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Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009

Volume 709: debated on Monday 16 March 2009

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 29 January be approved. Relevant Document: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 4 March.

My Lords, in moving the approval Motion, I should like to say a few brief words in anticipation of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, moving his amendment. We fully debated the draft order in Grand Committee on Wednesday 4 March, the proceedings of which are reported in Hansard. I am sure that all noble Lords will be keen to get on with the marine Bill, but it is entirely open to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, if he so wishes, to test the opinion of the House on his amendment. I should draw to the House’s attention the fact that the other place approved the draft order last Wednesday by a majority of 402 votes to 58. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

Leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to approve the draft order laid before the House on 29 January”.

My Lords, in moving the amendment I can, as the Minister indicated, be as brief as possible because there has been a full discussion both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. Three major issues are at stake. First, I want to make it clear to your Lordships that this is not an attack on the integrity or independence of the Boundary Commission. Like others, I have appeared at a Boundary Commission inquiry and have been impressed by the process. However, in the exceptional circumstances of the process by which the commission decided to recommend changes to the boundaries in the two Somerset constituencies referred to in the order, the commission has misdirected itself. Significantly, I am joined in that view by both Members of Parliament whose constituencies are affected, who both argued forcefully to that effect last week.

First, the commission misdirected itself on the need for a further interim review just because the second-tier authority, the district authority, had changed its ward boundaries. This is not required by Parliament, by the 1986 Act or by any other statute, and it has not been a deciding factor everywhere else in England. Instead, the commission decided to take more notice of its own rule, which it had invented, than of the local ties that Parliament had asked it to make its major consideration. The Conservative Member of Parliament for Wells argued this point so convincingly last week that I am sure his colleagues in this House will wish to support the amendment on those grounds alone.

The misdirection also failed to take account of important links between villages and their local town. Any Members of your Lordships’ House who are aware of those important links, historic and social, will, I am sure, understand that the failure to do so was important. The commission also failed to take account of substantial objections to its revised proposals, even from Mendip District Council, whose ward changes were alleged to be the rationale for reopening the issue.

Secondly, there is no party-political motive in challenging the process by which this draft order comes before us. There is no suggestion of any electoral advantage either to the Conservatives, who hold Wells, or to the Liberal Democrats, who hold Somerton and Frome—hence the total agreement of those two senior Members of Parliament, the right honourable David Heathcoat-Amory and David Heath, in the committee last week. Mr Heathcoat-Amory summed it up as follows:

“It is beyond doubt that in 2007 those of us in Somerset were told that the parliamentary boundaries had been fixed for the next election. Indeed, they were approved by order”.—[Official Report, Commons, Second Delegated Legislation Committee, 9/3/09; col. 10.]

The issue is simply that the commission has very unusually—exceptionally—failed to take account of Parliament’s instruction and has instead given precedence to a rule of its own in relation to district council ward boundaries.

Thirdly, we are faced with an insidious argument from Ministers that we should not question this order. Indeed, in the committee in the other place, the Minister went so far as to suggest that any challenge should be by judicial review. Imagine asking the inhabitants of small villages in Somerset to go to the expense of judicial review when we, in the high court of Parliament, are given a specific duty to scrutinise these orders. Why do noble Lords suppose that Parliament has laid down that this process should take place here? Were we expected to act like the proverbial rubber stamp? There might be a case for MPs to avoid taking the final decision on matters that could be considered to be of electoral significance in their own constituencies. However, in your Lordships’ House there is no reason to have such qualms. We have a firm, principled and statutory duty to say so when we think that the process has gone wrong. I beg to move.

My Lords, before expressing a view on this amendment, perhaps I may take the opportunity to set out the legislative background to the order. Section 2(1) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 established, among other things, the Boundary Commission for England. Under Section 3(3) of the Act, the commission may submit to the Secretary of State a report recommending the way in which any particular area should be divided into constituencies. The boundaries of the current parliamentary constituencies in England are set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007, and these constituencies conform to the pattern of district and borough council areas as established on 12 April 2005.

However, as your Lordships know, since that date a number of changes to the local government wards have been recommended by the commission and subsequently implemented by order. As a consequence, the boundaries of a number of parliamentary constituencies no longer align with the relevant changed areas. Two of those local government changes occurred in the district of South Northamptonshire and the district of Mendip in Somerset. For reasons that are unclear to me, the commission decided that in the case of those two areas, but not in the remainder of those altered since 12 April 2005, realignment should be made to the affected parliamentary constituencies, which are Daventry, South Northamptonshire, Somerton and Frome and Wells.

Accordingly, the commission conducted a statutory review under Section 3(3) of the 1986 Act. The commission published its provisional recommendations in July 2007, inviting representations. As there were a number of objections to the recommendations, the commission held public inquiries in both areas, thereafter producing revised proposals in each case. Despite further written objections to those proposals, the commission decided to make no further adjustments and reported to the Secretary of State on 25 July 2008. The draft order before us implements, without any modification, the Boundary Commission report.

I should say at the outset that we have no intention of supporting the Liberal Democrat amendment, or, indeed, of challenging the order. Parliament, although it has the constitutional right to do so, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, pointed out, should, in our view, be very slow, for obvious reasons, to challenge decisions about the composition of individual parliamentary constituencies.

However, the decisions that the order implements raise three issues on which we suggest that clarification would be helpful for the future. First, there is no statutory duty on the commission to realign parliamentary boundaries following alterations to local government ward boundaries. Nevertheless, the commission has always so acted as a matter of policy and practice. Here, if I understand the situation correctly, the commission appears to have altered the boundaries of four constituencies affected by ward boundary changes since 12 April, 2005, but to have ignored the remainder in the same class. If I am correct about the facts, perhaps the Minister would be kind enough to explain why that was so.

Secondly, following the public inquiry in Somerset, so the debate in another place suggests, the inspectors’ revised proposals contained a solution that was never, it is said, raised or discussed at that inquiry. The revised proposals—again, so it is said—are those that appear in the order. If that version of events is correct, would it not be preferable to alter the inquiry rules so that, in future, a public inquiry can be reconvened so as to furnish objectors with the opportunity to test such a solution, which would otherwise remain unexamined?

Finally, there will plainly be occasions when the Boundary Commission’s policy to realign parliamentary constituencies following ward boundary changes will conflict with its statutory obligation contained in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to take into account local ties that would be broken by an alteration to a parliamentary boundary. It would be desirable if some help could be given to inspectors in the form of guidance to assist them in determining the appropriate approach to balance those potentially clashing considerations.

My Lords, I want briefly to intervene, having listened to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. For once in my nine or 10 years in this House, I want to say something almost party political, because his contribution today has veered into that area. I was always under the impression that everyone in this House subscribed to the primacy of the House of Commons. I came here on that basis. We are unelected. We accept that, in being unelected, primacy is identifiable with the other House, not with this House. By tabling this fatal amendment, the noble Lord is saying that he, an unelected Liberal Democrat Peer in Parliament, has taken it on himself to defeat the House of Commons, where there is primacy, by overturning a majority of more than 350. That is wrong in principle. I am astonished that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to support this amendment and I hope that, even at this stage, they will say to their membership, “Please do note vote, because we are challenging the primacy of the Commons”.

My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, who made some excellent points. I will take back the issues that he raised and look at them for the future, as he asked, but I can deal with one now. The noble Lord says that his advice to his party is not to support the amendment. We are grateful for that, but not surprised because, of the 402 votes in another place, 139 were from his party, supporting 257 Labour MPs. Not one Conservative, not even the Member of Parliament involved, voted for the amendment on that occasion.

My remarks will be short because this matter has already been fully debated in the Moses Room. However, it is important to make one point, as I attempted to do in that debate. Although I am not in the habit of quoting myself, I will on this occasion. I said that,

“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 … 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”.—[Official Report, 4/3/09; col. GC 322.]

Governments set up Boundary Commissions to give them independent advice, and any party that is really serious about power would take the view that we take today. It would be only in extraordinarily extreme circumstances that a Government would try to interfere with a decision of the Boundary Commission. On something like this, important though it is to the localities involved, it would be quite wrong, in principle, for the Government to knock down the commission’s proposals and recommendations, which had been built up over the course of an inquiry.

The one question from the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that I can answer is: why these four constituencies and not the others? The answer is that, as I mentioned in passing in Grand Committee, the Boundary Commission concluded that it should carry out a review but decided to postpone its reviews of the other areas, to which the noble Lord referred, because of local government reorganisations that are taking place. The Boundary Commission will no doubt make up its own mind about what to do once those local government reorganisations have taken place.

If this matter is taken to a vote, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, seriously to consider whether it is really in the interests of this House to seek to overturn an overwhelming majority in another place on an issue of this kind. I ask him to think carefully about whether to divide the House. If the noble Lord decides to, which is, of course, his right, I ask the House to defeat the amendment.

My Lords, it is a fatal amendment, so the statutory instrument would die and the Boundary Commission’s original parliamentary recommendations would stand, at least for the moment.

My Lords, I am grateful particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for analysing the situation so carefully, as always. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and I bring this amendment before the House with considerable regret because it is exceptional. I was struck by the argument made by the Minister in the other place that the proper process for those who felt that this had not been handled correctly within the law as Parliament lays it down was to go to judicial review. That is not an appropriate remedy when we in this House are given a specific responsibility to look at an order of this sort.

When the matter was first raised, I would have preferred the Minister to say that he would delay the implementation of the order and not bring it forward for consideration in your Lordships’ House, or indeed in the other place, until the Boundary Commission had been given another chance to look at this issue. However, we are given a statutory responsibility to look at these issues, which is why this is exceptional.

All the concerns that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, if I had not tabled this amendment, I believe that he would not have taken the step that he has taken and expressed these concerns in your Lordships’ House. I am very disappointed that Conservative Members, it seems, are not going to support their own local Member. Indeed, if I am right about what the Minister has said, the Member, having argued so strongly against the order on Monday, must have voted for it on Wednesday, which is an amazing U-turn, if that is the case.

My Lords, I have no idea whether the Member voted for it or did not vote at all. It is irrelevant and perhaps I should not have mentioned it. However, not one Conservative supported the amendment; that is my point.

My Lords, I simply think that we should do our duty this afternoon in very exceptional circumstances—circumstances in which the other House is perhaps less qualified to take a dispassionate view. On this occasion, yes, I believe in the primacy of the House of Commons, but we would not be doing our duty if we did not face up to the responsibilities laid on us. If the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is right that we should never vote differently from the House of Commons, what precisely would be the point of your Lordships’ House? I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

Motion agreed.