Committee (8th Day)
Clause 10 : Reports of the Boundary Commissions
55: Clause 10, page 8, line 14, leave out “2013” and insert “2015”
My Lords, with this amendment, we pick up some of the debates that we were having on Monday night—I fear that we must have done something on Monday night that made noble Lords feel that they did not wish to remain in the Chamber for the whole of the subsequent debate.
In that debate, we were discussing the timetable for the re-warding of constituencies. The word that was used for the Government’s timetable, which means that this will be done by 2013, was “achievable”. I agree with that; that timetable is achievable. I have checked with experts in the matter and there is no doubt that, if the right resources are applied to the Boundary Commission, it can be achieved. However, I understand from reading the newspapers that a man recently achieved the feat of rolling a marble up a 12,000-foot mountain with his nose, so that feat is achievable too, but it does not make it sensible or a very good way to climb mountains. In the same way, I am going to argue that 2013 is not a sensible date by which to seek to conclude the first boundary review.
We have to understand that there is a toxic blend of two elements in this first review. The first is well understood—the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. We will come back to whether that is a good or bad move later, but that is the Government’s policy and it is part of what has to be dealt with in the boundary review. The second element in the toxic blend going forward is the five-yearly review, which means that reviews are going to happen every five years and cause upheaval.
However, what has to be understood is that this first re-warding is going to create greater upheaval than any review before because it will have the whole of the 50-seat reduction as well as having to adhere to the 5 per cent margin. It is hard to exaggerate how radical this review is going to be and how much upheaval it is going to cause. Just to take one example from the many that I could go into, Democratic Audit, an independent think tank, calculates that if these provisions on 600 seats and 5 per cent tolerance go through, there will be only nine counties out of the 46 in England where county boundaries are still respected in the drawing of constituencies. If my arithmetic is right, that means that there are 37 counties where county boundaries will cease to exist. That applies again for local authority ward boundaries. This is a complete redrawing of the electoral map, yet it has to be done not in five years, which will be the timetable for subsequent reviews, but in just over two years. This extraordinary upheaval has to be crammed into two years.
This decision has not been made out of a desire to get the task done well or anything like that; it has been made, quite frankly, because the Tories believe that they will win more seats under this disposition. The really peculiar thing, which I find almost impossible to believe, is that no independent person who has looked at it thinks that this is likely to be true. For example, Democratic Audit, which has done the most detailed analysis, says that of the 50 seats lost under the Bill, 17 will be Tory and 18 will be Labour. There will not be much difference and that is well within the margin of error. On seeing the 300 pages of legislation before the House, I think that that is an awful lot of trouble to go to to win one extra seat. Still, politicians will be politicians.
One has to think also of the side effects. For example, in order to get this job done in just over two years, public inquiries are to be abolished. We will come to the case for and against public inquiries later in our debate, but this seems a curious reason to abolish public inquiries—not because they are good or bad things, or because they contribute or do not contribute, or whatever, but in order to get to an arbitrary, politically imposed timetable for the new boundaries to be placed. When you take into account the fact that the political advantage is illusory, the proposal beggars belief.
Therefore, I propose the year 2015 for the completion of the first review under this Bill. It would allow a less hurried approach and, should the House decide so to rule later, would mean that public inquiries could be restored and that we would get more sensible boundaries at the end of the process. My amendment would not change what will happen; it would just change the time at which it will happen. I believe that I am proposing a more sensible pace for what is a fundamental reform.
My Lords, I think that this clause is deeply suspect. I support the amendment of my noble friend and I should happily vote for other amendments giving slightly more time for a Boundary Commission to undertake its task. It is quite extraordinary that it is now felt responsible to compress the time available for a Boundary Commission to undertake its work into about the half the time that it traditionally takes, while imposing on it quite unprecedented constraints—the need at the same time to achieve the maximum 5 per cent limit and to reduce the total number of MPs by the arbitrary figure of 50.
If you have a contractor or several contractors bidding for your business and one says that he can build your house, motorway, piece of machinery, factory or whatever in half the time that it has always taken in the past, and in half the time that the competitors say that they need, you would be sensible to be alert at least to the possibility that serious corners are being cut. It is clear that serious corners, including any sense of public inquiries or appeals, are being cut.
Such inquiries are essential in the democratic process. I have given evidence in a public inquiry on a Boundary Commission report. We did not carry the day, but I and those who supported the same point of view all felt at the end of the process that we had had a thorough and fair hearing and that it was an essential part of democracy that such a debate should take place in public about proposed new constituency boundaries. That is the only way in which the public can be reassured that nothing surreptitious is going on and that there is no hanky-panky on the part of the Government covertly trying to influence the result of what should be obviously an entirely objective non-party-political process. Those things are terribly important. All those safeguards are going out of the window.
If I was a member of the Boundary Commission, I should like to have the mechanism of the public inquiry and the appeal process preserved. I would feel it much more likely that I did a good and proper job if there was that check and balance in the system. I should welcome the opportunity to listen openly and frankly to the expression of other views on a particular determination that I might make and to think again in the light of that. I should feel that I was doing a much better job having had that opportunity and that there was much less of a possibility that there might be some angle or consideration that had been neglected.
I do not think that it is a matter of dispute that a corner is being cut in this case and I do not think that it can really be a matter of dispute that this is a very serious corner that is being cut. It is more than a corner because it is something quite fundamental to the process and to public confidence in it. What is being cut out is, if you like, the dialogue between the bureaucracy, or the agency in the form of the Boundary Commission, on the one side and the general public on the other. It is a serious matter.
I have listened to a lot of the debates, although I have not contributed before, but I have yet to hear from the government side a cogent reason as to why this has to take place. The only answer that we get is that it has to happen by the time of the next election. That takes us back to the gerrymandering issue that has been raised on many occasions. Why does it have to happen by the next election? We are trying to get the electoral process right, so if we are going to make substantial changes let us go through the process carefully and thoroughly so as to make sure that we take the public with us. We should make sure that we have something that is valid not just for the next election but for generations to come. We cannot keep coming back to this matter.
Frankly, the haste is unworthy of the democratic process and unworthy of the way that constitutional changes should be carefully deliberated in this place. I intend to support amendments along the lines of those put forward by my noble friends that would extend the time available to the Boundary Commissions to complete the deeply delicate task with which they are now going to be confronted if this Bill gets on to the statute book.
To save time for your Lordships, I shall speak to Amendment 56. I put my name to this amendment because of my understanding of politics and government, which is that what can go wrong will go wrong. It seems a complete folly to introduce a major change to the voting system when none of us knows whether the referendum will be carried or not, which means that we have to organise the legislation in such a way that it can be implemented at the same time as introducing the biggest boundary changes that any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Only one constituency in the United Kingdom is guaranteed to fight an election on the same boundary. Why do we need to do this?
I suggest that it was with some irony that the Minister from the Lib Dem Benches said that the constituency changes are important because of the great principle that one vote would be equal to one vote. We are about to pass a law that will put a system to the vote where, in some cases in some constituencies, some voters will have two votes, where, in some cases in some constituencies, some voters will have three votes, and where, in some cases in some constituencies, some voters will have four votes and up to five votes. It is not because of the principle that one vote is equal to one vote, otherwise we would be debating a referendum on a pure PR system, which we are not. We know already, because we can see it from the figures, that constituencies in the United Kingdom are largely similar. However, they also have one other facet, which is that they represent communities. I believe that moving this change to 2016 will preserve confidence in our democratic system.
It seems to me to be quite right and proper to want to reduce the timescale for the Boundary Commissions. Reducing it by half, within the current funding constraints, can be seen as possible. Reducing it to two years suggests to me that people are not being realistic about the deliberations that need to be undertaken. In addition to the cost for the Boundary Commissions, I want to ask the Minister what extra provision is being made for local authorities, as many of these changes will fall on them.
In life, big risks should be taken where there are big rewards. I do not understand where the rewards lie in introducing both these new systems at the same time when we could undermine the faith of this country in its democratic systems. An example of this at the last election was that a small number of voters were locked out of polling stations that they had attended before 10 o’clock. This caused huge uncertainty and concern among the public. What the Government are proposing to do here poses a much greater risk.
Amendment 56A, in my name, covers much same ground as the two amendments that have been briefly discussed today, so I do not intend to speak to it when we reach it. My suggestion is that the Boundary Commission should be required to report by 2017. It is not a date that I have picked out of thin air; it was chosen in anticipation of the time that a Boundary Commission would normally take to complete its work. Lest the Committee should think that I am a Johnny-come-lately on these issues, I point out that I am an obsessive. When you have had the experience, as I have had, of representing a constituency with an electorate of around 90,000 when your majority is around 360, you look very closely at parliamentary boundaries.
As soon as I saw in 2009 that the Conservative Opposition, as they were then, were thinking of reducing the number of MPs, my mind flew to how the boundaries would be drawn. I asked the then Minister—a splendid Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bach—in a Written Question how long it took to conduct a boundary review. He said in his Answer of 3 November 2009 that the previous boundary review for England had taken six years and eight months and that for Northern Ireland it had taken three years and five months. I know from my experience of various Boundary Commission changes—many other people in this Committee will have had the same experience—that consulting local people and discussing whether their community should be split, joined or divided is a lengthy process. The job has been very well done by Boundary Commissions in the past and the time taken has been reasonable.
Although I knew that the Conservative Party was likely to go ahead with its pledge when it came into government, I did not think that it would substantially short-circuit the period of time required for a proper boundary review. I have proposed 2017 because I anticipate that the Bill will become an Act this year, which will give the Boundary Commission six years to do its work. I do not think that is an unreasonable period.
Anyone who has been an MP knows that boundary redistributions are pretty uncomfortable and difficult processes, as are the consequences of Boundary Commission proposals, which often mean colleague fighting against colleague from the same party for nomination for a seat. If you believe in first past the post, as I strongly do, you obviously have to accept that constituencies should be broadly similar in size and that they should be reviewed, because populations and their distribution change. However, they should not be conducted with phenomenal regularity.
I think I am right in saying that the House of Commons has an unusually, if not unprecedentedly, large number of new MPs. When they have settled into the euphoria of becoming a new MP—and it is a pretty euphoric experience—they will discover that they had not bargained for the fact that within a few months someone will come along and change the boundaries of their constituencies, probably substantially. That will put them in conflict with neighbours and all the rest of it. What is more, that will happen every five years. I almost plead with the Government for their own sake that that is not a good idea. You will not make MPs of whatever party—this is not a Labour Party partisan plea—very happy if you put them in a continual state of uncertainty about the democratic base on which they stand.
I can see my noble friend’s point, although I am not sure I agree. There will always be a lot of people who want to be a Member of either of these Houses—quite rightly because it is a wonderful privilege. There is no shortage of people who are keen to stand, for all the hazards of elections—and I know all about the hazards. I simply put it to the Government that it is not unreasonable to suggest that we should have a reasonable period of time—six years was my suggestion—before the next boundary review, not least because we have only just had the last one. The 2010 general election was fought for the first time on new boundaries. That was pretty unsettling, as it always is. The Government are wrong to propose another one so soon. If they want to change the mechanism of elections, obviously they can do that. They have a majority that will enable them to do that. If they want this Bill to become an Act, in whatever amended form, they will probably get away with that as well.
Before my noble friend concludes, can he help me with a question that I asked earlier, which is not rhetorical? Why does he think the Government are being impelled into this unseemly haste? What is the motive for doing away with what has been an accepted British tradition for a very long time: the boundary review and public inquiry procedure? What is the motive for throwing all that away and removing the strong degree of political legitimacy that derives from this process?
That is a question for the government Front Bench. I think I know the answer. It has something to do with five days in May, but we can wait for those on the Front Bench to answer that. If they want to look after their own Back-Benchers, let alone the Back-Benchers of any other party, my advice to the Government is that to have parliamentary boundary reviews every five years is not such a good idea as they thought when it was first put on the drawing board.
I support all the amendments to this clause, but I incline most to the amendment to which my noble friend Lord Grocott has just spoken. They all speak to the folly of the unmerited speed of what the Government are doing with these boundary reviews. The risks of their approach are manifold, and we have heard some of them already rehearsed this afternoon. I focus on one: the statistical inadequacy of conducting reviews on the basis of what is universally acknowledged to be a flawed electoral register. The best estimate that we have is that 3.5 million people are eligible to vote but are missing for one reason or another from the electoral register. How on earth can the Government propose to rush through a boundary review on the basis of such a flawed register?
The Government must be aware that the Labour Government took significant measures and passed legislation to ensure that the flawed electoral register was repaired. It gave the duty to the Electoral Commission of ensuring that by 2015 the electoral register was comprehensive and accurate, and gave it significant powers to achieve that end—powers that I see the Deputy Prime Minister is now claiming as his motivation and responsibility. Actually, the previous Government passed the legislation that gave the Electoral Commission those powers.
Why are the Government rushing ahead to conduct a wholesale and radical review of boundaries when they know they do so on the basis of a flawed register? If they only waited a few months they would have the judgment of an independent body, the Electoral Commission, on whether the register was indeed comprehensive and accurate. Surely the Government can see the case for waiting. All these amendments speak to that end: to delay this review. I urge the Government to take heed of these amendments and wait for the results of the work of the Electoral Commission in ensuring that the register is comprehensive and accurate.
This is a complex task. On many occasions in the debate on this legislation we have heard some of the problems that the Electoral Commission will face. Everyone knows this is a difficult task and that is why we gave them significant powers, such as data-sharing, to try and help them, for the first time, to get a register that is comprehensive and accurate. It cannot be rushed. No serious, objective and independent expert observer believes that we can get a comprehensive and accurate register by 2013. It is nonsensical. I am sure the Government themselves do not believe it.
In the House of Commons before the last election, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed that 2015 was a reasonable timescale to achieve a comprehensive and accurate register, so why have they changed their minds and decided to rush through this review on the basis of a register which is by all accounts not going to be comprehensive nor accurate? Why have they changed their minds? If they have not changed their minds, why do they believe that the register can be comprehensive and accurate by 2013? If they do not believe that, why are they proceeding with such a radical and comprehensive revision of boundaries on the basis of an inaccurate register? Why are they doing this? Could the Minister answer that? In the absence of an answer, I hope the Government will look at these amendments favourably and support them.
We are now getting to the main part of the Bill: the constituents. The arguments about alternative vote and first past the post will come with the referendum. I was involved in alternative vote in this House in 2003, when one of the hereditary Peers, a Deputy Chairman, died. There was a ballot to take his place. Some 423 out of 661 Members voted and the candidate who won had 151 votes. There were 81 candidates, 44 first-preference votes and 42 transferred votes—alternative votes. The person who was elected still did not even get 50 per cent of the votes that were cast. Those arguments will come out when we get to alternative vote.
The important part of the Bill is the constituencies. I have personal experience with constituency. The last change in the Jarrow constituency was in 2005. I know a little about the Jarrow constituency; I have lived there for, in a couple of weeks’ time, 82 years. The only time I was out of the constituency was when I was doing my Army service for two years in the Royal Engineers, so I know a little about the constituency. I served as councillor, mayor and MP, and am now in the House of Lords.
The Boundary Commission proposed that the Bede ward—named after the Venerable Bede—in the Jarrow constituency be transferred to the South Shields constituency and that the Pelaw and Heworth ward in Gateshead be transferred to the Jarrow constituency. That proposal looked good on paper because the difference in the size of the two constituencies would have been only 153 voters. Everyone thought that they were doing well to achieve that equalisation between the Jarrow and South Shields constituencies.
The people of Jarrow had no objection to gaining the voters of the Pelaw and Heworth ward, because Pelaw and Heworth used to be part of the Jarrow constituency. In fact, Thomas Hepburn, who was the founder of the Northumberland and Durham miners union, is buried in Pelaw cemetery. For a long time, the members of the Jarrow constituency Labour Party would put a wreath on his grave before they went to the Durham miners’ gala.
The problem that arose was with the proposed transfer of the Bede ward to the South Shields constituency. Now, Jarrow got its name from the Saxon word “Gyrwy”, which means marsh or fen, which it has been suggested refers to the Jarrow Slake that lies along St Paul’s church in Jarrow, where the Venerable Bede had his home as well as at the Wearmouth St Peter’s church. The Venerable Bede was one of early Europe’s most established scholars. I might add that none of that rubbed off on me—I left elementary school when I was 14, I started in the shipyard when I was 14 and three months and the only exam that I passed in my life was my driving exam—so I cannot claim any of St Bede’s knowledge.
On the proposed transfer of the Bede ward to the South Shields constituency, I wrote to the Boundary Commission on 6 January 2005 to make an alternative suggestion. My suggestion was that the Bede ward should remain in the Jarrow constituency, that the Pelaw and Heworth ward in Gateshead should be transferred to Jarrow and that Jarrow’s Whitburn ward, which is on the coast, should be transferred to South Shields. I was pleased to find that my suggestion was accepted by the Boundary Commission, because many in Jarrow would definitely have been upset if the Bede ward had been transferred to South Shields.
The other thing about the Bede ward in Jarrow is that, as some Members may recall, in 1936 some 200 men from Jarrow marched to London for the right to work. The Jarrow march was not for another crust or for more money on the means test—as it was then known—but for the right to work. Most of the men who marched from Jarrow lived in the East ward, which was adjacent to the Jarrow town hall. After the war, the East ward was cleared and most of the Jarrow marchers were transferred to the new estate in the Simonside ward. The Boundary Commission’s proposal would have resulted in the descendants of the Jarrow marchers of 1936 ending up in the South Shields constituency. That would have virtually caused a civil war, as it would have suggested that they were now Sanddancers rather than Jarrow people.
However, the Boundary Commission did not know any of that. The only way that the issue came out was because there was a public inquiry. The Boundary Commission accepted the proposal that Whitburn, which to my knowledge has never had a direct bus service to the centre of Jarrow, be transferred to South Shields and that the Bede ward remain in Jarrow constituency. The difference in the electorate of the two constituencies was 53, as against the difference of 179 in the Boundary Commission’s original recommendation.
I think that it is vital that local residents have some say in how the constituency boundaries are formed. That issue, I believe, is the most important issue in the Bill.
My Lords, I was going to rise before my noble friend but I am grateful that I did not as I want to make only one brief point. It is partly on what he was saying about the naming as well as the defining of the boundaries, because one of the things I am most concerned about is that so many boundaries will be changed that one of the big issues will be the naming of the new constituencies and therefore the time taken. This part of the Bill will bring in more consultation than is allowed for without boundary hearings but it will also be timed. I therefore support this amendment and I urge the Government to consider, when they look at the timing of this, that one of the most political issues, even after they have defined the boundaries, will be the naming of so many new constituencies. I urge caution on that as that is where, in the words of my noble friend, civil war will break out.
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 55, moved by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, I am obviously happy that I will not speak to or move Amendment 56, which stands in my name. We are already in 2011 and the proposal in the Bill is that we are to have a report from the Boundary Commission in a little over two and a half years. That is just impractical. If we do not see some movement on this, we are creating the conditions whereby the Boundary Commission will find it almost impossible to have any sort of meaningful process with local residents, even under the limited proposals in the Bill.
Many years ago, I lived in Coventry—a great Midlands city—and I was involved in presenting evidence to the boundary inquiry in the early 1990s; I think it was in approximately 1993. That inquiry was triggered by proposals to reduce the number of parliamentary seats from four to three. At that time there were three Labour and one Conservative Members of Parliament. Going down from four seats to three meant that it was very unlikely, however you drew the boundaries, that the Conservatives would retain a seat in the city. In producing its recommendations, the Boundary Commission produced two seats in the north of the city. It had a Coventry North West seat and a Coventry North East seat. It put the Holbrooks ward from the north-west and the Longford ward, where I lived in the north-east, into the same constituency.
It made no difference to the outcome of a future election but the Boundary Commission, by drawing up its proposals back in its London office, had missed the Coventry-Nuneaton railway line and the A444 from junction 3 of the M6 into the city. I stress again to your Lordships that where those wards ended up made no difference to the actual outcome of the election, but it had completely missed that. We had a local inquiry; local residents, community groups, Members of Parliament, the parties and the local authorities all attended. The next day, the commissioner himself drove around the city, visiting the various points that had been mentioned by residents there. He saw the merits of the case argued by people and changed the proposals accordingly so that, even today, the Holbrooks ward remains in Coventry North West and the Longford ward remains in Coventry North East.
My point is that if the Government get rid of local inquiries and only allow less than two and a half years, as proposed in the Bill, for written submissions then such things will never be picked up. We will have constituencies created that have no basis in any sort of community ties and no relationship to local residents. I want to hear from the Minister whether the Government are prepared to risk that or are they prepared, as the amendment suggests, to give a longer time than they are proposing for the Boundary Commission to consider written proposals?
My Lords, there is no case at all for this process being rushed as the Government seek to insist that it should be. In the range of amendments so helpfully tabled by my noble friends, I personally prefer that in the name of my noble friend Lord Grocott, requiring that the Boundary Commission should report by 2017. The Government may argue, I suppose, that the case for insisting that the Boundary Commission makes its recommendations by 1 October 2013 is that it will hasten the great day when we have votes of equal value in this country, but if that is their argument it is a fallacious one. Equalising constituencies will not produce votes of equal value. Other factors will offset that effect. For example, differential turnout will mean that votes will be of different value in different constituencies. If you vote in a constituency where there is a 50 per cent turnout and someone else votes in one where there is a 60 per cent turnout and the margin of victory is the same, your vote in the 50 per cent turnout contest is a more significant one. Introducing the alternative vote will do nothing to alter the present state of affairs in which general elections are won or lost in the marginal seats. It will be the votes of swing voters in marginal seats that will continue to be intensively wooed by campaigning parties and candidates, and those votes will have a quite disproportionate effect on the electoral outcome.
I agree with the powerful case that my noble friend is making, but does he agree that another factor militating against the equalisation of constituencies that the Government want to see—I think most of us want to see it—is the fact that this boundary review will be taken on the basis of a flawed register? Many constituencies will have nearly 100 per cent registration of all those who are eligible to vote, but others will have barely half that. How can constituencies possibly be equalised on that statistical basis?
My noble friend developed his argument compellingly in his speech just now. Just as differential turnout matters very much, so do differential levels of registration. These are all factors tending, unfortunately, to produce votes of unequal value. Moreover, within the alternative vote system, we know that the votes of the supporters of the minority parties that continue to be totted up and distributed will themselves carry more power in the ultimate decision than other votes will.
One is left puzzled about what the Government’s motivation can be in rushing this through, unless it is to secure political advantage for the Conservative Party as part of the deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats do not even get the reformed electoral system that they really want, but the Tories get their opportunity to reduce the number of seats by 50, which, it has been calculated, if not by them—although I think they might be aware of the calculation—will advantage them and disadvantage the Labour Party.
The truth is that, while pursuing this pretty cynical policy, the Government risk causing the redistribution of constituencies to be botched. If it is botched and there is widespread public dissatisfaction with it, that can serve only to alienate sentiment and to alienate our citizens further from our democratic processes in this country. If there is a case for reform, and I believe that there is a case for significant reform in a number of aspects of our constitutional arrangements, then the benefits of reform will be dissipated and lost if the public feel angry that their legitimate entitlement to make their contribution to this process through public inquiries has been stamped upon by a Government who are in a hurry to effect change to suit their own political interest.
My noble friend Lord Dixon made a speech of profound importance, and I hope that Ministers and noble Lords opposite will think very carefully about what he said. He spoke with passion about the community of which he has been a member all his life. The Government’s formula of insisting on rigid numerical equality between constituencies risks violating community, ignoring history and causing profound offence to the people of this country. If indeed there is to be a rigid numerical formula, with a difference of no more than plus or minus 5 per cent from the norm of 76,000 voters, it is all the more important that the Boundary Commission should be allowed to have the time to take care to be sensitive to these other very important factors. If the Government rush in seeking to create numerically equal constituencies and do not pay attention to what people have to say about community, history, geography and the importance of the alignment of parliamentary constituencies with local government, they will make the process even more offensive than I fear it will inevitably be in any case.
Does my noble friend recognise that many of us have heard—as, perhaps, he has—from people in Cornwall, who have said that their boundary has been inviolate for more than 1,000 years? They are absolutely appalled that anyone should consider a boundary that includes areas of both Devon and Cornwall, which they would consider utterly unacceptable.
It is a grossly insensitive and, politically, a remarkably stupid thing to contemplate. I add one further point. My recent observation of the working of the Boundary Commission was in Norfolk, on the question of whether there should be unitary status for Norwich within the county of Norfolk. The difficulty that we got into was, in part, because the Boundary Commission took so much longer than the timescale to which it had been tasked. It simply could not get the job done on the timescale that the previous Government wanted. It might be wise for this Government to study that instance and learn a lesson from it. If this process is pushed through with the kind of haste that is intended, all kinds of grievous consequences will follow. It is a waste of an opportunity for reform.
I do not want to labour the issue of timing, other than to say that I support vigorously the amendment moved by my noble friend. However, I implore Ministers to listen to the wise counsel of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. He probably knows more about electoral registration than any other Member of either House. He was a Minister throughout a period when it dominated his agenda. Ministers in this Government would do well to consider carefully his words on the whole issue of why the existing register is useless for the purposes that they intend to use it.
I want to ask Ministers questions based on the 14th report of the Select Committee on the Constitution from the 2003-04 Session, Parliament and the Legislative Process. Paragraph 15 of Chapter 3 refers to the arrangements for the handling of legislation. I raise this issue because it deals with the question of consultation. I am trying to secure from the Government some more information on the extent to which they consulted on the time that is set out in the Bill for dealing with the Boundary Commission review. Paragraph 15 says:
“There is an extensive gestation and drafting process before a bill is laid before Parliament … Proposals now are regularly put out for consultation and there is an established framework for that consultation”.
Paragraph 16 goes on to refer to a,
“Code of Practice issued by the Cabinet Office”,
“stipulates that there should be a consultation period of twelve weeks”.
My questions are about that consultation period. When did it start? When did it end? Who was consulted? Where is the information that came back as a result of that consultation? That is highly pertinent to today’s debate. All I ask of Ministers is whether we can have that information. If that is the process that should have been undertaken, and recognising that there has been a short period between the election and today, some of us, including me, might wonder whether that code of practice was complied with. If it was not, let us have a full explanation of why not.
My Lords, I did not intend to speak on this but I will add a new example on the time element. We would not be having a debate about the time element were it not for the contents of the Bill from page 9 onwards in new Schedule 2, which deals with the rules for the redistribution of seats. I note that one of the factors that the Boundary Commission may take into account—I realise that it will be in May—is,
“local government boundaries as they exist on the most recent ordinary council-election day before the review”.
Timing and names are not unimportant given the ward building blocks in present constituencies. I represented part of the city of Birmingham when I was a Member of the other place. Birmingham had the largest building blocks in the country, with an average ward size of 19,000 electors. My figures are now out of date but were correct when I was a Member of the other place. If you then decide how many constituencies you are having and you get an odd number, and the policy is not to split wards, you end up with some Members having three wards with 60,000 people and others having four with 80,000 people. That is what happened in my case and that of colleagues. Noble Lords may say that that will not happen under the formula in the Bill and that wards will have to be split, but that is something that you avoid doing. Herein lies the problem.
One of the rules set by the Boundary Commission, which is buried somewhere among its procedures—we came unstuck on this on one occasion—stipulates that the constituency in a county borough, which Birmingham is, has to be named after one of the wards in the constituency. My former colleague Terry Davis was really upset about this because we lost the ward of Stechford and had to change the name of the constituency, which was virtually the same. If you have to split the wards because they do not make arithmetical sense in this situation, this problem may arise. Nobody wants more councillors in Birmingham; we are already at the limit with some 120 to 124 and the extra ones for Sutton Coldfield.
You cannot sort out this situation in two years. It is not just a matter of changing the boundaries; you are potentially rewriting local government boundaries in the big cities. I think that Leeds is the only other city with such large wards—there is an average of some 15,000 electors in a ward. You can see the difficulty that arises when you start moving these large building blocks around. The difficulty does not arise in London boroughs, where the wards are very small, at about a third of the size of those in Birmingham, and have better representation in terms of councillors.
This issue has to be addressed within the two-year period. It is a question not just of the building blocks but of names and the division of current local authority building blocks in our big cities. As I say, the problem will arise in Birmingham and Leeds. It applies to Manchester but to a lesser degree, as its wards are much smaller than those of Leeds and Birmingham for historical reasons. This factor means that more time will be needed to tackle this issue. As I have said before, I think that the boundaries should be equal, but the fact is that the rules in the Bill mean that the review cannot be done in two years without upsetting a lot of people through splitting wards and consequently redrawing local government boundaries while you are trying to tackle parliamentary boundaries. I do not think that you can do both together.
My Lords, I rise to speak to my noble friend’s amendment, as I have tabled a similar one that we shall discuss later in the proceedings and I have no wish to detain your Lordships further by discussing virtually the same matter twice. Much of the debate on my noble friend’s amendment has been about numbers and electors. However, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has pointed out, other matters will have a direct impact on any redrawing of the boundaries as proposed in the Bill. Like my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who pointed out some of the difficulties that had arisen in Coventry, which were put right by a local inquiry into Boundary Commission proposals, and my noble friend and fellow sapper, Lord Dixon, who pointed out the historical arrangements in his part of the world, I encountered such a difficulty when I was a Member of the other place.
The boundaries for the then new seat of West Bromwich East, which I fought in 1974, had been drawn up by the Boundary Commission in the 1960s. The natural boundary between the constituency of West Bromwich East and that held with such distinction by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, as she now is, was the former Great Western Railway line. Unfortunately, before I arrived on the scene, that line was closed—actually in 1972. The cutting through the centre of West Bromwich had been virtually filled in and therefore there was no natural boundary between our two constituencies. It took a local inquiry after the 1980s boundary review to point that out and the dividing line between our respective constituencies was then redrawn on to a dual carriageway that represented a much more natural break between the two seats. That was electorally advantageous to the incumbent in West Bromwich East, which just so happened to be me. It was not quite so advantageous to my then honourable friend on the other side, but I got my representations in first and congratulated that local inquiry on the common sense of its new recommendations. I am glad to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has forgiven me over the 25 years since and we are back on speaking terms. The point that I am seeking to make is that the anomaly was pointed out only because of that local inquiry. The Boundary Commission in its wisdom went purely on numbers and did not look at geography, the contours of the ground or a natural boundary between our constituencies.
Perhaps I may give another example. I went through two boundary changes in the city of Manchester. The Boundary Commission produced proposals that split the communities north and south of the Mersey valley, part of which was more than a mile wide. The commission had also forgotten that the M60 motorway had been built along the valley, so there was no connection between the north and south of the Mersey valley. When there was a local inquiry, that point was strongly made and on both occasions my constituency was put back together north of that natural boundary.
Again, your Lordships will draw their own conclusions from that intervention. In fact, local knowledge makes a big difference when these boundaries, having been drawn up, are finally agreed. I hope that the Minister who replies to the amendment will accept that to lose that opportunity for a local inquiry, where anomalies such as these can be pointed out, would be a serious and retrograde step. As I have indicated, I intervene at this stage to save time and to pre-empt my later amendment. I hope that the Minister will accept that these are relevant points and will address them in his reply.
My Lords, all three amendments that we have been discussing—the amendment that has been moved and the other two, Amendments 56 and 56A, which have been spoken to—are important. A great deal of important information has emerged as a consequence of the speeches made. I certainly do not intend to repeat those arguments, but I want to make a few short points.
First, all three amendments propose a delay to the submission of the reports of the first boundary review to be held under the new rules. From the Front Bench, we agree with that principle. I remind the Committee that on Monday we debated Amendment 54A, which also called for a delay—it was an important debate—but more implicitly than explicitly, as these amendments clearly do. We called for a delay in the boundary review process, first, until the electoral register is accurate and up to date. If I may say so, the compliment that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours paid to my noble friend Lord Wills for his work over many years in this field is well merited. It is important that the Government listen carefully to what my noble friend Lord Wills and others say about the nature of the register and how important it is to get the data right before embarking on some sort of brave new world.
It is also key that the Boundary Commission should be given sufficient time to complete the very large task that it will undoubtedly face. This argument has been made by a number of noble Lords. In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place, the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland confirmed that the timetable was achievable, but tight, and that extra resources would certainly be needed—I believe that this point, too, was spoken to on Monday. Who knows whether they are being optimistic or realistic? Obviously it is their best guess. However, by any standards, the changes envisaged in Part 2 of the Bill are substantial. Surely it must and will take time for the various Boundary Commissions to propose a new set of constituencies. Our view, which I think is common sense, is that 1 October 2013 is too tight a timetable. That is the case, simply put, and it deserves an answer from the Minister. Why does the Boundary Commission have to report by 1 October 2013? Why not make sure that it has plenty of time to produce reports that will stand the test of time?
We have heard today about public inquiries and no doubt we will have debates on the matter. From my own experience, and more importantly from that of noble Lords who have spoken today about public inquiries, I say that their value is absolutely undoubted. They may be frustrating in terms of time, but their value in making sure that parliamentary boundaries are sensible and can last has been shown time and again. We have heard this from various ex-Members of Parliament who have spoken. I speak as a non-ex-Member of Parliament who has appeared at many boundary inquiries in different parts of the country, sometimes with success and sometimes, I confess, with a substantial lack of it. However, nearly always, following the public inquiry, the decision made by the Boundary Commission, in whoever’s interest, is better than it was before the public inquiry. This issue is of fundamental importance to the Bill and we will return to it at the proper time. It is one of the most powerful parts of the argument that has been made in favour of these three amendments.
My Lords, the Bill would require the Boundary Commission to report by October 2013. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, would change this to October 2015. The amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, and the noble Lord, Lord Snape, would make it October 2016, and Amendment 56A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would make it October 2017. As I indicated on more than one occasion on Monday, the Government’s approach has been simple: to ensure that constituency boundaries are as up to date as possible. That point is worth repeating. The boundaries in effect in England at the general election fought last May were drawn up based on data that were 10 years old. If the House were to accept any of the amendments, the election in May 2015 would be fought on data that were 15 years old.
I mentioned on Monday, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, the 3.5 million people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the register. What I cannot fathom—and I have thought about this time and again in case I was missing something—is the point that somehow one does a service to these 3.5 million people by using electoral data from 2000. What service does that do to those who have come on to the electoral register between 2000 and December 2010?
Perhaps I may answer that question. Under legislation, the Electoral Commission is tasked with repairing this grievous fault in our electoral register by 2015. Why can the Government not wait two more years? I understand the frustration and the point that the Minister is making about data being ridiculously out of date. Of course he is right, but why not wait just a few months more for the Electoral Commission, an independent body with new powers, to bring those 3.5 million people on to the register, and then do this comprehensive review?
I am sure that the noble Baroness will allow me to answer the question posed by her noble friend. First, I do not believe that it does any service to those who came on to the register between 2000 and 2010 to ignore them. Secondly, under the Bill, the relevant review date for the Boundary Commission report due in 2018 would be December 2015. I acknowledge the work that was done by the noble Lord when he was a Minister with regard to the rolling register. All the data-matching work that we intend to do in pilots, and to which I referred on Monday, will be available for further review with the relevant review date being in December 2015. It is not as though we are not going to be able to do that. We are also saying that the election in 2015 will be based on electoral data for the whole of the United Kingdom as at December 2010. I find that far more acceptable than basing it on data for England as far back as 2000. I do not see why we should have one general election based on data as old as that.
I thank the Minister for giving way. It is better that we register the 3.5 million people who are not registered because the constituencies are not representative. The important points are that, first, constituencies are largely the same size and, secondly, the people not on the register are those most in need of representation. They tend to be disadvantaged and in inner-city areas. I do not need to go through all the geodemographic issues that pertain to those individual residents but, although they are not on the register, they need, and seek, representation by their Members of Parliament. Those Members of Parliament have to represent constituencies that are in need of a lot of support, and they are larger than other Members’ constituencies, which do not have that level of casework and representation. That is why it is better that those people are on the register.
I have one final point. The people who have come on to the register since 2000 have taken the place of voters who were previously on the register, and they make no difference.
I cannot accept that they make no difference. I have acknowledged that it is important that we track those 3.5 million people and that they are registered. However, by acknowledging that and indicating that the second review under the rules proposed in the Bill will take account of them, I cannot see why we should ignore those who have come on to the register since 2000. It is rather sad to reflect that since 2000, as the noble Baroness indicated, many people on the register do not need any representation. However, I am not sure why their being on the register should be relevant for the election that is fought on the boundaries in 2015 when we can do better and bring the register up to date. I cannot say, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that this is somehow a gerrymander. Indeed, in introducing his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, indicated, using independent analysis, that there would be precious little difference between the number of seats lost by the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. That rather undermines the case made on more than one occasion that somehow this is a partisan measure.
I believe it is important that these boundary changes take effect at the next general election, and indeed there will be even fresher boundaries for the election in 2020. We will come on to the periodic frequency of the review, when we will certainly seek to ensure that each election is based on a more up-to-date register than the previous one—something that we have not enjoyed in this country until now. The secretary to the Boundary Commission for England has indicated that this will be a more sizeable task for England. However, as I quoted directly from the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place, he indicated that the commission had sufficient resources and time to complete the review by 2013. He thought that that was achievable. If it is achievable, as the Boundary Commission thinks it is, to fight the next general election in 2015 on boundaries referring to 2010 as the baseline for data and not 2000, that begs the question why we would not do it.
No doubt we will return to the question of inquiries and I am sure that we will have robust exchanges, but it is possible to move forward. It is achievable, as the secretary to the Boundary Commission has indicated, and the next general election should be fought on constituency sizes which are far closer to ensuring one vote, one value, than would be the case if we were to allow yet another five years to elapse before addressing what will increasingly become over the years an even more divergent problem. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his full answer to the amendment, but I am puzzled. It is wonderful that here is an attempted partisan redrawing of boundaries, which alas has been botched, so it will not have the effect that the party dealing with the changes in the boundaries intends. The noble and learned Lord says that that shows it was never intending the partisan effect in the first place. Others will no doubt decide whether that is an objectively sustainable claim.
More seriously, the problem is not really with getting up-to-date electorates. We would all be in favour of that, but the trouble is that it is being brought forward not only for that reason but for the others I have mentioned, including a believed partisan effect. It is the combined effect of trying to get a more recent database with a 5 per cent tolerance that is being introduced that my noble friends have been pointing out. Some of these changes are very delicate and they will be particularly so if they are happening everywhere. The 5 per cent means that nearly every constituency in the land has to be redrawn and nearly every ward will have its boundaries crossed, involving all the problems with the names of constituencies. That is why it will not prove a successful, speedy attempt.
I shall not seek the opinion of the House. It will be easier to take a view on this amendment, as on the others before it, when we have seen the whole picture in this Committee stage on the whole of this part of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 55 withdrawn.
Amendments 56 and 56A not moved.
57: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, leave out “fifth” and insert “seventh”
Goodness, you hardly get to sit down before you have to stand up again.
I am not sure that this amendment is right. It suggests a seven-year periodicity of reviews instead of five years. I am not sure whether seven years is the right answer. At the moment we have reviews broadly every 10 years, which is broadly every two elections. Seven years would not sustain that, although there is a case that it should be sustained. I am sure, however, that five years is daft. It is strange coming from a coalition Government led by a Conservative Party, but five years is a recipe for permanent revolution. It will mean much upheaval; you will hardly have finished with one review of boundaries before settling into another. It means that there will be no stability in the system and many people will only just have discovered who their MP is when it changes, not as a result of their decision at a general election but a Boundary Commission decision. That is the result of a combination, which I believe is toxic, of the 5 per cent variance in the size of constituencies and the five-yearly reviews of constituency boundaries.
Stability matters tremendously to MPs. Under this system, they will hardly get back into the other end before they will be wondering which seat to look to represent next time. Will your present seat continue to exist or, if its population is growing, is it about to be dismembered and replaced by another constituency? Every Member of another place will, under this system, be carrying a permanent carpet bag, ready to find himself or herself a new seat.
I do not think that that is a good recipe for anything, including the good governance of this country. If you are thinking the whole time about where your seat is going to be, you are not going to be thinking the whole time about what policy should be. Some of us believe that there has been a dangerous development in our politics, whereby the sheer degree of constituency issues which every MP must consider—I defer to those who have been Members of another place; I may be quite wrong about this—and the sheer weight of constituency work which they face, make it extremely hard to give attention to the wider national issues for which, in a sense, they are elected.
That has been a substantial change over the years. If you read the biography of Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, you will find that he hopped constituencies every few years and had no constituency work or contact at all. Nowadays, any MP has to be deeply embedded in their constituency—a bit like bishops. The ones who are doing a good job really know their areas, their patch, and their people. They will not get embedded in that way if, at the next general election, they know that their patch and their people may be completely changed and that they may be starting again on fresh turf, as Gladstone did. Gladstone ran the Midlothian campaign, but I did not hear of him running many campaigns for the repair of drains in the constituencies that he represented.
That instability for MPs is not the main problem. Anyone who seeks a sympathy vote for MPs is on a losing wicket these days. The main point is the effect that it can have on constituents. Constituents come in all shapes and sizes. I am sure that every Member of this House who has been a Member of another place had many constituents that they would have been delighted never to see again at their surgery doors, but they built up a relationship with their people and people built up a relationship with their Member.
When I was working as a political journalist, I found, when I had conversations with a Member of another place about the great issues of politics, that I was often not wholly overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge and vision that they had on world problems, and so on. Where I always learnt from any conversation that I had with a Member of another place was when they turned to the issues in their constituency. That is how I understood the reality of the decline of manufacturing industry. It is there where you understand the dilemmas involved in what services you improve and what services you have to hold back on. That was the whole basis of what they brought to our national government and governance.
We had a wonderful example from the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, this afternoon. Could that knowledge be picked up by anyone who happened to be passing through Jarrow on a Sunday afternoon? Would that knowledge be held by the civil servants sitting in Whitehall, or even in the north-east? No, it was detailed constituency knowledge based, as the noble Lord said, on 50 years of living there and representing people there. That is a terrible thing to throw lightly aside, and it is the constituents who will lose. They will not know who to write to; they will not know whether to trust who they write to; they will not know what they are hoping to achieve when they do; and they will not have that intimate relationship that both they and MPs value so much.
It is very noticeable from opinion polling that if you ask people what they think of MPs in general, it is unspeakable. They think that they are nasty, self-seeking men and women on the take. I think they are wrong, mostly, but that is what they think. However, if you ask people what they think about their MP, you get a very different picture of affection and respect that is, in most cases, earned by hard work based on the knowledge that the MP wishes to retain the relationship between him and the constituency he represents for many years ahead. That will go under this Bill, and part of the mechanism by which it will go is the demand that the constituency boundaries be revised every five years.
Whatever we decide on the right variance between constituencies, and we may well make a decision, and whatever we decide about the number of MPs, and we may well make a decision, I hope that between now and the final passage of the Bill, it will not be totally impossible for the Government to think again on this issue and to space the reviews more widely so that this relationship can survive. Not much rope now attaches the people to our politics. It has grown thinner and thinner. The people’s confidence in politics has diminished, as, I fear, has their confidence in Parliament, but it is the constituency relationship and a consistent constituency relationship—
Before he completes his speech, will the noble Lord explain the rationale behind the selection of seven years for the review? By definition, that would mean that more constituencies would be subject to change than if it was five years. If he went for a longer period, presumably even more constituencies would be subject to change, so all the arguments that he has been advancing, which I entirely endorse as someone who was very proud to represent an interesting part of the country, would fall by the wayside if more constituencies were changed as a result of his proposal.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I have been on my feet in successive speeches, and he must have missed the beginning of my speech when I said that I was not sure that seven years was right. I was simply sure that five years was not right. That is why we have a Committee stage in this place: so that we can explore these things and come to a correct decision when we get to Report. If the decision was made for 10 years, I certainly would see no reason to suppose that it was wrong. I think that five years has a particular defect that seven years avoids, which is that in five years you know exactly the time. If we have fixed-term Parliaments, the chicken run starts two years before each general election, so there are only three years in which it does not start. Seven years would avoid that, so at least you would get another election after you were first elected, and then you would have a period of uncertainty. However, if the noble Lord wished to move an amendment that proposed 10 years, I should be an enthusiastic supporter of it, and it would be good to see him doing it. All I am saying to the House this afternoon, and I am not sure whether he disagrees, is that a five-year permanent revolution under the Conservatives is too short a period.
My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. My amendment talks about eight years. I address my remarks to the Minister. The purpose is to give new Members of Parliament a chance to get at least two years serving in the House. If I look around, at least 20 noble Lords have served in the other place. I think they will all readily acknowledge that you do not learn your craft as a Member of Parliament within one term; far from it. I am stating the obvious that, apart from London Members of Parliament who have other pressures and difficulties, every Monday every Member of Parliament has to be on the road leaving their wife or husband and family to travel down here to London. In some cases that is a considerable distance, through all sorts of weather. When they come to the House they work with enthusiasm for what they do.
I was always impressed by Members of Parliament who raised such things as Adjournment debates about the problems of other countries, such as famine or the loss of civil liberties and civil rights. They got no votes for that. They did not do that for selfish reasons; they did it because they wanted a better world. It will be a very sad day if, as soon as a Member of Parliament arrives at Westminster, they worry about whether they will hold that office after the next election. I do not think that there will be any difficulty finding Members of Parliament to serve for the five years about which the Minister is talking.
In all the time that I have been in Parliament, everyone has always said that they want a good cross-section of the community, which is a good thing. I remember the Falklands debate in which former soldiers from every side of the House talked about the adrenaline when on a troop ship. They had come from another life, and the whole House, including young Members who had never been in the forces, were able to enjoy that.
I was on the Floor of the House when two former miners from the north-east of England described what it was like to be in a coalmine when the dust was flying and there were all sorts of dangers. They held that House in the palms of their hands and every Member listened. During a debate on hanging, I listened to Conservative Members who had represented people who were being defended against the chance of being sentenced to capital punishment. My point is that there were people from every walk of life.
I would not like to say that we do not want young people who leave university, work for an MP and then become a Member of Parliament. There is a place for them, but if the House becomes completely full of young researchers who had worked for MPs and then got a parliamentary seat, that would not be the representative body that we need in our Parliament. It would be far from that.
At the other end of the ladder, the ladies in this House have rightly argued that we need more women in Parliament. There was talk about all-women shortlists in order to get more ladies into Parliament, which is right, but will we get a lady who is typical of someone in my constituency, such as a home help with two children? She would have to say to her husband, “Well, I have got a chance of going into Parliament”. Her husband might say, “But you could get promotion in the health service. You will only get one term out of this”.
I know that someone might say, “The electorate can take you out”, but every Member of Parliament takes that chance. I used to cringe when people said to me, “You’ve got a safe Labour seat”. I did not have a safe Labour seat. You fight for every vote and you support the people in your community. In a marginal seat—I have seen this happen—where a Member of Parliament comes in with a majority or 23 or 24, they can build up the support and are willing to do that, but the boundary commissioner coming around with a pencil and cutting up the map is perhaps something that they would not want. We have people who were successful in business and are now retired and well off. We will also have young people. I do not think they should be barred, but if that was all of them we would not have people from every walk of life in our Parliament. Here in your Lordships’ House we make every endeavour to get people from every walk of life. We have judges, QCs and engineers like me who are able to talk about the engineering industry. We will lose that.
What kind of strain are we going to put on Members of Parliament when, as family men and women, their children say, “We want to go to the pictures. We want to have a day out”? The husband or the wife comes up the road on a Thursday only to get a phone call saying that there is a difficulty over employment, or in the local hospital or local authority. The day out for the children is spoilt. I know that from my own experience. I was raised as the son of a merchant seaman. My father was never in the house because he had to earn a living. I was determined that, whatever time I had in Glasgow, my children would be with me. That meant taking them to all sorts of rallies, ward meetings and trade union meetings. The poor wee souls were bored out of their skulls, but there was a promise that afterwards there would be a trip to the pictures, a museum, or something more enjoyable.
My case for this amendment is that it is not about delay or any other argument. We go into schools through the efforts of the Lord Speaker. I do not think that there is a noble Lord or a Member of Parliament who would refuse a visit to a school or college or would say that politics is not a good and rewarding thing to be in. Not one of them would do that. It is my understanding that this House has a scheme through which we encourage young people to get involved in Parliament. How can that encouragement tie in with putting forward a case that you are going to get only one term?
A lot has been said about the Executive and Ministers. I know the difficulties with Ministers because they want to talk. That is why I enjoy being in the House of Lords: because I did not get to speak for 10 years. Ministers want to talk all the time, but each and every one of them is doing an important job, and the law officers look after a department. How will it be if, within five years, there is a chance that their boundary will change? Sometimes unworthy things can come to the fore with boundary changes. Sometimes Back-Bench parliamentary colleagues might say, “Well, John can’t turn up because he is a Minister, you see, but I am free to come to your meeting”. “Don’t vote for John when we have the boundary change”, does not have to be said because the strong hint will have been put.
From a party political point of view, I used to be in the Labour Party and now I am on the Cross Benches. I enjoy this neutrality, but I also enjoy the workings of every political party because I have sat in the Tea Room with colleagues sometimes until one or two in the morning. I know especially the workings of the Labour Party. The minute boundary changes are on the horizon, I can hear the phrases yet: “You had better start getting the delegates in. You had better go to your trade union. You had better go to your Co-op and your affiliated societies and get them in”. It is not good for democracy if you are doing that every five years. I will tell you what will happen. I used to read stories about the ward bosses in Boston, and we will get ward bosses in our cities, and, indeed, in our spread out rural areas, who can deliver the votes. That, to me, is not what parliamentary democracy is about.
I say only this to the Ministers, and I do it with the best of intentions; we want good people from every background and every possible age group, so give them a chance of serving for at least two terms as parliamentarians.
My noble friend Lord Martin of Springburn has just made a very important contribution to this debate, because he knows what will happen in the real world in the event of the Government going forward with the five-year principle. My noble friend spelled out all the experiences that I know many Members of the other place, on all sides of the House, had during their political lifetimes, whereby, when they were confronted by Boundary Commission inquiries, all kinds of abnormal things would happen in their constituencies—often things that they did not even comprehend.
I have asked the Minister a series of questions. Would he care, in winding up the debate on this amendment, to answer them or undertake to let me have replies before next Monday? I understand that he might not have the information with him now, but I would like to know about the Cabinet Office’s code of practice on consultation.
On the security of tenure, I apologise to my noble friend Lord Grocott for having to disagree with him on the basis of his response to my earlier intervention. I believe that individuals often consider their likely period of tenure in the House of Commons prior to being elected. They have it in mind for all sorts of reasons. I cannot count the number of times over recent years when I have asked people, “Would you go into Parliament?”. I have asked people whom I thought were worthy and who would make good MPs. They would say to me, “I will never touch it. I wouldn’t go near the place”. That is invariably because they are wary of the insecurity that arises, particularly now, after the expenses inquiry. Every time an IPSA story appears in the national press, whereby it is being criticised for its lack of sensitivity in its treatment of MPs, and when MPs are being attacked almost daily both in regional and national newspapers and their integrity is often undermined by journalists, perfectly honourable people are put off the political process. It is that, along with the prospect of a brief tenure in Parliament, which I believe influences the judgments that people make.
I also know of former MPs, not only in here but outside, who have lost their jobs. When they have left Parliament, they have found that no work is available outside because they have the lost the skills or knowledge that would be required for them to practise their trade, skill or professional work. People also have that in mind when they consider whether to enter. It is a question not only of what they think as individuals but also of what their families think. Many people have been stopped from going into Parliament on the basis of a spouse or family view as to whether the family can take the financial or the employment risk. That is the case even under present arrangements, whereby there is at least an acceptable term between boundary reviews and changes. Under the Government’s proposals, it will be far worse. The Government are bringing into that calculation all those considerations of insecurity, which will turn families off and whereby they are more than likely to say to an aspiring MP in the family, “Please don’t do it. We just can’t afford the risk”.
That is basically my case. I argue that what is being proposed is wrong, that the period is too short and that the insecurity that it will breed should not be entertained. My final view is that it will influence the quality of people who are attracted to going into the House of Commons. My noble friend says, “Well, there will always be people who want to go into Parliament”. There are always people who want to go on to councils, but the quality of some local authority representation in the United Kingdom is absolutely appalling.
To be frank, there were people in the other place when I was there who I would have had difficulty voting for myself—we know who we are talking about. Some of them, frankly, were not fit to be in the House of Commons, but they got there. If the Government want to create a House of Commons to which more and more people seek nomination who are not of sufficient calibre to enter the place and do a good job, they are making a very grave error.
I add two considerations to the important ones already put forward by my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. One is that it is not a question of what is fair to people serving as MPs: we ought also to consider that the House of Commons itself needs continuity. It needs experience. It needs committee officers who have experience of that particular committee work. It needs its subject experts who the House learns to respect and listen to on particular matters. It needs those who are knowledgeable about procedure and people in the Whips Office who keep the show on the road. All those contributions that different individual Members of Parliament make need experience. Ministers need experience. Some Ministers will demonstrate within a short timescale that perhaps they should return to the Back Benches. Others, who will be good Ministers, need time to develop. For all those reasons, it is profoundly important that, as the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, proposes, we do not destabilise the pattern of parliamentary representation more often than is genuinely necessary to ensure that the boundaries are adequately up to date.
I will touch briefly on the other consideration that I would like to put forward because I said something about it in one of our debates on Monday and I do not want to repeat myself. Equally, it is important that local political parties should not be destabilised and upset more often than is necessary. All political parties have difficulty in attracting membership and are too prone to dissipate time and energy in the tussle for office and position within the party. They need to be able to settle to their work and do the job that they do within their communities, which is absolutely fundamental to the operation of our democracy. We should not destabilise that process gratuitously.
My Lords, I am interested in the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, put forward in support of his amendment. But there has been an unspoken premise throughout this short debate that the Boundary Commission will inevitably shake the kaleidoscope and the picture that emerges from it will be quite different from before. That will not necessarily be the case. Certainly, as a consequence of the reduction in the number of parliamentary seats that is proposed in the Bill, on the first occasion there will be a considerable change in the shape of constituencies. But once that position has become settled—and I do not imagine that even the most ardent constitutional reformer would anticipate that altering the size of the House of Commons would become a matter of custom—the stability of the total numbers is highly predictable.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, whom I hugely respect on constitutional matters, for giving way. The reason that there will be permanent upheaval is the 5 per cent limit. The reduction of MPs is indeed a one-off effect, but as soon as you go one voter over the 5 per cent, that constituency has to change, which has a knock-on effect on the next constituency, which has a knock-on effect on the next and the next. I know that the noble Lord is an avid reader on the subject and I recommend the work of Democratic Audit, which would explain to him very clearly that what I say may be desirable or undesirable, but it is the factual situation that will result from the Government’s Bill.
I accept that some changes will flow from that. In another place, I went through nine different elections and each time the Boundary Commission reported there were some marginal changes. It is marginal changes that are likely to take effect. These were, in the cases I recall that affected me, changes to enlarge the electorate because I had both the second largest constituency in geography and the second smallest in numbers of electors to begin with. Naturally enough, there was an attempt to increase them.
The thought that the Boundary Commission would be likely to upset the prospects for a sitting Member seems nothing compared to the probability that if we had a fairer electoral system, it would more adequately represent the electors by ensuring that their votes and the numbers of their votes were reflected—
The noble Lord cites his own constituency, which I know as well. It had a nuclear plant in Dounreay. Would the noble Lord agree that it is not a representative constituency? It is surrounded by a vast rural area. However much the boundaries of Caithness and Sutherland were changed, it would have had little effect on the result. Most of the votes that the noble Lord gleaned in that constituency were the result of his own efforts.
Flattery will undoubtedly get the noble Lord far down the track with his arguments. The actuality is that my constituency and those constituencies that lay to the south of me changed with great regularity. There were Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour Members and the shape of the constituency as determined by the Boundary Commission was not an element that caused great uncertainty.
Having gone through nine elections where in no case was the outcome certain, I think that there has been a sympathetic exaggeration of the concerns of potential Members of Parliament about stability and certainty. If you go into politics, you cannot make a presumption that you will be there for all time. Events, dear boy, change things.
I know the noble Lord’s constituency well. However, in my own case in the city of Aberdeen, we had many major changes. We went from two MPs in a purely city constituency, two MPs with a vast rural hinterland, to three MPs and back to two MPs. If you go from three to two, somebody has got to go. I do not argue that people should be there for ever—I have never argued that—but this artificial way of consistently changing boundaries makes it difficult for them to do a proper job. We must take into account that people have a great attachment to their constituency and also, thankfully, to their constituency MP.
The noble Lord enjoyed a degree of stability which has enabled his voice to be heard consistently for decades in politics. I do not think that he personally can have been seriously troubled by the sitting of the Boundary Commission. His position is more the norm than that of the MPs who are fearful about modest changes at the margins to reflect population or electorate changes.
There seems to be an underlying unwillingness to recognise that significant changes can happen in the course of 10 years and that constituency electorates should be broadly comparable to each other. If Boundary Commissions may make mistakes, why should we wait for another 10 years to put those mistakes right? In reality, concerns will be raised if these issues about local communities are not adequately addressed. Consequently, those changes should be made within five years.
On the noble Lord’s point that the Boundary Commissions may make mistakes, does he not agree that the chances that the Boundary Commissions will make mistakes will be much greater if the counterweight of public inquiries and appeals is removed? Would it not alter the equation considerably if the Bill results not only in the Boundary Commissions recommending changes more frequently but in those recommendations being more likely to be—to use his own term—mistaken?
That issue will be addressed in separate amendments and is a perfectly fair point to make. There may be a case for continuing with public inquiries, but that does not affect the argument about the frequency with which an attempt should be made to have up-to-date boundaries.
However, the case for continuing with public inquiries is not made simply by arguing that, for the peace of mind of those who are thinking about standing for Parliament, MPs should have a security of tenure for up to 10 years. That is artificial, unreal and inappropriate in considering these matters. The purpose of the reform is to satisfy the electors, not the elected.
My Lords, I cannot help but remark that, although the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness—who I assume will sum up the debate— both had long and distinguished careers representing their constituencies in London, their experience of boundary redistribution may not, I respectfully suggest, be very typical. Unless my geography is completely askew, the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, was surrounded on three sides by sea and the former constituency of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was surrounded on all sides by sea. To me, that suggests a security of tenure that I would have envied.
Whatever the circumstances, being a Member of Parliament is not the most secure of roles.
I want to make two points. First, I have added my name to Amendment 58, in the name of my noble friend Lord Martin of Springburn, which would provide for Boundary Commission reviews every eight years. Certainly in my case, that number was not just plucked from thin air. The current law provides that the period between each redistribution should be between eight and 12 years. There needs to be some compromise—there is no tablet of stone that tells us how frequently redistributions should take place—but a requirement that redistributions should take place every eight years would have some historic precedent. I hope that our recommendation of eight years would go some way towards meeting the Government’s requirement to provide, on a continuing basis, for a rough equalisation of constituency sizes—a principle to which in general terms I certainly do not object. Requiring the review to take place every eight years would at least give Members of Parliament probably two terms in which they would represent the same area.
Secondly, I simply want to point out the sheer practicalities of the situation that my noble friend Lord Lipsey has described as a kind of permanent revolution. Members of Parliament would not be human—we have all seen this happen—if, having discovered halfway through a Parliament that they will lose a large section of their current constituency and gain another area from another constituency after the election, they did not start concentrating some of their activities and energies on the area that was to be transferred. They would not be human if they no longer attached quite the same level of attention as they had in the past to the bit that they knew would be going somewhere else in 18 months or two years. That is just a matter of sheer common sense and no reflection on the integrity or commitment of the vast majority of MPs. I have always believed that to have been the case.
Incidentally, I say to people who favour changing the electoral system that I have seen no distinction whatever in my parliamentary life between the activities of Members of Parliament in so-called safe seats—I never regard any seat as safe—and those in marginal seats. I have seen all sorts in all seats but the vast majority are assiduous in attending to the concerns of their constituents, whatever arithmetic majority they may enjoy. I can even quote from personal experience. I perhaps have more reason than most to be grateful to the dear old boundary commissioners. For a while, I had one of the most marginal seats in the country but thanks to the boundary commissioners—not to my talents—the boundaries were redrawn so that it seemed to other people to have become a safe seat. It never felt like one to me, but the fact that it went from marginal to safe made not a shred of difference to the work that I was doing.
I feel that this cannot be true but I almost wonder whether whoever drew up this proposal for five-yearly redistributions can ever have represented a local government ward or a parliamentary constituency in their lives, because it is obviously deeply unsettling. Obviously, the work of an MP can never be secure but that is unsettling, particularly in terms of the balance of time that Members of Parliament can spend between Westminster and their constituencies. A good MP has to do both but, again, the MPs would not be human if they did not find that the duties that they had at Westminster became less and less important as the ground was shifting from under them in their own constituency, and was doing so for election after election. Certainly, from my perspective—I hope that the Government will not see it as an unhelpful suggestion—eight years, which is the minimum requirement under the present legislation, is a sensible period, giving as it probably does two parliamentary terms. I hope that the Government will look at that very carefully.
My Lords, I have a specific question for the Minister. The debate has concentrated exclusively on the interests of the Member of Parliament. In drafting the Bill, particularly with the squeeze from what was 12 or 13 years down to five, did the Government ask colleagues in local government, anywhere in the country, what use they make of parliamentary boundaries? Again, I quote only the example I know of from representing part of a large city, but each time the boundaries were changed for constituencies in the city of Birmingham—I had three elections on one set, then they changed; three elections on another, then they changed—they were used by the local authority for managing and administering social services. Because a big city of a million people had to be divided up, they set up the structural management of more than one of the key departments—it was probably three—to match those boundaries. That made sense, because those boundaries were coterminous with ward boundaries as well, so when it changed at each boundary review they looked at the structure and changed the management and delivery of those services.
I do not know whether that happens in the county areas because of their nature. I do not know about that, but did the Government ask what use local government makes of the boundaries? In that case, given the fact that they have more or less three elections on the same boundaries, you could do it. If it comes down to five years along with a fixed-term parliament, there is no way that local government will be able to organise the management and keep changing the delivery structure or the management of personnel at that speed. My question is really: was local government asked about what use it makes of constituency boundaries for the management and administration purposes of its services?
My Lords, listening today to the noble Lord, Lord Martin, confirmed my long-held view that the voters of the Black Country are by far the most sophisticated in the country. The noble Lord expressed concern that the consequences of this legislation would be the introduction of ward bosses into Glasgow. I first arrived in the Black Country 40 years ago, and I can tell him that we knew all about ward bosses then. It made your job a lot easier if you were trying to get reselected because you knew who you had to go to and who you had to keep sweet. If they have not yet got around to that system in Glasgow, I am very surprised.
I am obliged. My second point is that we all come here with different experiences. I have heard many glowing references to the work of the Boundary Commission and the inquiries and hearings that it had. As far as I am concerned, it is a damned waste of time. It never took a blind bit of notice of anything that was said. Even when, as was always the case in Dudley, the Conservative MP for Dudley West and I as the Labour MP for Dudley East made identical recommendations, these people again took no notice of them whatever. Unsurprisingly, the extremely distinguished Conservative Member for Dudley West wanted all the Conservative voters and I wanted the Labour voters; it seemed to be an extraordinarily simple arrangement that could easily have been accommodated, but the commission never paid any attention to what we had to say.
Thirdly, on a slightly more serious point, I make no imputation—if I have the Minister’s attention; how kind of him—that the Government are trying to derive party advantage from these proposals. I have disagreed with some of the proposals before in the Bill, but these are the only ones that I find profoundly dangerous. I really hope that the Minister will go away and look at them. The idea that you pick everything up by the roots and look at it every five years, and the consequences—I forget which of my noble friends said this—for both parties, where people would be squabbling for selection at the next election and the election after that, would be very serious. I hope very much that the Government will think again.
My Lords, I feel more than usually inadequate to speak in this particular debate, as I think I am the only speaker—it does not matter whether it is the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who responds—who, much to my regret, has never been a Member of the other place. Much of this interesting and helpful debate has been about the role of Members of the other place. Still, let me do my best.
In our amendment the other day—I cannot blame noble Lords if they have not exactly remembered every single phrase of it—we suggested from the Front Bench that the periodic boundary review should occur no later than every six years. We recognise the concerns that the current rules under which the Boundary Commission carries out its work—namely, eight to 12 years—is perhaps too long. Many argue that the extent to which boundaries have become out of date in the intervening time between the commission reporting and new boundaries applying following a general election is unsatisfactory, and we are tempted to support action to address that. The British Academy report on the Bill has concluded that,
“population movements are considerable over relatively short periods of time”.
We acknowledge that that may even happen within a five-year period. However, there has to be a balance, at the very least, between that consideration and the workability of the task that this Bill in particular is asking of the Boundary Commission. That is how we came up with the figure of not more than six years.
The arguments employed during this debate give us some cause for reflection about whether “not more than six years” is necessarily the right length of time. The powerful arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and others about the role of Members of Parliament raise significant and real points. I was intrigued by the answer of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, to the points that were made. I particularly enjoyed—I say this with the greatest affection—how he talked about boundary changes in his old constituency where, on the borders, there were Liberal, Labour and Conservative seats. I could not help thinking that he had managed to be a member of more than half of those parties, although I would never accuse him of being a Conservative.
More seriously, to have a review every seven years leaves it just a bit too long. The same applies to the other amendment in this group, which suggests eight years rather than seven. We would like—if this is possible for the Opposition—to go back and consider whether our point about six years strikes the right balance. On the Front Bench we have been rather attracted by the arguments that have been employed about how, unless the electorate decide differently, it is important that there is a certain stability for Members of Parliament, if only to encourage people from all walks of life to go for that honour.
My Lords, these amendments would increase the frequency of reports by the Boundary Commission from the Bill’s proposed every five years to, in the case of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, every seven years and, in the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, every eight years. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, had to say. He was in distinguished company, because the amendment was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who was not a Member of Parliament either. I am sure that that was the loss of the House of Commons.
It was still the loss of the House of Commons. On the question of six years, five years would, if we are moving to fixed-term Parliaments, allow for regular periodic review. To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, while the convenience of political parties should not, by any stretch of the imagination, be our overriding concern, political parties do oil the wheels of democracy. What we propose will allow a period of some 18 months, recurring over the fixed term of five years, for local parties to adjust. The Government’s approach has been a simple one: to ensure that constituency boundaries are as up to date as possible.
To respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, the Cabinet Office has guidelines on undertaking any kind of consultation, be it legislative or otherwise. They recommend 12 weeks, but that is guidance; it is not binding. It is well known that the provisions of the Bill are set out in the coalition agreement. Any incoming Government, by the very nature of being an incoming Government, are bound to bring forward legislation in their early days that they have not had the opportunity to consult on beforehand. The Government have made it clear that this legislation should make progress, which is why it was introduced early in the Session. The timetable has meant that that did not allow for pre-legislative scrutiny. However, in the previous Parliament the then Government added whole new parts to the CRAG Bill, including AV referendum clauses, without any prior public consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, may have complained about that, too; he has a certain consistency. This was indicated in the partnership agreement. It is also fair to point out that before today, the House—at Second Reading and in Committee—had debated and scrutinised the Bill for some forty-seven and a half hours. We cannot be far short of forty-nine and a half hours now. I am sure that there are many more hours of scrutiny to come.
These guidelines are not binding. I am indicating that any Government who come into office immediately after a general election with flagship legislation will, almost by definition, not have had the pre-legislative scrutiny that would otherwise attend legislation. I do not think that it is unreasonable for a Government taking office to pursue their flagship legislation. Why do we propose reviews every five years?
It was quite proper that, having indicated a coalition commitment to introducing this legislation and having laid down certain times, the Government should make speedy progress to introduce the Bill. I also believe that it has had more than 40 hours’ consideration in the other place. It has now had approximately forty-nine and a half hours’ consideration in this place with, no doubt, many more hours to come.
The reason why the Government propose reviews every five years is that at present—I think that this has been acknowledged—a review takes place every eight to 12 years. We believe that that leads to boundaries becoming out of date and infrequently refreshed. For example, the movement of electors means that boundaries can get out of date quickly. In 2006, some 59 constituencies were more than 10 per cent larger or smaller than the quota used for the previous review. Three years later, by 2009, the number of constituencies outside that 10 per cent range had almost doubled simply due to the movement of electors. These variations in size make votes unequal. The figures demonstrate how long periods between boundary reviews can exacerbate that imbalance and unfairness.
The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, graphically illustrated the life and commitment of Members of Parliament and his comments were echoed by many other noble Lords who have been Members of the other place. However, it is fair to say, as my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart indicated, that the underlying purpose of this Bill is primarily to serve the electors, not the elected. By a similar token, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that there was no consultation with local government on the use that it made of current parliamentary boundaries. However, I do not think that it is beyond the wit of local authorities to find other boundaries within which to deliver administrative services. The important point is that we look to ensure that the Bill is in the interests of electors and represents one vote, one value.
I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said. His comments on the utility of boundary reviews displayed a refreshing candour. However, I could not agree with his comment about pulling up the roots every five years. The rules that the Bill sets down for the Boundary Commission state at paragraph 5(1)(d) of Schedule 2 on page 10:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit … the inconvenience attendant on such changes”.
That is disapplied for the first review, which is to take place and report by October 2013, because by its very nature—I think that this has been recognised—when one loses 50 seats the upheaval is bound to be greater. But thereafter the Boundary Commission is able to take into account,
“to such extent as they think fit … the inconvenience attendant on such changes”.
My noble friend made a pertinent point when he indicated that the more frequent and regular the review, the less likely it is that there will be any huge change in constituency size. The figures that I cited show that the longer the interval between reviews, the more the figures diverge, which inevitably leads to greater upheaval when the review actually takes place. Indeed, in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Professors Butler and McLean indicated back in 2006 that it was possible to have more frequent reviews without significantly impairing their equity.
As far as I know, in 2006 no one had conceived this extraordinary idea that every time you have a review you have to make sure that all the constituency numbers are within 5 per cent of each other. It is surely the addition of that new rule to the five-year boundary review that will cause the inevitable disruption.
I cannot accept that. If you were to have a longer period, that would lead to greater disruption, but you have to take into account the five-year period and the fact that in reviews after the first one the Boundary Commission has the discretion to take into account any inconveniences attendant on the change, even allowing for the 5 per cent variation. Therefore, I do not believe that it leads to the same degree of upheaval.
I cannot accept the premise that the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Martin, mentioned that this is somehow a recipe for one-term Members of Parliament. I do not think that that stands up.
Even if the Minister is right that five-yearly reviews will not necessarily lead to the major redrawing of boundaries in every case, how can it be good for Parliament if Members of Parliament are continuously distracted by these reviews and feel that they are existing on shifting sands? I do not think that that will help them to do their job better.
The contributions that we have heard from a number of former Members of Parliament indicate that, notwithstanding what was happening, they continued to apply themselves with considerable and utmost diligence to the task in hand representing the constituents who elected them in the constituency for which they were elected at the previous election. As my noble friend Lord Maclennan said, his constituency was increased by some 25 per cent and he accommodated that. I recall the effort that he made to address the needs of those new constituents. Even under the present system, new boundaries are drawn and come into effect at a general election. Anyone who wishes to see their current MP can readily find out who he or she is if they do not know, and indeed they do so. At an election they will know who the candidates are and will choose how to cast their votes. The two matters are separate for electors. As I indicated, the important principle here is fairness to electors. On that basis, I encourage the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, referred to the length of time that has been devoted to scrutinising the Bill. However, the quality of scrutiny does not depend primarily on the amount of time that it takes but on the willingness of the Government to listen and respond to the arguments that are put to them and, where necessary, to facilitate discussions designed to narrow differences between Members of all parties and none, so that, wherever possible—I accept that in many cases this will not be possible—differences are resolved and the Bill that goes forward is improved. Therefore, I do not suggest that the quality of scrutiny depends primarily on the amount of time involved.
I totally agree with that point, particularly in relation to a constitutional Bill that, for the reasons given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace—we may or may not accept those reasons—did not receive proper scrutiny before it came into this House or proper analysis by Select Committees and Joint Committees such as a Bill should have.
That brings me directly to the central point that I want to make. The real issue is that five-yearly reviews, although they have advantages, as they constitute a more recent reflection of the electorate, will lead to mighty upheavals. That is a matter of fact. As we do not have the opinion of Joint Committees or Select Committees on this issue, we have to go outside. I have in front of me the excellent report produced by the British Academy, which has been often cited in this debate, as it provides facts on this subject. It states:
“With a quota of just under 70,000, more than one-third of constituencies would almost immediately have been outside any +/-5% constraint”.
That is, as soon as the constituencies were in place, they were immediately, as soon as the new numbers came along, outside the constraint. The report goes on to say that,
“by the time the first election was held using the constituencies … as many as one-half may have been”,
outside the constraint. That refers just to those directly outside the constraint. It does not deal with all the other constituencies that, where you make the appropriate changes, are also outside the constraint.
Therefore, the facts as we know them suggest that there will be a considerable upheaval. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and his officials can produce evidence that this is a greatly exaggerated case, fine—we will accept it. If it does not cause all the difficulties that I suggested, I would be delighted. However, on the facts as we know them, it looks as if the combination—it is the combination that is toxic—of 5 per cent tolerance and five-yearly reviews is a recipe for permanent revolution. I therefore invite the Minister, who has been most patient and considerate in his approach to the Bill, to try to establish the facts before we get to Report stage and to give them to all Members of the House, who can then make a considered judgment as to whether this element of the Bill should remain as it is. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 57 withdrawn.
Amendment 58 not moved.
58ZZZA: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end insert—
“(c) if there is a system of fixed-term Parliaments but a General Election is to be held other than on a 5 year cycle beginning with May 2015, then the Boundary Commission shall submit a report under subsection (1) no later than 18 months before the due date of each General Election.”
My Lords, this amendment connects in quite closely with previous debates but also raises a new point. It basically deals with the relationship between this legislation and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which is making its stately progress through the other place and will, I hope, arrive here by the end of this month. We will be having a debate on it. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, gave us an indication of how the Government envisage the relationship between the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and this Bill. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill envisages five-year Parliaments and five-yearly looks at the constituency boundaries by the Boundary Commissions. He says he envisages that there will be roughly an 18-month gap between the date on which the Boundary Commissions report and the date that the subsequent general election takes place. Those 18 months are presumably a period in which, where there are changes to the constituency boundaries, the constituency parties can select new Members of Parliament, people can get to know their constituencies and there can be a canvass in relation to it.
There is one factual issue in relation to this and one principle issue in relation to law. I raise first the factual issue which my noble friend Lord Lipsey touched on. He asked how many changes there would be every five years and made the point that if the numbers remain critical and it is only a 5 per cent variation, it is possible to envisage the boundaries of many constituencies changing. I quote from a document called The Ten Per Cent Solution which is by a man called Mr Lewis Baston and dated 20 January 2011. He says the following: “The government’s Bill”, which is a reference to this Bill,
“proposes that the boundaries will change every election, which disrupts the relationship between MP and constituency and will no doubt lead to confusion. Because the 5 per cent limit is so tight, many constituencies that were the right size in one boundary review will be too big or too small by the next. This will happen because of growth and decline in population. It will also happen because of variations in electoral registration from year to year, which are likely to be larger under the forthcoming Individual Electoral Registration system. It is quite possible that radical changes in boundaries will be made for no better reason than fluctuating registers, which as we know have become much less stable, complete and accurate”.
So this report from Democratic Audit says that the effect will be quite significant; it uses the phrase “many constituencies”. I do not know what work the Government have done on this but it is important to know their estimate of the effect of the five-yearly review—not the first review but the five-yearly review.
I say in parenthesis that I may have misunderstood what the noble and learned Lord said. He appeared to be saying that disruption in relation to what happens could be taken into account at subsequent reviews but not at the first review. My reading of proposed new Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act is that it would apply in relation to subsequent reviews as to first reviews. But I could be wrong about that, and if I am I hope that the noble and learned Lord will correct me. The proposed new schedule is headed “Rules for distribution of seats”, and rule 2—at paragraph 2—states:
“The electorate of any constituency shall be … no less than 95% of the … quota, and … no more than 105% of that quota”.
So there is a 5 per cent variation. That applies to a subsequent review and not just to the first one. I am not going to hold the noble and learned Lord to his nods but I note that he is nodding at the moment.
Under the heading “Factors”, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, rule 5(1)(d) states:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit … the inconveniences attendant on such changes”.
The noble and learned Lord drew our attention to that rule. Rule 5(3) then states:
“This rule has effect subject to rules 2 and 4”.
I read that as meaning that if you deviate in a subsequent review—not just the first one—from the 5 per cent tolerance allowed by rule 2, that will override the Boundary Commission’s entitlement to take into account the inconveniences attendant on such changes. The position is therefore that, regardless of whether it is in the original review or subsequent reviews, if there is a deviation of more than the 5 per cent allowed for under rule 2, the position on attendant changes will be swept aside. I may have misunderstood what the noble and learned Lord said, but he seemed to be saying that the inconveniences attendant on such changes could override fluctuations. I do not think that they can do so under the Bill as drafted.
So, exactly as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, if there is any fluctuation over and above the 5 per cent, you will have to change the constituency boundaries. That can happen from a fluctuating register as much as from population changes. The independent work of Mr Baston suggests that that will affect “many constituencies”, although I do not know how many.
We now get into the subject of the relationship between the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and this Bill. Noble Lords will remember that our own Constitution Committee said that the Government had not properly thought out the relationship between the two. What happens if, in accordance with Clause 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, a general election is called outwith the five years—because, for example, there is a two-thirds vote—or if, as that Bill envisages, there is a vote of no confidence in the Government and no subsequent Government can be formed after 14 days? Let us suppose that that occurred in October 2013, which is the date at which the boundary review will be completed. A boundary review will be completed and immediately thereafter there would be a general election—and ever after, until there was another breach of the five-year rule, you would be having the review and the general election happening almost on the same date.
We tabled this probing amendment because we want to know what thought the Government have given to the issue. The amendment proposes that if a general election takes place outwith the five-year period—for example, it occurs at or about the time of the review being completed—then there should be a recalibration and you should state the period in which the review will occur so that it is produced no later than 18 months before the next projected date of a general election. Under the Bill as drafted, an election could be held out of sync and then the review would occur right on top of a general election without the 18-month gap which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has rightly acknowledged is necessary to give new prospective parliamentary candidates the opportunity to find their seat and settle down there.
I have two fundamental questions. First, what work have the Government done on calculating how many constituencies might change hands? Obviously the noble and learned Lord cannot answer that with certainty but the Government must have done some work on it. What is the estimate? Secondly, am I right in my construction of the rule, which appears to be inconsistent with the noble and learned Lord's interpretation of the Bill? Thirdly, I invite the Government, if they are serious about the recurring 18 months, to table an amendment to the Bill to allow for a recalibration if there is an election outside whatever the fixed term is under the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I beg to move.
I rise briefly to support my noble and learned friend. His amendment calls attention to something that is implicit in the whole structure of the Bill. It is simply too rigid to be fit for purpose. There is the rigid 5 per cent tolerance, with only two exceptions. However, the real problem is the rigid five-year review timetable. If something gets knocked out of place in this timetable, the whole thing does not work and, as the noble and learned Lord said, one will get boundary reviews with no time for new candidates to be selected for seats. This is not a matter that should be difficult to rectify, and nor should there be much controversy about rectifying it. One simply has to allow the existing Government, when the situation arises, to relax the five-year rule. There is no problem in doing that if the will is there. If it is not, the Government will find that a great many people are cursing, because if there is an early election, as the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will allow, the whole overrigid structure of the Bill will crumble.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for tabling this amendment. At the outset, I will clarify that I agree with his interpretation of the rules. Perhaps I may put in the caveat that the rule with regard to taking into account inconvenience does not apply to the first review in 2013, but would apply thereafter. I thought that I had indicated that it was subject to the 5 per cent rule when I responded to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. That is indeed the case. I was responding initially to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who talked about uprooting the whole system every time and starting again, which is not consistent with the discretion given to the Boundary Commission.
As the noble and learned Lord—echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—indicated, the intention is that there should be fixed-term Parliaments of five years with boundary reviews in sync. The intention of the amendment is to retain the relationship between the cycle of general elections and the boundary review reporting timetable if the cycle of fixed-term Parliaments shifted away from the pattern starting in May 2015. That would happen if the terms of the fixed-term Parliament were changed to something other than five years. I thought that that may have been the point of the noble and learned Lord’s amendment, but he made it clear that that is not the case. However, he indicated the possibility that there could be an extraordinary general election. We do not believe that it is possible to provide for every reason why an election might not occur at the exact five-year interval. Instead of such complexity, the Bill seeks to address the matter in a way that would not necessarily waste resources. At the same time, future Parliaments would be able to consider how best to address the issue of the reviews getting seriously out of sync. The commission's annual progress reports that are required by the Bill will increase Parliament's knowledge of each review and assist it in deciding how to act.
As the Bill stands, there would still be a broad alignment of boundary review and general election cycles. I will give an example. If the boundary review reporting cycles were realigned to be exactly 18 months before any general election, it is possible that the Boundary Commission would be forced to abandon a review midway and start again from scratch. For example, if there was an extraordinary general election in 2018, before the 2018 report was due out, the Boundary Commission would have been reviewing boundaries for three years on the basis of electorate figures for 2015, and that work would have to be scrapped and a new review cycle started on the basis of 2018 electorate figures. This would be a waste of resources.
I accept the constructive intent of the noble and learned Lord's amendment. It is not necessary, but I am willing to reflect on whether we have done the best we can to maintain sync. However, if issues became such that there was a serious mismatch, it would be open to a future Parliament to redress that. The amendment does not achieve the outcome it intends and could lead to an unnecessary waste of resources. With these comments, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will withdraw it.
That was a helpful response. First, I thank the noble and learned Lord for confirming that my view of what the Bill meant was correct, which is obviously important. Secondly, he is in effect acknowledging that if there is a general election outside the fixed term—I say in parenthesis that if the fixed term were changed in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill as it goes through this House, it might affect the cycle, but that would require an amendment to this Bill—the intention is that there should be an 18-month gap, and that may have to be dealt with by primary legislation after the general election. It is that eventuality that my amendment seeks to avoid. It is an unsatisfactory situation that every time there is a general election outside the cycle—none of us in the Chamber knows how regularly there will be general elections outside the cycle, and if one looks at history one can envisage circumstances where one has an early general election, for example because a coalition falls apart, and then there is an indecisive result and one ends up with considerable uncertainty—and one needs a boundary review, one has to wait for primary legislation, and the party that gets into power after a closely fought election is in the driving seat in relation to when the review takes place.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for saying that he will consider this. I, too, will consider it, and perhaps we could meet to think of a way in which some degree of certainty can be assured, because this is an important issue. I would also be grateful if the noble and learned Lord would write to me with the Government's estimate of the number of seats that might change their boundaries in the first of the five-yearly reviews, as opposed to the one that they envisage ending in October 2013. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lipsey that the facts are critical. On the basis of the helpful response of the noble and learned Lord, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 58ZZZA withdrawn.
58ZZZB: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) No Boundary Commission shall begin work on a report to be submitted under subsection (1) above until both Houses of Parliament have approved a separate report issued by the Secretary of State confirming that particular action has been taken to maximise the proportion of 17 to 24 year olds who are on the electoral register.”
My Lords, this will be the first of several related discussions. We had a more substantive discussion on Monday about the challenges that having 3.5 million of our fellow citizens not registered to vote poses both for the Bill and for all of us. Today we will discuss some of the problems of individual groups of the population who are overrepresented in that 3.5 million.
I have spent a large part of my life working with young people. I have been a youth club leader and many years ago I worked in a young people's locked custodial establishment, which was known then as a remand home. I have worked in children's homes and, more recently, before I joined the then Government, I worked with and became a trustee of Action for Children. Dealing with many troubled and disadvantaged youngsters convinces me that the amendment is very important.
I also have a local interest as a citizen of Bradford. The Bradford metropolitan district population is set to grow by 27 per cent over the next 20 years, and 25 per cent of that growth will be among young people. At the moment, the Electoral Commission tells us that the electoral roll is inaccurate by a margin of 10 per cent, so if 10 per cent of people are not registered to vote, we have a huge challenge.
Everyone agrees that we want young people to participate in public life and to take the responsibility that goes with being a citizen in our democracy. I suppose that, like any parent, I felt proud—although I may not have enjoyed the experience much—when my children disagreed and argued with me about politics. However, I thought that it was very important when, for example, they went off to demonstrate against the war in Iraq. They feel passionate about many matters, even having given up their annual leave to go and work full time against the British National Party in Barking during the last general election. Nevertheless, we know that for the poor children of politicians, their parents are both an advantage and a disadvantage, so it is a mixed blessing. However, the issue here is not our children but the more than 50 per cent of young people who are not registered to vote. This is a matter of great concern for the future of our democracy.
I am sure we all agree that we want our children and young people to argue and to care passionately about things. We want them to vote and to think that voting in elections matters. I think that we desperately want them not to be cynical about politics and politicians. We also know of the chaos in which some youngsters live their lives. Even for children from more affluent families, voter registration may not be the first thing that they think about during their freshers week, for example, having gone off to university and as they settle in with all the new experiences of living independently for the first time. If they are looked-after children or unemployed, or if they are living on a very low income or no income, or if they are young parents, they are going to be very preoccupied just with the problems of daily survival. They may move many times until they have a settled life. We know, for example, that young people will be particularly hard hit by the changes to local housing allowances, as single people under 35 will be entitled to only the shared-room rate, which, even when calculated at the median, has been found to be too low for a decent-quality tenancy in many areas. The problem of a lack of available accommodation for young people has been acknowledged by this Government, as it was by our Government, and it all adds to a lack of stability and a problem with young-voter registration.
Coming from Bradford, I know that because we have a young population, a university, a very large black and ethnic-minority community and some very poor communities, it is a challenge to get our register even up to 90 per cent, which means that it is still 10 per cent out of date. I am not a mathematician but I think that the Government’s proposals will mean that we in Bradford will lose a parliamentary seat because our register will be inaccurate.
There are also some hopeful signs concerning young-voter registration. There was a last-minute rush of people who wanted to register to vote at the last general election. The fact that people could register right up to the Tuesday before polling day was very important, and the Electoral Commission reported a spike in the downloading of voter registration forms after the televised debates. Indeed, the commission had a tie-up with Facebook. Democracy UK was set up jointly between the Electoral Commission and Facebook, which encouraged many young people to register. The commission teamed up with the social networking site with a link to the About My Vote website. About 14,000 registration forms were downloaded by Facebook users, and just over 40 per cent of people visiting the About My Vote website—which amounted to hundreds of thousands of hits—were young people aged between 18 and 25. I know that the National Union of Students worked very hard to get students registered and voting at the election. The Electoral Commission has said that, because many people do not become interested in a general election until the election is called, this has given a major boost to the number of people being registered. I think that that must be so and I suspect that young people form quite a large part of that cohort.
On Monday we discussed door-to-door canvassing, which helps to build an accurate register and bring it up to date. However, we have to be even more imaginative if we are to get young people on to the register and keep them there. I am concerned about that and I ask the Minister whether he thinks that individual voter registration will help or hinder with the specific issue of young-voter registration.
The amendment seeks to ensure that the Electoral Commission not only spreads best practice on voter registration to all local authorities but uses young-voter registration as one way of measuring the success of local registration campaigns. That would be the effect of the amendment. It seems clear to me that, if a local authority has succeeded in getting many of its young residents on to the electoral roll, it will almost certainly have succeeded more generally in getting voters to register. Perhaps the Minister agrees with me. If so, I urge him to recognise the importance of this issue and to accept the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, not surprisingly, I support the amendment, which also stands in my name. I have a particular interest in young people voting. It is true that it comes somewhat second to my interest in women voting; nevertheless, for me it is a high priority, as the Committee will know from my, sadly, unsuccessful move to allow 16 year-olds to vote in the referendum next year. How we vote depends, of course, partly on the system, which is what the referendum will decide in due course. However, it is also a matter of when and where we vote, and of the interest that the authorities, parliamentarians and returning officers take in our votes.
As to the timing of elections, I have another interest—to allow voting at weekends and in town halls or in libraries or anywhere else and not just at one polling station. I think that that should be possible with electronic records. However, that matter is not in front of us today. Here, we are concerned about a new generation of voters—either those who first qualify to vote in the 2015 general election, or those who perhaps could have voted in 2010 but for a range of reasons did not do so. Part of the reason for that lack of voting was down to political parties: the choices that they offered, the language they used or their style of campaigning. None of those matters is in front of us today but some of them concerned the low level of registration of new, and particularly young, voters.
Part of the problem has been that there is no single body or person who has both responsibility for getting people registered and something of a vested interest in doing so. Of course, the parties want voters to register—or, if we are being really honest, they want their potential supporters to register. However, the responsibility lies with local authorities, for which there is no benefit from a high success rate in their area. Therefore, we need some carrot if no stick is to hand to ensure that someone with the responsibility for registration also has the incentive to flush out new voters and get them on to the list.
It seems to me that the new system of defining constituencies, which will be almost completely number-driven compared with our historical, more flexible approach, offers an opportunity for a fresh approach to voter registration, and I urge the Committee to seize it. We should write into the Bill that the Secretary of State will have to be satisfied that local authorities really have sought out their youthful populations and got them on to the register before the Boundary Commission starts on what will be a very demanding task. That will make it easier for the commission, as it can then be satisfied that it is not forced to ignore residents simply because they have not been registered. However, I believe it will also show the next generation of voters that the Government are serious about wanting to involve them in the democratic process and are taking steps to ensure that their voices and needs are not excluded from the arithmetic of boundary lines. I believe that such a move is needed. If we cannot use notional votes as the basis for drawing boundaries, we must find and register new voters so that they are included.
Presumably a large part of the purpose of parliamentary reform is to refresh our parliamentary democracy, re-animate it, and re-engage the citizens of this country with it. My noble friend Lady Thornton’s amendment is particularly helpful because it addresses a problem that we all recognise to be real and disturbing, which is the poor propensity of people in the 18 to 24 year-old age group to vote. There is some evidence that the attitudes that people bring to their first opportunity to vote as young adults tend to persist through life. We must all agree that it is extremely important that we make a determined effort to ensure that there is a much fuller participation of young people in our parliamentary democracy and that they take up their right to vote.
My noble friend has tabled a helpful amendment in enjoining a particular duty on the Secretary of State. We had some discussion on Monday about our fear that local authorities, because of the reductions in their funding, will be unable to pursue electoral registration as vigorously as they should. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made a powerful speech on that problem. If local authority funding is to be cut by some 28 per cent over the next four years, it must follow that any activity that is not statutorily required of local authorities will be in jeopardy. My noble friend’s amendment would insist that at least the Secretary of State was able to certify that every effort is made to bring 17 to 24 year-olds on to the register. That points in a direction that implies that the Secretary of State himself must take steps to ensure that the registration process is carried on vigorously, effectively and thoroughly.
It would be helpful if the noble and learned Lord would say something about the Government’s view on the practical prospects for improving the proportion of registration in all age groups, but particularly in this one, the behaviour of which will be so crucial to the future of our democracy. We can change the voting system and constituency boundaries, but if we fail to re-engage people to vote, those reforms are little better than a sham.
I do not think that there is much dispute about either the facts or the outcome sought. In March 2010, the Electoral Commission produced a report entitled The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain. In a sample of areas that it examined in detail, 56 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds were missing from the electoral register. In the 2005 general election, 37 per cent only of those between 18 and 24 voted, so there is a more than 50 per cent underregistration, and only just over a third of that age vote.
We have heard repeatedly in the debate and outside that if young people are not registered and do not vote, they set a trend in their lives that distances them from democracy. I do not think that anyone in the House disagrees with any of those propositions. We on the Front Bench of the Labour Party support the amendment because we have heard nothing from the Government about what they propose to do about it. If they had some proposal that could assist, we would be interested to hear it, but this proposal, made by my noble friend Lady Thornton and supported by my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, builds into the system the requirement for work to be done on the issue, which is something that the noble and learned Lord himself has said in previous debates that he wants to do. He should tell us what the Government will do about what they have already agreed is a problem. If it is not as good as this amendment, maybe this is the way forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Hayter, for the amendment, which, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has indicated, commands support and consent across the House because of the sentiments and the importance of registering young people. However, the Boundary Commission would not be able to set about its review until a separate report, issued by the Secretary of State, confirmed that particular action had been taken to maximise the proportion of 17 to 24 year-olds on the electoral register, and that that had been approved by both Houses of Parliament.
I do not dispute that it is important for the electoral register to be as accurate and complete as possible. That is one reason why we are accelerating progress towards individual registration and introducing measures such as data-matching schemes to help local authorities gain as complete a picture as possible of eligible voters in their area, and particularly underregistered groups. The figures in the Electoral Commission’s report last March showed that the registration rate in the United Kingdom was more than 90 per cent, which compares well with other countries. While we, and everyone in your Lordships’ House, wish to see as complete and accurate a register as possible, boundaries have since the 1940s been based on the electoral register. To delay indefinitely any review of boundaries that are already 10 years out of date would not only be disproportionate, bearing in mind the overall picture of registration, but would make votes even more unequal than they already are.
It was important and instructive for the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to talk about the surge in young voter registration in the previous general election campaign. As a result, those young people are now on the electoral register. They are likely to be on the register as at 1 December last year, which will be the basis of the Boundary Commission’s review for the report in 2013. It would be ironic if, as a result of carrying this amendment and with no possibility of the next general election being fought on new boundaries, we were still working from data from 2000 in England and that those who had registered as a result of the impetus in the previous general election were not taken into account. There is a distinction between the data for the review date and the important issue of trying to encourage registration, which has merit in its own right.
The Government are committed to taking steps to improve electoral registration as part of the move towards individual electoral registration. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, asked what the Government were doing. I thought that I had set that out in detail on Monday, and was encouraged by the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, said that she had been encouraged by what I had indicated. The Government will be trialling data matching later this year when the electoral register will be compared with other public databases to find people missing from the register, to see how effective it is in boosting the completeness of it. Based on the results of the trials, we will decide whether to roll it out more widely. The pilots will also tell us how effective the data matching is in improving registration among specific underregistered groups, such as young voters.
Among that information will be data from the Student Loans Company. Indeed, on Monday, the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, asked me whether data on school pupils could be used. I have now checked and can confirm that the Department for Education’s national pupil database is one of the data sets that we are considering for these schemes. I cannot say what the position is for information held by the Scottish Government, but I hope that they would be as willing to co-operate if there was a pilot in Scotland. We are working with local authorities to see whether they can make use of their own data on school pupils.
If my memory serves me correctly, when I responded to the noble Lord on Monday I mentioned the concern about the Data Protection Act. I have checked, and we will do a further check in the light of that point, but the information that I have had since we had that exchange on Monday is that the Department for Education’s national pupil database would be one of the data sets that we would consider.
I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who asked what we are doing, that a series of events will be planned over the next few months as part of the introduction of individual registration, when we will consider with stakeholders what further steps can be taken to engage with groups who are underrepresented on the electoral register. However, we must proceed with a boundary review to ensure that boundaries, in England in particular, are not 15 years out of date at the next general election, thereby missing out those who have registered in the past 12 months, because that would exacerbate the inequality. To achieve that, with due time for the commission to consult widely, we must allow it to get on with its task now. That in no way diminishes the importance of registration, and I hope that I have indicated to the satisfaction of Members across the House what we are trying to do to establish that.
Is there not a big society point here? I genuinely think that the best people to get young people registered are young people—not local government officials, not Members of Parliament. Local authorities will be strapped for resources anyway; we understand the reason for that. Is there not a case for requiring local authorities, because they are in charge of the register, to pull together a group of young people charged with seeing that other young people get on the register? Out there, with homelessness and unemployment, the best evidence is that young people who are trained as mentors are much better at mentoring young people on a range of issues. It is a big society point; I freely admit that. Thinking about it and listening to the debate, I think that we must make more use of young people themselves and not do it top-down. That is just a thought.
I have no hesitation in welcoming such a proposal. It does not run counter to the other data matching that we are proposing or the roadshows on individual registration. I am sure that the very constructive suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be taken into account.
My noble friend Lord Rooker makes an excellent point. Will the Minister be kind enough to tell the House what view the Government take as to the likelihood of sufficient resources being available to electoral registration officers in local authorities?
I ask the noble and learned Lord to clarify the point that he has made several times already. Is he really saying that the injustice that he sees in people already on the electoral register being misallocated to a constituency—about which, as we have heard, there is considerable controversy—outweighs the injustice of proceeding to this wholesale boundary revision that will exclude 3.5 million people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the register? Does he really think that one outweighs the other?
I am saying that I think it is more unjust to have the 2015 general election fought on the basis of data that were collected in 2000, not data that were collected in 2010. That would be the injustice. There are the people, to whom the noble Baroness referred, who signed up to the register during the last general election campaign. If we go into the next election on the basis of constituencies in which the electoral registration data for the year 2000 apply, we will miss out those people. There is also the completely different but related issue of trying to improve electoral registration, which we are very much committed to.
I thank the Minister for that, but it seems that he is completely happy to go ahead with the boundary-redrawing knowing that 3.5 million people are not on the register and that a large number of those will be young people. I think that is a shame. Actually, I think it is a disgrace. I do not want to delay indefinitely—
The point that I was going on to make was that the Government need to get their finger out and get the registers up to date before they get on with the boundary-redrawing. That is what they need to do. I am not saying that we should not move ahead with this, but I cannot believe that the Minister can possibly be satisfied. There were indeed some extra voters on the register as a result of those measures—which, as I said, were positive—but even the Electoral Commission says that the electoral register is hopelessly out of date. Possibly millions are young voters, and I think it is very unsatisfactory that the Government think it is okay to proceed in that situation. I thank my noble friends Lady Hayter and Lord Howarth and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for their support.
This House has a great tradition of supporting young people. We have spent many months together over the years discussing how to improve the lot of disadvantaged young people in particular. We have protected their interests; we have promoted their interests. The amendment is about that. It is very unsatisfactory that the Government are not prepared to promote and protect the interests of those young people. Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
58ZZZC: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) No Boundary Commission shall begin work on a report to be submitted under subsection (1) above until both Houses of Parliament have approved a separate report issued by the Secretary of State confirming that particular action has been taken to maximise the proportion of private sector tenants who are on the electoral register.”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 58ZZZC on behalf of my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth. This amendment seeks action from the Government on another group of people who are overrepresented in the 3.5 million missing voters on the electoral register. We have heard about the Electoral Commission’s report of March 2010 on the completeness and accuracy of electoral registration in Great Britain. We heard of the decline in the completeness of the register and we know that geographical variations have widened since the 1990s. While a majority of registers are 90 per cent plus complete, the report indicates that a growing minority of local registers are likely to be less than 85 per cent complete. We know that there are concentrations on specific social groups who are underrepresented. We have just had a debate about one group in particular—young people.
In respect of socio-demographic factors, the report states:
“However, the evidence does indicate that the interaction between social disadvantage and housing tenure may have a significant influence on the geography of under-registration. Taken as a whole, tenants in the private rented sector are significantly more likely to be absent from the electoral register than owner-occupiers or those in social housing. This pattern arises from the greater turnover of households in the private rental sector compared to other tenures as well as the associated concentrations of specific social groups in private rental accommodation, notably young people and students, and some BME groups”.
In looking at a range of case studies, the report determined that for those cases something like 49 per cent of private sector tenants were not registered. If my noble friend Lord Knight were presenting this amendment, he would recount his experiences in his previous constituency and the Melcombe Regis and Park district of Weymouth, and tell how difficult it is to make contact with people. I am sure that many noble Lords who have served or have sought to serve in the other place, or have supported people in their endeavour to do so, know how difficult it is to canvass and reach people in some parts of some constituencies.
We know that there is scope for improvements in the electoral administration—indeed, we heard from a Minister in reply to the previous amendment and doubtless he will repeat that—around data matching and possibly around the timing of the canvass. There is a crucial issue, which was touched on by my noble friend Lord Rooker, about local authority by spending and the need to have proper resources for electoral administration at a time when local authorities are facing significant cuts in their expenditure.
The decline in completeness is uneven and it is unfair on areas of high levels of private rented accommodation, whether it be students, inner cities or coastal towns. My noble friend’s notes point out that he has done a bit of arithmetic. If one looks at Scotland, overall the registers are 92 per cent complete, but for Glasgow they are 67.8 per cent complete. If one is looking for some sort of equality across constituencies, you would have to gross up that Glasgow number to get something like 103,000 people for a comparable constituency based on the register as it is.
The issues around the private rented sector are going to get worse. We know that if you look at recent years, the number of households accommodated in the private rented sector has increased significantly. I think that the number is in excess of 1 million, which is because of the growing number of households and because the provision of social housing, in particular, has not kept pace with it.
We know that people in private rented accommodation have less security of tenure. They are more likely to move and when people move we know that they are more likely to drop off the register. We know that sometimes people avoid registration in order to avoid detection—possibly when they have accumulated debts—which is more likely to have an impact on poor people who are the sort of people who would live in private rented accommodation. Figure 12 of the commission’s report looks at the correlation between non-registration and repossessions of houses, which bears out that issue.
On looking at the impact of, say, universities on registration, it may be that what the coalition Government have done on tuition fees has encouraged and will encourage many more students to go out not only to register but to cast their vote in elections, so there may be some redress in that respect.
This position will get worse, particularly because of the housing benefit measures that are coming down the track from this Government. Estimates of the housing benefit changes suggest that there will be something like 1 million people worse off by £12 a week, which will be an increase in indebtedness. We know that there will be displacement of people, certainly from London into lower-cost areas. Again, there will be significant movement. We know that there will be significant migration to cheaper out-of-London accommodation.
Noble Lords do not have to take my word for it. The Work and Pensions Select Committee of another place made that clear. It said that “while the department”, the DWP,
“acknowledges that some households may have to move, evidence suggests that these numbers may be much greater than the Government expects. We have also heard of the difficulty of identifying households who may have to move and that people on Housing Benefit tend to move home less often than low-income working households and often over-stretch themselves financially in order to stay within their community network where possible. The Government should monitor the extent of enforced moves and resulting hardship and increase Discretionary Housing Payments if necessary”.
Of course, it has not done that to any great extent.
If noble Lords look at the position of the private rented sector, we know that the occupation and types of groups which occupy private rented accommodation in particular are more vulnerable to underregistration. We know that that sector is likely to grow in importance for as long as there is inadequate provision of social housing. We know that the housing benefit cuts, which will be imposed shortly, will exacerbate debt and enforce greater moves among people who access that sort of accommodation. All that will have an impact on registration and on the exercise which is under way supposedly to equalise those entitled to vote.
I urge the Government to be very clear on what they are going to do about it. Like my noble friend Lady Thornton in respect of the previous amendment, we are seeking clarity on what the Government intend specifically in relation to this sector where the data are very clear that it is a major problem area. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend Lord McKenzie and my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth who I understand cannot move the amendment. It is a particularly important issue and I know that, like me, my noble friend Lord Knight will have had real examples of the problem in his own constituency when he was an MP. However, I have to say that this matter does not affect just inner-city areas: it affects the whole private rented sector. I had a survey carried out in my constituency of Hammersmith, which lasted for more than a year. A number of things stood out, but one which stood out very strongly was the overrepresentation of people from the private rented sector coming to see the MP or the councillor because their problems were more acute. This is really what the issue is about. These people need representation and yet they are the ones who are least likely to be on the list.
I recognise the problem for local authorities. People in this group are particularly hard to identify and to follow up on if you fail to get them to register in the first instance, but it is important that we make an effort. I know that it affects rural areas as well, which is why I say that it is not just a matter for inner-city areas. The private rented sector generally has in it people who tend to be on lower incomes, often in accommodation for not that long. If it is a shorthold tenure, it will be for a maximum of six months, although obviously that can be renewed as appropriate. But it means that you are dealing with a high turnover of people, often on low incomes and yet often with multiple problems that need to be addressed by an elected representative, be it a councillor or a Member of Parliament.
I do not have any simple answer, but I can say that at one stage Hammersmith council got particularly good at following up on these people and did rather well on increasing the representation of people in the private rented sector. However, I do not think that any of us has got it right yet. As I have said, although it is more extreme in urban areas, it also affects rural areas. The evidence is very strong that there is underrepresentation on the electoral roll of people in private rented accommodation, and it would be useful to know if the Government have any ideas at all about how to address this.
My Lords, this is well tilled territory. The position according to the Electoral Commission is that if you own your house outright, 93 per cent of you are on the electoral register; if you are buying on a mortgage, it is 86 per cent; if renting from a council, 79 per cent; if renting from a housing association, 75 per cent; and if renting from a private landlord, only 44 per cent. If you are “other”, it is 78 per cent. I do not know what “other” is. Perhaps it is living in a commune or in a tent somewhere or, indeed, in a caravan, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Graham. Why is this? The Electoral Commission report says:
“Taken as a whole, tenants in the private rented sector are significantly more likely to be absent from the electoral register than owner-occupiers or those in social housing. This pattern arises from the greater turnover of households in the private rental sector compared to other tenures as well as the associated concentrations of specific social groups in private rental accommodation, notably young people and students, and some BME groups”.
Again, I do not think that much of this is in dispute and that what we are looking for are proposals as to how it might be dealt with.
I endorse all that my noble friend Lord McKenzie has said about the private rented sector, but there is a further point to make. I turn to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to the effect that, “You do not want this review to take place using very out-of-date material. It is going to take place using material prepared in December 2010, so all your proposals that there should be an improvement in the number of young people and BMEs in the private rental sector will not apply unless you want to delay it”. That is the key answer. What is the hurry for this to take place by 2015? The obvious answer to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is that a period of time should go by, maybe a year, and then we should take the register at December 2011, but only if the sort of steps that my noble friends Lady Thornton and Lord McKenzie of Luton have been asking for have been taken.
If that is wrong, because we can delay the date until December 2011 and we can seek measures to be taken to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State or the Electoral Commission to ensure better representation of the three underrepresented groups, we can achieve both. I would therefore ask the noble and learned Lord to give answers to two questions. What is being done about the private rented sector to get more people on to the electoral register? What would be the problem in answering his oft-repeated song that we delay for a year or some other period the date at which we take the electoral register for the purposes of the boundary revision? What would the nation lose by that? There would be more people from these underrepresented groups on the electoral register.
My Lords, as has been indicated, this amendment is very similar in its terms to the previous amendment, although it focuses on the need to maximise the proportion of private sector tenants on the electoral register. It will therefore not come as a surprise if I indicate that the arguments are substantially the same. I will answer the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. The difference is that what we are being invited to do with these amendments is put off the boundary review to some indeterminate time. No date is fixed in these amendments, although the noble and learned Lord said that it could be 1 December 2011. But we have heard the whingeing complaints that to do it in 2010 is going to make it tight for a boundary review to report by 2013. Given that, I rather suspect that using a review date for the electoral register in December 2011 is going to make it impossible for the 2015 election to be fought on new boundaries. That is the crucial difference.
The party opposite appears to wish the boundaries for the 2015 election to be fought on electoral data, so far as England is concerned, that go back to the year 2000. We have quoted on many occasions in these debates the report from the Electoral Commission published in March last year, when of course the party opposite was in power. These underregistrations have not suddenly materialised since May last year. I have indicated what we intend to do with regard to younger people in terms of data matching, so I found it rather breathtaking to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, say that we should get on with it. I think that we are probably proposing to do more in our first eight months in office than all that happened during the past 13 years. I give credit for initiatives that were taken, like rolling the register, but all that would come to naught because any benefit that came from that if we hold the 2015 election on electoral data from 2000 would be lost. Any positive steps taken by the previous Administration will not have any effect.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, mentioned Glasgow, and in previous exchanges the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has indicated what has been done there, and it is a positive example. But of course none of that would be taken into account if we had to use electoral data from 2000. I welcome back the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, because I wondered where he was earlier.
I have been here or hereabouts for most of the evening. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will remember as I do that Jack de Manio, when he presented the “Today” programme, had in front of him a message: “Remember, it’s different in Scotland”. Can the noble and learned Lord answer a question for me? All today and on previous days I have wondered what arrangements departments in England dealing with this are making for liaison with the Scottish Executive in implementing this and all other parts of the Bill, if it becomes an Act.
I am glad the noble Lord mentioned that because I have indicated that using the year 2000 does relate to England, but of course the previous Labour Government introduced a boundary review following devolution. The numbers were reduced and used electoral data which I am sure, if you note the kind of figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, must have been as deficient in terms of underregistration in certain categories as the ones they are now complaining about; however, they did not hold back from conducting a very necessary boundary review at that time.
I indicated earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that in terms of school records, I certainly hope that the Scottish Government will be co-operative in these matters. I fully intended to write to the noble Lord to follow up on his comment last Monday. He then made a further comment on data protection that I will respond to in a further letter which I will circulate. I also take on the point about departments and the Scottish Government.
The Minister says that he hopes the Scottish Government will be co-operative. As he knows, the Scottish Government have been urging the UK Government not to go ahead with the referendum on 5 May, and therefore they are not necessarily in an immediately co-operative frame of mind. If this Bill becomes an Act, can I urge him to consider arrangements for joint discussions in the form of a committee or other ministerial meeting to deal with some of the tricky problems that will arise?
I hope that the Scottish Government would be as keen as the parties in this House on trying to improve electoral registration. I hope to be able to indicate what engagement there has been with the Scottish Government in trying to ensure that that is the case. I am not sure that setting up another committee is necessarily the best way to do it.
I have mentioned data matching. The kind of publicly available data that would be relevant to this amendment, although they would not be specific to private tenants, could be national insurance data, information from the DVLA and, specifically, housing benefit data. Those are the areas we would look at, via proactive pilot schemes, to try to ensure that that particular category of person, who I accept is underregistered on the electoral roll, is better identified than at the moment. Against that background, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to my noble friend Lord Soley and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for their support. I do not intend to press the amendment tonight; I am grateful for the information that has been given around the prospect of data matching and the expanded scope for that in relation to private sector tenants. It would have been good to hear a little more from the Minister about issues of local authority funding, given the huge constraints that they are under and the real risk that one of the things that will not get the priority that it should in the current climate is effective electoral registration.
The Minister suggested that the amendment was indeterminate in its timeframe. If he would be happy in due course, possibly at a subsequent stage, to accept an amendment with a more specific timeframe, we would be very happy to reflect on that. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 58ZZZC withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.32 pm.