Committee (11th Day)
Moved by Lord McNally
That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.
My Lords, I understand that this may be an appropriate time to ask a question, in less than two minutes, about whether these proceedings should continue. I do so on behalf of the 1 million people who voted for the UK Independence Party at the last general election. I should add that that was an increase of 50 per cent in our vote and was the best performance of any fourth party in British political history—it was achieved in spite of the party’s leader at the time.
Be that as it may, my question is simply this: why are your Lordships spending so much time arguing about the method of election of Members to the House of Commons when a majority of our national law is now imposed by Brussels? I remind your Lordships that the House of Commons has no influence in making that law. So have we not got things the wrong way round? Would it not be sensible to abandon these proceedings until we have repatriated our sovereignty to Parliament and only then decide by what method the people should send their representatives to the other place to hold the Executive to account and to take their decisions for them? Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why we are wasting so much time, so much sleep and so much energy in the mean time?
It is a kindly thought, but I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
65B: Clause 11, page 9, line 23, after “rules” insert “2A,”
My Lords, Part 2 of the Bill is aimed, on the one hand, at reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 and, on the other, at making the 600 remaining seats or, at any rate, the vast majority of them, more equal in size. As noble Lords are aware, we on this side are opposed to the arbitrary and somewhat dubious proposal to cut the other place by 50 seats. What we see as the failure of the Government so far to provide any coherent, considered reason as to why 600 is the better number, let alone the ideal number, for membership of the House of Commons has fuelled concern that the governing parties reached that judgment either on the basis of private, partisan calculation or that, as the some of the rather flip answers that have been given as to why 600 suggest, they did not really care terribly what the figure was. It is for the House and perhaps eventually the country to judge which of those two alternatives is worse.
We on this side of course support the principle of more equal-sized seats. However, we have considerable concern about the practical way in which the Bill sets out to achieve that objective. As we have previously heard, the rigidity of the proposed new rules, with their overriding emphasis on numerical equality to the practical exclusion of all other factors, is likely to unravel long-established patterns of representation in ways that will disrupt political organisation and even break up community identities.
However, even if those flaws were ironed out and a more balanced approach applied to the rules for drawing constituency boundaries, the Bill would still be undermined by a fundamental defect in its design; namely, that you cannot produce equal seats from an unequal register. It is to that effect that I move Amendment 65B, which is grouped with Amendment 67B.
The Deputy Prime Minister told the other place that the December 2010 electoral register will form the basis for the boundary review that this Bill stipulates must be completed by October 2013. But the Government accept the view of the Electoral Commission that in excess of 3.5 million eligible voters, our fellow citizens, are missing from that register. The Government’s solution to underregistration is to expedite the rollout of individual voters’ registration. That marks a departure from the previously agreed timetable which we feel will harm rather than help voter registration, particularly if the Northern Ireland experience is anything to go by. However, in any event, the Government’s own timetable does not begin the move to individual registration until after December 2010. We fear that this amounts to an admission that millions of eligible voters will be ignored when the boundaries are redrawn. That would be bad in any event, but it is made worse when one considers that the missing voters are not randomly spread.
An Electoral Commission study published in March last year found that,
“underregistration is concentrated among specific social groups, with registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home … The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation”.
The Electoral Commission’s study was underpinned by Ipsos MORI research which found—these are pretty shocking figures—that only 69 per cent of black and minority ethnic voters are registered and only 44 per cent of 20 to 24 year-olds, as opposed to 97 per cent of 60 to 64 year-olds.
In light of these facts, what are we to make of the Government’s determination to press ahead with a timetable for boundary changes which ignores specific social groups based in particular locations? There are a number of explanations. At one extreme is the possible explanation that the Government want somehow deliberately to exclude these people from the boundary calculations for whatever reason; that is, they actively want to leave certain people and places underrepresented in Parliament. Of course, we do not accuse the Government of that, but it would be serious if there were people outside who thought that it was their motivation. An alternative explanation is that they regard those excluded voters somehow as collateral damage—a regrettable but inevitable by-product of the need to rush to pass the Bill and secure the two political reforms which it contains. It is important to remember in this context that the Bill contains a commencement clause so that the alternative vote, even if it were passed in a referendum, may not be introduced unless and until the boundary reforms are implemented. That is why there is a rush.
Our amendment is an attempt to mitigate the damaging effects of the Government’s decision to press ahead on this undemocratic basis by placing an upper limit on the extent of electoral inequality that may result from the Bill. As noble Lords will have gleaned, Amendment 65B is a paving amendment. The substance of the changes that we suggest is contained in Amendment 67B, which states:
“No constituency shall have a total population of those aged 18 and over which is more than 130% of the electoral quota”.
I am of course aware that criticisms can be levelled at the amendment, Most obviously, it may be pointed out that not everyone above 18 will be eligible to vote, but the only source that would enable us to work out the eligible electorate is the census. As it happens, the Electoral Commission has said that it is working alongside the Office for National Statistics on a project to use the data from this year’s census for that very purpose; but, unfortunately, the Government have already announced that they are unwilling to wait for the fruits of that study because it will not be ready until 2014, which does not suit the political timetable. So we have no alternative but to propose this alternative method. It is intended to provide a backstop on the level of distortion that will be allowed to occur under the new boundary rules.
I am sorry to take my noble friend back to the debates that we had some time ago, and I am not sure whether he was the Minister dealing with the electoral registration legislation. However, does not this amendment have implications for individual registration, and could not the position be aggravated if the amendment were to proceed on the basis that one has to knock on the door and have a document signed in the case of every elector? Surely this amendment has implications for that and the gathering of signatures.
We believe that it certainly does have implications for that, and I have already mentioned individual registration. One of the Government’s responses to this line of criticism is that bringing forward individual registration will somehow mitigate it. Our concern is that it will make it worse, certainly in the short term. What disturbs me more is that my noble friend does not remember that I was the Minister responsible for the legislation to which he referred.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. He was talking about mitigating the effects of underrepresentation. As a former Minister, is it his contention that underrepresentation started in June of last year? If not, what steps did the previous Government take to mitigate underrepresentation when the boundaries for the 2010 general election were being culled together?
If the noble Lord is gently trying to say that this is not a problem that has just arisen and that just happens to coincide with the formation of the coalition Government, I am absolutely with him—of course the problem has been with us and with our system for quite some time now, for probably more than 20 years. However, what brings it into stark relief is the fact that if the Bill goes through in its present form, we will build the size of constituencies on the basis of much stricter numbers than we used in the past. Those numbers will be very important indeed; more important than they were under the rules set by previous Governments over the past 40 or 50 years. In the instance where numbers will be even more important, it seems more important to us to get the numbers as correct as we can.
I am just wondering if my noble friend is as surprised as I am that the noble Lord who previously intervened on him seems to be completely unaware of the legislative measures that the previous Government took to tackle this profound problem of underrepresentation. For example, we gave the Electoral Commission significant new powers—data-matching powers and so on—precisely to help it to tackle this problem of underrepresentation and to ensure that by 2015 the register was comprehensive and accurate. I should have hoped that before intervening the noble Lord would have apprised himself of all the measures—not only the measures that I have just mentioned but all the measures—that the previous Government took to tackle this problem.
I wonder if the noble Lord can confirm to your Lordships’ House that the Electoral Commission recommended that the only way to make the register more effective and more accurate was to move to individual registration—and that it did so in 2003. How long did it take the previous Government to get round to activating that recommendation?
If the noble Lord has kept to the rule that you should know the answer to a question before asking it, he will know when the previous Government got round to it, to use his own phrase. All sorts of other methods of trying to improve underregistration were tried before. A great debt is owed to my noble friend Lord Wills, who—I think this can be said openly—had a large part in persuading the previous Government that individual registration was the proper way to proceed.
Yes, eventually. I am afraid that it may be a lesson that the current Government will also learn—that you do not always get everything absolutely right to start with, and that sometimes it takes a few years to do. It is perhaps best to acknowledge that, particularly when you are rushing through legislation that you may live to regret later.
Does my noble friend accept that one of the reasons why there was a delay—in the case of some of us, we wanted the delay to go on for ever—is the experience in Northern Ireland, where electoral registration rates dropped dramatically? Even to this day we are suffering from the legacy of the introduction of individual registration in Northern Ireland. I apologise to my noble friend, but he knows that I repeatedly argued against this system.
I am sorry to keep interrupting my noble friend, but having spent years on this issue, until my brain hurt, I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—who has a proud history of espousing constitutional reform for many years, and I pay tribute to it—is under a real misapprehension about the nature of reform of the registration processes. Of course individual registration is important. That is why, as my noble friend has said, I espoused it. That is why the previous Government brought it forward. However, it is primarily important for the accuracy of the register; it does not help the comprehensive nature of the register. In fact, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has just pointed out, it has the real potential to damage the comprehensive nature of the register. That has, for years and years, been the problem with dealing with individual registration. The previous Government, I am pleased to say, found a way forward, and I will, if the House permits me later, speak at greater length about it. It is true that individual registration is important for the accuracy of the register; it is not true—with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—that it is important for the comprehensive nature of the register. That is the core of the issue here.
My Lords, illustrating the point that I was seeking to make before I was interrupted, perhaps I may refer to a study undertaken by CACI for the Electoral Reform Society late last year. It found:
“After equalisation, the average constituency will contain about 76,000 registered voters. It will have a total voting age population … of about 83,000. But in areas of the country where registration is low, the VAP could be as high as 110,000—a third bigger than the average constituency”.
Typically, as we have heard, the areas of low voter registration tend to be poorer, urban constituencies where the MPs face a bigger and more difficult caseload than their colleagues in more affluent parts of the country. The people who make up much of that caseload often do not appear on the voter registers but they turn up in numbers in constituency surgeries—and they will continue to turn up even after this boundary review has failed to count them. They will be the invisible electorate which will inflate inner urban seats and will grow in size in line with the requirement to meet the official electoral quota, increasing still further the constituency burden that bears on the MPs who represent them.
So the Bill may be aiming at creating more equal-size seats, but it is going to shoot well wide of that mark. Our amendment will provide a small correction. Using the proposed new electoral quota of 75,800 as the starting point, our amendment would prevent the creation of seats within excess of approximately 98,500 adult residents. It will therefore provide a little more parity between constituencies and, in doing so, prevent the complete overload of MPs representing inner urban populations. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord has explained the basis of his amendment. It sets out the requirement that Boundary Commission recommendations should comply with both an electorate and a population range. Under the amendments, the total population aged 18 or over in a constituency could not exceed a number that is 130 per cent of the electoral quota. As a preliminary point, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has again raised the question of people missing from the electoral roll, as indicated in the report last year by the Electoral Commission. These are matters that we have already debated at some length in the course of this Committee, and I have indicated in replies to previous amendments the steps that the Government are taking to address them. However, it is worth making the point yet again that even if we were to go with what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, wishes to see, and even if we were to be hugely successful in getting people who are eligible on to the electoral roll, under what he is proposing the election for 2015, certainly as far as the English constituencies are concerned, would nevertheless be fought on constituencies that were determined by an electoral quota based on the year 2000; in other words, it would be some 15 years out of date.
In spite of the noble Lord’s sweet words of concern about the underrepresentation of certain groups, and I have no doubt whatever that he, along with all sides of the Committee, is genuinely concerned about this, so far as the 2015 election is concerned, the amendment will do absolutely nothing to reflect these people in the electorate, which will determine the boundaries. Indeed, I have already indicated that under this Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the election due for May 2020 would be based on the electoral register and the base date would be December 2015: in other words, after there has been some opportunity for the various initiatives that have been proposed to have effect, including individual registration.
Here I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and what he set in motion for individual registration, along with the rolling register, which I think was a product of the last Administration. Those were positive moves and we are planning for more. However, let us not get it into our heads that through this amendment, people who are currently missing from the electoral roll will somehow be taken into account for the constituency boundaries as far as England is concerned for elections in 2015. As I have said, we would still use constituencies where the relevant base date was as long ago as 2000.
It is accepted that the intention behind these amendments is to ensure not only that constituencies have electorates of more equal size and therefore that the weight of votes is fairer and more equal but, as the noble Lord has explained, but that the populations they contain are also fairer and more equal. I would be among the first to recognise that the responsibility of a Member of Parliament is to represent not only those who are registered in the constituency, but the entire population. Some might be eligible to register for a vote but for one reason or another have not done so, and some people might not be eligible because they are under 18 or for reasons of nationality.
There are issues of both principle and practice in dealing with these amendments. I agree with the principle that Members of Parliament must represent all their constituents, whether or not they are eligible to vote, but it does not follow that the boundaries should be designed around that principle. Constituencies are by their nature diverse, and indeed we have had numerous debates in which former Members of the other place have described their different experiences, workloads and issues that arise. We have talked about the difference between inner city and rural areas. It is inevitable that there will be these differences, but I think it would be utterly impossible to design a system that takes account of every conceivable difference. It is also worth restating the simple principle that underlines our reforms as set out in this part of the Bill. They are focused on fairness and equality for electors. What ought to be borne in mind is that we want to ensure that one elector means one vote.
The real point I want to make in relation to these amendments is that of the practical difficulties. I fear that they would be unworkable in practice. Population statistics are derived from the census, which as we know is taken once a decade. Annual estimates of change are then made from the original census data, but at present these are produced by the Office for National Statistics only at local authority level. On the other hand, the electoral register is updated annually, and whatever debate, discussion and controversy we have had over registration rates, the number of people on the register is an absolute figure and beyond dispute. It is not an estimate.
The noble and learned Lord in reading his brief referred to what I think he said were annual recalculations. He said that they are based on census figures with an annual uprating. How is that uprating calculated? What new information does it include that leads to the higher figures?
I cannot give a technical answer, but I can say that they are produced by the Office for National Statistics at the local authority level and that they are estimates of change. I do not have the psephological—I am sorry, I meant the statistical—basis for this.
The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys used to do the same job and was the guardian of data on births, marriages and deaths by geographical area. To my certain knowledge, it used that data in Birmingham to update the figures. The health authority used those OPCS figures for births, marriages and deaths. It did not track the population, but it had a base of information that could be used for an annual update. That is what I recall.
Just by saying that, the noble Lord will see that data on births, marriages and deaths give you only a certain reflection of changes in population because there is also immigration and emigration, which would not necessarily be picked up. I accept that for health statistics, it might be better if people registered, but there is no necessity for them to register in their particular area.
I did not say that it was the 2000 census; I said it was the 2000 electoral register. The 2000 electoral register is the relevant basis for assessing the electorate. In the same way, the report that the Boundary Commissions will be expected to produce by October 2013 will be based on the electoral register as at 1 December 2010.
As I have indicated, because population estimates are produced at the local government level, it would be equally or even more of a problem to estimate the true level of the population at lower than that level. Local government geography is obviously a relevant issue for the Boundary Commission, but it might find that even if population estimates were consistently compiled for areas smaller than the local authority level, the data may not be sufficient to allow it to draw up a constituency boundary that meets the two size requirements as set out in the noble Lord’s amendment. For example, the commission might have to depart from using wards as a building block to reduce the population of a constituency that was slightly over the 130 per cent limit. Furthermore, the amendments are silent on what would happen if the commission found itself unable to comply with both of these rules in an area. The amendments would make the commission’s task vastly more complex and unachievable.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I hope to be able to make a contribution to this debate at greater length later. Will he clarify something? It is probably my fault, but I am baffled by it. He keeps referring to the inequity—I am paraphrasing—of voters being subject to a year 2000 set of statistics. Could he explain what he means by that? What I think I understand by it, but I may be completely wrong, is that it is wrong that registered voters should somehow be included in constituencies that are not equalised. Obviously the Bill’s purpose is to equalise constituencies, for all the reasons which the Government have set out. Is that what he is driving at when he refers to this figure of 2000? If it is not, I would be grateful if he could explain exactly why he thinks this is so unfair.
I am grateful for the opportunity to explain. I was surprised that when the noble Lord, Lord Bach, sat down the noble Lord, Lord Wills, did not stand up, hence why I intervened at this point. He will, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said. The point that I have tried to make is that the electoral quota, which is one of the key building blocks of the constituency boundaries, is determined by reference to a relevant date.
In terms of this Bill and the four Boundary Commission reviews for 1 October 2013, the relevant date for the electoral register is 1 December 2010—last month. The point I am trying to make with reference to England is that the relevant date for determining the boundaries is the year 2000. The general election in May last year was fought on boundaries on which, if we do not have a further boundary review before 2015, the general election of 2015 will be fought. The data go back to the year 2000. Therefore we will have constituency boundaries that are based very much on outdated data. The point I am trying to make is twofold. First, that in no way serves those who are not included in the register but are eligible. Secondly, under our proposals and what we intend to do to improve voter registration, voters will be on the register for December 2015, which will be the relevant date for the report to be produced in October 2018 for the general election of 2020.
There are two uses of the electoral register. There is the use of the relevant date, to which the Boundary Commission must have regard in determining the size of constituencies and constituency boundaries; and there is the continuing importance of the electoral register to determine who is eligible to vote at a particular election. That is a very important issue, and work continues to try and ensure that those who are eligible are on that register.
The Minister and I have had a dialogue about the use of data from various sources in drawing up the register. Is the Boundary Commission bound entirely, in drawing up these figures, to the printed and published register of voters, or is it entitled to use other forms of data in order to ensure that the maximum number of people are included in a constituency?
In terms of this Bill and the four Boundary Commissions’ reports, which are required by October 2013, the relevant date is 1 December 2010. That is fixed.
There is the separate issue of trying to get the electoral roll as complete as possible through a number of initiatives such as the rolling register and data matching, which the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and I have discussed. That will not be used for determining the electoral quotas for constituencies until the next boundary review, but it will be relevant for determining who is eligible to vote at any election—be it a European election, by-elections, local elections, Scottish parliamentary elections, Welsh National Assembly elections, Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and indeed the general election of 2015. That is why it is so imperative that we give an impetus to get people on the roll. In terms of their being eligible to vote, that effort ought to be made.
I do not want to mislead the House in any way. If those people came on the roll now, or during a drive that brought them on to the roll in the next 12 months, that, by definition, would not affect the number of people on the electoral roll on 1 December 2010. Hopefully, by sustaining that, these people would be on the electoral roll on 1 December 2015, and therefore would be part of the calculation for the quota and the constituencies, which would be the subject of the ensuing boundary review.
The other point, which goes along with that, is that people might not be taken into account if they come on to the register now for the 2015 election, but many people have come on to the electoral register since 2000 in England who likewise would not be taken into account for 2015, if the amendment that is being moved by the noble Lord’s noble friend were to be carried. An update of 10 years is some considerable improvement.
I am not delaying the debate, but there will be people in the Chamber who have not been here during our previous debates and who are wondering why we are going on a register that is based on December 2010. Why cannot we wait, let us say, 12 months? If we were to wait 12 months, could we not get a boundary inquiry in and the new boundaries introduced for the next general election? Will the Minister explain why we have to have a register that is based on the end of last year and not, perhaps, later this year?
I am certain that I have already given that explanation, but I am more than happy to repeat it. The judgment was that in order to get the Boundary Commission reports by 1 October 2013, 1 December 2010 was the date that was necessary to give the Boundary Commissions their starting point: the raw figures from which they must work. October 2013 was chosen because it is approximately 18 months before what would be the general election in May 2015. I cannot remember which noble Lord it was—it might even have been the noble Lord, Lord Howarth—but someone certainly made comments in debates earlier about the importance for local parties selecting candidates to adjust to new boundaries. Eighteen months was thought to be sufficient time to allow that to happen. That is the judgment that has been made. It will be pretty challenging. I do not think anyone has denied that. Indeed, noble Lords opposite have commented that it will be a very challenging task for the Boundary Commissions to have their respective reports published by October 2013, but that is why we have chosen that date.
You have to have a fixed date in order to be able to produce the draft recommended constituency boundaries and have an opportunity for consultation. The work has to start very soon to be able to do that. If you start to import new figures two years down the line, it is practically not possible to do that. It comes down to sheer practicality. You cannot do that and have that all in place by 2013.
I might be being dense about this, but there does seem to be a degree of logic in the position of both my noble friends Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Howarth. It seems unusual to choose in the middle of this legislation a date that is in the past. All of us in this House know or should know about the difficulties of encouraging people to be on the electoral register. If we were able to choose a date—it need not necessarily be into 2012, it could be a date perhaps in the later months of this year—that would give an opportunity. Maybe it is lack of sleep, but I am not grasping the saliency of the point that the noble and learned Lord is making.
From memory—and if I get this wrong, I am sure that I will be corrected—1 December is the date on which the new electoral roll comes out. That is the obvious date for the new electoral register. When we started Committee on this Bill, that date was not in the past but in the future—very shortly in the future, but in the future none the less. You do need a date. The judgment that was made on the basis of the experience of the Boundary Commission, which has many years of experience, was that that timescale is required if the new boundaries are to be in place to allow an election based on these new boundaries in May 2015, and to delay it by 12 months would not make that possible. The base year for constituency boundaries for England would be 2000. That is a marked improvement. This may be slightly technical, but there is no jiggery-pokery about it. It is done on the basis of advice on what is required to get a Boundary Commission reports by October 2013.
I am grateful to my noble and learned friend, who is giving a painstaking analysis. There is an additional reason for this, which I know was endorsed by noble Lords opposite. The year of a general election, for very good reasons, because of the work done by the previous Labour Government, includes a number of people who register at a very late date before the general election. So the 2010 register is likely to be more comprehensive than the 2011 one, thanks to the improvements made by the previous Government. That point was made by a number of Members opposite. I hope that we in the Committee all agree that December 2010 is rather a good base, because it does not prevent anyone from coming on the register before the next general election. It just means that there is a pretty solid figure to work from.
That is a very good point, and one that I certainly remember being made—and making—some days ago. The point was made by one of the noble Lords opposite, possibly by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, when we debated the amendment with specific regard to those in the 17 to 24 age group, about the number of young people who came on to the register during the general election campaign. They will be there, and their presence will be taken into account. I have tried to explain, and tried to make the important point on this amendment, that there are real practical difficulties in having both a figure for the electorate and an estimate of the census population. I have not heard yet from the noble Lord, Lord Sewel.
I am a late contributor to the debate. Several years or decades ago, I tried to earn an honest penny by looking at things such as interdecennial census estimates and the date that the Boundary Commission used. I have to say that they were all grossly inaccurate, as you could see when you had more detailed data coming through. I used to sit back and wait for the census to come out and see how the interdecennial data had to be revised in the light of the census. There was a fairly radical change quite often. Have the Minister or other colleagues consulted the Office for National Statistics to ask whether it can produce with confidence estimates of population or potential electorate population for the country?
My Lords, in the question that the noble Lord asked he gave the answer as to why it is not possible. He used the word “estimate”, which is what it would be—an estimate. The Boundary Commission is using actual figures on the electoral roll.
The secretary to the Boundary Commission for Scotland was asked when giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place about the accuracy of population figures compared with electoral figures. His answer was:
“I think there are significant practical problems. One of the things that this country does not have is a precise and continuously updated register of population. Our electoral register is continuously updated and spring cleaned or autumn cleaned once a year, whereas our population is only precisely counted once every decade”.
In other words, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Scotland thought that there were significant practical problems in using the basis of population. Against that background, we would be unwise not to give heed to that very practical consideration. It does not diminish the importance of a drive to have people registered so that they can vote in elections, but in these circumstances I beg the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
For the first time I am beginning to understand why things are as complicated as they are. If I understand correctly, the Boundary Commission needs population estimates for the quota to be decided, and for that to happen you do not need the exact population number; estimates should do. For voting, you have to have the exact, accurate electoral register. As my noble friend Lord Sewel asked, why cannot we have interdecennial estimates of population from the Office for National Statistics to decide the quota that the Boundary Commission uses while waiting for the accurate figure? These are two separate things. For voting itself, people have to be resident, but for the boundary to be decided, estimates might be a better thing than exact census numbers.
There are two points here. First, it has been recognised in earlier debates that this Boundary Commission review will be on a much shorter timescale than many previous Boundary Commission reviews, which underlines the point as to why it is not possible for us to move the date forward continuously. For completeness, I should note that the English Boundary Commission’s fifth periodical report about projected electorate changes, which were published in 2007—and there may be an amendment at some point on these issues—said about estimated electorate changes that it was sometimes asked to take into account projected growth or decline, but usually growth, in the electorate. The commission said that such projections were considered to be speculative and that it did not have regard to them, but that when it was satisfied that growth or decline would occur in the very near future—such as in the case of a large housing development nearing completion—it felt able to take such factors into account. There was some effort, but it was based on substantive grounds and not on the sort of estimates that attend population figures. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has been extremely indulgent of these interventions, but they are very helpful if they discourage people from making speeches about issues that he has addressed. My question relates directly to the last point that he made, which is at least some recognition that there will be population movements, which must be accommodated in drafting constituency boundaries in anticipation. My understanding of the Bill is that even that minor recognition of population changes will not be possible if the Bill becomes law. Am I correct in that understanding?
If I have got it wrong I shall say so, but it was not speculative, which is what the Boundary Commission is invited to do. It has indicated that if it comes up at the stage of the representations in the consultation, it might be able to talk about some hard, factual and practical changes. I shall confirm, I hope sooner rather than later, that that is possible.
I continue on from what my noble friend asked. As I understand it, in the past Boundary Commissions have worked on the number registered at a particular date—that is certainly right. However, under the 1986 rules, or the way in which they have been applied, the Boundary Commission has been able to look carefully at what is proposed to be built in a certain area, such as a new town, to use an extreme example, in the relevant period. I might be wrong about that, and I look to the Minister and his advisers about that. The Boundary Commission can take that as another consideration. Of course, the commission cannot add a population as such, but it can take into account what is likely to happen in that area in a broad way.
Perhaps the noble and learned Lord will answer this when he replies to other comments that have been made, but we are concerned that if the Boundary Commission's role is so numerically based, it will really have the opportunity to look at these wider matters. At the moment, under what we consider to be rather good rules, will the commission be able to consider them in the same way as it has in the past? I do not expect an immediate answer because this is an important point about the new rules that will be created under the Bill.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord spoke of his desire to achieve fairness and equality between electors in the processes that this Bill provides for by introducing constituencies that reflect that. We might also want to see fairness and equality between citizens. I know that it is not our tradition and practice in this country to draw constituency boundaries on the basis of population. Instead, we take account of those who are registered electors. However, it is highly desirable that the real population figures should effectively be taken into account. The way to square that circle is to do everything possible to improve the state of the electoral registers to make sure that the registers, constituency by constituency throughout the country, are as accurate and complete as they possibly can be.
The noble and learned Lord said that the Government are intent that that should happen. But it is not realistic to talk, as the Government do, about equal votes in equally drawn constituencies if the registers are so patchy. They are more incomplete in some constituencies than others. Therefore reform of registration, or at least a serious and effective drive to update and improve registration, must be intrinsic to the project that the Government have embarked on in their quest to achieve equal votes in equally drawn constituencies.
Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, answering Questions in the other place said:
“It is the choice of the coalition Government to say that we want to reform politics not in a piecemeal fashion”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/11; col. 682.]
If that is indeed the intention of the coalition Government, as stated by the Deputy Prime Minister only yesterday, then surely the Bill should be amended in some way to incorporate provisions that give impetus and drive to ensuring that registration is greatly improved.
There is a political problem for the Government in that there is a perception that the Government are happy to see significant proportions of the electorate unregistered. A greater number of those who are unregistered may not be disposed to vote for the coalition. Why are we not getting registration built into this legislation? Is it simply because the Government are in such a rush to get the Bill on the statute book? They do not need to be in such a rush to get the whole Bill on to the statute book. As we have been saying, we are happy to accept that Part 1 of the Bill has been scrutinised in this House with some thoroughness. If Part 1 of the Bill were separated from Part 2, we would be content for that to go ahead. For some reason to do with mistrust between the coalition partners, they are still unwilling to do that, but let us hope that it can be done. Then we would have more time to ensure that these important reforms proposed in Part 2 of the Bill are not only properly scrutinised but made more complete by the incorporation of measures in relation to registration.
My noble friend makes an important point. These are extremely technical parts of the Bill and they are areas of debate where we should not be at odds. We should be working together to try to find a route that resolves an issue that has troubled all political parties for many years. I cannot see what the problem is with decoupling the first part of the Bill. Let us get the pressure of time out of the way and try to get this right.
My Lords, we all enjoyed the picture of the noble Lord fast asleep in the Chamber that appeared in today's Independent. I hope that he is not intending to send the rest of us to sleep with his speech. He normally takes 20 to 25 minutes. Perhaps he can shorten it today and talk to the point for once.
Perhaps I can help the noble Lord in that respect. Some of us have seen a fascinating grid, the Opposition’s speaking grid, that was left in some facilities of the House overnight earlier in the week. It was very helpful because we were then able to see when noble Lords were being instructed to speak on various amendments. Would either he or one of his colleagues tell us what the grid is for today? Then we could know when the noble Lord was going to speak and perhaps we could slip outside to have a cup of tea or even a snooze. At the moment, we are not given any guidance as to when various Members of the Opposition are going to speak and that is a pity because we could make more progress. Also, if I can make a suggestion to the opposition office that produced this grid, it would be helpful to know how long the noble Lord will speak.
I would personally be terribly disappointed if the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, were to take advantage of the fact that I was on my feet to go and have a cup of tea because I depend on his presence as a stimulus and discipline to myself. I might be tempted to speak more rashly and randomly if it were not for the invigilatory presence of the noble Lord in the Chamber.
In relation to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, does he know that just before we adjourned yesterday, Conservative Whips happened to find some papers that had been left in one of the gents toilets indicating a rota going on until six in the morning? There were then all sorts of phone calls and various messages went out to Conservative Members to come back quickly and to make sure that they were there. It turned out, somehow or other, that the paper was a hoax.
There is a great difference between the traditional arrangements of the Chief Whips of both parties in ensuring that they have a sufficient number of people here to keep the House or if necessary win a Division, and a formal arrangement to get a series of people to speak to make sure that the debate goes on longer than it otherwise would. I confess that I am myself speaking away from the amendment.
I want to address the point that the noble Lord felt obliged to make. The rules of the game changed slightly, did they not, when the Government announced that they would have an all-night sitting on this Bill? They said that would do everything they could to ram the Bill through as quickly as they could. Once they had decided to do that, the rules changed. Why was it not good sense to have a document that would help this side, with our limited power, to set out some sort of rota for matters that need to be debated? The rules have changed and they have changed only because of the way that the Government have behaved.
I do not know whether I may be permitted to resume these brief remarks that I want to offer to the Chamber. It is difficult when noble Lords on the other side of the House digress into procedural matters and interrupt to waste time. Perhaps I might try to make progress. On the general consideration—
My noble friend is possibly entitled to enjoy my speech rather more than to enjoy a photograph of me making a speech. On the general considerations as to why the Bill should be amended—and the Government should be very willing to amend it—to ensure that it addresses itself to the question of improving the electoral register, I add one consideration. It is that, probably, the principal reason why the register is so inaccurate and incomplete, even 20 or so years later, is because we know that a great many people dropped off the register as a result of the introduction of the poll tax. I am not going to go on at length about this because we touched on it in an earlier debate but that political reality—that fact of history—implies a responsibility, at least on the Conservative wing of the coalition, to ensure that the problem for which it carries a large measure of responsibility is remedied.
I turn to two specific and more technical aspects of this amendment and its implications. The Minister was helpful to the House in what he had to say, both about the relevant date and the census, but I remain in some perplexity. Perhaps I have not sufficiently understood the purport of what he was saying or perhaps it is simply that it was not entirely convincing. It seems to me that it must be desirable that the relevant date should be set as late as possible. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, say that the earlier the relevant date is, the more likely the electoral register is to be complete and accurate. I found that a little counterintuitive and not entirely persuasive. The questions of the relevant date and of a census are bound up with each other, even though our constituencies are not based upon population.
The data that would be provided by the 2011 census are obviously enormously important. They will transform the appreciation that the Boundary Commissioners and everybody else will have about the distribution of population and of how, via electoral registration, the new constituencies should be drawn. It seems very odd, and the public will perceive it as very odd, that the relevant date should be set at 2010 when we have a new decennial census in 2011. While it takes some considerable time, understandably, for all the data emerging from the 2011 census to be established, none the less I would have thought that it would be possible, within a reasonable period, for the experts responsible for the process to begin to take account of that data. It would be very good if they could do so. For these reasons, I would have thought that if we could have a relevant date in 2012 there would be twin advantages: of being up to date, in any case, and particularly in that the information obtainable from the 2011 census could be fully considered and absorbed in the overall process.
The noble and learned Lord said that it all takes time, and of course it does. I do not say that the Boundary Commissioners should not start their work by reference to earlier data but I would have thought that it would be possible for them to update their work as they go along. Certainly, the objective should be—who can possibly disagree with this?—that the fullest account should be taken of the latest and most accurate and relevant data. It seems to me that these issues are worth further examination, for the major reason that it must be wrong and, indeed, unrealistic to attempt to draw equal constituencies without achieving the fullest possible registration and because we will have a rich source of additional data. It is not sensible to rush to conclude matters before those additional data can be properly absorbed.
My Lords, I wonder if I might contribute briefly to this debate. I add that I am not on any roster or rota; I will be very brief and address the amendments. There will not be time, I am afraid, for the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to get out and order his tea at all.
In order to have equal-sized seats, which I hope are what we are all aiming for, it is essential that there is an accurate and comprehensive register. It was brought home to me on the day of the last general election just how defective our present register is. I heard someone a moment ago say that it was pretty good, as a result of people wanting to vote. However, I sat for four hours on polling day outside a polling station in Lambeth and I found—I have done my best to be as accurate as I can—that something of the order of a third of the people who came up wanting to vote, when they came out and were asked if they would indicate how they voted, told me that they were not on the list. They were almost invariably from ethnic minorities and many of them were young. If that is the register that we are going to be working on, it is not good enough.
It seems to me that if the amendments that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has put before the House are defective, this cannot simply be ignored. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is anxious to make this Bill as good as possible and anxious to get it through at the speed of light, but these problems must not be in-built into the fresh legislation. If anything calls out for a pause and a chance to try to find a way of getting this right, and if that means using data from outside what are currently used, surely that must be the way to achieve our main aim of equal-sized seats.
My Lords, I start by associating myself with the comments made by my noble friend Lord Browne about the generosity of the Minister in taking interventions. He really was very indulgent and I am grateful. He really helped the Committee in his constructive and positive response to all the interventions that he was good enough to take, so I express my thanks to him for doing that.
As I understood it, the burden of the Minister’s justification for resisting this amendment—I hope that he will correct me and I am happy to give way to him if he wants to do that—was that it was wrong somehow that the boundary revisions should be taking place on the basis of out-of-date data. Perhaps he will just nod if I have correctly summarised his resistance to the amendment. I will just repeat that so that he can nod his assent. The basis of his resistance to the amendment was, essentially, that it was wrong for this boundary revision to take place on the basis of out-of-date data. Is that broadly it?
I think that it was a little more complex than that. It was the fact that the population estimates—indeed, the first thing is that they are estimates—are annually updated compared to the electoral register, which is an actual number. Certainly, the indication that the Boundary Commission for Scotland’s secretary gave to the relevant Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place was that it saw significant practical difficulties in doing that.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that elucidation, but will he consider this: is not an even greater problem this continuing shame that 3 million to 3.5 million of our citizens, who are eligible to vote, are for one reason and another excluded from the register? That seems to me to go to the heart of the problem which this amendment is designed to address. The real issue, it seems to me at least, is one of timing. If the Minister was able to tell the Committee—
Quite simply because they are not on the register. There is a lot of suspicion that some local authorities do not invest the money given to them by central government in paying enough attention to ensuring that everyone who is eligible to be on the register is on the register. Many local authorities do an admirable job and spend more than is given to them by central government for these purposes. If the noble Viscount is trying to suggest that I am somehow insinuating that there is a positive process here, rather than people just excluding themselves, as it were, he is partly right. There is no doubt, from some of the evidence I have seen, that some local authorities are far less diligent than they should be in including people on the register.
My noble friend refers to the 3.5 million who are excluded. It is not that they will not be allowed to vote in the next election; they may well be if they seek to register. The issue must be that the 3.5 million excluded are therefore not being taken into account when the boundaries are being set for the new constituencies. That is the key argument that we are not getting over in the Chamber—the exclusion of those people from the calculation on boundaries is distorting this whole piece of legislation.
My noble friend is absolutely right: this is precisely the point I made on Second Reading. This is the key point. If this were somehow an intractable problem, and we were stuck for ever with large numbers, millions of people eligible to vote who somehow, for whatever reason, could never be included in the register and therefore, for a practical purpose, we just had to get on and deal with all the other issues that the Minister has alluded to, I would agree with him. I agree with him that a lot of what he has said is desirable, but he has failed to grapple with this essential point. If, as I say, this were somehow an intractable, insoluble problem, I would be much more sympathetic to the approach that he has taken, but it is not.
Building upon what my noble friend has been saying, does he accept that as a measure of those entitled to vote, an electoral register of any date is likely to be more inaccurate than an estimate derived from the wide number of data sets which could be available to the Electoral Commission?
Of course, I agree with my noble friend—he is absolutely right. This goes to the point about the folly of the Government rushing this through. I will come in a moment to the point about the 2011 census, which is crucial, as my noble friend Lord Howarth has already mentioned. The point is that measures are in place to make the register comprehensive and accurate. I hope that I can help the Committee to have a little more understanding; those who followed the debates about individual registration in the other place will be familiar with the argument and I crave their indulgence.
The previous Government—I was the Minister responsible—faced a real, intractable problem. Everyone agreed, I think, that individual voter registration was desirable. There was very little doubt about it. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned pronouncements of the Electoral Commission many years ago and I think most people recognised that individual registration was desirable.
I will come to the doubts that people had, and those of my colleagues who are shaking their heads may feel more comfortable when I have made further remarks about this.
Individual registration was desirable as an objective in its own right. It helped to guarantee the integrity and accuracy of the register and, in a modern democracy, it is right and proper that individual citizens should register their right to vote, rather than the head of the household doing it in some 19th century, Victorian way. However, the problem was that it was widely recognised—and the Northern Ireland experience, which was arguable in several ways, substantiated this—that any move to individual registration was likely to exacerbate the problem of the comprehensive nature of the register.
In other words, more people were likely to fall off the register, for all sorts of reasons, not least that there are a large numbers of adults, regrettably, who are still functionally illiterate. Any move to individual registration, desirable as it was in its own terms, carried with it a very real and severe risk that even more than the 3 to 3.5 million people already disfranchised, despite their eligibility to be on the register, would be disfranchised. That was unacceptable, so for many years there was a stand-off between those who felt that the integrity of the register was more desirable, and that we should therefore move immediately towards individual voter registration, and those who said that we should not do that at the cost of disfranchising eligible citizens. This was a real problem.
The previous Government came to grips with this by bringing in a measure to implement individual registration; not immediately, not rushing it through as this Government are doing with this registration; but in a measured way. We made it explicitly subject to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register by 2015. We did not do that lightly; we gave the Electoral Commission the power to oversee the process, to report annually on its progress in achieving the objective and we gave it substantial new powers, data-matching powers, at a time of great anxiety about the Big Brother state and all the rest of it.
These measures went through with all-party consent in the House of Commons—the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all agreed. I hope that the Minister is listening to this, because this is important. We went through this process with all the Front-Bench spokesmen and spokeswomen in the House of Commons and explained to them why their initial reservations about the timescale were misplaced. We had lengthy discussions and consultations, all of which, I am afraid, have been absent in the progress of the Bill. We persuaded them, genuinely persuaded them, that it was simply not possible to achieve a comprehensive and accurate register any more quickly than on that timescale and they agreed to it.
Any noble Lord who wants to read the Hansard record of these debates will see that they signed up to this timetable. They all recognised it. The Liberal Democrat spokeswoman and the shadow Justice Secretary for the Conservative Party agreed to the timescale because, when they familiarised themselves with all the details, all the difficulties of making the register comprehensive as well as accurate, they recognised that this could not be rushed through; it did need that timescale. To do those politicians credit, they changed their minds about this. They had thought we should just rush in individual registration and that the register could look after itself, but when it was explained to them what the consequence of this could be, they changed their minds. I pay tribute to them. This was a consensual process, a process of consultation; we reached agreement on it and, in doing so, incidentally, the Government changed their mind on certain details as well. It was a genuinely consultative process, which, from my perspective, is a model for how constitutional reform should be conducted.
The objective was laudable and it was supported by many Members. However, when discussions about resources took place, was there not a reservation in the mind of my noble friend that, if a Government were ever elected who would starve local authorities of resources, the whole programme of individual registration would collapse, particularly when, in the register which will apply in 2018, we find that the boundaries set in 2018 will be based on individual registration? Is it not a sting in the tail that we introduced a measure, with the best will in the world, but now that the resources will not be there to ensure that it is properly introduced, the measure will damage boundaries in the future?
My noble friend is completely right: I was full of reservations and trepidation about the future. One does not embark on this sort of wholesale radical change without a lot of consideration and worry about whether one had made the right judgments about this. I was very worried and I remain worried about some local authorities. A lot of local authorities are exemplary democrats in this respect. They spend a lot of money and resources on ensuring that registration is comprehensive and accurate. It does not matter what their political complexion is—there are Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat local authorities which are exemplary in this respect—but I came across enough evidence to show that many local authorities do not take these issues sufficiently seriously. A lot of colleagues from the other place told me of examples where they thought that local authorities were wilfully not putting effort into registration, for party political advantage.
I make no secret of this now: I wanted to ring-fence the money that central government gave to local authorities for this. I thought it was so important to our democracy that local authorities should have no option. I was stopped by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was hysterically paranoid about anything that might smack of central government directing local authorities. Such is the power of the universal panacea of localism. I am in favour of localism, let me say, but there has to be a balance. I wanted to get this money ring-fenced and I was stopped.
I hope that the Government will look again at this matter. I see that the Local Government Secretary is, in many ways, admirably robust in trashing local authorities. This is one area where he could show his iron fist and ensure that every local authority invests the money that it is given by central government in making sure that we have a functioning and healthy democracy.
It has never come out publicly before, but my noble friend was blocked. I knew that, and I knew the Ministers responsible for doing it. When he was blocked, though, did that not give him cause for concern about what he was introducing? Maybe we should not have proceeded with this process, which we are now being punished for. We introduced it for the most honourable of reasons, and now we are punished by the lack of resources available to local authorities.
Let me respond to one intervention, and then I assure the noble Lord I will happily give way to him.
I beat myself up about all sorts of things that I did when I was in the other place; I assure my noble friend that I am not complacent about anything. Of course it gave me pause. I was anxious and concerned. I returned to the fray on many occasions over several years, believe me, but I failed. Yes, I was worried, but I do not think that we are being punished for doing the right thing.
I still think that bringing in individual registration was the right thing to do. It was right to yoke it together with moves towards making the register comprehensive and accurate and making one dependent on the other, I am sure about that. I am sure that we would not have had the measures that are now in place to make the register comprehensive and accurate if we had not yoked it together with individual registration. I am afraid that if my noble friend thinks that if we had done nothing, the party opposite would not have rushed forward even more precipitately and inconsiderately with moves to bring in individual registration without any attempt to link it with the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register, I think that for once he is deluded. I happily give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, we are terribly interested in the noble Lord’s ministerial career in the House of Commons, but it has nothing at all to do with the amendment that we are discussing. It is a positive abuse. Further, the noble Lord has been speaking for 15 minutes, and the Companion says that,
“speakers are expected to keep within 15 minutes”,
unless they are making,
“a speech of outstanding importance”,
which the noble Lord most certainly is not.
I am very sorry that the noble Lord should make such a personal and slightly vindictive comment. I am trying to help the House understand these matters. These are subjects that, as my noble friend rightly said, have not been made public before. The experience of any Minister in a Government is relevant to the passing of legislation, and this legislation is important. I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks that it is irrelevant that 3.5 million people are not registered but I think that it is profoundly important, and it is very important to this amendment.
I was actually concluding my remarks. I have given way to everyone, following the Minister’s generous example. I will give way again, subject no doubt to further spiteful comments from the noble Lord opposite.
That is how I was going to come to the conclusion of my remarks. I was responding to an intervention about that, and I was not talking about my ministerial career; this is about the process of legislation, which is directly relevant to this clause. All parties in the House of Commons agreed, parties that have now changed their minds about it, including the party of the noble Lord opposite. His spokesman in the House of Commons agreed with what we proposed, which has now been jettisoned. When I have sat down, I would like to hear him explain exactly why his party has changed its mind about the importance of people being on the register. That is relevant to this debate.
The reason why we were able to persuade the spokespersons from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties about the importance of a timescale—in other words, to 2015, not the new precipitate timescale—was, above all else, the importance of the 2011 census data. Only when those are available can we be sure that we have a comprehensive and accurate register. This was not a political decision; we were assured by officials, and I am sure that the Minister is getting exactly the same advice, that the full benefit of those data will not be available until 2014. So we come back to the central point about the timescale.
I understand all the arguments that the Minister has made in resisting the amendment. They are important, they are not negligible and I do not resist them all. There is a greater argument, though, about the central importance of having a comprehensive and accurate register, and, at the earliest, that cannot be available before 2015. I am not necessarily opposed to what the Minister is proposing overall in the legislation, only to the process and unforgivable rush. If he sticks to this timetable, he is putting forward profoundly flawed legislation, and I urge him once more to think again.
My Lords, as one-time Minister responsible for electoral registration in Northern Ireland, I have been interested by the references to the introduction of individual registration in Northern Ireland. As several speakers have said, several conclusions could be reached about what the result of that individual registration was. However, it certainly was not, and I strongly refute the suggestion, that it was because elderly people there did not know what they were doing—the word “illiterate” was used. I remind the House that the standard of education in Northern Ireland, and indeed in Scotland, is generally higher than in England.
On a serious point, the average size of the family in Northern Ireland is considerably larger than a family in England. When the head of a household filled in the registration form, he would very often put down all the members of the family whether they were living in Northern Ireland, England, New York or wherever. That was brought to an end when the requirement for individual registration was introduced and people outside Northern Ireland were no longer registered, only those who were actually living there. That is one of the reasons why the electoral register fell in numbers.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this matter. I shall be brief, subject to interventions, which I will take if I possibly can.
I am not a great expert in this area, which is why I do not intend to speak for very long, but we have had the advantage of listening to two very good speeches. One was by the Minister, who demonstrated as usual that he is in command of his brief and was willing to answer questions—that is where he scores over some of his colleagues, who are not so in command of their brief and do not answer in the detail that he has—and I learnt a lot from that.
I have learnt an enormous amount from the other very good speech, which was from my noble friend Lord Wills. We ought to listen to him with great care. He has vividly described what was happening under the previous Labour Government in order to increase registration and how to get local authorities to do that well. Anyone who was aware of that during that period, and I certainly was, will be aware of the efforts that he and others made in order to get this right.
My purpose in intervening now is to say that we need to listen and learn from my noble friend’s experience. I do not want to go into the detail of it, but he is right. I simply want to say that a deal on the Bill is possible if the Government would go the extra mile that they need to go to do it. It is crazy to drive through a constitutional Bill without getting the all-party agreement and involvement that we need. It is possible to reach agreement. This may be a late stage but the Government need to do it. They do not have to bring the House into a position whereby it becomes a carbon copy of the House of Commons, but on constitutional Bills they have to try to reach agreement on key issues. That is not impossible. My noble friend has convinced me on this point. I shall not go into great detail about my former constituency. I took an interest in registration, as every MP does. I was always worried about underrepresentation of certain groups in my constituency and above all about the fluidity of an inner-city area where the population turnover is very high.
I say again that the point my noble friend made about the estimates, and using figures from elsewhere, is profoundly important. It is important to note that underrepresentation in some areas is due not to the ignorance or lack of concern of the local population but stems from its socio-economic make-up and so on. I repeat that it is possible to reach agreement on this matter but you cannot do that with a Government who are not prepared to reach agreement. I say to the Government, please to try a little harder.
My Lords, the Minister’s early intervention was very helpful because a lot of the things that he said answered questions that I had. I can therefore be relatively brief. I hear the sighs of relief. I wish to make two points. First, we have been discussing two issues. One is underregistration. Every party represented in this House and in the other House thinks that that is a bad thing. Every party wants to increase representation and encourage local authorities to get as many people on to the register as possible. That is in all our interests and is something we should all be doing. We should accept the good faith of other parties in wishing to do that. However—this is my second point—what we are talking about today, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said, is not that issue at all. What we are talking about today is the best way for the Boundary Commission to make a judgment about the boundaries and the most accurate figures that it can use.
I have made my next point on a couple of previous occasions, much to the Minister’s annoyance. I have put down Amendment 67C, which says that we should use the number of people eligible to vote rather than those on the register. Questions have been asked about the accuracy of various figures. I and other Members have argued for a figure based on population. The Minister criticised that on the basis that it was an estimate. I have been talking to wiser colleagues than me about estimates. We pay taxes based on estimates. The Barnett formula gives money to Scotland and Wales based on estimates. As my noble friend Lord Desai said to me, the retail prices index, on which our pensions and other benefits are calculated, is based on an estimate. So there is nothing inherently wrong with estimates. As my noble friend Lord Desai also said to me, many things which cannot be measured scientifically are based on estimates. Despite the criticism that we have heard of the population estimate, it is relatively accurate. As has been said, it is fortuitous that the census is taking place in 2011. Therefore, we will get a very accurate measure—not an estimate—of the population, and those over 18, in 2011.
The Minister said that the register of electors is absolutely accurate but that is not the case. As I regularly used to find out when I went round canvassing, a lot of people on the register are dead. I understand that some of them used to vote in Northern Ireland, and not just in Northern Ireland. Of course, people move from one constituency to another and some of us are registered in more than one constituency for different reasons, so there are variations there. However, I argue that the biggest variation occurs—we know this as we have discussed percentages in previous debates—in the percentage of those eligible to vote who are actually registered in each constituency around the country. In some it is only 60 per cent, in others it is nearer 90 per cent, even towards 100 per cent. That is where the major imbalance occurs and that is why using the number of those eligible to vote is far fairer—“fairer” is the relevant word—when working out the boundaries than using the number of those who are actually registered to vote.
Having listened to this debate and having heard the arguments, will the Minister ask the Boundary Commission what its views are and whether it thinks that it would be feasible, better and constitute an advance to make its judgments based on population rather than on the electorate? I would welcome that. I know that the Minister will tell us that the Boundary Commission has given evidence, but will he put this to it de novo? Will he tell it that this submission has come from people who have been involved in elections and has arisen from a debate specifically on the issue which reflected our concentrated thinking on it? I would welcome a new response from the Boundary Commission as that would greatly help the debate and the discussion.
My Lords, the secretaries of the Boundary Commission were asked about this by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place and they indicated the significant difficulties that would arise from using a population base rather than an electorate base. I have made that clear. I am sure the noble Lord is not suggesting that they were not displaying their expertise when they answered that question put by the Select Committee in the other place.
I am grateful. What is the purpose of hearing from people who have genuinely been involved in elections and in the conduct and practice of elections—some people have sneered at that—as my noble friend has as a former Minister, if the Minister is not willing to go back and say to the Boundary Commission, “This issue has been raised. Can you have another look at it?”.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred to the winding-up speech of the Minister which took place more than an hour ago. Since that time we have had a further hour of debate. The abuse that started on Monday—organised by the party Whips, according to the documents that we have seen—is continuing. With great regret, I beg to move that the Question be now put.
My Lords, I am instructed by order of the House to say that the Motion that the Question be now put is considered to be a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House. Further, if a noble Lord who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the Motion is put without debate. I repeat, the Question is put without debate. I look to the noble Lord to see whether he wishes to persist.
My Lords, I make this application more in sorrow than in anger, but actually in both. The reason that I beg to move that the House do now resume is that it is the Committee’s only way of showing our distaste and anger at the use of the procedure of closure that has been moved this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. This precious procedure of the House has strength because it is extremely rarely employed. Indeed, apart from the other night, as I understand it, the closure procedure had not been employed for 20 years, but it has now been used twice in less than 48 hours.
Closure may sometimes be justified—although it is hard to think when—but how it could be justified in a debate on an important amendment on the question of the underregistration of 3.5 million of our fellow citizens in the voting registers is hard to understand. The debate had lasted for 93 minutes and was coming to a conclusion. It is true that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, of whom I make no criticism at all, had spoken quite early in the debate. However, this is Committee stage, not Report. In Committee, even if the Minister speaks early, other Members of your Lordships’ House are entitled to be heard and to make their speeches in due course. The noble and learned Lord made his speech and then there were speeches from other noble Lords around the Committee. However, for a debate of this seriousness to be effectively guillotined—because that is what it was—after that period of time and when, as I said, it was coming to a close is, in our view, an abuse of the House. For that reason, I beg to move.
My Lords, as your Lordships will know, I have not spoken so far in this debate so I rise now with a great deal of sadness. When the closure Motion was first moved by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, towards the early hours of Tuesday morning, the noble Baroness, our Lord Speaker, refreshed the Committee’s memory about the circumstances in which such Motions can be moved. I am going to trespass upon your Lordships’ time a little by doing so again because it is important that we remind ourselves when such Motions are proper. The paragraph reads as follows:
“I am instructed by order of the House to say that the motion ‘That the Question be now put’ is considered to be a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House; further, if a member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the motion is put without debate”.
I repeat that closure is “an exceptional procedure”. I ask the House: what is exceptional about a 90-minute debate about anything in your Lordships' House? If there is nothing exceptional, we tread on very dangerous ground. This House—not the other place—demands good conduct from us all.
As such, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that we conduct ourselves with propriety. There will be times when emotions will be high, but we must hang on to judgment. I fear for this House if such a practice becomes no longer exceptional but the norm. That would not be proper or right. I hear what is said from the Benches opposite, but noble Lords know well what they do. This is a moment when we should draw breath and understand the constitutional significance of behaving in such a way that we are tacitly allowing the guillotine to enter our House. I hope that that will never happen.
I hear noble Lords opposite saying that I am facing the wrong way. I am facing the right way. The noble Lord who moved the Motion for closure knows that it was undeserved after a 90-minute debate.
I was not talking about whatever happened on Monday night. Then, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, raised his objection, which was put. A number of us thought that it should not have been. That situation was exceptional and was the first time that such a thing had happened for 20 years. To move such a Motion again today, after a 90-minute debate, was not right. The noble Lord knows that very well.
My Lords, we must do some simple and clear talking among ourselves. The situation that we have arrived at, with the double use of the closure Motion, is edging us towards a guillotine. If this House introduces a guillotine, scrutiny will be impossible. I think that scrutiny has become impossible in the course of the debate on this Bill, in part because of the repetitive and irrelevant comments, whether co-ordinated or not, made in many speeches by noble Lords on the opposition Benches. That, too, is an abuse of the procedures of the House. However, I also believe that the resort to the Motion for closure, with its implicit guillotine, is an abuse of the process of the House. As a Cross-Bencher, I beg the leaders of the Opposition and of the coalition to remember that their loyalty to this House stands above their partisan loyalty.
At the moment, I and some other noble Lords do not vote on the substance of this legislation only to prevent closure and the move towards the guillotine. I know that many noble Lords opposite care greatly about the House. I hope that they will discuss with their colleagues why the repeated use of the Motion for closure will prove destructive. It will end up as an argument not for an elected or a non-elected House, or for a hybrid House, but for unicameralism.
At the other end of this palace there is a guillotine. We know how much legislation reaches us undiscussed, undigested and unscrutinised. The function that we try to carry out is important. It is not the grandest function, but it is essential. Until things are changed, we have a duty to preserve that function. We will lose it if collectively we adopt tactics that either amount to a filibuster, even if they were not co-ordinated as such, or that amount to a guillotine, even if they are not so labelled.
My Lords, I did not vote for the closure Motion because I felt that it was wrong to vote for what was, to all intents and purposes, a guillotine—or what was rapidly becoming one. I came to the Chamber shortly before the closure Motion was put to see how the debate was going. I had other business this afternoon and had not been able to join the debate before. I had left the Chamber as Amendment 65B was moved. I came back a couple of hours later and was more than a little dismayed to discover that we were still on the first amendment of the afternoon. I feel that we need to be making more progress on the Bill. As I said yesterday, the Opposition must be in no doubt that they have long since lost the patience of the House. There have been plenty of stalemates or near-stalemates in this House, and the only way they can be resolved is the way that they traditionally and on a daily basis are resolved, which is through a process of negotiation with give and take on both sides.
A little time after I said that yesterday morning—I do not impute a relationship of cause and effect—the Government began to say that they would look further at some of the amendments being moved. With that, the spirit of the debate began to change—at least my impression was that that was the case yesterday—and things began to move along at a somewhat brisker pace yesterday afternoon. Indeed, I am advised that the kind of negotiations that I called for yesterday morning have been in progress between the Government and the Opposition. In those circumstances, I urge that the Government and the Opposition redouble their efforts to reach a compromise so that the debate can proceed in a timely fashion and we are able to conclude the Committee stage of the Bill in a timely fashion with the necessary compromises on both sides having been achieved.
My Lords, at the time of a clash and a rather sour atmosphere at some stage on Tuesday morning, a still small voice of reason was heard in the Chamber. It was the noble Lord, Lord Low. I think most of us approved of and were delighted by the way he spoke. There clearly must be negotiation and it must be in the spirit of give and take, not “We take and you give”. There has to be some serious discussion—not just throwing a few sprats, such as the Isle of Wight, to the Opposition—because this is a matter of very considerable importance.
We are here at the moment because the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, moved his closure Motion. I do not know whether that was done with the approval of the Government, but the Government certainly adopted it by going into the Lobby with him. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, may have in his spare time read a very famous American book, How to Influence People Without Making Friends. That may be the spirit in which he moved his Motion. As a lawyer, he must know that if he were called upon to give a judicial interpretation of the words “a most exceptional procedure”, it cannot be an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which one defines words as one wants to define them; it must mean “most exceptional”. We are in the unprecedented position of having had two closure Motions. In the spirit of what the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, I fear that unless we are very careful and hold back from the brink, we are indeed slipping inexorably along the road to guillotine.
The guillotine was used in the other place, which meant that rather important amendments relating to Wales, my own country, were not touched, and that whole swathes of the Bill were not touched. Are we moving to the position where a guillotine will, in practice, be created in this House? It will indeed be unprecedented and will undermine the process of self-regulation. I hope that all of us, even the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will now proceed in the spirit of that remarkable speech in intervention yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Low. We wait to see the colour of that which the Government bring forward, but I hope that they will work in the spirit of this place and will not try to juggernaut through that which they have agreed within the coalition.
My Lords, I have been in this House for well over 20 years and have seen many long debates. I have never experienced anything like what has gone on on this Bill. There has been almost a relay of speeches designed to inform you about just about anything other than about what is on the Order Paper. Somewhere there will be a pedant’s description of what a filibuster actually is, but this looks and smells like one. That is where we have got to.
My Lords, I have not taken part in the Bill, but I have been in the House for some 20 years. I was a Minister for rather a long time during that period. On behalf of the Government, I must have been responsible for taking through 12 to 15 Bills. On every Bill for which I was responsible, I expected to negotiate for two reasons. The first was the practical reason that as a Labour Party in the House of Lords we had no overall majority, and the second reason why I expected to negotiate was that time and again Lord Mackay, who was my first opposite number, and then the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, very often joined by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, had a better argument and better evidence to support their position than was in my brief, and I learnt from them. Therefore, the basis of negotiation was first on the grounds of not having the numbers and secondly because the Opposition had something worth while to say and very often had a more powerful case than my department could offer. That was the basis on which we negotiated on every Bill for which I was responsible.
Now, because for the first time ever there is a government Tory-led coalition majority on the Benches opposite, there seems to be a belief, which I hope is not shared by all Members opposite, that numbers count and arguments do not. I hope therefore that noble Lords will reflect that there is virtue in negotiation, not just because of numbers but because wisdom—judgment, as my noble friend said—does not belong to any one section of this House. That is why we have been so effective as a revising Chamber over the years. There is wisdom and judgment around the House, and any Government, if they are wise, listen to it, reflect upon it and, I hope, adjust their position accordingly. I hope that we never see the disgrace of the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, today to bring closure on a particular amendment and thus to cut out the possibility of the negotiation that we need to have. I ask noble Lords opposite to reflect on what happened during the past 13 years. I understand that opposition is painful, but they made a powerful impact on the Government’s programme not just by virtue of numbers but by their argument, their judgment and the experience they brought to bear. It is foolish beyond belief to think that because you have the numbers, you can dispense with that judgment now. I beg noble Lords to reconsider.
My Lords, it is with considerable difficulty that I find myself addressing this position which, as far as I am concerned, has never happened before. We have come to this position as a result of a government Bill which deals with very important matters—I am the first to concede that—which require discussion, and we have had a good deal of discussion. Yesterday, for example, there was a concise and effective debate on the amendments proposed by the opposition Front Bench. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness explained that he could take the matter away for consideration but no undertaking could be given. That was what ought to have happened and the response by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was warmly accepted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. I see no reason why we should not be able to proceed in this way.
The other day the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood, said he had taken a Bill on the digital economy through Parliament. It was a very interesting Bill. I took part in the early more general clauses but once it became technical, it was beyond me, so I was not able to assist and had to desist from taking part. But there were 700 amendments. If these amendments had all taken the time that was taken by the first two or three amendments in this week’s Committee, he would certainly not have got his Bill through that Parliament. I am all in favour of scrutiny and I value the right we have here to raise every amendment for discussion and get a government answer to it. That is extremely valuable and I have explained it often in answer to people who ask what the function of the House of Lords is in relation to legislation. I am able to say that anyone who has a reasonable point and can get a Peer to see it as a reasonable point has an opportunity to get an answer from the Government on that particular point. It may not always be a satisfactory answer or the answer that one wants, but at least we have the right to get an answer from the Government on every point that is made.
The total number of amendments on the Marshalled List for this Bill is quite large and I would think that quite a number of them have substantial points. I have listened with care to a substantial proportion of the discussion in this Committee and I have been interested in the points made from the opposition Benches, most by people of considerable experience. I have paid particular attention to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in relation to the possibility of improving the electoral register. However, as the time has gone on and the same amendment is still being debated, my interest has slightly waned as a result of the extraordinary amount of repetition. It is not for me to judge always, but I have a feeling that not every remark is equally relevant to the point of the amendment. Indeed, my noble friend—I think I can call him that as an exception—Lord Foulkes of Cumnock gave a very interesting speech the other day but he never mentioned the amendment that was being dealt with. I do not believe in making many interventions on these amendments because it just makes matters worse, but on this particular occasion I ventured to intervene to ask him whether he was for or against the amendment. His answer, typically generous, was, “Well, I haven’t made my mind up yet”, and he expected that I would not make my mind up, either, until I had heard the whole of the discussion.
I make no apportionment of blame as to where this has happened but there has crept into the debate an extension of discussion beyond what is reasonable if we are going to get through this Committee stage in anything like a reasonable time. For example, one of the amendments took something like three and a half hours. If you take the total number of amendments on this Marshalled List and multiply it by three and a half hours, we will be using most of this extended parliamentary Session for this Committee. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the Bill, that is really quite excessive in terms of discussion. I feel that we have got to a stage where we have lost the complete adherence to relevance and succinctness which are the advantages of this House’s procedure. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, made some reference to this the other day and was regarded as having threatened people, which I certainly do not think he did, but he mentioned the point that in the other place this had been lost. The reason we have had it for all the time that I know of, and I hope that it will continue for a very long time to come, is that we have exercised self-restraint and discipline in relation to the total number of amendments that are on the Marshalled List with a view to succeeding that the points are understood. When I have listened here, I have understood very well and quite quickly most of the points that are made from the opposition Benches, but by the time they are repeated five or six times, one begins to feel, possibly, that they have lost their impact. I am afraid that is, at least to some extent, what has been happening in the discussion.
Not everyone has the same level of patience but we have to exercise a certain amount of patience with one another. I greatly regret that we have come to the position where this closure Motion has happened on two occasions.
I have a tremendous regard for the noble and learned Lord and the advice that he proffers, but is it not essential in pretty well every Bill that there should be some discussion between the opposition Front Bench and the Government? He has not referred to that.
I am not a member of the usual channels and I never have been, unlike my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who came from Tyne to Thames via the usual channels. However, I feel that we have come to a stage at which we need to reconsider. I hope that there will be no further Motions for closure. I also hope that all of us, me included, will conduct ourselves in a practical way and make points that we believe will be listened to. I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was kind enough to say, that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness has always conducted himself with complete propriety, anxious to reach an understanding of the points made from the Opposition and to do his best to answer them.
I understand the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the proper course for us to take now might be to have a very short Adjournment so that we can consider the position. I believe that there have been negotiations through the usual channels—I do not know exactly to what effect. I hope they may continue, because it has always been the way to work. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested on Monday as a condition of negotiation that the Bill should be split. I understand perfectly the very great difficulty with that, and I do not think that the condition will necessarily be met, but other things could happen. I suggest that the House resume for a short Adjournment and that we resume Committee in a spirit of real co-operation—I hope to speak on the next group of amendments, I have to say—whereby we will be able to have some concessions from Her Majesty's Government, at least to the extent of considering amendments, which should be the usual method in Committee.
Some people have said, “Well, we haven’t called votes”. That is one advantage of Committee. When I had personal responsibility for running Bills, I tried to make Committee on the whole exploratory, within reasonable limits of self-restraint. When it came to Report, we had considered the matters concerned, and very often the Government reached an accommodation that was acceptable to all sides. I hope that, if we need to carry this Motion, there will be an Adjournment and that we resume refreshed and reconciled.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate, not least to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for his wise comments, which included criticism of the Opposition as well of his own side. The point that I seek to make in moving this Motion is that you cannot begin to have a system of regular guillotines and at the same time hope to retain a scrutinising House that holds the Government properly to account. We cannot go down the route of regularly using guillotines as a tactic in Bills. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, put that point so much better than I can, and it came from those on the Cross Benches, who sometimes look at us, I think, from on high and make judgments about us that we do not make about ourselves.
I was minded to put this Motion to the vote, but, having heard the spirit of this debate and speaking in a spirit of desire for negotiations, it seems unnecessary to do so. I hope I get the feeling of the Committee right in deciding not to put the Motion to a vote. I think we want to continue, particularly with the debate that is about to take place on the next amendment on the Marshalled List. With the Committee’s leave, I will withdraw the Motion, but I hope it is on the understanding that neither the government Front Bench nor their Back-Benchers will indulge in closure Motions of this kind. It is just not acceptable.
66: Clause 11, page 9, line 23, after “6(2)” insert “, 6A(2)”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 89, which deals specifically with the Isle of Wight. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for the action that he has taken, which enables this amendment to be debated earlier. I hope that I can bring the Committee on to a happier and more consensual road than during the past hour.
Perhaps I may say gently to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that I do not consider the Isle of Wight, a sprat of an issue, to use his phrase. It has support from all parts of the House, very much including his own party.
I wholly accept that the Isle of Wight deserves to be treated in the way in which the noble Lord wants. I also accept that the same principles should apply to other areas, such as Ynys Môn in Wales. My position was that if that was to be the only concession the Government made, it would be insufficient to show the spirit, which they should show, of give and take.
Having started and tried to get consensus, I shall not continue to debate with the noble Lord, because I am obviously not doing very well at it. It was the word “sprat” that offended me.
Few issues in politics—many of us who have been in the other place will understand this—are more important or sensitive than constituency boundaries. I speak with some experience on this. My first constituency was not Sutton Coldfield but Nottingham South. Sadly, when I entered the other place in 1970 for my first Queen’s Speech, it was to hear that the boundary review was to be implemented and that, as a result of that, my seat was to be abolished. It is not exactly what you hope and expect to hear on your first day in Parliament. Things could only get better.
The seat was being abolished because the Boundary Commission thought it wrong to have a constituency that crossed the river at Trent Bridge, going from the city to the county at West Bridgford. That was in spite of the fact that it took only a couple of minutes to walk over the bridge, there was no toll on the bridge and you certainly did not need a ferry to make the crossing.
When it comes to the Isle of Wight, of which I have been a resident for more than 25 years, the theory is exactly the opposite. The consequence of what is being proposed in the Bill is that a new constituency would be formed that would be partly on the mainland and partly on the Isle of Wight, in spite of the fact the two parts would be eight to 10 miles apart, over a stretch of sea and with expensive ferries being the only means of communication. It is claimed that there must be this kind of new constituency because it is essential that all constituencies should have electorates of around 76,000, when the Isle of Wight has 110,000. No exceptions are possible, except the two in the Bill both concerning island constituencies and where the electorates are not abnormally high but abnormally low.
My amendment would allow there to be one or two constituencies on the Isle of Wight. Most importantly, it follows the amendment put down in the other place by Andrew Turner, the excellent Member of Parliament for the island who was elected on a manifesto that promised opposition to a cross-Solent constituency. You might think that his amendment would have been carefully considered in the other place, but you would be absolutely wrong. Due to the timetabling arrangements in the other place, which perhaps underlines a little the debate that has gone before, he was allowed no time at all in Committee, four minutes on Report and no opportunity to bring the proposition to a vote.
I cannot believe that this is a sensible way of governing this country. If nothing else, this amendment gives the other place the opportunity at least to consider the proposition concerning the Isle of Wight. I emphasise that the proposition is supported by every political party on the island; we speak as one on this. It would be the first time since the Reform Act 1832 that the unity of the Isle of Wight in parliamentary terms would be destroyed. It would be a bad deal for the island and for whatever area of the mainland forms part of the proposed new constituency.
There are several practical reasons why the proposal is not in the public interest. The most basic point is that however you put together a new, divided constituency, no one believes that you can create a community, yet all the political parties in this country talk at some length about the importance of building communities. This proposal goes smack against that objective. If a new constituency was created out of part of Portsmouth and the east of the Isle of Wight, the travel difficulties involved in moving between one part and the other would be both immense and expensive. We are not talking about walking over Trent Bridge but about having to take a ferry or a hovercraft. A return journey by car ferry is likely to cost £50, and it could cost £100. A trip by hovercraft is less expensive but presents the problem of how to get about on the other side. The bus service tries hard but everyone would concede that it does not meet all the needs of the public. The internal rail service is typified by the provision of antique, cast-off London Transport carriages, as everyone who has been to the Isle of Wight knows. None of this is a recipe for free and easy movement in the new constituency or in a community.
Nor are the interests of the island and the mainland necessarily the same. For example, on another part of the island, the islanders want an improved ferry service from Yarmouth to Lymington, but they are strongly opposed by the mainland Lymington River Association, which wants nothing of the kind. There is no community of interest.
There has been no consultation with the people on the island about this proposal. Had there been, the Government would have discovered that all three political parties are opposed to a cross-Solent constituency—as are the county council, including the independents, the other councils on the island and, overwhelmingly, the public, 18,000 of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, which was collected in literally only a couple of weeks. Obviously it is not as easy to gauge the view of the public on the mainland because we do not know what part of the mainland the new constituency is meant to tie up with. However, if we are talking about Portsmouth, Southampton or somewhere else, I guess that there would not be overwhelming support for the proposition.
Two points in particular need to be borne in mind. First, given the electoral size of the island constituencies that are made exceptions to the 76,000 size rule in the Bill—Orkney and Shetland and what used to be the Western Isles; Orkney and Shetland has 33,000 constituents and the other constituency has 22,000—if there was only one constituency on the Isle of the Wight, the difference from the standard would not be anything like as great as that, and the same would be true if there were two constituencies.
However, a second and perhaps even more fundamental point is that the Boundary Commission looked at the proposition of a cross-Solent constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was, even then, 103,000—33 per cent larger than the average—and the commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency. However, it concluded that to do so would,
“disregard the historical and unique geographical situation”.
It found that it would,
“create confusion and a feeling of loss of identity”,
among the island’s electorate. It also stated that,
“communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament”.
I am sad to say that, despite that conclusive and independent thumbs down, the Government have persisted with this proposal.
I say directly to the government Front Bench that both coalition partners promised an end to the “politics of ignoring the people”—and I dare say that the Labour Party has made a similar pledge. Frankly, it is no more than common sense. Yet the proposal to preserve the position of the Isle of Wight and to give it similar consideration to that of the Scottish islands has the support of its Member of Parliament, of neighbouring MPs, of political parties on the island, of the councils, of the business community and, above all, of the public. I do not think that the public and the community on the Isle of Wight could have made the position any clearer than they have. I very much hope that in the debate today and tonight the Government will not try to ride roughshod over this public opinion and ignore it.
My hope is that the Minister will today give a commitment that the Government will look at this again; that they will consider the arguments that I have put, and which doubtless others will put, in the debate; and that he will meet me and others and consider how we can make progress before Report. It should not be beyond the capacity of the House to correct the present deeply unsatisfactory position. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have holidayed on the Isle of Wight for some 40 years in a family cottage, I have been a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes for 30 years, I lived in Southsea and Portsmouth for some 20 years, I am the chancellor of Southampton University and know that town well, and my family come from the New Forest. So I know both sides of that not inconsiderable patch of water. A battle was fought at Spithead and I parked more than 170 ships in the east Solent for the bicentennial. It is a large stretch of water.
I can assure the House that there is a huge difference between the people who live on the Isle of Wight and those who live on the shores of the mainland. I am sure that this is an oversight. It is extraordinary that the Government could even consider having a constituency across a piece of water such as that. I do not intend to speak for long because I think it is an oversight. It makes absolute sense to leave the Isle of Wight as one constituency—or two—but certainly not to stretch it across the water.
My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Having worked in the diocese of Portsmouth, which included the Isle of Wight, for some seven years, I always saw it as my international ministry.
I made several mistakes when I first got there. I remember going over there for the first time overnight and saying to some people, “Perhaps one of the best things that could be done here is to build a bridge”. There was total silence at the table and I was never invited back.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, asked what the people on the mainland would think. The divide is seen just as seriously from the mainland as it is from the island. It was baffling that when people phoned me up in Portsmouth and asked “Is he there?”, they were told “No, he is on the island”, as though there was only one island in the world. I remember, for example, that we would organise diocesan synods to gather the whole of our diocese together, and that they were almost always held on the mainland. There were complaints about their being poorly attended by those on the Isle of Wight.
On one occasion I made the radical suggestion that the diocesan synod might be held in Ryde, which is the nearest place to anywhere on the mainland and the easiest place to get to. It was very well attended by members from the Isle of Wight, but there was a devastatingly low attendance by those on the mainland. That was because it requires a significant effort to make your way across to the island, and as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, pointed out, it involves considerable cost. One of the things about living on the island is that there are more favourable ferry fares for those who live on the island to come across to the mainland.
As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, I assume that this was an oversight, but if it was not, it jolly well ought to have been. I hope that the Government will consider rethinking this one.
My Lords, I am proud to put my name to this amendment, which has been moved by my noble friend and neighbour in Seaview. The case for keeping the Isle of Wight as a single constituency is overwhelming. I can confirm that it is supported by all three political parties on the island and, indeed, by every single person I have spoken to there. Only last Friday I spoke at a meeting of the Isle of Wight Liberal Democrats. I explained to them the amendments due to be debated this week, but I did not know that we would have to stay up all night to get to them. Those at the meeting reaffirmed their support for the changes and asked me to pass on to my colleagues on these Benches how strongly they felt.
My noble friend Lord Fowler ran briefly through the numbers, as I did at Second Reading. The important point is that the Isle of Wight as a single constituency, which is how I imagine it would come out, is closer to the quota than either of the Scottish island constituencies. It will be 1.45 of the quota, whereas Orkney and Shetland will be 0.44 and the Western Isles only 0.29, which is barely a quarter. I support the exceptions made for the Scottish seats, but there is clearly an even stronger argument for making an exception for the Isle of Wight.
I stand shoulder to shoulder with my noble friend Lord Fowler. I hope that the Minister will listen to our concerns and give us some hope of substantial movement in the later stages of the Bill. If he does not, let me give him a word of warning. Anyone who has seen my noble friend Lord Fowler, resplendent in his beach shorts directing operations in village sports which take place in front of our cottage in Seagrove Bay, will know that you cross him at your peril. On the beach, his word is law. When we make law in this House, we cannot ignore a real people’s campaign like this. It unites the Wight, and it is as determined as I am to keep it whole.
My Lords, I have the honour to have been granted the freedom of the city of Portsmouth. In my years in the other place, again I was honoured to represent part of the community of Portsmouth. Of course, Portsmouth is very much involved in the implications of what is being proposed in the Bill and in the amendment. I want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that he could not have put the case better. It was a well argued and most convincing presentation, so really I would just like to say that I fully endorse it.
However, I want to make one other point. I now live in Cumbria, at the other end of the country, but last Sunday I was back in Portsmouth for a memorial service in the cathedral for the victims of the blitz. Portsmouth suffered a terrible blitz which wrought tremendous damage on the city with a large number of deaths and injuries. On the occasion of that memorial, one could feel the great sense of community in what is often rightly referred to as Portsea Island, because in many ways Portsmouth itself has the characteristics of an island community.
I made a point of gazing across the Solent. My wife asked, “Why we were taking this route?”, and I said that I just wanted to look at the Isle of Wight. I thought about the occasions when I have been able to cross the Solent and visit the Isle of Wight. I thought to myself, here we have the epitome of two rich communities. In every sense, they really are communities. While the noble Lord’s amendment speaks for itself and has my full support, I will make the point that this cannot be looked at in isolation from the argument about the importance of community if our constituency system is to mean anything.
I assure noble Lords in all parts of the Committee that in many ways Cumbria feels itself to be distinctive and very much apart from mainland, industrialised Britain. It has a real sense of community and therefore wants its representation in a political system to be based on communities. We cannot have a healthy democracy if it is simply a relationship between Government and a number of individuals thrown together in a constituency formed by some mathematical calculation. The dynamics and strength of a democracy are when people in communities are able to come together, collectively assert themselves and examine the implications of what is being proposed for legislation and how it will affect them. That is how individuals become strengthened—not by being given rights by central Government, but by being able to get together and assert themselves. All those who have been Members of Parliament know perfectly well that while of course we wanted to listen to and respond to the individual irrespective of how they voted, we also knew well that it was when the community asserted itself that we were really being held to account.
In that sense, the dynamic social and historic reasons for the amendment before us are unanswerable. However, they also have a far greater significance for the other issues that we are debating in this Bill.
My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lord Fowler. Anyone who is even an occasional visitor to the Isle of Wight, as I am, will realise that there is a special sense of community there because it is an island. It is difficult to get to and occasionally, if one is there in the winter, it is quite difficult to leave. It has an important and special identity, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will consider the amendment very carefully.
Finally, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler on moving an amendment that has produced concise and relevant speeches to it. I hope that noble Lords opposite will not regard that as a challenge.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on having put the argument so clearly. I dare say that in the far reaches of the Government they are saying, “This is a big mistake. We have got to get out of this one”, or at least I hope that that is what they are thinking. My connection with the Isle of Wight is that my mother lived there for many years, until she died. I used to go there a great deal. However, she was not of the Isle of Wight, and those noble Lords who know the Isle of Wight will also know that the people there call everyone from elsewhere “overners”. They are quite contemptuous of overners in the friendliest possible way.
It is a lovely island, with above all two characteristics that have been mentioned in part. The first is that communications are difficult. There was no hovercraft in the days when my mother lived there, but I remember going down to Portsmouth Harbour on a Friday evening, taking the Southampton ferry, or going from Lymington to Yarmouth. Even if things have got a little better, these journeys are still difficult to make. One cannot do them late at night or too early in the morning.
The other thing is what my noble friend Lord Judd said: there is a tremendously powerful sense of community on the Isle of Wight. One has only to talk to the local people to get a sense of that very quickly. It would be a travesty of geography and of community if the Isle of Wight were not to be one constituency. The evidence shows that the people of the Isle of Wight would resent it deeply, and we would be doing them a disservice. Many of us who have represented communities at the local or the national level know the importance of representing a community. It makes for a better and more effective political process that works well. I totally support the noble Lord and I hope that the Government will think again.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to support my noble friend Lord Fowler in his amendment, and to support Mr Andrew Turner, the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a Member of a governing party, or a party in a coalition, and find that a proposal is put forward to link your constituency with a part of the mainland for which there is no logical link. He has behaved with very considerable restraint. I have personally appreciated the way in which he has briefed us about the background to those issues.
At Second Reading, I made it clear that I do not like this Bill very much. Ideally, these issues of reducing the size of Parliament and deciding on how the boundaries are achieved would have been done by a Speaker’s Conference and not by a Bill of this kind. Ideally, there should not have been the two separate issues of AV and the reduction of the size of Parliament in the same Bill. That, however, is all water under the bridge. I confess I looked at the Bill with a certain degree of hostility, and perhaps because I am cynical, when I saw that there was an exception for Orkney and Shetland, I thought that that must be a bit of a deal with the Liberals, because that is a Liberal constituency. I realise that that was a wicked and improper thought. The Western Isles, of course, is a nationalist constituency. Then I had lunch today with Mr Charles Kennedy and I said, wrongly, “Of course, your seat is not affected”. He quite rightly pointed out that that was a widely held mistaken belief; although his seat is the largest—Ross, Skye and Lochaber—it is, of course, not exempted because the Boundary Commission simply has that as a size. He is in the same boat as everyone else. I accept that the reason that the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland are made exceptions in the Bill is that, quite rightly, somebody recognised that they are distinctive communities. There are many islands that form part of Argyll which have all the problem of ferries and the rest that affect the Isle of Wight, but the key point is whether it is a distinctive community. Clearly the Isle of Wight is a distinctive community.
I do not wish to detain the House, but I would like to make one other general point. I return to what I had to say about Mr Andrew Turner. All of us in this House—especially those I expect who were Members of the other place—must feel great distress at the way in which the status and standing of Members of Parliament have taken a knock of late. One thing, however, that is really encouraging in all the polls and surveys is that people still hold their own Member of Parliament in high regard, even if they have a jaded view of Members of Parliament as a group.
One of the reasons for that is because the Member of Parliament is seen to be the Member for their area or community. I was a Tory in Sterling where two-thirds of the voters had never experienced or wanted a Tory but, as such, you were respected as the Member of Parliament—their man or their woman in Parliament. Even in the days of the rotten boroughs people came to represent the rotten borough, they did not come to represent a block of so many voters on the map. I support my noble friend’s amendment in the hope that the Government will listen—
I am sorry to disturb the noble Lord’s thought, but I would also like to say that I have a very high regard for Mr Turner. Andrew is a lovely person and a very hard working individual. It disturbs me that he had only a few moments on the Floor of the House to put the arguments that the noble Lord has put so succinctly. The noble Lord touched upon Argyll, and this disturbs me too—a great island community; I think we are talking about 15 islands—as the same went for Alan Reid, who was unable to speak or had very little say. The noble Lord is quite right that a Speaker’s Conference would have allowed those Back-Benchers to put the case for their communities.
I bow to the noble Lord’s very great experience, not just as a former Speaker but as a parliamentarian. But, of course, we are where we are. The point that I wanted to make was that the identity between communities and Members of Parliament is very important. I am supporting my noble friend in the hope that the Government will recognise that the Isle of Wight has just as strong a case. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, that it should have one constituency; it could have two and still be closer to the criteria set under the Bill than either the Western Isles or Orkney and Shetland.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, the Government, in looking at the Isle of Wight, should also think about this point about the identity between Members of Parliament and constituencies. This is not just a numbers game. If we end up making it a numbers game, we may very well find that the respect, support and influence that Parliament is able to bring to bear through its Members in their constituencies are greatly diminished at a time when we need to strengthen Parliament. That seems to me to be a very retrograde step.
On the other point that the noble Lord made, we have had a long debate about the procedure which in effect is bringing a guillotine to this House. That would, of course, bring all the disadvantages that we see in the Commons, which is why our workload has gone up. It was Robespierre who invented the guillotine and he ended up being a victim of it himself. I venture to suggest that this House may like to consider that example.
The strength of the case for this amendment confirms the mischief in this part of the Bill which we debated in Committee yesterday. The rigidity in the formula contained in rule 2 allows for these vital geographical and local considerations to be taken into account only in the two specific cases or within the rubric of the 5 per cent tolerance that the Boundary Commission has. We can seek to address this specific case, and there are many other examples—perhaps not quite as strong as the Isle of Wight—of particular local and geographical considerations, by adding one or two more exceptions to rule 2. Or, as I would prefer, the Government could now recognise that the rigidity of the Bill is quite indefensible. We desperately need a broader exception which allows the Boundary Commission to take account of these factors in what it regards as exceptional cases, of which the Isle of Wight is plainly one.
My Lords, just before the closure we were talking statistics, and I make a small statistical point. The Government want to equalise the constituency boundaries, which is a very laudable aim. With the best will in the world, they may be able to do it in 99 per cent of the cases within three standard deviations; that still leaves six spare seats out of 600. The Government should not feel too nervous about having one more exception. The Government should say that it is just not humanly possible to fit everything within 598 seats. It is possible to allow a little bit of slack and, if the Government do, they will not lose the thread completely, and it will help many Members of your Lordships’ House to breathe easy.
My Lords, my connection with the Isle of Wight is that when I was Lord Chancellor I was invited to open the new magistrates’ court there. My host was the late Lord Mottistone, who was a Member of this House and at that time the governor of the Isle of Wight. I gather that the governor’s post has fallen into desuetude, but at any rate that shows that it was a separate—whatever the right noun is for whatever the governor has to rule over. I was shown very well over the island during that visit. My noble friend has succinctly explained the powerful case for separating out the Isle of Wight, and I hope that the Government consider it.
On the wider point made by the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Forsyth and Lord Pannick, I believe that the amendment moved yesterday and dealt with so expeditiously yesterday afternoon, which is to be considered by the Government, would provide a pretty good answer to most of the difficulties, if the Government are pleased to accept it.
My Lords, without injecting too much of a sour note, I would like to follow up some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Judd, who made them far more eloquently than I will—I have never claimed to be eloquent.
Community is certainly to the fore in these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, rightly explained the sense of community that people feel for the place where they live and where they may have stayed all their lives. Noble Lords will tell me if I step out of order, but I shall run the risk of perhaps bringing in things that are for a future amendment but that are, nevertheless, relevant to what is being discussed here today. I make no apology for attempting to do that.
In 1973, a Tory Government ripped apart the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen and shoved us into the new City of Glasgow District Council, with no regard for the community or the political unity of the burgh, the Cambuslang or Halfway areas—absolutely nothing. “You’re going in and that is it”, was the attitude, as the Government did not listen to a single thing. Many years later in 1993, 1994 and 1995, with the help of a more benevolent Conservative Minister, Allan Stewart—who was a first-class Minister and a first-class community man as well—the towns of Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway were taken out of Glasgow and put back into their natural home of the county of Lanarkshire. Although there is not the obvious geographical case for Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway that is apparent for the Isle of Wight, nevertheless we also have a sense of community. The difficulty for me is that the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight has made an outstanding case; I hope to make an outstanding case for my community at a later stage, but—there is always a but, and this is where I might do myself a bit of damage personally, but there we are—first and foremost I am a Rutherglonian, and I shall represent that burgh to the best of my ability in matters where the law is being changed.
In the Minister’s response, he must surely take a consistent, logical approach to such matters. Colleagues on both sides of the House have remarked on the rigidity of this Bill and the fact that the Government have not given any leeway. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, indicated that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, by agreeing to consider an amendment last night injected a note of being prepared to listen. Well, we will see. The difficulty for me is that if I sit quiet here tonight and the Minister in his response indicates some leeway or special consideration for the Isle of Wight because of the case that has been made—this is a rotten situation, but it has been caused by the Bill—I will certainly need to intervene. I have put a ban on myself intervening—I have picked up on the point that interventions are not appreciated in here—and I will otherwise conform to that, but I will need to seek from the Minister the same concession for Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway that is offered to the Isle of Wight. Frankly, I cannot sit here and not vote against special concessions for the Isle of Wight if there is not going to be any special concession for the area where my heart lies. The same will go for other people.
I know that my own Front Bench will not be very pleased about that—and I am not one of life’s natural rebels—but I am making a serious point about how strongly I feel about this. I am sorry if this damages or annoys the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight—he will be quite right to be annoyed—but I feel equally strongly for the community that I used to represent as a Member of Parliament. I still live in that constituency. I have lived there all my life and was born and brought up there, and so was my wife. I am sorry, but if the Minister cannot give equal treatment to areas that just happen to be represented by Labour—Orkney and Shetland is represented by a Liberal, and the Western Isles has an SNP MP—I shall inject a further sour note because I shall not be able to support the amendments.
My Lords, having sat silently through the long night watches, I am grateful that by accident this important debate is taking place at a more reasonable hour than I had originally anticipated. I am also grateful for the spirit in which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, withdrew his earlier Motion, which has enabled us to carry on with this debate.
I have no need to say anything at all at length, because all the points have been most effectively made. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and to his colleagues for having tabled these amendments. I will add one word.
For many years in my life, I have occupied one part or other of the coast of Hampshire—for many years I represented the constituency of Bournemouth West—and now live not too far from there. Prior to that, having lived for decades in the New Forest, I have constantly looked across and seen the outline of the Isle of Wight, which has always been over there, almost beyond reach. If we ever contemplated visiting the Isle of Wight, it was the subject of quite a lengthy discussion beforehand, and we knew that the visit would write off a complete day, whatever else took place. So it was not something that you just popped down the road or hopped on the bus to visit. It was a big excursion and a considerable undertaking.
To contemplate having to represent such a constituency as a Member of Parliament would be very exhausting and frustrating. I can quite see the enormous practical difficulties that would arise from that. I hope therefore very much that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will be prepared to do what my noble friend Lord Fowler asked and give these amendments very serious consideration. I see no reason in the timetable, or for any other purpose, why we should not have an amendment that makes common sense—and it is common sense that we want in all our legislation.
As everybody will know, I have spoken in the debate on the first half of this Bill only against the Government and, indeed, have voted against the Government. This is a time when I intend to support the Government—or I hope that I am supporting the Minister. If he makes an exception over the Isle of Wight, the argument about communities will be rerun about every conceivable constituency around the country. It is extremely dangerous to start making exceptions. The effect of this Bill is going to be that a number of constituencies that have been a coherent whole will be broken up, but that is the result of the Bill. Once you start on exceptions, why should it end with the Isle of Wight?
That is absolutely true. That is why I hope that the Government do not give way on this issue. That rules out any question of creating an exception for the Isle of Wight. It may be uncomfortable for the constituents of the Isle of Wight to be represented by two Members of Parliament, but it would not be the end of the world. I sincerely hope that my noble friend holds out on this.
I support the noble Lord’s amendment. I told him that I would do so and I had not intended to speak in the debate, but a few points arose from his speech that I want to take up. He said that the Member of Parliament campaigned at the election to keep the Isle of Wight as a single constituency, but the same candidate must also have campaigned at the election to have a 10 per cent reduction in the number of seats. That gives a new twist to the phrase “not in my constituency”.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is not in his place, said at Second Reading that the problem is that equal votes are a good idea and people support that, but people can believe two things at the same time. People want fair votes, but experience in the Isle of Wight and Cornwall shows that they might want something else as well. That is partly why we have tabled these amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, we have been trying to change the nature of this threshold to give constituencies such as the Isle of Wight more flexibility.
The noble Lord also said in his speech that there had been no consultation with the residents of the Isle of Wight, which is one of our objections to the Bill. More important, there will be no consultation when the Bill is passed because the Bill will also abolish public inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions. We would like people to have a say both at the beginning and at the end, but this Bill will abolish that. I hope that, for the reasons that he gave in his speech, the noble Lord will support some of the amendments that we have tabled because they apply in other cases. I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken—in certain respects—because if we amend the Bill so that it is fair to all constituencies, that would be better than having specific exceptions.
I speak as treasurer and secretary of the House of Lords Yacht Club and I am an islander. Historically, I come from Islay. My family are normally buried at sea and the female line like to have their caskets dropped off the Nab Tower—perhaps the Government can advise me on whether the Nab Tower is, or is not, part of the Isle of Wight. However, I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Hamilton, with whom I have the advantage of sharing an office.
I recognise that the two householders who tabled Amendment 89 have a certain interest because they live on the Isle of Wight; my interest lies in the fact that, when I was a Pompey rating, I had to row across the Solent from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight and back—I had to sail in a single cutter—and, just before Suez, I was shoved on an aircraft carrier and made to be ballast in a helicopter as we were dropped off on the Isle of Wight because plans were being made to invade Suez later. My feeling is this: there are some 70,000 islands and atolls in the world. All islanders are islanders; they do not like anyone else and they are a united community. It is not the same as a community that is divided on the mainland. There are islanders who have suffered from weather, affliction and everything else.
In my job, I had one very difficult time, when we had invested in a hovercraft service—
I was not suggesting anything about other islands. This debate is about the Isle of Wight.
The thing about an island community is that, when you connect it to a mainland politically, you create divisions. Even within an island, when you split it—as in Cyprus or any of the other islands in the world—you create divisions. You need a united community, which can be united only if it has the sea around it. Therefore, I support the amendment.
I also feel that there is something quite remarkable about what my noble friend Lord Mackay has done. He has taken the heat out of the debate. We are all debating on the same side. Yes, noble Lords opposite will want to protect certain constituencies and claim that they are all of one ethnic group or different ethnic groups, but communities are communities. Island communities are—I promise you—individual communities. I therefore support the amendment. I encourage the noble Lord who moved it to press it to a Division and I will vote, because it is about time that we had a vote on something worth voting on.
If the Government concede on this amendment, of course it could be said that they are setting a precedent. That does not bother me. I rather think that, when the first human being stood up on his hind legs instead of crawling around on all fours, people tut-tutted and said that that was setting a precedent. The argument put by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is important because it goes to the heart of the Bill. As we discussed to some extent at Second Reading, our representation in Parliament should be community based. If ever there were a case for that, it is that of the Isle of Wight.
The fact that the Isle of Wight is an island is down to the handiwork of the creator and we cannot do much about it, but we can inject some common sense into the Bill and say to the Government that this makes sense. Parts of the Isle of Wight should not be joined to a constituency on the mainland. We could argue the same case, I am sure, for Ynys Môn—there will be other examples I have no doubt—but this makes sense and I hope that the Committee will support it.
I say from the Front Bench that my party's view is clear that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, should be supported. The Isle of Wight seems evident to us to be a prime candidate for exemption. It meets the island criteria of the other two preserved constituencies. It has a historic basis to its case for being looked at somewhat differently.
Many noble Lords will have received a letter from the Isle of Wight Council, to which I pay tribute for the way in which it has run its campaign. The letter informs us that there has not been a cross-Solent seat, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said in moving his amendment, since 1832—a date that regularly appears in our debates on this Bill—and successive boundary reviews have very strongly rejected any such consideration. We are in favour of his amendment.
The debate has been of interest beyond the Isle of Wight, because of the two different strands of opinion on whether the Bill is too rigid. The Forsyth/Pannick strand—I do not mean “panic”, but that shows what happens when you break the rules and do not say the “noble Lord, Lord Forsyth”, and “the noble Lord, Lord Pannick”—argues that the Bill is much too rigid in terms of constituencies and begins to lose common sense as a result. Then there is the purist view—although I did not think I would ever say that about the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton—that says that, if the Government mean what they say about numbers being everything, they had better keep to their word. I know which side of that argument I am on.
As the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said, I encourage the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to press his amendment to a vote. Whether he does so is entirely a matter for him. I never thought that I would be in a position to advise the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, with his vast experience, but he should beware of being offered something in the next few minutes by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who I am sure will make such an offer with huge skill. The Minister will mean every word that he says, but the noble Lord should beware. If he decides to pay a visit to the ministry in order to hear what the Government have to say in the way of compromise, he should know that he has us at his back, as it were. He has our word that if he does not get what he wants we will support him in the Lobbies.
My Lords, by my calculation this has been a debate in which 18 noble Lords have taken part and have made some compelling arguments for the case put forward by my noble friend Lord Fowler. While trying to use some of the skill that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to—I will probably need it—I reply to this debate as someone who has a distinct sense of community, and a number of contributors to the debate referred to Members of Parliament and their community, not least because I represented an islands community.
I am acutely conscious that the islands community which I represented is one of the exceptions in Rule 6. When the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield commented about someone having phoned up and being told, “No, he’s on the island”, it brought to mind my first ever visit to Orkney when I went as a prospective candidate. Talking to some people, I said something about the mainland—meaning that landmass south of the Pentland Firth. I was taken aside and told, “That’s not the mainland, that’s Scotland. We are on the Mainland”. That was a valuable lesson, which I learnt, so what I say here is against that background.
I am acutely conscious that residents in the Isle of Wight have been taking a very keen interest in the provisions set out in the Bill. A range of views has been expressed in correspondence to the Government, and I understand that those views were made known to my honourable friend the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform when he visited the island on 1 October. I know that he takes an acute interest in the Official Report on the proceedings in this House, so he will no doubt see what has been said in this debate.
As has been made clear, the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Fowler and Lord Oakeshott would prevent the constituencies being shared between the Isle of Wight and the mainland and allow the Isle of Wight constituency, or constituencies, to be outside the 5 per cent parity rule. I readily acknowledge the strength of feeling that has been expressed in this debate—it has been expressed by many on this matter: by the Member of Parliament, Andrew Turner, by the council and by the political parties—but I also believe that it is practical to have a constituency representing part of the island and part of the mainland and for that to be done. While I am not in any way trying to suggest that the letters have been in equal number, it is important to put on the record that there has indeed been correspondence to the Government from people resident on the Isle of Wight indicating that they do not necessarily support the OneWight campaign.
I cannot, at the moment, but I clearly conceded that I am not suggesting, and I would not wish to suggest for a moment, that it has been equal. When people actually make their views known, it is perhaps easy to suggest that there is no one there. It is important that that is recognised.
Perhaps the Royal Mail might find that useful for their coffers, but I am not sure whether that is going to happen. Perhaps I might draw it to the Committee’s attention that the Isle of Wight shares its police force with Hampshire and that, in other areas, the island is already making the most of its links with the mainland. On 28 October last, the Government approved a bid to create a Solent local enterprise partnership covering the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Indeed, one of the expectations for successful bids was whether the geography proposed represented a reasonable, natural and economic geography. I am confident that an MP would be able to represent a constituency that meets those criteria, such as in a cross-Solent seat. The island has indicated a willingness to develop its long-term interests, where appropriate, in conjunction with its mainland neighbours.
I was acutely aware of that. I was just indicating that there were links. I was almost immediately going to come on to the point that the distinction which we believe that there is between the Isle of Wight and the two named exceptions in the Bill is that they cannot readily be included physically in a constituency with the mainland, owing to their distance and to the dispersed nature of those constituencies, which we believe are distinctive. Indeed, as has been said—the Committee was reminded of this by my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom—there is the principle in the Bill of equal votes and equal value. The Government recognise the strong views that have been expressed and believe that, at the end of the day, the principle which I have articulated would not be achieved by this amendment. I nevertheless want to say in conclusion—
Forgive me, for I am not a politician, but I find myself really quite confused. I promise the Minister that I am not trying to timewaste, given the accusations that have been flying about. I am genuinely puzzled, because on Monday night—I forget what time it was—my noble friend talked about the importance of not crossing county boundaries, because of the nature of constituencies and the unique influence of community. That question was never answered, yet here we have an exception possibly being made for the Isle of Wight. That is a very apposite and appropriate thing to do but I am worried that we have still not really addressed that question. I would be hugely grateful if the noble and learned Lord could try to address this confusion which I feel, as I suspect some others of my noble friends do, about why the Isle of Wight should be a unique example, as has been discussed.
I apologise very much if I have confused the noble Lord, because my point was that I have not actually conceded that it should be a unique example. I think that that has been recognised. However, the Government recognise the considerable interest and concern which the impact of a boundary review could have on the Isle of Wight under the proposals in the Bill. The Government have, nevertheless, been consistently clear that there are not compelling reasons such as those that apply in the two exceptions to make an exception for the Isle of Wight. My ministerial colleagues in the other place have indeed met with representatives from the Isle of Wight. My noble friend Lord Fowler asked whether I would be willing to meet him. I would certainly be very happy to do so to discuss this matter further, but I am afraid that I cannot go further than that.
Last night, I supported an amendment on the 10 per cent question that was moved from the Opposition Front Bench, which had wide support in the House. Very wisely, on that occasion my noble and learned friend said that he would take on board very seriously the arguments and take them back to his colleagues for consideration. He made it very clear that he was making no commitment. He could not assure us that we would get what we wanted but he assured us that he would take the argument back. The Minister does not seem to be doing the same thing tonight. I beg him to take the same view tonight and to take the argument back. Otherwise, I will join noble Lords very firmly in the Lobby against the Government.
My Lords, I do not wish to suggest that by doing so the Government are about to change their mind. Equally, I would not ask the noble Lord to come in for a waste of time. As I indicated in my opening remarks, this debate will be read by my honourable friend in the other place. I have indicated a willingness to meet the noble Lord and would not ask him to waste his time by having such a meeting. I hope that he would be willing to take up that offer.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in the debate that ended yesterday, the Minister is not making the same guarantee to me that he made to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on the amendment that was passed. That is the fact of the matter. I am always interested to talk and to have a meeting—I am sure that it would not be a waste of time—but, to be frank, I do not think that that goes far enough as an assurance to this House.
Indeed. I said that because I know for a fact that he does read these debates. I will certainly ensure that, before I have any meeting with my noble friend, my honourable friend, Mr Mark Harper, has read the terms of this debate and that would then inform the discussion that I am offering to have.
I will put this very gently. What are we doing here? This is a Chamber of Parliament. We are debating legislation. My noble and learned friend speaks for the Government and says that a Minister in the other place reads our proceedings and will have a meeting. I am sorry, but that is treating this House with contempt. None of us wants to create a Division here, but the arguments have been put, this is Parliament, and surely the Minister’s duty is either to say “Your arguments are rubbish and we do not accept them”, or “I will go and talk to my colleagues to see if we can get collective agreement to meet them”. Simply to say “We will have a meeting” is not acceptable and not treating this House as a House of Parliament.
In response to my noble friend, this is a Committee stage, there will be a Report stage and there will be an opportunity—the opportunity I offered—for the outcome of the discussions that take place to be considered. The House will return to it and if my noble friend Lord Fowler is not satisfied with the outcome of that meeting, I have no doubt that he will be willing to table an amendment again.
For the first time since the Bill started, my noble friend has me confused. Until now I have been giving him very high marks for clarity and sensitivity, but now I am confused, so I put a question in the hope that he will be able to “unconfuse” me. When he draws the attention of his honourable friend to this debate and they discuss it, will he urge his honourable friend to think again with a view to making an amendment, or will he simply talk to him without any motivation of change? I think this House would be pleased to know what the words actually mean.
I will undoubtedly express to my honourable friend the strength of feeling and the argument that has been put in this House. I indicated yesterday that I am not in a position to make any commitment and that is why I hesitate to go further. The most I can do is to ensure that ministerial colleagues—not only Mr Harper—are made well aware of what has been said in this debate and of the strength, the conciseness and the power that have lain behind the arguments that have been put. That is the spirit in which I will take what the Committee has said today back to Government and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will be prepared to follow that up with a meeting. I cannot make a commitment; equally, I would not ask the noble Lord to do it if I thought it would be a complete waste of his time.
Will the Minister consider, as part of the further consideration and in the course of discussions with his honourable friend, the very real danger that if the Government make two concessions in the Bill in respect of Scottish islands and give no consideration to the case for making an exception for an English island—the only substantial English island—a very unfortunate impression will be created in England that English electoral sensibilities of this kind are being dismissed very lightly?
I hear that point. I have heard more compelling, stronger arguments than that, but it is a point of view. I would not have thought that it would necessarily cause a rift within the union, but other arguments, not at least in terms of community, have added weight to the case for this amendment.
My Lords, I confess that I am disappointed by the noble and learned Lord’s response. I do not think that it goes as far as the commitment that was given yesterday to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I said that my hope was the Minister will today give a commitment that the Government will look at this again and that they will consider the arguments that I have put—and, doubtless, others will put—in the debate.
Incidentally, the noble and learned Lord referred to 18 speakers. He is quite right—17 speakers supported me. Only one did not. I hope that we can have a sensible commitment to take things further on Report. I do not think, frankly, that I have any alternative, because the one thing I can do is to underline to the Government just how strongly people feel on this. I found the Minister’s argument on the substance of this case to be not all convincing.
I thank everyone for taking part in the debate—all 18, even my noble friend—but I feel that I have no alternative but to test the opinion of the House.