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Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009.

Relevant Document: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The purpose of this draft order is to implement without modification the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England to make alterations to the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire in Northamptonshire; and Somerton and Frome, and Wells in Somerset. I hope that the Committee will consider that this is an uncontroversial draft order, but I have a feeling that my hope may not be realised completely.

The Boundary Commission for England has observed its customary rigorous and non-partisan procedures in producing its report, including wide consultation. Although there has been some opposition to the proposals in Somerset, everyone concerned has had an opportunity to put their arguments, which have, I understand, been carefully considered by the commission.

I appreciate that there may be some interest from those affected—the electors concerned as well as Members of this Committee and of the other place who represent these areas. However, I hope we can all agree that the commission has, as usual, done its work very thoroughly and that we can approve this draft order.

I shall provide some background to the commission’s report and the order. Thanks are due to the Boundary Commission for England and its secretariat for its assiduous work in carrying out this review. As always, it has carried out its duties thoroughly and conscientiously. I take this opportunity to thank the deputy chair of the commission at the time, the honourable Mr Justice Sullivan, for overseeing this work. He is no longer the deputy chair, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal, so he is now Lord Justice Sullivan. I am grateful, as I am sure are all Members, for his work with the commission over many years.

The Boundary Commission is a body appointed by statute to review parliamentary constituency boundaries in England. As well as carrying out regular reviews on all parliamentary constituencies approximately every 10 years or so, if it thinks it necessary between those reviews, the commission can carry out interim reviews of boundaries in a particular area. These might be necessary as a result of other changes, for instance to local authority boundaries or perhaps if there are major population changes in an area. The report and the draft order are the result of local authority boundary changes.

The previous regular periodical review in England was completed by the commission in October 2006. Its report was implemented without modification in the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007, which sets out the parliamentary constituencies into which England is divided. The parliamentary constituencies are described by reference to local government areas as they existed on 12 April 2005 and, of course, the new parliamentary constituencies will come into effect at the next general election.

After the commission’s report was submitted, the Electoral Commission made orders in 2006 and 2007 which altered the local government ward boundaries in the district of South Northamptonshire and in the district of Mendip in Somerset. Because those orders came into effect some months after the commission had submitted its previous periodical report to the Secretary of State, the boundary changes were not reflected in the 2007 order. As a result, the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire, and those between Somerton and Frome, and Wells do not follow the new local authority ward boundaries.

The Boundary Commission for England, therefore, considered whether it should carry out another interim review of the relevant areas and other areas in a similar situation. It concluded that it should carry out a review, but decided to postpone its reviews of the other areas because of local government reorganisations. No doubt the commission will return to those areas in due course.

The commission began the process in the usual way, announcing the commencement of the review in June 2007, collecting data and considering the evidence. It produced provisional recommendations in July 2007, published them widely and invited representations from interested parties. It made the recommendations available for inspection locally and on its website. The provisional recommendations propose that only the minimum changes necessary should be made to bring the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire and those of Somerton and Frome, and Wells back into alignment with the new local authority ward boundaries. That will involve a relatively small change on the map and relatively few electors.

Sixteen written representations were received in respect of proposals for the Northamptonshire constituencies, of which 13 were objections; and five in respect of the Somerset constituencies, of which four were objections. The commission therefore decided to hold local public inquiries in both areas to allow those making representations, and others, an opportunity to make their case in person.

As a result of those public inquiries, the commission made revised proposals in both areas. Further written representations were received in respect of both areas, but after considering those and all the other evidence, I understand that the commission decided to make no further changes to its proposals. It made its report to the Secretary of State on 25 July 2008. The Secretary of State is required by statute to lay the commission's report before Parliament, along with the draft order implementing the recommendations,

“as soon as may be”,

after receiving the report. After arranging for publication of the report and preparing to seek legal approval of the instrument implementing the report's recommendations, the report and the draft order were laid in January this year.

The draft order is uncomplicated and, as I said, includes without modification the recommendations contained in the Boundary Commission’s report by amending the 2007 order to realign the parliamentary constituency boundaries with the altered ward boundaries. That means that the parliamentary constituencies will reflect the new local authority ward boundaries introduced in the Electoral Commission orders made in 2006 and 2007.

If the House should see fit to approve the draft order and those in the other place do the same, it will be submitted in the normal way to the Privy Council for approval before it comes into force. I remind the Committee that should the draft order be approved, it will have no practical effect until the next general parliamentary election. Any parliamentary by-elections that may occur in the areas affected before then will of course take place on the existing boundaries.

I trust that that explains in sufficient depth what the order is about and why the draft order should be approved.

I was not going to speak to the orders, but I think I should, purely to declare a very obscure interest. I do not know whether it is declarable or not. With regard to the first two constituencies concerned, Daventry and South Northamptonshire, the peerage under which I sit in this House is different from the one under which I call myself. I sit under a United Kingdom peerage, which is Lord Henley of Watford in the county of Northamptonshire. I think that the Watford in the county of Northamptonshire is in one of the wards mentioned in the district of Daventry. Therefore, I ought to declare my interest there. Other than that, I have nothing to say.

I certainly do not have such a distinguished interest as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, but I have an interest in knowing quite a bit about a part of the country to which the order refers: Somerset, which contains both the Somerton and Frome and the Wells constituencies. Having, I confess, been fully briefed only today, I am alarmed to the extent that I believe that the Boundary Commission for England may have misdirected itself with regard to the changes to those two constituency boundaries. I must substantiate that by trying to explain why I have expressed that very serious concern.

As I understand it, a substantial review with considerable and comprehensive consultation was undertaken in the constituencies concerned. But, as has been implied by the Minister, before it was completed and the process brought to fruition, changes were made to the district council ward boundaries. It was at that point that the commission decided that it should review the proposals that it had already consulted upon. I understand that no complaint had been made in either constituency by either of the Members, who are representatives of the two opposition parties, about the earlier process of consultation. The concern arose about the then change in the recommendations that resulted from the changes made to the Mendip district wards. I emphasise that it was simply the district wards that were changed, not the county wards, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who knows a lot about county politics, will agree that county wards are a great deal more significant when it comes to the identification of communities and the rural areas that have a relationship with local towns. It is true that although the changes are not that dramatic, as a result of the recommended redistribution, some very interesting divisions have arisen in the rural areas that form part of the catchment areas, if you like, of some of the small towns of Somerset.

I think that we are owed a better explanation of why the Boundary Commission exercise decided to review proposals that had already attracted quite a lot of public support. The Minister has said that only five representations were made, but four of those were in opposition to the changes. It is clearly the case, as I know from contacts in Somerset, that many people thought that the original proposals would go through and were not aware of the second phase of consultation. Even more substantially in this building, I also understand that neither of the constituency Members of Parliament—Conservative and Liberal Democrat—feels that the consultation for the second stage of this exercise was anything like as adequate as for the first.

The Minister may now be able to explain why this particular order has come to this House first. That is curious since it deals with parliamentary constituencies, which are of very considerable interest to Members of the other place. Indeed, I do not think that hitherto there has been a formal occasion for Members of the other place to express anxieties on this score.

Having appeared before the Boundary Commission in the past, I have to say that its inquiries are usually meticulous. Up to this point, I have not heard of another example where it has gone back and, as it were, started the exercise again, having been triggered by a simple change to second-tier ward boundaries. That seems to be unusual as well. I find the whole process very extraordinary and I hope that the Minister will take note that I and my noble friends, when the report is made to the House, will seek the withdrawal of this order and a review. We do not believe that it meets the normal criteria that the Boundary Commission follows for England. Although it has a very good reputation, I fear that on this occasion it has not met the expectations we all have of it.

I thank both noble Lords for their contributions. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, need worry too much about a conflict of interest; indeed, I can reassure him on that.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for setting out so clearly his objections to part of the order. However, the Government’s view is that this is very much a matter for the Boundary Commission itself. Having considered it and having also held a public inquiry, when I understand a minor change was made, the commission came to a view, and it is that view which makes up this draft order. As the noble Lord generously conceded, the commission went through its normal procedures and the inquiries were conducted properly. The recommendations following the commission’s inquiries were accepted and we do not see it as our role in government to second-guess on matters of this kind. If we were to do so, it would represent a fairly dangerous precedent in terms of government power. The noble Lord will understand why I say that. I regret that he will take this matter further, but he is of course entitled to do so.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.56 pm.