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Constituency Boundaries And Representation

Volume 415: debated on Thursday 11 December 1980

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3.7 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is now the average number of voters in constituencies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively; which English constituency has the largest and which the smallest number of voters; and what are the numbers of voters in these two cases.

My Lords, the provisional figures for 1980 published last May show that the average number of electors is, for constituencies in England, about 67,500; in Wales 58,300; in Scotland 54,400; and in Northern Ireland 87,500. The constituency in England with the largest number of electors is Buckingham, with 110,100, and that with the smallest is Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, with 24,400.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive and interesting reply. May I ask him whether he does not feel that the kind of disparity between the value of a vote in Buckingham and the value of a vote in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central is so large as to undermine a good deal of the credibility of our system of representative parliamentary democracy and whether, if that be so, it is not a matter of some urgency to put it right?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there are serious disparities between constituencies, as is shown by the figures which my noble friend's Question has elicited. This will be redressed by the proposals which are to be put forward by the commissions for the different parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of the very largest constituencies, with over 100,000 voters, cover some of the largest areas and that this creates an intolerable burden for the Members of Parliament concerned? Is my noble friend also aware that, although the last major local government reorganisation took place over seven years ago, the alterations in the parliamentary boundaries which ought to have followed such reorganisation have not yet taken place? May I therefore reinforce the plea of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

My Lords, so far as my noble friend's first question is concerned, the rules which guide the boundary commissions include Rule 6 which specifically enjoins the boundary commissions that they may depart from the norm if special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, need to be taken into account. I absolutely agree with what my noble friend said on that point. So far as my noble friend's second question is concerned, I must admit that I was not aware of what he said. I will certainly look into it.

My Lords, are not these the very matters which the boundary commissions are looking into? Have not these matters been notorious over the centuries? Did parliamentary democracy not survive even the rotten boroughs?

My Lords, I think that the machinery by which parliamentary democracy survives is sharpened up and generally made better if these reviews take place (as they do) between 10 and 15 years after the previous review. That is what is happening now, and as soon as the review is completed and as soon as practicable the Government will be laying orders for that purpose.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the high quality of the electorate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne fully justified the preferential treatment given to the electors there?

My Lords, I do not think even the electorate of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, would claim that for themselves.

My Lords, arising out of the question put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, is it not a fact that all sincere defenders of democracy have been active and urgent in abolishing rotten boroughs?

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I was merely questioning the demise of parliamentary democracy which the noble Lord was so fearfully contemplating if there was no immediate change which would benefit the representation of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons?

My Lords, I do not think that the size of the largest and the smallest constituencies, with which we are concerned at the moment, will bear the interpretation that in some way a party political advantage can be construed from the reviews of the boundary commissions.