Committee (12th Day) (Continued)
71B: Clause 11, page 9, line 34, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 10
My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to probe the thinking behind the territorial extent rule—rule 4—in Clause 11 and, in so doing, to test some of the fundamental assumptions that underpin the Bill’s proposed new system before drawing parliamentary constituencies. Rule 4 is designed to place a limit on the territorial extent of a constituency. The rule is deemed necessary because, if the principle of equality of representation was continued to its logical end, we would see at least one gigantic parliamentary constituency in the Highlands of Scotland. This is because the scarcity of population in that part of the United Kingdom means that a constituency would have to cover an enormous area if it was going to attain the proposed electoral quota of approximately 75,800 electors.
The electoral parity rule, born out of rules 2 and 5(3) in the Government’s scheme, is clear that every seat in Britain, save for the two Scottish island seats—and now, by the will of this Committee, the Isle of Wight—would have to have an electorate of between 95 per cent and 105 per cent of that UK average electorate, which means between about 73,000 and 80,000 voters. Rule 4 overrides that requirement. It states on the one hand that no constituency may exceed 13,000 square kilometres in size and on the other that a constituency may be exempted from the rule requiring it to meet the electoral quota in the event that it has a land area of more than 12,000 square kilometres.
What was the basis for these numbers? That is the first question that, we believe, stems from rule 4. There has never been, so far as we know, a statutory limit on the size of a constituency; still less has there been a statutory limit on electorates and an exemption from that limit based on territorial extent. Where did these numbers come from? The answer seems to be Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the constituency represented by the former Liberal Democrat leader, the right honourable Charles Kennedy, which is the only constituency that currently has a land area in that category of between 12,000 and 13,000 square kilometres.
Ross, Skye and Lochaber is the largest constituency in the United Kingdom. The Deputy Prime Minister told Parliament last summer, before the Bill was introduced, that,
“no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/10; col. 25.]
In fact, he did not quite stay true to his word. Thirteen thousand square kilometres—the maximum territorial extent allowed by the Bill—is 285 square kilometres bigger than Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which is 12,715 square kilometres. Before noble Lords accuse me of nit-picking, let me say that the Labour Member for Aberdeen North pointed out during debates on the Bill in another place that it is just enough to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber, with its 52,000 electorate, to add some 21,000 voters from the city of Inverness, represented, of course, by the right honourable gentleman the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That would be just enough to push Ross, Skye and Lochaber to within 5 per cent—5,000—of the electoral quota. We are not sure, however, that the Chief Secretary would be too keen on that.
Many people have harboured suspicions about this territorial size exemption, given the close relationship between the numbers in the rule and the dimensions of the said constituency. Some have viewed it as a crude attempt to protect the seat of the former Liberal Democrat leader. I do not take that view; this side does not take that view.
Even if that were the original intention, it has become apparent that it would not deliver that objective. The reality of the electoral parity law means that the Bill may result in the three new constituencies in place of the four currently representing the areas of Highland and Argyll. The seat most likely to disappear, assuming that the Boundary Commission for Scotland operates in its normal way, and regardless of whether it begins its calculations from south to north or north to south, is Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The purpose of our amendment to delete the territorial extent rule is not to remove a special protection for the right honourable gentleman. He clearly has no such protection. It is to raise the fundamental question as to why territorial extent should be the only general factor written into the Bill that may warrant a departure from the electoral parity rule and why that exemption should itself be framed so narrowly. Rule 4 in the Bill can only conceivably have an application in one part of the United Kingdom: the Scottish Highlands. But why should the geography of that area be the only geography to qualify for special recognition in the construction of parliamentary constituencies? Of course, we understand why it might be sensible to put a limit on how large in territorial terms a constituency should be allowed to grow in pursuit of the electoral quota, but we ask whether it would not also be sensible to place some other protections on potentially undesirable geographical entities that could be produced as a consequence of the electoral parity rule. In other amendments, we have sought, for example, to ensure that island constituencies are guaranteed an allocation of whole constituencies.
However, further considerations should arguably be included in the proposed new rules. For example, Democratic Audit has said:
“It would make sense to ban constituencies straddling wide estuaries such as the Mersey, Humber, Clyde, Forth and Thames”.
When the Boundary Commission for England has proposed cross-estuary seats in the past, for instance on Merseyside, there has been strong resistance to such proposals. It is also said that some leeway might be allowed for the construction of constituencies in the Welsh valleys. The Democratic Audit report argues that there is,
“a case for allowing small departure from the usual rules if following them could lead to an absurd seat with a small part of one valley attached to a seat based on another valley”.
We would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether the Government would be prepared to take these situations on board. If not, what is so special about territorial extent, as opposed to the other special geographical concerns that we have mentioned?
Just to underline and illuminate the point that my noble friend made in passing about the south Wales valleys, I report to him the words of the late Alec Jones, who, as the noble Lord will recall, was the Member for Rhondda, having been a Member for Rhondda West, which was then brought together with Rhondda East. There was at the time of that Boundary Commission report an idea that a part of what became the Cynon Valley constituency should be grouped in with Rhondda East and Rhondda West—that is, Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach, or the large Rhondda and the little Rhondda. Alec Jones’s devastating comment on that to the Boundary Commission was, “Some bloody idiot has been using a flat map”. There is a huge danger, if the kind of amendment presented by my noble friend is not accepted and there are no clear indicators to the Boundary Commission to use its sensible discretion, that flat maps will plague a lot of constituencies, not just in Wales but in England and Scotland, that are interrupted by large geographical features that define communities. Unless proper consideration is given to that topographical reality, flat maps will come to be cursed.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his intervention. My fear is not that the maps that are used will be flat but that they will make no difference. They may well show the contours of the mountains in between, but no notice could be taken of them, in any event.
I anticipate that the Minister’s answer to my question will reference the overriding principle of equalising seats. However, that principle is of course breached by the Bill in several areas and there should not be any ideological block on debating whether it ought to be breached even more. If the Minister were to try to explain the rule by reference to the accessibility of a constituency and the ability of the Member of Parliament to travel around it, why are Argyll and Bute, with its 13 islands, or St Ives, which incorporates the Isles of Scilly, not included also as exceptions to the parity rule?
It may furthermore be argued that the further loosening of the electoral parity rule by asserting the strict threshold imposed by the Bill merely brings Britain into line with other countries and international states. However, that assertion has been blown apart by an analysis of international electoral systems published this month by Democratic Audit, which concludes:
“Differences in constituency size … are to be found in Australia and the United States—where equalisation supposedly rules. Constituency size is always modified by locality and geography in some form”.
The article states:
“The startling truth about the government’s proposed equalisation scheme is that it would be the most extreme version used in any national legislature based on single member constituencies in the world”.
I repeat that,
“it would be the most extreme version used in any national legislature based on single member constituencies”.
The quotation continues:
“This is true both in terms of the number of tolerated anomalies and the uniformity imposed on the bulk of constituencies”.
The Government need to respond to these concerns. Their approach to constituency boundaries is too rigid and too uniform, but they still have time to correct the problem. There is no reason why these major reports should be rushed through without any proper consultation or analysis. We invite the Government to pause for thought and to take some time to examine how their changes would impact in practical terms—the only terms that matter—on UK constituencies and the communities that make them up.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, told the House last June that common sense and a sense of history and geography would have an influence on this process. The narrow exemptions from the electoral parity rule currently contained in the Bill are inadequate to allow for that to happen. As with so much contained, we fear, in Part 2 of the Bill, the Government need to go back to the drawing board with respect to rule 4, which is what our amendment invites them to do. I beg to move.
I should tell the Committee that if this amendment is agreed to I cannot call Amendments 71C to 72A.
My Lords, I intervene briefly because in the debate on the amendment on the Isle of Wight, which my noble friend moved so successfully, I touched on the issue of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. There is a famous painting by Erskine Nicol called “Lochaber No More”, which depicts the clansmen saying goodbye to their families as they leave for the New World. It is now a part of the Fleming collection and is the picture that is most frequently in demand to be loaned abroad. There is a long tradition, and I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me for correcting his pronunciation of Lochaber.
I mention “Lochaber No More” because I suspect that that will be the consequence of this. As I said in the earlier debate, when I read the Bill I thought that this was a protection measure for Charles Kennedy’s constituency. He set me straight on that when I had lunch with him the other day. The most likely outcome is that the Boundary Commission will start, as it has always done, in the north; the constituency that is currently represented by Lord Thurso will become larger; and there will then be a fight between Mr Kennedy and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for the remaining constituency. I do not know what my right honourable friend’s views are on primaries but they have always been enthusiastically embraced by the Liberal Party. If there is to be a contest, my advice to him was that he does not want it to be a primary because I think Mr Charles Kennedy will win hands down.
As the noble Lord was such a great mover in the process of devolution, he is on thin ice when talking about the security of the union as a result of legislation passed through this House. However, that is a debate for another day.
I have some sympathy with the amendment because it seems perverse to set a physical limit. When we talked about the Isle of Wight the other day—I understand that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has taken to quoting me extensively—I said that constituencies are not about blocks of numbers. However, neither are they about blocks of specific land mass area. I did not know how the Boundary Commission would deal with the problem, but we could end up with a new Caithness constituency, which is an entirely arbitrary line on the map, arising from this provision. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bach, we have put the proposition fairly and I do not understand why this provision is here, unless it was thought that it would provide protection for a particular constituency. That constituency, Ross, Skye and Lochaber, has worked very well. Despite his politics, the right honourable Member, Charles Kennedy, has represented it very well in Parliament.
I am always in favour of saving public money, but it strikes me as I look at the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that there is a curious thing in the Scottish context in that we want to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600, but the Scottish Parliament, which has 129 Members, has fiercely resisted any reduction in its size. If one wanted to give the Boundary Commission instructions, it would be far more important to try to co-ordinate the boundaries of the Scottish parliamentary Westminster constituencies with those in the Scottish Parliament, but that does not feature. Instead, we have this extraordinary thing that no constituency can be larger than the existing constituency, which in itself was created to take account of geographical and other boundaries.
I do not want to detain the House, and I certainly do not want to be accused of filibustering or anything of that kind, but the noble Lord, Lord Bach, makes an important point and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and to pick up some of his points. In doing so, I will speak to Amendments 71C and 72A, which were tabled by my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and me and would have exactly the same effect but are less elegant than the amendment moved by the Front Bench, which has put it all into one amendment while we have two. I am looking forward to reading Hansard tomorrow to see how it records our correction of the pronunciation of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency. The correction is easy to say but not easy to put down in print.
My noble friends will understand why I am a bit more suspicious of the Government’s intention than my noble friend on the Front Bench. Noble Lords opposite will probably understand even more why I am more suspicious than the Front Bench. One should look carefully at the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Bach said. Rule 5(1), on page 10, states:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit … special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency”.
Size is covered, and it is included in exactly the same way as shape and accessibility.
Later, I shall move an amendment to include the word “wealth”. I am not sure that that is the best word, but I also wanted to consider how rich or prosperous a constituency is. That should be a factor. Size is covered, so why do we need the separate provision, rule 4(1), which states:
“A constituency shall not have an area of more than 13,000 square kilometres”?
Rule 4(2) then states:
“A constituency does not have to comply with rule (2)(1)(a) if … it has an area of more than 12,000 square kilometres”.
Why is the first one 13,000 square kilometres? Why not 14,000, 15,000, 13,500 or any other figure? I asked myself that when I read the Bill for the first time. Why is the second figure 12,000? Why not 11,000, 10,000 or 13,000?
Then I looked at the area of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. My noble friend will not be surprised to hear that that area is 12,779 square kilometres—that is, between 12,000 and 13,000. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is probably right that the Boundary Commission might perversely start at the top with Thurso and move south, so it might not actually preserve Ross, Skye and Lochaber, but I think that that is what it was put in for. It was an attempt to preserve Ross, Skye and Lochaber; why is it there otherwise? Why is it included at all? Why do we have both these provisions and why are they 12,000 and 13,000?
I am really looking forward to my old friend’s reply—I was going to say my noble friend. Last week, he reminded me that we have known each other for 45 years. We went to the Soviet Union together all those years ago as young, innocent students. My noble friend and I learnt a lot on that occasion. I am looking forward to his explanation. He has been very astute in giving us explanations on other provisions in the Bill, but this one will really test him.
I was not going to talk about the Scottish parliamentary boundaries until the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised them. He is now asking himself why he did so. As I say, I would have sat down by now, as noble Lords opposite, particularly those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, will be pleased to hear, but he raised a very interesting point. He is absolutely right. When my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke reduced the number of Scottish constituencies from 72 to 59, the idea was that the number of Scottish parliamentary constituencies would reduce proportionately, the boundaries would stay coterminous and we would have 108 Members of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament was originally designed for 108 Members. One of the reasons why it went so hugely over budget was because everyone in the Scottish Parliament of all parties wanted to stick with the figure of 129. That was rather unfortunate. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and I agree on that as well.
However, that is not the main purpose of these amendments, which is to ascertain why these figures of 12,000 and 13,000 were pulled from the hat and included if it was not to protect Ross, Skye and Lochaber. If Ross, Skye and Lochaber and Orkney and Shetland are to be protected, it certainly looks like a protection arrangement for Liberal Democrat MPs. The advice that my noble friend—my very noble friend—has given me on Hansard is that it should use rhyming slang to explain that Lochaber rhymes with harbour. That is a Welsh solution. However, that has detracted me from my main purpose, which is to say that I very much look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord McNally, explain the randomness of these figures and say why they are included at all.
I will intervene briefly on this subject as it was raised in the debate on the amendment of my noble friend Lord Fowler on the Isle of Wight. I have the very greatest reservations about putting any exemptions whatever into the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has made the very good point that it seems rather odd that so many of these exemptions seem to concern themselves with Liberal Democrat constituencies. There might be an argument for saying that if the only representation that the people had in these enormous geographical constituencies was in Westminster, perhaps you should keep the population of the electorate somewhat smaller, but of course that is not the case. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth has pointed out, an inordinately large number of Members of the Scottish Parliament can answer many of the worries and concerns that the electorate might have in Orkney and Shetland and in other such places in Edinburgh. That would deal with all problems of education, the Scottish legal system and many other areas.
As we all know, one reality that we live with today is that Scottish Members of Parliament who come south to Westminster have extremely little to do—except, of course, to vote, often on English matters that are of no concern to their constituents. I must confess that I am sad that the whole business of English and Welsh votes on English and Welsh matters, which was a commitment of the Conservatives in their manifesto, is notably absent for some reason from the coalition document. Presumably we must assume that the Liberal Democrats are quite comfortable with the idea of Scottish Members of Parliament coming south to vote on matters in English constituencies that do not concern their constituents at all, because they are dealt with by what is now not even the Scottish Parliament—I am told that it is now the Scottish Government—north of the border.
The whole rationale for saying that such an enormous geographical area should have fewer people in the electorate does not stand up any more when you have devolution and a Scottish Parliament that deals with so many of the problems with which people in those enormous geographical areas will be concerned. I have every support for removing that provision from the Bill. I think that it is a very great mistake on the part of those who put the Bill together to produce those exemptions in different forms, which is why I was so much against my noble friend Lord Fowler's idea that for some reason the Isle of Wight should be exempted. Once you start down the road of exemptions, there is no end to it; you produce a justification for practically every amendment that we have been hearing to this half of the Bill.
I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, when he summed up my noble friend Lord Fowler’s amendment: that I was a bit of a purist. I do not quite know whether that was supposed to be an insult or a compliment, but in the circumstances I will take it as a compliment and I hope that this amendment gets a serious reading, because we must try to clean up the Bill and make it rather more rational.
Speaking as a unionist, I will not necessarily rise to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, about what Scottish Members of Parliament can do these days, but I agree that there is a real inconsistency in the exemptions in the Bill. This is the second time in our discussions that we have had to question the choice of a number. It almost seems as though those who drafted the Bill had a book of random numbers in front of them, if we are to believe the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who, when asked about the number of 600 Members of Parliament said that, well, it was a nice round number. Where does the number of 13,000 or 12,000 come from? It is blatantly obviously to protect the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I will be amazed to see the Minister get out of that one.
It troubles me that the Bill has been put together in such a haphazard manner that we have these inconsistencies. If there was a pressing need to protect constituencies because of their size or their shape, I must ask again why Argyll and Bute, another Liberal Democrat constituency, is not in the Bill. I know Ross, Skye and Lochaber very well indeed. It is a vast constituency, but it is much easier to move around than Argyll and Bute. There are certain parts of Argyll and Bute—particularly some of the islands—that you cannot visit in a day. In certain areas there is no normal ferry service—you have to go either by a chartered boat or by trawler—yet it receives no special consideration in the Bill. Is it that Alan Reid is a more loyal member of the coalition than Charles Kennedy? It seems to me that those issues were raised at the time when there was some speculation that certain members of the Liberal Democrat party were not wildly enthusiastic about the coalition.
Therefore, I very much look forward to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on this. I ask him not to go back to the book of random numbers but to give us an explanation of this very bizarre choice. My noble friend Lord Bach talked about the equalisation of constituencies in places such as Australia. I remember asking a Member from the Northern Territory how many electors he had. He replied, “Oh, I’ve got about 10,000”. I was rather startled and pointed out that in Airdrie and Shotts I had about 68,000 and that he must know the inside leg measurement of every voter. However, he pointed out that his constituency was the size of Portugal, so, even in countries where there is equalisation, there is a realisation that you cannot have the concept of constituency by block.
My Lords, I know that the Minister is happy only when dealing with amendments that involve equations, particularly complex ones, and therefore he may not have been happy at the prospect of addressing this amendment. However, I want to point out one subsidiary advantage to the Bill of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Bach—namely, that it removes an otherwise technical flaw in the Bill.
The equation in the Bill, U/598—from memory, it is in paragraph 2 of proposed new Schedule 2 under Clause 11—is predicated on there being only two exempted constituencies. However, if the constituency whose name begins with Ross—I am not going to try to say the Scots constituency name as I will no doubt make some minor mispronunciation—is also exempted under the Bill, then the equation will no longer work; it would need to be U/597, and I have not seen any government amendment proposing that.
Of course, were the Government to accept—and they showed some sympathy for it the other night—the revised equation that I put forward as an amendment to the Bill, which was adaptable to whatever the number of exempted constituencies might be, this problem would be removed. However, as they have not yet accepted it, their alternative is to accept the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Bach. At least the Bill would then be technically competent and the algebra would work, which it currently does not as the Bill is drafted.
I declare an interest, as my title is Balmacara, as has already been mentioned. Balmacara is at the centre of the constituency that we are talking about—or at least it used to be until the Boundary Commission for Scotland added Lochaber to the bottom end of it, making it look rather like an elephant in shape because it has a huge area to the south of the constituency where the Member who currently represents it lives. Above that is the original Ross and Cromarty constituency, which I knew and loved when I was younger, and the two have to work together.
We have reached an interesting point in this debate because we all seem to agree that geography is not the right basis on which to describe and characterise our constituencies. However, we are struggling to come up with the right formulation for addressing the questions that lie underneath a lot of the points that have been made by my noble friends and others. The further you are from centres of high population, the more there is a case for taking into account scarcity and other issues, because, as my noble friend Lady Liddell said, when you are talking about areas as large as the one in Australia that she referred to, factors not necessarily related to population or dealing with communities need to be brought into play. I think I am right in saying that the area that we are now talking about—that is, the north-west of Scotland—is roughly the same size as Belgium, yet we are talking about the possibility of reducing the number of constituencies to three, with their MPs representing in the UK Parliament all the various things that have to be done for a constituency.
What principle will be used there? When reading the Bill, I came to the same conclusion as did many others—that is, that this must be a way of protecting a particular area. However, if it is, it is certainly very surprising that Mr Charles Kennedy, when discussing this matter in another place, did not see the Bill being phrased in that way. Talking about the size of his constituency, he said:
“It is no exaggeration to say that I can drive for five solid hours within the boundaries of the constituency, simply between point A and point B, to carry out one engagement, and then have to drive five hours back. That is just insane”.
He also said that,
“the Government are trying to introduce the artificial construct of a capped number of constituencies for the whole UK. Leaving aside party politics, I think the House would agree that there are distinct and unique geographical considerations in places such as the Isle of Wight, in Cornwall, with its relationships between places on each side of the Tamar, and in the highlands and islands…A degree of sensible flexibility is called for”.
He said that,
“the crazy approach that is being applied, which simply is not suitable and does not make sense given the communities involved”,
should be withdrawn. He concluded:
“It is never too late for Governments to think again”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; cols. 661-664.]
If that is your friend, who needs opposition?
Like several other noble Lords on this side of the House, I support the basic approach to this Bill. I think there is a good case for striving for equality of votes; I do not dissent from the central thrust of this Bill. However, I do not think that the Bill as presently constructed deals correctly with my area of Ross and Cromarty as was, or points further north. If the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is right, the way the Boundary Commission will operate is going to leave a three-seat set of constituencies up in that northern area, with a fight between those who currently represent Inverness and those who represent Ross, Skye and Lochaber. That is not the right solution for Scotland. It does not reflect a sense of the community, a sense of the history, a sense of the clan relationships or a sense of the travel arrangements there. It is a wonderful part of the world, but it is very remote. It is very different and distinct, and it would be sad if that were to be lost in this process. We have not got this right, and this amendment, which I fully support, gives the Government a chance to think again. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
There has been very considerable doubt cast in this short debate upon the integrity of this part of the Bill and how it came about. Is it not striking that not one Liberal from the Benches opposite has seen fit to defend either the decision or the integrity of it?
The Minister has been asked on several occasions by noble Lords to give the reasoning and logic behind this proposal. He should realise that it really will not be good enough not to give a precise answer. I add to the request for a full response how this recommendation came about. Bearing in mind the doubt cast upon the integrity of the decision, I ask him, in the interests of transparency and accountability—which we know the Liberals are big on—to give a public commitment to this House and to the nation that he will put into the Library all the written submissions, reasoning, papers from special advisers, political advisers or whoever that he considered before this was put into the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, will forgive me for following him, but I wanted to hear what he had to say—and I knew he would have something to say—before I responded. The Bill, in my opinion, is not satisfactory as it deals with the large, scattered population areas of the north highlands. However, I am bound to say that the amendment would make it even worse. I hope that this will be given further consideration and, on Report, it may be possible to produce a solution which renders the representation of highland constituencies feasible and maintains the contact between the elected Members and their constituents. I recall that, when I represented the northernmost constituency of the mainland, Caithness and Sutherland, and, latterly, Easter Ross, the practicalities of going from one end to the other, or even consulting the fishing industry on three coasts about matters which were for the United Kingdom Government or the European government, were not at all straightforward. I instituted a system of telephone clinics, which is now not possible because of the change in our telephone system. The practicality of getting round and consulting the members of one’s constituency, about something such as the Falklands Islands, which I remember doing during the Falklands war, is demanding, and I do not dissent from what Charles Kennedy said in another place. In fact, I strongly agree with him.
I am not opposed to the objective of giving votes equal value, but that has to be balanced with the sense that electors have of being represented by an individual with whom they are in contact. These islands of ours are largely densely populated, but the former county of Sutherland has a density of about one person per square mile. That is quite unlike the urban areas of this country, and it ought to be recognised that it presents problems that are almost as great, or perhaps even greater, than those of island constituencies. I hope that the Government will recognise that.
There is one MSP directly representing the area and there are list top-ups for the wider area of the highlands. That does not seem to me in any way to diminish the problem of those who are participating in national debates about United Kingdom issues whose contact with electors ought to be real, not remote. I believe that in matters of taxation, foreign policy, defence and energy policy and in matters directly affecting the prosperity of these areas, their voices should be heard and should be informed by their direct contact.
Although I do not regard the formula in the Bill as ideal, to extract it from the Bill would prejudice further consideration of what would be the better solution. I profoundly hope that we will arrive at a better solution before the Bill leaves this House.
Will my noble friend develop that argument? Given that the Bill currently instructs the Boundary Commission to take account of geography and size, will he explain why removing this provision would meet the points that he eloquently expresses? If I may say so, as a Member of Parliament, he very ably represented that huge area of Caithness and Sutherland. It would be helpful if he could explain why he thinks removing this provision would be an impediment to reaching a solution that meets these requirements.
My understanding is that the Boundary Commission’s discretion to consider this would be removed by Amendment 71B. I think that would be a mistake. I hope that the Government have not set their position in concrete on this issue and will be prepared to return to it later.
My Lords, I am deeply flattered by the number of noble Lords who have said how excited or interested they are about my reply. I think I have mentioned to the House before that Michael Foot once said to me that he hated reading a brief when he was a Minister because he liked to be as excited as everybody else about what was coming next.
Let me also clarify that it is true that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I first met 45 years ago on a student delegation to Moscow. I always assumed that I was there to keep an eye on him and he was there to keep an eye on me, and it has been a friendship that has endured. Indeed, looking across the Chamber, I see the faces of many men and the odd woman whom I have known since my youth. It is really sad that my memory of these old friends was of their idealism and yet tonight we have had doubt after doubt about the good intentions contained in the Bill and its integrity. There has been a constant questioning of motive when, as I have said so often to this House, our motives are very clear and simple: fair votes in fairly drawn constituencies.
If we take the broad sweep of the Committee and the special pleading we have had from time to time about the particular problem of looking after an inner city and the special pleading from the large rural constituencies about their problems, we realise that all Members of Parliament in their different ways have jobs to do and I suspect it works out fairly reasonably. On the question of size, there is a simple reason for the recommendation which has nothing to do with the present incumbent of that constituency. It would have applied whether the present incumbent was Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. It was simply that the independent Boundary Commission in Scotland recommended that that was about the maximum manageable size that a constituency could operate. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated, this is a problem mainly for the highlands of Scotland.
I shall have to write to the noble Lord. It was in the last Boundary Commission report dealing with the Scottish boundaries. Again, noble Lords opposite are continually looking for hidden factors, secret deals and political fixes. As I say, that is so sad from people who set off on a political journey with such idealism. As has been pointed out, special geographical considerations can be taken into account.
On this point about the Scottish Boundary Commission and its recommendations, the Bill instructs the Boundary Commission to operate according to certain rules, but if the Boundary Commission is of the view that the size of Ross, Skye and Lochaber is about right, surely it can come to that conclusion without being instructed to do so in the Bill.
The Bill helps it in its work. This is not a time to go back to the drawing board. Most of the arguments have been rehearsed. Charles Kennedy himself pointed out the difficulty of operating in the present constituency with his five-hour drive. One of the possible consequences of the amendment is that we would be faced with even larger geographic constituencies.
We propose as a maximum size roughly that of the current largest constituency area. Since it was recommended by the Boundary Commission, we believed that it gave the best benchmark to use in our proposals. Ultimately, this is a matter of judgment. We see no reason to risk turning what are now challenging but manageable factors into potentially unmanageable and damaging factors for MPs and their constituencies in these areas. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords on all sides who have spoken in what everyone who has listened must consider to be a proper and sensible debate at Committee stage on an important matter. The Minister did not convince me in the slightest as to why the rule is in the Bill and I have a feeling that he did not persuade the Committee either. That is quite a serious state of affairs, because rule 4 stands out as being the one whose presence in the Bill cannot be understood at all. I do not, I am afraid, get the point about the Scottish Boundary Commission. I hope that the Minister will in due course help the Committee by telling us chapter and verse about the Scottish Boundary Commission, but the rule seems effectively to apply to only one constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Government wanted to exempt that constituency, why did they not just exempt it, as they have the two others and now the Isle of Wight?
I said in opening that, even if the original intention was to protect a particular constituency, it has become apparent that that objective would not be delivered. I suppose that if there is one thing worse than trying to protect a particular constituency, it is trying to protect it and failing to do so. I fear that that may have happened on this occasion. I cannot think—I think that other noble Lords are of the same mind as me—what other explanation there can be for the rule appearing.
As for other speakers, I accused the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, the other night of being a purist. It was meant entirely as a compliment rather than an insult; indeed, he took it as though it were a compliment, which I was slightly surprised at. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, proposed a very sensible amendment the other night, which the Front Bench on the other side said that it would look at and take up. We very much hope that it does so, because the points that he made in his short speech tonight showed how important that should be. I am grateful also to my noble friends Lord Stevenson, Lord McAvoy and Lord Foulkes.
I was intrigued by and grateful for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, because he has real history in that part of the world. He said that he did not like the Bill as it was worded but that he liked our amendment even less, but I was not quite sure what he wanted. I look forward to hearing in more detail at some stage what he would like to see in place of both the Government’s attitude and ours. He said that we should be looking for votes of equal value that are balanced by a sense of constituencies being represented by an individual. We know exactly what he meant by that and we agree with him; it is exactly what we are looking for in this case. We do not see how this clause helps us to achieve that.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, asked the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, why the rule could not just be taken out and reliance made on rule 5. I think that the answer to that is that rule 5 is subject to rule 2, which is the one that sets the quota, but rule 4, which is the one that sets up this particularly odd territorial constituency size, is not subject to rule 2 in the same way. They have equal worth. If tonight we took out rule 4, we would be left with rule 5, but that would be subject strictly to the 5 per cent rule and, therefore, would not prevail. I think that that is the answer to the question that the noble Lord posed.
I do not intend to divide the House tonight on this issue. We have had a very sensible Committee debate. The Government must have heard concern from all sides of the House about this clause and I am sure that they will go away and consider carefully whether this is really the right clause to be in this Bill and whether they could come up with a better version of it. It is unsatisfactory and we will undoubtedly bring the matter back at Report. By then, all sides of the House—and I do not just mean my noble friends alongside me and behind me—will want to have a better explanation as to why rule 4 is in the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 71B withdrawn.
Amendment 71C not moved.
I call Amendment 72.
72: Clause 11, page 9, line 35, leave out “13,000 square kilometres” and insert “that of the present parliamentary constituency of Brecon and Radnor”
I accept my noble friend’s apologies, which have added to the gaiety at this time of night.
In this amendment, we move from Scotland to Wales, but I hope that this will not be the debate when we consider the general issues about the reduction of Welsh representation under this Bill from 40 seats down to 30 seats. That falls to be considered under Amendment 89BA, tabled by some of my noble friends, and we shall no doubt want to have a full discussion on that at the time.
This is about a single constituency, Brecon and Radnor, where I have the great privilege and pleasure of living, so I know a tiny bit about it. The aim of this amendment is very simple: to afford to Brecon and Radnor the protection offered in Clause 11 to the Scottish seats that we have just been discussing, so that the Boundary Commission may—not must—if it is satisfied that other factors make this desirable, decide that the seat is big enough as it is and should not be extended.
I do not rest my case on the fascinating political history of Brecon and Radnor. I was interested in it long before I lived there, because I visited it with the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the run-up to the 1979 general election. At that time, it was one of the genuine three-way marginals in Great Britain. Indeed, it was held by Labour and Caerwyn Roderick, who was a junior Welsh Minister at the time. At the last general election, Labour’s share of the vote was 10 per cent, so I think that I can be absolved of any accusation that in trying to save Brecon and Radnor I am trying to advance my party’s interests. We have an excellent candidate, but I am not absolutely confident that even at the next general election the constituency will resume its status as a Labour marginal. It was also the site of an extraordinary by-election won by my near namesake and much lamented friend, Lord Livsey. It is right that the House remembers him when it debates this matter. I might be wrong, but I fancy that he might have spoken on my side had he been here still, as we all so wish he was.
Last week, one of my noble friends was widely quoted when he referred to prime numbers in the setting of the figure of 600 Members of the other House. When he was quoted on the radio, I think that he was regarded as making a rather jokey remark, not a serious point. I am about to venture into mathematics—knowing as I do that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, so loves it—to make a serious point, although I am aware that it may not appear quite so serious on the radio tomorrow. At first blush, it may seem that Brecon and Radnor has very few claims to be too large a constituency because it is much smaller in area than the Scottish constituencies that we have just been considering. Brecon and Radnor runs to 3,014 square kilometres, which is only one quarter of the square kilometrage of Ross et cetera—the constituency that we were just discussing. If you are a Member of Parliament, however, it is of course not the area of your constituency that determines how far you have to travel. It is, in fact—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be taking close notes at this point—the square root of the area, which determines the distance between the points of it.
In terms of its square root, the area of Brecon and Radnor is much less different from the area of those constituencies in Scotland. It is not a quarter of the size, as it is in area, but half. If it was a square constituency, journeys in Brecon and Radnor could extend to 55 kilometres—as opposed to 110 kilometres on average in the Highland seat that we were discussing—but, believe me, those journeys are also very long and difficult. The byroads of Brecon and Radnor compare with any in the kingdom for narrowness, snowiness and the general intervention of tractors between one’s vehicle and progress. The sheep outnumber the people, as my noble friend Lady Hayter points out, although I am not suggesting that the size of the constituency should be based on the number of its sheep as well as the number of electors.
There is also a particular difficulty if you decide to increase the size of Brecon and Radnor, as you would have to, because the size of the electorate at the moment is only about 54,000. It is that Brecon and Radnor is bordered on one side by England. We have talked about ward borders, but one thing that you cannot contravene within the rules of this Bill is national borders, so the constituency cannot move out to the east to take in Leominster or any of the county towns out there. To the south, you have the valley constituencies, which are already undersized and out of which it will be extraordinarily difficult to make natural constituencies in any case. If you pinch bits of the valleys and put them into Brecon and Radnor, you make their problems worse without creating a coherent Brecon and Radnor. As your Lordships will see, that gives only two possibilities. One is to extend to the west; the other is to extend to the north. Again, with my pronunciation difficulties I am not going to say which counties and constituencies that would mean extending into, but it gives the Boundary Commission a horribly difficult task in where it is going to find the 20,000 or so extra electors that Brecon and Radnor will need to bring it up to the same size.
What is certainly clear is that there can be no solution to those problems within the present boundaries of the county of Powys. For noble Lords who are not used to what happens in these sparsely populated areas, it is scarcely imaginable how large Powys seems, even now. My wife and I would pack the car with supplies for days to make a journey to visit the north of the county. It took me an hour and a half to get to a Labour Party meeting in the south of the county quite recently. These are enormous places, which, incidentally, create enormous difficulties for political organisations. The Brecon and Radnor constituency party is asking people to drive to meetings when they require an hour and a half or two hours’ drive to get to them, even now. Without the political parties, like them or loathe them, there would be no political life in this country. That is just a reality.
The thought of extending the constituency is difficult to stomach and the thought of the degree of the extension that would be required, given that there are no heavily populated bits anywhere near to north or west that you could add to it, is mind-boggling. This would be an absolutely enormous and unmanageable constituency. We must add to that a factor that I suspect applies in some of the Scottish constituencies, too—it certainly does in the Highlands and Islands, although not in every constituency—which is that, if you are the Member for Brecon and Radnor, every constituent expects you to know them by name, as, certainly, the late Lord Livsey did. This becomes such an unmanageable constituency that the Member, if he is to cope at all, will find it extremely hard to devote his attention to the other matters of national and international politics that should fall within the attention of Members.
I add finally that, so far as I can judge local feeling—I am not a Member of another place, so I probably do less door knocking than I would if I were—local feeling is extremely strong, if not yet as well articulated as in the Isle of Wight, that the constituency should be left as it is into the future. When noble Lords look at all these facts, the case for an exemption for Brecon and Radnor—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, will not agree with it, but he would not agree with it for anywhere—is extremely strong. This amendment would make it possible for the Boundary Commission to make such an exemption, but that decision would rest with the Welsh Boundary Commission, so it would not be imposed by this House. If the commission found a flaw in my argument, of course I would subject myself, as would the constituency, to its judgment. I believe that the constituency should be given a chance to make its case to the Boundary Commission and I commend this amendment to the House.
Before my noble friend sits down, I hope that he will let me point this out. If Brecon and Radnor were to be extended north, it would go into Montgomeryshire. If it went west, it would go into Ceredigion. The electoral populations of these three parliamentary seats put together would only be enough for about two parliamentary seats under the criteria that the Government propose, so there would be two parliamentary seats from the heads of the valleys in south Wales to Wrexham in north Wales and west from the English-Welsh border to Cardigan Bay.
My noble friend is entirely right and, if I had dared to pronounce the words that he has just pronounced, I would have made precisely the same points. The knock-on effect from changing this constituency would be absolutely extreme. It is an example, incidentally, on which the whole House might like to reflect, of the way in which one change leads to another change and eventually to a complete, wholesale redrawing of the constituency map, to whose consequences, it seems to me, the Government have given not one moment’s thought.
My Lords, I want to speak very briefly about the amendment moved by my noble friend. First, the prime number thing is very easy. My noble friend Lord Harris asked whether 600 is a combination of prime numbers. It is; it is 23 x 3 x 52. That is not a serious problem. I said the other day—I think it was on Wednesday—that the Government’s difficulty is that they have put too stringent a criterion on themselves for equalising the size of seats. I am entirely in favour of their objective, but to have spared only two seats out of 600 shows that they have adopted too stringent a criterion. If they had given themselves a bit of slack by saying 99 per cent, or even 98 per cent, we would not be going through this debate about individual constituencies which are awkward in terms of the criterion. If they had set aside 10 or 12 constituencies which could be awkward, the rest would fit into the Government’s criterion. So rather than go seriatim through all these different constituencies, perhaps the Minister could say that yes, they recognise that 598 is too stringent a criterion, and maybe something like 590 or 580 would do. Then all the anomalies could be adjusted and local sentiment satisfied, while the Government could still get the bulk of their objective of equalising seat sizes. I hope that the Minister will find that a helpful remark, not a hostile one.
My Lords, I have not yet spoken in this debate and indeed I hesitate to speak now, because I am concerned about the length of time that these debates are taking and their impact on the reputation of the House. However, I live and work in Wales and am aware of the different cultures in the different areas there. That is why I felt that I wanted to support the amendment. Indeed, the first report from the Welsh Affairs Committee of this Session starts off by saying:
“The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than any other nation of the UK. Wales is projected to lose ten of its forty parliamentary seats, a reduction of 25 per cent”.
I know that we will be debating other aspects of Wales later, but I am not sure that I will be able to be in the House because I will be at work.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has made an important point. Culturally, the area of Brecon and Radnorshire is quite different from Ceredigion, from the north and from the south Wales valleys. In considering whether to support this amendment, I looked at a map of travel times across the whole of Powys. The routes for short distances are inordinately long whichever way you go. I thought it was just my poor navigation skills but in the rain and the dark, in an area where sat-navs often do not work and there is no phone signal, getting around that area is extremely difficult.
The other aspect is that the nature and history of that community are quite different from the history and the interests of the area in the valleys further south, of the Welsh-speaking area of Ceredigion and west Wales, and indeed of the north, which has natural flows because of the new main road across into England in the Merseyside area, as we all know. It makes a great deal of sense that if we talk about representation of people through their Members of Parliament, we must consider who it is that these MPs will be representing.
To have representation of that area in Powys requires someone who, like the late Lord Livsey, was hugely respected, understands the culture of that area, can represent it and, realistically, travel around it, and does not get distracted by some of the other no less important but completely different problems that affect the other areas represented by other Members of Parliament. It is for that reason that I commend this amendment to the House.
My Lords, I think that I was under the same misapprehension as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, until I actually heard precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. I should say that I know the constituency in question extremely well. My brother has lived there for many years, and of course Richard Livsey was one of my closest colleagues; I campaigned for him, I worked with him and for him both in the other House and in this House, and I was privileged to attend his funeral service, which was one of the most moving I have ever attended.
We should be clear, however: this amendment is not proposing that this constituency should be made an exception. It does not add to the list of exceptions. The amendment would change rule 4 for every constituency in the country. I do not understand why the noble Lord, who is usually meticulous in preparing amendments, moved it in totally different terms. It may or may not apply to the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire but it certainly introduces a completely new rule for the whole country. Therefore, if I may say so, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, should look very carefully at the amendment. It changes rule 4. I understand that it may or may not apply to this constituency, but the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is making sure that there is a completely new set of criteria for every constituency—in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. It does not provide for an exemption.
I put it to the noble Lord that it is surely sensible, as my noble friend proposes, to develop sensible rules of general application, rather than to proceed by amending the Bill here, there and elsewhere by adding new clauses to create anomalies and exceptions to unsatisfactory rules, as we have them at the moment in the draft Bill. That is why my noble friend’s amendment is very sensible.
My Lords, this amendment is not confined to Brecon and Radnorshire, as I accept. It removes a colossal and monstrous injustice as far as the whole concept of a constituency is concerned. What is a constituency? What should a constituency be? I suggest that it should be, first and foremost, a community of interest that is acceptable in relation to the division of the United Kingdom into various parliamentary constituencies. Sometimes this will mean that one has to draw rather artificial lines on a map. In many cases, it will mean that one must respect ancient communities that have been there for a very long time. If you can superimpose your model on to those ancient communities, you should do so. That is what parliamentary representation is about.
In relation to Brecon and Radnorshire, it is one of the clear absurdities of a situation where one looks at the whole question of representation through the wrong end of the telescope. This piece of legislation says that you should look at representation from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament and the number of constituents that he has. No, my Lords: you should look at it from the other end of the telescope—from the end of the ordinary constituent, who asks himself, “How accessible is my Member of Parliament to me?”. If you ask that question, you are likely to get a more reasonable and just result.
The whole question of how Wales is to be dealt with in this situation will, perhaps, have to wait for another day or two as far as this debate is concerned, but I lay down a marker. Do you think it right that Wales should lose 25 per cent of its seats, when the United Kingdom, by reduction from 650 to 600 seats, loses 7.7 per cent? Wales is not a region; it is a national community. We shall come back to that question again and again. I repeat: the whole issue, essentially, is looked at not from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament vis-à-vis his constituents, but from the viewpoint of the individual constituent vis-à-vis the Member of Parliament.
I took my title as being “of Kentish Town” but it could easily have been “of Ystradgynlais”. However, I felt that spending the rest of life explaining how to spell that would be even harder than it is for my noble friends to learn how to pronounce Scottish names. However, I come not just from Ystradgynlais but from Brecon Road in Ystradgynlais. It is from that point of view that I speak today. This is part of an ongoing concern. I spoke on Second Reading of the memories, which I was taught about as a child, of people in the Empire dividing up in pencil on a flat map boundaries that were going to have enormous implications for the local community. Part of this debate is undoubtedly about that, and a geographical area like Brecon and Radnor is a good example of the furthest extent to which you can describe a community in any sense of that.
The particular interest in a sense follows beautifully from the last speech, because in Wales, looking at this very much from the point of view of the people who live there rather than from the point of view of the person who represents them, we have lower car use than in other parts of the kingdom. Indeed, car use among women in Wales is much lower. The idea of being able to travel to meet your Member of Parliament is important. It is not simply a question of the Member of Parliament going to meet the constituents; the constituents want to travel either separately or as a group to meet their Member of Parliament.
Ystradgynlais, for example, very much has its own culture, its own feeling and its own identity. We have our own male voice choir, our own banks, solicitors’ firms, our Co-op, post office, citizen’s advice, library, our miners’ welfare and our own cottage hospital. There is an identity there. People share a commonality of concerns as well as of experience. Indeed, although unusually for my family I am not a Welsh speaker, there is a bit of our own Welsh there as well, which will not be recognised everywhere. I am sorry that the Reading Clerk has left; he is a great expert on this. Certainly when I lived in Anglesey for a time, my grandmother’s Welsh was not even understood up there. We, of course, reckoned that our Welsh was the best.
The issue in Wales is not simply of a community that feels its identity but of travel. My noble friend Lord Lipsey described very well the issue of driving, but imagine being a woman with no access to a car and therefore travelling by bus and trying to see her Member of Parliament. It is almost impossible to do. I have a great fear that boundaries are being drawn for numerical reasons rather than from understanding a community—particularly in the valleys, although it will be the same with water, and there will be others, as I argued for the City of London—and that ignore a recognisable community in which one can travel within a reasonable time and can have that joint representation. If we draw boundaries that ignore geographical size, we will not let down the Member of Parliament, because they will rise to the challenge; we will let down the constituents.
Brecon and Radnor only just works now. It may be at the limit of what you could call a community. It does cope, but if it were any larger it would be impossible and very sad for the people who live there.
My Lords, I rise to answer for the Opposition, and noble Lords will know that this is my first venture into this Bill. We have had a very thoughtful debate, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will not think that the interventions have in any way been cynical or lacking in appreciation for the political niceties. It is of course my noble friend Lord Lipsey who has sallied forth to save what has been quintessentially a Liberal Democrat seat now for some time.
We have had some powerful arguments. The most important thing that has come out is the need for flexibility: a more flexible approach than the rigidity which the Bill demands. We heard some powerful descriptions from my noble friends Lord Lipsey, Lord Touhig and Lady Hayter, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the nature and culture of the area with which we are dealing.
My noble friend’s amendment stipulates that no constituency shall have an area greater than that of the present parliamentary constituency of Brecon and Radnor. I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says that that surely cannot be. Perhaps I may mention as gently as I can why I disagree with him. Brecon and Radnor is one example, but an important one. The current MP, Roger Williams, a notable Liberal Democrat, followed the much loved and much lamented Lord Livsey, who represented that constituency so well. It is important to recognise that they represented England and Wales’s largest constituency. For those who live there, as has been clearly outlined, there are real difficulties in seeing their constituency MP because of the distance. It is also the most rural constituency in Wales and the 30th most sparsely populated in the whole of the United Kingdom. I am reliably informed that it would apparently be possible to fit Wales’s smallest constituency, which by geographical area is Cardiff Central, into Brecon and Radnor 176 times over. A noble Lord said from a sedentary position, “And the buses”.
Transport is a very big issue in Brecon and Radnor, and traversing its area can be extremely difficult and lead to expensive fuel bills. My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that the size of the constituency is 3,014 square kilometres. I have in my brief 3,007. I am sure that noble Lords who come from Wales will tell us who is correct. However, it is a large constituency with many difficulties. For this reason we believe that the geographical features that are particular to Brecon and Radnor should be considered by the Boundary Commission for Wales when drawing up the constituency boundaries. However, this is not necessarily best achieved by simply imposing a size quota.
Democratic Audit recommends that some small leeway might be allowed for the construction of constituencies in the Welsh valleys. We on this side of the House very much support that, although I absolutely understand what the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan said—we will talk about Wales in greater detail in due course. This debate has been short and to the point. Crucially, we argue that a more flexible approach to the new rules for boundary redesign in general would enable such consideration. I hope that the Minister, when he answers, will be kind enough to say that he will take back the salient points that have been made in this debate and consider very seriously indeed whether the context in which they are put will enable him to allow the provisions to be a little more flexible than they have appeared to be to date to Members of this House.
My Lords, the first thing I would say about this debate is that it emphasises once again that not only the inner city seats have particular problems. Those on the Benches opposite tack from one side to another to suit whatever special argument they seem to be putting. I remember last week that we were urged to make all kinds of special arrangements for the inner city seats, because of the heavy case load, the large number of unregistered constituents and the like. Now we hear of the problems of constituencies such as Brecon and Radnor. I come back to a point I have made before; every Member of Parliament has particular issues and problems that affect their workload but, in the main, it evens out. It is not useful to keep making special pleadings that simply reflect the diversity of our country and the responsibilities that face each Member of Parliament.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, did not worry about a flurry of interventions from behind him the other day, so I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to deal with one or two from the Opposition.
The noble Lord rightly points out that we argue that Members of Parliament in inner cities have large workloads and that in rural areas they have particular responsibilities, extra work and extra difficulties. If you put those together, is that not an argument for not reducing the numbers from 650?
No, it is an argument for having fair votes in fairly drawn constituencies. One or two Members concede that the principle of votes of equal weight is important—and that is what keeps coming up against the Opposition’s objections. The flexibility that is consistently being urged upon us by the Opposition would, if we accepted every one of their ideas, fatally undermine the concept of votes of equal weight, and they know that. I am willing to leave it to the independent Boundary Commission to work out some of the issues that have been raised. As I have pointed out before, there are matters within the guidance that would give it certain flexibility, but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater—and the baby in this case is votes of equal weight.
Every Member of the House would agree that the touchstone here is the concept of equality. However, equality can mean an arithmetical exactitude when looked at objectively from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament towards his constituency, but there is another concept of equality from the viewpoint of the ordinary elector—in other words, “Do I have an equal access to my Member of Parliament compared with a person in an urban constituency?”. That must be considered.
Of course one cannot argue that someone who lives in north Kensington has more difficulty than someone living in a rural constituency. However, this applies in many constituencies. Although it is quite right that the question of travel should be brought up, I know well that Members of all parties who have represented large constituencies have shown tremendous diligence in making sure that they get around their constituencies and are accessible for surgeries and so on—and, of course, galloping down the line towards us is a whole range of new technologies that are transforming the relationship between Members and their constituents. However, I hear what has been said.
Down the Corridor, Members have regular contact and discussions online with constituents, which is a healthy development in our democracy. As my noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out, the amendment would adjust the maximum geographical size of any constituency to the size of Brecon and Radnor. Under the Bill the maximum area set is, as it happens, that of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. If the amendment were carried, more than 10 constituencies would be out of line with the UK electoral quota and that would result in too many exceptions to the principle of fairness through equally weighted votes across the country. The amendment departs from the fundamental principle of the Bill that a vote, wherever it is cast in the UK, should have broadly equal weight. For that reason I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Does the Minister accept that rule 5 is subject to rule 2 and that rule 2 provides the primacy? When it comes to flexibility and interpretation from the commission, does the noble Lord accept that that would be very limited indeed? The whole point of the amendments is to give the commission the sort of real flexibility that it needs to meet some of the difficult issues with which we are now dealing. I invite the noble Lord to look again at rule 2 because it seems to set the primary course which the commission would have to follow. Rule 5(3) states that this rule has effect subject to rule 2.
I have a question for the noble Lord. The Explanatory Notes state:
“The factors are similar to the existing ones. They may consider special geographical considerations, such as the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency”.
What do the words “accessibility of a constituency” mean to the noble Lord?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. A large number of government supporters are in the Chamber tonight and I am delighted to see them. They may have come in having heard that the Opposition were conducting a filibuster and behaving poorly, contrary to the rules of this House, and that we were not subjecting the Bill to scrutiny. They may even have felt that Ministers were being incredibly patient in treating a succession of filibustering speeches as though they should be answered seriously, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, has done throughout the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has been a friend of mine almost as long as he has been a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and it gives me no pleasure to say what I am going to say. The perfunctory and, at the end of his speech, bad-tempered response of the Minister gives the lie to what has been said. We have had an admirable debate on what I agree is only one constituency, but for the people in that constituency it is their constituency and for the people of the neighbouring constituencies those constituencies are theirs and the electoral geography of Wales is its electors’ geography.
We have heard very moving speeches, which were particularly noted as they came from a quarter which had no reason to filibuster for a single second, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, made clear. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made admirable cases in favour of this amendment. Therefore, I find the way that it was treated—I use this word to avoid any asperity of speech—disappointing.
I wish to deal, first, with the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who was half right. He is right that the amendment has a wider application than Brecon and Radnor. He may not have heard me say that Brecon and Radnor is the largest constituency in England and Wales. I am afraid that I am not qualified to talk about Northern Ireland but I suspect that most of the 10 constituencies that would be affected by this amendment are in Scotland. This matter can be dealt with in one of two ways. You can say that the case I make for Brecon and Radnor embraces all seats where there is a very dispersed population—in earlier debates we heard eloquent pleas on behalf of other Scottish seats—and that therefore the exemption should indeed apply to all Scottish seats, or you can say that Scotland has a very dispersed population and cannot have more than a certain representation, particularly in the light of devolution, and that therefore an exception should be made for Scotland. There is something to be said for either of those approaches but that does not knock down the amendment that I have proposed, nor does it influence its effect.
Does the noble Lord accept that, if the amendment were added to the Bill, it would not even preserve the integrity of the present seat of Brecon and Radnor? All it would do is apply a new rule, under rule 4, to every part of the United Kingdom. However, you could still find the boundary changes in mid-Wales all too damaging to the communities to which other noble Lords have referred, because the amendment only talks about a size issue; it does not talk about the existing constituency of Brecon and Radnor. If I may say so, I think that the noble Lord has misled the Committee—I would not normally say that because he is usually absolutely meticulous—by saying that the amendment would in some way defend the present integrity of the seat; it would not.
My Lords, I was going to go on to refer to the noble Lord and I will do so in a minute but that is yet another nitpicking point. It is up to the Boundary Commission to decide whether to preserve Brecon and Radnor. I said that in my speech. I did not mislead the Committee on that point. The chances of the Boundary Commission deciding to preserve Brecon and Radnor and then saying, “Perhaps we’ll have a little bit of that in or take a little bit of that away” is so absurd a notion as to cast doubt on what could be going on in the mind of the person who did it. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, does indeed have a close relationship with the constituency of Brecon and Radnor. The people of Brecon and Radnor were very pleased to see him make the long journey to attend Lord Livsey’s funeral service and it was good to see him there. Frankly, I am surprised that he has not fallen in love with it and that he wants to see it dismembered by this Government.
As I said, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, did not seek to address the specific questions that I raised but just made some general points, the main one of which was wholly spurious. It is believed—we have heard this from other Ministers as well—that this Bill creates votes of equal weight. It is possible to have a system in which all votes have equal weight. It is called PR and most of us are against it. However, in our system all votes do not have equal weight. The only votes that determine the result of a British general election are those cast in marginal seats, so the great majority of voters cannot hope to have any impact on the eventual result. That is why politicians of all parties pay particular court to the middle England voters, as they used to be called—sometimes it is Worcester man or Essex woman or whatever. Theirs are the only votes that count because they are in marginal constituencies. In using that argument, I fear that the Minister merely illustrates the vacuity of the Government’s general case, and it is only a general case that he has put up against the particular factors, which I believe to be of some force.
We have learnt quite a bit from this debate—I hope that the Government’s supporters have learnt something from it—which is that the Bill needs to be looked at in detail and improved to reflect the realities of the electoral geography of our country, not theoretical concepts dreamed up by backroom boys who have no experience of the geographical realities of the great country in which we live. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 72 withdrawn
Amendment 72A not moved.
73: Clause 11, page 10, line 7, leave out from “Commission” to end of line 8 and insert “should take into account”
My Lords, I am asking the Committee to agree to delete the words,
“may take into account if, and to such extent as they think fit”,
and insert “should take into account”. Some noble Lords may think that that is just an emphasis of words; it is much more than that. Changing “may” to “should” shows our intent. We want that to happen; it is important; I think that it must happen. It is vital that the Boundary Commission takes into account special geographical considerations, local government boundaries and local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies and the inconveniences attendant on such changes. If the Boundary Commission does not do that, frankly, what is the point of the Boundary Commission? Surely all noble Lords would want the Boundary Commission to take these factors into account, not to leave the provision at “may”.
I am hopeful, as are many other noble Lords, that there may be some movement on the Government side to take in the concerns expressed in this House. I hope that we will not be disappointed later this week. This is this House doing its job, because there is no one else left to provide the detailed scrutiny. Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take it into account that having a constituency on both sides of the Mersey or on both sides of the Thames may not be the best drawn constituency? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take into account the realities of rural communities in Lincolnshire and the relationship between those communities? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take it into account that Nottingham City is a unitary authority? It has three Members of Parliament representing seats contained wholly within its boundaries, and there are considerable differences between the city and the rest of the county. Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should look at the historic county of Rutland and decide that it is better that it stays with Melton to form one parliamentary seat, rather than being chopped up and thrown to the winds? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take account of ward boundaries, as they are the building blocks of our constituencies? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take into account the uniqueness of Corby?
As I draw my remarks to a close, I look forward to the debate and the Minister's response.
We touched on this matter before, but it seems to me important to make the point quite clearly that there seems to me to be all the difference in the world between “may take into account” and “should take into account”. I ask noble Lords to put themselves in the position of members of the Boundary Commission—or members of any commission charged by Parliament to undertake an important task. If you have a criterion that says that you “may” do something, that is not a positive criterion; that is not guidance that this is a value on which Parliament sets some store; that is not a message from the people via Parliament to respect certain considerations or to take them into account. It is not a positive criterion at all—it is the absence of a negative criterion. The phrase “may take into account” means that, if you are minded to do so, if you really want to do so, we do not prevent you from doing so. We do not deny you the opportunity of doing so. However, there is no positive suggestion whatever that these considerations should be taken into account. Can that seriously be the Government’s intention? Is it seriously the intention of anyone in this Committee that some positive value should not be ascribed to considerations such as local government boundaries, for example, or, going back to our former debates, a sense of local community and so on? Surely the whole tone of our debates has been that these are genuine values, and the question is: what sort of trade-off should we make between these considerations and the desiderata, which are genuine, as I have always admitted, in terms of uniformity of numbers? I give way to my noble friend.
When the Bill says “may take into account”, is it not either disingenuous or simply confused? In reality, the 5 per cent limit in tolerance around 76,000 voters means that in practical terms it will be impossible for the Boundary Commission to take these other factors of geography and local government alignments and so forth into account, should it wish to do so. It can perhaps take them into account but there is nothing it can do about them.
My noble friend makes a very important point. It is a separate point but it is obviously clearly related. If you allow someone to do something or if you provide a purely permissive criterion—what I would call the lack of a prohibition; that is all it is—the question is whether they will have the slightest motivation in the first place to use that permissive ability that they have been granted. As my noble friend says, there is no suggestion at all in the Bill that these matters should be given any consideration or value whatever.
It is perfectly true that, until now, historically the Boundary Commission has in practice tried to respect local government boundaries and county boundaries in almost all cases, although I gather from our earlier debate this evening that there may be some exceptions in respect of ward boundaries, for example. Nevertheless, we are now giving the Boundary Commission new instructions which do not set any explicit value on these things at all. The Bill says, almost reluctantly, “Well, you can take account of these things if you really insist on doing so”. However, as my noble friend said, we then provide other constraints—particularly that of the 5 per cent rule and the requirement to reduce the number of MPs by 50 to 600, which we know will produce a very large number of boundary changes. In practice, that will make it certain that, even if the Boundary Commission is minded to take advantage of its ability under the Bill to consider matters of local boundaries, it will not be able to do so. The commission is receiving no indication whatever from Parliament in the Bill as it currently stands that it might be desirable to retain the tradition which it has long maintained of respecting these boundaries. Therefore, I think that there is all the difference in the world between “may” and “should”, and I congratulate my noble friend on bringing this dilemma to the fore. It is something that we really do need to discuss.
We have heard time and again from the Government and elsewhere on the government side that, other things being equal, they believe it is inherently desirable that local boundaries are respected. Can they not, if they wish to do so, come up with different wording which at least reflects the value that they acknowledge we should be attributing to these considerations? Can they not send a signal to the Boundary Commission which says in effect, “If you possibly could, we would be delighted if you were to take account of local boundaries”? Can we not send some signal or instruction to the Boundary Commission saying, “For generations”—ever since 1949, I believe—“you’ve been right to take account of these considerations. Please don’t drop that now. We aren’t trying to tell you that that was wrong. We aren’t trying to tell you that you should go back on that tradition or those values and ignore them. We’re not just giving you a reluctant permission if you really insist on taking account of these things; we would like you to do so if you can somehow manage it”.
That surely is the sense of the message that Parliament wants to send to the Boundary Commission—the sense of the message that has been articulated in different ways from all parts of House, including from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has taken an important part in these debates. Surely the Government cannot really, on reflection, be entirely satisfied with this very negative formulation of “may”. I hope they can accept the proposal of my noble friend that the text should be changed to “should”. If not, can they not find some better way of encapsulating the message which, I am sure, in good faith, they themselves have been delivering to us, not just tonight but throughout our deliberations on this Bill?
We are debating not just the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Kennedy but, if I understand it correctly, we are dealing with 12 amendments—each one of great importance. Perhaps it is worth noting that, if we actually had wanted to filibuster, we could have degrouped all these amendments and taken two hours on each of them. Maybe, since there are no Cross-Benchers here, there is no one here to convince of that, so I will get on to the specifics of the two amendments that I have tabled and left in the grouping.
Amendment 74B, which I particularly want the Minister to take note of, relates to the use of ward boundaries. My recollection was that, in reply to a previous debate, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord McNally—confirmed that he saw ward boundaries as the building blocks for all of the boundaries that we were going to look at, whether there were 600 or 650, whether they were preserved or whatever. We on this side were all encouraged by that. If he wants an amendment to encapsulate that very simply, and to accept an amendment—which would be really welcome on this side—Amendment 74B is exactly the one he could accept. I do not think there is anything deficient in it; it is exactly the right thing.
I remind my noble friends in particular that when I first stood for election in 1970, both for the United Kingdom Parliament and for the City of Edinburgh Council—I got elected to that council in that year but not to the Westminster Parliament—at that time in Scotland, there were effectively two layers of government: local government, elected by first past the post, and the United Kingdom Government at Westminster, elected by first past the post. I am sure my noble friend Lord McAvoy remembers those halcyon days only too well. In 2011, we now have councils and larger wards elected by the single transferable vote; we have the Scottish Parliament, elected by the additional member system; we have Westminster, still elected, thankfully, by first past the post, and the European Parliament, elected by a strange system of proportional representation.
I am not blaming the Government or their predecessors for all of these—
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I have been fascinated by this description, which is very clear and concise, of the extraordinarily complicated voting system there is in Scotland. What proportion of his former constituents does he think would be capable of setting out as clearly as he has just done the clear categories involved in voting for these different levels of government and the mechanisms employed in each case?
Actually, quite a lot of them, because we still have a very good education system in Scotland, at a very high level. We have provided explorers, inventors, and leaders, not just for the United Kingdom but for the Commonwealth and around the world. The first Labour Prime Minister anywhere was in Australia and he was a Scotsman—indeed, he was an Ayrshire man, even better.
Nevertheless, the noble Lord’s point is absolutely right. It is a very complicated system, not just for the Scottish voter, who can understand it, but for the administration. That is why anything that can be done by the Government to simplify the arrangements instead of making them even more complicated would be good. As I was saying in mitigation, I do not blame Conservative or Tory-led coalition Governments for bringing in all these schemes. Far from it—Labour Governments brought them in, and I think it is unfortunate that we have ended up with such a complicated system. That is why I argue the case for Amendment 74B. I hope that some of my colleagues will elaborate on that at a later stage.
The other amendment that I want to talk to at a little greater length is Amendment 74A. I think that, with no disrespect to my other amendments, it is one of the most important, if not the most important, amendments that I have tabled. As I mentioned on an earlier amendment, page 10 sets out that a Boundary Commission may—one of the amendments suggested “must” should replace “may”—
“take into account, if and to such an extent as they think fit … special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency”.
My amendment is probably not the most elegant, but I think it is a key amendment. It adds “the wealth of a constituency”. That is probably not the best word to use. It could have been “deprivation” or “poverty” in contrast to wealth. The Minister, with all his advisers, will correct me if I am wrong, but my recollection is that way back in the early 1970s when the Boundary Commissions were looking at boundary reviews, a similar factor was included for their consideration. I seem to remember going to boundary hearings—which we still have, unless this Bill becomes an Act—and as well as arguing the physical boundaries, arguing the case for the relative poverty and deprivation in an area. I think that should be included.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who generously gave way to me for an intervention in his reply on the previous debate, was arguing very convincingly a conclusion that he did not come to. It was that lots of constituencies have particular problems. In rural Scotland, the problem is sparsity. It is an astonishing fact that Scotland represents one-third of the land area of the United Kingdom and the highlands of Scotland represent one-fifth. That is a very strong argument for what my noble friend Lord Stevenson and others were arguing earlier on about the importance of sparsity.
Equally, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that others from inner-city areas were arguing the particular problems of inner cities and deprivation. That is absolutely true. This side has been arguing that. They are not conflicting arguments, they are complementary, and they are arguments for not reducing the total number of constituencies. We have been deploying them because some areas have inexplicably been taken out to be made special cases, whether Orkney and Shetland or the figures that we discussed earlier that give special status to Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I think we need specifically to include something in relation to deprivation.
Scottish Government findings have shown that in 2008-09, 34 per cent of individuals in deprived areas were in relative poverty, before housing costs, but in the rest of Scotland, that figure was 14 per cent, which is a huge difference. That means extra problems of benefits and housing that Members of Parliament have to deal with. I know when I was a Member of Parliament, housing and benefits were the top issues that I had to deal with. That was in a relatively deprived former mining area.
My noble friend makes a fascinating point about the sparseness of population in the rural constituencies in Scotland. Is he aware that the Act of Union in 1707 gave Scotland 45 seats in the new 558-seat Parliament and 16 elected Peers in your Lordships’ House? Of those 45 seats in the House of Commons, 30 represented the 33 Scottish counties. Twenty-seven counties were given a single seat and three pairs of smaller counties alternated with one another in electing a Member. This reflected the situation that the counties had in the Scottish Parliament by 1707, although in 1690—not a particularly good year in many ways—a redistribution Act was passed that increased the number of commissioners returning to the Scottish Parliament. Even in those days, the system was selective and took into account all sorts of circumstances.
My noble friend is right. I could not have put it better myself. He also reminds me that our noble friend Lord Sewel made a pertinent intervention earlier, to which neither the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, or the Minister replied, about the Act of Union. Something that we might look at over the coming days is whether the provisions of the Act of Union are being adhered to or whether they are being broken by this Bill. That is something that we had not really thought of until the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, raised it, but there may be some provisions in the Act of Union giving particular guarantees to Scotland that are not contained in this Bill.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in a recent report said that since the 1980s wealthier people have moved to the suburbs while the poor remain in inner cities, again strengthening the case for some account being taken of the wealth of the constituency.
In an earlier exchange, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was somewhat scornful of arguments made from this side of the House that additional workloads had to be borne by Members of Parliament representing deprived areas, such as inner-city areas or poor rural areas. Does my noble friend think that in those circumstances, with a reduced number of Members in the House of Commons, the people of whom he speaks, who have relatively low incomes and who live in relatively deprived circumstances, would take up the suggestion offered by the Minister to resort to electronic means of contacting their Member of Parliament? What does my noble friend from his extensive experience think would be the incidence of resort to electronic means of communicating with Members of Parliament satisfactorily undertaken by people from deprived backgrounds, particularly the elderly?
My noble friend is right. It is the highly articulate middle-class people who have access to a range of electronic equipment and can use it. As my noble friend knows, until the end of March I am an elected Member of the Scottish Parliament. I get a lot of e-mails from constituents, but they are almost invariably highly articulate middle-class constituents, particularly younger and middle-aged people. The older, less well off do not have the same access to this kind of equipment.
Is it not unfortunately true that people who are significantly less well off than those in the affluent constituencies that my noble friend was just talking of will be even less likely to be able to afford to resort to electronic means of communication given the cuts in benefit that the coalition is planning? At least, until now, they might have had the opportunity to go to the public library to find a computer to communicate with my noble friend’s successor as Member of Parliament, but that, too, will be less likely to be available for them as a result of the cuts to public library provision.
My noble friend is again right. I sat through about half of the debate on housing benefit and was really impressed by the speeches from all sides, particularly from the Liberal Democrats— including my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope—all arguing against the cuts in housing benefit. The cuts will certainly make it more difficult for poor people to access their elected representatives. As my noble friend said, cuts to library services will have the same effect.
To illustrate the increasing demand in MPs’ casework, I quote a couple of examples that I hope, since they do not come particularly from Labour, might convince Members opposite. According to Wilks-Heeg and Clayton, authors of Whose Town is it Anyway? The State of Local Democracy in Two Northern Towns, published in 2006 by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, an MP in the 1950s or 1960s, which is even before I was a Member of Parliament and probably even before my noble friend Lord Kinnock was—
At that time, the report says, an MP,
“might have required less than a few hours each week to respond to the handful of letters she received from constituents. By contrast, a newly-elected MP told a Hansard Society meeting at a party conference in Autumn 2010 that she had received over 20,000 emails to her parliamentary address between May and September 2010”.
That indicates the growing volume of work. An eloquent description of the crushing casework demand of an inner London MP was written by Greg Hands, then Conservative MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, in December 2007. He said:
“Incredibly, I have at present between 700 and 800 unresolved immigration cases—that’s out of a total constituency of just over 80,000 electors”.
If a third of an inner London MP’s casework is immigration-based, an inner-city MP is likely to be doing half as much other casework as an MP with very few such cases, as I had in a rural area in Scotland. That is not satisfactory in terms of equality of representation. This points to the sense of equality of population rather than registered electorate being the key criterion, as an MP represents the whole constituency. That is covered in an amendment to which I shall come later this morning.
My noble friend has spoken about wealth in constituencies and has just reflected on the question of immigrants in constituencies as well. Is he aware of the phenomenon that always struck me so forcefully as a former MP for Oldham, which had a very significant Asian community, which was that the figures and statistics for the earning power of the constituency, which was very poor, could not take into account the fact that a significant number of people, despite earning very limited amounts of money, were in the practice of sending a considerable percentage of their earnings back home to poorer relatives elsewhere? For me, it brought to mind something not dissimilar to the old-fashioned tithe, when 10 per cent of one’s income went to the church. That did not count as revenue or income that the state could tackle because it was secreted for the church. A great deal of the few resources that individuals in the immigrant community in the United Kingdom command is expatriated.
My noble friend is absolutely right. I found it starkly revealing to sit next to colleagues in the House of Commons who represented constituencies in Bradford or Birmingham, where more than half the people whom they represented were from immigrant families. They may not have been immediate immigrants—they might have been second or third generation—but there were a huge number of them. It was a real revelation to me to find out about the huge workload arising from that. Repatriation of some of the money that they raised was one way in which their spending income was reduced. My noble friend Lady Liddell was in the same situation as me, representing a former mining constituency. We had a huge case load of former miners, after the previous Conservative Government under Mrs Thatcher forced the closure of the mines in Scotland and elsewhere. They were getting compensation for pneumoconiosis, silicosis and vibration white finger. I had not dozens but hundreds and hundreds of people coming to see me and each of them had a huge problem to raise. So we learnt that from each other.
My noble friend draws attention to the large volume of casework that falls to be carried out by Members of Parliament representing, for example, former mining constituencies or constituencies with a high proportion of immigrants resident in them. In doing so, does he not highlight the fancifulness of the Government’s contention that they will save £12 million by reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600? I understand that that £12 million is compounded of £4 million for MPs’ salaries and £8 million for their office costs. In light of the factors that my noble friend has just mentioned, they are plainly not going to save the office costs component of that. In fact, those costs would have to rise for individual Members of Parliament to enable them to carry out their duties. Would not it therefore be better to be done with it and stay with at least the existing number of Members of Parliament?
I absolutely agree. The more that we go through this Bill, paragraph by paragraph, the more it unravels—and the more it becomes clear that the original contention that we should reduce the number from 650 to 600 is absolutely crazy. The initial premise forces the Government into all the other crazy things in the Bill, such as preserved constituencies and the figure of 13,000 square kilometres.
Does the noble Lord not think that he is stretching the meaning of the word “scrutiny” rather wide? In that connection, I strongly recommend to the party opposite that it should not try to form a team for “Just a Minute”, because it would be ruled out of order in no time at all both for repetition and for deviation.
Has the noble Viscount seen the groupings list for today? Is he aware that in this group there are 12 amendments, all dealing with matters of great importance? I am talking to two of them—one in relation to the ward, which I dealt with in about five minutes, and a very important one about poverty. I know that the noble Viscount perhaps does not understand poverty—
Sometimes, also, actions have consequences that are unseen and unpredicted. It is only when we examine collectively the provisions that these unintended consequences become obvious. It is our duty and responsibility to point them out. But before the noble Viscount intervened, I was coming to the end of what I was saying.
Might the implication of the intervention by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, really be that we have not tabled enough amendments to enable us to scrutinise every aspect of the Bill point by point? Indeed, I suggest to my noble friend that he is being remarkably constrained. For example, we should consider the fact that in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1997 the opposition parties tabled 11,500 amendments to a Bill intended by the Progressive Conservative Government in Ontario to amalgamate metropolitan Toronto with the city of Toronto. Does that not make my noble friends on this side of the House appear to have been remarkably self-disciplined and restrained in their tabling of amendments?
My noble friend is absolutely right. I would have preferred to have had the opportunity of being on a committee to scrutinise the Bill before it came before this House. I would have been happy to deal with some of these points during the pre-legislative scrutiny. However, I know that many of my noble friends will want to come in on one or other of these 12 amendments and I certainly do not want personally to detain the House any longer.
My Lords, the statement from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that he does not wish to detain the Committee any further will perhaps be a welcome relief to the small number of people who may be watching the parliament channel at the moment. Anybody who is watching or perhaps even reads this debate in Hansard tomorrow will clearly see that in the past 26 minutes we have had yet again an extensive and irrelevant filibuster in the Committee, rather than serious scrutiny. I suggest to anyone following this debate that, were they to look at the last half-hour of our debates on Wednesday night—or the early hours of Thursday morning—which were again led by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, they would see the clearest possible proof beyond any reasonable doubt for any Member of the Cross Benches, any Member of this House or any member of the public that these are simply delaying tactics of a wholly unreasonable nature. Students of political history such as me will have studied how—
No, my Lords, I am sorry. I am not going to give way because we should try to make progress. I will say why: there are some significant points that we should be looking at in terms of scrutiny. I agree with some of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has made on the ward boundaries. If we were to look at all 12 amendments in this group, the last three of them, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler, are technical amendments to flag up formally to the Boundary Commissions the importance of the ward boundaries. Unlike Amendment 74B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, they are rather more correct because they deal with the issue of the ward boundaries in its relevant place within the Bill, rather than in just one place.
Unlike other arguments relating to other amendments within this group, it seems to me that the importance of our amendments is that they are not prescriptive in that they do not demand that ward boundaries never be crossed. However, they say to the Boundary Commissions that they are an important building block. They should not necessarily always be adhered to but they should be taken into account to some degree. The origin of these last three amendments within the group was my own puzzlement in looking at the wording of the Bill, where there is a reference to wards in Northern Ireland but none to ward boundaries in England, Scotland or Wales. I thought that it would be helpful if a little clarity were given to the Boundary Commissioners about the importance of ward boundaries as one of the factors that they should take into account.
As we know from the informal evidence provided by their members, the Boundary Commissions will, in any event, have every intention of looking at ward boundaries, but it would be better if the legislation were improved, if possible. I hope that the Minister will respond by saying that this is something that might be considered as an improvement to the legislation.
The language with which we look at issues such as ward boundaries or other boundaries is, in my view, of some importance to the Boundary Commission processes. There are alternatives within these different amendments, using either “should”, “must” or insofar as they see fit. It seems to me that there is a good reason why the previous legislation on Boundary Commissions and this legislation tend to use the phrase “insofar as they see fit”. You can suggest that boundary commissioners look at different criteria when they redraw the constituency boundaries, but it is very hard to rank them in any priority or say that one carries more weight than another. The commissioners have to look at competing priorities. By saying, “in so far as they see fit”, independent and impartial people would be given the power to choose the relative weight of geographic ties, minimising inconvenience and such factors, and we would also avoid the danger of getting to the end of this process and the boundary commissioners being drawn into political rows and continuous legal challenges. By using the phrase, “in so far as they see fit”, we would allow the boundary commissioners to exercise their judgment while minimising legal snarl-ups thereafter.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord and I have a great deal of sympathy with the case that he is putting forward. However, will he not join me in recognising that, before any Boundary Commission gives consideration to this Bill, let alone the Bill as amended in the way that the noble Lord wants, they are completely ensnared by the reality that, in all and any circumstances, they must return boundaries for precisely 600 constituencies, or, more appropriately, 598 constituencies because two are protected? Does that not remove a great deal of the effective discretion that should be employed, in the way that he suggests, by independent-minded boundary commissioners taking full account of precisely the arguments that he is making and arguments that have been deployed on both sides of the Chamber in our debates hitherto?
I do not accept that the democratic principle is such a constraint. The criteria in the Bill given to the four Boundary Commissions are remarkably similar to the criteria we have had in historic legislation dealing with how the Boundary Commissions work. There is then the issue of the number of seats, but I do not accept that the number of seats will affect too much the way in which the boundary commissioners choose to judge the importance of those competing factors.
I am sorry but I will not give way again on this point. Perhaps I may be allowed to finish the point that I am responding to from the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, and again make the point that I have had to make when this position has been taken many, many times in debate on many amendments during the passage of the Bill over the 12 days of Committee so far. It seems to me that it is not uncommon in many countries for Parliaments to fix the size of Parliaments, usually through a written constitution. As the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, will know, my party, and I in particular, think that it is very important to have a written constitution. I believe that in this country we are moving, in one way and another, towards a written constitution, but it is absolutely not unprecedented nor considered remotely undemocratic in other countries for Parliament to determine the number of seats that there should be. In the United States, for example, it is the constitution that sets out that there shall be two members of the Senate for each state. That appears very early in the principles of the United States constitution. Therefore, I do not accept that the Boundary Commissions are unduly constrained in this way.
No, my Lords, I want to make progress on my argument and allow us to proceed with a couple of issues of serious scrutiny that I still want to raise in this group of amendments. The first concerns the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, making the boundary commissioners take into account their perceptions of the socioeconomic base or relative wealth of each constituency. Over the decades in which many of us have been involved in Boundary Commission processes, I have not heard it seriously argued by anybody that the boundary commissioners are anything other than impartial and independent. However, my view is that we should not start asking them to exercise their judgment about the relative wealth of different constituencies, using different, competing socioeconomic factors, or to try to use their judgment to suggest that, because certain MPs have a lot of problems of this nature or fewer problems of that nature, these seats should be varied in some way. How could the boundary commissioners possibly be expected to remain being seen to be impartial and independent in their judgment? I suggest that that is not a serious factor that the boundary commissioners should have to take into account.
Having seen many submissions to public inquiries on Boundary Commission processes and read many of them in the past, I have thought that the criteria which people sometimes think could be applied are not serious ones on which you would expect the commission to impartially draw the constituencies in the way that it has.
Finally within this group, I want to comment on Amendment 76, which concerns eliminating references to the euro regions with particular regard to the way in which the Boundary Commission for England works. That does not seem a sensible way in which to suggest that the Boundary Commission for England should go about its business. The Bill is not prescriptive in saying that it must follow the boundaries of the euro regions but, if it is to work in a sensible way across the whole of England, it could not possibly start in, say, Northumberland, go down to the Isles of Scilly and then go across to Kent. In order to make this effective, we need to retain the language in the Bill suggesting that the euro regions may be building blocks that the commissioners use, saying that they will want to work simultaneously on the south-east, the south-west and the north-east, and have a proper process of scrutiny that could be effective with online representations. They will need to work simultaneously on the different regions rather than across England as a whole.
The noble Lord who has just spoken makes a fundamental mistake when he says that Parliaments in other countries decide the size of constituencies. He is right that they do, but the problem here is that the Government are deciding it. In other countries, political parties agree it, usually jointly or independently. That is all I want to say about that but it is an important point: Governments do not decide the structure and size of Parliaments; Parliaments decide that, and they normally do it by consent.
I certainly recognise that. I also recognise that this is a bicameral House and I hope that it stays as such. One of the jobs of a bicameral House is for the second Chamber to revise what the first Chamber has done, and that is particularly important on constitutional issues.
I return to the core amendment. I want to speak only on Amendment 73, but there is a wider point here that affects some of the others. There is great diversity in this group of amendments, and it might have been better if some of them had been separated out. Those tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, might have been better as a separate group because there is quite a bit in them that is separate from the others.
I want to focus on Amendment 73 in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, where he suggests replacing the word “may” with “shall”. Many people in this Committee will recognise that the wording of a Bill and the use of words such as “may” is critically important, because it carries legal weight. The word “should” is not very different from “may” and, I say to my noble friend, not much better.
This point is important because it relates to some of the other amendments in this group. Why do we not use “shall” in relation to my noble friend’s amendment? It is a stronger commitment. The Minister will know that, in several other places following this, “shall” is used. The obvious example is in rule 6 of the new schedule, which states:
“There shall continue to be … a constituency named Orkney and Shetland”.
The Government want that to be legally enforced, so the use of “shall” is essential. In rule 5, however, as my noble friend has picked out, “may” is used. In other words, it states:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account...special geographical considerations”.
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill and many of the things that Ministers have said from time to time indicate that they also regard the things listed in rule 5(1)(a) to (d)—that is, special geographical factors, local government, local ties and the inconvenience attendant on such changes—as very important. Schedule 2, the measure that is driving them forward on this Bill, says:
“The electorate of any constituency shall”—
so there they are using a very strong form of wording that has strong legal force. However, back over the page, as I say, they use the much softer “may”, which does not have that commitment.
I am after an answer from the Minister because this question affects other parts of the Bill—certainly some of those affected in this group of amendments—but I am trying to focus on one for the sake of clarity. There is in fact no reason why we should not also use “shall” in rule 5. If we are all saying, as the Government have done, that we want these things to be taken into consideration, the use of the word would not undermine the use of “shall” in rule 2(1)—
“The electorate of any constituency shall”.
It would simply instruct the Boundary Commission in a much more forceful way to take into account the factors that Ministers and Members on all sides of the Committee say are important. I do not see why we should not ask the Boundary Commission to do that.
The Minister might well say that it could bring up legal challenges. I understand that that could be a problem. We do not want lots of reviews by the courts of such things. Having said that, there is no way that we can assume that these factors are not important. Nor is there any reason to assume that the number of challenges in a court of law would necessarily be different if we used the softer “may”. That does not rule out a legal challenge. It might make it more difficult to win but it does not rule it out, as I understand the law.
I will focus my comments just on this one point, but it is very important because it runs throughout the Bill. I understand why the Government, for party political reasons, have locked themselves into “shall” for the number of seats in Parliament. What I do not understand is why they cannot also use “shall”—the stronger legal version—for issues that they say are important and we all say are important. This is perhaps the best example. My noble friend Lord Kennedy has drawn attention to that discrepancy. The Minister needs to explain why we cannot have a straight change to the Bill here, so that it reads:
“A Boundary Commission shall take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit”,
followed by the four factors.
The intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in response to my noble friend Lord Kinnock, ignored one simple issue; the Bill introduces a cap on seats. Once you introduce a cap, there is no flexibility. Whatever responsibilities, powers and so on you give the Boundary Commission, it will always have that in mind in whatever decision it takes on any boundary in the United Kingdom.
I will come to the wording of this rule in a minute, but I will first reply to something else that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. In his preamble to dealing with the amendment, he addressed himself to the parliamentary channel and those who are listening. In so far as he did so, I will equally do so. He appeared to be in order because no one objected. It is important for people who are watching the parliamentary channel to understand that we are sitting here now at half past midnight—we may well sit all night—because some of us believe in a very simple principle. Because this is a constitutional Bill, the process by which it is being dealt with in Parliament is the wrong one. There has been no Green Paper, no White Paper, no prior scrutiny of draft legislation and no consultation with the political parties. A number has simply been pulled out of the air, inserted into the Bill in the middle of frantic negotiations over the formation of a Government, and handed to parliamentary counsel or the people who write legislation to produce it in the Bill, which now has to be rammed through both Houses of Parliament.
That brings me to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He said that the other House voted on the Bill. It is true that it voted on it, but there was no real debate in the House of Commons on this matter because of a contractual agreement between two parties to a coalition. That contractual agreement means that there is no free debate between two major parties in British politics: the Liberal Democrat party and the Conservative Party. If there are people watching the parliamentary channel, they might for once stop and think that there may be an explanation for what is going on in the House of Commons. I have put it in my language; I am sure that all my noble friends could put it in theirs if they so wished.
I move now to the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, who referred to 318. I do not think 318 was a cap, was it? It was a target.
It is important that we get this absolutely right at this stage. I do not want to prolong this. I want to speak on my amendment in a moment, but let me just say that rule 1(1) of 1986 rules says:
“The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613”.
You add to that the Northern Irish figure, which is between 16 and 18, making a total not more or less than 630. I think the wording is very important, and I think the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, will appreciate that. This Bill does something quite different.
I am sorry. I got the numbers wrong, but the point that I am making is very simple. It was not a cap; it was a target. That is what is wrong with this legislation. We are talking about caps and not targets. When you have targets, the Boundary Commission then has flexibility. It knows what Parliament wants, it knows what people are moving towards, but it can take into account all the additional pressures and considerations that normally arise during the course of public inquiries about decisions that it has to take.
I turn now to the actual wording of the rule. The amendments that we are dealing with are essentially about rule 5(1) on page 10 of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, quite rightly refers specifically to this question of, “If they think fit”. Those words are very important, because they are part of the first sentence in the rule:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such an extent as they think fit”,
when considering these matters. That leaves it with two options. It can either take them into account or it can ignore them. If it goes on to ignore,
“(a) special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency;
(b) local government boundaries as they exist on the most recent ordinary council-election day before the review date;
(c) any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies;
(d) the inconveniences attendant on such changes”.
in my view it would not be carrying out its function.
The Boundary Commission’s function is to consider those matters, but if it cannot carry out its proper consideration of those matters because of the cap, its whole raison d’être is defeated and it may as well not even bother to carry out any function at all. The Government might just as well draw up the map and not even have a Boundary Commission.
In the context of an earlier debate that we had on the constituency of Brecon and Radnor, much was made of the fact that because Brecon and Radnor is about a third or a quarter of the size of the very large Scottish constituencies, the whole process would be altered radically if that amendment had been adopted. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made the point, and he made it very trenchantly. Because there is a cap—not a target, as my noble friend has said, but a cap—every one of those considerations on rule 5(1)(a) to (d) would be in play so far as the Boundary Commission is concerned in Brecon and Radnor, but it will have to ignore most of (a) to (d) because any rational consideration of this most rural of English and Welsh constituencies means that in order for the number 600 to be reached, there will have to be an extension, either northwards into Montgomeryshire, Sir Drefaldwyn, or further to the west into Ceredigion or into the south Wales valleys. None of those considerations could be brought to bear by the Boundary Commission simply because it could not afford to deviate from the number 600 by one, let alone by the 13 that would have been possible under the 1986 legislation or other numbers that have been targets under predecessor legislation.
I would like to have heard in the debate more references to the distinction between targets and caps, because that is essentially what we are debating. I agree with my noble friend. I was listening to the intervention of my noble friend who moved the amendment, and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who referred to the new constituency that would be created being the maximum. It would be a huge constituency that would be utterly unmanageable, where the issue of accessibility would simply have gone out of the window, which is why I asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally, how he understands the relevance of accessibility. That constituency would have no proper representation. It would not be possible in the context of the size of the constituency that would be created. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, have proper representation.
However, I wish to use paragraph 5(b) to the proposed new schedule, referring to,
“local government boundaries as they exist on the most recent ordinary council-election day before the review date”,
as a peg to draw attention to the conversation that took place at one of my dinner engagements last week. Someone raised an issue, and I suddenly thought, “That is particularly relevant to what we are discussing in this House”. The whole process in which we are involved is, we are told, essentially about equalisation. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, keeps referring to votes of equal value. That is a very interesting principle. The question is: where, when and in what circumstances do you apply that principle? I want to draw attention to other circumstances where that should equally apply, if you take the word that everyone is using, “localism”, into account. I want to see whether this localism—a sort of bottom-up principle—applies to this area.
I want to give as an example what is going on in Westminster, where we now sit. We are within the area of the Westminster local authority. I have here a list of all the wards within that authority. I was wondering how far this principle of equal votes of equal value applied in Westminster. I simply draw the attention of the House to what is going here. If we are prepared to have flexibility here in Westminster, why can we not apply the same flexibility throughout the whole of the United Kingdom? In every ward in Westminster there are three councillors. There are 20 wards. I want to draw attention to the variation in electorates within the council area where the Houses of Parliament stand. Knightsbridge and Belgravia has an electorate of 6,400, Tatchbrook has 6,400, Churchill 6,500, West End 6,600, Marylebone High Street 6,700, Little Venice 7,100, Maida Vale 7,200, Warwick 7,200, Vincent Square 7,300, Abbey Road 7,300, Bayswater 7,400, Church Street 7,500, Regent’s Park 7,600, Hyde Park 7,700, Bryanston and Dorset Square 7,800, St James’s 7,900, Harrow Road 7,900, Queen’s Park 8,100, Lancaster Gate 8,200 and Westbourne 8,300.
It seems that in Westbourne, the 8,300 electors voted in three councillors; but if you live in Knightsbridge or Belgravia, the 6,400 electors vote for three councillors. Where are votes for equal value there? We are dealing with the budget of one the largest local authorities in the country. I understand that Westminster’s budget is greater than those of some government departments. What about votes of equal value? Councillors elected to those wards are taking decisions on the use of these vast resources. I find it incredible that—guess what?—the largest electorates to elect the three councillors are in the Labour wards. So, built in to the arrangements for this votes-of-equal-value principle is an arrangement in Westminster whereby Labour voters are penalised and the individual voter has less influence on the expenditure of Westminster City Council. So much for votes of equal value.
Someone else told me that this is going on all over the country.
The situation in the constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster is even worse than my noble friend has suggested. It is a constituency where underregistration is particularly extreme. It is thought that the registered electorate in that constituency is only some 60 per cent of the 16-plus population. So we are talking about extremely skewed patterns of electoral representation in both local government and the Westminster constituency of this part of London.
My noble friend has referred to an issue that I intend to raise. I do not know whether we will be going at eight o’clock or nine o’clock tomorrow morning, but we may well get to the amendment where I wish to raise that issue. I have some important information to place on the public record about the population of the Westminster area and we can perhaps deal with those matters later on.
On the Westminster statistics, when I was in conversation today with others I was told that Westminster has by no means the worse differential in its electorate; there are parts of the country where some councillors are elected in wards with half that number of people on the register. I give way to the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones.
I do not know whether the noble Lord popped in at this hour or a couple of hours ago, but he will find that it is the inconsistency that is worrying me. If we were to have a consistent approach on these matters, then the Boundary Commission would have, to some extent, greater flexibility available to it in the decisions it is required to take.
I support, particularly, the first part of the argument of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and the argument of my distinguished noble friend Lord Kinnock. The key point about this section of the Bill which the Government have not satisfactorily answered is that the function of the Boundary Commission, as it has operated since the Boundary Commission was established by all-party agreement during the Second World War, will be drastically curtailed by this legislation.
Although all the nice, reassuring words about taking account of communities, geography and so on will still be there, the work of the Boundary Commission will be curtailed as a result of the cap on the number of MPs. The Bill does not say that we should have 600 MPs but the Boundary Commission can increase the numbers by five or 10 or 15 in order to take account of local circumstances; it imposes a rigid number. There is also the corset of the 5 per cent on either side of the quota. The effect of these two measures will be to completely change the flexibility and discretion that the Boundary Commission has been able to exercise, under all-party agreement, since the Second World War. Why do the Government feel that they have a mandate to make that change without consulting all parties through a Speaker’s Conference? What argument do they have for doing this? I do not think that there is a good argument.
Once again, from my own part of the world, I shall use an illustration of what the impact of these changes will be, so that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, understands how he is tearing up decades of cross-party agreement on how the Boundary Commission should operate. Let me talk a little about my beloved Cumberland. Before my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours became MP for Workington, I remember as a young man that the Boundary Commission came up with a proposal that Cumberland—this was before Cumbria—should be created—
I am in favour of the amendments that would change the wording from may to shall or must because I feel very strongly that the wording is being kept as it was in the previous legislation but disguising that a fundamental change is being introduced. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, knows that very well. It is all part of a deal that his party has done with the Conservative Party without consultation with other parties, which is without intellectual justification.
Let us think about the situation in the 1960s when the Boundary Commission suggested that Cumberland should come down from four to three seats. There was an inquiry and it was decided that on grounds of community and geographical representation the four seats should be kept. In the 1980s and 1990s, with the new county of Cumbria, as I mentioned before, the quota did not justify having six seats. The Boundary Commission used its discretion that because of the special geographic nature of Cumbria, there should be six seats. That is what the Government will destroy. The Boundary Commission will not have the ability to show such discretion. We are all in favour of equal-size constituencies and the principle of equality, but you have to have around the edges flexibility to cope with special situations. Therefore, I urge the Government to think again.
My Lords, Amendment 75A, to which I shall speak shortly, is in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. The Committee has just heard a superb speech from my noble friend Lord Liddle, which both parties in government should take note of. He put his finger on the problem with this part of the Bill more clearly than has been done before. The debate has highlighted once more what we think is the Government’s undoubted folly in seeking to subordinate every other factor in the construction of parliamentary boundaries to the overriding goal of creating seats that fall within the bounds of a very narrow electoral quota threshold.
We do not oppose moves to create more equally sized constituencies; indeed, we support them. That is already the letter and spirit of the present law and what the Boundary Commissions strive to deliver. We recognise, too, that the current law could be improved in that regard. We have tried to help the Government to deliver such an improvement but, alas, they have chosen to reject every amendment that we have advanced. As a consequence of this failure to engage in the normal and proper process of revision in this House, which is the role that this House is traditionally supposed to perform, serious flaws will be left uncorrected in this legislation. I appreciate that the Government have taken away one or two amendments to look at and we welcome that very much, but there has not been the normal give that Governments accord to Bills of this kind.
The focus of this debate is the proposed new rule 5, headed “Factors”, in Clause 11. We believe that this is a prime example of the Bill’s fundamental defects. As the Committee knows, rule 5 lists a number of factors that the Boundary Commissions are permitted to take into account when drawing up constituencies. These include having regard to special geography, issues of accessibility, local government areas, local community ties, the inconvenience attendant on changes to constituency boundaries and the encouragement to work within the framework of the existing European electoral regions. Of course, these are all sensible factors that ought to be considered by a Boundary Commission in the course of its deliberations and should impact on the outcome of such deliberations, but the interplay between this rule and some of the other rules set out in the Bill mean that the Boundary Commissions will not be able to give proper weight to this list of factors.
Take the issue of inconvenience. Rule 5(1)(d) states that the,
“Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit … the inconveniences attendant on such changes”.
But if we read across to rule 9(2)—that reference appears to be a small drafting error—we find that,
“rule 5(1)(d) does not apply in relation to a report under section 3(1) of the 1986 Act that a Boundary Commission is required, by subsection (2) of section 3 of that Act as substituted by section 10(3) above, to submit before 1 October 2013”.
In other words, inconvenience attendant on boundary changes may be considered by the Boundary Commission in future reviews but not in the review that the Government intend to rush through before the next general election.
However, even if that anomaly was removed, there would still be a problem about Boundary Commissions taking into account not just inconvenience but any of the factors in rule 5. This is simply—I am sorry if I am repeating a point that has been made before, but it is fundamental to the understanding of this Bill—because sub-paragraph (3) of rule 5 states that the rule is,
“subject to rules 2 and 4”.
Those are the rules relating to the electoral quota and, in the case of rule 4, as we have debated today, to the area of constituencies. In other words, the Boundary Commission may take account of a variety of factors but only within the bounds of the overriding requirement to make constituencies adhere to within the 5 per cent threshold of an electoral quota and consistent only with the special rule on the maximum territorial extent of a constituency.
The major problem here, to which the government side appears deaf, is that the degree of tolerance from the electoral quota is just too narrow. Rule 5 might state that Boundary Commissions may take into account geographical factors, local ties, issues of accessibility and so on, but the Government know that the very tight threshold regarding the electoral quota means that in practice—this is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was making—it has very limited room for manoeuvre. We know that because the heads of the Boundary Commissions have said that the strictness of the electoral parity target will mean that local authority boundaries will have to be criss-crossed, county boundaries overlapped and wards divided. We know that islands will have to be split, historic borders transgressed and natural boundaries such as rivers, valleys and the sea just plain ignored. The Boundary Commission secretaries conclude that the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies.
Ironically, the Bill exposes the problems caused by the 5 per cent threshold in the special exemptions that it gives to Northern Ireland and parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. That begs the question why Northern Ireland and the Scottish Highlands and Islands are the only places in the United Kingdom deemed worthy of rescue from the iron law of the electoral quota. Why are other islands or areas of peculiar geography not being afforded special protection?
When we come to Amendment 79A, we will debate that more fully. For now, we can rest on the knowledge that many parts of the UK have been, without any adequate explanation, denied that special treatment. We are trying to help the Government to tidy up the Bill and to avoid some of the negative outcomes that are the inevitable consequence of the severe electoral quota requirement, both by suggesting a number of areas that should be guaranteed an allocation of whole seats and by proposing a greater tolerance in the electoral quota threshold.
We propose that, although a 5 per cent disparity from the electoral quota should be the general aim of the Boundary Commissions when drawing up constituencies, an outer limit of 10 per cent ought to be allowed where overriding factors such as those that we have discussed on all sides of the Committee warrant it. The amendment would not make any difference to the Government’s aim of adjusting a perceived electoral bias; it would just deliver a more sensible process. Alas, up to now, the Government in this House refuse even properly to debate this matter and do not give us a response as to why they are taking this attitude.
For the sake of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I say that I shall speak to Amendments 73, 74A, 74B, and that my remarks will be about rule 5(1)(c). The noble Lord, and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, claim that this is a filibuster. He needs to get out more. I remember the Scotland and Wales Bill of 1978. As a young reporter, I remember covering Mr Tam Dalyell during that debate. I want to say that he spoke for days, but that may be exaggerating. On one occasion, he spoke for about six hours. To me, that is a filibuster. In all my interventions, I have kept my remarks very brief—to some extent because the air conditioning is going to my throat; perhaps I will get a cough sweet whenever I get an opportunity to go out of the Chamber.
I compliment my noble friend Lord Kennedy on introducing Amendment 73, because it gets to the heart of where the Bill has gone wrong and reintroduces some common sense. The Bill has been cobbled together from two different directions and been rapidly put through the Clerks with, I repeat, no consultation, no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no discussion through the usual channels. As a consequence, we have a Bill which is a dog's breakfast.
One area that most concerns me is the framework within which the Boundary Commission will operate. All of us who have attended Boundary Commission hearings know that sometimes, when the first stab is made at the shape of the boundary, extremely bizarre results come out. The late John Smith, on 10 May 1994, two days before he died, addressed the Boundary Commission about the new constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, which would have resulted in the town of Airdrie being cut right down the main street because a bureaucrat somewhere had thought, “We need to get some numbers right here”, and took no account whatever of the cohesion of the town, the history and the nature of the communities built up within that area.
If the Government accepted Amendment 73 on rule 5(1)(c), we could ensure that any local ties broken up by changes in constituencies should be taken into account by the Boundary Commission. That is a lot more sensible than the rather vague construction contained in the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes introduced two very interesting amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a powerful case for his amendment on wards; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in an earlier debate, pointed out the importance of wards and I intervened in that debate too. The other amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Foulkes relates to what he calls the “wealth” of the constituency, but I am not 100 per cent certain that that is the right expression. It should really be the “socio-economic make-up” of a constituency, because there is a difference in dealing with areas of social deprivation compared with dealing with areas where there is wealth, education and people with the self-confidence to take on issues. One of the big problems that people encounter at any level of election when they are dealing with areas of social deprivation—particularly where a number of us come from, in the west of Scotland—is high levels of mortality. In some areas—like the area that was previously represented by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn—life expectancy of the average male is 44. That is quite a shocking statistic and it has an impact on the kind of work that has to be done by councillors, Members of the Scottish Parliament and by Members of the other place in this Parliament. It does make sense to take factors like that into account. What we really need to look at—and I believe the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes is really a probing amendment—is whether there is a better way of encapsulating that into this piece of legislation
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has left his place, so I assume that it will be the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who will be answering this part of the debate. Could I make an appeal to him? At the end of the previous debate, the response we got from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was not acceptable. I accept that he is tired: he seems to have been a one-man Government today. He answered three Questions at Question Time, and he has been going for some hours, so I have a great deal of sympathy for him. But because this Bill is so badly drafted, what the Minister says at the Dispatch Box is of vital importance. It allows the interpretation of the Bill to be taken to another level.
I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not here, because there are many Scots in this House, and I see the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, on the other side. Although for this House it is still Monday, for the rest of the world it has now slipped into Tuesday and, of course, today is Burns Day. With the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in their places, perhaps they could say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally:
“Tam, Tam, ye’ll get yer fairin,
In hell they’ll roast ye like a herrin”.
If he would please give us the kind of response to this Bill that I think we are entitled to, we will intercede to make sure he is not roasted like a herrin.
In deference to noble Lords who have asked for specific references to the amendments that we are supporting, I am supporting Amendments 73 and 74. That is because the debate on these amendments seems to have been a focus of the real difference between those who uphold the Government’s position implacably, and more reasonable counsel who really do understand what the implications of this part of the Bill so far as democratic representation in the House of Commons really amounts to.
By way of preamble, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and to an extent to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that yes, of course it is true that, in countries with written constitutions, the back-up of constitutional courts, and all the systems of appeal and representation attached to that, Parliaments do fix the number of seats in their democratic, legislative assemblies. But we do not have a written constitution; there is no prospect of one emanating from this Bill or any other Bill that I can see in the coalition agreement, and therefore I am sure they will accept this pragmatic point. We are not discussing these proposals in the context of a written constitution or anything resembling one, and if the legislation proves to be wrong in application, there is no process of appeal that can be used by the citizens of this country, noble or not ennobled, to try to rectify the problems that might result.
My second point is attached to that. It is true that parliamentary bodies or congressional bodies under the terms of written constitutions set the number of seats in their houses of representatives, and we are all familiar with the case of the United States Congress and the fact that there are very small states with exactly the same number of senators as very large, heavily populated states. There are complaints about that, but everybody is familiar with it, and it would take a constitutional volcano to dislodge that hallowed reality.
The same thing applies to the overall numbers of the lower House of Congress, the House of Representatives, but the term “gerrymandering” was effectively given meaning by the way in which, over decades, that House has been used to sort and re-sort, mix and mangle, constituency boundaries for representatives who are elected to the lower House of Congress. Some cases, in some states, in some congressional constituencies, are a mockery of democracy widely acknowledged in the United States. So even there, where there is a written constitution and Congress sets the number of seats, there is an openness to abuse that my democratic friends—with a small “d” democratic because they come from both parties—deeply regret and would like to see changed.
This is one of the reasons why they have admired our pragmatic, deliberative system of the Boundary Commission with the built-in appeals process which dislodges control of the number of seats from political hands, accepts the idea of a target number of seats in our democracy and then leaves the detail of deliberation and boundary setting, and consequentially the eventual number of Members of Parliament, to detached, independent persons who must rely not only on their own judgment but on the rational arguments and local considerations submitted to them from the localities for which they are setting the parliamentary boundaries and by that means substantially determining the quality of representation and government that is enjoyed by the people of this country.
Is not the distinction between us and many of these other countries that we have a first past the post system? It is critical in this discussion because you can get away with a cap system where you have proportional representation and far larger seats that are more able to gather in fringe candidates. That is a very important distinction.
It is not an area into which I want to stumble because I do not want to have a debate this evening about the benefits or disbenefits of proportional representation, save to say that my one reservation about having a much more proportionate system of representation in this country, which I favour in principle, is the implied departure from single Member constituencies. I believe that it is not beyond the wit of this House, the other House or the political community in general to discover ways of ensuring that there are single Member constituencies where the Members are elected by a much more proportionate system, but the reality remains the one spelt out by my noble friend: there are accompanying systems where the number of parliamentary seats is fixed by the Parliament buttressing considerations of vital importance, and even that does not safeguard those systems against distortion or abuse in the way that the Boundary Commission system intact has done in this country.
My final point specifically refers to the paragraph entitled “Factors” on page 10. My point is straightforward. Whether the legislation eventually provides that Boundary Commissions may, should or must “take into account” the considerations set out “as they think fit”, as my noble friend Lord Liddle said earlier, future Boundary Commissions will not be able to exercise a judgment “as they think fit” according to a group of sensible criteria laid down in this Bill.
Why not? It is because of the eunuch clauses in this Bill. Eunuch rule 2 is the 5 per cent rule. Eunuch rule 4 is the 13,000 square kilometres rule. Most of all, under eunuch rule 1 there will be 600 Members of the House of Commons. There is no possibility that the Boundary Commission should be given not a target but a cap, a fixed figure, regardless of all the surrounding realities, the requirements of constituents, the workload of Members of Parliament or any of the other considerations entered into this debate in this House or in the House of Commons. There is no possibility that the Boundary Commission will in any realistic sense be able to act “as they think fit” according to these listed factors. It will be circumscribed and supervised utterly by the figure of 600. Just in case that is not enough, it will not be able to make an adjustment of more than 5 per cent either way in the numbers. And just in case that is not enough, there are the two figures of 12,000 square kilometres and 13,000 square kilometres, which would make a constituency that is the size of many countries in the world, and would forbid consideration to be given from a very remote—indeed, the most rural—constituency in England and Wales, such as Brecon and Radnorshire. That would be regardless of consideration for the West Country, beloved of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the moors of northern England or any of the realities that relate to the Lake District. Decisions cannot be made on the pragmatic basis of the influence of size, the remoteness and scarcity of the population, the workload of Members of Parliament or any other objective consideration to a margin of, let us say, 10 or 12 seats or, for the sake of argument, 13 seats. That would give us the England, Wales and Scotland figure of the 1986 legislation.
Why legislate for cosmetic purposes when on the previous page of the Bill the discretion being awarded to the Boundary Commission is torn to shreds and thrown to the wind by the limitations imposed by the preordained figure of 600? I know that there are noble Lords opposite who are true servants of democracy and who have dedicated their lives to trying to improve the way in which the citizens of this country and other countries are represented and governed. I beg of them, when we give further consideration to these issues related to “Factors” and the real powers of discretion, the real powers of objective judgment and the real powers to act as it thinks fit that are awarded to the Boundary Commission, to record their reservations and insist that enough discretion is given to the Boundary Commission to permit it to do its job effectively in democratic terms and with the integrity which it has so richly earned during the past 60-odd years. If it is not given enough discretion to alter the total number of seats in the House of Commons from 600 to a few more, it is being made the object of ridicule, which is why I describe the rules that will effectively deprive it of the essential power of discretion as the eunuch rules.
My Lords, I start by apologising on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally, who, as some of your Lordships noticed, left some moments ago feeling somewhat unwell. I know that that is not something that he would do lightly. I have the slight difficulty of having not having been in the Chamber for the whole debate, and I intend no discourtesy to the Committee in that. I shall do my best, although some of the arguments are perhaps familiar from previous times.
The amendments adjust the factors that the four national Boundary Commissions are to consider in drawing up boundaries. In some cases, they give the commissions additional tasks or they take away their discretion. In most contributions, the size of the House of Commons was raised. We debated that at considerable length last week and I do not propose to rehearse the arguments again.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated when he spoke concisely to his amendment and those in this group, the criticism that would appear to come from the other side of the Committee is that although the Boundary Commission is given discretionary factors which it can take into account to the extent that it thinks fit, it is nevertheless subject to rule 5(3), which says that the discretion,
“has effect subject to rules 2 and 4”,
with rule 4 being the area, which has already been debated today, and rule 2 being the electoral quota and a 5 per cent variation either way.
I appreciate that I repeat myself from previous discussions when I say that these rules are designed to ensure that we rein close to the electoral quota whereas, while the quota is the focus of what the Boundary Commission is currently expected to do, circumstance and the factors of flexibility that noble Lords seek in this case have taken boundaries reviews ever further away from it. It is worth repeating that the British Academy Policy Centre, in commenting on the Bill, states that,
“the rules set out in the Bill are a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commission”.
We believe that the rules set out in the Bill strike the right balance. Some noble Lords have argued that we should remove the English Boundary Commission’s ability to take European regions into account. Others say that we should compel it to do so. The Bill says that the commission should have the discretion if the regions help them to manage the review, which is the right balance.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, moved an amendment that would have added wealth as a factor. The Government cannot agree on principle that people should be banded together in constituencies on the basis of similar income. I am not quite sure how such a thing would be measured by the commissions even it was desirable. I can confirm that wealth was not a factor in previous boundary legislation. Our view is that the factors in the Bill are broadly those that are in existing legislation and that have worked well in previous reviews. Again, I believe that this is the right balance.
As I have indicated, some amendments compel the commissions to have regard for the rules, and some remove the primacy of the parity requirement. Our position is that the rules give due discretion to the commissions, but I reassure noble Lords that while the legislation says, “may take into account”, it is not open to a commission simply to disregard the factors on a whim, as has perhaps been suggested in some contributions. So further tightening up of the wording is unnecessary and could prove unhelpful.
I have already said, as we have indicated in debates on previous amendments, that the Government will consider how we can add wards to the list of local government boundaries that the commissions are asked to consider at present. As for parity, the rules give flexibility within a 10 per cent variation from the smallest to the largest constituency. Again, I believe that that strikes the right balance, giving us flexibility to recognise properly local factors while ensuring that votes are fairer and have more equal weight—a principle to which even Members on the Front Bench opposite have said that they agree. On that basis, I apologise for not being able to answer as fully as my noble friend Lord McNally would no doubt have wished to, but I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
First, I wish the noble Lord, Lord McNally, well. He has had a very tough day—we all have—and I hope he just needs sleep and a meal and nothing more than that.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions in this important debate. My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford agreed with me that the point of “may” or “should” was to give very clear instructions to the Boundary Commission. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock made very many important points—on wards, on his time in local government and on electoral systems. His points about the wealth of a constituency were very interesting. We may come back to that on Report and expand those points further.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made some points that I agreed with, although I did not agree with him on the points that he made about scrutiny. We have had no Green Paper, no White Paper and no draft Bill, which is part of the point of the problem we have today. My noble friend Lord Soley made some important points—that parliaments of other countries, not Governments, decide the number of seats. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, made the crucial point that introducing a cap on the number of seats undermines the provisions that the Boundary Commission takes account of elsewhere.
My noble friend Lord Liddle reminded the House that the function of the Boundary Commission is curtailed because of the cap and the 5 per cent tolerance figure. His point about the Speaker’s Conference was well made. My noble friend Lord Bach hit the nail on the head when he said that the cap was, above everything else, the problem. He also pointed out that the failure to engage with the Opposition was a real problem and that the timescale of the review is a problem in itself. My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke made some excellent points. She explained that she witnessed some of the problems that we have been discussing both as a politician and a journalist. My noble friend Lord Kinnock, in supporting my amendment, made some very pointed and incisive comments about a written constitution and the very difficult situation that we find ourselves in today. He made a very powerful case.
In conclusion, I was going to say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is not here now, that he is not someone I have had the pleasure to talk to yet. We have said hello to each other in the corridor and stuff, and he is always very friendly to me and says hello. It must be a very frustrating time for him, but he really does need to take a leaf out of the book of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. I do not want to get my head bitten off, but we need to look at these things very carefully.
I hope that the discussions that we have this week will bear fruit. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendments 74 to 74B not moved.
74BA: Clause 11, page 10, line 12, at end insert—
“( ) boundaries of existing constituencies”
My Lords, I recollect that some 10 hours ago the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, encouraged us to be brief and to the point, and I shall be extremely brief and to the point on this very simple amendment. I shall resist all temptation to take a leisurely lane in my constituency—as was the case last week, so often during the middle of the night. Instead, I shall simply move a very straightforward amendment that would be a modest improvement to the Bill.
Under rule 5, there is no reference to existing constituencies. That, I believe, is a pity, and this simple reference in Amendment 74BA would simply add an appropriate respect for existing constituency boundaries to the list of criteria that the four Boundary Commissions should take into account in making recommendations. It is very simple and useful. It would indeed take up the point made by the four Boundary Commissions: that they want to have, to such an extent as they think fit, responsibility for examining these sorts of criteria. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will feel able to accept this modest improvement to the Bill. I believe that all parties in both Houses, and, more importantly, the public, will welcome the recognition of the need to avoid unnecessary disruption to existing constituencies. I therefore beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, may not have expected me to rise to my feet to support his amendment, but I do so willingly. I shall also do so briefly. The effect of his amendment, as I see it, would be to create a bias in favour of not changing existing constituency boundaries. It would in fact be, for the first time in our system, recognition of the costs of change. There are costs of all kinds: costs in disruption, costs to the political parties and to local authorities and, above all, the unquantifiable but very real cost that we have discussed throughout our proceedings of individuals feeling less attached to the constituency that they thought they were a part of.
As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has taken into account all these considerations and said, “Surely, when in doubt, don’t make a change”—or even if there is a small doubt, do not make a change. He has not attempted to quantify the instructions that we would be giving to the Boundary Commission if we accepted this amendment. He has left it to the judgment of the Boundary Commission, which is right. However, he has alerted it to what the view of Parliament would be if his amendment were adopted—the view that it is important, whenever possible, not to change existing loyalties and perceptions of local constituencies and much better to preserve the status quo. It is a very sensible amendment. The noble Lord is to be applauded for having conceived it and brought it forward. I hope that it meets with the approval of the whole House.
My Lords, this is not only a sensible amendment but a very important one. Because the noble Lord moved it very briefly—he was right to do that, given that he knows that the House is sitting very late tonight and is keen to make further progress—its full significance could not be brought home to us. It is important for what it does, because it is obviously right that this should be one of the factors that the Boundary Commission takes into account. It is more important for what it symbolises—the fact that there is, on all sides of the House, recognition that we should be very chary about going into this situation of a permanent revolution in constituency changes.
By itself, the amendment would contribute only modestly to avoiding that malign outcome, because it has to be combined with what is at the moment the 5 per cent rule in the Bill, which, as we have seen so often, causes knock-on effects. One constituency grows slightly, which changes the next one and the next until, in the end, it is very difficult to preserve boundaries. It also has to be combined with the five-yearly review—another unwise feature of the permanent revolution. Nevertheless, a chink of light has seeped under the door on to the true nature of this Bill and the true changes that need to be made to it. Given that it comes from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I cannot believe that the Government will not wish to recognise this and support the amendment that he has laid before us tonight.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, and very much with my noble friend Lord Lipsey. I agree with the important amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, which is in his name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. They obviously understand history. They know what happened in the 1950s when, as the second boundary review came around after the Second World War, MPs rebelled at the thought that there were going to be so many changes in constituencies. That was completely reflected in debates that we had earlier in this Chamber, in which ex-MPs and non-ex-MPs pointed out that, if you break the link between a Member of Parliament and his constituency, you undermine democracy and you create uncertain relationships. The then Conservative Government produced a Bill that, in effect, made the disruption much less. From this Front Bench, we support the principle underlying what the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, are seeking to achieve, which is to reduce the disruption.
However, the speech that my noble friend Lord Kinnock made has to be borne in mind, because we can reduce the disruption only by so much if we have what he described as the “eunuch” clauses. I anticipate that there will be those on the Benches on which the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, sit who think that the way to deal with the points made so persuasively by my noble friend Lord Kinnock would be by moving the 5 per cent up to 10 per cent; they think that that would make a substantial contribution to dealing with the point about the ongoing relationship with a Member of Parliament.
So, yes, I support the amendment proposed by the two noble Lords, but I also hope that they will engage in this debate properly. By that I mean that I hope that they will put forward arguments and amendments that they think will genuinely improve the Bill. I read the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has put forward as doing that, but I very much hope that they will feel able to express honestly their view as to whether the threshold should be 5 per cent or 10 per cent. If they did that, they would, I think, unlock one of the principal problems in the Bill.
I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, whom I congratulate on dealing with the last amendment—he was rather given it beyond the last moment—will find it in his heart to support what the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, have proposed. However, I also hope that he will address the issue that the amendment goes only so far and that it is only if we add more discretion—5 per cent to 10 per cent—that we make it meaningful. It is important to take into account what has been said in these debates quite widely across the House—that it is not a good idea to have a constantly changing constituency with a constantly uncertain Member of Parliament.
My Lords, this amendment proposed by my noble friend—in a way that, I am sure, if I may take the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, he genuinely thinks will improve the Bill—would add existing constituency boundaries to the list of factors in rule 5 that the Boundary Commissions may take into account when drawing up their recommendations for new constituency boundaries. I think that it is a perfectly reasonable proposal and we certainly agree with noble Lords that this would aid the Boundary Commissions in drawing up their recommendations, not only in the first boundary review but obviously in the subsequent ones as well. As has been said, it is the case that, particularly in the first review, the Boundary Commissions expect that there will be a considerable change owing to the reduction in the number of seats from 650 to 600. Nevertheless, I believe that this amendment will allow for the merits of existing boundaries to be taken into account where appropriate, thereby ensuring that the boundary commissioners do not have to start with a blank page. Therefore, the Government are content to accept this amendment.
Amendment 74BA agreed.
Amendment 74C not moved.
Amendment 74D had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.