Committee (11th Day) (Continued)
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
66ZA: Clause 11, page 9, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) For the purposes of rule 2(1) the electorate shall be defined as the registered electorate, adjusted by the Electoral Commission’s best estimate of the unregistered electorate.
( ) In making that estimate, the Electoral Commission shall take account of the known socio-economic profile of that constituency.”
My Lords, the Bill provides for an equalisation in constituencies so that their electorates have to fall within bands of plus or minus 5 per cent, with only two exceptions. This amendment proposes a small but important change that that should be not plus or minus 5 per cent of the electorates but plus or minus 5 per cent of a notional electorate, which is calculated to provide for shortfalls in registration.
I will turn to the substance of the argument in a minute, but I want to make one point that pervaded our earlier debates and which, as the House’s resident statistical geek, rather grates on me: the tendency of people to prefer an exact figure, however ill based and peculiar, to an estimated figure, however well calculated. The fact is that the registered electorate is a very poor figure indeed for calculating anything. I will come to the detail in a minute, but will say now that only 91 to 92 per cent of the actual electorate are registered. Some 3.5 million people are missing from the electoral register. We all want better registration, but it will not come in an instant. So it is not really a good figure.
I cannot help but contrast the imprecision of that number—not that it is a precise number; it is a meaningless number—with the precision of the 5 per cent that is allowed each way. I have argued in various contexts that the Bill is too inflexible for the purpose that we all share, which is equalising the size of constituencies. That led me to wonder whether there was not a way of coming up with a notional figure for electorates that more nearly reflected both up-to-date figures and the actuality of the number of should-be electors in each constituency that also deals with non-registration.
I remind the Committee of the figures. Non-registration is very serious, but it is concentrated in particular groups. The Electoral Commission published in March 2010 a study, The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain. The figures given in it are striking: 56 per cent of 17 to 24 year-olds are not registered. Of private sector tenants, 49 per cent are not registered. Of people from black and ethnic minorities, 31 per cent are not registered. That distorts the figures on which we are trying to base size of constituency in the future.
If those figures are soundly based—everyone can look at the Electoral Commission’s study and see how soundly based they think they are, but it seemed a good piece of work to me—it would be possible to construct mathematically and with no great difficulty a model that provided a decent estimate of what the electorate in each constituency would be if everyone who is eligible to register had done so. This would have certain effects. For example, it would mean that inner-city areas tended to have rather more representation, while stable suburban areas had rather less.
There are various advantages to this. First, MPs represent everyone. Therefore, an estimate of the notional electorate—actually, the number of people who really live in their areas—would be nearer to the number of everyone whom they represented than the actual registered electorate. Secondly, it would be a more robust measure in a system of registration that will have great noise and perhaps instability injected into it. In principle, individual registration is a great thing. As we know from Northern Ireland, the reality, at least at first, can be very different from the theory.
The noble Lord’s amendments are always very clever—first class; a lot of work goes into them. Who would establish the model to apply to constituencies, who would decide which model was applied to which constituency, and how long would the noble Lord propose for that to take?
The Electoral Commission would be the obvious body to do this work, because it has done the original study and is very familiar with it. I do not think that it would take long at all, given a decent computer; it is a perfectly simple mathematical formula. It would generate a notional electorate for each constituency. I agree with the noble Lord—I was going to say this later—that there are practical matters to be sorted out later about whether the proposal is workable. That is why I said that the amendment is exploratory and is not necessarily the finished article.
Before the noble Lord develops his argument much further, perhaps he could tell us what consultation he has had with the Electoral Commission about this rather unusual proposal, which gives the Electoral Commission potentially tremendous power that could involve it in huge political controversy? We have always agreed in this House that it is important that the Electoral Commission is seen to be above party political controversy wherever possible. Does the noble Lord not think that conferring on the Electoral Commission the power to make crude estimates of the electorate for the purpose of redrawing constituency boundaries and somehow to define socio-economic profiles in making those estimates would embroil it in such huge controversy that it would undermine much of the rest of its work? Perhaps he could tell us what consultation he has had with the Electoral Commission.
I am happy to: I have not. I was going to suggest that the Government should now embark on such consultation. The noble Lord seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill. The Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission already deal with matters of extraordinary—
The commissions already deal with matters of extraordinary complexity and political controversy. On the basis of the evidence that I have seen, this would seem to be not a difficult exercise and not necessarily very controversial in its outcomes. It is more a matter for mathematicians and statisticians than for politicians, and that is how it should be.
I was going to invite the Government to consult on these proposals before Report—there may be some hitch to them that has not occurred to me—but it would be a very sad day if you were not allowed in Committee in this House to raise a proposal unless you had bottomed it out with every interest group and authority that might be involved. I think that occasionally one is allowed to play with one’s bright ideas.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is next. I look forward to hearing several more interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in a minute.
My Lords, the noble Lord opposite referred to “crude estimates” landing in the political arena. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who is not in his place, and I have had a running dialogue throughout the Bill about using other databases to put people on the register. These would provide not crude estimates but hard facts drawn from databases to which local government, the Electoral Commission and others should have access and would be able to use to give not an estimate but the real number of people not on the register.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that I was suggesting that every organisation had to be consulted before we could consider something like this, and I was not. I was suggesting that it would have been proper to discuss it with the Electoral Commission. The noble Lord said that the Electoral Commission deals with Boundary Commission matters, but of course it does not. As it was set up in 2000, it was going to be responsible for boundary committee reviews but, when this House considered the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it felt that the Electoral Commission was dealing with too many and too wide a range of issues. The commission itself suggested that it should have its remit narrowed and that it should concentrate on what was really important and not be responsible for matters such as Boundary Commission reviews. I suggest the Electoral Commission would not welcome being tasked with this purpose.
The noble Lord might be right. I did not say that this particular proposal should go to everyone for consultation. I said, in general, that I did not agree with the proposition that you could not raise an issue in this House in Committee without first consulting everyone who might be affected. This amendment has been on the Marshalled List since the moment I tabled it.
Will the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, please be very kind and allow me to finish my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, inadequate though it might well be?
The amendment has been on the Marshalled List for two or three weeks. We have had briefings from the Electoral Commission in the course of the proceedings on this Bill, and if it thought this was nonsense it could have said that it was nonsense in one of those briefings. It has not done so and I do not intend to apologise for raising the matter this evening.
I urge my noble friend not to give too much—if any—credence to anything the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has to say about political controversy and lack of consultation. He supports a constitutional Bill that is being rammed through this House and that has had no pre-legislative scrutiny, no consultation and no appeal. I urge him not to pay too much attention to the noble Lord. In fact, I would not pay any attention to him.
I have been paying great attention to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for many years and I have learnt many things from him. Although I cannot say that I agree with him on absolutely every issue, the noble Lord and I agree privately on more things than we disagree about.
I wanted to be brief but, because of the interventions, I have been a bit too long. I think that any moment now someone will move that the Question be now put and so I must try to draw towards a conclusion.
The Government might be a little nervous of this because they think it will affect them adversely, but I do not think it would. In fact, some of the constituencies that would be likely to gain greater representation as a result of my proposal are held by Conservatives, the Cities of London and Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea being very good examples. In any case, as we established in the valuable discussions that we have had on the Bill, size of constituency is not the crucial factor in the bias that exists within the electoral system, and therefore it is unlikely that changing size will make a big difference to the actual results in a general election.
I have tried to put this forward in a tentative spirit, although some have tried to elevate it into a proposition that requires a 100 per cent justification before it is raised in Committee. It would represent a minor but important change to the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I hope that, in the spirit that Ministers have been applying to most debates more recently—if not that on the Isle of Wight—the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will at least give a considered response. If he feels it would be fit to give it a further whirl around, he has the necessary expertise and I hope he will agree to that. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is splitting hairs. There is a principle behind the amendment, which my noble friend is saying is that the register is incomplete and there must be some way of adding to it those groups of people who should be on it but who are not for all sorts of reasons. In trying to identify them, socio-economic data based on the profile of any particular constituency should be taken into account. That is a perfectly reasonable argument, but the noble Lord is splitting hairs on whether the Electoral Commission is equipped to carry out that function.
This is a particularly important case. It goes to the heart of many of the amendments that we have moved and dealt with over the past few weeks and no doubt will deal with over the next few weeks as well, which is that the register is inaccurate and that population is important. Therefore we have to find a formula for establishing what the population is in any given constituency in the United Kingdom.
I have been following the debates on the question of the census. Last weekend I had the pleasure of reading a report from the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I suspect that Ministers have not read it. Indeed, I would ask the noble Lord whether he has actually ever read it. It is impossible to consider this legislation without reading this report because it repeatedly draws attention to all the concerns that were expressed, and in some areas it does so in greater detail than the report produced by our own Constitution Committee in the House of Lords did.
I refer to a particular section in which the Minister responsible for the Bill in the House of Commons was asked questions by Ms Catherine McKinnell on the census. At the end of the quotation, I ask the Minister to note what I am asking for because it would be helpful to have the answer set out. I will read out what is unhelpful to my case and what is helpful. On the 2011 census, Mr Harper said:
“There are two difficulties with using Census data. The first is that Census data is of population and does not look at whether people are eligible to vote, and of course many people who live in the UK are not citizens and are not eligible to vote for various reasons. The second difficulty relates to the level of detail of the information collected in the time available. Clearly, Electoral Registration Officers are able to access Census data and use it, but Census data at the individual level that could be used to track whether actual people exist, so that they could be approached, is not published at that level of detail, but it is aggregated”.
When it is aggregated, I presume that there must be some data behind the aggregation. I wonder what those data are. They may not be published, but I wonder whether they are available.
Mr Harper goes on to say in his reply:
“Therefore, with regard to electoral administrators using it as a source to identify people who exist in an area and who are not registered, they can look at overall number and make some assumptions, but it does not really give them the detail to drill down”.
That is based on the aggregated data. Again, what is the material behind those aggregated data? He then says—and this is where my noble friend Lord Maxton has become involved in the debate, unless we are talking about other matters here:
“There are other data sets that might be more helpful in that regard that we are going to pilot in 2011”,
to which the noble Lord has referred.
“There is no bar on them using the data that is published.”
Can we have a list of all those sources of data? I have seen references in various documents to bits and pieces of data, but I have not seen an aggregate list of all the additional sources of data that can be taken into account by registration officers when they carry out their functions.
I am also trying to establish whether there is some way in which those additional data can also be used by the Boundary Commission in carrying out its work, or are those additional data somehow excluded because of the fact that we seem to be confined to the use of data that were drawn up in 2010? We should have a very clear statement as to what actual data the Boundary Commission can take into account when it draws up its reports on individual constituencies.
I have always presumed that when the Barnett formula was established, the allocations for Scotland took into account the data that my noble friend is referring to, but perhaps I misunderstand how the Barnett formula is calculated. I also understand that some areas of local government finance are also influenced by socio-economic data at the local level. Is that not the data source that my noble friend Lord Lipsey is referring to? Is it the kind of source that my noble friend is referring to? I do not know. Perhaps the Minister might be able to clarify whether that could be the source of the additional information that my noble friend would seek to include in the information that is necessary to draw up the boundaries.
My Lords, I hope to be brief and hope that the cameramen from the Independent are taking photographs on that side this time to note those who are closing their eyes and going to sleep.
We have been talking about the 3.5 million who are not registered. I think in a modern democracy everybody has a right to be on the register and therefore a right to vote. It is not just a matter of taking the 3.5 million people into account in dividing up the various constituencies. It should be their right. Whether they vote or not is a matter for them; that is their right. But in my view—and as I listen to these debates it has increasingly become my view—that it should be the responsibility of Government to make sure that people are on the register, not the right of the individual to take that decision. It should be the Government’s decision.
In the modern world that is now possible. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and I have been having this ongoing debate—it has been a very friendly debate—about the use of other databases to find people who are not on the register. When somebody is found through another data source—social security records, medical records, local government records, housing records, school records, or whatever else—it seems to me that the Government’s view is that it is useful to check the register that exists. It is not to be used to ensure that people go on the register. If you find an 18 year-old who has left school and has not registered not on the register when he is clearly living at that address—because that was where he was at school, and as far as you know he has not moved—do you put him on the register? In my view, that is exactly what should happen. He should be put on the register so that we have a register that is much more accurate than the one that we have at present, and we are also fulfilling our democratic duty of giving people the right to vote if they wish to use it. That should be key to what we are doing.
The argument in the past would be that of course you had to send people round to houses and check the register. It was the argument in the past—and listening to these debates, I sometimes wonder what world people in this House live in. It was a physical act, but it is now electronic. You do a search for a particular name on your computer, in the electoral register that you have there, and up will come the name and address. You can then cross-reference that without moving from your desk on your computer with another data source that you have, and you can see whether the names and addresses marry up. That takes a few seconds, not the hours and hours that many noble Lords seem to think it would take to carry out that task. Yes, the records exist and, yes, we should be using all the databases not just to check the register but to put people on the register when we get the opportunity to do so.
Lastly, as I know noble Lords will expect me to say, this whole process would have been so much easier if we had had compulsory ID cards from the beginning. If we had everybody with an ID card who was a British citizen, that would have become the easy, straight source of an electoral register.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree with me? My title is Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton. A very strong resistance to being on the electoral register developed as a result of the preceding tax to the council tax, the poll tax, which led to many people refusing to put their name to the electoral register. We still have a remnant of that about, in that people fear that, given a Conservative Government with Lib Dem support, it could come back.
I entirely agree with my noble friend. In a previous existence, I was the Scottish Office spokesman for the Labour Party on the poll tax in Scotland. Nowadays there is no fine at all and no compulsion on anyone to register in terms of the law, but the Conservative Government of the day increased very considerably the fines that were available to the courts to fine people if they did not fill in the registration forms. Why? Because they knew that the register was the best way of trying to ensure that they got the poll tax paid. Some people were advised not to go on the electoral register. I think that was wrong, but large numbers of young people did exactly that.
I think that we should have had compulsory ID cards. This whole question of who was or was not registered would have been solved, and it would have been to the benefit of our society. Yes, it would have cost money, but the registration process would have been much cheaper and the health service might well have been considerably better and cheaper, and there would have been a whole range of other benefits that would have accrued from having it.
I originally planned to make a very straightforward speech in support of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey. I will not rise to the helpful and interesting trail that my noble friend Lord Maxton has dragged along the ground about ID cards, but his analysis is accurate. We would have had a much clearer database that could inform the electoral registration process and much else besides. However, I will not go down that road.
I cannot allow the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, about the north being disadvantaged because of the south. However, the point that I want to make about the amendment is that it is accepted throughout the House that there are inadequacies with the current level of electoral registration. I have not heard any noble Lord arguing that the electoral register is currently a perfect piece of data collection. It is inadequate. There are significant shortfalls. Reference has been made to the report done by the Electoral Commission in March 2010 The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain. Noble Lords can see that that is clear in terms of the number of people who should be registered but are not. But the significant point and the one that I want to make which has not been made so far in this debate is that the shortfall is variable.
It is not only a question of the zeal, but of the budgets that they are allocated and the way in which that resource is used.
If noble Lords look at the register, they will find that there is a shortfall that is variable throughout the country and in different types of area. If we accept, as no doubt the noble Lords opposite all do, that the objective of this legislation is to create fairness across the country, the Bill has to address the shortfalls in electoral registration and, in particular, the variables between different parts of the country.
In the Electoral Commission’s March 2010 study there were a number of case studies in various parts of the country. One was in London, in Lambeth. It has a population of 266,169 and a population density of 99.2 persons per hectare. There is an ethnic minority population of 50.4 per cent and worklessness of 16 per cent and so on. In particular, figures were quoted for the percentage of households that were in the private rented sector and the percentage of residents who had moved in the past 12 months.
In the London Borough of Lambeth, 17.7 per cent of those on the register had moved in the previous 12 months. That is a substantial degree of turnover and churn. In my experience of being an elected politician in London for many years, that degree of churn and turnover was a particular facet of many parts of London. It would be true of many other inner-city areas and parts of the country, but it was not uniform. It was not uniform in London and it is not uniform around the country. Therefore, without the sort of amendment moved by my noble friend—or an alternative because there are a number of other possible ways of addressing this—the Bill is in danger of institutionalising poorer representation in certain sorts of area.
I looked at the paper produced by London councils in the past few months which examined the 2001 census. This paper tries to ensure that next year’s census will be a better one. Yet even if we use the census data as the source of information about what the population and the registered electorate ought to be, there are problems. Kensington and Chelsea—not, I have to say, the typical example of a rundown inner-city area—had the lowest response rate in the country to the 2001 census. Its response rate was 64 per cent. I suspect that the good residents of Kensington and Chelsea might not be interested in filling in the form about the census, but would probably make considerable efforts to make sure that they were on the electoral register to return MPs of a particular colour to Parliament. The point is that there was that degree of poor response even to the census in that part of London.
My credentials are that I was an elected councillor for the ward of Golborne in north Kensington. My noble friend will have to be a little careful in talking about Kensington and Chelsea as an affluent borough, when the northern part of Kensington has some of the areas of highest deprivation in the country. It was a cauldron of social movement, with fair housing and the first legal advice bureau with Peter Kandler. It was an area of multi-deprivation, so there must be considerable variations within the one London borough from the affluent south to the relatively disadvantaged north.
Indeed, that is the case. The interesting issue about that, since we were talking earlier today about the importance of community, is that that is one area where we now see parliamentary constituencies straddling local borough boundaries in London. I think that the MP for the area that my noble friend described is Karen Buck, who also represents part of Westminster. It is a bad idea to cross London borough boundaries; I suspect that we will return to that at a later stage in this Committee. However, my point is about the degree of underrepresentation. I picked on Kensington and Chelsea because, apart from those pockets which my noble friend knows so well, it is not regarded in most people’s minds as being an area of acute deprivation—although parts of it are.
The figures are: in Hackney, there was a 72 per cent response rate; in Tower Hamlets it was 76 per cent; in Hammersmith and Fulham, 76 per cent; in Camden, 77 per cent; in Southwark, 77 per cent; in Islington, 78 per cent, and in Lambeth, 79 per cent. The point is that the work which has been done where there are concentrations of poor response, either to the census or to electoral registration, demonstrates a number of characteristics. First, the highest non-response rates come from those who rent from a housing association or a council. There are higher non-response rates: where the occupants are from black, Asian or mixed ethnic groups; where the household contains a single-parent family; where the average age of the people in the household is 70-plus; and in areas with higher income deprivation scores.
I am not making any moral judgment about people in those households. I am only reflecting the research that has been done, which demonstrates that there are certain socioeconomic characteristics suggesting, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey has identified, that there will be lower rates of registration.
My noble friend makes an interesting point and I am not gainsaying anything that he has said, but the other propensity among the groups that he has just listed is that of knowing how to apply for housing benefit. Therefore, they are on a list and the local authorities know, because we know the propensity and the distribution. I cannot see what the problem is or why, on the census, we put up with this low rate when there is easily obtainable information to know that there are people there. The propensity to claim is co-related exactly with the groups that my noble friend has just listed. I do not understand why we still have this problem now, let alone having had it 10 years ago.
My Lords, I do not disagree with anything that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said. He is right—it is not something that we should necessarily tolerate. If there was much more of the passing of these registers, electronically, between the various agencies, or if we adopted the simple solution that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, put forward—that of an identity card—we would resolve some of these problems. However, my point is not that we could resolve them like this, but that there is a wide variation, which is not standard in terms of the degree of electoral registration, and that it happens to be correlated with certain types of socioeconomic group.
My noble friend Lady Farrington, before she made her tendentious comments about the north and the south, made a point about the consequences and implications of the poll tax.
I would like to correct any misunderstanding I created. I was referring to government allocation of resources to local authorities, not to a disparity between the north and the south in terms of electoral registration. Some of us believe that there are some leafy suburbs in the south—not the sort of area that my noble friend represented so well for so long—that have done quite well out of the Government’s financial allocation to local authorities.
Well, you did draw me on to it. When you bear in mind that the population of London is the same as the populations of Scotland, Wales and, I think, Northern Ireland combined, there is underresourcing of London, which is, after all, the economic engine of the United Kingdom. However, that is not the point that I wish to engage with and I suspect that, if we persist in it, it will offend Members opposite.
The point I am trying to make, which is very important, is that there is a variation in the registration that it is linked, for whatever reasons, to certain socioeconomic groups and may be linked to the history of the poll tax and the community charge. I well remember the way in which official statistics on the number registered plummeted in the time of the poll tax. I was the leader of a local authority at that time; we had the distinction of setting the highest community charge in the country, because of the underresourcing of a borough such as mine—no doubt akin to one or two of the areas that my noble friend refers to elsewhere in the country. The point is that there is a variation.
If noble Lords believe that we are trying to create a fairer electoral system—and we are all, presumably, signed up to that—we have to address that problem. It might be an acceptable argument to say that we would simply go with the last electoral register, if the degree of underrepresentation were consistent in every constituency—but it is not. It is biased towards specific areas. I am not going to suggest that the reason there is a reluctance to resolve that issue is because it is biased against certain types of community which might have a propensity to vote in a particular way. I am not going to make that suggestion, I am simply going to make the point that, if we really believe in a fairer electoral system, we have to address this issue of underrepresentation.
It will take some time to deal with it, whether we go down the identity card route recommended by my noble friend Lord Maxton, or whether we try to cross-reference different registers. Therefore, if the Government are intent on going ahead with this legislation at this speed, they have to put into the system some mechanism for making the adjustment that my noble friend Lord Lipsey has put forward, and I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, replies to this debate he will acknowledge that there is a problem with underregistration, that that is variable and that the Government must address it.
My Lords, one of the consequences of this Bill is that it forces the Boundary Commission to construct a new electoral map on the basis of the electoral register as it stood last month, December 2010. There is no dispute between anyone in this House that millions of eligible voters are missing from that register. In 2005 the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.5 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll in England and Wales alone—that was based on five-year-old figures. A more recent estimate by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the leading academic expert on electoral registration, suggests that the figure for the whole of the United Kingdom today could be closer to 6 million potentially registrable electors.
According to the House of Commons Library, in excess of 400 parliamentary constituencies have a registration rate of at least 95 per cent, but over 200 seats have a rate below that number and around 100 seats have a rate below the national average of 91 per cent. In a significant number of cases, mainly in urban constituencies, around 80 per cent of the eligible electorate is registered to vote. That means that one in five voters is missing in some constituencies, predominantly those with a lower income profile.
The Electoral Commission investigation that I have referred to before, which was published in March last year, shines more light on the socioeconomic characteristics. In the course of these debates, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has explicitly agreed that,
“under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”.
The commission’s report, published in May 2010, said:
“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”.
Given that the Government’s stated aim is to create more equal-sized constituencies and has always been fairer votes, one assumes that they are concerned about using an unequal register to pursue that objective—unequal in that there is not a consistent level of underregistration right across the country. By excluding the missing voters from this rigidly arithmetical review of constituency boundaries, the Government will inevitably and in practice distort the electoral map of Britain and dilute the representation of people who come from the specific groups that I have just identified. That would be unfair and fundamentally undemocratic. It is difficult to see how the Government want knowingly to proceed with a process that will deliver that outcome, particularly in the light of the stated fundamental aims of the review.
It is true to say that, over the past decades, boundary reviews have been conducted on the basis of the existing incomplete electoral registers, and previous electoral registers will have been more inaccurate than the electoral register now. So why change from that process? The answer is that in recent times there has never been a review of the scale being proposed here, with probably every single constituency being affected by the review that will take place, at some speed, up to October 2013, and of course 50 seats being chopped in the process.
In addition, under the previous arrangements—this is a secondary point—the process was always balanced by the opportunity for genuine public consultation, via the local public inquiries that this plan does not just abolish but forbids the Boundary Commission to conduct. Moreover, under the previous arrangements, the Boundary Commissions had the ability to take into account at least the direction of travel of the populations of these places. Therefore, they were able to take into account over a period of time what the likely population was going to be. There has never been such a large-scale review in the past. There will be no local inquiries at which these points can be made and, because numbers have to come first in all save three constituencies, there is no scope to try to build them in as one of the discretionary factors.
Two options are open: one is to pause and work to get the missing eligible voters on the register. That has been persistently and aggressively rejected by Ministers from the Dispatch Box in this House. If the timetable cannot be altered, why not do as the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lipsey proposes and ask—or instruct through this statute—the Boundary Commission to use a formula that would enable missing eligible voters to be factored into its deliberations? A range of data sets can be used. There would be inaccuracies but I respectfully suggest that the probably minor inaccuracies that would arise would be a very worthwhile price to pay to get greater equality and fairness in our electoral boundaries, as they would reflect more accurately not just those who were registered but those who were entitled to be registered.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey has said that this is a probing amendment and described it as tentative in some respects. I am very keen to hear the Minister’s answer to the amendment, particularly as Ministers have acknowledged the problem but, with respect, have not really come up with a solution. They have said, “It is just one of those things. We’re doing some data matching pilots”. I hope that there will be proposals to deal with the issue because, if there are not, in my respectful submission that undermines what has been said about the fairness which the Government seek to obtain.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is now in his place as, in answer to a question from me a long time ago, he gave the House an assurance that the Government would attempt to ensure that the problem that my noble friend Lord Lipsey has raised would be tackled. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, can now explain to the House how the Government have been tackling it and intend to tackle it.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, in expressing pleasure at the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. However, I am disappointed that, far from it being the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is to reply to the amendment, and who could have explained how the Government will deliver on their assurance, it will be the noble Lord the Leader of the House.
My Lords, I assure the Committee that I have no intention of allowing the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to steal my thunder on this amendment. I have waited some 11 and a half days to reply to this subject, which we have discussed several times. I want to become more knowledgeable on many of these issues and this gives me an opportunity to do so. I admire the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for the way in which he introduced his amendment. He said that it was a probing amendment and I can understand why. I will spare him all the details but it is not technically perfect and I do not think that it would achieve what he wants it to achieve. However, I understand the issue that he is trying to resolve.
The amendment seeks to amend the definition of “electorate” to include those eligible to register who have not done so. It would require the Electoral Commission to make an estimate of the unregistered electorate and include this in the figures used by the Boundary Commission to draw up constituencies. The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to take into account the socioeconomic profile of each constituency in estimating the number of unregistered eligible voters.
The most important principle here must be to make sure that one elector means one vote. For this to be the case there must be broad equality in the number of registered electors in each constituency. That is the key principle. The only question then is of how best to achieve it. Surely that is to use the register of electors and make sure that it is as accurate as possible. While we know that there is underregistration, we must also remember that the registration rate in the UK—estimated at around 90 per cent—is broadly in line with that of comparable democracies. The electoral register has been the basis of boundary reviews for decades, under Governments of all shades.
Do the Government have a view on the impact of individual registration on the likely overall levels of registration when that comes into effect? Is it not likely that individual registration will reduce the number of registered electors, particularly in those areas with a socioeconomic profile that already causes problems?
My Lords, I do not see why that should be the case.
It is also not straightforward to determine the number of people missing from the register. Although it would be possible to match population estimates against registration numbers to generate a notional rate, population data are estimated and would include some people who are not eligible to register to vote due, for example, to nationality. The Electoral Commission itself, in its recent report on underregistration, calls the process of estimating registration rates “an imprecise science” and says:
“All current approaches to estimating the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers at a national level are imperfect”.
The House has already heard about the limitations of the population data that would inevitably be the basis of any estimation. We will return to this in the next group of amendments.
Introducing estimated figures—acknowledged as imprecise and imperfect—into the calculation of constituency size risks introducing inaccuracies or inconsistencies across the UK, as my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out. In the interests of a fair and equal system, where each person’s vote across the UK has the same weight, constituencies should be calculated on the basis of registered electors, as the Bill proposes. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate a situation in which some votes are more equal than others.
I want to pick up on something that the Minister has just said. When asked in an intervention whether individual registration would lead to a reduction in the register, he just said no. I asked him earlier whether he had read the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons, which deals with that matter in great detail. All the witnesses, including those from the Government and Boundary Commission people, have conceded that there is likely to be a drop. Does the Minister not think that at this stage on the Bill, with controversial areas to come, he should read that report, which will hugely enlighten him on these very important areas?
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the issue of individual registration cannot possibly make any difference as far as the amendment is concerned, because we are of course referring to the electoral register of December 2010, which could not possibly be affected by individual registration? I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has introduced a completely irrelevant red herring.
Can I make a suggestion before the noble Lord sits down? He might want to visit those jurisdictions in various parts of the world where you do not even have to come to the Dispatch Box to read your brief. All you have to do is give it to the Clerks and they can put it on the record for you.
My Lords, I have never heard of that, but perhaps it should be a matter for the committee of my noble friend Lord Goodlad.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked about the Boundary Commission’s use of databases when drawing up these constituencies. He will know this, because we have had this debate several times during Committee and I am not planning to give a hugely different answer from the one that he has already heard. This year, we plan trials—
The problem is not whether there is a database—we have had that debate—but what use will be made of the database once the Electoral Commission and local authorities have that information. Will it be to add people to the electoral register, or is it just to check the electoral register?
Let me just finish the point that I am trying to get to on the databases. I have a fascinating list: the databases that we are concentrating on are those held by the DWP, HMRC, the DVLA, the national pupil database held by the DfE, MoD data on service personnel and the Student Loan Company. I am happy to give way to the noble Lord.
Perhaps the Leader of the House can enlighten me, but I had understood that the fundamental principle of data sharing was that the use to which data would be put would be made explicit. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Maxton’s question on what permissions are being given to the Electoral Commission in terms of what it can use the data for is absolutely pertinent. Have the Government given permission that the data can be used for adding to the list, or is it simply for checking whether people have erroneously registered?
This gives me an opportunity to read out the final couple of lines of my brief.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has worked hard on all this. He said that the amendment was probing. He has demonstrated great care in bringing this issue forward again. I am extremely happy, if it would be helpful, to facilitate a meeting with him and my officials to go through the matter with him.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for that offer, which I would happily take up for my education, if not for that of his officials. It enables me to make a point, because a lot more noble Lords are in the Chamber now than when they were enjoying pudding and I was moving the amendment. With the exception of the utterly disgraceful spat between north and south on my own Benches, anyone reading the debate, which has lasted for just over an hour, would agree that it was in the very best traditions of this House—as was the previous debate about the Isle of Wight. Without going into the past, I hope that I speak for the House in being glad that, on this amendment, we have returned to our great traditions in this Chamber.
Perhaps I may make one point to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Perhaps, having just come into the Chamber, he missed the point that I made at the beginning, which goes to the heart of this matter. He rightly said that these estimates of notional electorates would be imprecise, which of course is true. However, a figure that is imprecise is not necessarily worse than a figure that is utterly precise and utterly bogus, and that is what the electoral registers are. By consent, the registers are only 91 to 92 per cent accurate overall. Also by consent, in many areas their accuracy is very well short of those figures. There would also be imprecision in the estimates—of course I accept that and it would be silly to do otherwise—but I think that that imprecision would be very much less than the precise falsity represented by the numbers on the electoral register.
Before the noble Lord concludes and decides whether he wishes to press the amendment to a vote, perhaps, like me, he was so bowled over by the very engaging offer of a meeting by the noble Lord the Leader of the House that he missed whether he accepts the principle that the unfairness of the underregistration is differentially spread around the country and that, if the Government’s objective of fairness is to be achieved, something must be done about that in this Bill.
I wholly agree with what the noble Lord says, and I would have drawn attention to it if I had not been so excited by the prospect that, instead of a weekend off after tonight, I shall spend my time closeted with the Minister’s officials. I can offer them 3 am on Sunday morning or 7 pm on Sunday evening in between writing my speeches for Monday’s proceedings on this Bill, should there be any. I do not want to go on for too long, so I shall resume my seat and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 66ZA withdrawn.
66ZB: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 25 to 27 and insert—
where U is the population of the United Kingdom aged 18 or over minus the population of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6”
I apologise for the vagaries of the Marshalled List, which mean that I am on my feet twice running. This, again, is a slightly exploratory amendment but it has a serious purpose. The intention behind it is to suggest that, if we are to equalise anything, there is quite a strong case for equalising not electorates but population of voting age. This issue has come up from time to time during our discussions. It is not necessarily a question of either/or; it would be possible to arrive at a figure for equalising which contained an element of both. I may well put down a formula to that effect on Report but I shall not try it out now because I think that it would be a little hard on the Hansard writers.
First, I should say that there are big differences between large constituencies in terms of population and large constituencies in terms of electorate. To take an obvious example, which noble Lords will be able to relate to after our earlier discussion, the Isle of Wight is by a long way the biggest constituency in terms of electorate but it is only the third largest in terms of population. In Regent’s Park and Kensington North, the population of the relevant age was 146,000, which is nearly double the number of registered voters. For Kensington and Chelsea the figure is 135,000 compared with 65,000 registered voters—that is, more than double the electorate. There are 45 seats in which the electorate is less than two-thirds of the population.
Of course, an MP represents everyone who lives in a constituency and not just those who have a vote, so it would seem fair that some allowance should be made for that in terms of workload. This is particularly the case as lower registration tends to be correlated with people with particular kinds of problems, the most obvious being black and ethnic minorities, who are about 30 per cent less likely to be registered but are likely to give rise to a great many problems, such as immigration matters relating to their families. Therefore, there really is a case for taking population into account. The second thing—
Does my noble friend agree that certain constituencies have a disproportionate amount of asylum seekers because they are designated by the Government as areas to which asylum seekers will go? I will give an example. I found that in my constituency surgery perhaps two-thirds of the people who came to me were not on the electoral register because they were asylum seekers. I concede that many of them were sent to me by solicitors, who no doubt hoped to obtain some form of financial assistance for them. Be that as it may, it means that certain constituencies have a far greater workload for their MP.
My noble friend is right. It says a lot for his assiduity, and for that of most Members of another place, that they are prepared to work very hard for people who will never have the chance to vote for them. Those who are cynical about Members of Parliament should bear in mind that remarkable and cheering thought.
I turn to another fact that I had not realised before I prepared for this debate. The system that I propose for discussion in this amendment, whereby constituencies are equalised by virtue of population rather than electorate, is more common in other countries than the use of electorates. Britain has a jolly good constitution; we love it very much and certainly I am not knocking it. However, we should consider this. It is not a silly idea for a system that no country uses. Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit states:
“Most countries use some measure of total population to serve as the basic measure of constituency size, either total population or a modified population such as voting age population … or citizen population. Britain is a member of a minority, albeit a significant minority, of countries that use registered electorate”.
He states that the ACE Project shows that half the countries of the world use total population and one-third use registered voters as the population base. No doubt there are all sorts of ingenious combinations of the two. Countries that use population include decent democracies such as Germany, perhaps slightly less decent democracies such as Italy, and Hungary and the Czech Republic. That is a pretty good list of countries that think the population measure is right. If we are internationalists, we should consider whether we could learn from them, as my other argument suggested that we could.
I see that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will reply to this debate. I should be astonished if he did not stand up and say that estimates of population are to a degree inaccurate, which of course is right, and are to a degree out of date. That is also true, although it does not mean that if we decided to go down the population route, it would be beyond the wit of the Office for National Statistics and others to produce more up-to-date estimates of population for this purpose than they do at the moment.
Is not one of the problems with the Bill the fact that the Lewis Baston material on countries that use population bases does not include how those population statistics were produced? One would have thought, when obviously the Bill was going to be surrounded by discussion about population, that research would have been done by officials in the department to establish the basis on which other countries use population figures. Have they a different way of drawing up census information? None of that information has been made available, which makes it very difficult for us to argue the question of population during the passage of this legislation.
My noble friend makes a very shrewd point. I look forward to discussing that with officials when we have our exciting meeting on notional electorates. It might mean that we go from three to 4.30 in the morning on Sunday, rather than from 3 to 4 am, but I shall be delighted to do that and to bring him the results of any information that they are able to provide.
This makes at least a basic case that the principle of equality of representation of constituencies, which is the principle that underlies the Bill and which we are not really arguing with, might, if anything, be stronger if the equality that we are seeking was equality of population in constituencies rather than, as we are, the equality of electorates. That is a strong case in its favour. It would require very strong evidence, evidence that I would be surprised to find forthcoming, to prove that the numbers available on electorates are more accurate than those that could be made available on population.
Having made this case reasonably succinctly, I hope, I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will be interested to hear what other Members of the House have to say. Should we reach a consensus, perhaps on a measure that combines in some degree electorates and population, I look forward to bringing forward an appropriate amendment on Report to embody it in this legislation going forward. I beg to move.
My Lords, my amendment is very simple. I am not quite sure why it is grouped as it is, but I have no interest in degrouping because I hope that there may be some movement from the Minister on this. My amendment is simple and straightforward. There are four characteristics that the Bill tells us a Boundary Commission may take into account when drawing new boundaries. I want to add a fifth which is entirely based on my experience in the other place and with the constituencies that I was privileged to represent.
The fifth characteristic that I would like to add is that the Boundary Commission may take account of local government areas with rapid increases in population. Unusually among amendments, I suggest to the Government that this one could conceivable save them money, which might make ears prick up. The reason I have brought this forward is that the two constituencies I represented had huge electorates. I represented Lichfield and Tamworth until 1979. When I was defeated, the electorate was 101,343. In The Wrekin, which was the second constituency I was able to represent, the electorate before the boundary changes was 90,892. The reaction may well be, “So what? Populations change and move. That is what Boundary Commissions are for”. The reason why I suggest to the Committee that my experience might be relevant and might be worth changing this Bill for is that the population increases in both these constituencies was entirely predictable and pretty accurate. They were both new towns in the West Midlands. Tamworth was a growing and expanding town with projected increases in population and The Wrekin contained Telford new town, which likewise had completely projected and predictable increases in population. All I am suggesting is that these predictable changes in the population should be taken into account when constituency boundaries are drawn because it simply means that constituencies obviously very rapidly become very large and above the quota, I suppose.
I can anticipate one of the things that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, might say, which is that under the Bill as it stands there will be boundary redistributions every five years, so it is easier for these rapid population changes to be taken into account. I stand entirely by my position on this Bill throughout: it is a big mistake to make constituency changes every five years because of the massive uncertainty and instability that creates for MPs and the communities in constituencies. There would be no need for redistributions as rapidly as are compensated for by the five-yearly alterations of the constituency boundaries because in most cases, large increases or changes in population do not come out of a clear blue sky. Certainly in the case of new towns, they are predictable and predicted. This is where my suggestion for money saving comes in. If these factors were taken into account, there would not be the need for quite the frequency of boundary changes.
I do not expect the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to suggest that there are going to be any changes on that basis, but given that in the case of The Wrekin the population increased by 8,000 between one general election and the next, it would make sense if we made the amendment that I am proposing. As happens when one sits down and looks again at one’s own amendment, I can see a better way of doing it which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and his officials might feel is simpler. Clause 5(1)(a) on page 10 says that,
“special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency”,
can be taken into account by the Boundary Commission. If the noble Lord were to be emollient enough to include “planned population growth” as one of those characteristics, he would make me a Member of this House with a great sense of achievement, so I hope he might consider that.
My Lords, there are five amendments in this group. The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, has her name to one to them. I do not know if she is going to speak to it, but let me deal with them all briefly.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says that determining the size of constituencies should not be done by reference to the registered electorate nor by reference to the registrable electorate but by reference to the whole population of the constituency. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, is saying that there should be an upper limit in relation to constituencies, just as there is a geographical upper limit in the proposed Bill, so that no constituency should have a total population which is more than 130 per cent of the electoral quota. My noble friend Lord Grocott proposes something slightly different from the others, which is that the Boundary Commission can take into account the explicit consideration of population growth. Where there are local government areas with rapid increases in population, on the basis of the current drafting, that would only be able to be used in relation to the 5 per cent deviation on either side of the electoral quota laid down by the Bill. And the final amendment in this group says we should have regard to the census.
All of these amendments wrestle with the problem that we discussed in the previous group of amendments—namely, what is to be done about the fact that there is substantial representation? I am not in favour of determining the size of constituencies as a starting point from people other than either registered electors or registrable electors. But just as the geographical size of the constituency, based on the burden on the MP who has to get around it, determines that no constituency should be bigger than a certain size, it seems to me to be legitimate to take into account whether or not one has an exception by reference to the total population. That means you still have the electoral quota approach. I see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is about to intervene. I am more than happy to give way.
I think that I am right in saying the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, relates to the electoral quota. It cannot be right to use population as the basis for calculating size of constituency with the 95 per cent to 105 per cent variation proposed in the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord last night—I am assuming that the Government may think kindly of it. On that basis, the numerator and the denominator have to be in the same currency: either population or electorate. You cannot have the top of the fraction as electorate and the bottom as population.
That may be right. What I understand the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to do, though he must defend it, is replace both the denominator and the numerator, because he puts the total population at the top of the fraction and the number of constituencies, less the two—or now the three—at the bottom and gets to the figure that way. I am not sure that I am following the noble and learned Lord.
The figure is essentially a portion of the population, whereas once you get to the stage of calculating size of constituency with the 95 per cent to 105 per cent variation, it is the electorate that is so far used. I have not seen an amendment which deals with that relationship. Both bases of calculation have to be the same. Which is the better one, I am not saying, but they both have to be the same.
As far as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is taking U as the total population in Rule 2(b) rather than the registered electorate and dividing it by 600 minus 2, now 3. That then produces something called the electoral quota. Paragraph 2(1)(a) of the new schedule states that the electorate of any constituency shall be no less than 95 per cent of the United Kingdom electoral quota and no more than 105 per cent. I assume that we do not need as a matter of drafting to amend paragraph (2)(1)(a) because the electoral quota is simply the number of the population. Therefore, it will be assumed, I assume, that it can be 5 per cent lower than the total population or 105 per cent of it, not 95 per cent or 105 per cent of the registered electorate. The noble Lord can explain it, but I think that it is consistent. I am sure that it is clear to everybody. [Laughter.]
I am rather against that approach. [Laughter.] That is ultimately because the way that our system works is that Parliament defines who is entitled to be on the electoral register. By doing so, it is in effect defining who is entitled to participate in the process of elections. It would be wrong therefore, as a matter of principle, to seek to define constituency boundaries by reference to people, some of whom may be entitled to be on the electoral register and some of whom may not. You will therefore find, for example, that there are constituencies in particular areas—I have in mind central London constituencies; for example, the City of London as well as Kensington and Chelsea—where the population is very high and appears to be very much larger than those on the electoral register.
While I am inclined to agree on the need for a definitive basis for the size of a constituency, as someone who has represented a constituency I can say that you do not represent only those who vote for you. Among the important considerations for any Member of Parliament are families, their children and their education. To ignore the population below the age of 18 when selecting the size of a constituency that MPs are to represent seems entirely at odds with what MPs do. By all means make the registrable electorate the basis of a constituency, but do not rule out, as some of my noble colleagues have said, all considerations of the population size of the constituency. At present, that element appears to be not included for—in fact, by its omission, it is specifically precluded from—the Boundary Commission’s consideration.
I agree—not from experience but from what I have been told—that whether or not you are a registered elector does not make any difference to how a Member of Parliament will treat you.
I also agree that, if a constituency has a very large population, that should be reflected in what happens. That is why—although this is a probing amendment and I am speaking tentatively, I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says—the most attractive way of dealing with the issue, in my view, is through the amendment that might be moved by my noble friend Lord Boateng if he is here. Amendment 67A in his name would provide:
“No constituency shall have a total population which is more than 130% of the electoral quota”.
Just as it is accepted that the limit cannot be increased for a constituency with a large geographical area, there should be a similar provision for constituencies with a large population. I have a note to say that my noble friend Lord Boateng is not here, but it is legitimate to refer to his amendment as one of the possible routes that the Government could go down.
The Opposition’s position is that they do not favour the approach of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, although we think that it is a sensible probing amendment. We are attracted by the idea that my noble friend Lord Boateng has put forward, and I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has to say about that.
The amendment of my noble friend Lord Grocott concerns a different issue. It seeks to provide that, in relation to the plus or minus 5 per cent, regard should be had to the fact that an area may be having rapid increases in population. As we understand it, such matters can be taken into account under the current arrangements, but it does not look as though such matters could so easily be taken into account under the new arrangements. When boundary commissioners are considering what the boundaries should be, it would be sensible for them to take that into account.
In all those circumstances, the Committee can see what we favour in this. We will be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has got to say.
My Lords, when I saw Amendment 66ZB on the Marshalled List, with its strange fraction of U over 598, I thought, “I hope to God it’s Jim Wallace’s turn to answer the debate”. I hope to match the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his grasp of statistics, but I certainly cannot match that of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, because, thank God, I do not sit up at 3 am poring over electoral statistics.
Noble Lords on all sides of the Committee will take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, that everyone who has ever stood for Parliament and has been lucky enough to win has said in their victory speech that, although they were grateful to the people who had voted for them, it was their determination to serve everyone in the constituency. That is certainly the case.
What my noble friend Lord Reid quite rightly said was that it was not just the complete electorate that we represented in the House of Commons, but the total population. That means babes in arms right through to the person lying in hospital about to expire. It means everybody.
What makes this an absolutely Alice in Wonderland debate is that, when the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, reads Hansard, he will see that that is just what I said. I thank him for his support.
The commitment to represent everybody in the constituency does not necessarily mean, as has been made clear a number of times, that we should look to population rather than registration for basing the electorate. The electoral register has been the basis for boundary reviews since the 1940s. Current constituencies in the other place are drawn up on the basis of electorate, not population. It was made clear earlier this evening that there are reasons and principles for this practice and approach. The principle behind the Government’s proposal is to ensure that one elector means one vote of equal weight, wherever that vote is cast in the United Kingdom. In order for this to be the case, constituencies must have a broadly equal number of electors. Simply to substitute population for electors would exacerbate the present inequalities in the weight of vote because there would be variations in the number of individuals in an area who are not entitled to vote. The best way to achieve fair and equal votes and to address concerns about underregistration is to have an equal number of registered electors while ensuring that the register is as accurate as possible.
A further argument has been put that the constituency boundaries should be drawn on the basis of population rather than the register of electors because a Member of Parliament is elected to represent all his constituents and a significant part of an MP’s work can be on behalf of those who are not registered to vote. That argument has been made several times. However—this point has been made several times, but I shall say it again loudly—no Member of Parliament has a free ride. MPs have different kinds of pressures and different areas of responsibility, so it would be invidious to start deciding that constituency X rather than constituency Y had more problems. Most MPs will give a full description of the kind of problems that their particular constituency brings. That is why the Government believe that it is the right of electors to have a vote that is of equal weight between, as well as within, constituencies throughout the United Kingdom.
There have been ideas that we could use population. The difficulty is, as the Office for National Statistics has pointed out, that there are limitations with population estimates. Although I have heard in previous debates the suggestion that we could use the census, the data from the forthcoming census will not be available until far too late for the Boundary Commission to complete the task of reviewing the boundaries by 2015, which would mean that, up to the 2020 general election, the pattern of representation in the House of Commons would reflect the electoral register as it was in the year 2000. I cannot believe that we should do such a disservice to every elector in that way.
Nor, as I noted in the earlier debate on a similar amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, can we accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, that the total population of a constituency could not exceed a number that is 130 per cent of the electoral quota. I recognise the intention behind that amendment, but the data are not available that could make that work in practice. The Boundary Commission would need population data at a very low level of geography in order to ensure that the tests in the amendment were met. Those data are not available. It would be far better to use the electoral register, as has always been the case for boundary reviews, and concentrate our efforts on improving the registration rates. The census may provide valuable information that can support that work. The provisions in this Bill for a review once a Parliament, rather than once every eight to 12 years, will mean that the work will be reflected in a review very much sooner than would be the case under the existing provisions.
I note what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who made a valid point. I know that boundary reviews cause problems in terms of sitting MPs, but this proposal is for the benefit of the electors. Amendment 74C proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would allow the Boundary Commission to take into account likely rapid changes in population when making recommendations for boundary changes. Amendment 78A, which has not been moved by my noble friend Lord Maples, would require the commissions to take into account projected increases in the electorate.
My concern is that, however calculations were made on the projected electorate, there would, by definition, be an element of interpretation that would be subject to repeated challenge. Furthermore, the amendments would abolish the fixed figure and replace it with a moving target. I am concerned that interested parties would be likely to use this for arguing for a more advantageous calculation method for the projections. In order to maintain the high levels of trust in our system, we must base boundary reviews on the availability of actual data.
That said, I hope that we can reassure noble Lords on this issue. The Fifth Periodical Report of the Boundary Commission for England notes that the commission takes into account projected electorate changes where it believes that the projection is likely to become a reality. We are confident that the Bill does nothing to stop the commissions continuing that practice, and we would expect them to apply this practice where they judge that the specific circumstances warrant it. I would advocate continuing to rely on the professional and expert judgment of the commissions.
We agree that constituencies should be as up to date as reasonably possible in order that boundaries reflect where electors live and in order that votes have equal weight. The answer to this is the Bill's provision for redistributions to take place every five years.
At this point, in the tradition that has been established in the last hour in this House, I would offer the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, a meeting on this, but I think that his diary is probably already full. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am baffled by the Minister’s response. He is saying that the Boundary Commission can take account of factors that are not mentioned under factors (a), (b), (c) or (d) that are listed in Rule 5 of new Schedule 2. All I am saying is that if the Boundary Commission can take account of factors that are not listed—obviously, my amendment would add to those four factors—what on earth is the point of specifying the factors that are listed? My amendment would not impose a compulsion on the Boundary Commission; it would simply list a possible consideration that may allow for specific local circumstances. I simply did not understand his answer. I am also a bit upset because he did not suggest a meeting. Perhaps he will write to me.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he will want to be present at the meeting that I am to have with his officials, which we will now reorganise for the time at which Blackpool kick off on Saturday.
It is good to see that Members of another place have come to observe proceedings in the House this evening. They will be able to return to the other end after doing so with two assurances. First, this House is indeed conducting detailed scrutiny of this Bill in good humour and in good order and with reasonable dispatch. Secondly, the reading skills of Ministers in this House far surpass those of Ministers in another place.
I have put forward two successive tentative amendments, and it is just worth saying—
I apologise to the noble Earl, who has been here so much longer than I have.
I shall resume my thread on the debate on the Bill, as we are all anxious to proceed with it as rapidly as possible. We have just had two tentative debates on what I hope are interesting points of validity, which any Government in setting policy on these matters would have considered. It would have been so much better if we had had a consultative document before this Bill was brought forward that set out these alternatives and explained the pluses and minuses of each. It might have been unnecessary to debate these amendments this evening, and we could certainly have done so in a more informed way. So it does illustrate a defect of process.
To sum up the debate, there was an understanding that population is a relevant factor in determining the workload of MPs and therefore in all these matters, but at the same time there was no support for the proposition that I tentatively floated—that population should replace electorates as a basis for drawing constituencies. I accept that, but I shall make another tentative suggestion, which the Minister might like to think about. In Rule 5 in Clause 11, in the new rules that the Boundary Commission observes, there is a set of things that it may take into consideration, including special geographical circumstances. It might be worth considering adding to that list of things that it can take into consideration—at the moment within the 5 per cent limit—something relating to population, so that in cases where population is very large in relation to electorates it can explicitly make some sort of allowance for that in drawing up their final recommendations within the limits, which are 5 per cent each way at present. I leave that suggestion with the Committee and, on that basis, beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 66ZB withdrawn.
66A: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 25 to 27 and insert—
where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6 or otherwise exempted from the equal constituencies provisions of this Act, and where X is 600 minus the number of constituencies exempted under rule 6 or otherwise under the provisions of this Act”
My Lords, I did not just propose this amendment because it allowed me to get a formula on the Order Paper. I was going to describe it as a paving amendment when I moved it, but it is no longer a paving amendment. The formula in the Bill has as its denominator the number of constituencies not otherwise exempt in the Bill—598. When I drafted the amendment, I thought that was a silly way to do it, because if we added to the list of exemptions the formula as in the Bill would no longer apply. It would have to be changed, which seemed a waste of everybody’s time, since it is perfectly easy to draw up a formula which adapts to however many exemptions you want to make.
I would not want to claim foresight; that would be a very dangerous thing to do in your Lordships' House. But in fact it turns out that this showed some foresight, because the Committee has agreed to add the Isle of Wight to those constituencies, so it is now 597 not 598. I believe that there is a large clutch of other amendments to be put before noble Lords, which the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, will of course oppose. For example, the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, wanted to make one in the case of his local area, and there will be other cases for exemptions. Who knows, noble Lords may want to agree to them. So making this amendment at this stage not only accommodates the change that we have already made but will allow the Bill to accommodate future changes without us needing to return to this and go over it. I therefore commend the amendment to the House.
My Lords, this is an important amendment and my noble friend Lord Lipsey has shown foresight in raising the matter. He will also have seen Amendment 79, which is in the name not of one of our colleagues on this side but of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. The number of constituencies named in that amendment include not only Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles in their Gaelic name and the Isle of Wight, but the Isle of Anglesey, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, the Highland Council area and Argyll and Bute. As my noble friend said, a number of us have tabled amendments in relation to areas that we have a particular knowledge of. My noble friend Lord McAvoy tabled one in relation to the Royal Borough of Rutherglen, which includes Cambuslang and Halfway, if I remember correctly.
I tabled an amendment in relation to the city of Edinburgh, arguing that Edinburgh should continue to have five constituencies once this boundary review is over and that that should be an instruction to the Boundary Commission in Scotland. There are a number of other amendments in relation to this, such as Amendments 66C, 78B, 79C, 79, 80, 81, 82, 85, 85A, 85B and 85C, which we will discuss.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey, with his usual sagacity, foresight and burning of the candle at night, has managed to table an amendment that, if the Minister was wise, he would see was like the amendment to Part 1 moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker. That amendment gave the Government flexibility in relation to dates for the referendum to be held on AV so that if any changes took place, the Government would not be forced to hold it on 5 May: they could have it at any time up to 31 October. This amendment also gives the Government flexibility, which is very wise.
I will not now argue the case for the five Edinburgh constituencies. I have a lot to say about them. I have a tour d’horizon for them just as I had for South Ayrshire—or Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley as it is now. I would like to describe some of the important facets of Edinburgh constituencies, but I will leave that until we get to Amendment 80. In the mean time, I am keen to support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, which gives us this necessary flexibility.
My Lords, it is clear to me that the amendment is correct. Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept it. It is simply a drafting amendment to take account of changes that have been made—and if the noble Lord is correct in his prophesying, some further changes will be made. This amendment takes account of that in an accurate way. There is no question of discretion or anything of the kind. It is simply a drafting amendment that takes account of existing changes.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. My experience as a Minister was that when an amendment was passed even in opposition to the Government in Committee or at any stage of the Bill, the Government would bring the Bill up to date. Therefore, when it went back to the other place it would be a coherent Bill on which the Commons could then form a view about which amendments to accept. I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Lipsey. I hope that the Government will indicate that they will make the necessary amendment to reflect what happened earlier on today.
Not exactly, because one has to realise that, as noble Lords will know, the other place has still to take a view on the amendments that we pass. It may well be that all the amendments that have been threatened or made may succeed. Believe me, if I am not convinced by the eloquence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, or the command of figures by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I certainly have a tingle between my shoulder blades when my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay announces that he is about to abandon ship.
By the way, it has just occurred to me that of course I would not, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, pointed out, make any comment about what was happening below the Bar, but it crossed my mind that government Whips in the other place might be shipping younger Members down here to take a look at us to stiffen their vote when we come to reform of the House of Lords.
Again, I hope that people read Hansard as I deliberately did not make that mistake but I understand the noble Earl’s sensitivity on this. The other point was that not only does this amendment have another of those amazing fractions in it but, in my brief, there is the Gaelic name for the Western Isles. I was happy to notice that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did not try the Gaelic name, so I will be excused as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, gave me some wise advice. In fact, I was trying to encourage him to be my adviser for the rest of the Bill but he wanted to protect his amateur status as an adviser to the Government. However, he said that you should not be afraid to take decisions at the Dispatch Box. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is making a very valid point: the final calculation of exclusions may not be what is in the Bill. On the other hand, they may be, because the other place will have to look at what we send back to it. This is not an empty gesture; I really would like to take this back with the intention of bringing something back on Report.
If I have understood the effect of this amendment and the existing drafting of the Bill, an amended clause of this nature could persist in the Bill even if the other place overturned any additional constituencies that were added to the list. In fact, this amendment creates a Bill that is proofed against any changes, whether they persist or not. This is actually a better piece of drafting than the original, which had a figure in it, because it is a calculation that will persist in any set of circumstances.
I hear what the noble Lord says and I hear my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay behind me saying that he is right. All that I am asking, being a simple Lancashire lad, is to take this back with a firmness for Report. If what the noble Lord is saying is absolutely right, I assure the Committee that this will go in at Report.
I rise, my Lords, with a deep sense of disappointment at the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has risen twice. I have been in keen anticipation of the remarks he was about to make on the substance of the amendment—indeed, of the Bill—and I will now have to postpone the satisfaction of my appetite for a later date, at which I look forward to hearing his views on these matters, expressed with his usual skill and verve.
I am not disappointed at the Minister’s reply. My noble friend is absolutely right about the effect of this amendment—it is a circumstance that fits all; 598, 600, 520 or whatever. When the noble Lord, Lord McNally, considers this, he will see that it will be useful for the future. Let us suppose that the House of Commons overturns the Isle of Wight amendment. Let us suppose that, at the next general election, it returns the “Home Rule for the Isle of Wight” candidate, throwing the two Conservative candidates who will then be sitting for the island out of office. Suppose that whatever Government who are then in office quite rightly decide to respond to that by giving the Isle of Wight a constituency of its own. This is one piece of legislation they will not have to change; the formula still works. It is a form of future-proofing, to use the modern phrase.
I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to consider this further. I am grateful for the support I have had from all over the House, including from the esteemed noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, who knows much more about the law than I do. I very much hope that this may yet be my one mark, in my 10 years here, upon the statute book.
Amendment 66A withdrawn.
Amendment 66B not moved.
66BA: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 25 to 27 and insert—
where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6, and P is the population of prisoners who at the time of Royal Assent are serving prison terms of 4 years or less”
My Lords, in the spirit that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, offered the House some hours ago, I shall be relatively brief. I am encouraged by some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who has accepted the advice of my noble friend Lord Rooker about not being afraid to take decisions at the Dispatch Box.
I start, unusually, by confessing that the amendment is not wholly fit for purpose on the matter of prisoners and their ability to vote. It omits to recognise that remand prisoners either awaiting trial or awaiting sentence having been found guilty are currently able to vote. After the Minister accepts the spirit of this amendment, which I anticipate he is going to do, it will give his parliamentary draftsmen no more than a fleeting diversion to put this oversight about remand prisoners right.
The amendment aims to make sure that, in the fine arithmetical balance upon which the Boundary Commission shall decide on the new constituencies, the impact of convicted prisoners and those on remand with the ability to vote shall be included in that arithmetic. The amendment assumes that only those sentenced prisoners serving a prison term of four years or less will have the vote. That matter has still to be decided by Parliament. I hope that it will be rejected and that all prisoners will be able to vote, as part of a better attempt to rehabilitate them and to reduce the expense of perpetual reoffending.
As a backdrop to this amendment, I was amazed to read in the Evening Standard tonight that my right honourable friend Jack Straw—not simply a former Home Secretary but, your Lordships will remember, as I do, a former Lord Chancellor—is now attempting, having won a debate in the other place for next month, to persuade the House that no prisoners should be given the vote, in breach and defiance of an order of the European Court of Human Rights made in 2004. It may explain why the last Government, to my disgrace and shame, did nothing to accept the judgment of that court. My right honourable friend incites Parliament to continue that disobedience. It is another slippery slope when Governments think that they can pick and choose what they do in reaction to decisions of the court of human rights and it gets us into an extremely difficult place.
I have not followed the issue of prisoner voting very closely, so I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell me where, if prisoners are successful in getting the vote, their vote would be. Would it be in their constituency, if they have a home somewhere, or in the place where the prison is? I ask this with some feeling, because my former constituency held one of the biggest prisons in Scotland and even with a 22,000 majority I would have been a bit nervous.
I yield to no one in my admiration for the right honourable Jack Straw as both a former Foreign Secretary and a former Lord Chancellor, but can my noble friend say whether Mr Straw has attempted to make any calculation of the aggregate of fines that this country would incur if all the relevant prisoners were to take us to the European Court of Human Rights?
My noble friend has reminded me of a point that I meant to make. At the moment there are 2,500 outstanding claims of compensation by prisoners being denied the vote, which, if they were proceeded with and accepted, would cost the taxpayer £100 million to meet.
This is not the time or place to debate at length the merits of votes for prisoners, but surely it is time that this outdated sentence of civic death upon prisoners was removed. It was imposed under the Forfeiture Act 1870, although in my opinion it should never have been, and it has lingered for far too long. As I said earlier, the European Court decided in 2004 that the blanket ban on the ability of convicted prisoners to vote was unlawful and should be removed. I much regret that the previous Government did not obey that judgment, and welcome the fact that this Government plan to do so.
It is all about enabling prisoners to take civic responsibility, which chimes in well with the extra emphasis by the Secretary of State for Justice on better attempts at rehabilitation to reduce the expensive and alarming rates of reconviction. Up to 70 per cent of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, surely the most enormous waste of taxpayers’ money going.
It is time for change and time to ensure that the number of prisoners anticipated under the proposed government legislation be entitled to vote, and those prisoners on remand from wherever they are on the electoral roll should not be overlooked when the maths is being done by the Electoral Commission to determine the new constituency boundaries.
Before my noble friend sits down, would he answer a question for me? In looking at his calculation of how many additional prisoners would be entered on to the electoral roll, is he aware of any estimate of how many prisoners were not on the electoral roll prior to them going to prison? There is a case to be answered that a number of prisoners who get into a life of crime lead somewhat chaotic lives and may never have voted or be on the electoral roll in the first place.
I accept my noble friend’s point. Part of this touches on our earlier debates about the accuracy of the electoral register. It may well be that prisoners in that position should be encouraged to get on the electoral roll from the only address that they currently have, which would be prison.
My Lords, I have added my name to my noble friend Lord Corbett’s amendment, even though in many ways I disagree with the stance that he takes on prisoners’ voting. My instincts would be to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs as was; when he announced that the Government of the day were appealing against the European Court’s ruling in 2005, he said that,
“it has been the view of successive governments, including this Government, that persons who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence should forfeit the right to have a say in how the country is governed while they are detained”.—[Official Report, 14/7/04; col. 1242.]
That is a sentiment that I can certainly agree with. Indeed, as the Secretary of State for Justice is currently pursuing a progressive path of trying to ensure that fewer prisoners are locked up, it follows that those who remain in prison will be there for more serious offences, and in my view that in turn somewhat lessens the argument for votes for prisoners. That does not mean that I am not in favour of rehabilitation and that I do not think that there is a good principled argument to be made, but I happen to disagree with it. However, as my noble friend said, we should not rehearse the arguments at any length tonight.
However, in the context of this Bill, the Government have to allow for prisoners when deciding the boundaries for future general elections, given that the Prime Minister has said that he reluctantly accepts that he has to bow to the European court ruling in the case of John Hirst. This amendment enables me to ask the Minister a few questions that are directly pertinent to the Bill. First, the amendment refers to prisoners who are serving a term of “4 years or less”. What is the Government’s view on whether all prisoners should get the vote, as my noble friend has argued? What is their view on whether it should be given to those who are serving shorter prison terms? The amendment mentions four years but it could be two years or six months. Does the Minister think that the vote should be given to those prisoners who are coming towards the end of a sentence, however long the initial sentence was, and that that would be consistent with looking to rehabilitate them back into society?
Secondly, what is the right number of years? Does the Minister have a nice round figure that he might want to share with us, given that we have talked a lot about other round figures when discussing the Bill? My third question relates to the question that my noble friend Lady Liddell asked of my noble friend Lord Corbett in relation to the location of prisons. I hope that my noble friend gave the correct answer in that respect. When I was the Member of Parliament for South Dorset, I represented two prisons for some of the time and three prisons for another part of the time because the prison ship was located in my constituency, which meant that there were up to about 1,500 prisoners in my constituency. I would not have relished canvassing them and I certainly would not have relished the casework implications of representing the inmates in the various prisons. Some of them occasionally wrote to me. Contrary to what the Minister said about MPs representing absolutely everybody in their constituency, I am afraid that I tended to try to duck the casework involved with the issues that the prisoners raised as it would have occupied all my staff’s time and would have constituted a very slippery slope for me and for them. In addition, South Dorset was a very homogenous community in terms in ethnicity and religion with the exception of the prisoners. The majority of the inmates of the Portland young offender institution come from London and reflect the ethnicity and different religious make-up of London rather than that of Portland. Their inclusion would certainly change the character of the constituency significantly. Indeed, given tonight’s vote, there is the question of how the Isle of Wight will be accounted for in terms of the significant number of prisoners who now live on the island, and how they will be catered for.
Thirdly, if registration is based on the home address, as has been suggested, what would the Minister do to ensure that we avoid fraud in postal voting? That may become a sensitive issue as regards prisoners having postal votes given that postal voting has raised enough difficult issues as we have extended the opportunities for people to vote by post. It would be useful if he could tell us what arrangements will be made to enable candidates to canvass prisoners. Finally, what is the timetable for changing the law in respect of prisoners getting the vote, as that is critical for the Bill?
I listened with great interest to my noble friend’s questions on this issue. It helps to understand the complexity of the issue facing the Government on giving prisoners the vote. I add a further complexity to the issue and the questions that my noble friend is posing. In this country, we allow those who are citizens of this country but who live overseas to register as overseas voters. Would we allow those serving sentences in prisons overseas to vote, and what arrangements could be made for them?
My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon asks a fine question, which I had not previously thought of. However, I am sure that the Minister will have done so, will not need to think on his feet at the Dispatch Box and will be able to give us a precise answer.
On the question about the timetable, it is highly pertinent whether it coincides with the Boundary Commission review period to agree the boundaries for the next general election. If it does not, which arrangements will stand the test of time in respect of prisoners getting the vote?
The noble Lord has eschewed acting on behalf of the interests of prisoners in his constituency. Who acted on their behalf in the absence of the noble Lord? To which agency was it left to represent them in any of the problems that a Member of Parliament might normally address in any constituency?
My noble friend can help me in a moment, once I have had a chance to help myself. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raises a question that is right at the heart of the legal case as I understand it and as interpreted by the BBC. John Hirst, who took the case to the European Court said:
“I’d read books that said if you want to change something you start up a pressure group, and then you put pressure on MPs and then you get things changed in parliament. Well that’s alright if you’ve got the vote and you’ve got some clout behind you. When you’re a prisoner, the only thing you can do if you want to complain and no-one listens is riot and lift the roof off—which isn’t the best way of going about things. Because we didn’t have a vote, there was no will in parliament to change anything”.
That is at the root of why he brought the case and, I guess, why he won it.
If a prisoner who had been a constituent of mine, or whose address was in my constituency, had written to me with a case when I was a Member of Parliament, I would have taken it up on their behalf, but I was unwilling to do so for people who happened to be resident in my constituency at Her Majesty’s pleasure. That was most difficult in respect of the large number of foreign nationals who were in Verne prison in my constituency. It was very difficult for them to get anyone to listen to them. It would have been a significant resourcing issue for me if word had got around the prison that they had a local MP who was willing to do all their legal work for them.
Never mind the resources—is the noble Lord saying that he was happy that there were people in his constituency, whether they were there at Her Majesty’s pleasure or whatever, who had no political representation or access to Ministers through a Member of Parliament? Was he happy that people who had no home addresses that they could give to the constituency MP where they had formerly lived were left without any resource or recourse at all?
I would not have been happy if that situation had existed. I sought to do my duty, as I saw it, to my constituents, whether they were in prison in other constituencies or not. The local prison for my constituency was Dorchester. The right honourable Oliver Letwin would, I am sure, have wanted me, rather than him, to deal with my constituents. I am sure that prisoners will have listened to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and will now be writing to him at the House of Lords to take up their issues if they seek representation.
I had a fairly large prisoner mailbag. Prisoners get full service from Members of Parliament. Not only did they get full service, I visited prisoners from outside my own constituency on several occasions, including some of the most violent of offenders. Their stories were absolutely fascinating. It is a very interesting area of political representation.
At present, the law states that prisoners are disqualified under an Act of Parliament and, unless and until that is changed by Act of Parliament, there is no question of having to cater for them in this Bill. If and when a Bill is produced to change the 1870 Act—although I understand what the noble Lord is saying about that—it should answer the kind of questions that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, has asked. Until that happens, the law is as it has been since 1870. I am not going to deal with the merits of the issue, except to say that we believe in the rule of law, part of which is our country’s subscription to the European Convention on Human Rights and obedience to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. That court has said in this case that a blanket ban is wrong, which leaves at least a certain amount of discretion to Parliament and the Government to decide what the change is to be. Until that happens, it is not for us here to speculate, because there is plenty for us to deal with in this Bill without introducing more material into a Bill that is not yet drafted.
My Lords, I very much agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said. Let me therefore briefly add some comments. When the time comes, which I hope will not be too long, for the Government to bring forward their measure to give prisoners the vote, we will have to ensure that in that process we amend this legislation to accommodate it.
I understand the point that my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord are making, but surely the Bill before us seeks to set the boundaries before the next general election. I anticipate that if the Government put through legislation, in line with the European judgment, to give prisoners the vote, they will do so before the next election. We in this House and the other place will therefore have to amend legislation that we have already passed before the next election. We will find ourselves in a legal muddle at that point.
I am bound to say that I am persuaded by my noble friend’s argument. The principle and the arithmetic are obviously right, but the details of how prisoners are to be given the vote—and there will be a lot of details—are a matter that the House will have to deal with. However, that would not affect the principle of including prisoners in the formula that we are talking about.
I have been a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for some time, and we have been anxious that the Government should adhere to their obligations under the Human Rights Act and under the European convention. We were disappointed—I was certainly disappointed, as was my noble friend Lord Corbett—that the previous Government did not bring this proposal into effect. I hope that this Government will do so. Given that public opinion, spurred on by some of our newspapers, is not sympathetic to this, I very much hope that more voices will be heard to say that this is a good thing and that it is right that people in prison, at least many of them, should have the right to vote and to have a civic responsibility that will help them when they come out. There is an important point of principle here, which has been totally lost in some of the hysteria in the popular press, which is arguing against this, to say nothing of the fine that we would have to pay as a country.
I have two brief final thoughts. I introduced a Private Member’s Bill when I was in the other place to give certain rights to prisoners. My noble friend Lord Soley and I discussed it, and he persuaded me to include in the Bill a proposal to give prisoners the right to vote. It was a 10-Minute Rule Bill and was therefore not going to get much further. It received a lot of publicity, but all that the press were interested in—even in the 1980s; it was a long time ago—was the clause about giving prisoners the right to vote. Nothing else in the Bill did they take notice of. I am bound to say, in all honesty, that the Labour Shadow Cabinet did not support my Bill and said that it was not in favour of it.
I have a final little anecdote, if I may indulge myself—it is getting late. I was in a pub in Battersea just before an election. I was meeting a journalist who wanted to take a photograph. The pub was almost empty because it was mid-morning. A man at the bar came up to me and said, “’Ere, are you Alf Dubs MP?”. I confirmed that I was and he said, “I came out of the Scrubs this morning. You’ve got a good reputation inside”. I thought of all the votes that I was not going to get and I then lost my seat.
My Lords, I should perhaps say that I am president of the Citizenship Foundation, although I do not speak for it. Surely we could deal with the point raised in this amendment by an amendment to the Bill that says simply that prisoners serving a term of four years or less shall be entitled to vote. That would take care of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, seeks to address in this amendment. I should be interested to know whether the Minister would be amenable to that being brought forward at the next stage of the Bill.
This is a very important issue. For years we have put off grappling with the question of the prisoner vote. I think we would all say that one of the main badges of citizenship is the right to vote. We in this House all agree that rehabilitation is essential and that we do it rather badly in this country. To that extent—I shall finish on this point—we talk about punishing prisoners by denying them the vote, but I think that we punish ourselves much more by, in effect, outlawing prisoners from normal citizenship and thus, in my view, destroying any real prospect of any effective rehabilitation. Therefore, I hope that something can be done about this and that it can be done in time for it to be part of the Bill.
I hope the Minister will concede that this is an important point, and perhaps he can truncate this debate by offering to have a cup of tea with his officials and my noble friend. I see that there are problems, but it is clear that the Government will have to respond in some way to the determination of the European Court of Human Rights, which has said, in terms, that the matter cannot be delayed for much longer. Indeed, the Government have said that they will respond. We know that there could be substantial expenditure implications if they do not respond and a multitude of applications. However, I see some problems in practice.
Once upon a time I was a barrister and I did a fair amount of work on the criminal side. All too often one’s clients were of no fixed abode, so how is one going to determine the constituency in which the prisoner votes? That is one obvious problem. Equally, prisoners are more likely to come from socioeconomic groups that might be determined among the population but are not on the electoral register because they are alienated and do not bother to put themselves on the register. Therefore, there are problems in deciding which will be the relevant constituency in this matter.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this amendment. I have to be absolutely honest and say that I have not followed in great detail the question of prisoners and voting, although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, very succinctly put the issues into context. I should say that I have a bit of an interest, having been a former non-executive director of the Scottish Prison Service and having a major prison with a secure unit in my constituency. I suppose that I have also just spent almost five years in a form of penal colony, so these are issues in which I tend to take an interest.
However, there is a very specific point to be made on where the vote of a prisoner is held. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, does not know that one of the most heinous crimes that a Member of Parliament can commit is to take up an issue for someone who is the constituent of another Member of Parliament. It is a problem that Ministers in particular face. I do not know what other former Members of the other place did. I had a sign in my office, and I know that many Members of Parliament have an attachment to their e-mail saying that they cannot take up the issue of someone who is a constituent of another Member of Parliament. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would address the consequences of an increased number of people on the electoral register from prisons. Presumably they would have postal votes. If their prison is within a particular constituency, what would be the impact of that on the overall size of the constituency? There should be clarity for Members of Parliament who wish to know whether they are taking up an issue for someone from another constituency.
I will be even briefer than my noble friend. I agree very much with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. This is not the time to go into detail; that will happen when the Bill arrives. Like my noble friend Lord Dubs, I agree with the principle. There is no great problem in deciding who deals with this. Normally the home address should be used for registration, otherwise it is a matter for the local MP and occasionally for a solicitor.
There is a more important issue to address. Perhaps the Minister should refer this to the Electoral Commission. If it is the Government’s intention to give the vote to prisoners, there is a case for instructing the Electoral Commission to look at the problems of registering to vote. The registration process needs to be thought about in advance. In one sense, the problem is like that of other groups who cannot easily register. Prisoners are a captive population. Complications will come over where their home addresses are. There will be particular complications for the fairly small number of very large prisons that have a large percentage of people with no fixed address. I remember that when my noble friend Lord Rooker was a Minister, he arranged for people to give a non-registered street address so that they could have the vote.
There are many complications inherent in what the Government are proposing. I will support them and when the Bill arrives I will spell out some of the issues. At this stage, I simply say that there is a lot of sense in warning the Electoral Commission. As an adviser to the commission, I should do that too, and I will, but it would help if it came from the Government too. If the Government are going to do this, they should start to think about the complexities of registration.
My Lords, I have one question for the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Would it be possible through secondary legislation to put an enabling power in the Bill whereby this section of the Bill could be amended in the event that the wider law on the right of prisoners to vote was to come into being?
My Lords, I shall be brief. I thank my noble friends for raising the issue. Of course, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, gave the Committee a proper warning about the issue. The announcement was made through the Cabinet Office. We regret that it was not made in Parliament, because it is important. The point that my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon made about the intention of the Government to legislate in time for the 2015 general election under redrawn boundaries, and perhaps on an alternative vote electoral system, is relevant today. We would like to know the Government’s thinking on these matters. When do they intend to legislate and how will they deal with some of the issues raised by the decision that they have made?
One issue that particularly fascinates me is that of prisoners who have their voting rights denied by sentencing judges. Will they have the right to appeal against the judge's decision? Under the proposals, the judge will have discretion in certain cases. That does not strike me as sensible, or something that judges would want. The amendment asks some questions that the House—
It strikes me that it might also be useful if we could have any information that you may have on the amount of research that has been undertaken in this area on the number who are registered. It seems that the problem may not be on quite the scale that some people think, given that earlier we were debating the problems relating to 3.5 million people who are denied votes—I do not want to go over the issue—because they are not registered. If there is any information that could be supplied in this area, it would help us all.
I am grateful to my noble friend. He is quite right. There are a number of questions the Minister can bring us up to date with when he responds on this important amendment. This is a matter that has concentrated the minds of this House a great deal over a long period of time. I think the Committee would like to be brought up to date with how the Government see the relationship between this Bill and giving prisoners the right to vote and how that would be legislated for.
My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting debate. Whether it is within the scope of the Bill is very debatable indeed. Nevertheless, a number of very valuable contributions have been made, not the least the fact that the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Knight, disagree about whether prisoners should have the vote. That is part of the dilemma that we have in Parliament. When I have answered Questions at this Dispatch Box as a Ministry of Justice Minister, it has been very clear that there are strong opinions on both sides. I have never concealed my view that, like the noble Baroness, I believe that giving certain prisoners the vote would be a very useful part of rehabilitation. The prospect of being—did the noble Baroness not say that? Sorry, I thought she had. For some prisoners who have perhaps never participated in any aspect of what my noble friend Lord Phillips referred to as civic life, it might be the thing that gets them thinking about their role in society when they leave prison. I have never found the concept of prisoner voting so horrific.
Although my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay sits where a PPS usually sits, he is not my Parliamentary Private Secretary although, my God, I wish he was because he comes in with a number of interventions that are genuinely to the benefit of the whole House, if occasionally to the discomfort of the Minister at the Dispatch Box at the time.
To take the last intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, the numbers we are dealing with will be small. If you gave every prisoner the vote, you would be talking about 85,000, so you would be talking about a much smaller number spread across the whole of the country because, to clarify, the Government have already indicated that when they bring forward their proposals they will be on the basis of prisoners being able to vote in their home constituency. The issues that were raised about proxy and postal voting and the other matters relating to this could, with great value, be looked at by the Electoral Commission. I know that it is looking very closely—
The Minister has used the expression “home constituency”. Could he be a little more specific about that? I have represented constituencies for a long time with several prisons in them. My understanding is that many of these men—my experience was exclusive with men—did not have homes. One of the problems that they had as individuals in society was that they were totally rootless. The idea that they could be identified as belonging to a particular place was very difficult to establish. To use expressions such as “home constituency” in this loose and glib way creates an impression that it can be very simply dealt with. It is rather more complex than that. He should talk to the people in the Box and get some better advice.
I am trying to make an intelligent response. The noble Lord talks about glib responses. Would he like to suggest a term other than home constituency? The point has already been made in this debate that of course there are going to be difficulties about prisoners with no fixed abode. One of the other problems that we are looking at on rehabilitation is that too many of our prisoners leave prison with no fixed abode, which is almost an invitation to further offences.
Could I raise almost the opposite point of view? Many people who are in prison are already registered to vote at their home address. What is to stop them using the postal vote system to cast their vote, even though they are in prison? All it requires is for them to apply for it from that home address. The postal vote arrives at their home. Some relative takes it in to them, they cast their vote, the relative takes it back, puts it in the post and they have voted. Or are we going to use prison records as part of the access data?
I seem to remember that just before the general election, at about one in the morning, we had a very interesting debate on this question. I regret greatly that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is not in his place, because we rehearsed all of this before and he had some very interesting statistics. It might be worth going back and looking at Hansard to see what he said and what the responses were.
I am quite sure that we will refer back to that. Indeed, I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, knew that we were going to go down this byway this evening, he would have been here. I know how assiduous he is on these matters. But the fact is that these matters will be covered in that—
Does the Minister agree that if the noble Lord, Lord Knight, is right, the absence of a vote is not the only problem that prisoners have to face? If they do not belong to any particular constituency, they have no parliamentary representation and nobody who can act on their behalf in dealing with the Government.
I was about to give the Minister the answer. He will know that prisoners can be represented by the local Member of Parliament. I did it very often for Shotts prison. I would go and meet them occasionally. On one occasion, I offered three dates to the Shotts lifers association; none of them was convenient for it. There is a manner of representation for those in prison, whether or not they vote.
Now that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is safely out of the way, I am able to say that I hope some of the people below the Bar are keeping careful note, because some really good advice is being given here. It illustrates a point that was made earlier: that different Members of Parliament face different problems. Surely the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight will have a caseload that reflects the existence of major prisons on the island.
The boundary review will be based on the register as of 1 December 2010, which will be before any legislation concerning prisoner voting rights is in place. We have determined that we will deal with this matter. I am not in the habit of scoring cheap party political points—your Lordships know that it is not my style—but in less than eight months we have addressed a problem that the previous Government sat on for six years. It will require careful study. I hope that the Electoral Commission will look at some of the issues that have been raised. I do not believe that this amendment is the place to deal with them. There will be a full and final statement of the Government’s intention in these matters. However, I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, and others, and underlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that we are accepting the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. To continue to defy it exposes us possibly to being sued on quite a grand scale and to enormous cost to the taxpayer. Even those who grit their teeth at the thought of giving prisoners voting rights might like to put that in their calculations. However, it cannot be in the current calculations of this Bill. It is an important matter to raise and it will be drawn to the attention of the Electoral Commission. I hope that, before they have their debate down the corridor, members of all parties will read the contributions that have been made this evening, because they will be a valuable contribution to the debate that Mr Jack Straw and Mr Davis are planning in Westminster Hall. In the mean time, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate. I said in moving the amendment that this was not the time and place for a long debate about the merits or otherwise of giving certain categories of prisoner the vote. I also take on board what many noble friends on this side of the Committee have intimated about some of the perils of getting involved in this area.
I had one of the two national youth treatment centres in my former constituency of Birmingham Erdington, Glenthorne. It did a magnificent job with some of the most disturbed and chaotic young people in the country—14 year-olds convicted of murder, rape and offences of that kind. During one general election, each of the candidates was invited to go in and talk to some of the inmates and answer questions. The first question that I was asked came from a 15 year-old and was about income tax levels. I thought that this showed a very commendable interest in current affairs. On the Friday, about a week ahead of the election, the governor of Glenthorne phoned me and said, “I have got some very good news for you, Robin: you came top of the poll”. I immediately said to him, “Eugene, do me a favour, please, will you keep this quiet?”.
I thank the Minister for his assurance that he will draw the attention of the Electoral Commission to this matter but I am unconvinced about his reasons for not wanting to do something about it in the Bill. I understand what he said about the register last year being used as the basis for the Electoral Commission’s considerations under the Bill but, nevertheless, provision could be made for what we anticipate is going to come. The Government have the votes in both Houses now to get their will, as we know, so surely it is sensible to make the provision now rather than having to do so later.
None the less, I again thank noble Lords for their interest in this matter. We will return to it in good time and I seek the leave of the House to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 66BA withdrawn.
66C: Clause 11, page 9, line 25, leave out “598” and insert “600”
My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Maples, I beg to move Amendment 66C.My noble friend has not vouchsafed to me the precise rationale behind his deceptively attractively simple amendment but I shall draw to his attention any answer in Hansard which my noble friend the Minister gives to him, if such a reply is given.
Now that Amendment 66C has been moved, I shall speak to Amendment 78B, which stands in my name and the names of my noble friends Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Newby. In introducing the amendment I should refer to my personal association with the City as the parliamentary constituency which I had the privilege to represent as Member for the City of London and Westminster South, as it then was, between 1977 and 1997, and then for the Cities of London and Westminster between 1997 and 2001.
The amendment aims to recognise the position of special authorities. It is aimed at the City of London, which has failed to make it into a very short list of constituencies subject to special provision on account of their particular characteristics even though the City’s individuality has been recognised throughout history. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which currently governs boundary reviews, continued that recognition. This Bill does not. The effect of the amendment is to require the whole of the City of London to be contained within one parliamentary constituency, as provided for by the current legislation.
As your Lordships will not need reminding, the City of London has existed as a discrete community for a very long time. It had evolved a legal personality by 1189 which, as noble Lords may recall, is the beginning of legal memory. Accordingly, the City Corporation which administers the square mile does not owe its existence to Parliament. Parliament has, however, underwritten the City’s rights and privileges. One of the very few remaining statutory provisions confirming the Magna Carta still in force is Chapter 9 of an Act of 1297 confirming the City’s liberties and customs under the charter.
The current legislation on parliamentary constituencies affecting the City is largely the product of the past 75 years. It is particularly relevant because the Bill marks a substantial departure in the electoral treatment of the City of London.
Permanent Boundary Commissions were established by the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944. At that time the City of London had no less than two Members of Parliament, and that situation was preserved by the 1944 Act. There was then a business vote in parliamentary elections, as well as a voting entitlement of husbands or wives of occupiers of business premises, entitlements which were removed by the Representation of the People Act 1948. In consequence of those changes, the City of London’s electorate diminished to 4,542. The City was then linked up with the former seat of Westminster Abbey and called the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. To complete the picture, during the period of my incumbency between the February 1974 and 1997 general elections it was named the City of London and Westminster South constituency. Noble Lords will note that the one constant throughout has been its reference to the City of London.
When the changes were made in 1948, it was never suggested that splitting up the City’s relatively tiny parliamentary electorate between different constituencies would be an appropriate option. More than that, there was a specific provision in that Act and the further one which followed soon afterwards, the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949, which required the whole of the City to be contained in one constituency. That is echoed by the supportive Amendment 85C in this group tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. Although that amendment goes further than our amendment, the concept is therefore potentially bipartisan. That provision has been repeated in the legislation since and is included in Rule 3 set out in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.
The effect of this Bill through the replacement of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act by a new schedule is to remove the provision requiring the City to be contained within one parliamentary constituency. It is perhaps a little surprising that the provision has been removed without a specific repeal. Magna Carta is without doubt a constitutional measure, and so therefore is the Act of 1297 which preserves the City’s liberties and customs. The Bill your Lordships are considering is also a constitutional measure. There is modern legal authority which has been much referred to by academic lawyers giving evidence to the EU Scrutiny Committee in the other place on the European Union Bill suggesting that a constitutional provision requires specific statutory repeal.
Will the noble Lord give way? We are having trouble hearing him, but that might just be the audio arrangements in the Chamber. Can he explain in one sentence what he is actually trying to do? We think that his amendment is a nimby amendment, but we are not quite sure.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, with whom I have duelled on a number of occasions. I shall try to move closer to some form of microphone. I hope that that is better. By the time that I have concluded my remarks, he will recognise exactly what I am seeking to do and why I am doing it in so discreet a manner.
Schedule 11 to the Bill includes in Part 2 the provisions to be repealed, but the 1297 Act does not feature there or in Parts 2 and 3 of Schedule 10, which deal with amendments to existing legislation. I do not wish to make too much of this because a great deal, not least interpretation, is uncertain when dealing with statutes of such antiquity. In the City of London context, significant elements of the franchise are, however, covered by the law of custom, which the 1297 Act protects. This prompts me to query whether the existing very specific provision relating to the City of London, which has been included in the legislation governing parliamentary constituencies until the appearance of this Bill, was inserted in deference to the Act of 1297. Perhaps the Minister might be prepared to offer an observation on the provenance of the existing provision when he replies.
I do not think that I need to exercise any great powers of persuasion to convince your Lordships that the City is demographically atypical. Its administration is quite different from that of the London boroughs. It has a local business franchise as well as a residential one, and business dominates. It currently has 5,939 parliamentary electors, which is slightly more than in 1948 but still very small in comparative terms. For example, a typical ward in the City of Westminster—the other half of my former constituency—has between 7,000 and 8,000 voters.
Having said all this about the constituency and the manner of representing it, I recognise that the Bill before your Lordships’ House lays down precise rules for the conduct of future boundary reviews. I also appreciate that there is a strong desire on the part of the Government to avoid special cases other than those which the Bill itself identifies. Recognising the constraints, I believe that the amendment does not simply seek to reimpose the requirements in the current Act that the City should be part of a single constituency. Rather, it proposes such an outcome where “practicable” —to quote from the amendment—with wording that has been specifically devised to avoid special pleading and to rely on uniqueness.
The amendment would create a strong presumption that this will be the result without making it an absolute. That is the effect of paragraph (1) in the amendment, which also relates the requirement to a “special authority”, a term defined in paragraph (3) in the amendment. In the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which is referred to there, the term “special authority” is defined as an authority covering an area with a population of less than 10,000 whose gross rateable value divided by its population is more than £10,000. In other words, the reference is to an area that is primarily commercial and not residential. The only geographical location to satisfy that definition is the City of London, which simply goes to reinforce how exceptional it is; hence my claim for uniqueness.
Avoiding specific reference to the City of London in the amendment avoids any suggestion of potential hybridity and, therefore, any need for me to discuss it. Paragraph (2) in the amendment is modelled on Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which requires the City of London to appear in the name of the constituency that includes the City. As noble Lords would expect, I believe the continuation of this practice to be entirely appropriate. I hope that the Minister feels that I have given enough to provide him with the encouragement to look favourably on the City's treatment under future boundary reviews. I beg to move.
The amendment in my name is, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has said, slightly firmer in that it leaves out the words “where practicable”, and asks that a constituency shall exist,
“which shall include the whole of the City of London”.
It does not mean only that, but it should certainly include the City of London. I have to confess that when I read the amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Brooke, Lord Jenkin and Lord Newby. I did not understand it, which is why I tabled this amendment. I wondered at that time, “Dick Whittington, where are you when we need you? What is happening to the City of London?”. I was then taken to one side and it was explained that the amendment that has just been spoken to is in effect the same and is to preserve the City of London.
As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has said, the City of London has been a special case for longer than anyone’s memory, even in this sage House. Its rights and privileges, including its entitlement to parliamentary representation, were provided for in the Magna Carta, a copy of which I believe hangs behind where the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is sitting—or not quite; I have just been corrected on the geography. The Magna Carta specifically allowed for the City of London’s privileges, which were preserved by an Act in the thirteenth century.
The present Bill removes the current bit of legislation that is set out in the 1986 Act, which requires there to be a constituency that includes the whole of the City of London and the name of which shall refer to the City of London. It has continued for centuries, not just more recently, as a constituency. Recently, however, the words “City of London” have to form part of the name of a parliamentary constituency. Even these words were inserted into the name of the GLA division, which is now, I think, City and East London. More recently, as has been mentioned, in 2000 the rules for redistribution of seats again preserved the constituency.
There is also the interesting constitutional point, which has been touched on, that the current Bill has been characterised as a constitutional measure and accepted as such by being taken on the Floor of the House in the other place. The early 1297 Act is also a constitutional measure, as has been mentioned, but there has been no provision to amend that.
There are, as has been referred to, many legal arguments. I will spare the House the details that I have here. What is interesting, as far as it affects this House, this Committee and the Bill in front of us, is that the existing provision for a constituency that will include the whole of the City of London, as well as the name, will cease to exist if the Bill is passed. It will not automatically mean that the City as we know it will be split, but it allows for that as an outcome, because there will be no preservation of the boundaries around that. It is important for this House to consider some of the same comments that were made earlier, in the case of the Isle of Wight, of an island surrounded by water.
I am grateful for that bit of advice, because I was finding it extremely hard to speak.
Historically, there has been a recognition, including in the boundaries, that the City of London is a special geographical area, that its boundaries are special and that that uniqueness should be recognised in the way in which the boundaries and the name of the constituency exist for election to the other place. The Bill would put an end to that and to the special nature of the City, which it is recognised should be a special part of the voice in the other place.
It is as important to take account of locality and the commonality of interests, which we have discussed, in this particular locality as in many others—as with the Isle of Wight. In the City we have an area with very special sorts of employers, its own police force and mayor. It has its own museums and theatres, too. When I was a member of the Financial Services Consumer Panel, I worked very closely with the financial world and took great recognition of how the City plays host to and is an ambassador for that financial part of our community. Of course, it has a small electorate, but for local elections it has a much larger one that is not recognised in the parliamentary boundaries. There is a recognition that, with the number of people who travel to work there and the identity of interests—it often has to talk to the Government—it is a very special area. It is also special in that it talks to the European Union, particularly on some of the negotiations over solvency or other things that different parts of your Lordships' House discuss at other times. This needs its own political representation.
Noble Lords might not expect to hear any of that from someone from this side of the House, but the issue is one of locality. It is similar to the commonality of interests, which I believe the drawing of boundaries for parliamentary representation should respect. I tabled Amendment 85C to recognise that special area at the very centre of the capital—of this great city of ours. We would be wise to preserve those boundaries, not necessarily as a single constituency but to ensure that the whole of the City is within the same boundary and that the name “City of London” remains with that constituency.
After that eloquent speech, I can be extremely brief. I very much appreciate what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has said on this subject. She obviously knows a great deal about it. I had Epping Forest in my constituency, and the Conservatives represented the City as the body that ran Epping Forest. I add one thing. The noble Baroness made the point that this should be a completely non-party issue. I have a long quotation, but at this hour of the night I shall keep it very short. I shall quote what Mr Herbert Morrison said at the time of the 1944 Act, when there was some suggestion that perhaps the City organisations should disappear. He said:
“the City of London occupies an extraordinary and unique place in British history and in the history of British local government”.
He went on:
“it is such a special place that, if we can possibly help it, we will not destroy its Parliamentary identity”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/10/44; col. 1993-94.].
The noble Baroness has adumbrated what might happen if the City were redistributed among its neighbouring authorities. That could cause great difficulty for those who seek to represent those areas and the City in the other place. It could make for considerable complications when determining priorities and matters of that sort.
Of course, this does not affect the City's government of its own. It is a bicameral legislature. It is sometimes argued by historians that our Parliament was based originally on the bicameral legislature of the City, which is why my noble friend who moved this amendment said that the City does not owe itself to this House; we owe ourselves to the City.
I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House will recognise that this is a strong case. As my noble friend pointed out, this is a body that is less than the size of a normal ward in London. With its tremendous historic and constitutional position, it really should not be split up but should be added as a single entity to another constituency—whether Westminster or one of the others. So be it. That is for the Boundary Commissioners. We seek to argue—I say this with some force to my noble friend—that it would be an act of constitutional outrage if the City were split up between a number of local authorities. I strongly support the amendment spoken to by my noble friend and by the noble Baroness.
Amendment 80 is in this group so it would be appropriate for me to say a few words in relation to that now. With no disrespect to the previous three speakers, who talked about the City of London and the capital city, I am not a nationalist, as everyone here knows, but I must point out that London is only one of the capital cities in the United Kingdom. Edinburgh is the second capital city of the United Kingdom.
I will be accused of special-case pleading, but a lot of the arguments put forward in relation to the Isle of Wight, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, dealt with in his usual careful way, apply to other areas as well. I do not have the Hansard yet, but I could quote from the eloquent arguments put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Forsyth, about the Isle of Wight and relate them to other parts of the United Kingdom. However, I want to argue a wider range in relation to the capital city of Edinburgh.
Amendment 80 would have five preserved constituencies in the city of Edinburgh council area. When I stood in West Edinburgh in 1970 and in Pentlands in 1974 we had seven constituencies in the city of Edinburgh. I never won Pentlands or West Edinburgh on those occasions and had to move down to Ayrshire ultimately to get elected. I gave a graphic description of the constituency that I used to represent at about six in the morning on Monday or Tuesday; I think it was Tuesday for normal human beings outside but Monday for parliamentarians. Then, prior to 2005 Edinburgh was reduced to having six constituencies. My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke was responsible. I do not blame her in any way, but she was the Secretary of State who had the duty and the responsibility to reduce the number to six on that occasion. Subsequently, from 2005, the number of constituencies has now been reduced to five. Yet, during all this time, the population of Edinburgh has been rising substantially while that of Glasgow has been going down.
In Edinburgh East, represented brilliantly now by Sheila Gilmore, there are 74,505 electors; in Edinburgh North and Leith, represented—brilliantly, I had better say also—by Mark Lazarowicz there are 74,762 electors; in Edinburgh South, which Ian Murray now represents, again brilliantly, there are 68,884 electors; and, in Edinburgh South West, which is represented by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, even more brilliantly—or had I better say, equally brilliantly?
With distinction, then. There are 75,787 constituents there. In Edinburgh West, which is represented currently by a Liberal Democrat—equally brilliantly, I had better say, since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is replying to this debate and I seek his support on this—there are 70,603 constituents represented by Mike Crockart.
If the quota is 76,000 and the plus or minus allowance in relation to it is 5 per cent, all those constituencies will have to be looked at. If it is plus or minus 10 per cent then, if my arithmetic is right, at least three or probably four of the constituencies would be not immutable but able to continue at their present size and with their present boundary, without violating that variation. That would be a sensible thing to do, but in Edinburgh—we were talking earlier on in a debate about taking account of projected increases in population—there are substantial projected population increases. As my noble friend Lord O’Neill will know, because he lives in the area, in Edinburgh North and Leith there is expected to be extensive population growth.
I am grateful to my noble friend for allowing me to intervene but he very quickly passed over this fact: I do not live in Edinburgh, but live in Leith. I am not a Leith nationalist. Indeed, it could be argued that I live in the village of Newhaven, which was never the subject of a plebiscite, as Leith was in the 1920s—a very controversial plebiscite that the people of Leith have always disputed.
I draw it to my noble friend’s attention, and I do not wish in any way to diminish the strength of his case, that it is fair to say that adjacent to Edinburgh and slightly to the east is the town of Musselburgh. As I am sure he is aware, although it has enjoyed a presence in both the Edinburgh East and East Lothian constituencies, the proud boast—in fact, the chant—of the Musselburghers was that Musselburgh was a borough when Edinburgh was only a town. Therefore, we have to be a wee bit careful here when we start claiming historical precedents, first, in respect of Edinburgh and Leith, where you have to take account of the fact that the Leithers are a significant group within the city; and secondly, if we are to extend the primacy of representation and the boundaries of constituencies, and ignore the claims of the good burghers of Musselburgh, we are getting into rather dangerous waters.
I know that my noble friend spends a lot of time swimming in those waters and that it has always been the hallmark of his political contributions. However, at this stage of the day—or, perhaps, the night—we have to be a wee bit sensitive to some of those feelings, particularly at this time given the fortunes of the football club which resides in Leith. At the moment, we are suffering. We do not need more pain because of his reluctance to give us our proper place in the panoply of Edinburgh constituencies.
That was a very accurate, rather long and not very helpful intervention from my noble friend. I ask everyone here to forgive him for it. I forgive him as well, because he has gone through a very painful experience. The football club that he supports—the lesser of the two Edinburgh clubs—when we were struggling through debate here the other night was beaten by lowly Second Division Ayr United in the Scottish Cup. So he is suffering a little and we understand that. In his lifetime and my lifetime—that is quite a long time for both of us—Leith and Granton and Newhaven have all been part of the city of Edinburgh. He was a distinguished member of the Edinburgh City Labour Party.
I will have to be very careful because I am not a nationalist and I do not want to do anything that would argue the case for separation, but the city of Edinburgh has a great history, as I am sure my noble friend would agree. I think there is a very strong case for it having five separate constituencies. My noble friend should take account of the fact that I am currently an elected representative for an area that includes the city of Edinburgh. I am putting forward my argument today because I have been approached by the four Labour Members in the city of Edinburgh, who represent four of the five constituencies and who feel very strongly about this. That includes Mark Lazarowicz, whose constituency includes Leith.
Because of the growth that I was describing in the Leith area we expect about 25,000 additional residents on the waterfront and Newhaven. Creating five constituencies in Edinburgh would in no way breach the plus or minus 5 or 10 per cent thresholds that we have discussed earlier—certainly not 10 per cent and probably not 5 per cent. It would allow those five constituencies to be agreed within the one local government area, the City of Edinburgh Council. Other constituencies in Scotland, apart from the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, which have already been dealt with, could be dealt with moving out from Edinburgh, creating them one after the other as we move around Scotland.
I hope we can give this kind of guidance to the Boundary Commission. If we are able to take special account of the special needs of the Isle of Wight, I hope we will also take account of the special needs of the city of Edinburgh.
[For the continuation of today’s proceedings, see Official Report, 20 January 2011.]