commission to invoke common sense when devising constituencies that protect local ties, reflect local authority boundaries and recognise natural topography, as has been said. Whether it is hills, valleys and rivers, or motorways, main roads and green space, it is really important that we take all of this into account when creating good constituencies to represent our communities.
From my work experience, I understand how the public respond to well-made and to poor boundaries, but it is not just the boundaries: as I understand it, it is also sensible and coherent constituencies that recognise local ties, as against those that look strange, that are strange and that do not reflect community ties. Giving that little extra leeway will give the Boundary Commission greater scope accurately to group community identities, connections and geographical areas. It is not just to do with the fairness of the vote. We also need to talk about the fairness of the representation when we are elected, recognising, for example, how much more difficult it is for Members in the valleys of Wales to get around their constituencies compared with those in a condensed urban constituency such as my own.
The Government have recognised the principle of flexibility in the arrangements that have been made for Isle of Wight and Ynys Môn. I hope that that could be recognised further in creating good constituencies, so we could adopt that slightly higher flexibility to avoid the ratcheting effect, as I call it—or, as it was nicely put earlier today, “the butterfly effect”—where just one constituency could have that extra tolerance. It is important to avoid a number of constituencies not accurately reflecting their constituents.
I also wish to speak in favour of Lords amendment 8. Much has been said about the fact that turnout is healthy for our democracy, which I agree with, and that the ability to vote is a right, not a privilege. Improving the completeness of electoral registers by enabling the Government to ask local authority registration officers to add 16-year-olds to the electoral register when they get their NI number, or ensuring that they are provided with information on how to apply to join the electoral register would be a significant step forward in expanding voter registration and would enable greater participation among young voters. Although the Government are not willing to do the right thing and introduce votes at 16, which I am in favour of, improving voter registration for young voters is a basic, non-controversial change, which could see a vital increase in the number of young people voting. I hasten to add that, when others tell me not to do something, I often think there must be something in it. So, young people, think about why they do not want to encourage you to be on the electoral register.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins). It is an absolute pleasure to follow her. I used to find that I was very often in agreement with her distinguished father on matters relating to the European Union, though it has to be said not on anything else. I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate on their lordships’ amendments. It has been a pleasure to be part of this important Bill, and I am very grateful for all the kind words that have been said about my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution. I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is sent to her so that she knows how highly respected and valued she is both as a Member of this House and as a Minister.
I also spoke on Second Reading, and both then and now, it has been a genuine pleasure to hear about the constituencies of hon. Members. In particular, I noted the plea from the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who basically said that he loved his constituency and likes it as it is. I think that many Members across the House have huge sympathy with that view. It makes these types of debate extremely difficult for us, because all of us have an enormous affection for the places that we represent and we have incredible ties to them. I did not agree with all of his speech, but I must confess that I sympathised very much with the bit when he was praising his own area. However, this Bill will meet the Government’s manifesto commitment to have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, and I am glad to see that it has broad support across the House, even though there are differences over some of the details.
If I may come to those, I will not try to repeat the points that I covered in my opening remarks, in the interests of time, but the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)¸ made a point about young registration. I would point out that we have seen a significant number of 18 to 24-year-olds register since online registration came in, with 8 million of them taking the opportunity of that.
The hon. Lady referred to the appointment of the deputy chairmen. It is worth reiterating that they are High Court judges anyway, so their independence has already been proved at the earlier appointment. I do not think we need have any worry about their continued independence. The hon. Lady also accused the Government of appointing a crony as the BBC chairman. As the appointment has not yet been made, I am not sure how we can have appointed the crony, unless the hon. Lady is accusing the Government of being Billy No Mates, which may possibly be the case, because no appointment has been made.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), as always, made an extremely charming and well-informed speech, with his one aim clearly in sight. His one aim is, of course, the independence of Scotland. That is his view; that is what he campaigns for. I fundamentally disagree with him, but he always puts his case elegantly and in the best traditions of this House. I just remind him that there are particular protections for Scotland, with the regulations relating to constituencies over 5,000 square miles and, of course, the protection of the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar. I think that should be in entrenched legislation to keep the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) safely in this House, as he is a great figure and contributor to our debates. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I did not notify the hon. Gentleman that I was going to mention him, but I hope he will not mind.
I am also relieved that the hon. Member for Glasgow East, when he read out at the end of his speech my words on an earlier occasion, had not looked through my speeches on the parliamentary constituencies Bill when it was passing through the House in 2010 and 2011 and did not quote those back at me. That might have been rather more embarrassing.
I come to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I am afraid I think they should stand for election to the House of Representatives, because they seem more interested in American politics than in British politics. Fascinating though that is, this House is concerned with the politics of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) is not in her place, but she made the point that there will be an extensive change with the 5% level. That is inevitable because this change has been so long delayed. English constituencies are based on the register for 2000 and therefore are 20 years out of date. She made the very fair point that the difference between 5% and 7.5% is a variation on a theme, which is why I think we can reasonably, as a House, agree on 5%. It is a matter of getting the balance right. I think 5% is reasonable.
If I may come to my hon. and right hon. Friends, a number of them—my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—raised the issue of ward divisions. It is important to note that the Boundary Commission—the independent Boundary Commission—has the ability to use smaller areas, and therefore if it wants to use smaller areas to meet the 5% requirement, it will be able to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked the specific question whether, basically, the Boundary Commission will have to follow the law, to which the answer is of course yes, it will have to follow the law, although in doing so it is independent. She also pointed out that Lords amendment 7 basically seeks to undermine the principle of the Bill by widening it, and if we end up widening it too much, we get away from what we are trying to achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) made a telling point about the different purpose of data that has been collected. Suddenly using it for one thing rather than another raises all sorts of problems. He also kindly pointed out that the deputy chairmen are already impartial judges, which I reiterate because it is fundamental to the fairness of this process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton made, I must confess, both a wise and entertaining speech and noted the partisanship of some of the amendments. I must confess that we have seen through the Opposition’s tricks and noted that the amendments are partisan, and that is why we will have pleasure in voting against them. Let us be honest about it: the Opposition know they are partisan too, but they felt they had to make some complaints on a principle—that we should have equal seats—that most people across the House agree with.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) pointed out the size of his own constituency and the right of people to choose whether they participate in the electoral process or not. Of course that is a freedom that we have.
I loved the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) that we should follow Malta, and we must—what a great thing to do. Malta is a wonderful place, and one thinks of its fantastic history in surviving not one but two sieges, one in the 16th century and one in the 20th century. I will not say the joke about making a Maltese cross, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you might think it out of order, and it is very old and hackneyed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) argued that eight years was about right, and he alludes to a key point that, yes, there will be big changes this time, but if we do it every eight years there will be incremental changes in future, and that will make the whole system better and easier to live with. I think we will find that there is a good deal of comfort in that for us.
My hon. Friend also noted, quite rightly, that there is a conflict of interest for MPs voting on boundary changes, because we all like our constituencies as they are. None of us wishes to lose a bit of our constituency. We do not mind getting new bits—that is quite exciting—but losing bits, even bits that do not have a strong majority for one’s own party, one does not want to do. The relationship between an MP and a constituency is so fundamental, which is why the principle in the Bill of more frequent but incremental changes is right.
I am grateful for this thorough debate, and for the reasons I set out earlier, I encourage Members across the House to support the Government in agreeing to Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5, and disagreeing with their lordships in their amendments 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 3, 4 and 5 agreed to.
After Clause 4
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.—(Mike Freer.)
Lords amendment 6 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
After Clause 5
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 7.—(Eddie Hughes).
Lords amendment 7 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
After Clause 6
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 8.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Lords amendment 8 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8.
That Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Eddie Hughes, Jane Hunt, Chris Clarkson, Cat Smith, Colleen Fletcher and David Linden be members of the Committee;
That Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
In order to observe social distancing, the Reasons Committee will meet not in the Reasons Room but in Committee Room 12.
Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred under the Act by the Secretary of State. —(Stuart Andrew.)