Committee (10th Day)
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on the Bill. We are in the most unusual situation that Monday in the House of Lords has only recently, after 22 hours of debate in Committee, become Tuesday. I must say that your Lordships are looking remarkably sprightly. I am almost tempted to do it all over again.
I know that I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the entire staff of the House, who most ably supported us through the night, had the foresight to provide a lucky few with camp beds and provided a most delicious breakfast in the early hours of this morning. But there is considerable pressure and concern throughout the House from those who wish to find a way to progress business, which by all measures is going extremely slowly, and to find ways to respect the convention that the House passes government business in a reasonable time. We are about to go into Committee on the 10th day on this Bill and I am hopeful that today's progress may be somewhat speedier than yesterday’s. I beg to move.
My Lords, I first associate myself with the remarks of the Leader in relation to the staff, who played a real blinder during the course of the day. I am only sorry that my duties in the Chamber prevented me from joining the Leader of the House for breakfast. Secondly, what has made this House successful over the years is finding solutions to the sorts of problems that we currently face. I made it clear at the beginning of yesterday's business and on the frequent occasions when I moved that the House resumed, that I am willing on behalf of this party to discuss reaching conclusions, whether on procedure or on the substance, in order to bring an end to the position.
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
63A: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 20 to 27 and insert—
“2 (1) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should.
(2) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 10% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom.”
My Lords, we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized seats, but we have practical concerns about the way in which the legislation seeks to pursue this reasonable objective. Our amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula for redrawing parliamentary boundaries that is proposed by the Bill. Clause 11 of the Bill proposes an entirely new system of rules for drawing parliamentary constituency boundaries, based on the paramount requirement that, save for some protected seats in Scotland, the electorate of any constituency shall be no less than 95 per cent of a UK-wide electoral quota, and no more than 105 per cent of that quota. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in evidence to your Lordships’ House’s Constitution Committee that the 5 per cent disparity limit had been chosen because the Government believe, having consulted the Boundary Commission, that it was the closest to absolute mathematical equality that could be practically achieved without forcing the Boundary Commission to split wards. Yet the heads of the four Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place that:
“The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases”.
That sentiment was forcefully echoed by Professor Ron Johnson, one of Britain’s foremost psephologists. He told the Select Committee that:
“It seems to me that the Commissions will be in great problems in some parts of the country”.
By way of example he cited the position in Sheffield, the home of the Deputy Prime Minister. Professor Johnson told the committee:
“Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies under the current reduction. Sheffield has 28 wards. That would be three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, over the five per cent on one side, and two of five wards which would be below the five per cent on the other side. You would have to either split wards in Sheffield or somehow around the Barnsley/Rotherham interchange manage to create constituencies which cross the boundaries all of which were within five per cent. I very much doubt”—
Professor Johnson went on—
“that is feasible because wards in Rotherham are about the same size as wards in Sheffield anyhow and there are some hills in the way before you get to Barnsley. They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this”.
The facts seem pretty clear—if the Government genuinely do wish to avoid splitting up wards, they must relax the 5 per cent disparity limit.
There are other arguments in favour of a more flexible threshold. A 5 per cent disparity limit will deprive the Boundary Commissions of the flexibility they need to take proper account of history, local ties or geography when drawing boundaries. As a consequence, towns and villages will be divided between constituencies, and natural boundaries will in many cases be overlooked. Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. A number of constituencies that fit well with their local authority would no longer have been able to do so—Wyre Forest for example, which is coterminous with its district, would have had 2,131 too many electors. Similarly, Shrewsbury and Atcham, also coterminous with its district, would have had 1,552 too many electors. A number of counties and boundaries with statutory limits on electorates would no longer have been able to sustain whole numbers of constituencies, and would therefore need to share at least one seat with a neighbouring county or borough.
Take the six seats in the county of Oxfordshire—Banbury, Henley, Oxford East, Oxford West and Abingdon, Wantage, and Witney. They were on average 1,907 electors over the threshold. So, approximately 11,000 Oxfordshire electors would have needed to be shed so that they could be in a constituency shared with a neighbouring county. For example, part of the Prime Minister’s constituency might have had to be shifted to a seat based in Gloucestershire. Another striking example is the historic county of Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly, which would have had to find 13,138 electors—or an average of 2,190 per constituency—from Devon to make up the number they require under the Bill for six seats.
The problem would have been particularly acute in London. The borough of Barnet—Chipping Barnet, Finchley and Golders Green, and Hendon constituencies—would have had 371 too many electors for its three seats. Enfield borough—Edmonton, Enfield North and Enfield Southgate constituencies—would have had 219 too few electors, with an average of 73 per seat needed from a neighbouring borough. The borough of Sutton—Carshalton, Wallington, and Sutton and Cheam constituencies—would have had 1,119 too few electors for two seats, an average of 560 per seat. The borough of Wandsworth—the Battersea, Putney and Tooting constituencies—would have had 3,427 too few electors for three seats. So you would have had all these constituencies crossing, with a very small number, into neighbouring boroughs.
Looking ahead, a Democratic Audit model of how boundaries would have to be drawn in the future using the 5 per cent proposed in the Bill has found that,
“only 9 out of 46 counties, accounting for 67 of the 503 seats proposed for England, did not need to be grouped with another county”.
Indeed, this sort of widespread disruption resulting from the new rules will be the chief legacy of the Bill if it is left in this form. That is because even in regions and counties where there may be little or no change in the number of constituencies, the knock-on effect of the rigidity of the 5 per cent rule will none the less produce wholesale alterations to the boundaries of seats within these counties whether or not their electorates fall within the proposed 5 per cent threshold.
The existing rules for drawing constituency boundaries require the commissions to take into account any local ties that may be broken by alterations to constituencies. This is widely seen as an essential counterbalance to the mathematics and reflects one of the strengths of the British constituency system, which respects real communities and well understood boundaries, and in turn fosters an identity within those constituencies and a connection between electors and their representatives.
No doubt the Minister will counter that the rules set out in the Bill will similarly allow Boundary Commissions to take into account factors such as geography and local ties. The Minister is correct in that rule 5 does provide for an allowance, but what the Minister will seek to gloss over is that such considerations must be subject to the rule governing the size of constituencies. It is there in black and white on page 10 at line 22. So it is the numbers first, and then as long as you have the numbers, apart from two or three exceptions, then and only then can you apply geography, local ties and history.
So this Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill would thus transform the process of a boundary review from one that seeks to balance electoral equality with community identity to one that would abandon the latter in order to achieve a negligible advance in the former. As well as creating pointless anomalies, the Bill will lead to widespread unnecessary disruption. This is because when allied to the reduction of 50 seats proposed in the Bill, the rigid 5 per cent thresholds for acceptable disparity from the UK electoral quota means that there will be very few, if any, seats that will be unaffected by the boundary changes. Cutting the Commons to 600 seats has the effect of increasing the electoral quota in all parts of the United Kingdom, even in England where it would go up from 71,537 registered electors to 75,800. Currently, only a minority of constituencies have electorates within 5 per cent of the new electoral quota, and even they are not guaranteed to emerge unscathed.
In England, the adoption of an electoral quota of 75,800 would require each constituency to have an electorate of between 72,010 and 79,590. On current electorates, just 204 constituencies have electorates within that range. Clearly, all of the others will be subject to some change but, in practice, every single constituency will probably be redrawn. The chairs of the Boundary Commissions have admitted so publicly, because the knock-on effect is so enormous.
A prime example is what will happen to the county of Hampshire. Because the rules will not allow the Isle of Wight to remain a single seat, the county will need to accommodate approximately 35,000 electors from the island who will need to be allocated to one of the mainland seats. This will have a significant ripple effect on constituencies across the county, leading to significant changes in the shape of Hampshire constituencies. Although that extreme level of disruption would not be seen again after the first redrawing, widespread disturbance of constituency boundaries would none the less be evident every time there was a future review, because population changes will constantly push constituencies outside the 5 per cent threshold. That was confirmed by the heads of the Boundary Commissions in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place. It has also been highlighted by Lewis Baston of the Democratic Audit team, who has predicted that,
“there will be only two boundary reviews under these rules—one reporting by 2013 and in force from 2015, and another reporting in 2018. At that point, MPs will revolt at the prospect of repeated disruptive boundary reviews, as they did in similar circumstances in 1958”.
We need to avert this if we possibly can, but we need to get greater equality among the size of constituencies. We can start by revising this Bill so that the goal of numerical parity, which is important and which we support, is balanced with the real-life needs of local communities. That is the purpose of our amendment. It would provide the Boundary Commission with the practical leeway that it needs to balance the different factors which influence the design of constituencies, while still ensuring the creation of more equal-sized seats. Our amendment states:
“No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should”.
That would enable the commissions to have a meaningful ability to take account of the geographical and other factors which regularly have a bearing on their calculations at the moment. It will allow the Boundary Commissions to exercise their judgment in a field in which they, after all, are expert. However, to ensure that there is an absolute limit on levels of disparity between different seats, the amendment also states:
“No constituency shall have an electorate more than 10% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom”.
Democratic Audit has calculated that a 10 per cent outside limit would be just enough to prevent the division of wards in almost every case and enough to enable the Boundary Commissions to work within county boundaries, with maybe two exceptions.
Our fundamental argument is simple. We believe that although the majority of seats would and indeed should be within 5 per cent of an electoral quota, there are more instances than are allowed for in the Bill where the Boundary Commission should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion of up to 10 per cent from the quota.
No, it is not impossible to answer. The estimate that I gave of the number of existing seats that were numerically outside it is, if I can find it, something like 203. I think that the number that would be outside it would be less than half of that. I shall come back to that when I find the figure, which I agree is important.
The Democratic Audit study of the 10 per cent model, found,
“no significant differences between 5 per cent and 10 per cent equalisation as regards their partisan effect. The differences are in the ability of 10 per cent equalisation to better accommodate natural communities and administrative boundaries”.
Our amendment is a practical, fair and common-sense proposal. It is rooted in the understanding that the electors of Britain are not just numbers on a map, but people who live in communities with distinct historical, cultural and political identities. Those identities should be factored into the construction of constituency boundaries, but in a way that ensures much greater numerical equality than at present.
I hope that the Government will think very carefully about our proposals and, in particular, will have regard to the fact that the 10 per cent margin, as opposed to 5 per cent, will allow for more community issues to be taken into account without a significant reduction in respect of the equalisation effects.
The second part the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, which is very interesting and I hope will be examined carefully by your Lordships’ House, is dependent on an electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom. I may have missed something in either what he said or where the amendments come, but I have not found different electoral quotas for different parts of the United Kingdom. Would those quotas vary dramatically in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland? If so, that would undermine the presentation he has given us, which otherwise is very helpful.
My Lords, in this new atmosphere of sweetness and light created by the shade of Matthew Arnold, perhaps I may congratulate both the Leader of the House and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, on their contributions. Let no one accuse the noble and learned Lord of hypocrisy. Let us remember that a degree of humbug and hypocrisy is what has made us a great nation—a degree at any rate.
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, to desist from paying me compliments, because they do me no good. If he continues, I shall apply to appear on “Strictly Come Dancing” and make Anne Widdecombe look like a ballerina—beware. I thank the noble Lord anyhow for his kindness.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend and to express my own gratitude for the atmosphere that is prevailing in the Committee today. What a difference a decent lunch can make.
My noble friend made a very powerful case. I know that there are people on all sides of the Committee who believe that there is a powerful case for a 10 per cent rather than a 5 per cent limit. Perhaps I may provide the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, with an answer to his question about constituencies. Roughly 69 per cent of constituencies that exist at the moment could still exist with a 10 per cent limit; only 36 per cent of them could exist with a 5 per cent limit. Enormous disruption could be avoided if we put 10 per cent into the argument.
We have to think of the origin of the views on size expressed by the Benches opposite in the early stages of the Bill to understand what has gone wrong. I think that the Conservative Party saw on the one hand—I do not blame it for doing so—that constituencies were very unequal, which they are. It saw on the other hand that the electoral system was biased against it, which it is. But in the mind these two became conflated, which I can quite understand, as cause and effect: that unequal constituency size caused the bias in the system.
This is a matter on which a huge volume of work has been done by psephologists. I suppose that I am the only person in this House whose favourite bedside reading is psephology, rather than, for example, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis and the rest. I have gone through, for example, John Curtice’s and others’ annex to the British General Election of 2010, the work of Lewis Baston and so on. It is perfectly clear from those that size is barely the cause of the bias that exists in the system. Bias there is: the Conservatives need a 3.3 per cent lead over Labour just to get the same number of seats. I do not defend that, and there are other ways than those set out in this Bill to deal with it. The bias in the system has varied a good deal over time, but I am very pleased to say that it was sharply diminished at the last general election. It was still considerable and still unacceptable, but it was considerably diminished.
However, the bias is not due to size of seats. In fact, the average Labour seat is only 2,000 electors smaller than the average Conservative seat. In England, the difference is roughly half that. It is not size that makes the big difference. One factor, for example, is Welsh representation, which we shall come back to. The main reason for the bias is differential turnout. In Conservative seats, the turnout is 68.4 per cent; in Liberal Democrat seats, it is 67.3 per cent; in Labour seats, it is 61.2 per cent. That means that it takes many fewer electors to elect each Labour MP than it takes to elect each Conservative MP.
Another factor is that voters in seats where neither Labour nor Conservative candidates can win, an awful lot more Tory votes count for nothing in electing an MP than Labour votes—there are 400,000 more of them. Finally, there is the greater willingness of Labour voters to vote tactically, which costs the Tories a number of seats.
I do not want to gild the lily by going on and boring the Committee into the sleep that I enjoy most nights on reading this stuff, but I say to noble Lords that the Bill’s proposal to equalise seat size should be taken on its merits. To me, the inequality in the size of seats is also indefensible, but that is not because it biases the system against the Conservatives. It is indefensible because it leads to too great an inequality between voters. It therefore becomes a matter of the degree to which we want to permit that for other sorts of reasons, such as avoiding crossing traditional boundaries, such as the Tamar, and the desire to keep the Isle of Wight separate, and all the things that we know about.
However, there is not any magic about 5 per cent. There is no difference between 5 per cent and 10 per cent in the results of the general election that was held. So let us consider it on its merits; that is, the principled case of maximum equality achievable against the practical case that a little bit of flexibility in the system should be allowed so as to preserve traditional loyalties and to avoid having too great a swing in seats between one general election and another.
My Lords, I must apologise for not being in the Chamber when the noble and learned Lord began this debate. I was detained by a call I had to take from overseas, but I hope that the House will allow me to intervene at this stage because I have a related amendment on the Marshalled List. It would be much more sensible for me to deal with the points that I would have made on that amendment later on this amendment and to comment on the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.
I approach this whole issue by looking at the situation in Wales. When I saw a proposed set of possible constituencies presented to a committee of the other place, it struck me that we might avoid some of the obvious difficulties by going to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. There are similarities between the Welsh situation and the Scottish mainland situation. I am not suggesting that we go down the solution that exists in Scotland—that is, two very large constituencies with a very small electorate. But in both cases there is a concentration of population in an industrial belt, which is surrounded by large, thinly populated, rural areas.
When I looked at the suggestions of what constituencies might be like, I observed at once that it seemed probable that one would have to detach a small part of my former constituency in Pembroke and put it into Carmarthen; a perhaps rather larger bit of Powys and put it into Ceredigion; and, in the valleys, possibly detaching or placing in neighbouring valleys some parts of constituencies that would be better not separated. I immediately came to the conclusion that a lot of these difficulties could be avoided if we went to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent.
It was not until I received the interesting paper from Democratic Audit and the points made by Lewis Baston that I really turned my attention to the English situation. It seems to me that that paper makes a very powerful case. It points out that with a 5 per cent variation, there would be serious difficulties with the crossing of county boundaries and so on, and that under a 10 per cent variation there would be much less crossing of county boundaries, much less splitting of wards, fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future and closer concordance with community identities. Surely, we all want that.
Lewis Baston points out that for a county to avoid sharing one or more seats with another county, it needs to meet a number of criteria. He tells us that very few counties could meet these criteria in England with a 5 per cent limit. A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture. No counties fail outright, other than the Isle of Wight, which we will debate on a separate occasion, although in practice, some might be close enough to the edge to make pairings necessary. None the less, it was found that only two relatively natural pairings—Wiltshire and Dorset, and West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire—would arise under a revised plan based on 10 per cent.
It is also probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards in constituencies. Again, that difficulty would be largely overcome. The final positive benefit would mean fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future. Surely, that is of great significance for the political parties and candidates. As we heard from the noble Lord who is an expert on these subjects, and see from the democratic audit paper, the conclusion has to be that there are no significant differences between 5 per cent and 10 per cent equalisation as regards their partisan effect.
I am then faced with the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord and the group of amendments led off by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. On balance, I prefer the simpler, later amendment. I am not sure why we need something that on the face of it appears slightly complicated and obscure but, to a layman and non-lawyer, appears to put slightly tougher criteria on to the shoulders of the Boundary Commission. Here is an opportunity, while meeting all the Government’s main objectives, to improve the Bill. I have not heard their response and there may be obstacles that I do not know about. I shall listen carefully and hope that, on this occasion, the Government will say, “Yes, we can accept it”. There may be flaws in the amendment and the Government could bring their own forward on Report. I hope, entirely in the interests of the political parties, the candidates and those who care about local links, that the Government will consider the arguments. I will support any of the solutions that they say better fit in with the proper drafting of the Bill.
My Lords, I hope to establish a precedent by posing a direct question to the Minister. That would be a good idea, having sat through all these hours. An occasional question may elicit some response from the Minister which may help all of us. I have a question on this amendment because there is a big difference in principle between the amendment we are now discussing and those on which we spent a long time earlier on the number of constituencies.
Why do I think there is a big difference in principle? In relation to the number of constituencies, we had a voice from the electorate, showing that it wished to reduce the figure from 650 to a lower one. We can argue until the cows come home—indeed, we did—whether it should be 650, 625, 620, and so on. But there was a big difference in that in the electoral manifestos there was a direct statement on that point. Now we come to a completely different amendment relating to the 5 per cent margin and the amendment on the possibility of rising above 5 per cent but not above 10 per cent. Here comes my direct question to the Minister. Do the Government consider that they are in any sense bound by the views of the electorate to stick with 5 per cent? I cannot see that anywhere.
The Government can take 5 per cent as a marvellous figure which they would like to stick with and which they can try to defend. Is there a commitment to the electorate—not to the Government’s friends or anybody else—that I do not see? If there is no commitment, it means that the flexibility we have here is obviously greater than the flexibility we had on some movement below 650 constituencies.
I congratulate my noble and learned friend on introducing the amendment with an analysis that was extremely detailed and lucid. I thought it was quite masterly. He has, more or less at one stroke, transformed the atmosphere of the debates on this subject. The last two contributions—one from the Cross Benches and the other by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, from the Conservative Benches—have shown that the House is now in a mood to discuss the whole issue, pragmatically and calmly, in a spirit of genuine compromise, I hope. A willingness to try to find the right solution and occasionally to accept suggestions from other parts of the House will be a good contribution towards finding that solution. It is a wonderful relief to those of us who have been through a slightly confrontational series of debates during the course of the night.
The amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend addresses directly the issue I raised earlier. As I see it, the Boundary Commission faces in its deliberations—as it always has faced and will continue to face—an equation with three variables and a trade-off between those variables. The variables are, first, acceptability of the extent to which the local electorate is happy with the boundaries within which it is placed, which is very important; secondly, equality of numbers; and, thirdly, the number of MPs. If you fix one of those variables you will have a corresponding distortion of the others. Fixing one will, of course, because of the trade-offs, result in something less than an ideal solution in the others. You will have to pay a price in the others.
If you try to fix two you will produce an enormous distortion. If the Government were determined to maintain the 5 per cent rule at the same time as maintaining the 600 limit for MPs—or any other arbitrary limit for MPs—there will be a tremendous distortion of the important aspect of acceptability in many boundaries in the country. This point has been well made by many colleagues on both sides of the House over the past 24 hours. There would be a great many constituencies where people felt not at all identified with the constituency in which they had been artificially placed. That would be a bad day’s work and we all want to avoid that.
My noble and learned friend has suggested the compromise of not taking away the need to keep within reasonable limits of equality but to have a 10 per cent rule rather than a 5 per cent rule. The effect of that has been quantified by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. If I recall correctly, he said that if the House passes the amendment, something like 30 per cent of constituencies will need to be reviewed because they will be over the 10 per cent limit, whereas under the original draft of the Bill brought forward by the Government, something like 60-odd per cent would need to have their boundaries reviewed because they would be outside the 5 per cent criterion. It is a very substantial quantified difference. In the light of that, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.
If they do not feel able to accept the amendment, then, in the new atmosphere— which I enormously welcome and, from the remarks of the Leader of the House, I think the Government also welcome it—at the very least the House would expect a reasoned explanation as to why they cannot accept it, together with a better suggestion for achieving what we all regard now as a common purpose. The difficulty we had in the period before the lunch break was—I emphasise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is staring at me at the moment—that there is a genuine concern among many of us on this and other sides of the House that the Government had rigid plans for enormous constitutional reform; that they were not being entirely open about it; that they were unwilling to consult on or discuss the issue before they brought it forward; and that it did not involve only the subjects in the Bill. We know that because they are preparing Lords reform proposals.
There was an horrific moment this morning—I trust that it was a complete misunderstanding—when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said something which led a number of people to think that he was threatening the House with the introduction of a timetabling system, which would be a real revolution in the House of Lords and obviously not appropriate to a revising Chamber. I trust that the noble Lord did not mean that and that his words were not intended to convey that meaning. I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, understands that those words were bound to provoke a reaction here. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not in his place as I make these comments.
While I am discussing this, I should say that I thought I heard him say this morning that in the late 19th century, when the Commons introduced a timetabling system, it did so as a result of filibustering by what he described as “Fenians”. The Fenians were Irish nationalists who were prepared to use non-parliamentary and violent methods, which is a pretty horrific way to describe one’s political opponents in a democratic assembly. I am sure he did not mean “Fenian” in that sense. It is also an insult to the Irish nationalists who were conducting that remarkable filibuster—people such as Parnell, Dillon, Healy, O’Brien and so forth. They were the people who led the Irish filibusters in the 1880s and they were far from being Fenians. They had opposed in Ireland, with considerable courage, those who said that only extra-parliamentary and violent methods would work in dealing with the British. It was a remark that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, might want to withdraw, both as applied to Parnell and the Irish constitutional nationalists of that time and to those of us here.
If this is not an example of a filibuster, I do not know what is. Dillon and the people who objected to the Irish filibuster in the House of Commons have nothing to do with this amendment. The noble Lord is bringing this House into major disrepute. He is quite good at changing sides so there is nothing new in that.
The noble Earl should know that, although I have changed parties, I have kept very much the same political principles all my life. I intend to continue to do so. The noble Earl was possibly not here when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made the remarks that I have just referred to. I assure him that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made those remarks; I have not just invented that. It seemed necessary to respond to the remarks and I was taking the obvious opportunity to do so.
The illustration that my noble friend has given is absolutely apposite. What was being discussed throughout that period—proposed, ironically, by a Liberal Prime Minister—was the most important constitutional change of the 19th century. When it was rejected by this House, it led to another 100 years of war in Ireland. The consequences of getting constitutional change wrong are immense. No one is suggesting that this will lead to 100 years of war but it is not an insignificant change. It is, to many people’s minds, the biggest constitutional change in this country since 1832. Therefore, it deserves maximum scrutiny. Least of all does it deserve personal insults.
I entirely agree and have already said several things along the lines of what my noble friend has just said. To respond to my noble friend, I am naturally grateful for his comments. I agree with everything he said. Since we are talking about changing political parties, no doubt in the 1880s I would have been a Gladstonian Liberal and a home ruler. At least, I trust that I would have been.
There has been a change in the atmosphere this afternoon. There have been memorable contributions from the Cross Benches and the Conservative Party in favour, in principle, of the way in which this amendment has been framed. I repeat that we all now hope that we will be able to have a reasoned and calm dialogue with the Government on this. I hope they can accept this amendment, which would go a long way to solving all the problems before us. At the very least, we would expect, in the new circumstances, a very good explanation if they cannot accept it and, I hope, a proposal of their own that is better than either the original one in the Bill or the one that my noble and learned friend has just put forward.
My Lords, I am something of a virginal creature when it comes to the conventions and procedures of the House but I wonder whether the new atmosphere that is being declared on all sides could be put to the test by inviting the Minister to make at least an interim response to the points that have been made. We are in Committee and the debate can continue after an interim response by the Minister. It would be helpful to know roughly what the response is going to be.
If the House feels that that would be helpful, I certainly am willing to do so. This amendment, which, as I think I said, was moved with great thoroughness by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and spoken to by noble Lords on all sides of the House, would, as we have indicated, provide that constituencies would usually be within the range of 95 per cent to 105 per cent of the electoral quota unless the Boundary Commission considers that there are overriding reasons why that should not be the case, in which case the Boundary Commission would have the discretion to propose constituencies that vary by up to 10 per cent of the electoral quota. I understand that the intention is to allow for equality of votes in the majority of seats. Noble Lords on all sides of the House have indicated the importance of the principle of equality of votes and that of one vote one value and seek a greater flexibility than exists at present to take account of communities’ geographical ties.
We could have taken an absolutely rigid stance and divided the total electorate by the relevant number and not allowed for any flexibility whatever. However, our proposed range of 10 per cent—5 per cent either way with a total flexibility of 10 per cent—offers flexibility. Our concern about going wider than that, or giving the Boundary Commission the opportunity to go wider than that, is that it would open the way for the kind of inequalities in seat sizes which exist at present—I think the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, indicated that there was too great an inequality at present—albeit that would be limited by the terms of the noble and learned Lord’s amendment if it were accepted. Nevertheless, such a step would still permit too great an inequality by having a band of up to 20 per cent.
It is worth reminding the House that the current legislation states that the electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable. That might be thought in some cases to be a more stringent target than the range that is being put forward under the Bill, where a variation of 5 per cent either way is allowed. Under the existing rules for the Boundary Commission that requirement is balanced against all the other rules and factors. However, under the measure that is proposed, equality and fairness in the weight of the vote, which are enshrined in Rule 5 of the present rules, would end up being simply one consideration among many. Variations start to emerge when the Boundary Commission recommendations are published and subsequently debated. That is not just the view of the Government but the view of independent academics who have studied the process and who have stated that in effect the public consultation process is very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the commission’s recommendations by using a wide variety of evidence and deploying the rules concerning inconvenience and the breaking of local ties to promote their electoral cause.
I agree with the intention behind the amendment but our concern is that it would suffer the same fate as the existing rules. Like the existing rules it has at its core equity and equality of votes but we fear that it would nevertheless end up being the route by which vested interests, or other interests such as those which noble Lords in all parts of the House think are perfectly legitimate, such as those of people in communities, would override equality and fairness. I do not agree that it is an inflexible proposal. There is flexibility for constituencies to vary in size by as much as 10 per cent of the quota—5 per cent each way—and that is a considerable margin.
The British Academy’s report on the Bill noted:
“This new set of rules that the Boundary Commissions must apply is clear and consistent”,
“the rules set out in the Bill are a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions (they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory)”.
My concern, and the concern of Ministers, is that the amendment before us would compromise this and open the door for numerous arguments that special circumstances apply. I believe that would make the commissions’ task far harder. Boundary reviews would become more drawn out, and the result—
I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that there are already within the Bill factors that the Boundary Commission can, if it so wishes and to the extent that it so wishes, take into account. They include special geographical considerations including, particularly, the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies, local government boundaries—I will perhaps come back and say something about that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, made a lot of the impact on local government boundaries—and also the proposed Rule 4, where the area of constituencies is taken into account so that one does not get constituencies that become unmanageable because of size. The size is set just slightly larger than the largest constituency at the moment.
Those criteria exist in the Bill, but they are all subject to the 5 per cent limit. That is our argument: the 5 per cent limit is so constraining that it gives the Boundary Commission little flexibility. Why can the Minister not bring himself to trust the Boundary Commission a little more? Surely discrepancies of 10 per cent in the population of different constituencies are not going to be shocking by anybody’s standards.
This point may be what the noble Lord, Lord Reid, wanted to pick up on. I tried to indicate that we believe that 5 per cent, which is 10 per cent because it is 5 per cent each way of the halfway mark, allows the flexibility to take into account quite legitimate concerns. Some noble Lords were present at earlier debates when former Members of the other place were talking about the importance of the bond between a constituency and a Member. We believe they can be taken into account, bearing in mind the factors that the Boundary Commission is entitled to take into account and the extent that it thinks it should take them into account.
Does the Minister recognise that in addressing one problem in a fair system—arithmetical equality, which we accept is a problem—he has created another that tends to undermine the second element of the British system, which is democratic accountability to recognised communities with culture and common links? He has done that by shifting the primacy in that relationship further towards arithmetical equality. In so doing, and by keeping it within a narrow band, he has hugely undermined the other element, which is the point that has been made today in practical terms. Does the solution of strengthening the arithmetical primacy but at the same time allowing a greater flexibility in the arithmetic, the solution put forward by my noble friend and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, not get him out of this hole?
The noble Lord, Lord Reid, sets up and explains the competing issues quite succinctly. I am trying to argue that the present arrangements have at their core a rule that states that constituencies should keep as close as possible to the electoral quota, but then import other rules that, as we can see by the outcome, drag them further away from that electoral quota and lead—
Perhaps I can answer the noble Lord before I give way to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
That leads to the kind of inequality about which I think that there is serious concern around the House. The reason why the Government have come forward with the 5 per cent margin is that we believe that the core principle of equality of value—one vote, one value—is of the utmost importance. Although we acknowledge and make provision for room for the Boundary Commission to go either side of that principle of one vote, one value, to try to bring in some of the other flexibilities—although it is always good to be thought to be flexible—will take us back to the situation under the present Boundary Commission rules, where there is greater diversion from the norm.
Does the Minister recognise that there is concern on all sides of the House about the excessive rigidity of the Government's proposals? If the amendment is not acceptable—I understand what the noble and learned Lord says—will he at least consider bringing back to the House an amendment which says something to the effect that the Boundary Commission should have discretion outside the 5 per cent principle either way if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances for a particular constituency?
I perhaps misunderstood what I was being asked to do. I thought that I was being asked to give a commitment to bring back an amendment, which I cannot do. The force of argument on all sides of the House is considerable and I have no doubt that the comments made on this matter will be considered. I do not want to make a commitment which I cannot deliver, but I can honestly say that I will ensure that the forceful comments that have been made from all sides of the House on this point will be acknowledged.
I could give some examples where the present system does not deliver on the principle of not crossing county boundaries, and how I believe that under what we propose, the ward system will, for the most part, be upheld in England. I am not sure that I can elaborate much further. I say to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that if similar arguments apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, they will apply in Wales. Under what my noble friend proposes, the number of Members from Wales would not increase. I do not think that he was arguing that, but much of the argument in Wales has focused on the number. I would not want the House to be given the impression that somehow my noble friend's amendment would increase the number of Members from Wales.
I have tried to be helpful. We believe that we have imported flexibility, but important contributions have been made to the debate, and we are honour bound to consider them. I also make very clear that I do not want to be misunderstood as making a commitment that I may not be in a position to honour.
I am tempted to be encouraged by the tone of the response from the noble and learned Lord, but I fear that I cannot derive the comfort that I hoped to obtain from the paraphrasical content of what he said. I press him a little more, because I think that there is quite a wide consensus on this around the House—I may overstate the case where Conservative Peers are concerned. We are not alone on these Benches in asking the Minister to consider that an excessively rigid insistence on electoral parity on a fixed arithmetical quota with the minimal latitude of only 5 per cent either side of the norm of 75,800 electors to a constituency will preclude appropriate weight being given to factors that everyone recognises as significant: local ties, geography, community, history and, very importantly, the relationship between parliamentary constituency structures and the structures of local government.
The noble and learned Lord said, when we debated the question of how large the House of Commons should be and how many Members of Parliament should be there, that it was a matter of judgment. It is also a matter of judgment how you weigh all the valid factors. None of us is saying that it is not highly desirable to achieve the closest approximation to numerical equality between constituencies that one can, consistent with a sensible and satisfactory recognition of other factors.
It cannot be a wise judgment to discount the significance of geography and natural boundaries. We are told by the people of Cornwall that the River Tamar, a natural boundary between Cornwall and Devon, matters very much to their communities. However, the combination of the reduction in the number of constituencies that the Government intend, together with the increased requirement for numerical near-equality, produces absurd anomalies that a wise Government would not tolerate. The situation is comparable in Wales. My noble friend Lord Morgan told us in a recent debate that his parents grew up in communities only two miles apart, yet spoke a different Welsh. The cultural, linguistic, historical and community distinctions between the different valleys and communities of Wales are even more significant.
As far as concerns islands, the Government have sensibly recognised that the Western Isles must be treated anomalously and made exceptions to the rule, as must Orkney and Shetland. Equally, the Isle of Wight and Ynys Mon make claims that sensible, pragmatic Ministers would not only acknowledge but concede. Not to do so would be unwise. I remind the House of the moving and important speech about Jarrow made by my noble friend Lord Dixon. A wise politician gives due recognition to the bonds of community, to people’s sense of history and identity and to what it is about the places in which they live that makes them feel that it is their place, and that they want it expressed and represented in the system of parliamentary representation.
I will say a word or two about local government—I am conscious of being in the presence of noble Lords who know far more about this than I—and about the development of patterns of local government in our history from the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The Act entitled communities to petition for incorporation and led to the evolution in this country of the structures of local government that have persisted and developed for something like 130 years. The structures are full of anomalies, but the consistency in the anomalies is that they recognise people’s sense of local identity, and of the place where they live that they wish to have expressed in how they are governed municipally.
My experience is not related exclusively to Hackney, where I was born and brought up. Wherever people come from, they are very proud of being involved in the borough in which they live. People in Hackney, whether they come from the West Indies, Turkey or elsewhere, are very proud of being part of the borough. Is that not a very important factor in what my noble friend is arguing?
My noble friend speaks with feeling about the area that he knows and has served so well.
I do not want to detain the House but want to complete my point on local government. That map of local government became so intolerable to tidy-minded bureaucrats in the 1960s that it was judged that it had to be reformed and redesigned. We had the Redcliffe-Maud report and the 1972 legislation that created all kinds of new entities of local government that had never corresponded to people’s sense of reality of where they lived. Many have been abolished and we have never succeeded in designing a new map of local government because you cannot impose it from on high.
The Minister has already gone quite far. He said that he will draw attention to it. Do we need what is basically a Boundary Commission argument on these little things? This is nothing other than wasting your Lordships’ time, and it is a disgrace for the Opposition to go on behaving like this.
I am sorry that the noble Earl thinks that. He is being a little too impatient, if I may say so. The point that I am making is that the relationship between the structures of local government and the system of parliamentary representation is very important. It needs to be intimate. Members of Parliament and elected members of local authorities need to work together. This system should be an organic whole, which is one more very important reason why the rules that the Government propose to govern the designing and drawing of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies need to be sensitive to the realities of local government. I say no more than that, but these considerations genuinely matter.
I welcome the Minister’s tone and hope that his department will examine the practical implications of not moving beyond the 5 per cent tolerance either side of the norm, and consider whether it would produce anomalies and offensive manifestations in the way in which our constituencies are drawn that we would be very much wiser to avoid.
My Lords, it may assist if I indicate the Opposition’s position. I am grateful for what the noble and learned Lord said. On that basis, I rather read him as saying that he did not rule out—indeed might consider—a 5 per cent barrier with exceptions up to 10 per cent, but 10 per cent being an absolute barrier either way. The Minister is giving no assurances but he is willing to consider it. I am happy with that and I will not press it. Perhaps the appropriate course would be for myself and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who rather favoured the argument of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, to come along with us. I am more than happy for the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to come, and if the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, would be kind enough to grace us with his presence, that would be helpful as well. If we could meet quite quickly, that might be of assistance.
My Lords, it is not as if I had any intention of wishing to be included in that distinguished company, but I have a small point which may be helpful. I greatly welcome the attitude of the noble and learned Lord. This is one of the sanest, fairest and most common-sense amendments that we have had in this context. No doubt the Minister believes that arithmetical consistency is extremely important. I totally accept his sincerity, but it is not the case that it can be achieved. It can be achieved only if there is a register that is perfect in content. But you do not have such a register. It is inaccurate, possibly to the tune of 3.5 million. You may be thinking that you are aiming at a target through telescopic sights, and you are, but there is a kink in the barrel. Arithmetical consistency and total correctitude are simply not achievable.
My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the Committee for two minutes to make one simple point to the Minister. When he goes away to consider this, will he take with him the evidence from Scotland of the application of almost identical rules to those which he seeks to introduce? In 2007 an almost identical set of rules was applied to the revision of the Scottish Parliament boundaries. The Boundary Commission adopted a hierarchy that was almost exactly the same that the Bill imposes on the commission. As the noble and learned Lord knows, the result of those revisions was a set of provisional proposals that caused outrage across Scotland. There are at least 10 reports of local public inquiries signed off by sheriffs principal which criticise the effect on communities of that rigidity.
Finally, I shall repeat just three sentences from the West of Scotland regional inquiry. They are the words of Sheriff Principal Kerr when he rejected the provisional recommendations and opposed the degree of flexibility that the Boundary Commission had not. He said:
“I take the view that the Boundary Commission in formulating their proposals for the present review in the West of Scotland allowed Rule 2 to predominate unduly in their thinking”—
which is exactly what the Bill will do since rule 2 imposes parity in numerical terms on the electorate—
“with some consequences which I would describe as unnatural in their failure to have sufficient regard to the geography and social composition of the areas and populations with which they were dealing. The conclusions at which I have arrived in this report after seeing and hearing local reaction at the inquiry may go some way towards redressing the balance in favour of matching political constituencies to the realities of life in this part of Scotland”.
There are 10 of these decisions, and they are a formidable quarry for those in support of local public inquiries. They may be used later in the debate, but in the mean time I urge the Minister, for whom I have the most enormous regard, as he knows, to take them away and look at them when considering the proposal for more flexibility in this Bill.
Amendment 63A withdrawn.
64: Clause 11, page 9, line 21, leave out “95%” and insert “90%”
My Lords, I would not like your Lordships to think that I have not been sufficiently assiduous in my preparation to deliver a long speech this afternoon. Who knows, it might have been different if it had been delivered in the middle of last night. However, I think that almost everything that needs and ought to be said on this subject has been said in the debate we have just had. I want to make only two brief points.
I listened with great attention to the admirable response of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. We ought to be aware that at the moment the discrepancy in constituency size is absolutely enormous. It is not 5 per cent on each side, and not 10 per cent. The smallest seat is 31.7 per cent of the average seat, while the largest seat, that of the Isle of Wight, is 156.7 per cent of the average. So it is possible to go a long way towards reducing the disparity without transgressing the line drawn by the Minister.
The other point I want to make in preparation for the discussions I hope we will have is this. There is not just one thing you can change here; there are two. There is the limit of 5 per cent, 10 per cent or whatever turns out to be the right figure, but there is also the degree of attention that the Boundary Commissions are asked to give to their rules as to the circumstances in which they can allow exceptions. I agree with the Minister that, on the whole, the Boundary Commission has perhaps been too slack and paid too much attention to the rules on observing local boundaries and so on compared with its standing instructions on size. This is something on which it will take its instructions from Parliament, and something on which, with the co-operation of the Minister, I am quite sure a number of us can bottom out. I hope most of all, and this is a perfectly genuine remark, that, at the end of what has been a testing period for this House, we can achieve what in my 10 years’ experience here has so often been achieved—that is, we can give the Government their legislation in a form that makes it still better than the form in which it was conceived.
I am not sure whether I can still intervene on my noble friend before he sits down, but I put the point to him: he is right to have said that there needs to be a proper emphasis on numerical equality, and we have to get the question of local boundaries into the right perspective but not jeopardise the highly desirable objectives that the Government have of achieving numerical equality. However, does my noble friend think it acceptable that the tolerances should be so tight around the norm that the system will mean that county boundaries and even ward boundaries are routinely crossed?
Absolutely not. Indeed, the 10 per cent rule does not entirely avoid the contravening of county boundaries; there are two cases in which county boundaries would have to be contravened even then.
All this is a matter of getting the right balance in the rules and tolerances to achieve equality of size without trampling over local loyalties. That is what I believe a group of people from this House—and from elsewhere, if necessary—sitting down with good will could readily and easily achieve, to the great benefit of this legislation and of the country.
My Lords, I hope the House will understand that there is not really much that I can add in response to what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has said, beyond what I have already indicated. In that spirit, therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 64 withdrawn.
Amendments 64A to 65ZA not moved.
65A: Clause 11, page 9, line 22, at end insert—
“except in Wales where it shall be—
( ) no less than 90% of the United Kingdom electoral quota, and( ) no more than 110% of that quota”
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for what he has said. I hope that he will convey a message to his colleagues that there really is something to be looked at here. I find it very unfortunate that only 67 of the 503 seats would avoid crossing a county boundary; that is as substantial an anomaly as that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. In the hope that there really will be a genuine re-examination of this, and in gratitude for the way in which my noble and learned friend has spoken, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 65A withdrawn.
House adjourned at 4.34 pm.