House of Lords
Monday, 24 January 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.
Introduction: Lord Dannatt
General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, GCB, CBE, MC, having been created Baron Dannatt, of Keswick in the County of Norfolk, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Bramall and Lord Bilimoria, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Wigley
The right honourable Dafydd Wynne Wigley, having been created Baron Wigley, of Caernarfon in the County of Gwynedd, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Collins of Highbury
Raymond Edward Harry Collins, Esquire, having been created Baron Collins of Highbury, of Highbury in the London Borough of Islington, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Baroness Prosser and Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Constitutional Reform: Referendums
My Lords, the Government believe that Parliament should judge which issues are the subject of a national referendum.
So there is no question of the Government adopting any principles towards it, then. I cannot understand the Government’s position on this because they do appear to have a position. How can it be right to have a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing the voting system for the House of Commons but wrong to hold a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing an appointed House of Lords into an elected House of Lords?
My Lords, on the basis of principle, I rely on my distinguished predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who, when challenged with a similar question, said this:
“Inevitably, however carefully you define this … you do not actually escape the question of judgment … It is inevitably going to be a subjective test”.
On the question of the forthcoming legislation on the House of Lords, I ask the noble Lord to be a little patient. The Government’s proposals will be put before the House.
My Lords, do the Government consider that constitutional changes which are relatively readily reversed or modified by Act of Parliament are less obviously in need of the backing of a public referendum than matters which fall into a fixed and almost irreversible constitutional norm?
Why is it right to have a referendum on the voting system, about which the British people appear to be somewhat indifferent, and not right to have a referendum, which was promised to the British people by the Prime Minister who gave a cast-iron guarantee and about which the leader of the Liberal Democrats walked out of the House of Commons when that referendum was not granted; it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto—in other words, the referendum on whether we want to stay in the European Union or leave it? How can it be right to have the first without the second?
It is a very interesting question. When the Constitution Committee looked at this matter, one of its recommendations was that, if ever we came to the point of a proposal to leave the EU, it would be a matter for a referendum. What happened with the Lisbon treaty, as with all other treaties since the referendum which endorsed our membership, is that it went through the parliamentary process.
Is not the main judgment here one of how we deal with constitutional measures? Is it not time for both Houses to look at how we get agreement as far as possible? When we get agreement, we tend to get better constitutional change, but it takes time. With European legislation in this area coming up, the noble Lord might find that it is not Parliament but the courts which decide whether a referendum should have been called. It is rather more complicated than he thinks.
No, my Lords. I am thinking on this matter and have been talking with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about his own experience. He has told me that he was considering forming some kind of group of wisdom that could look at these issues. We are still in contact on that. Whether it should be done as a parliamentary exercise or government exercise, or given to a suitable think tank, I am not sure, but I do not deny that what the noble Lord has said is good thinking.
My Lords, can the Minister give a logical, rational explanation were the situation to arise where there would be a referendum in the country on the system of voting for the Commons but not one on the system of voting for the House of Lords?
There are so many hypotheses in that question that it would be as well if noble Lords showed a little more patience and waited for the proposals on the House of Lords that the Government will bring shortly bring forward. Without pre-empting my noble friend, I know that the Minister answering the next Question is eager to get on to that.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to reconsider their decision, announced in the Ministry of Justice Green Paper Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and the Sentencing of Offenders, not to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.
My Lords, the Government have no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.
I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware of recent research that shows that the public are not in favour of a life sentence in every case of murder, as is so often thought, especially not in cases where the conviction has been of a mercy killing? Seventy-nine per cent of those consulted in face-to-face interviews last May said that they thought that nine years or less would be sufficient in such cases, which corresponds almost exactly with a recent decision in the Court of Appeal that reduced the minimum term from nine years to five years. Against that background, why do the Government continue to think that a life sentence is necessary in every case of murder? Why not leave it to the judge to decide on the facts of the particular case? Why not at least consult the public on this in the consultation exercise that is currently taking place?
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is referring to the Nuffield Foundation report Public Opinion and Sentencing for Murder. I know that because he was generous enough to send me the report, which, in my reading, shows that there is a good deal of public confusion about the law of murder. Perhaps there is a need for greater education and explanation. The blunt fact is that the Government considered these and other proposals in the recent, or not so recent, Law Commission report on the matter. However, they came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
The noble Lord has referred to public confusion about the law of murder. Does he accept that a thoroughgoing review and reform of the law of murder, including the abolition of the compulsory, mandatory life sentence, would be a jewel in the crown of the coalition Government if it could be achieved in the next five years?
I hear what my noble friend says and I am sure that many in the Government will concur with that assessment. Proposals to act now were given consideration, but we came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
My Lords, was the statement that the Minister made today approved by the right honourable Kenneth Clarke, who said, in the same week as the publication of the Green Paper indicating the view that the Minister has just given, that he did not think that mandatory life sentences were suitable except in the most serious cases and that they were quite inappropriate for mercy killings by a husband or wife of the other?
My Lords, over the past few months when these matters have been discussed, a number of views have been given—I have given some views myself—but the fact is that the collective view of the Government is that the time is not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
Is the Minister aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I was privileged to chair, reported in 1993 that in its opinion the mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished to allow flexibility in sentencing? The Home Office reported to that committee 23 cases in which a positive act by a family member had resulted in the death of a loved one suffering from terminal cancer. In every case, a charge of murder was considered. However, because the conviction of the individual would have given rise to a mandatory life sentence, the charge in all but one case was amended to attempted murder, as it was recognised that no jury would be likely to convict. Was that not therefore a case in which the law was being manipulated?
My Lords, I do not try to mislead the House in any way in acknowledging that some of these issues have been before successive Governments for a very long time. On some of the issues, such as when the plea is on grounds of a mercy killing or a related defence, successive Governments have taken the view that this is a matter for Parliament rather than the Government of the day. Within their broad decision not to attempt a major reform of the law at the moment, the Government are trying to look at the guidance so that it may be simplified and to trust the judgment of judges in these matters.
My Lords, I do not have that specific figure to hand, but I shall write to the noble Lord on it. The point that he makes is perhaps the one that causes the public confusion—that a life sentence does not mean inevitably that the person convicted is going to die in prison, although sometimes they do.
Bill of Rights
My Lords, the commission will investigate the idea of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. We will make a statement to Parliament on the precise terms of reference of the commission in due course.
My Lords, the very careful words that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has just used appear to open the door to repealing the Human Rights Act. I wonder whether he recalls what he told this House on 7 October last year, when he said that,
“if at the end of this Government's term there was no Human Rights Act, there would be no Tom McNally”.—[Official Report, 7/10/10; col. 217.]
Can the Minister clarify the situation for the House and say whether he still agrees with me that the Human Rights Act provides essential protections for the rights and liberties of the individual in this country and does so by enhancing the protections already available under the European Convention on Human Rights? Will he stick to his commitment to resign if the Government move to repeal the Human Rights Act?
My Lords, when I was studying politics at university, I remember a chapter in the book about the man who forgot Goschen. That was Lord Randolph Churchill, who threatened to resign so many times that in the end the Prime Minister of the day accepted the invitation and replaced him with Viscount Goschen. I am well aware that we have a Viscount Goschen in this House. I think that you can threaten to resign too many times in a political career.
I do not think of the decision to go ahead with a commission on the working of the Human Rights Act as any dark plot to repeal it. Again, I have called the noble Lord in aid so often today, but he knows that when he was in office, he took a similar look at the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act. That is what we will do. In all I do, I shall ask the question asked by the late and lamented Lord Bingham, “Which particular human right do you intend to repeal?”
The Minister said on another occasion—I think at the Liberal Democrat Party conference—that he was anxious that the Act should be “better understood and appreciated”. Does he envisage, along with other steps that might be taken, giving a gentle reminder to courts and tribunals of the provisions of Section 2, which requires them to “consider” Strasbourg jurisprudence, as opposed to slavishly following it even if the decision is contrary to common sense?
Most certainly, my Lords. One thing that I have been looking at is whether it is possible to give some guidance in the exercise we are undertaking which will point our courts to such a sensible review of human rights cases. Nothing does more damage to human rights than court judgments that call on human rights, not always accurately, as the justification for action which the general public think is absurd.
Nevertheless, does the noble Lord agree that the Human Rights Act has done much to underline the dignity of ordinary people through the courts when they have restored the right of elderly people to life-saving treatment in hospitals and the right of brothers and sisters not to be separated if they go into care homes, along with many other such decisions?
My Lords, I could not agree more because, importantly, whereas we get the odd publicity that seems to suggest that the Human Rights Act is there for the benefit of villains, the understanding that we need to get through to people is that it is our human rights which the Act protects. Just to add to what I was saying to my noble friend, one reason why I am an enthusiast for celebrating Magna Carta in four years’ time is that I want people to understand that human rights are part of our DNA as a country—something that Lord Bingham often emphasised. I am in talks with my honourable friend Sarah Teather about how human rights can be better included in teaching in schools.
In an earlier answer the Minister referred to a UK Bill of Rights. I wonder whether he would care to say something about the position of Northern Ireland, where for a long time there has been a request that there should be a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to reflect decisions made in the Good Friday and other agreements.
In his first Answer, the noble Lord referred to building on the European Convention on Human Rights. Will he assure us that if there is to be a replacement of the European convention by a British human rights Act, it will contain all those provisions and additional provisions as we see necessary for the circumstances in this country?
The Minister is well known and widely respected for his support for the Human Rights Act. Does he agree that the introduction of that Act by the previous Labour Government, supported by his party, represented a huge step forward for the liberty and freedom of the British people?
My Lords, I most certainly do but, as has been said, the previous Government were taking a long, hard look at that legislation—and quite sensibly, because the Act is sometimes misrepresented and misreported. Anyone who believes in it, as I do, would also recognise that it does not have the national buy-in which I would like to see for a Human Rights Act. Our exercise will educate people and give them a greater understanding about what I referred to otherwise. It is not a Human Rights Act for villains. It is our Human Rights Act and the more we understand that, the better it will be.
Bangladesh: Rapid Action Battalion
The United Kingdom Government have been providing basic human rights and ethical policing skills training to the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh since 2008. We consider it important that the Bangladeshi Government have the capability to maintain effective law and order, so as to protect the safety and human rights of the Bangladeshi public and to minimise the extent to which counterterrorism threats emanate from Bangladesh to the United Kingdom. The aim of our work is to further improve the Rapid Action Battalion’s standards in accordance with our own values and legal responsibilities.
I thank the noble Lord for that reply and for his very positive leadership on this issue. Does he not agree that great commendation is due to the British armed services for much of the training that they do across the world in very difficult circumstances? Does he not also agree that great pains must therefore be taken to avoid directly or indirectly becoming associated with organisations conducting themselves in a way that not only negates everything that we believe to be worth defending in our society but plays into the hands of militant extremists by provoking resentment? Does the noble Lord further agree that, within Bangladesh, there is widespread popular dismay and contempt for the behaviour of that battalion?
The noble Lord is absolutely right to refer to those concerns, which Her Majesty’s Government certainly share. We have remained engaged through this programme, which is generally part of our counterterrorism programme, in order to seek to raise the standards and improve the human rights skills of that particular body. It has been uphill work; we are anxious to do more. We are in constant contact with the Bangladeshi authorities, through the British High Commission, and it is exactly the sort of matter which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will raise when he receives the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, who is coming to visit next month. These matters will be discussed there and the noble Lord is quite right to raise them.
My Lords, according to the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar, 127 people were extra-judicially killed in 2010, more than half of them by RAB. Has the Foreign Secretary sought the advice of the FCO’s recently appointed human rights advisory group on whether it is appropriate for us to offer training to a paramilitary force that is alleged to have murdered so many suspects and to have operated a torture centre where British suspects were tortured to gain information? Will the Government ask the Guardian to make all the available material on RAB available to Sir Peter Gibson for his inquiry into the alleged British knowledge of improper treatment of prisoners abroad?
I am sure that all necessary information will be provided for that inquiry. These matters have been discussed, and they continue to be discussed and reviewed most carefully. It is obviously a matter of difficult judgment in how to ensure that our engagement and, indeed, support for the Rapid Action Battalion leads to an improvement in the situation that we have confronted, which my noble friend mentioned. The answer to his question is: yes, we are concerned and, yes, all those concerned with the promotion of human rights in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are focused on how we can improve this programme and the effectiveness of training in the handling of human rights. That must go forward.
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (12th Day)
My Lords, as we begin another week almost entirely dedicated to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, I shall update the House on its progress. I do so very much in the spirit of Leader of the whole House in order to inform the House.
The House is a self-regulating Chamber. Most noble Lords see that as fundamental to the way in which this House works. Over the centuries we have devised ways of working based on freedom and flexibility of debate. These freedoms underpin the reputation of the House as a place of responsible and serious scrutiny and all of us value these freedoms. Part of our way of working is through the usual channels. One of their key functions is to arrange business in the Chamber so that the House makes best use of the time available to scrutinise legislation and hold a Government to account. As many noble Lords are aware, the usual channels routinely discuss an overall timescale for each Bill and come to an agreed estimate of the likely number of days required to complete Committee. The usual channels sometimes get this estimate wrong, but they operate in a way that ensures that there is flexibility if a little more, or even less, time is required.
On this Bill, the usual channels have been unable to agree an estimate of the length of time required for Committee. This is unprecedented and worrying. Even on some of the more controversial Bills that this House has considered in the past 50 years, the usual channels have agreed the approximate amount of time to allow the House to exercise its scrutiny function fully and effectively. An agreement through the usual channels provides a framework that allows both government and opposition to conduct their business efficiently while not infringing upon the House’s right to regulate itself. Such agreements are the cornerstone of the work that we do here.
The Opposition asked for more time for greater scrutiny on this Bill. The Bill has received more time, but it is not good for this House, or for the legislative process across Parliament as a whole, to assign an infinite amount of time to the passage of a particular Bill. Other Bills need to pass through this House, and there is other business that many noble Lords wish to consider. Let me set out a few facts about the position that we find ourselves in today.
Today will be the 12th day in Committee on the Bill. The other place took five full days on the Floor to complete Committee. The Clerks have not been able to find another example of a Bill that has taken more than 11 days in Committee on the Floor in recent years. We have now spent nearly 80 hours in Committee on the Bill. The other place completed Committee in 25 hours. On day one in Committee, we started with 47 groups of amendments for debate. Those groups were agreed by all those who had tabled amendments, yet we start day 12 with a further 54 groups of amendments remaining.
I have spent some considerable time in recent weeks considering how, if the usual channels cannot function in the normal way, the House could exercise its core function as a self-regulating Chamber. It is not a question that I have ever had to consider before. I have discussed this with others, but we have not yet found a clear answer. If we are unable to make reasonable progress towards completing Committee proceedings, I believe that it will be right to take soundings from all quarters of the House, including from the Opposition, as to the best way forward. Clearly, any solution needs to be acceptable to the House.
There is now a real risk of the Bill not becoming law in time for the people to have their say in a referendum on 5 May. I do not believe that that is what the House intends and it will raise questions about our ability to revise if we do not present the Bill in time. The Government wish to listen to what the House has to say. Concessions were made during proceedings in the other place. We are considering, as we always do in Committee, further concessions to put to this House. The Government have already lost two divisions, with every possibility of losing more. We are open to changes to the Bill, but not to changes that would undermine the fundamental purpose of the Bill agreed at Second Reading, which I believe have majority support both in this House and across Parliament as a whole.
Alongside this, we must, together, find a way for the House to complete consideration of the Bill in a timely manner. I very much hope that it will be through the usual channels that a resolution will be found, but ultimately, if the usual channels are unable to act soon to resolve this impasse, I may have to come to the House and ask for its advice on how best to proceed. I finish by noting that at some point we may need to review how all our conventions work, rooted as they are in the principle of self-regulation, and, indeed, whether we need new conventions, as some have suggested. It is something that I would wish all parties, as well as the Cross-Benchers, to play their part in.
I know that noble Lords understand the seriousness of the position in which the House finds itself on the Bill, but I am equally sure that there is a desire across the House to find a sensible and constructive way forward.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his statement. We welcome the Government’s constructive approach, as set out in the statement. We on this side have repeatedly made it clear that we are ready and willing to talk. We believe that that is the right way forward. We believe that that approach is what this House wants to see and that it is right for the Bill and right for this House. We wish to preserve the self-regulating nature of your Lordships’ House.
In his wise intervention last week when we last considered the Bill, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, made clear his support for negotiations because, as he put it,
“it has always been the way to work”.
“a spirit of real co-operation”,—[Official Report, 19/01/2011; col. 405.]
he hoped that we would have some concessions from Her Majesty’s Government and that we will respond constructively. I very much agree with that view and with the view from the Cross Benches, which was expressed so well by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, and the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, who said:
“I urge that the Government and the Opposition redouble their efforts to reach a compromise so that the debate can proceed in a timely fashion and we are able to conclude the Committee stage of the Bill in a timely fashion with the necessary compromises on both sides having been achieved”.—[Official Report, 19/01/2011; col. 401.]
We on these Benches very much agree with these views. In that spirit, I can report to the House that I and others met Ministers last week on these matters and put proposals to the Government, although so far this has not borne fruit. There have been further contacts over the weekend and we have sought to do all we can to promote further discussions, so we are profoundly grateful for the statement that the Leader of the House has given today. We are, as the noble Leader says and as the House is aware, at an impasse. The Government’s right to get their business done in reasonable time has to be balanced with the Opposition’s right, and indeed responsibility, to give reasonable scrutiny to any Bill but particularly to an important Bill of considerable parliamentary and constitutional significance.
The House has faced such an impasse before on a number of occasions and has met and resolved it by the House giving leadership. That is both what we need to do now and what I hope we will do now. The Leader of the House had three principal points in his statement and our response to them is as follows. We will continue to involve ourselves constructively in any discussions. We will consider constructively any of the Government’s proposals, as indicated in the statement today by the Leader of the House. We will participate constructively in any wider discussions beyond the Bill currently in front of us about the conventions of the House.
The statement from the Leader of the House indicates that the will for discussions is now there. We welcome that, although it will of course be for the discussions themselves to show whether that will translates itself in practice into specifics. Concrete progress is required on the issues of concern in the Bill. With concrete progress, I am confident that we can resolve the impasse before us, but that will involve give and take. In the mean time, we will continue to maintain the level of scrutiny that we have been applying to the Bill, with many amendments in front of us yet and considerable scrutiny still to be carried out in this Committee.
This House had a tough and difficult time last week. We debated the Bill long into the night. I do not know whether the House faces a tough and difficult time this week as well. However long we sit, we on this side stand ready for constructive and positive discussions. We welcome the fact that the Government are indicating their readiness to take the same constructive and positive approach.
My Lords, I speak on behalf of the Cross-Benchers. It will come as no surprise that there is deep concern among us about the breakdown in the conventions and procedures of this House. I thank the Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for his words today, but would like to muse a little further on the possible consequences for this Chamber.
Scrutiny is our job, but I doubt that a reasonable person would conclude that the speeches in the dark hours of the night last week, and maybe even again tonight, represent scrutiny or sensible revision. We are therefore forced to believe that it is the Opposition’s intention to delay the Bill beyond the date on which it would be possible to have a referendum: 5 May.
Many Cross-Benchers, of course, hear the justifiable worries that the Opposition have expressed about the lack of scrutiny of certain parts of the Bill, and I am sure that we acknowledge the difficult combination of two contentious issues for reasons of political expediency. We recognise that the date of 5 May was always, to say the least, an unhelpful goal. I think everyone would also agree that there is some legitimate question about whether the Salisbury/Addison convention really should apply to this Bill.
Despite all this, I hope that I am expressing the views of the majority of Cross-Benchers in saying that the tactics that the Opposition are using to delay the Bill fly in the face of the conventions that have governed this House for perhaps the past six decades, that these tactics undoubtedly bring this House into disrepute, that any success of such tactics may well encourage their further future use, and that these factors put together may even mark the beginning of the dissolution of this House. I say this with some reluctance—even to me, it sounds somewhat dramatic—but I believe it to be true. Why would the public, let alone the other place, choose to support a Chamber that is seen to be deeply unserious in undertaking the role of revision and scrutiny? We are at a dangerous crossroads.
As everyone knows, the Cross-Benchers are fastidiously independent and non party political. What I say is absolutely not anti-Opposition; indeed, as has been said and was shown by Cross-Benchers in this House last week, we very often support the Opposition in their valuable amendments. No, our collective concern—for once, perhaps we are acting as a group—is that the self-regulation and fundamental tasks of this House are sufficiently valuable to be preserved. We therefore both understand the need for and urge that there be significant compromises on both sides of this House so that we may proceed with dignity and resolve.
My Lords, what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has just said is of extreme importance. She has summed up very well what is at stake in an issue that has far greater repercussions than the source of the differences between the two sides of the House. We do indeed put at risk the whole reputation of the House of Lords as a place of intelligent and thoughtful discussion, where from time to time essentially bipartisan considerations give way to the greater needs of the constitutional issues that affect the United Kingdom and its people.
In that context, observing this as someone who has not taken detailed part in the debate, it seems clear to me that there is some room to move on both sides. I suggest that one of the issues that might be moved on is that of giving slightly more discretion to the Boundary Commission on constituencies with a natural community. The House’s choice on the issue of the Isle of Wight showed how strongly it shares that view, and it is only sensible to do that within the narrowest conceivable limits, which basically means equal-sized constituencies while recognising that some issues have to be given rather more discretion than the present Bill gives them.
In exchange for that, it is vital that the Opposition accept their responsibility and cease to create what is in effect a filibustering lobby—for that is what it is. It is high time, speaking as someone who cares very much about this House as an essential element in a sensible, thoughtful and responsible democracy, that it is accepted that there should be some relatively small movement on both sides so that we can get an agreement and decision on this issue within the next few days and, to put it bluntly, cease to lose the respect that we so much need, and usually deserve, from the rest of the country.
My Lords, I have given notice that I again wish to propose that we do not continue with these proceedings at all. I hope for a more helpful answer today than the one I was given last Wednesday. I have been encouraged to try again by several noble Lords who have told me that the brush-off that I was given last week was really most unsatisfactory and not at all in accordance with the convention of your Lordships’ House that the Government at least try to answer questions; they should at least make a fair stab at it, even if they do not like the answer.
My question last week was simply whether it was it was sensible to break our traditions and spend so much time and energy debating the method by which Members are elected to Parliament when so much power has been passed to Brussels that they can do very little when they get there. My question today goes further, and I touched on it in the first Oral Question today: if we are to have a referendum on anything, why is it not to be on what the British people have been promised, which is whether or not we want to stay in the European Union? After all, such a referendum was given as a cast-iron guarantee by the Prime Minister during the run-up to the Lisbon treaty. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, and this sews up the coalition Government quite nicely, actually walked out of the House of Commons—some would say flounced—because he was not allowed a vote on whether we wanted to stay in or leave the EU. Such a referendum was also in his party’s manifesto.
Why are we wasting so much time on a referendum to which the public are supremely indifferent while denying them one that they have been promised and which 85 per cent of them say they want? Surely the Deputy Leader of the House must agree that this sort of procedure, together with the regrettable filibuster that is clearly being mounted by Labour Peers, can do nothing but harm to the reputation of your Lordships’ House. Can it do anything but make the British people despise their political class even more than they do at the moment? Here I entirely share the sentiments and the words of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza.
I add my thanks and those of my party to all the staff in your Lordships’ House, who are behaving with such amazing fortitude and courtesy throughout these regrettable proceedings. I fear that we do not deserve such service if we continue.
My Lords, I have not taken part in the debates on the many amendments that have been before us because, to be honest, I have not wanted to contribute to the length of the proceedings.
I have listened carefully to what the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Williams of Crosby, have said. However, I have to reject the accusation of filibustering. The House must understand the frustration that is felt on this side of the House that a matter of such constitutional importance arrived in this House without a White Paper or a Green Paper, and that the issues in the second part of the Bill are of fundamental interest to the public because they concern the constituencies. I agree that at times we on my side of the House—I will get no accolades from the Front Bench for saying this—have gone too far in discussing the amendments and that maybe it would have been better if they had been discussed more briefly. However, they were and remain important amendments, because this is an incredibly difficult issue to deal with.
The real problem that faced us, as we all know and have discussed many times in this House, was the fact that there were two parts to this Bill when there should have been two Bills. What has happened to irritate the House, and maybe the public at large, has been due to the fact that the second part of the Bill would have been a much shorter exercise if it had been a second Bill. As my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench has said many times, we would have had no problem about meeting the date of 5 May if it had been debated and dealt with separately. However, a matter of such great constitutional importance as changing boundaries and all that that involves in reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons deserved a separate Bill.
All I say to Members of the House is: please understand the frustration of those on these Benches. It is not a question of trying to hold anything up but of trying to get proper scrutiny of a major constitutional issue. If only there had been two Bills instead of one, we might have avoided this unfortunate situation. I now agree that we should try to move forward as fast as possible, but I beg noble Lords to understand that where there are amendments that are absolutely essential to the second part of the Bill—to make sure that it is a good Bill in that second part—we retain the right to discuss it fully, as a scrutinising and revising Chamber should.
My Lords, some of us are very keen to see the possibility of some approach that would lead to a solution to the evident difficulties in the passage of the Bill through the House. Since we have dealt with the amendments to Part 1 of the Bill, it would seem reasonable to foresee that this part of the Bill should go through with a view to the referendum taking place on 5 May. However, the timing for Part 2 of the Bill is not so tight, as it requires action on constituencies to be in place by October 2013, with a view to the next election. Has the Leader considered—or would he consider—the possibility that the Bill might launch the Boundary Commission’s work but that Part 2 would come fully into force only by order at a later date? We know there are several other issues, such as the need for some flexibility in the 5 per cent margin on the size of constituencies. However, I intervene now on this key issue of timing so that the Bill might pass but Part 2 be brought fully into force later by order, without compromising the start of work by the Boundary Commission.
I thank all those who have taken part, particularly the noble and learned Lord. I very much recognise the constructive way in which he wishes to continue. I hope we will soon be able to restart the Committee stage. I also thank the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross Benches. It is always difficult for the Cross-Benchers to involve themselves in what they might see as being a political fight. This is now much more than a political battle; there are serious issues about the role of the House in scrutiny, which I tried to lay out. I very much welcome what the noble Baroness said.
I will not respond in detail to what everybody has said. I say briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson: there are many opportunities in this House to raise the issues that he has raised—in Private Members’ Bills and through amendments to other Bills. He may well have a point but it is a point that is not part of this Bill, specifically. I urge him to raise these matters in debate, rather than on this Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, makes a suggestion similar to those that many others have made. We do not mind how we resolve these issues—we know that there must be a resolution—so long as we do not delay the main purposes of the Bill. I beg to move.
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
68: Clause 11, page 9, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) Each constituency shall be wholly within a single county boundary.”
My Lords, in speaking to this group of amendments, I bear in mind the exchange that has just taken place in your Lordships’ House. I hope that whoever replies from the government Front Bench will accept that these are important amendments, which are worthy of discussion, particularly bearing in mind what has just been said about the need for your Lordships’ House to act as a revising Chamber. Most of the matters covered by this group of amendments were not debated in the other place for various reasons. I do not particularly blame the Government for that.
Some of us who have been around for a while—at least in the other place—were not particularly happy about some of the proposals made after the 1997 general election to revise the sitting hours of the House of Commons. We pointed out that some time—that time is now but we pointed it out even back then—the Labour Party would be in opposition and might well regret that the number of hours available for debate for many of these important matters would be curtailed under those proposals to amend the hours of the other place, which were accepted. So much legislation now comes before your Lordships’ House not debated at all or, if debated, done so under a time limit and certainly without any great thoroughness. I repeat: that particularly applies to this group of amendments. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will bear that in mind when he comes to reply and will acknowledge that this group contains some serious and relevant proposals for the improvement of this piece of legislation. I labelled him “the nice Lord” last week, which probably did not enhance his career greatly among his colleagues but I meant it anyway.
On Amendment 68, the fact that so many of your Lordships have already expressed concerns about the new constituencies crossing county boundaries is worth repeating, albeit briefly. After all, the county councils—the 48 ceremonial counties, as they were known—were set up as long ago as 1888 by the Local Government Act of that year. Although further reforms took place in the back end of the 19th century, the counties were significantly formed in 1929, when many of the powers available to those county councils were increased. They were largely curtailed by the Local Government Act 1972, which led to the demise of some local authorities, such as the Ridings of Yorkshire and Westmoreland, to name but two. Concern has been expressed in your Lordships’ House over the course of the debate about the prospect of the new constituencies crossing county boundaries. I do not wish to repeat anything that was said. I understand that people in Devon and Cornwall feel very strongly about these matters, as do some Members of the other House.
I indicated when I got to my feet that much of this legislation has not been properly debated in the House of Commons. However, much of it was reported on by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the Commons, which had the following to say about constituencies crossing other boundaries, particularly as far as county councils are concerned. Page 25 of its report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, under the heading “Constituencies crossing other boundaries”, says at paragraph 78:
“Requiring all constituencies to be within 5% of the electoral quota would mean … the creation of constituencies crossing regional and county boundaries, not least in Cornwall and Devon. Keep Cornwall Whole, a cross-party group campaigning against this aspect of the Bill, told us”—
that is, the committee—
“that creating a constituency with a number of historical, political and geographical identities would pose a serious challenge to the local MP, and that”—
here the committee quoted Keep Cornwall Whole—
“‘there is a severe risk that elements of it will go under-represented or indeed unrepresented.’ They have stated that loosening the equalisation requirement for constituencies to within 10% of the electoral quota would mean avoiding the need for a constituency to cross the Devon-Cornwall border”.
I hope that the Government will look carefully at that report and will see what they can do to prevent constituencies crossing county borders. One of the main reasons behind this part of the legislation—the new constituency sizes—was given by Her Majesty’s Government as the need to save money. Removing 50 or 60 Members of the other place would, it was said, save millions of pounds. I remind your Lordships, particularly the Conservative Members, that those of us who were active in local government in the early 1970s remember the Local Government Act 1972 because of its creation of metropolitan county councils.
Many of us pointed out at the time that the creation of metropolitan county councils would be an extremely expensive exercise. So it proved to be. Chief officers of those local authorities rightly expected—and got—substantial pay increases because of the size of the population for which they were responsible. However, the Local Government Act 1972 went ahead and the metropolitan county councils were created. They came into being in 1974. Within 12 years, a Conservative Government decided to abolish the metropolitan county councils.
I do not say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is replying to this debate, has any responsibility for that, but it would be an interesting financial comparison if he told us how much that particular exercise—the creation of metropolitan county councils and their abolition within 12 years—cost the taxpayers of this country. I would hazard a guess that it was considerably more than the supposed savings to be made from the abolition of 50 or 60 Members of the other place. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will give us some figures so that we can compare and see just how genuine this supposed saving is going to be for the British tax payer.
Amendment 69 refers to the number of local authority boundaries in the new constituencies. I plead no superiority over any other Member of your Lordships’ House who did not serve in the other place, but I know that the Minister who is replying did serve there. He knows, as I know, the difficulties of constituency Members of Parliament and the importance for them of establishing and retaining a relationship with senior officers as well as councillors in the local government area in which their constituency lies.
As with noble Lords of all parties who have served in the other place, I met constituents who came to me with problems that were entirely a matter for the local authority. I said at one of our earlier debates that some of my colleagues down the Corridor, perhaps with more courage than I, would say to those constituents who came with purely local government problems: “This is nothing to do with your Member of Parliament, take it to your local councillor”. Many of us, with some difficulty perhaps as far as our parliamentary majorities were concerned, did not see that as a proper way forward, and took up those matters on behalf of those constituents.
The relationship with senior councillors and officers—directors as they became, thanks to the Local Government Act 1972—was such that I could ring, let us say, the director of some particular function in Sandwell Council, which lay in my own constituency; I would not say “Do this” or “This must be done”, because Members of Parliament in the other place have no such powers, but I would say, because of the relationship I had established, “Would you look personally at this particular case?”. Quite often I got a reply saying “We didn’t handle that very well and this is what I propose to do”. That is entirely a normal relationship and one that noble Lords of all parties who served in the other place will be familiar with. I put it to your Lordships how much more difficult it would be to do that with two or three different local authorities in a constituency.
Yes, I noticed that the noble Lord lost his seat in Northampton South at one stage as well; I do not say that that was anything to do with the fact that he had three local authorities to deal with, but he would at least acknowledge, I hope, that the resources necessary to deal with three different local authorities are considerably greater than those needed to deal with just one. I am sure, given his reputation for hard work, that he found dealing with three local authorities completely effortless. Those of us who did not perhaps possess his stamina or his drive felt it was pretty exhausting dealing with one, let alone two or three. I am sure that the noble Lord would accept at least some part of what I say; it is easier to deal with just one local authority.
Again I refer noble Lords to what the report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had to say about this particular aspect of the Bill and that covered by this particular amendment.
I suspect that the Boundary Commission, having noted the elevation of the former Member to your Lordships’ House, felt that no one else could possibly follow in his footsteps and therefore made sure that the constituency was coterminous with the local authority.
Amendment 71 refers to three local authorities, I think. I have been aware of some of the difficulties, but I must not detain the House for longer than necessary.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had this to say so far as local and district councils are concerned:
“Another practical effect of the 5% equalisation requirement is that many more constituencies than at present would cross local authority boundaries. The numbers involved will vary across the UK: Scotland is likely to see 15-20 (out of 50) cross-local government border constituencies, Wales between 23 and 28 constituencies (of 30), and in England, where 34 constituencies already cross a London borough boundary, the commissions ‘expect to cross boundaries to an even greater extent in a review carried out under the terms of the Bill.’ The Secretaries to the English and Scottish Commissions, Bob Farrance and Hugh Bucanan, told us they intend to take local authority areas into account when designing constituencies. In Wales very few constituencies will be able to follow local authority boundaries”.
We need constituencies that have some affinity. Drawing lines on maps, as has been pointed out in these debates, does not a community make; crossing local authority boundaries is something that the Boundary Commission for many years has done its best to avoid.
The committee went on to say:
“Another consequence of the 5% equalisation requirement is that the boundary commissions will have to split wards in order to achieve the required number of electors in each constituency … Professor Ron Johnston told us that research suggested that political activity declined when wards were divided”.
I have no wish to offend the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, by talking about political activity, but the party unit of government in my own party—once the ward and now the branch—is normally based on a local government ward. If you split that ward then obviously political activity in that particular area is likely to be considerably affected. That might not bother noble Lords on either side of the House, but all three major parties depend on active volunteers, and what gets volunteers actively involved in a political party is a sense of community that I fear will be lost unless some of these amendments are accepted.
This the fourth or fifth time I have spoken on this legislation. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is to reply, will acknowledge that on no occasion have I spoken for longer than 15 minutes. These amendments are important. The only real debate that took place was on the 5 per cent quota, not on the details that I have outlined in these amendments—and there is a whole group of them. I say again to noble Lords that if we had really been anxious to be difficult, we would have debated all the amendments separately. These are important matters. I hope that when the Minister replies he will bear it in mind that we are talking about communities as well as political parties, and that he will look seriously at these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Snape. Counties are the starting point of any boundary review. They are not the building blocks; wards are the building blocks. Those of us who have been involved in boundary reviews in various capacities will know that. I would include among that group myself, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and many noble Lords on all sides of the House who have served in the other place. They will know that counties are the starting point. Outside London, you always start with a county—it can be a shire county or a metropolitan county. You are advised of the number of seats in that county and the initial recommendations of the Boundary Commissions are published.
I recall my time working in the east Midlands, when Derbyshire received an extra seat. That came into force at the last general election and the constituency was called Mid Derbyshire. This was because the electorate had increased and the county qualified for a new seat. I was always clear that that would be a Conservative seat and in May last year it returned a Conservative MP. There were knock-on effects. The review resulted in High Peak becoming coterminous with the district council boundary. That was positive and sensible. A seat called Derbyshire Dales was created close to the boundaries of Derbyshire Dales District Council. The South Derbyshire constituency became coterminous with the boundary of the district council; previously, it had contained a couple of wards in the City of Derby.
There are of course seats all across the county that cross different district boundaries, but all are contained within the county. The county is compact; it provides historic identity and people understand it. Take away those county boundaries and what do we risk? In Derbyshire, bits of High Peak would go into Greater Manchester. North East Derbyshire would be put together with Sheffield, while seats that are largely based on the towns and districts of Erewash and Amber Valley would be ripped up. The historic A52, which was recently named Brian Clough Way, in recognition of what Brian Clough brought to Nottingham and Derby, was put in a Leicestershire seat. It is wrong to ignore these boundaries. Greater London is a county and is allocated a number of seats. It is true that in Greater London seats cross borough boundaries, but account is taken of that. That recognition would go under these proposals.
Seats and communities of course change and movements in boundaries should take account of those changes. However, the Government’s proposals are deeply flawed, as nothing else matters but the number of people, who are thereby denied their right to proper input. They will have the right to send in a letter but not to appeal to an inquiry. That is not right. It is most regrettable that the Government have not moved on these proposals, but I live in hope, given what we have heard from the Leader of the House this afternoon.
The names of seats are also important. This is sometimes forgotten, but boundary inquiries are a good forum for looking at them. The inquiries do not always get it right, but they can improve the situation. I grew up in Walworth in the London Borough of Southwark. When I joined the Labour Party in 1979, I found that I was in the Southwark Peckham CLP. I went to secondary school in Peckham, but calling the seat Southwark Peckham did not reflect the community. The proper name should have been Camberwell, Peckham and Walworth, which would have identified the three distinct communities in that constituency. I am pleased that in a subsequent review the seat was renamed Camberwell and Peckham, which better reflects the constituency, because most of Walworth has been included in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, although that name could be improved.
I bring my remarks to a close in the spirit that has been expressed on both Front Benches. I hope that a deal can be sorted out shortly.
My Lords, I support these amendments. Perhaps I may give an example of where even the Boundary Commission does not always get it right. The point is that there are, at present, ways of getting it right subsequently.
I had the privilege of representing the Battersea constituency. We had an anomalous situation on the Wandsworth/Lambeth border. My constituency was within Wandsworth. As noble Lords know, Wandsworth had a Conservative council and Lambeth, which adjoined it, had a Labour council. One council estate that belonged to Wandsworth was partly in Wandsworth and partly in Lambeth. That might not have been so bad in itself, except that Wandsworth’s policy was to have a low council tax and to charge pretty heavy rents to council tenants. Lambeth’s policy was to have a high council tax and to charge low rents to council tenants.
Think of the position of a block of flats in Lambeth in a Wandsworth-run council estate. The poor people living in the Lambeth bit of the estate had pulled two short straws. They had to pay the high council tax in Lambeth and the high rents charged by Wandsworth Council. They were caught both ways. Fortunately that situation was adjusted, but the anomaly of splitting a council estate in two by a constituency and, as it then was, a borough boundary is clearly nonsense. I only hope that such things will not happen again, which is why many of us are concerned that, if anomalies of this sort are built into the system, it will damage local communities, local people and the politics of the area.
Perhaps I may widen the argument away from that example. We have discussed representing a constituency that was in more than one local authority area. I would have found that pretty difficult. Many noble Lords have represented areas, either as local councillors or in Parliament. It is difficult to represent an area and deal with another local authority. It is possible under the present system that one might have to deal with another health authority. That is also difficult and I do not know what the future will be for the health service in that regard. For a Member of Parliament to be effective, it is surely important that the constituency should reflect the community, the local authority area and the way in which the health service operates. In that way, a Member of Parliament can be most effective.
Take the situation where one wants to achieve better co-operation between a health authority and the social services department of the local authority—co-operation that occasionally does not work too well. If a Member of Parliament is to be effective, he or she needs to be able to understand these relationships and, it is to be hoped, to have these bodies covering the same area. We used to call them coterminous boundaries.
The other important area is not just the community but the way in which a Member of Parliament relates to local voluntary groups in the community. These groups tend to relate to natural community boundaries. It is difficult to achieve an effective relationship with one’s constituents if the community groups do not cover an area similar to that of the constituency. I had another difficulty in Battersea, because part of the constituency was in Balham and the people of Balham did not like to be called residents of Battersea. We had to deal with that one, but it was all done within the local authority boundary, and it was a matter of just recognising that the community in Balham was different from the community in the northern part of Battersea.
I would like to feel that the Boundary Commission will be empowered by amendments to the Bill that take these matters into account. I honestly believe that the ideal situation is when a Member of Parliament represents one community within one local authority area, not two. That would make for the most effective relationship and the most effective work of the political parties and it would enhance democracy.
I wish to speak specifically to Amendment 69, which states:
“Each constituency shall contain only whole local government wards”.
I want to address that from a practical point of view, but, first, I endorse what my noble friends have said about the importance of retaining a sense of community and the significance of the relationship between the elected representative and the community that he or she works with and gets to know. I am sure that any noble Lord, whether they have been a Member of the other place or not, would acknowledge that elected representatives for a particular community achieve much more when they work together—be it at the local authority level, the devolved Administration level or the parliamentary level.
Often that comes into its own in a crisis. I saw it in particular a decade ago, at the height of the foot and mouth outbreak. It did not affect my constituency but, as I was then the Secretary of State for Scotland, I saw it in the Borders of Scotland, particularly around Dumfries and Galloway. Political differences were put aside and people worked together for the good of their own community. I experienced it in my former constituency when the Boots factory was closed. For decades, all Boots’s cosmetics had been made in a factory in Airdrie when suddenly, completely out of the blue, a decision was taken to close that factory, costing more than 1,000 jobs, largely those of women. The community and the elected representatives came together. We dabble with that at our peril.
It is a heartening sight to see elected representatives come together but there is also a less than positive element. If a constituency boundary divides a ward, a local councillor will have responsibility for two different parliamentary constituencies—and not always do constituencies agree. Local issues can emerge that cause conflict between one constituency and the neighbouring constituency. I am thinking specifically of issues such as the closure of part of a hospital. For example, the accident and emergency department of my local district hospital was transferred to the district hospital in the adjacent constituency, which caused an extremely fraught debate. People were distressed as a consequence because it meant a much longer journey for those who had cars, while those who did not have cars would have to go from central Lanarkshire into Glasgow and back out again. The journey for people with cars would take a quarter to half an hour, but those without cars would perhaps have to give up an entire day. I wanted the accident and emergency department to remain in the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, whereas my colleague Frank Roy wanted it to go to Wishaw General Hospital.
That kind of thing happens with astonishing regularity. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, perhaps sees that one of the few benefits of a constituency that is all islands is that it is all your own, whereas in the more urban areas such issues of conflict can arise. This is particularly true in relation to schools and we see it a lot at the moment in Scotland. Schools are often the bulwark of a community and sometimes, often for good and sound educational reasons, schools need to be merged. A councillor could be faced with the challenge of a school having to be moved from one part of his ward to another. If the move crossed the constituency boundary, it would put two adjacent Members of Parliament into conflict. It is not an edifying sight and it does not help a local community to remain coherent.
There is also a problem where wards are villages. Given the way in which the Bill is drafted, in a ward that is a village a situation could arise—for example, as a consequence of a new housing development—where the village becomes too big to remain as a part of one ward. A chunk would then get taken off it and be put into a ward based in another village, even though that village might be five or six miles away. That would break down the community’s cohesion.
I do not want to delay the House unduly on this matter but we need some common sense in relation to the building blocks of constituencies. We need to take into account how people do the day-to-day work of representing communities and we need to be seen to be responsive to the sense of involvement that individuals have in their communities, be it in the community organisations to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred, or in the formal structures that make up the building blocks for the Boundary Commission that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke about. I urge the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to reflect seriously on this matter, because there are practical difficulties that will cause us great distress in the future if we do not get them right now.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in the debate on the Bill—it may be the only time that I choose to speak—but I support my noble friend Lord Snape on Amendment 68 and what he said about the importance of the county boundaries within the overall process.
My first and only experience of making representations to the Boundary Commission took place many years ago in respect of parliamentary constituency boundaries within the London Borough of Newham. I was asked by my constituency Labour Party to make strong representations to the Boundary Commission to the effect that Green Street—anyone who knows the London Borough of Newham will know that there is a bus route that goes straight down the middle of the borough—was an historical boundary of profound significance separating the old boroughs of West Ham, which was inside the original London County Council area, and East Ham, which had traditionally regarded itself as being in Essex.
I decided that the two sides of that fairly narrow thoroughfare did not meet and, on arriving to make representations to the Boundary Commission, I found to my terror that I was up against the representative of the Newham South Conservative Association, who had hired Ivor Stanbrook, an eminent QC—he was a leading Conservative Member of Parliament, who represented Orpington at the time—to put what was, effectively, the opposite point of view. We argued our cases and the Boundary Commission went away and no doubt considered the representations that had been made. I was extremely pleasantly surprised when the commission altered its original proposals and recognised that there was a community called East Ham and a separate and different community called West Ham. Although a London borough had been created to subsume them both, there were nevertheless historical ties on either side of the street—I had represented it as being the width of the Thames, but in reality it is hardly the width of this Chamber—and those communities were kept in separate constituencies.
Nothing lasts for ever and, for all I know, given the sense of identity that Newhamers may have of living in the London Borough of Newham after 30 or 40 years, the width of Green Street might no longer be a particularly important consideration. However, other boundaries have been crossed in London boroughs and parliamentary constituencies, the results of which have been described to me by friends in Tower Hamlets as abominations. For example, the constituency of Poplar and Canning Town spans the River Lea and two separate boroughs. The two communities have almost no means of contact other than one main road on a bridge, a tube line and the DLR. They are completely separate and have traditionally looked in almost opposite directions, yet they have been brought together in a constituency that, probably to people who draw lines on maps, looks fairly straightforward—“Oh, it is along the riverside; we could call it ‘Leamouth’ or ‘Docklands’”. In the end, the title settled on was Poplar and Canning Town, but it is not a happy arrangement. People who live on both sides of the River Lea in that constituency feel that they have been lumped together with communities with different interests.
This brings me to the point that I wish to make about Lancashire. Although I am pleased and honoured to have a Scottish territorial designation, I do not know whether that quite makes me a Scottish Peer. As noble Lords will realise, I do not sound very Scottish. I am a Lancashire lad. Going back to my roots in Blackburn in Lancashire, and reflecting on questions of identity, I know that when I was growing up and was asked where I came from, I would say, “I am a northerner”, rather than, “I am English”, even. Beyond that I would certainly say, “I am a Lancastrian”. There is a certain pride in coming from the red rose county and I am sure that, on the opposite side of the border, there is great pride that all Yorkshire men and women have in coming from the white rose county. Our rivalries, which were wars if one goes back far enough, should not be allowed to take on too great an importance.
Nevertheless, the sense of identity is extremely important and I can see that, if this amendment is not accepted, calculations will be made under the Sainte-Lague method and, for that part of northern England, it will perhaps be necessary to start at the coast. If we work inwards from Blackpool, Southport and Preston on the seaboard of Lancashire and apply mere mathematics on how big the constituency should be, it is likely that a constituency will be created—let us say Ribble Valley—that will breach both sides of the Lancashire and Yorkshire border, or perhaps there will be a constituency called Pendle and Craven, which again would cross that important historical county boundary.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not in his place to hear this, because I know how often he says that he is a Lancashire lad and proud of it. I hope that the Minister will consult his noble friend Lord McNally, as well as the Deputy Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who I am sure is a proud Yorkshireman, to ask their opinion on whether a constituency that crossed the Lancashire and Yorkshire boundary would be a good idea. I think that he will find that they would agree with me that it is not such a jolly good idea. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and that the amendment will be carried.
My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House for long but I am anxious to give my support to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Snape. When we began the second part of this Bill, many Members of this House gave the benefit of their knowledge and valuable experience on many geographical areas the length and breadth of the British Isles and on the many constituencies that they have known and loved.
I hail from the Black Country, a group of once quite prosperous towns and villages that are proud of their contribution to our industrial heritage, as they were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. These towns nestle no more than two to three miles from each other and they have as many different dialects as they have distinct communities. I was honoured and privileged to represent the area of Wolverhampton and Bilston at local, regional and national level for more than 40 years. I am therefore very conscious, together with all my noble friends, of the arbitrary manipulation of constituencies in the Bill. However desirable more equally sized constituency electorates may be, the Bill will create lasting damage to close-knit and settled communities in areas such as Wolverhampton and the Black Country.
I would offer in evidence—and this is why the amendments are so necessary—the recent analysis made by the Electoral Reform Society. It concludes that five parliamentary seats may be lost in the Black Country and Staffordshire under this Bill. Wolverhampton will have just two MPs instead of three and one would end up looking after what are described as some Walsall matters. Residents in a new Wolverhampton South West seat would find themselves split between Wolverhampton and Dudley. In Walsall, one seat would disappear, likewise in West Bromwich, Halesowen and Stourbridge, as well as in Staffordshire.
The possible destruction of these constituencies is too painful to contemplate. Crossing local authority and ward boundaries will completely undermine communities and seriously damage community relations. In addition, I foresee undoubted problems that people will experience in obtaining satisfactory advocacy and representation. All this becomes more and more apparent as we continue to discuss this bureaucratic and anti-democratic legislation. It reminds me of the wise words of that wonderful philosopher Omar Khayyam:
“Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”
I support the amendments.
My Lords, there was talk earlier this afternoon and last week about filibustering. I cannot believe it and defy any noble Lord to suggest in good faith that anything that has been said this afternoon—even one sentence—could possibly be regarded as filibustering. We have had six contributions in less than three quarters of an hour, which is surely a very reasonable pace. I have certainly listened to every detail that has been put forward sincerely and from direct experience.
I suppose that it is possible to despise this whole subject of how people organise themselves at local level, canvass and campaign and how political parties are structured, their relationship with local government, constituency organisations and so forth. It is possible to say, “That is the grass roots and I am only interested in the high policy issues”. There may be one or two rather haughty people in this House who take that line. That is terribly unfortunate because if you despise the grass roots of politics you are despising the whole way in which our democracy works. Without those grass roots, we would not have a thriving political democracy.
It is extraordinary that there have been no contributions from the Benches opposite on these important issues. I can hardly believe that no one on the other side of the House has any views whatever on this subject. I can hardly believe that they all despise such discussions in the way that I have indicated might be the case. I hope not, although one or two people perhaps do. I find it very difficult indeed to believe that noble Lords opposite would not stand up and defend the Government and oppose the amendments if they thought that the amendments were unreasonable. No doubt they are hoping that the Minister will bring some rabbit out of a hat at the end of the debate in the form of an argument against these reasonable amendments, but none of them seems to have come up with any objections whatever. That has been the pattern of the debates, so there is a strong sense that those who have been tabling the amendments have been winning the argument and that those who have opposed them when voting have done so on the basis of no arguments at all, or have at least been unwilling to put any forward.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. He would help me if he could tell me how his remarks relate to the rules that applied in the general election last year. The fifth report of the Boundary Commission for England was sent to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and I do not believe that he had many grumbles about it at that time. I shall read out two rules. Paragraph 6.19 states:
“Rule 4 requires the boundaries of county and London boroughs to be respected as far as practicable. As explained in Chapter 2, we have crossed these boundaries to a greater extent than before, using the discretion afforded by Rule 5 to avoid excessive disparities in the electorates”.
Rule 5 is characterised in paragraph 6.20 as follows:
“Rule 5 requires electoral parity as far as is practicable”.
It also says:
“Paragraph 6.5 of this chapter sets out how we have overall brought constituency electorates closer to the electoral quota”.
The party opposite when it was in government accepted this review and fought the previous election on those rules. Therefore, my great problem is that I cannot see why it does not describe to us how it sees these rules being changed by the Bill in a material way. I completely concede that there are some material changes. The first one is that, although the fifth review suggested that there should be 613 Members of Parliament, we have now reached a rather higher number, and the Bill proposes 600. I also concede that at that time the discretion to the Boundary Commissions meant that they departed from plus or minus five to a greater extent than is proposed in this Bill. As far as I can see, those are the only major differences.
I shall answer the noble Viscount right away. As he says, it has always been the tradition and habit of the Boundary Commission to endeavour to respect county boundaries. Indeed, that is in its explicit rules. As far as I know, it has always respected ward boundaries. I have never heard of a case of wards being split. Perhaps they have but, if so, it has been extraordinarily rare. We all know that this Bill will place the Boundary Commission under very great constraints which, in practical terms, will force it to breach those important rules: the two constraints being the limitation of MPs to 600 and, particularly, the 5 per cent rule. We have had other opportunities in these debates to discuss those two rules, which have an immediate effect on the extent to which it will be possible to respect county boundaries, local government boundaries or, indeed, ward boundaries. Therefore, I strongly support my noble friends who are trying explicitly in these amendments to protect those things and to make certain that we do not cross county boundaries except in the most exceptional circumstances. Above all—I say “above all” as this is a matter of the greatest importance to me—we do not in any way want to break up wards and divide them between parliamentary constituencies. Therefore, there is now a need for explicit rules, and the purpose of these amendments is to introduce them.
Indeed, and that is necessary in the circumstances. I do not hold to every word of these amendments, as I shall explain in a second if the noble Viscount will give me an opportunity to do so. However, their main thrust seems absolutely right, as, indeed—I do not want to anticipate the next debate—are the amendments that have been put forward by my noble friends on the Front Bench, which I hope that we will get to in the next section. In fact, the first thing I want to say on the detail of the amendments, with great respect to my noble friends Lord Snape, Lord Kennedy and Lady McDonagh, is that I wonder whether the first amendment relating to county councils achieves, technically, what they want it to achieve. The amendment states:
“Each constituency shall be wholly within a single county boundary”.
As I read that text, it means that counties that are too small to constitute a normal sized constituency would have to be a constituency on their own. I think of Rutland. That would be a very peculiar result to emerge from the amendment. That is why I fear that I cannot support that amendment in its present form if it came to the vote. However, I may have misunderstood it and the problem I have may be dealt with adequately in another context. If that is the case, I shall either give way to my noble friends on that matter now or look forward to hearing an explanation subsequently in the debate, but that aside, I am totally in favour of the spirit of that amendment for two reasons. The first concerns a matter I have already dealt with in another context in these debates, so I will not dwell on it, and that is the all-important issue of the extent to which the individual elector identifies with the constituency in which he or she finds himself or herself. Counties are enormously important. We have already heard about the great sensitivity which would arise if constituencies were spread across the traditional historic Lancashire/Yorkshire divide.
I assure the Committee that if there were any suggestion of taking bits of Lincolnshire and putting them into a constituency with parts of Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire or Leicestershire, there would be the most appalling outcry. I do not doubt for a moment that that would lead to some people not bothering to vote in either county council elections or parliamentary elections as a protest. That would go in the exact opposite direction from the one in which we wish to go.
Speaking from my considerable experience as a former constituency Member of Parliament, I want to make a very practical case. It is very important so far as possible to have an exclusive, or at least a limited, relationship with local authorities as it is only in that way, when one has a large agenda, a lot of give and take and when one sees the same people in different contexts, that one can effectively do business together, and where there is an atmosphere of confidence and trust, which there needs to be between a Member of Parliament and a local authority, irrespective of political party. That is enormously important. It is important to avoid the conflict of interest which could otherwise prevent local authorities, which may necessarily have a rather bureaucratic mentality, contacting a Member at all. If there are two, three, four or, God knows, more MPs with bits of a particular local authority, county, district council or whatever it is, they might well feel that they cannot possibly talk to one of those MPs without saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same circumstances, taking exactly the same amount of time, with all the others, so they would not bother to do it at all, and so the co-operation, discussion and mutual understanding would not occur. There are real practical arguments of this kind in favour of trying, wherever possible, to keep county councils within county boundaries. We are, of course, preaching to the converted with the Boundary Commission. The noble Viscount made that point. The last thing the Boundary Commission wants to do is to split counties or to incorporate in constituencies parts of different counties. That is something it has managed to avoid doing in general. However, we need to strengthen its hand to prevent it being pushed in that direction.
Even more important than counties are wards. They really are the grass roots at which politics is conducted and are the way in which individuals are brought into our political system and take an interest in civic affairs through meeting with their friends and neighbours locally to discuss common problems. It is incredibly important that a ward and a ward committee in a political party has a relationship with one Member of Parliament. Immense synergies flow from that because when you go out campaigning you want to be in a position to talk about local and national issues. All Members of Parliament have to talk about local and national issues and all their supporters ought to be in a position to do that. It is no use campaigning for a council seat when if somebody raises a national problem you say, “Actually this is not the constituency of the Member that I support and so I cannot talk about this national issue”. That is a hopeless system. It is very important that Members of Parliament know their county and district councillors, that county and district councillors know their Members of Parliament, that they tackle a common set of problems, work together, understand local issues and as far as possible have the same views on local issues. That may not always be the case but at least they feel that they have the same responsibilities which are coterminous. It is only in that way that the whole political system we have has a degree of coherence and therefore of credibility, and has in the minds of the electorate a degree of functionality and purpose. All these things would be very badly damaged by breaking up wards between different constituencies. That is the point on which I feel most strongly.
My Lords, at the conclusion of today’s business, no doubt in the small hours of tomorrow morning, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, will say exactly the same thing as he did at the beginning of his speech: namely, that we have not witnessed any filibustering. If so, by the time we get to the end of today’s proceedings we will have made great progress on this Bill, with proper and legitimate scrutiny.
It seems to me that the legitimate area of scrutiny in the amendments is about how far there are guidelines for the Boundary Commission to follow or how far we have prescriptive rules which it must follow. I see the merits of the case for either strict rules or for guidelines, but there are strong and reasonable arguments about what level of discretion the Boundary Commission should have as it endeavours to equalise the size of the electorates for different constituencies. I see that as a reasonable argument to have.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is making a useful contribution and he is absolutely right: there is a choice for us in this House this afternoon about going down the guidelines route or the firm-rules route. If we went down the guidelines route, which has attractions, would the noble Lord be in favour of giving the Boundary Commission some hierarchy of guidelines so that, for example, when the issue of community feeling or of ward boundaries conflicted with the numerical targets which are being imposed—the 5 per cent rule, for example—it would give the former priority and not the latter?
Introducing a specific hierarchy of priorities is rather more problematic than the noble Lord might think. One problem would be that if you try to prescribe exactly in which order the commission must take into account different factors, you open up the Boundary Commission process to legal challenges down the road, which would cause greater uncertainty, including to Members in another place, about the eventual outcome. It seems to me that for flexibility in the different criteria that the Boundary Commission has to follow, it is better to say, “in general, in so far as it sees fit”. When it sees fit how to take into account those different criteria, we should address in this House how much flexibility it may have in trying to equalise the electorates.
I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him so early in his interesting contribution. I draw his attention to the review from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place that the overall problem is the 5 per cent leeway one way or the other. If that could be looked at, some of the other matters that the noble Lord correctly raises could be properly considered.
I am saying very carefully that I think that there are good arguments for looking at the degree of variation that there might be between the electorates of different constituencies. When, some months ago and before the general election, a proposal was on the table to recreate constituency boundaries with only a 2.5 per cent margin between electorates, I thought that that was far too narrow and tight. The Bill currently proposes a 5 per cent variation. I am simply saying at this stage that I think there are legitimate arguments for discussing the variation that we might have, and that those are stronger arguments to have than to say that we should have hard and fast rules about never crossing county boundaries, district council boundaries or ward boundaries.
I speak, of course, as a former party agent and party organiser. From my point of view, it was much more convenient if all the wards were within a constituency; that makes it easier for the parties. I believe that, by and large, that should be the case. Indeed, amendments that we will consider later in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler flag up specifically to the boundary commissions the importance of ward boundaries, but we do not suggest that they should never be crossed. The reason that I think that they can never be crossed is that there is still the overarching principle in the Bill of more equal sized electorates. By and large, it is possible to achieve more equal sized electorates without crossing ward boundaries. Where they are crossed, that should be very rare. I hope that we do not cross county boundaries, district boundaries or London boroughs more than is really necessary.
The noble Lord is emphasising the need to take greater notice of the 5 per cent or 10 per cent argument than of the issue of crossing boundaries. In the light of the debate that took place in Westminster Hall, called and supported by Liberal Democrat Members, a debate on parliamentary representation called by Andrew George which the noble Lord will know of, it is clear that lots of Liberal Democrat MPs want flexibility towards the 10 per cent figure. Could the noble Lord go a little further and express support for that principle here in the Chamber now? That would help the debate on immeasurably.
The only principle I will express in this part of the debate is my overarching belief, shared by many noble Lords opposite, that constituencies should have roughly the same sized electorates, but in addressing the different balance of the arguments, there is in my view more merit in the case for saying that we should look at flexibility in the size of the electorates than for saying that we should try to treat each constituency, county or district as a special case. For example, I notice that an amendment has been tabled by a noble Lord opposite that Cumbria should be a special case. There is virtually no limit to the number of special cases that you could try to establish. My view in opposing the amendment is simply that there is more merit in the flexibility of the electorate argument than there is in saying that you should never cross the ward, the district or the county boundaries. Counties vary enormously in size, and the electorates can rise or fall rapidly, so it is not proper to say that you could never cross the county boundary, but I hope that it will not happen too often.
I wish to conclude my argument and will not take further interventions. I think that we should make more progress on the Bill, and I will conclude my argument rapidly by saying that in relation to wards it is of course of general convenience for elected representatives and constituents if ward boundaries are not crossed, but we now have ward boundaries in parts of the country—Birmingham, for example—that are very large. There are more than 20,000 electors in a typical Birmingham ward. In Scotland, where we now have an STV system for local elections—thanks to the Scottish Parliament and supported by three of the four main parties in Scotland—we have larger wards than previously.
In my view, it would not be possible to have a roughly arithmetic equalisation procedure and never cross ward boundaries. In some cases—I will conclude on this point—there may be a dilemma for the Boundary Commission. For example, it may want to consider, “Do we want to keep Birmingham whole and not cross the Birmingham city boundary, or do we cross some of the ward boundaries?”. My personal preference might be to say that it would be better for representation and good governance to keep Birmingham whole and cross the ward boundaries. For those reasons, I do not support the amendments.
I shall follow directly on from what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, and I shall be extremely brief, so my noble friend will not be kept waiting long. In one way, I shall go further than the noble Lord did and say that many of the principles incorporated in the amendments are already present in the Bill in the rules under Clause 11. For example, it states, more explicitly than the present rules, that
“local government boundaries as they exist”,
on the most recent council elections, should be a special factor that the Boundary Commission can take into account. It states that a special factor that the Boundary Commission can take into account is local ties. County boundaries, as we know, most famously in the case of Cornwall, are exactly the sort of local tie that it can take explicit regard of. So those principles are in the Bill. The trouble is that they do not amount to a row of beans because of the 5 per cent limit. That is the problem. Otherwise we would not face this difficulty.
The impression seems to be given by Members opposite that somehow the existing situation is that a constituency never crosses a county boundary. That is of course not true. In the historic case of Lancashire and Yorkshire—I can think of no part of the country where counties have a more historic rivalry—the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth crosses the county boundary.
I cannot think what it was in my remarks—because no doubt the noble Lord intervened on me seeking clarification—which contravened what he just said. When he makes his speech in a minute, no doubt he will be able to develop his point, but I do not think that it arises from my remarks to the House, with great respect.
Before my noble friend moves on, I put to him the point that I sought to put to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, but he declined it. The House of Commons committee to which I referred states that,
“many more constituencies than at present would cross local authority boundaries”.
It is referring, as my noble friend implies, to the 5 per cent limit.
I am not in favour of any absolutes—that is my point—but I am in favour of greater flexibility, which would enable most of the principles in the amendments to be respected. Perhaps I may take an example that came up earlier. Under the Bill, of the 46 counties of England, in only nine cases can the boundaries be respected. How does that reflect reality? However, if we had a different rule—a 10 per cent rule, for example—those boundaries could be respected in all but two cases, and these specific exceptions would not need to be brought into effect. Of course I give way to my noble friend.
Perhaps I may take my noble friend back to the very interesting and constructive contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I am being very serious when I say that because what he suggested might, in some ways, influence any negotiations that take place. He placed greater emphasis on the numerical calculation than on the area of the amendment with which we are dealing. I ask my noble friend to press the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, perhaps to intervene more, not only on the Floor of the House but with his colleagues, because that is the way forward on the Bill.
I have probably known the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, even longer than I have known my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, and no one has ever accused him of being as ineffective behind the scenes as he is effective on the public stage. I rose immediately after he spoke in order to agree with him and to show that here we are finding common ground, which is desirable for the conduct of the negotiations that are now to take place and will help the Committee out of the current impasse, so accurately described earlier in our proceedings by the Leader of the House.
My Lords, once upon a time there was a place known as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield, just to the north of Birmingham. In the local government boundary changes under the 1970-74 Tory Government, it was added to Birmingham in 1974. The external boundaries of Sutton Coldfield have remained exactly the same but it has simply been added to the north of Birmingham. I declare an interest, as part of the northern boundary was part of my old constituency of Perry Barr. Earlier today I bumped into the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who thanked his noble friends for the support that he got last week, and we had a chat about our joint boundary, which was always a bit of a bone of contention come the Boundary Commission review.
In my 27 years as an MP I think there were two parliamentary boundary changes and probably three local authority ward changes, but this boundary remained exactly the same. I have just looked at a map again because it is a few years since I represented the area. The historical boundary of the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield was built almost on the watershed but was gradually developed. When you look at a map of the area, you say to yourself, “What’s that dotted line that goes across the back gardens and up the alleyways and at one point splits a cul de sac in half?”. This is an urban constituency, and this boundary happens to form the line between the B73 and B44 postcodes. There is no question but that in parts of the country postcodes affect property values. It has already been mentioned, including by me, that wards are building blocks, and the average ward throughout England has about 1,400 constituents. Some of them are really tiny but the average ward in London has about 6,000 constituents. However, once you get out into less populated areas, the wards are tiny. As building blocks they are great because you can add in 100 here or 200 there in order to make the boundaries come right. However, when you have a ward of 18,000, 19,000 or, in some cases such as the old Sutton wards, more than 20,000 constituents, what do you do?
I do not wholly agree with all the amendments, for reasons that I shall explain, but it is self-evident that unless the Bill is changed the Boundary Commission will have to ignore the historical boundary and put Banners Gate Road, George Frederick Road, Longmoor Road, Greenway Drive and Elizabeth Road, which currently fall within the B73 postcode, in Sutton Coldfield, with the nearby ward of Kingstanding, which was named after the abortive attempt of King Charles II to make a stand in the area. There must be similar examples around the country. This is not the county boundary or even the district boundary; it is a ward boundary, but the wards are the building blocks. I have said that there should be more equality with the constituencies, and for that you have to split wards when you have wards this big. I see no alternative.
I always thought that, when Armageddon came for the Tories, they would be left with Huntingdon and Sutton Coldfield. The only threat to them in Sutton Coldfield comes from some of my former friends who are Liberal Democrats. I do not think that they will take it very kindly when I point out—as I shall do if there is no give and take on the Bill—that intransigence over the Bill will result in all those people within the B73 postcode voting in the Kingstanding ward, and no amount of Lib Dem leaflets will be able to correct the situation with which they will be faced. That is a serious point.
I want to raise another point, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. When you have big urban areas, particularly the metropolitan boroughs, of which Birmingham is one, you are faced with a choice. Going over the boundary from a metropolitan borough into a bit of a district in, say, Staffordshire is pretty significant for the MP. It is not like crossing London borough boundaries, where there are local authorities of equality, if I may put it like that, and similar services. There is no comparison between the district councils in north Staffordshire and the unitary authority of the city of Birmingham. Therefore, the Boundary Commission will be left with a dilemma unless it gets more guidance. Does it retain the existing boundary of the external areas of Birmingham, which includes Sutton Coldfield, and then split the wards, with all that that signifies—I see no alternative; wards have been split in the past—or does it let the external boundary go and give the MP some part of the metropolitan borough of Birmingham along with adjoining district councils? That is a pretty significant decision, and I am not sure whether it should be left to the Boundary Commission.
Because of the rigidity of the Bill with the figure of 5 per cent, you get too wide a spread. I fully accept that that 5 per cent can go either way, and I would not want 10 per cent to be the norm because that is where abuse would come in. You have to have some kind of constraint in this, but partly releasing the rigidity does not mean a free-for-all elsewhere, and I think that that is probably where part of the impasse has come about in this respect. However, I do not think that there is any choice in the matter.
The situation is different in different parts of England simply because of the nature of the counties and the small districts. However, with the metropolitan counties, the situation is completely different. They all have fairly large wards, although nothing on the scale of the city of Birmingham. I cannot see a way around this. I have no personal hang-up about crossing a county boundary, but that is because I had no experience of representing the shires. Saying that will probably be anathema to some, but I would far rather cross the county boundary than deprive the county of half an MP, because that will be the reality. If you get to 5.45 per cent, you will end up with five MPs and will have lost half an MP because you cannot make up the other half by joining someone else. I should mention that it is government policy—and it was the policy of the previous Government as well—to get local authorities to provide services, such as social services, jointly, whether they are districts in the same county or another county. Environmental health is a classic case of where districts join together and have common services. The boundaries are irrelevant to the services that are provided to the people. It can be done and we know that it can be very practical, so I have no real hang-up about it. I do not think that it should be the norm but I would rather do that than deprive people of, say, up to half a Member of Parliament. I can recall the situation before I was first elected—
For a very long time, my noble friend represented a constituency that was essentially in the centre of Birmingham, apart from the period that he was talking about: when it was adjacent to Sutton Coldfield, which by that time had itself become part of Birmingham. He might feel differently about his lack of objection to cross-county boundaries if he was trying, for example, to represent part of the city of Birmingham and a bit of Worcestershire or part of the city of Birmingham and a bit of Staffordshire or Warwickshire. I think he would find that an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. That really is one of the main reasons why, for all the rough justice involved in some of the judgments that Boundary Commissions have had to make in the past, trying to abide by local authority boundaries is a common-sense thing to do, both for the MP and more importantly for the people whom that MP represents.
I fully accept that, and that was made clear in one of my previous speeches: that the local authority might be reluctant, if some issue comes up that transcends the boundaries, to get their MPs up to speed and briefed to lobby and kick in doors in Whitehall to put their case. At the same time they are thinking, “Hang on, that MP represents part of the area that we are a bit negative about, and complaining about”. So there could be an issue here—whether it is a new air field or another infrastructure issue—that crosses boundaries; I fully accept that. On the other hand, I accept there should not be a massive disparity between sizes of constituencies. The point is that there is no easy answer to this. This Bill provides an easy answer because of its rigidity, but because of that it is unfair.
The issue of the 10 per cent is important, but the other point is that, if the Bill is allowed to go through without any sort of compromise, the only discussion of these issues is actually here. Those discussions will not be held in public inquiries because the citizens of this country are being denied the right to go to a public inquiry to make the points, some of which I have alluded to and some which others have. That is the problem; if only there could at least be that safety valve so that some of these issues could be vented at a constrained public inquiry. I am not in favour of sending people from London around the country because that becomes open-ended. There could be a public inquiry on any constituency changes in a maximum of 15 working days—three weeks; I guarantee that that could be done. You put the constraints in place, limit the political parties so it cannot be abused, bring in genuine citizens and other bodies, including business and the church, and you could do it, but you have to have that safety valve, otherwise the pent-up difficulties that will arise at the next election will be on the heads of the Liberal Democrats.
I do not live in Birmingham; I live in a shire area and I am not proposing that we cross the Shropshire border boundaries because I would be in a spot of bother there. I have found it remarkable that, in the past six months, watching stuff go through my door in Ludlow from the Lib Dems, I have yet to see a single leaflet that hints that they are in coalition with the Tories in central government. It is disingenuous and unbelievable. As it hots up towards the election and the boundary issue comes up, these things will come back. I would rather that that did not happen, by the way. I would rather we get this right. I do not seek any advantage in this; I think there is a good case, as the Leader said this afternoon. I heard the word “concession”, and I make no bones about that; there are concessions to be made. Let us get it out into the open so that we know where we are—the sooner the better, because I want progress on this. I repeat, having proposed the amendment that would in effect have given flexibility on the date for the referendum, that there is no problem with the referendum being held on 5 May. My amendment would not have stopped that; all it would have done was give the Government a backstop if things went wrong. Little did I know when I said that back in late November or early December that we would still be in Committee at the end of January.
We do need to make progress, and we need that safety valve so that the only debate on constituency changes, splitting wards and crossing boundaries is not held in the unelected part of our Parliament. That is barmy when you think about it. All we are asking is that the people get the opportunity, when the changes are proposed for their area, at least to come forward and say, “I agree”, “I disagree”, “We have been trying to do this for years”, or “Thank heaven we are getting some changes”—at least to have the chance to say so themselves and for it not just to be left here.
I intervene only following the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I am interested in the common ground to which the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams of Crosby and Lady D’Souza, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, referred last week. They all sought that middle ground that we expect to arise out of the negotiations that will inevitably have to be held. Much of our debate on these amendments could be avoided if the Government were to concede on the principle of the 5 per cent—if they were to accept the 10 per cent for which my noble friend asked or some flexibility above 5 per cent whereby some areas would apply a 5 per cent arrangement as against others that would apply a 10 per cent arrangement. Only by that kind of flexibility do we move away from the arguments that are being deployed during this debate. It is a straitjacket. My noble friend Lord Grocott referred to rough justice. It is rough justice that arises only out of a straitjacket that the Government have sought to introduce.
I would like to know—some work must have been done in government—how many county boundaries would be breached with a 5 per cent flexibility as against a 10 per cent one. If that margin is substantial, surely that is an argument in favour of a 10 per cent flexibility. That question applies to how many London and metropolitan district council boundaries are to be breached. The difference between a 5 per cent straitjacket and a 10 per cent one applies equally to the question of whether wards would be split within individual constituencies. Surely Ministers must be beginning to accept this following the intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, today. She was absolutely blunt and said basically that we should move from the 5 per cent. Let us hope that in his winding-up speech to this debate, the Minister will signal to us that the Government are prepared to look at that particular issue, because I am sure it would help to move this Bill along.
My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on interesting subjects, and we look forward to hearing the Minister respond. The principle behind this group of amendments matches that which motivates the next amendment, Amendment 71A, in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. The stringency of the Government’s proposals as we see it—the inflexibility of the rules set out in the Bill, the strict adherence to a tight mathematical formula and the lack of discretion given to the boundary commissioners in carrying out their work—will have damaging effects on our system.
The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House reported on the proposed equalisation of constituencies in this Bill, and wrote:
“Applying the new rules as to equalisation will necessitate the creation of constituencies crossing regional and county boundaries; in addition, many more constituencies than at present will cross local authority boundaries. This has significant administrative and political consequences, in terms of such matters as electoral administration and party political organisation. The pace of change is unlikely to lessen such administrative and political challenges and, indeed, seems likely to make them more difficult to manage”.
It went on:
“The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee heard evidence from Democratic Audit that the new rules as to equalisation were being imposed ‘without any attempt to form a consensus’ and without the Government having first investigated what people actually want from representation. There did not appear to be any evidence that the electorate considers equalisation to be significantly more important than, say, geographical, customary or traditional boundaries”.
The committee concluded:
“Pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation would have enabled a better assessment of whether the new rules as to equalisation are overly rigid”.
It has come to be expected that those of your Lordships’ colleagues who sit on that committee—and I remind this Committee that they come from all parts of the House—are always entirely wise and sensible in their assessment. We certainly think so.
The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that it is the Government’s intention to retain wards as the building blocks of the new constituencies. In Select Committee evidence, the Deputy Prime Minister said,
“we consulted with the boundary commissioners in great detail and they were unambiguous. We set the figure at 5 per cent because they said: ‘If you set it at any less than 5 per cent, we will not be able to use ward boundaries as the building blocks for our boundary review, and if you want us to do it by’—I forget the exact date—‘October or December 2013, we must be able to use wards as the continued building blocks of constituency boundaries. We can do that to within 5 per cent on either side of the threshold’”.
The very same Boundary Commissions have also said—I am afraid in contradiction to what the right honourable Deputy Prime Minister asserted:
“The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries ... The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases”.
It may be that those two conclusions can be put together or that the Government feel a bit aggrieved at having received incorrect advice, but these two pieces of evidence cannot hide the fact that, on taking more time to assess the implication of the Government’s plans, the Boundary Commissions have been forced to change their assessment. The fact is that their belief is that wards will be split, and the notable academic, Professor Ron Johnston, agrees.
Why does this matter and how much does it matter? As has been said during the course of the debate, wards are the building blocks of our constituency map and have been regarded as such for a very long time indeed. They, of course, vary in size across the United Kingdom—my noble friend Lord Rooker said that a few minutes ago—most starkly between urban centres such as Birmingham, which has always had large wards, and rural villages. Wards form the basis of community representation. Local councillors represent particular wards and clusters of wards are joined together to make up parliamentary seats. Local political parties and the key grass-root activity of leafleting are organised at ward level. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made it clear in his speech that wards have advantages for, among others, political parties fighting elections.
The problem is that the proposals contained in the Bill paint a fragmented and disjointed picture of representation. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made an interesting comment about the present seat of Oldham and Saddleworth. Having visited it only briefly, I do not want to sound as though I am some expert on it, but the noble Lord is quite right: it contains remarkably different elements of the make-up of our country. The truth is that, apart from now having a remarkably good Member of Parliament, it also has a very strange mixture of the country within its confines. If this Bill were to become law, we would have many more seats such as Oldham and Saddleworth than we do at the moment because of the iron rule of numbers. In my view, that would be a pity. It is not an appropriate type of seat for this country. It is fine if we have one or two such seats, but to have many Oldham and Saddleworths would cause more difficulties than not.
As far as these amendments are concerned, we on the Front Bench prefer the factors to guide boundary redrawing contained in our Amendment 71A, but we believe that these amendments are sensible and warrant—and I am sure will get—a proper response from the Minister.
Can my noble friend or the Minister tell me whether the sort of flexibility that the Leader of the House referred to today would allow margins of flexibility on the final number—that keeps reminding me of a book in which the answer is 42—so that it would then be easier to have regard to local differences? I think my noble friend Lord Rooker, whom I respect enormously and have worked with for years, may be able to take a slightly more laid-back view on this issue than, for example, a Minister were he or she to dare to go to the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
My Lords, Amendments 68 to 71 specify more explicitly the way in which the Boundary Commissions are to draw up new constituency boundaries and take some discretion away from the Boundary Commissions. They provide that constituency boundaries must be contained within existing county boundaries and must not split local government wards and propose limits on the number of local authority areas that constituencies can cross. With the exception of Amendment 69 on wards, they appear to be directed at English local government structure only. I am not sure whether that was the intention or whether they were intended to apply to other parts of the United Kingdom as well, but I am not going to nitpick over that because in moving the amendment the noble Lord, Lord Snape, indicated that they were important and that has been reflected in the debate that we have had.
The Bill provides for the Boundary Commission to take into account local government boundaries within the range of flexibility provided by the Bill. Projections indicate that with that flexibility it would be possible to have constituencies varying from 72,000 to 79,000 electors. The Bill’s provisions represent a rebalancing of the rules in existing legislation; namely, the equality in the weight of a vote and the flexibility to recognise local factors. We believe that the existing legislation results in unclear and potentially contradictory sets of rules. Indeed, the Boundary Commission for England has said that each rule taken on its own is quite clear but it is required to apply all the rules and its experience, and that of its predecessors, is that there is often conflict between them.
What is proposed in the Bill with regard to Rules 2 and 4 is to have a hierarchy, as was said in one of the exchanges. It is because of this rebalancing that we have given precedence to the size of electorate and the geographical area of each constituency over other factors in Rule 5, such as local government boundaries. I believe these other factors are important, and that is why we have provided the Boundary Commissions with the flexibility to consider them. I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, that it is possible for the Boundary Commission to have regard to local ties. The Boundary Commissions have regard within a 10 per cent band of the UK electorate quota between the largest and smallest constituency. We believe that the provisions of the Bill represent a reasonable balance between these factors and ensure a system where votes have equal value throughout the United Kingdom.
In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, there is nothing in the Bill or in the Boundary Commission rules at the moment to move individual electors from one local authority area to another. But as is the case at the moment, some constituencies cross London borough boundaries. In fact, 19 out of 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by a constituency boundary. That does not transfer the individual elector within that local authority area.
I may not have been clear. I was referring to a situation where a council estate was owned by one local authority and part of that council estate was in a different parliamentary constituency and borough. It was an anomaly in terms of both borough and parliamentary boundaries.
I am grateful for that clarification. As I indicated, under the existing rules, 19 out of 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by a constituency boundary. My noble friend Lord Eccles also reflected on the fact that boundaries are crossed under the existing rules. My information is that 16 out of 35 shire counties are crossed by a constituency boundary and 31 out of 40 unitary boundaries. In its fifth report the Boundary Commission noted that in the fourth review, 13 constituencies crossed metropolitan district boundaries whereas in the review which took effect in 2010, 22 constituencies did so. And whereas in the previous review 170 constituencies had crossed non-metropolitan district boundaries, the recommendations for the fifth review included 165 which did so.
In Scotland, where I accept there are other issues with regard to wards because of the multi-Member nature of the local authority wards, there is one constituency—that of my honourable friend Mr Mundell, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Scotland Office—which covers parts of three council areas. His constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale covers the council areas of Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders and South Lanarkshire. This is an important point. My noble friend Lord Naseby mentioned the fact that he had at one stage represented three local authority areas.
I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is not in his place. I should have asked him at the time. The three he mentioned would have been two district councils and Northampton county council, which overrode both the two district councils. So it would not be three separate district councils—it would be a county council and district councils within the same county, as far as I know Northampton.
I defer to the noble Lord’s superior knowledge of the English local government system. In the case of Mr Mundell, it is three unitary council areas. The constituency which I used to have the privilege to represent in Shetland is one of those preserved by this Bill and it had two local authority areas within it.
I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, about the relationship which individual Members of Parliament have with their local authorities. There are numerous cases where Members of Parliament represent more than one local authority area. No one is suggesting that any of those who fall into that category do not do their job on behalf of their constituents as well as those MPs who only have only one local authority within their constituency. I note in passing that Mr Mundell increased his majority at the 2010 election by 1.9 per cent. Without causing any difficulties with my coalition partners, that, for a Scottish Conservative in the 2010 election, was quite an achievement.
It is important, too, to look at this from the perspective of the elector. With regard to “one vote, one value”, the electors are only in one local government area with one Member of Parliament. We should not necessarily be looking to the administrative convenience of Members of Parliament at the expense of the value of votes for the individual elector.
An important point has been made in this debate about wards. Numerous contributors—the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Rooker, my noble friend Lord Rennard, and others—have emphasised the importance of wards. I am grateful to those who tabled these amendments for raising this issue. The Government recognise that wards can be useful building blocks for constituencies, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, noted when he quoted the evidence to the Constitution Committee of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, to ensure the fairest constituencies possible, it is inevitable that even ward boundaries may have to be crossed on some occasions. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Rennard illustrated the different size of wards in Birmingham compared to many other parts of England. We believe these details should be a matter for the Boundary Commissions, which may use the wards if they see fit. The Bill does nothing to stop them doing that. In fact, the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed that the provisions of the Bill make it possible for wards to be used as a building block for constituencies in most, if not all, cases in England.
I would be very grateful if the Minister could give the House his response to the following observation made by Dr Lewis Baston in Democratic Audit: January 2011 on this issue of the splitting of wards:
“It is probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards between constituencies, something which the Boundary Commissions currently avoid doing because of the potential for voter confusion and highly artificial constituency boundaries, not to mention causing headaches for the organisation of all political parties. … The worst-affected areas are those where wards have large electorates, such as the English metropolitan boroughs, most of Scotland and some unitary authorities and London boroughs. A rigid 10 per cent rule might still involve a few isolated cases of ward-splitting, but it is likely to be very uncommon in comparison with a 5 per cent rule”.
Is there not a lot of very good sense in that?
As my noble friend Lord Rennard said, there is no limit to the number of special cases. If we move without any other limitation to a 20 per cent band rather than a 10 per cent band, we are moving away from the basic principle of equal value. Broadly speaking, we have followed the provisions of the 1986 Act with regard to local authority boundaries, and while we are keen to avoid being too prescriptive on this issue, there may be some merit in placing a discretionary consideration of wards in the Bill. We certainly want to consider further the elements of these amendments that concern the use of wards. Other amendments have been tabled with regard to wards by the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, and my noble friends Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler. We want to consider, therefore, the use of wards and to bring back a fully considered response on that on Report since it is an important point. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Before the noble Lord sits down, will he recognise that there will be considerable pleasure in many parts of the House at what he has just said about the recognition of the importance of wards? On a first reading of this Bill, it looked rather strange that other criteria were mentioned in Clause 11(5), such as local authority boundaries and European constituencies, but there was no explicit mention of wards. What he has just said about considering making a specific mention will go a long way to reassuring a lot of people who are concerned with this point.
This has been an interesting debate. Fourteen noble Lords, including those on the Front Benches, have participated and I will ensure that my closing remarks guarantee that the debate is concluded in less than two hours. That gives the lie to those outside who say that none of this debate has been particularly relevant and that much of it, if not all of it, has been designed merely to hold up the Government’s legislation. That is not the case and I am sure that I speak for noble Lords on all sides of the House in thanking the Minister for the way in which he has just responded. If he could persuade his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to adopt the same emollient tone, we might have two nice Ministers responding. So far he has not been too successful, so he had better stay where he is to ensure that the mood of your Lordships’ House does not change.
I will refer in closing this debate to some of the contributions that have been made from both sides, all of which have been relevant. My noble friend Lord Kennedy gave us the benefit of his knowledge of Derbyshire, pointing out that it would be difficult to retain parliamentary seats in Derbyshire under the 5 per cent rule and that it might be necessary to cross county boundaries. He mentioned High Peak and Greater Manchester. There is some affinity between the two, in that many commuters travel between them, but that is about it; from a social and economic point of view, there is not a great deal to unite them. He also emphasised the importance of the names of seats.
My noble friend Lord Dubs correctly pointed out that there are anomalies under the present system, to which the Minister also referred. No one says that the present system is perfect—it cannot be—but I refer without quoting directly to the committee in the other place, which said that there would be a great many more anomalies unless we looked in detail particularly at the 5 per cent rule.
My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke reminded us of the importance of the relationship between elected Members. Although, to paraphrase what the Minister said, legislation should not necessarily be about the administrative convenience of Members of Parliament, it should not be about exacerbating the differences between them either. The greater the number of district councils involved on a particular issue, the greater the number of Members of Parliament. That is regardless of party. It has been known for Members of the other place of the same party to disagree about constituency matters. I know that such a thing would never occur among the Liberal Democrats, but I suspect that the Conservatives are a bit more like us and are more inclined occasionally to fall out.
My noble friend Lord Haworth referred to a particular constituency difficulty in London and spoke of giving evidence with some trepidation at a public inquiry. We are anxious to preserve the principle of public inquiries on boundary alterations. Any confrontation between him and Ivor Stanbrook QC would lead to only one winner—you do not need the letters QC after your name to be able to act as an advocate in such a way as I know that my noble friend does.
My noble friend Lord Bilston gave us the benefit of his 40 years of distinguished service at various levels in the Black Country. He quoted Omar Khayyam. I cannot compete with that. I suspect that the words that he quoted so movingly were not aimed at Boundary Commissions or boundary alterations, but they were certainly appropriate in the context of this debate. He reminded us of the long-standing feeling of hurt when electors are transferred from one district to another. In my former constituency in West Bromwich, we had some difficulty in 1974 in deciding the name of the new borough. Even now, 40 years on, the borough of Sandwell is not immediately recognised throughout the United Kingdom. You do not often hear the people who lived in the former authorities that formed the borough of Sandwell saying in response to a question as to where they live: “Well, actually, I live in Sandwell”. I was a fairly new Member of the other place when the borough was created. I was told that people in Smethwick, which formed part of that borough, having been transferred to the new constituency of Warley, which they did not particularly recognise, were certainly not going to have imposed on them the name West Bromwich, although that seemed to me as an outsider at the time to be the most sensible name for the new borough. I suspect that there will be many difficulties and arguments such as that unless the Government see sense on the 5 per cent deviation rule.
My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford at least provoked an intervention from the other side of the Chamber when he pointed out that none had been made until he got to his feet. He emphasised the importance of the ward structure, as, to be fair, did the Minister in his reply. One participant from the other side was the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who was rather more emollient on this occasion than he has sometimes been in the past in saying that there should be discussion rather than hard-and-fast rules. He rather skated over the fact that there will be many more such anomalies unless, I repeat, the 5 per cent deviation rule is eased. He implied, although he did not say so in as many words, that just a few more constituencies would cross local authority boundaries under the legislation. That was not the view of the committee in the other place or of organisations that wish to defend the integrity of counties such as Cornwall. I readily accede to the experience and knowledge of constituencies of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—it was until fairly recently impossible to conceive of a by-election taking place without a figure lurking in the background with a coy and retiring smile, which invariably belonged to the noble Lord—but I hope that he will recognise that, unless some changes are made to the Bill, the anomalies that have been raised on both sides of the Committee will be perpetuated. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Lipsey put his finger on the matter in his brief intervention, saying that under the legislation only nine out of 46 counties would have their boundaries respected. That is an anomaly; it is a significant change, which the Government should look at.
My noble friend Lord Rooker entertained us with stories about Sutton Coldfield joining Birmingham. Unfortunately, the former Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was not present, otherwise we might have seen a discussion, if not a minor spat, between the two of them. My noble friend and I were referred to by the British press in the context of some of the debates last week as a couple of ageing lefties. I suppose that we ought to be suitably grateful that, for once, the British press got something half right. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said that we have to move on the 5 per cent deviation rule, as did my noble friend on the Front Bench, who said that constituencies would otherwise become fragmented and disjointed.
I was grateful for the tenor in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, responded. These are matters to which we shall have to return on Report, as he said. Given that, and the amiable nature of the debate—and the fact that no time has been wasted—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 68 withdrawn.
Amendments 69 to 71 not moved.
71A: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 31 to 33 and insert—
“(2) In England—
(a) each constituency shall be wholly in one of the electoral regions specified in Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002;(b) no district or borough ward shall be included in more than one constituency;(c) the Boundary Commission should, where practicable, have regard to the boundaries of counties and London boroughs and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs.(3) In Northern Ireland, no local authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency.
(4) In Wales—
(a) no unitary authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;(b) the Boundary Commission should, where practicable, have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities, and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.(5) In Scotland, regard shall be had to local authority ward boundaries.”
My Lords, the amendment would insert a number of additional factors for the Boundary Commissions to take into account when drawing constituencies in the four parts of the United Kingdom. It in effect represents the opposition Front Bench’s conclusions in relation to the issues discussed under the previous group of amendments.
At present, the new rules for drawing constituency boundaries proposed by the Bill are dominated by the overriding requirement for every constituency, with a few exceptions, to fall within the margins of 5 per cent either side of a new UK-wide electoral quota. The intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in relation to the 5 per cent/10 per cent issue was interesting and instructive, and I strongly recommend that noble Lords read it tomorrow.
Although Rule 5 in Clause 11 lists a number of further factors which the Boundary Commissions may also take into account when drawing constituencies, they are subordinate to the numerical prerequisite. In practice, that means, as we have just discussed, that the Boundary Commissions have very limited scope to take proper account of those other considerations. The only general rule that sits above the iron law of the electoral quota is the stipulation that each constituency shall be wholly within one of the four parts of the United Kingdom. That at least is recognition of the fact that there are certain political and administrative boundaries which it would be unwise to cross in pursuit of mathematical equality. We believe that that recognition does not go far enough and that the Bill should allow for greater sensitivity and flexibility when it comes to dealing with the administrative units within, as well as between, the four parts of the United Kingdom.
Your Lordships heard in the previous debate that the Government’s intention in crafting these proposed new rules in their current form is to attain as great an electoral equality between seats as possible without splitting wards, which are the building blocks of parliamentary constituencies. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as was quoted earlier, expressed that view in oral evidence to our Constitution Committee and on the Floor of the other place when he was being asked Questions in his Question Time. We have also heard that the Bill will fail to deliver the objective that the Deputy Prime Minister has named—that wards should be the building blocks. Independent electoral experts and the heads of the four Boundary Commissions have all made it clear that to meet the proposed numerical target, individual wards will almost certainly need to be divided. Noble Lords heard the quote from the four heads of the Boundary Commissions.
As the conclusion of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place has already been quoted I shall quote only the last sentence:
“The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases”.
That would be a major change to the established pattern of political representation in England in particular, where at present no wards are divided between constituencies. The secretaries of the four Boundary Commissions also told the Select Committee:
“The electoral parity target will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries. Early modelling suggests that in Scotland between 15 and 20 constituencies (of 50), and in Wales between 23 and 28 constituencies (of 30), would cross a local authority boundary”.
They also said that,
“the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies”.
The Government have been generally dismissive when concerns about split wards and crossed local authority boundaries were raised in the other place. They said that people would not care if their ward was split between different parliamentary seats and that it did not matter if council borders were crossed. I am absolutely sure that nobody is talking about this at the moment; it is not an issue that has grasped the public. But that does not mean that people would not notice the change or that it would not have negative consequences once the change arose. Split wards would give rise to confusion, at least among members of the public who live in them, with their MP being in one place and their councillor in another. Including parts of two or three local authority districts in a single parliamentary constituency would surely make life more difficult for a Member of Parliament and undermine the service that he or she is able to provide to constituents, as my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, recounted to the House last week. This was the point that psephologist Professor Ron Johnston emphasised to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee when it took evidence on the Bill. He said:
“The issue is whether it is important particularly for administrators and for parties and MPs, and I am sure it is, because the fewer local authorities you have to deal with the better”.
He said that a rule contained in the Bill referring to England,
“only includes some of the types of local authorities. It has gone back to the old wording of the previous Bill and only the boundaries of counties and London boroughs shall be taken regard of. Why not take regard of the unitary authorities as well? Why not take regard of the metropolitan boroughs or principal authorities? It seems to me that the Bill is deficient there and I wonder if that clause was not written in haste simply taking something from a previous Bill and it would be better to reconsider that. Wherever possible give an MP as few local authorities to deal with as possible”.
These administrative confusions would also create significant problems for political parties at a structural level, especially in the case of the Conservative and Labour parties, which are organised on a constituency and ward basis. Professor Johnston informed the Select Committee that one academic study had shown that,
“when a ward was split a lot of the ward activists drifted away. They had lost their rationale to represent this place, this place no longer existed, it was in two parts and political activity declined”.
I do not think that this is what any of us wish to see. The overall stated purpose of these Bills is to revive trust in politics, not reduce interest in politics. As it stands, this Bill is not a formula for increasing political activism and public engagement; it appears to be a recipe for undermining it. An aspect of the Bill that has not come under enough attention is the extent to which political parties at grass-roots level will be undermined by the boundary reforms set to be unleashed by these new rules. In particular, the requirement to have boundary reviews on the basis of the inflexible new rules every Parliament will produce much greater disruption than we have been used to. To quote the secretaries to the Boundary Commissions—I promise for the final time:
“Strict electoral parity, and a fixed total number of constituencies, will result in frequent constituency redesign”.
That will mean very great organisational challenges for local party machines which, in the end, are run by volunteers. Something that we may have learnt over the 13 years in government was that reorganisations of state providers meant that there was a focus on the reorganisation and not a focus on the provision of the central purpose of those organisations.
Amendment 71A is aimed at providing some solidity to the boundary review process—a better balance to the process for drawing constituencies, and a greater understanding about the potentially damaging knock-on effect of the rigidly mathematical framework to which the Government currently adhere—but does it in such a way as to accept the principle that there needs to be much greater mathematical consistency between constituencies. The Bill is right to stipulate that parliamentary constituencies should not cross national borders, and we do not propose to touch that rule, but we do propose to bolster it with a further rule that says that constituencies should not cross the electoral regions relating to the European Parliament. The Bill itself suggests that the Boundary Commission should take those regions into account. We would go a bit further, in a sensible move that would give future boundary reviews a stable framework within which the processes could unfold.
The other elements of our amendment would provide a clearer requirement that administrative units and boundaries in the four parts of the United Kingdom, in particular the ward boundaries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, should be respected and given proper account when parliamentary constituencies are being created. I very much hope that the Government will treat these amendments in the spirit in which they are addressed—namely, recognising the need for greater numerical equality but, equally, trying to build on the importance of communities and to ensure that political activism and focus is on the things that really matter to the people that politicians are supposed to serve.
I congratulate my noble and learned friend. His amendment has achieved a very elegant solution to the problem that we were concerned with under the last amendment, and it is a very important step forward. If this amendment were passed, would he agree that we would still need to look very carefully at the 5 per cent rule and replace it with the 10 per cent rule? If that were not done, the Boundary Commission could not have regard to the criteria that my noble and learned friend rightly wants it to have regard to, because it would conflict with the very narrow 5 per cent rule?
I agree with the last point from my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford. Increasing the figure to 10 per cent would make it much easier as a matter of practicality to do what the amendment would do, and the independent research that has been done by bodies such as Democratic Audit also suggests that that 10 per cent flexibility does not lead to unacceptable differences between constituencies that might be said to favour one party over another. We can achieve the purpose that the coalition sought to achieve and preserve communities in a way that most contributes to effective political activity.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who will be replying to this because he is completely alone on the Front Bench out of the team dealing with this, takes the amendment in the spirit in which it is offered and gives us a favourable response.
My Lords, I want to make a brief intervention, encouraged by the very positive response from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to the previous debate. We are talking about very much the same subject here. I make this intervention on one issue only: the question of political party organisation. This is, perhaps, a direct plea to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who I know is an expert on this. I think that he told us on one occasion that he became secretary of his local ward party at the age of seven. He has moved onwards and upwards ever since.
When we are talking about trying to get boundaries as coterminous as possible, we are not just talking about community cohesion—although that is important, as my noble and learned friend said—about trying to reduce the public’s confusion over who their elected representatives are or about keeping to a minimum the number of local authorities or health boards that MPs have to deal with. It is also vital in relation to political party organisations. Political parties are absolutely essential to democracy. When I go around in seminars organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I explain to new democracies in eastern Europe and north Africa—I have been to Macedonia and to Egypt to talk about this—the importance of having active political parties with good organisation.
The experience in Scotland has been that, because in both Ayrshire and Edinburgh, the two areas that I know best from a constituency point of view, we have ended up having different boundaries for the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was lucky in this, because Orkney and Shetland have been given special treatment on so many occasions—great difficulties have been caused in terms of party organisation. It really has confused people and made things more difficult.
The kinds of things that are difficult are, for example, fundraising activities. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, political parties are run by volunteers. When you get them in, they are not paid in most cases, apart from national organisers, but they are the ones organising the coffee mornings. At this time of year, we should perhaps think as well of the Burns suppers that are taking place to raise money. There are Labour Party Burns suppers around the whole of Scotland at the moment. All those kinds of activities are much more difficult if you have different party structures. If you have to have a ward structure or a local liaison group for another party organisation, as we have in Scotland—we have a CLP and a regional party structure—it makes things very difficult. People can spend hour after hour organising just meetings and minutes for meetings. They are trying to get things organised within their party structures rather than doing the fundraising.
Parties should also be involved in political education. We should be having much more political education run by the parties, getting young people in and getting them to understand what democracy is about, as well as what our parties are doing. It is therefore vital that we should not strangle or snuff out this voluntary political activity by a complex overlapping of boundaries. That is why I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will be as sympathetic to the proposal in this amendment as he was to the previous one.
My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble and learned friend’s amendment is the best way to encapsulate the basic philosophy of this part of the Bill, as far as this side of the House is concerned. It has to be acknowledged that that philosophy is very different from the philosophy of the side opposite. However, the amendment is certainly an attempt to do what is, surely, consistent with our philosophy, which is that the best way of determining constituency boundaries is broadly to follow how it is done at present. That is to say that it should be on the basis of guidelines—and they are guidelines—within which a Boundary Commission, in public consultation with local people, determines what the boundaries should be. To me, that is a flexible way of determining boundaries while totally accepting that one of the key factors ought to be, as the Government keep insisting, having as close to equality as we sensibly can get in the electorate in each constituency. Essentially, however, it is a bottom-up system with flexibility.
I find all this pretty astonishing. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are, I acknowledge, in their different ways normally on the same rhetorical side, at least in these arguments, and say that they do not agree with top-down solutions. How many times have I heard that on other subjects, not least the health service at the moment? The Liberals pride themselves on localism. A great chunk of the coalition document is about the importance of localism and local communities.
“no district or borough ward shall be included in more than one constituency”?
In my book, that comes under the great heading of common sense. I recommend that to the Committee as being splendid. It is not exactly severely top-down and not nearly as top-down as what is in the Bill, where, irrespective of boundaries, the history of communities, mountain ranges or rivers—if we had any deserts, they would no doubt be subdivided into several constituencies—there is what I call a top-down solution, which aims simply at precise numerical conclusions.
There is no doubt about where I think the determinations of our boundaries should come from. It is precisely as I have described. However, an essential ingredient of it—we are not yet there in the Bill and I am certainly not going to talk about it now—is the crucial importance of local inquiries in which local people can participate. I have sat through nearly all our proceedings on the Bill and, as ever, my noble friend Lord Rooker has encapsulated why we are where we are. As he rightly said, it is the certain knowledge that we are not going to have these local inquiries that makes this Committee stage so important. This is the only point at which sensible local opinion can be expressed at a national level.
I am sure that some will correctly and energetically argue that the views of local people should be taken into account. I dare say that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will do so when we come to the debates on the county boundaries in Cornwall. Like everyone else in this House, I have been getting lots of e-mails and messages from people in Cornwall and there is almost an air of desperation in them. I was prompted to think that by the comment of my noble friend Lord Rooker— that this was essentially the local inquiry going on now, precisely because the people of Cornwall know perfectly well that, if we decide in Committee that county boundaries will be ignored, this will be their last chance to have anything sensible to say about that. To me, that is an indictment of the approach that the Government are taking, which is—I know that they will deny this and find ways of explaining it—essentially to end local community involvement within flexible rules, not within rigid rules, to determine local constituency boundaries. I plead for more flexibility.
I will not trespass too far on to other legislation, but when I thought about it I realised that this desire to make all the rough edges smooth, to apply a straitjacket to our constitution and to make it all work according to rigid rules seems to be an almost pervading view of the Government in a lot of the constitutional legislation that they are bringing forward. I do not know whether that goes right across government. In fairness, the Liberals have been quite consistent about this, but we are now saying that constituency boundaries should be very rigidly drawn and shortly we will be told the dates of all future general elections—presumably until the sun swallows up our planet. Every five years there will be a general election, come hell or high water, on a precise date. There will be no flexibility. I will not go into those arguments, but, my word, I will want to develop them when we reach the Bill about fixing the term of Parliaments.
I think that I am right in saying that the Liberal Democrats are very keen on us having a written constitution, which will lay all these things out and, of course, lead to the interpretation of the rules being adjudicated on by the courts. The beauty of a lot of our electoral and constitutional arrangements—this certainly applies to the drawing of constituency boundaries—is that they have been flexible. They apply the greatest principle that you can apply in any constitution, which is the principle of common sense. They allow for rough edges not to be smoothed out. This is particularly true in the case of the four nations that are the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. We all know that it is a slightly unusual arrangement, whereby one of the four countries totally dominates all the others numerically, but there are all sorts of accommodations, one of which we shall come to later, in respect of Wales, which is severely affected by the Bill.
I cannot write a constitutional doctrine explaining how the British constitution operates in relation to the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but I can say that it has worked pretty well, that people are pretty free within it and that they understand the system in which they operate. If there are a few anomalies here and there, so be it. I fear that what we are seeing in the Bill in relation to constituencies and constituency boundaries is yet another step along the road. I may be alone in this; I have been called a constitutional conservative by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who, sadly, is not here. If that means someone who believes in common sense in the operation of the constitution, then I plead guilty. My noble friend’s amendment passes the test of common sense for me. It allows flexibility locally and that is why I support it.
My Lords, I noticed that the Minister did not respond to the question that I asked him and my noble friend Lord Bach about whether the flexibility regarding numbers that has already been determined by your Lordships’ House, with the decision on the Isle of Wight, will be allowed to affect the number referred to by the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as “a nice, round figure”. It is important that we should know that when we are debating different views about the terms on which new constituency boundaries will be drawn.
I make the passing comment, in light of my experience in local government, that it is not only for MPs to be able to work with the local authorities in their area. My noble friend Lady Henig, who was on Lancashire County Council at the same time as I was, will recollect that there were many occasions when we sought to influence our Members of Parliament serving Lancashire. There could have been difficulties had the boundaries of those constituencies crossed county boundaries. On the whole, we had a good working relationship, to the point where, on one unique occasion, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman lobbied me to find a way around the ban by her right honourable friend the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on our giving children free school milk. That remains a unique memory for me. Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman was very concerned at that time about EU milk subsidies.
The sense of locality among political activists is important. There is a mistaken belief out there in the country that the political parties have thousands and thousands of political activists who ought to knock on their door every time there is an election. If we can do anything during the passage of the Bill to explain that it ain’t necessarily so, it would be a good thing. I remember knocking on the door of one Labour supporter in a county council election and being told, “I have been waiting 10 years for someone from the party to knock on my door”. I said, “That is because you, as a party supporter, are not out knocking on doors”. He said, “What do you mean?”. I said, “Tonight, there are about 18 people out”. This was in what was then the borough of Preston. The public will not understand the debate about the importance of place in terms of political activists, but your Lordships will, from experience.
The sense of place and of belonging is critical. In my experience, having lived in London, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire—I was born in Leicestershire—the sense of place in the major conurbations is less, particularly since the abolition of the GLC, although I found, when talking to schoolchildren there, that the sense of place of West Bromwich overrode the new title of Sandwell. The sense of place is critical in building political interest, activism and co-operation around a community, not only within the parties but between the parties. The sense of place matters and in that context, and because of my previous experience—this is a former interest—as leader of the Association of County Councils for England and Wales, I have to say that certain parts of the country, such as Wales and Lancashire, have a very strong sense of place.
My noble friend Lord Grocott made the point that this is the only opportunity to debate these issues, because the Bill deprives local communities of the opportunity to put their case. As somebody who has attended most of our proceedings on the Bill, I feel bitterly resentful that I am accused of filibustering for being here and debating this, when I would very much like to go home, because the Government have conceded that local people could do the job that we are attempting to do here. I am surprised, although I intend no discourtesy to the Minister, that the Liberal Democrats are giving up the opportunity that, in our experience, they have taken so often in the past to make a very full presentation at a public inquiry into constituency boundaries at local level. If we want an active democracy, people need to feel that they are part of the system that creates the constituencies and determines boundaries. The Bill is going in absolutely the opposite direction.
I shall sit down now, but I shall come back to this subject in other parts of the Bill. The Minister may go away and think that my speeches are not necessary, but he could stop them at any point by accepting that the people in the areas that I have referred to and lived in—Leicestershire, Lancashire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Wales and London—can make their own case, because this is not the place where that ought to be done.
I am tempted to enter this debate because the premise that the constituency is important has a slight flaw. Every constituency has a number of wards. I first became a councillor 50 years ago this year, and my experience is that the best discussions that I have taken part in have been with 10, 12 or 15 people in someone’s house. We did not masquerade; we were proud to say that we were a ward and we dealt with the issue. Every issue in a locality—a constituency—has a resonance in a part of the constituency, whether it is a road pattern, a development, a school or the closure or opening of something. The ward level is very important.
Having taken part in this debate and listened to colleagues, I congratulate them on bringing their experience here and on not being put off by the shaming fact that, as I detect, that experience is seen in some places as irrelevant. We have the opportunity here to remind the Minister—rub it into him, if you like, without being offensive—that there are people out in the field who will be affected by this.
The Minister and his colleagues have made great play of the big society and localism. However, in this Bill they are not paying attention at all; democracy grows and is stimulated by events and individuals. We could all in this Chamber look back on where we made a big move on to a council, into its leadership, into Parliament and so on, but it all stems back to a handful of people who represented the Labour Party, the Tory Party or the Liberal Democrat party, not in a big way but in a small way—and that is the way they want it. Those of us who have an ambition to serve at a higher level have the opportunity to do so, and everyone is here only because they have given service to their party in one way or another. Thousands of people serve the democratic principle from a very low base.
I say simply to Members opposite—I cannot say that I am replying to what they have said because I have not heard what they have said, except the Minister—that they ought to pay serious attention to the impact of the Bill at the local level if it is carried out, because it will damage our democracy.
We all struggle, not just within the Labour Party but in all parties, to maintain democracy. Issues come up that affect the constituency, and then you get local headlines and so on. So far as I am concerned, though, the Edmonton Labour Party that I served, and still have great connections with, has gone through a series of changes in its organisation. From having eight wards it is now down to four because of the change in the demographic profile of the constituency. It is that level, around someone’s table in someone’s house or in a back room, that I am talking about. Last Saturday I went along to the annual meeting of the Edmonton Co-operative Party, an organisation that is affiliated with the Labour Party. There were 20 people there, serious players in the political game. They might not pull many strings or be able to affect a lot, but there were 20 of them on a Saturday morning, from 11 o’clock to past 1 o’clock, who came along and were moved to discuss the issues that affected them.
I support the amendment. I hope the Minister is able to say something that will be helpful to the mover of the amendment, because unless there is a change to the policy of the parties opposite—in general, but particularly on the Bill—we are going to be worse off in the future than we have been in the past.
My Lords, every noble Lord who has so far spoken in this debate, and indeed in the debate on the previous group of amendments, has put forward the view that it is highly desirable that parliamentary constituencies are aligned as far as possible with local authority boundaries.
The only noble Lord who has demurred from that to any extent is the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. He did not deny that, all other things being equal, it would be desirable, but unfortunately he makes the factor of numerical equality between constituencies paramount. He therefore spoke of there being a conflict of factors with which the Boundary Commission is obliged to wrestle. I would not put it in those terms; I would say that there is a tension between a variety of legitimate factors—numerical equality, community, history, geography, and of course alignment with local authority boundaries. The Boundary Commission’s task is to do its best to reconcile those factors to arrive at a judgment that holds them in an appropriate balance, as my noble friend Lord Grocott stressed, in consultation with local people. The present system is a good one, and it seems reckless to upset it in this way.
Local authority areas, like constituencies, ought to contribute to defining and expressing people’s sense of their local community. That is a point that we have been arguing and no doubt will continue to argue in proceedings on the Bill. Unfortunately, they are too much discounted in the Bill. If members of the Government consider that questions of identity—people’s sense of who they are and where they belong—are negligible considerations in politics, I respectfully suggest that they are seriously mistaken. Indeed, any system of parliamentary representation that systematically discounts those emotions within our national life will not last. Supposing that the Government are successful in legislating to bring this into effect, the system of frequent boundary reviews, within the straitjacket of numerical equality that the Government are designing, might work once or even a second time, but I fancy that after the 2018 boundary review the people of this country will say, “This won’t do”. I very much doubt that the system will survive, should it be legislated, and we will do our best to persuade the Government that it is not, after all, a very good idea.
The Government ought to understand that themselves. As my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton just mentioned, the Government make much play of localism and the big society, but how can you seriously advocate the virtues of those things if at the same time you design your political structures to inhibit and distort localism and disregard people’s own sense of where they take their place within society?
If the Government think that these considerations are too sentimental or imprecise, I appeal to them at least to consider the practicalities of the working relationships between MPs and elected members of local authorities. My noble friend Lady Farrington wisely advised the Government to look at this from the point of view of local authorities. The reality is that local authorities take decisions overwhelmingly within a context of policy made by central government—of legislation and policy emanating from Whitehall and Westminster. Unfortunately, we have a highly centralised system of government in this country. Indeed, until we have radical decentralisation and greater autonomy for local government in this country, we will continue to need more MPs.
That is partly because so much policy-making and legislation comes from the two Houses of this Parliament; therefore you need an adequate number of Members of the other place to do justice to the policy-making and legislation. It is also partly because local authorities, rather than being free, as they ought to be, to get on and do their work on behalf of their local communities, must endlessly look to the centre for authorisation and make representations to the centre to see whether they can persuade officials and Ministers to modify their policies so that they make more sense for their local concerns. Key intermediaries in that process of frequent negotiation between local and central government are local Members of Parliament. It is therefore very important, in practical working terms, that Members of Parliament have a satisfactory operational relationship with their colleagues and counterparts in local authorities.
Equally, it is very important that elected members and officers of local authorities know to which Member of Parliament they should turn. It is better, therefore, if the constituency boundaries can be drawn so that whole local authorities are contained within them. Local authorities then know exactly which individual Member of Parliament they need to work with. The more MPs they have to deal with, the more confusing, expensive and time-wasting it is for people in local government. Equally, the more confusing and difficult it is for Members of Parliament to maintain the kind of working relationship that they need. Neither the local authority nor the Member of Parliament should need to duplicate, triplicate or otherwise multiply representations, meetings or the dialogue that they have with their colleagues at the other level of government.
A Member of Parliament should champion the place he represents. He or she can champion a local authority area if he or she has a clear-cut relationship with that local authority area. How much more difficult it is for a Member of Parliament convincingly to champion a hotchpotch of different local authorities that happen to fall within different parts of his constituency.
What on earth would happen in a constituency that, let us say, crossed county boundaries, where counties could take diametrically opposed views on major regional planning issues, or on school placements and applications to different schools? What on earth does the constituency Member of Parliament do in representations to central government on that? He will seriously let down half his constituency if we go by these rigid rules.
My noble friend is absolutely right. I was just about to make that point; the Member of Parliament is liable to be conflicted if he owes equal loyalty to different local authorities, which might themselves be at odds on important policy issues. Under the provisions of the Bill, as my noble friend suggested, it would be difficult for a Member of Parliament to deal with elected county councillors in two different counties that overlapped with his constituency. In the previous debate I quoted Dr Lewis Baston on the danger that, with the narrow 5 per cent tolerance—or, as the Minister likes to call it, a 10 per cent tolerance: both ways from the norm of 76,000 voters—wards would all too frequently be split.
Equally, there will be all too frequent occasions on which constituency boundaries have to cross county council boundaries. Again, to quote Dr Baston:
“In the Democratic Audit model of how boundaries could be drawn using a 5 per cent rule, only 9 out of 46 counties, accounting for 67 of the 503 seats proposed for England, did not need to be grouped with another county (North Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire). Furthermore, relatively small future changes in electorate size would lead to disruptive change to the county groupings every parliament. A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture”,
and vastly for the better. This question of a 5 per cent or 10 per cent tolerance connects absolutely inextricably with the issue of alignment with local authority boundaries. It is very important that we do not make a mistake by legislating so tightly that we break the existing pattern of good working relations as it largely prevails between Members of Parliament and local authorities; and fragment constituencies between different local authorities, making for a far more complex, even chaotic, pattern—if you can call it that—of relationships.
That matters very much for the constituents of both ward members and Members of Parliament. We all know that in Members’ constituency surgeries cases are brought to them that, in principle, ought to have been taken to the ward member. Sensible, practical, fluid relationships between Members of Parliament and their colleagues in local government, in the service of their shared constituents, are very precious and important within our system. It will be made more difficult if we see the sort of fragmentation that the Government seem willing to contemplate.
The same applies to voluntary organisations, which are part of the warp and weft of our democratic life, activism and citizenship in the healthiest way in our constituencies. It is unfair on voluntary bodies to require them, often with very limited resources and hard pressed to do the tasks that they do in the interests of their communities, to have to relate to a much more complex cat’s cradle of elected representatives than need be the case.
What lies behind our concern on this side of the House to ensure that this legislation allows for the continuation of a sensible and workable pattern of relationships between local authorities and Members of Parliament is respect for local government. Local government in this country is too weak. If it is to become ill-assorted with Westminster representation, it will be bad for our democratic culture. As my noble friends have stressed, the ward is the building block and basis of our democracy. The Minister and Mr Nick Clegg have both paid lip service to the importance of the ward as that building block. We must allow it to be a reality. Unless we make it realistic and practical for political parties to organise at ward level, and then to campaign both for elections to local authorities and elections to Westminster constituencies, we will vex, confuse and undermine the operation of local authorities. It will be made worse if there are to be boundary reviews every five years and frequent shifts of boundary. Let us, for heaven’s sake, not make the situation any more complex and tormenting than it need be for local political parties. For these reasons, securing a rational and reasonably consistent alignment of constituency boundaries with local authority boundaries, and minimising the occasions on which constituency boundaries traverse local authority boundaries, is well worth some compromise of the pure principle of numerical equality.
My Lords, I have in the course of my contributions over recent weeks tried to bring some fairly original material to our debates to help them along. I have often drawn on statistical evidence from various organisations. However, today I do not want to do that. I want to refer to a debate that took place—probably unknown to Members of this House—in the House of Commons on 11 January in Westminster Hall. I should perhaps start by explaining the relevance of Westminster Hall. It is a secondary Chamber in the House of Commons where the debates are of great importance and great interest, but where, for whatever reason, business managers in the House of Commons organise debates which very often attract fewer people. There was a particularly interesting debate that took place there on parliamentary representation. It was called by Mr Andrew George who is the Liberal Democrat Member for St Ives. The relevance of this debate was that it was the first time that many Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches in the House of Commons had had the opportunity to speak on Clause 11 of the Bill. Because of the arrangements in the House of Commons and the use of the guillotine and the truncating of debate, there were many issues which the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament had been unable to raise. Indeed, he says at the beginning of his contribution:
“I am delighted to have secured the debate, which will explore many of the issues that we did not have an opportunity to explore during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill … We failed to get to grips properly with the issues that needed to be debated to improve the Bill before it transferred to another place”. — [Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 25WH]
Then, in an aside—I have to be straight about this—he blamed Labour Members in reference to the delay in debate. Obviously, there were areas of the Bill that we regarded as particularly important which the Liberal Democrats did not regard as important. I want to quote some of the things he and his colleague said, because they have not been considered by Ministers. The comments that were made in Westminster Hall had not been considered by Ministers when the Bill was taken through its Committee and Report stages in the House of Commons. Andrew George says:
“The Bill proposes that all constituencies have an electoral quota of approximately 76,000 with a margin of only 5% either way. It would carve up the country in a manner that would create bizarre constituencies and ignore important cultural, historic and geographic boundaries”.
We have not heard those words mentioned by any Member of the Liberal Democrats here in the House of Lords. He goes on to say:
“We do not want antiseptic constituencies with perpetually mobile boundaries. The five-yearly boundary review that would happen between each Parliament would mean an MP’s attachment to their constituency being perpetually reviewed, so the sense of settlement with the communities they represent would be continually undermined”.
That has not been said by a Liberal Democrat Member in the House of Lords; it was not said in the House of Commons by a Liberal Democrat Member because they did not have the opportunity to say it. It was said in the junior chamber in the House of Commons, in Westminster Hall.
He then goes on to say:
“The amendments to the Bill which I and other hon. Members tabled were unsuccessful, in that they were not selected or therefore debated”.
There are procedural differences in the House of Commons. Whereas here we can debate technically all our amendments, in the House of Commons they have to be selected by Mr Speaker. If they are not selected, they are not debated. Even if they are selected they are not always debated because of the guillotine and timetable. He goes on about his amendments:
“They sought to find circumstances in which the Boundary Commission was given sufficient discretion to work towards the target figure, taking into account reasonable geographic, cultural and electoral issues. We want the Government to allow places to make decisions for themselves collectively, provided that they do not request more favourable treatment, such as over-representation”,
which we accept.
“I hope the Minister takes note of that. It is not about more favourable treatment but simply recognising the distinctiveness of places, which the Bill does not take into account”. [Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 26WH]
Why has no Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords got up to their feet and repeated a statement of that nature to this House? Never once in our debate—someone said that we have now been debating for 90 hours—has that point been made by a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords. I can tell you what the answer is. There is a contractual agreement within this Chamber between two elements of a coalition; that agreement is silencing debate. It is completely undermining the very ethos of this Chamber in the House of Lords.
A Conservative Member—obviously a very courageous one—a Mr Martin Vickers of Cleethorpes, said in the same debate:
“Continually changing boundaries will impact on the vitality and sustainability of local political parties. The democratic process needs viable local parties and associations, but constant boundary changes inevitably impact on their viability. Taking one ward out of a constituency can render the local party virtually bankrupt if the ward’s financial make-up means that it contributes greatly to the party. We need to think seriously about that”.— [Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 26WH]
And so we do. Why are not Conservative Members of this House getting up and arguing the case that is being put in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons? And then, later in the debate, Mr Andrew George says that,
“the boundary of my constituency changed at the 2010 election and those constituents who used to live in my old constituency still contact me. Given the arrangements in the Bill, that sort of thing would happen at every election, so there would be confusion”. —[Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 38WH]
And how right he is.
Let us take a town on the margin of a county, on the margin indeed of a constituency, that switches from one election to another between Members of Parliament, where the electorate do not actually know who their MP is, because of this constant change and movement as the Boundary Commission somehow has to find a way of ensuring that constituency boundaries fall within this 5 per cent limit which we would wish to extend to 10 per cent.
Take a county like Cumbria, and let us take the town of Kendal. Kendal was not in my former constituency but it was very near the county boundary; a beautiful town on the fringes of the Lake District. Indeed, the people of Kendal would say that they were part of the Lake District. There is a possibility that within the terms of this Bill that town might be split.
I know that Members of Parliament with large city seats very often find that their cities are split. It will work in a large city. It will work in a large community, but it will not work in a small community. It will create divisions within that area—divisions inside parties, between officials inside parties, between treasurers, secretaries, chairmen—all kinds of unseen divisions that boundary commissioners when they are taking their decisions about the future of constituency boundaries would never at any stage be aware of. Those are the kinds of issues that might well surface during the course of an oral inquiry. But the Bill goes on to take away the opportunity for such a forum to examine the minor detail of what would happen in the small community, a town like Kendal, in the event that it were split in the way that the Bill might provide for in the end.
I have a lot more to say on these matters, but I shall save my words for later in the evening—indeed, the night.
My Lords, I would like to give some practical examples of what my noble friends have been describing here. I know that some folk do not like practical examples, but this is what this House is for; to listen to each other and to learn from each other. I am still on a learning process.
The point about wards being the building blocks is illustrated in the former constituency I represented. It illustrates the folly of tinkering with political systems because a party is part of a coalition. That is what happened to the Labour Party in 2004 in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament elections where the Liberals put as a price for joining a coalition the introduction of proportional representation to local government.
I can advise any coalition party involved with the Liberals that in the long run they will tinker and tamper with PR to your detriment and downfall. What happened at the local elections was a disaster, but we have already discussed that and I do not want to be accused of or be guilty of repetition. A multi-member ward system was introduced.
Two wards in my former constituency, Earnoch and Burnbank, are each represented by three members. I am not making a political point, because three members in one ward are all Labour, and in the other at least two are Labour. Part of those two wards is in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and the other part is in Lanark and Hamilton East. They are divided by Woodhead Road. One side of the street is in one constituency; the other side is in the other. I can see that applying to constituencies, but it is not right for wards to be divided in that manner. These wards are split between two constituencies. I know that this will sound like special pleading, and folk will say that it does not matter because the public come first. The public come first surely by allowing political parties to organise in an efficient and representative manner. No one should dismiss the difficulties facing party organisations in trying to get their policies across to the public and being elected as representatives. Party organisation cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant, as compared to the public interest, because I would maintain that the public interest is served by efficient political structures, which will ultimately be better for the public.
We have these areas in which there are two constituencies. While my relations with my colleague, neighbour and friend Jimmy Hood, the MP for Lanark and Hamilton, were okay, the situation was nevertheless disjointed. I do not want to spend too much time on that, because I have dealt with the issue of what happened when constituency boundaries were split, and the town of Hamilton was split on a purely numerical basis. The community of Hamilton has been badly damaged because it is not one cohesive unit. I have complained long and hard, and will continue to complain, about the effect of that on Rutherglen, but after watching what happened to Hamilton, the natural result has been that the community does not feel that it is properly represented by one cohesive voice in Parliament. Boundaries count. In the memorable phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, if this goes ahead without any alteration, we will have “blocks on a map”.
I intend to deal with one particular block on a map in a later amendment in my name. I will take head-on this argument that constituencies are just blocks on a map. I know that former MPs are not very popular in your Lordships’ House at the moment. We seem to be a hunted species; but there we are. We will do our best to bear up and learn our trade in here. However, I am determined to try to make a difference and ensure as best I can that Rutherglen will not become part of a block on a map.
Can my noble friend remind me about the boundaries of the Scottish Parliamentary constituency represented by James Kelly, and about the former boundaries of Rutherglen? My recollection is that the situation is similar to what happened in Ayrshire and Edinburgh, whereby the boundaries are now not the same, and there are a number of problems; MSPs have to deal with a number of MPs, and MPs have to deal with a number of MSPs.
I thank my noble friend, because that is the next item on my little list. Again, Labour has given in too much to Liberal machinations and fascinations about systems. Last week, I mentioned that we kept on being told that the Scotland Act was supposed to be the settled will of the Scottish people. The Scotland Act stated that the number of Westminster constituencies should be reduced and that the number of Scottish parliamentary constituencies should be reduced in tandem. That did not happen, thanks mainly, but not entirely, to Liberal pressure. Now the Westminster constituency boundaries are not coterminous, and I notice the Minister expressing satisfaction at that for, I am sure, purely party interests. He is motivated to do that.
There has been a disjointed effort to try to cope with that in terms of party organisation. Rutherglen and Hamilton West now has the entire Rutherglen Scottish parliamentary constituency within it, although the people of west Hamilton feel that they are being just moved about as part of a block which seems to be favoured by the Minister. The people of west Hamilton have been shunted away from the Westminster constituency boundary, and into the boundary of Tom McCabe’s Scottish parliamentary constituency. James Kelly is getting down to work very well in what is to him a new place, High Blantyre.
I know this has been said before, and I apologise to anyone who thinks I am being repetitive. I am certainly not filibustering. I can assure colleagues of that. I am not thin-skinned and sensitive, but I would not get away with it. It is surely frustrating—annoying is too strong a word—to be told that you are filibustering when you are trying to get across the concerns of your constituency. At the end of the day, if any legislative Assembly does not take people into account or listen to them, we are all in a bad way. I make no apology for expressing my concerns about how this issue will affect my community, because I was born and brought up in Rutherglen, where I have lived all my life.
This continual five-year change in boundaries will be chaotic, if it goes ahead. In my experience in the other place, all political parties showed great faith in the link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency. There is a terrific bond. I do not say that to be elitist to colleagues on all sides of the House who have never been in the other place. Nevertheless, that bond will be broken. I return to the absolutely brilliant phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who said there will be just blocks on a map.
Chaos will be caused to the political parties, and that will be reflected in issues such as how best to represent people. I used to have people come to me from the other side; and, vice versa, Jimmy Hood had people coming to him from my side in Hamilton. The situation was particularly bad in Hamilton, because it was a town split in two, just to make up numbers. That is an example of a town of which I have a fair knowledge being split down the middle just to fit the numbers—end of story. That is surely wrong, and I cannot believe that every noble Lord on the other side of the House, or our colleagues on the Cross Benches, thinks that it is good not to take account of communities—especially given that this will happen every five years. At the end of the day, this is not simply about party mechanics and organisation to suit the politicians. It is about whether the proposals make the political structures and organisations fit enough to represent the people, stop the confusion and be a useful part of a democratic process in this country.
My Lords, like my colleagues, I think there are many problems with the Bill. The biggest problem is that the Government failed to consult local people before they dreamt up their proposals. I say that because in my experience as, I hesitate to say, a local councillor for nearly 25 years, as a leader of a local authority and as a Member of Parliament for 13 years, when faced with proposals that they feel cut across their sense of community and identity as a result of a boundary review, local people feel very strongly about some of the issues that the Bill relegates to secondary importance in favour of a rigid mathematical formulation. It is a great pity that the Government did not consult local people about these proposals before they put them forward because, had they done so, they would have come up with a different formulation.
It may be useful if I recount to noble Lords one such experience during those 25 years when the Boundary Commission made a proposal, which would be common with the measures in this Bill, to split my then constituency and form a new constituency in the Greater Manchester area of the north-west of England. The Boundary Commission’s proposals during my period as an MP would have taken five wards from the north of my former constituency in Old Trafford, next to Manchester city centre, and linked them with four or five wards in the neighbouring local authority of Salford.
At that time there were no straightforward bus routes between those wards in the different local authorities. To get there by car one had to go over the M60 motorway, and by public transport one would have to go into the centre of Manchester and out again to get from Trafford to Salford or vice versa. The reaction of local people to the proposal from the Boundary Commission was loud and vociferous; they rehearsed many of the arguments that my noble friends have put in this Chamber. It was not because the people of Old Trafford rejected the people of Salford or vice versa but because they already identified with different communities represented by the constituencies of which they were already a part—the Old Trafford wards were part of the Trafford local authority; the Salford wards were part of Salford local authority.
Those involved emphasised the importance of the communities in those areas; the differences between the communities in Old Trafford and in that part of Salford; they talked about the sense of identity and place to which my noble friend Lady Farrington referred; and they argued strongly that they wanted coherence of representation from both their local councillors and, particularly, their Members of Parliament. They wanted to feel that they shared the Member of Parliament who represented the whole area of which they were a part, and that that Member of Parliament and that constituency would reflect the history, the geography, the boundary, the proximity and other mechanisms through which people reinforce their sense of identity—local newspapers, schools and so on.
It is unthinkable that wards should be split across different constituencies by boundaries being redrawn. If noble Lords think through the implications of that for political parties, local people and local authorities, they may feel it would be a chaotic situation for all concerned. In building on wards it is important that local people should feel that they have got that sense of identity and coherence in the constituency as a whole. By and large, from my experience, I believe that where possible a constituency should contain a whole local authority and not be split.
Those are the direct concerns of constituents, in my experience. A second consideration—my noble friend Lord Howarth touched on this—which indirectly is also important for local people, is how easy or more difficult it is for a Member of Parliament to do their job in the situation I have described. If that had come about, the Member of Parliament would have had to relate to two local authorities—Trafford and Salford; to two primary care trusts; to two major hospitals; and to two police divisions. Indeed, given the inability of people to go from one side of the constituency to the other because of the transport difficulties I have outlined, the provision of advice services across the constituency would be very problematic.
If you are a Member of Parliament you feel strongly that you want to do the best for your constituency, your area; you want to champion it; you want to chivvy at the heels of central and local government and of the government agencies that provide important services such as health, transport, security and policing. If you are doing that in relation to two different areas and you are doubling up on the number of bodies with which you have to liaise—which often have different interests, as my noble friends have outlined—you cannot do a proper job for either one of those places.
In the example I have given, the proposal by the Boundary Commission would have meant a much safer Labour seat for me, combining my safest wards in Old Trafford with Salford instead of with some of the other Trafford wards. However, that was not an important factor. The important consideration was whether we could end up with a recommendation that provided the coherence of community and identity that local people wanted and make it possible for the Member of Parliament to do a good job for that area.
I am happy to say that, as a result of the public inquiry, to which local people came in their droves unsolicited, and made all of these points and more to the Boundary Commission, the recommendations were changed and the principles of community and so on were upheld. That is exactly the kind of flexibility of judgment applied by the Boundary Commission to which my noble friend Lord Grocott referred.
As with many other such endeavours, the issue cannot be reduced to a simple mathematical equation when you are dealing with people and their sense of place and community, and when geographical barriers and idiosyncratic issues of history and geography are involved. I shall reserve my other arguments for later when further amendments come forward. I support the amendment.
I do not intend detaining your Lordships very long but I should like to refer to the impact that the legislation is having on Wales. As a Welsh Member of your Lordships’ House I feel strongly about this because not one amendment about Wales was debated in the other place. The use of the guillotine ensured that none was debated and yet Wales is the part of the United Kingdom that is most adversely affected by the Bill.
Paul Wood, a member of the Boundary Commission for Wales, in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in the other place, produced a report on the Bill and said that,
“issues such as local ties and historical ties, which may have had more weight previously, are clearly subsumed in the legislation to the numerical issues”.
In other words, community-based representation will fail and disappear if the Bill is not amended. Indeed, the creation of large, rigidly defined constituencies based on numbers will put an end to it.
I think of my part of Wales, and the south Wales valleys in particular, as being like a hand: the valleys are the fingers and the palms are the cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. There is movement from the valleys to the cities, but there is hardly any movement across valleys from one valley to another. That is historical and something that we have understood for many decades.
Perhaps I can relate my concerns on how Bill will impact on my former constituency of Islwyn. The Electoral Reform Society has produced a paper in which it has redrawn the electoral map of Wales based on 30 parliamentary seats. In its proposals my former parliamentary constituency of Islwyn would disappear, which would have certain consequences. Under the Electoral Reform Society’s proposals, which could be a blueprint for whichever body follows, the community of Abercarn will be put into the new constituency of Caerphilly. Abercarn is in the Ebbw valley and Caerphilly is in the Rhymney valley, separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. They are distinct and separate and there is no community interest across the valleys. It is proposed that the community of Cefn Fforest will become part of the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. They are in separate counties and there is no community of interest whatever between the two.
I assume that the Electoral Reform Society’s map was applied to the whole country, as we had the same in Shropshire. Was there anyone at any level of representation in the noble Lord’s part of Wales, such as a local authority, who thought that the proposals made any sense whatever? No elected representative or official in Shropshire thought there was any sense at all in what the Electoral Reform Society proposed.
I am more likely to find someone recruiting for the band of hope in hell than to find anyone in my part of Wales who supported it. It will not happen, frankly.
The point that I am trying to get across is that there is not the community of interest that has to exist if we are to have huge constituencies based on numbers. If the Bill is enacted as it stands we will not need to employ the Boundary Commission to do this work. Anybody with a map, a pencil and an abacus will be able to draw up the new parliamentary boundaries. We might as well hand it over to the Flat Earth Society for all the good it will do for locally based parliamentary representation.
This is so important and fundamental, and it is a matter that I will return to perhaps at greater length when we debate the amendments affecting Wales that are in my name and those of other noble Lords. It is important to recognise that there are particular difficulties, especially across the south Wales valleys where simply having constituencies based on numbers will not work in terms of the community of interest. There will be no link whatever between the Member of Parliament and the constituent. That will be a retrograde step, so I hope that with those few remarks the Minister will get the impression of how strongly I feel, as do many people in Wales. I know how people on all sides, including Cross-Benchers, feel about this. Wales will be adversely affected in that 20 per cent of all the reductions in the number of parliamentary seats in Britain will be in Wales. It will lose one in four of its parliamentary seats as the Bill stands. That cannot be right and I will return to that debate later.
The last thing I want to do is extend the debate but somebody needs to say that the picture of idealised perfection that the Boundary Commission arrangements have had up until now, implicitly presented by some of the things that have been said, is simply not the case, especially in an area of rapidly expanding populations.
I happen to have been a Member of Parliament a lot longer ago, admittedly, in the county of Essex which has had a rapidly expanding population and went through several boundary changes. I am bound to say that the constituency I represented included parts of two districts, Chelmsford and Braintree; it would have included parts of two PCTs, had they existed at the time; it related to two police divisions, to quote examples used earlier; and indeed, it had three different postal districts in its geography. I found not the slightest difficulty in representing all those parts and strands to the best of my ability. My former constituents might have views on whether I did it well or badly overall, but I found no difficulty at all in relating to both Chelmsford and Braintree councils and all the other bodies to which I referred. I do not think that we should have it presented, as some have, that the situation is a dreamworld without the Bill.
My other point is that the constituency that I represented has now been split into two and the two main towns within it are separate. Frankly, I think they probably like it as they were about the same size and there was a degree of rivalry so they are happy to be split up, even though they are still in the same local government district. One of them is now part of the constituency consisting of parts of three districts: Braintree, Colchester and Maldon. I do not believe that the new MP is having any difficulty representing all those parts of her new constituency. Let us not overplay our hand on this and recognise that there will be difficulties whatever system we have. There is a degree of flexibility in the Bill’s proposals. Last week there were discussions about increasing that degree of flexibility. There is already enough flexibility to make it quite possible not to have the abacus concept that the noble Lord talked about just now.
Does the noble Lord agree that in the case of both the boundary reviews he spoke about, local people had the opportunity to say whether they were happy or whether, for example, they wanted the two towns to be split, whereas this Bill would not allow that?
I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, and it is yet another point that has been done to death. The suggestions that community is all, regardless of other circumstances, which has been implicit in quite a lot of what has been said, and that somehow this is death and disaster compared with the situation at present, are complete and absolute poppycock.
I have the highest regard for the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and I listened, as I always do, with great interest. However, I was not sure what central point he was trying to make. Was he saying that basically we should not worry about any of these things—to hell with local government boundaries, local loyalties and identities, and let us just have a computer divide the country into blocks of a certain identical number and spew out whatever the result is, irrespective of those things? Is that what he was saying?
That was not what I said. I indicated specifically that the flexibility in the Bill, and the possibly greater flexibility that has been the subject of one discussion, would allow those factors to be taken into account. Of course, they are not to be dismissed but equally, with a reasonably fair voting system, they are not the be-all and end-all.
In that case the noble Lord is saying what I totally believe, which is that the present system is not all bad; it could be a great deal worse; and flexibility is of the essence in the role of the Boundary Commission. If those are the three principles that he was setting forth I could not have put it better myself. That is exactly what I think is the view of the majority of people in all corners of this House.
The Government have come in for a great deal of criticism over the past 90 hours, or whatever it is. I do not think we should have too much sympathy for them because they brought it on their head by going ahead with this Bill without pre-legislative scrutiny, as my noble friend Lady Hughes has just said. There was no attempt to consult local people at any stage. It is not an excuse to say that they had a deadline of 5 May and needed to make rapid progress because it was an arbitrary decision of the coalition to put the two Bills together. We have been over that several times. The Government have been subject to a lot of criticism but I do not feel sorry for them. However, I shall not add to that now. I want to be much more positive and move on.
The public would expect us in the Committee stage of such a Bill to do two things.
I thank my noble friend for giving way. I was just looking at my notes because we had an earlier intervention on Maldon. The noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, referred to Maldon. He is talking to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, at the moment but he might wish to take note of this. Maldon has a very interesting history. It was referred to by Lewis Baston in his brief, which my noble friend will have received. However, the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, did not tell us that the boundaries were changed in 1955 to 1974, in 1974 to 1983, in 1983 to 1997, in 1997 to 2010 and in 2010 to 2015. The evidence from Maldon is that the people of Maldon are confused about what constituency they belong in because of all the changes over the past 40 years to the boundaries of the constituency in which they have been placed. It is rather strange that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, failed to refer to that when he commented on his own constituency.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has heard and taken note of those remarks. I say to my noble friend with the greatest friendliness that I do not intend to try to turn myself into an expert on the electoral history of Maldon. I come back to the point that I was making, which is that I think the public in general rightly expect us in a Committee on a Bill of this kind to do two things. One is to explore to the full the details in the Bill to open up every possible angle of vision to ensure that we look through the consequences. It is very important in any Committee on any Bill to try to identify the possible unintended consequence or consequences of it.
On the whole, this House has done a job in that regard of which we can be proud. What disgraceful negligence it would have been on the part of this House if we had not discussed Wales at all, which my noble friend Lord Touhig has just mentioned, given that the other House has apparently failed to do so. Anyone who has read that wonderful classic of Welsh literature, How Green Was My Valley, knows that the mountains create a real cultural and social barrier between the different Welsh valleys. There has been no opportunity to explore Wales, or Manchester for that matter. I have heard more about the electoral districts and history of Scotland than I have ever done in my life. Of course, I am very tempted to talk about the beautiful town of Stamford and say what a tragedy and monstrosity it would be if it were divided up and part of it were taken away and put into Leicestershire or somewhere else, but I will not go down that route despite the blandishments of my noble friend Lord Graham, a man whom the whole House holds in the very greatest regard. I simply say that we are doing that part of our job properly, well and thoroughly, and it is quite right that we are doing so.
The second task which the public as a whole would expect of us is to make some progress, or at least to attempt to make some progress, towards consensus, because the public always think that we should try to get consensus on constitutional matters. The public are right about that, and I think that most of us, in our heart of hearts, all feel that we should try to get consensus. There has not been much of an effort to get consensus for a long time, but such an effort has been made this afternoon, and that is very important. The Bill does not deal with wards at all, but the Minister has said that he will take that on board and come back to the Committee with something on wards. That is a very positive statement. I take it in good faith, as we all do, and I do not think that we need say anything more about wards this afternoon, and I shall not do so.
Views have been expressed on both sides of the House, including by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Newton, that counties are important. We can all argue about how important they are in particular contexts, but it is clear that they are important. Paragraph 5 to Schedule 2 says simply that the Boundary Commission “may” take account of counties. However, that is just permissive; it implies that you can do so if you really want to. It does not accommodate the counties. We debated earlier the preceding group of amendments, some of which would have forced the Boundary Commission to take account of counties. My noble and learned friend proposes a very reasonable middle road in Amendment 71A: namely, that the Boundary Commission “should, where practicable” do so. In other words, there is flexibility but no insistence. If the Boundary Commission feels that other more important considerations ought to override the sanctity of county boundaries, so be it. That is real progress and a sensible way forward. I hope that it may be the basis of consensus on this important matter of counties.
I think that there is also consensus on a third and very important point, which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, from the coalition Benches: namely, that you cannot achieve these things and give the Boundary Commission any flexibility in practice unless we look again at the 5 per cent limitation. Otherwise, anything that we tell the Boundary Commission will be completely negated by the 5 per cent rule. What you cannot and must not do—I do not think that any of us would want to do this—is to give the Boundary Commission a contradictory brief and put it in a situation whereby it cannot solve the problem that it is being set. That would be quite wrong. If there is to be flexibility to enable the Boundary Commission to take account of county boundaries or other local factors which it considers to be important, it is clearly necessary to look again at the 5 per cent rule. I think that consensus has emerged in the course of our proceedings on that very important matter.
Fourthly, and finally, I sense there is a growing feeling that something needs to be done about my next point, not necessarily by continuing with the present status quo but not necessarily, either, by having what is in the Bill, which is nothing at all. We need to ensure that we do not just say, “Leave this matter in this House and never again is there to be any open discussion of the principles of our electoral boundaries”. That would be a very unnatural situation. Therefore, we need to preserve something like the public inquiry system. My noble friend Lady Hughes explained how that had made a big difference in Manchester in a recent case to which she drew our attention, and I know of other cases in which that has happened.
I think I mentioned that I, with some supporters, gave evidence to a Boundary Commission. We did not win our point but there was a general sense of satisfaction that we had been able to air it and that the arguments had been properly, duly, publicly and transparently weighed. We do not need the existing form of public inquiry. My noble friend Lord Rooker set out how he thinks that the whole process could be more rapidly conducted. I was very interested in his suggestion in that regard, which seems a promising avenue of discussion under the heading of future amendments on the Marshalled List. However, some sort of public and open appeals process is absolutely essential if we are not to put ourselves in a situation whereby the great and the good, if we can describe ourselves in that way—perhaps we are the great and the bad—take an irrevocable decision and then hand over to a bureaucracy the right for ever after to take decisions behind closed doors and subsequently announce to the grateful public what their electoral boundaries will be without it ever having to explain itself in public in any kind of open forum.
We have made considerable progress on those four principles this afternoon. The prospect may be emerging through the mist of a structure that could command the consensus that we all regard as very desirable for a Bill of this kind.
The factual answer to that factual question is yes, of course I recall that. No one in my constituency over the age of about 40 will have forgotten that. Nevertheless, that issue was resolved happily for all concerned in the context of public inquiries and establishes a very good precedent for them as a way of maintaining, or when necessary restoring, public confidence in the system.
The amendment would restrict the Boundary Commission in drawing up new constituency boundaries by a series of provisions specifying that constituency boundaries may not cross certain local authority or European constituency boundaries. I noted that, when moving his amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, reiterated that he and his colleagues recognised the need for greater equality but seek to put that restriction on to the Boundary Commission in its recommendations.
The Bill provides for the Boundary Commission to take into account local government boundaries, as well as local ties, although that has not been acknowledged in some contributions. As we have said on more than one occasion, that is subject to the principle of equality. We believe that the details of how it does that should be a matter for the Boundary Commission. Just to clarify, a government amendment to the definition of local government boundaries was made in the other place. I re-emphasise that it means that the Boundary Commissions may take unitary authority boundaries into account.
It has been made clear in several contributions, not least that of my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree but also that of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that even under the existing arrangements the Boundary Commission has not exactly achieved what in some people's view might be perfection. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, talked about Hamilton being split into two. Even before the current split, there was a previous split between Hamilton North and Bellshill and Hamilton South. An important point, which was made by my noble friend Lord Newton and alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, is that local government is not the sole challenge that Members of Parliament have to deal with. There are health boards, primary healthcare trusts and police divisions. It would be a nightmare, if not an impossibility, to try to ensure that the Member of Parliament had to deal with only one each of police, health and local authorities.
As we mentioned in debates on previous groups, we have sought generally to follow the 1986 Act provisions on local authority boundaries. We want the Boundary Commissions to have flexibility to take account of specific circumstances, but we also recognise that there is some merit in placing discretionary consideration in the hands of the Boundary Commission, including with regard to wards, about which I will say more in a moment.
In its fifth general report, the Boundary Commission for England noted that,
“some wards on the outskirts of towns contained very different communities. For instance, there were occasions where the majority of the electorate of the ward were urban dwellers residing in a very small area of the ward on the edge of a town. However, the small remainder of the ward’s electorate was made up of those living in rural communities some distance from the town”.
That is why we believe there is a reasonable case in certain circumstances for the Boundary Commission to have discretion to split them and why there should not be a prohibition, which would be the effect of at least four of the provisions of the composite amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord.
I repeat that we seek—and this is enshrined in the Bill—to ensure one value for one vote, not to draw up constituencies to suit the administrative convenience of Members of Parliament. I cannot accept that, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, proposed, it is somehow impossible for a Member of Parliament to discharge his or her functions if his or her constituency includes more than one local authority. My noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree made that abundantly clear.
I am not saying that. I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, represented his constituents entirely admirably. I am objecting to the thrust of reform that makes it far more likely that local authorities will be fragmented and that constituencies will consist of more, rather than fewer, local authorities, which must be calculated to make it harder for all concerned—Members of Parliament, other elected members and constituents.
I listened to the noble Lord’s speech, and he gave the very clear impression that that was challenging in the extreme. As my noble friend said, there were three local authorities in the constituency that he represented. The constituency that I represented contained two local authorities. On the basis of the figures that I gave in a previous debate, by my calculation 187 Members of Parliament represent constituencies that have more than one metropolitan or non-metropolitan district boundary. I believe that it is more than possible to do an adequate job of representing one's constituents where there is more than one local authority in a constituency.
We do not believe that we should be tying the hands of the Boundary Commission in a way that prevents it from recommending the best solutions for electors simply for the convenience of Members of the other place. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Farrington, about the importance of local constituency parties. They of course have an important role in oiling the wheels of our democracy, but I do not think that their interests should be elevated above those of individual constituents.
I do not want to follow down the path of anecdotage, but the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned the number of party fundraising events at this time in Scotland that are focused on Burns suppers. I had the great pleasure of attending a Liberal Democrat Burns supper in South Edinburgh, which has already reorganised itself to take account of the changes in the boundaries and the disjunction between Scottish parliamentary boundaries and Westminster boundaries. I do not really want to hear more of the Burns supper adventures of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
I have tried to be patient.
Four out of the seven provisions in the amendment relate to wards and how they should be used in the Bill. I cannot accept that the Government have been dismissive—the word used by the noble and learned Lord—of wards. I certainly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said, about the importance of the ward level. That is why, in response to the previous set of amendments, I stated our belief that wards are in many cases already the building blocks of constituencies. They are the level that can often reflect local community ties. The English Boundary Commission has confirmed that in the majority of cases in England, wards are used as the basic element of each constituency. For reasons that I have already given—that some wards might combine a large part of an urban area on the outskirts of the city and a rural hinterland—there might be reasons to give the Boundary Commission discretion to split boundaries. Therefore, an absolute prohibition, as proposed in the amendment, goes too far. I hope that the undertaking that I gave in response to the previous debate to look seriously at the issue of wards and to bring back our proposals on Report will satisfy the House at this stage. On that basis, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the detail into which he went. I will very briefly deal with his points. First, he rightly says that the Bill states “may take into account”, rather than the commission being bound not to cross ward, unitary authority or other boundaries. If the noble and learned Lord cares—not now—to read my amendment, he will see that in some cases it is an absolute prohibition, for example in relation to European Parliamentary boundaries, district or borough wards. In others, it is not; it is a provision to “take into account”. I have sought to reflect the point that the noble and learned Lord makes.
Secondly, I think the Minister said that 187 constituencies cross both metropolitan and other local authority boundaries. He does not need to intervene on this; his point is broadly that 187 currently cross different sorts of local authority boundaries. I completely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, who has much influence in the House, said. I am sure that he completely and excellently represented his constituency. The point that is being made on the other side is that it is better if that is not the position. One assumes that if it is 187 now, it is bound to go up under the changes to be introduced under the Bill.
The noble and learned Lord’s third point was that he accepts as a matter of principle that the ward will be the building block. That was expressed explicitly by Nick Clegg when he appeared before the House of Lords Constitution Committee and when he spoke in answer to questions in the Commons. Why not put that into the Bill? My fourth and final point is to say how sad I was not to be in Edinburgh South—that is, Morningside, where I was born and brought up—to attend the noble and learned Lord’s Burns Night supper.
I am grateful that he said at the end that he will come back with some ideas. I am not taking that as him giving me any kind of assurances, but I shall wait to see what happens next before deciding what to do about this sort of amendment. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 71A withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.21 pm.
Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2010
Motion to Annul
Relevant Document: 15th Report from the Merits Committee.
My Lords, the two Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper relate to two instruments to change housing benefit regulations. The instruments seek to cut the housing benefit bill by around £1 billion per year by 2015 by cutting what can be awarded under the local housing allowance arrangements from April through: first, the removal of the five-bedroom local housing allowance rate so that the maximum level is for four-bedroom properties; secondly, the introduction of absolute caps so that local housing allowance weekly rates cannot exceed £250 for a one-bedroom property, £290 for a two-bedroom property, £340 for a three-bedroom property and £400 for a four-bedroom property; and, thirdly, the removal of the £15 weekly housing benefit excess that some customers can receive under the local housing allowance arrangements. Fourthly, there is an additional measure, which we welcome, relating to an extra bedroom for those with care needs. However, the final—and, I argue, most damaging—measure on which I shall focus is the setting of local housing allowance rates at the 30th percentile of rents in each broad rental market area rather than at the median. The Government are increasing discretionary housing payment funding to local authorities by £130 million over four years to enable councils to try to mitigate some of the effects of these measures.
These instruments amount to little more than an attack on the poorer people of this country—those who have no choice but to rent and who are either low earners or on out-of-work benefits. Since the publication of the Government’s impact assessment last summer, many organisations with expertise in housing, homelessness and poverty, such as Shelter, Crisis and the Residential Landlords Association, have raised serious concerns, shared by the Opposition, about these amendments to the housing benefit regulations.
The Government’s changes to housing benefit were expertly summarised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in his speech to this House on 2 December last year, when he said that,
“the intention is to reduce the housing benefit bill by some £2.25 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament. That is £2.25 billion a year that will not be paid through housing benefit to landlords. There are only two parties from whom this money can come; one is the landlord by accepting a lower rent, and the other is the tenants finding the balance from their own resources, including other benefits—since most are on benefits of different sorts, or pensions. Which of these two parties is most likely to take this very substantial £2-and-a-bit billion hit?”.—[Official Report, 2/12/10; col. 1656.]
That is a good question, and half of that sum is to be found from the changes that we are debating today. The answer to the noble Lord’s question comes in part from the Residential Landlords Association, the representative body of more than 9,200 private landlords. Its briefing on these regulations is clear. Its landlords panel survey found that 71 per cent of respondents would not lower rents. In fact, in light of the proposed changes, 46 per cent of landlords surveyed indicated that they would look to re-let properties away from local housing allowance tenants, reducing the level of private rental stock available to claimants and potentially forcing households into homelessness. Not only have the Government offered no evidence to support their assertion that rents will be lowered to meet lower housing benefit levels, but they cannot counter the evidence that points the other way. It is clear that the bulk of the savings from these measures will come from the pockets of the tenants.
The measures have serious implications for hundreds of thousands of honest, hard-working and vulnerable people. We should bear in mind the fact that 4.7 million people receive housing benefit in this country. Of those, 2 million are pensioners on pension credit guarantee, 500,000 are people on jobseeker’s allowance and 700,000 are people in work in low-paying jobs. The Government’s own impact assessment of the regulations as a whole predicted that almost 1 million families would be affected, with an average weekly income loss of £12 nationally, rising to £22 in London.
The intention of course, as Homeless Link points out, is to make life in receipt of benefit “uncomfortable”, as a way of driving the jobless back into work. The popular rhetoric from the Government has been around the assertion that those claiming housing benefit are accessing accommodation that their working neighbours cannot. However, researchers at the University of Birmingham have found that this claim is out of step with reality. Housing benefit claimants receive a rent set at median market rates and so cannot live just anywhere. Furthermore, their findings suggest that, despite infrequent, extreme anomalies, 40 per cent of lower-income working families pay more in rent than they would receive in housing benefit.
In truth, the Government’s posturing over extravagant benefits sends a clear message: that the rationale behind these ill conceived reforms is founded on the excesses of a relative few. Their application would be tantamount to collective punishment—penalising the many vulnerable people for the excesses of the very few. From data compiled by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research at the University of Cambridge, it is estimated that these cuts will force many more claimants into severe poverty, with the weekly income of 84,000 households dropping below £100 per couple after housing costs. Incidentally, these households are home to more than 54,000 children.
On the local housing allowance cuts as a whole, the Social Security Advisory Committee, in its withering verdict on these regulations, stated that,
“these measures must impact disproportionately on those low-income households with the least financial resilience and the fewest options for managing their lives and their finances”.
Critics unanimously agree that the change to a 30th percentile in LHA calculations, along with the caps on housing benefit, will result in a significant drop in income for hundreds of thousands of households. Of these, an estimated 269,000 will fall into what Shelter calls “serious difficulty”. Unable to negotiate a reduction in rent, they will have just three options: hoping their landlord will forgo a proportion of the rent; moving into cheaper and probably overcrowded accommodation; or becoming homeless.
The removal of the five-bedroom rate will act as a disincentive for families to come together. Why would two single-parent families with, say, three children each come together when they would be better off apart? Many tenants will run up arrears, making them “at fault” for their eviction and perhaps not entitled to emergency accommodation. It is expected that half of those households in serious difficulty will have to move or become homeless. Some 72,000 of that number are families, equating to 129,000 children potentially made homeless.
These changes will affect households in rural as well as urban areas and particularly those with high rents, such as Oxford, Edinburgh and Brighton, but they will be felt most acutely in London. Here, house prices are more than double the average for England and Wales, and private rents carry a 50 per cent premium, leaving only the worst-maintained and overcrowded accommodation available to housing benefit claimants under these proposals. The same research from the University of Cambridge estimates that, within five years, almost the whole of inner London will be unaffordable to those in receipt of benefits. Poorer residents will move to more affordable housing at the periphery of the city. With demand for private rental stock so high here, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce the cost of renting, so LHA claimants currently living in boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, Islington or Camden, where it is expected that no affordable stock will exist, will be forced into moving or into homelessness.
London borough authorities expect that, with the caps in place, 82,000 families will face losing their homes in London. The Mayor of London described it as a “Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing”. The poor will be pushed out of the capital; people in work will be pushed further away from their place of employment, their place of worship or the support networks of friends and family on which they rely. Children will suffer the upheaval of changing schools. It is all in the impact assessment. Information from London Councils shows that families will be moving into boroughs where there is already a shortage of early years school places. The children may not have anywhere to go to school.
Further still, individuals requiring specific educational facilities, care or assistance may not be able to access the types of service available to them in the borough in which they currently live. Those families will be moving into local authorities in such numbers that the existing public services there may well be unable to cope. I gather that boroughs such as Haringey and Newham are already looking at how to recruit more social workers to help them to cope. The Social Security Advisory Committee remarked:
“Enforced relocation to cheaper areas entails not simply upheaval, cost and stress to the households involved, but also the transfer of public service obligations and costs which the receiving areas are likely to be ill-equipped, unprepared and unresourced to handle”.
It has been estimated by Shelter that some 35,000 households will approach their local authorities for advice and assistance on homelessness. Many of these will be families with dependent children and as such considered to be “priority need”, to whom the local authority has a statutory duty to provide housing. Crisis believes that the likely result will be that single homeless people, who are already not a priority for housing, will become even less of a priority for assistance.
The estimated costs attendant on these housing dilemmas is not insignificant. It is estimated that £120 million will be required to satisfy temporary accommodation needs. Going even further, Homeless Link has identified the regulations’ tipping point—the figure at which costs begin to outstrip any benefits or savings derived—as £1.77 billion, equivalent to 106,070 homeless people. That number represents just 28 per cent of the estimated households at severe risk of homelessness as a result of the proposed changes. The most pessimistic forecasts suggest that these amendments could cost the state in excess of £6 billion. These regulations are in danger of increasing the deficit, not reducing it. Far from supporting people into work, breaking the cycle of dependency or ending the benefits culture, the principal effect of these amendments looks to be the ghettoisation of the capital’s disadvantaged—forcing families from their homes, forcing children into poverty and homelessness and overburdening already stretched public services, all at a potential cost of three times the estimated savings.
Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not think that the Government should do nothing about the rising cost of housing benefit. The Minister will undoubtedly claim that these are unfortunate changes forced on him by the economic legacy left by the Government of which I was a member. I absolutely reject the notion that there is no alternative. There is an alternative economic policy, which starts with stimulating growth and then has prudent cuts following behind. I will not rehearse that argument now, but suffice it to say that he could do things differently with these measures.
The Government have got it half right. Within the package, the largest block of saving is made by abolishing the £15 excess. They should do that and go ahead with the payment for an extra room for carers. That package would save half a billion pounds per annum. However, they should suspend the other measures. The removal of the fifth bedroom saves them £15 million a year at most and carries the risk of costing much more than that in the cost of homelessness. Capping the rates generally should be dealt with through the wider cap that they are proposing on benefit income, which would retain much greater flexibility to deal with individual needs.
The move to reduce affordability from half of houses to rent to 30 per cent needs more debate, as it raises huge concerns, especially combined with the move to constrain local housing allowance increases to the CPI measure of inflation, which is proposed elsewhere. I therefore suggest that these should be tackled in the context of the forthcoming welfare reform Bill, which would allow time to address the large risk of homelessness from these measures with the associated social and financial costs that go with them. That would allow all Members of this House to amend and properly debate these measures.
I have sought to be constructive and there is one other thing that I will do to be constructive and helpful to the House tonight. I am clear that it is in order to move the Motions in my name, given that the Cunningham report of 2006 said:
“It is consistent both with the Lords’ role in Parliament as a revising chamber, and with Parliament’s role in relation to delegated legislation, for the Lords to threaten to defeat an SI”—
for example, in the exceptional circumstance of the Merits Committee drawing it to the special attention of the House. That is what has happened in this case, with the 15th report of the Merits Committee in December last year. However, I am mindful that there is an alternative Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. That would not stop these damaging regulations but would send a very strong message to the Government from your Lordships’ House. The Government should listen and act if the House supports the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, as I hope it will. Therefore, in keeping with the constructive nature of this Opposition, our respect for convention and our desire to be helpful to the House, I intend to withdraw my Motion at the end of the debate. In the mean time, I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to all three of these Motions, but in particular, to the third one standing in my name. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, that the changes introduced by the regulations and the order are likely to have very serious consequences. The Government expect the cumulative effect of the eight caps, reductions and restrictions on housing benefit and local housing allowances, of which two are the subject of regulations before us today, to achieve savings of over £2 billion each year by 2015. What is not certain is where the impact of these changes will fall, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, indicated.
The charities working in this field have produced excellent briefings for us. Those have come from Shelter, Crisis, Citizens Advice, Homeless Link, Barnardos, Family Action, along with the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation, with support from the Local Government Association and some impressive work once again from the Greater London Authority. These bodies all note the likelihood of several thousand tenants facing homelessness. Apart from this wrecking the life chances of the families concerned, the charities point out that the extra costs of homelessness could more than outweigh the housing benefit savings. Homeless Link notes that, on conservative estimates, if even one quarter of those identified as at severe risk were to become homeless, then all the gains from the housing benefit cuts would be lost.
The charities also point out, as has the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that a greater number—over 900,000—of tenants who stay put when their benefits are cut could be forced to find the balance from their very low incomes: state pensions; incapacity benefits; jobseeker’s allowance; or, for a fifth or so of these tenants who are in low-paid work, from their very modest earnings. I do not believe it is the intention of Ministers to increase the number of homeless households, which would, in any case, be self-defeating and counterproductive, nor do I believe that the Government intend to impoverish nearly 1 million very poor households with the equivalent of a cut in their pensions and other benefits of an average of £12 a week for each household. If that was the outcome, set against the coalition Government’s commitment that the effects of reducing the deficit should not fall disproportionately on those least able to take the strain, then the housing benefit changes would have to be deemed a terrible failure.
Rather, it is hoped that, away from the very high-value areas that claimants will have to leave, landlords will reduce rents to accommodate all or most of the fall in housing benefit/LHA payments. If so, to a large extent it will be landlords not tenants who take the hit. This would certainly be a desirable outcome where landlords are abusing the HB arrangements. The analysis by the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that 13 per cent of the rise in housing benefit is attributable to greedy landlords increasing rents to squeeze more out of the system. Thirteen per cent is not a huge proportion of the rise in costs, but nevertheless, it is worth addressing.
I think the new measures will indeed lead to some landlords reducing their rents. In some parts of the UK, particularly where unemployment has been very high and may go higher, a very high proportion of tenants are in receipt of housing benefit. If landlords are not to risk serious arrears, they will have to adjust to lower rents. In some places, current market conditions mean that the alternative of selling the rented property into owner-occupation will not be an option. Landlords may be resentful, they may even lose money—I fear they will not be investing and improving their properties—but, like it or not, they will have to go with the lower rents if that is all the tenants can pay.
Just how widespread will this be? In how many cases will it be the landlord not the tenant who absorbs the cost of the cuts? Talking to private landlords from different areas, I think there are opportunities for rent reductions where the local housing allowance is paid direct to landlords—as is facilitated by these regulations, avoiding the danger of arrears, which can lead to evictions that are costly for landlords as well as traumatic for tenants—and where the required reduction is relatively small, say 5 per cent of the rent. In such cases, good will toward good tenants, combined with the hassle and costs of replacing tenants, will incline many landlords to make modest rental concessions, particularly in not raising rents as soon as the opportunity arises, but there are definitely finite limits on the extent of this restraint. Even a 5 per cent rent reduction will be a problem for a lot of landlords. Five per cent of rent might exceed the margin, the profit from letting, after taking account of mortgage repayments, management and maintenance costs, an allowance for vacancies and so on. Some buy-to-let landlords with relatively high debts on their property could be in difficulty if they were to cuts rents by 5 per cent. Moreover, the figures in the DWP's impact assessment indicate that a 5 per cent rent reduction would not be enough to close the gap, to remove the new shortfall between benefit and rent, in the great majority of cases. It would appear to cover less than 90,000 cases out of a total of well over 900,000.
There is another reason to fear that landlords will not implement the hoped-for rent reductions. Since demand outstrips supply in so many areas, landlords can simply opt to reject those on benefit. Already a high proportion of landlords and their agents will not accept those on HB. These tenants cannot put down a deposit or pay rent in advance. Local authorities, unhappily, often take some time to process HB applications and early arrears can mount. Rent is paid on a four-weekly basis while landlords expect it on a calendar monthly basis and, however unfounded, there are fears by landlords and their agents that those on HB will be troublesome tenants. The compensation has been that LHA can pay up to the level of the middle rent for the area, the 50 per cent marker, but now that the maximum is to be reset at 30 per cent, this advantage is lost. Where they can, it seems likely that more landlords and managing/letting agents will avoid letting to those in receipt of HB. I am told by the staff in local authorities who seek to secure privately rented accommodation for vulnerable households in their area that previously helpful landlords are already pulling back, even where the council guarantees the rent and gives back-up support for tenants.
The underlying problem is, of course, the overall acute shortages of available homes. With more demand than supply, experts, such as Professor Michael Ball at Reading University, predict rent rises, not rent reductions. Until mortgages are plentiful again without requirements for large deposits, the private rented sector will have a ready market of young people who cannot buy. If landlords stop letting to those on benefit, properties will be available to absorb some of this growing demand, but that would, in the absence of sufficient housing, exacerbate the problems for those reliant on benefit.
It is very far from certain that many landlords will reduce rents, and it is possible that more landlords will withdraw from letting to those in receipt of these lower benefits. Since we now rely on the private rented sector to house nearly a million poorer households, this would be very bad news, but, as the Merits Committee notes, the DWP's impact assessments states that,
“it is impossible to quantify the indirect impact of the measures with any degree of certainty as it is not possible to predict the behavioural effects on tenants or landlords.”
It is for this reason that I have brought forward the resolution in my name that is before your Lordships today.
The resolution proposes a wholly independent, rigorous review reporting to both Houses of Parliament on the impact of the HB changes: on children; on homelessness; on whether mitigating measures, including the modest sums available in discretionary housing payments, are making a difference; on whether local authorities are being put under intolerable pressure, not least in handling the extra social and welfare costs if there is an influx of low-income households into their area; and so on. Thankfully, existing tenants are being given an extra nine months before facing these HB changes, with none affected before December 2012, so a first review one year from now can cover only new lettings, not the existing stock. The feared mass migration out of central London will not have begun in earnest before 2013 but I suspect it will become apparent quite early if landlords are not reletting vacant properties to those on the new benefit levels, in which case the review would enable Government to take corrective action. We know from the concessions made in response to the highly critical Social Security Advisory Committee’s report that swift action can be taken if required.
Last week I met the Minister and I believe he shares some of my concerns. I am hopeful he will be willing to make a significant statement today in response to the proposition in my resolution. An independent report next year could provide the basis for the Government to make “in-flight” corrections to amend or suspend some of these regulations and to prevent the dramatic changes to the HB system, leading to a potential national tragedy for so many low-income households.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for his agreement that he is not going to pursue the annulment and also for his support of the noble Lord, Lord Best. The Motion will meet the problem we are all facing—what might happen in the future. In some ways, it is like trying to judge between those who know the next winner of the Grand National and those who believe that it is an art form to study the form and decide which direction to take. Essentially, this whole issue rises or falls on an assessment of how the market will behave.
I want to consider the agreement between the former Labour Government and what the Government are trying to do today. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, said that we should go ahead with the £15 that was made available to people who could negotiate a smaller rent and we should take that away. That was a proposal that he quite rightly made while in government. There is a general agreement that the costs of local housing allowance and housing benefit must be reduced and contained. There is a question which we are all struggling with about the speed with which we do it. There probably will be a consensus in the overall ambition but a difference in the speed by which we achieve that.
There is an agreement that the current expenditure trends, as shown in the impact assessment by the DWP, are unacceptable and unsustainable. Continuing as we are from the evidence that we are given, private sector rents will be driven up, the gap between housing benefit paid in social housing and in the private housing sectors will be extended, and the difference between average earnings and private sector subsidised rents will be widened. That is unacceptable. We know from the figures that the average impact of these measures on households in the private sector will be £12 a week, but of course there are great disparities in that. The figure is £12 a week across the whole of Great Britain but if you look at the difference between Blackpool and London, you get a huge variation. That was a figure which the previous Labour Government alighted on as one of the reductions they would make, but for a much smaller group of people than that which is proposed now. So it sounds remarkably like we are moving in a direction in which people want to travel but not necessarily at the speed at which everybody wants to go.
There has been the critical Social Security Advisory Committee report and its priority is the impact of the regulations. That is its job, not dealing with deficit reduction. Nevertheless, the report quite rightly said, “Do not implement this, but if you are choosing to implement it, here is a range of things you should do to make these changes work”. I am pleased that the Government have accepted the majority of these, in particular the delaying and phasing for current recipients of housing benefit.
There is a quite distinct issue relating to London in this variation. One in four of housing benefit households in London is affected by these measures and the primary impact in London is that the average figure across London for the change in rent to be paid by these allowances is £22. However, 17,000 of the 21,000 losers as a result of a cap on the rent are located in London, so there is a London issue which is almost unique within Great Britain. I read in the other place the evidence given in the form of the committee report and the committee discussion and there was a sense that people were seeing the whole of Great Britain through the prism of London. That is a dangerous process and we may have to look at London separately because in the rest of Great Britain the average impact of these changes on rents is £9.84 a week. In a period when landlords have low interest rates on mortgages, this may be the right time for them to absorb this change.
I will return to the London problem later. First, I would like to look more closely at the impact this figure of £9.84 will have on household rentals around the rest of Great Britain. Essentially, the difference of view which I hear on this issue is around this central question. The noble Lord, Lord Best, said it just now. Will landlords reduce their rents to meet the new levels set by Government? This is fundamentally an issue about the operation of the private rented sector market.
The Government essentially influence about 40 per cent of rents in Great Britain. In terms of pure economics, the state must surely have a prime influence on the level of general rents because it pays the rents of 40 per cent of the properties. It is not quite a monopolistic situation, but the Government are a major purchaser of tenancies in the country.
How has this market operated until now? On the one hand, it seems that tenants have found properties for rents at levels which they know the Government will pay; on the other hand, landlords have set their rents at the level which the Government will pay. There is no incentive on either side to adjust or to deal with this matter. In straightforward terms, it is a market in which the principal and largest purchaser has not really had much influence over the price paid.
Will the changes make a difference? I sincerely hope so, but we are talking of market behaviour. It cannot be an exact science. That is why it is essential that the spirit of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, is followed and a full evaluation and measurement of the impact are carried out just as soon as the first complete annual cycle of the new regime has ended. We need to know whether the desired changes which it is assumed will be brought about as a result of the measures have taken place.
The market is more likely to work in the direction that the Government want if the state enters the market as a negotiator. Currently, there is no incentive for the state to get the best rental price. We are talking about an incentive that is, first, a copper-bottomed guarantee of rental income, which the Government can provide—the Government are backing the money being provided—and, secondly, a direct payment to the landlord if they accommodate the changes. That is an important concession which the Government have made as a result of the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee.
I welcome the additional funding for housing benefit specialists to intervene in negotiations with landlords, but I have to ask the Minister two questions. First, do those people have the right skills to enter a negotiation market where previously they dealt with a different set of criteria and a different environment? Secondly, is the funding which they are making available to enable the negotiation to take place sufficient?
The big question for London is: is there a ready supply of non-housing benefit tenants ready to fill the properties if landlords are not prepared to reduce their rents? That is why I suppose that such a huge portion of the new funding for discretionary housing benefit and assistance is going to London. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and recognise the distinct market pressures which make London so different?
I accept, of course, that there is mobility of tenancies in London. As a relatively new Member here who has had to seek to rent a property in London during the week, I have found that tenancies move very quickly—you will not expect to take a long time looking over a property as you might normally do in other parts of the country. A quarter of a million moves take place each year in inner London alone, which demonstrates to me that people seem to want to move rapidly. Having moved several times in my life, I must say that it has been the most horrendous part of my life that I can remember; I would prefer not to move at all because it is such an unpleasant exercise. I suppose that there is a different quality to life in London which means that people like to move around more rapidly.
However we judge this matter, we have to recognise that the reason for pressure on the funding of private sector rents is a shortage of social housing in this country. I hope that the Government’s ambitions for the net number of new properties in the social sector will be achieved, but much more can be done in this field by way of other arrangements with private funding. Much more imaginative use of private funding can be made to create more units of social sector housing. We need to dwell on that matter because this is an equation. If we want to make sure that the balance of the equation is right, we need more social housing in our country. We must remember above all else that people need and deserve a proper roof over their heads. In all the initiatives that we take to keep public expenditure under control, we must not lose sight of this fundamental aspect of a decent society.
My Lords, I recognise with others who have spoken a need to reform the present arrangements for housing benefit but I also express my concern about the measures that are before us. The noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Knight, presented some alarming figures which, even if we perhaps dismiss the more extreme end, nevertheless give rise to considerable grounds for concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to a number of charities that have supplied him with briefing papers; I have been involved with a number of others. Housing Justice expresses fear that the arrangements being proposed would significantly increase the number of homeless people, particularly within London but elsewhere in the country as well.
A reduction in housing benefit at a time when we are facing all the uncertainty and the outworking of the comprehensive spending review compounds the complications of the system and risks therefore greater harm being done to those who are most vulnerable. It is so difficult, as I think everyone who has spoken already acknowledges, for us to assess the outcomes of the proposals both for those on housing benefit and for others in the system.
The noble Lord, Lord German, focused very much on the financial aspects of the market and what would happen to rents, and the effects therefore on the families who might have to bear the extra costs of the £22 here in London or the £9.84 elsewhere in the country. I have two comments to make about that. First, £9.84 may not sound a lot of money. Certainly, some on housing benefit are in employment, and perhaps some of them could stretch to that amount—but “stretch” would be the operative word. Many others are not in employment, and the amount of disposable income after they have met their outgoings and the demands on them is very limited. They are stretched already. We need to be sure that we have some imagination as to the impact—if I can put it to noble Lords like this—even of £9.84 a week, and how disastrous it could be for some households. It could be met only by them eating less or having less on their fuel bill, or doing without some other major thing that they need in their lives.
My second point is that money of course drives this, but the focus must not be just on the money. We must also understand and try to see through the consequences of these changes, which might be driven by finances but will have a huge impact on families, relationships and social groupings. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, one consequence of the proposals would probably be that a lot of families would have to move from their existing houses to other areas. If they did so with young families and small children at a point when they needed stability in their lives, that could be very damaging—and not only to them; it could have longer-term consequences. It could be damaging, too, in that they may no longer be able to work where they were working before.
This could have a double effect by creating more monochrome areas of our society. The areas that they leave might become more monochrome, with more expensive homes and more rental homes for those who can afford them and who move in. Similarly, the areas to which they go might become more monochrome. The big society at its best is also a very healthy society, which also means a mixed society. If the consequences of the movements that might come about because of this are that different groupings become more monochrome, that is retrograde and potentially harmful and damaging to the societies and communities in our land.
I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord German, referred to the provision of social housing. I wanted to stress that as well, because part of the problem with high rental is demand. If we are to address one piece of the picture, as we need to do to find a different way in which to organise and provide housing benefit, we must look at the totality of the picture. That is why I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Best. Part of the totality must be the provision of more housing and a greater emphasis on the supply of that housing.
In conclusion, I recognise the wisdom of the proposal and am grateful for it, and I hope that it will find favour because it will help us to address complex issues. We must let our judgment be driven not just by the finances but by the family and social needs, and we must emphasise the need for an increase in the supply of housing.
I shall pick up precisely where the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford left off in looking at the impact on children and communities. In preparing for this debate, in common with other noble Lords I read briefings from a wide range of charities and was very grateful for them. I also read the excellent report from the Social Security Advisory Committee, but probably the single most informative document that I have read so far has been the impact assessment from the DWP. I even thought of simply reading out sections of it in place of a speech, until it occurred to me that noble Lords might have read it already, but it is probably the most damning impact assessment that I have ever read.
Rather than repeating the comments that other noble Lords have made far more eloquently—my noble friend Lord Knight did a beautiful job of setting out the detail on this—I want only to look at what that might mean for a family, because it is very easy for us to consider the policies without understanding the impact on individual families.
I spent some time running a charity that worked with single parents. A lot of the single parents who came through the door would phone up when their world had suddenly fallen apart. Perhaps the husband had left, or something had happened and the marriage or family had broken up. Often, a pattern would follow from that. Usually, the mother would end up with the children. She would often have been working, as would the father. When she had to do the childcare alone she would find that she could not manage it and do the same job, because that simply did not work, so she would often then give up the job. The pattern would be that she would often move to be closer to her own family—perhaps her own mother or father—who would help to share the childcare. Over time, she would rebuild her life and often end up getting a part-time job with childcare and being helped by the family and friends in the neighbourhood. She was usually able to do that only because of tax credits and housing benefit. Suddenly, the family would begin to be back together again.
Imagine what happens to that lone parent in that situation if she suddenly finds that the rent on the family home which she has managed to establish can no longer be met by the local housing allowance. What does she do? The landlord might be kind enough to drop her rent, but what if he does not? She then has two choices. Should she try to stay put and make up the difference, when we already know from Crisis that 48 per cent of people on the local housing allowance already face a shortfall? She might already be trying to top up the rent as it is. Even if the difference is only the £12 a week which the noble Lord, Lord German, mentioned, that is a lot of money to someone on that kind of income. If you shop around, £12 a week can buy a pair of children's shoes or put a lot of food on the children’s table. At that level, £12 a week might simply be beyond her reach; it might as well be £1,200.
What does that lone parent do? Does she decide to move to a different area? In doing so, if she moves from inner to outer London, for example, the children will certainly have to change schools, if they can find a place. In doing that, their schooling is disrupted and they lose contact with their friends. In many cases, the woman loses contact with her family. She might then not be able to travel back to the job. The travel costs might be too great or her own mother cannot mind the children, which means that she cannot risk being late back as she has to be there in time to pick the children up from school. We can end up in a situation where the children's lives have been disrupted, the mother might be forced back on to income support, the family has been fractured and the children will suffer. The consequences are potentially significant.
I do not want to wave a shroud; that is not my intention. I want to try to dismantle a policy from its larger scale to see what the impacts might be on an individual set of families. In fact, the impact assessment makes it very clear what the consequences are of some of that dislocation. It talks about the evidence of what happens to the educational attainment of children who are moved—about the impact on the GCSE points of those who are moved at key stages. It talks about the dangers of overcrowding, because the alternative for our lone parent is to stay put or perhaps to go to a smaller house, squeezing a family into a tiny flat. But then where do the children do their homework, as the impact assessment points out? What are the consequences for that family?
The other issue is the other wider impacts of a choice such as this. What happens to the families who have traditionally lived in a very mixed area, in the way that the right reverend Prelate described? I visit people who live in Islington—I went to a church there—and have always been hugely impressed that in so much of London there are such areas, where rich and poor live side by side. But where do they mix in practice? I remember the vicar of Islington walking me down a street to show me a beautiful Georgian terrace on one side and an interesting and challenging 1960s council block on the other. He said, “You know, the joy is that the people in the Georgian terrace look out on the council block and the people in the council block look out on the Georgian terrace”. The real joy was in fact that their bins were emptied by the same council service, that they went to the same GPs and that they shopped in the same local neighbourhood stores when they needed to. In other words, they shared local services. One thing that has long been observed is that services for poor people become poor services, while one thing about having people in mixed areas is that you have what I think a government Minister memorably described as the sharp-elbowed middle classes, who are there to make sure that those shared services are available to all and are protected and developed.
The case that I have described might be just one family, but the impact assessment says that 450,000 of the households affected contain children. If 450,000 households with children are affected by these changes, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to consider the sensible suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and take his time to consider the impact of two things. First, what will the impact be on families with children? He should track what has happened to some of those families and look at how their lives have changed. Secondly, I strongly urge him to consider how this interacts with the many other measures that the Government have taken through.
That single parent will already be facing cuts from the Government in her childcare help and in the amount of money that she is allowed to earn on her tax credits. She could already be facing a range of other cuts and benefits. She is already in a context in which inflation is rising and the local housing allowance will be uprated only in line with the CPI, while VAT and fuel bills have just gone up. These families are much squeezed already. The very least we owe them is to make sure that we do not take a step such as this without properly understanding the implications.
My Lords, I support the very sensible proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I spent a good chunk of my career working in housing, on estates and in homelessness, and I am very concerned about the impact of these changes on poverty and on the Government’s attempts to reduce poverty and reduce the Government’s deficit. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, set out very clearly the impact on individual families, and we know that transition affects poor families disproportionately more than richer families. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford made the very strong point that these proposals not only have a financial impact on poor families; they also have an impact on social services and neighbourhoods, crime, mental health and substance misuse. Throughout my career I have seen this impact walk through the doors with the homeless and with those at risk of homelessness.
While I understand that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, stand no chance of going anywhere, they are actually worthy of careful consideration. We have not thought through the impact on families and on the societies in which they live—on social services, on health, on mental health and on employment. Given that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will not go through, the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Best, is second best—no pun intended. Actually, it was intended. If you happen to be one of the families at risk—the majority of which, by the way, are in employment, low-wage employment though it is—it is not much comfort to be told, “Hang on a minute, you will suffer for a year and then someone might pop along and do some research into the impact”. Frankly, it is one of those amendments that I am forced to support. In conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, some time ago, I expressed my concern that the Government have no plan B. It is no good making these swingeing cuts on the poor, who do not have the broadest shoulders to carry the impact of the deficit, and not have a clear plan B.
Even if we accept that we will not know, as the noble Lord, Lord German, pointed out, what the impact of these cuts will be on actual families—no-one can see into the future—we know that the poor will suffer. We know where they will suffer, we know how they will suffer and we know what the impact on public services will be, but we do not have a clear plan B. At best—that is another pun—the Government need to commit fully to the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Best.
Many of the changes seem to be almost arbitrarily imposed. Why reduce local housing allowance to the 30th percentile, when in many areas the proportion of private sector properties rented by tenants receiving the LHA is well over 30 per cent? The average is estimated at 39 per cent. Why cut LHA payments by 10 per cent for people on jobseeker’s allowance for over a year when those who are in social housing or are supported by other members of their household will be unaffected? All this has one key purpose, to save money, but little thought appears to have gone into the multiple transferred costs that could be incurred by evicting up to 185,000 households. The cost in legal aid alone is estimated to reach between £3 million and £5 million per year, while the demand for temporary accommodation is likely to cost between £61 million and £121 million. That is before we even consider the impact on schools and social services in the areas that will have to absorb tenants who are priced out of parts of the country, particularly London. I thank Alex Fenton of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research for those figures. Homeless Link has calculated that if a mere quarter of those who are identified as being at severe risk of homelessness lose their home, all estimated savings to the state will be lost.
It is very easy to assign the cruelty to—and it is cruel if you are on the receiving end of these cuts and of the complexity that will be imposed on already stressed families and individuals—and to pray in aid, the Government’s and the country’s financial position. Frankly, it is not good enough, especially a week or so after we watched the chief executive of Barclays Bank in effect put two fingers up to the poor and to the rest of us. It is not acceptable. One group is being treated very differently from another. We need some equality of debate and of access to the good things in life, and I hope that the Government will at least support with enthusiasm the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best.
My Lords, it is no secret that when these regulations were first announced I had deep concerns about them, as I made clear in the housing debate that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, introduced at the beginning of last November. When the Social Security Advisory Committee’s very critical report was published, the Government modified their original proposals in two important ways, as we have heard: in relation to the timing of the changes and in allowing direct payments to landlords in certain circumstances.
The nine months of breathing space for existing claimants is welcome to give them more time to find alternative accommodation if necessary, although it will be paid for by bringing forward the moving of LHA rates from the median to the 30th percentile for new claimants. Also delayed is the introduction of the cap on LHA payments and a reduction in the maximum number of bedrooms that a claimant is entitled to, from five to four. Overall, the change in the phasing means that some claimants will be hit by the cut a year earlier than they might have expected, while others will have a bit more time before the cuts bite.
Turning to the other concession, direct payments to landlords, I am glad that the Government have now agreed to widen the criteria that local authorities should consider in order for this to happen, although I find the wording of this concession quite convoluted—perhaps deliberately so, in order to give some flexibility—so perhaps the Minister can help me. The wording is:
“From April 2011, in cases assessed under the local housing allowance arrangements, local authorities will be able to pay housing benefit direct to the landlord where they consider that it would help the customer to secure a new tenancy or remain in their current home. It follows that the rent must be at a level that they can afford. We will work closely with local authorities to ensure that this provision is used in very specific circumstances where landlords are reducing rents to a level that is affordable for customers”.—[Official Report, 14/12/10; col. WA 170.]
I am glad that the Government are providing guidance to local authorities because to me these three sentences could mean three different things. I am not an expert in these matters, but they do not quite seem to hang together.
While I am talking about welcome news, we must not forget the two provisions in the original announcement of, first, an additional bedroom to be included in the size criteria used to assess HB claims in the private rented sector for an overnight carer of a disabled person or someone with a long-term health condition and, secondly, a large increase in the discretionary housing payments. Both those measures are very welcome.
The $64,000 question remains, however, as all the speakers so far have said: will these housing benefit regulations mean that landlords will reduce their rents, thus bringing the huge housing benefit bill down, to general rejoicing by taxpayers and the Government, or will it mean that not enough landlords will, or can afford to, reduce their rents low enough for LHA claimants, that the discretionary housing payments will be spread too thin to make much difference and that therefore thousands of people will face eviction, child poverty will increase and local authorities will eventually have to pick up a very large bill?
Many statistics have already been given and I will not add to them. We all know why the bill for housing benefit has ballooned—there is nowhere near enough social housing throughout the country and so councils have turned to the much more expensive private rented sector, with buy to let becoming a popular way for people with capital to cash in on the shortage of rental accommodation. While there may be a percentage of greedy landlords who are able to charge unjustifiably high rents—the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to them and gave a figure—is not the real truth of why the HB bill is so high not that housing benefit has inflated rents but that there are huge numbers of low-paid and unemployed people who qualify for housing benefit?
It is clear that, as my noble friend Lord German has said, London with its high rents is in a category of its own, even though a lot of the boroughs are receiving the cushion of the bulk of the discretionary housing payments. To those of us who live and work in London, the mix of housing works to everyone’s advantage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said in her powerful contribution. If a large number of the low-paid workforce who receive LHA are forced to move out even of Greater London, then everyone suffers, because life in central London depends on low-paid workers; we do in this House. Of course we all understand that low-paid or unemployed people on housing benefit with large families cannot expect to live for ever in high-end houses or flats in central London, although I am quite sure that very few actually do. However, we know that a lot of families will be forced to move in the next couple of years, as the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, said. We just hope that this will not mean that they will be pushed out of the reach of good employment and transport, thus exacerbating the situation.
The real worry about these regulations is that dropping to the 30th percentile could have a devastating effect on these families all over the country, many of whom find life a struggle even now. This regulation is the one that could cause evictions, particularly in housing hot spots outside London, such as Brighton and Cambridge, with landlords not having to reduce their rents because they can always find someone not on housing benefit to pay the going rate.
What we need, and what I called for in our debate in November, is what the noble Lord, Lord Best, calls for in his Motion: an independent review of housing benefit in the private rented sector. I know that the Minister will say that this happens automatically in his department, but we need an independent review to be set up and to alert Parliament quickly if the worst fears of some of the relevant organisations in this field, which have already been mentioned, are being realised. Many groups are warning of the dire consequences of the effect of these regulations in today’s difficult economic climate, particularly for single parents and disabled people. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, may say more about disabled people shortly. What would reassure many of us who are concerned about these changes is to hear that the Government will take swift action to alleviate the situation if they are wrong and the organisations are right. I look forward to my noble friend’s reply.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of Broadland Housing Association. I will not follow my noble friend Lady Sherlock, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, in talking about the human stress, distress and misery potentially in waiting for so many thousands of families with children in our country. Instead, I want to do something different; I want to challenge the very premises behind the Government’s strategy, which I think are false.
We have been here before, with the Housing Finance Act 1972 and especially in the late 1980s when the Tory Government again pressed up rents on the grounds that they should subsidise people, not property. We on the Labour Benches pointed out then what would happen. The selfsame money that had been spent on new homes was now being spent on housing benefit, which in turn trapped people out of work and left us with a shortfall in housing. Now the Government are trying to rectify a problem of their own creation by capping HB. They believe, falsely, that HB is driving up private sector rents, that the HB bill has grown because of those increased rents and that, by capping HB, they will press down rents.
The second fallacy is that this policy is consistent with universal credit—a policy for which I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Freud—which seeks to bring more people into the labour market. On the contrary, I fear that these HB caps, together with the unpleasant and bizarre policies of Mr Pickles, will have the reverse effect. Let me unpick this a little. The Minister says that as 40 per cent of the tenants of private rented sector properties receive HB—a rather disputed figure—HB rates determine rents. However, he will be aware, I am sure, of two very simple statistics from his own department. First, as quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Best, the DWP’s own figures show that the increase in housing benefit has been caused not by increased rents but by increased demand for HB from more tenants in both the private and public sectors. Only 13 per cent of the increase in HB can be attributed to private sector rent increases. In other words, the increase in the HB bill has not come about because HB has driven up rents and, therefore, has sought to catch up with the rents that it has inflated. Instead, the HB bill has risen because more and poorer people are claiming HB, including those in low-paid work. That is a fact.
The second statistic is also from the DWP. An Answer to a PQ in August 2009—I do not have later figures—showed that 48 per cent, or nearly half, of all those receiving local housing allowance had, on average, a shortfall of £23 a week. This was because their contractual rent was higher than their HB. Some will have been in work, others on income support and so on. I do not know how they made ends meet. For those in shared accommodation, paying single-room rent, the HB research for the DWP showed that 87 per cent of young people faced a shortfall, on average, of £35 a week. I dread what will happen now that we propose to raise the age at which single-room rent can be claimed from 25 to 35. I repeat: 48 per cent found that their HB did not cover their rent. If the Minister is right and their HB then did not press down on their contractual rent—however much the tenants would have wanted and needed it to—why does he think now that by cutting HB 18 months later he will press their contractual rent down? It is a triumph of hope over history. It was not happening 18 months ago and landlords tell us that it will not happen this time either. SSAC confirms this. Nine in 10 landlords will avoid anyone on HB. Why? Because they can now let to other people at the rents that they seek to charge. In other words, the Government do not control, as they believe they do, the rents of the private rented sector. It is a fallacy. Indeed, preliminary findings from current research suggest that, whether housing benefit claimants account for 20 per cent or 70 per cent of the private rental market, it makes no difference at all to local rent levels. HB levels, and therefore the Government, do not shape the market, full stop.
Why is that? It is because it is a landlords’ market and not a tenants’ market; it is, therefore, not a Government’s market and not a HB market. Surveyors, letting agents and estate agents are reporting gazumping, six to eight tenants after every property and sealed-bid rent offers. The British Property Federation tells us that 150,000 extra tenants will enter the private rental sector next year, pushing up rents even further. Even where landlords in the past might have accepted some limitation of their rents if they were gaining capital growth, this, too, is no longer the case. Those on current HB levels struggle to find a home. What will happen?
Like the noble Lord, Lord German, I want to talk a little about the situation outside London. I have no doubt that the situation in London is harshest because rents are highest, but some of the Government’s proposals—the move to the 30th percentile, the threat to those on JSA and requiring single people up to 35 to share a house with others—will have a severe effect on those outside London. Only the first of these—the rents covered by HB to be reduced from the 50th percentile to the 30th percentile—is in these regulations, but they affect 83 per cent of those on LHA, 40,000 of whom will lose £20 and more per week as a result of that change. What does that mean? It means that instead of HB ensuring that private tenants can afford 50 per cent of properties, they will be able to afford only 30 per cent of properties.
But it is worse than that. Benefits, we are told, including HB, will in future increase by CPI. CPI includes only 6 per cent for rent—rather less, I think, than is allowed for restaurants and cafes. It is not a sensitive indicator. What does that mean for these regulations? Let us look again at history, rather than relying on hope. In the last decade for which we have statistics—1997 to 2007—CPI rose by 20 per cent and rents by 70 per cent. In each year, CPI was outpaced by 5 per cent a year. Project that forward—indeed, this very weekend Savills has reported that it expects rents to increase by 7 per cent next year, 6.5 per cent the year after and 5.5 per cent the year after that. HB, instead of covering the 30 per cent of properties that the Minister proposes, will, the following year, on Savills’s figures, cover only about 25 per cent of properties, the year after 20 or 21 per cent and the year after that—on a smaller base—some 15 per cent. Within five years, only 10 per cent of properties will be affordable on HB if these proposals continue. Even if a few landlords accept reduced rents in year one to avoid voids or because they rate the quality of their tenants and so on, they will not be able to afford to do so in year two, year three or year four as the gap between the rent levels chargeable and CPI and HB widen. In some places where there is even higher demand, it is likely that HB will cover few, if any, properties. It is estimated that by 2020 not a single two-bedroom flat in Manchester will be available for rent. We know the quality of what will be left.
The Minister places much weight, I suspect, on the discretionary housing payments. My authority—Norwich—had £29,000. It ran out in November this year. The calculations are that, even with the tripling of the sum to some not-very-generous £60 million, it will barely help 6 per cent of those on housing benefit.
I want the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to do two things today. First, I want him to give the House an assurance that every two years the local housing allowance figure will be recalculated to reflect the 30th percentile rents and not be allowed to drift lower in line with the CPI. If the Government believe that from October this year 30 per cent is the right figure, they cannot also believe that the right figure in two years’ time will be 20 per cent. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who is an honourable man, will want to hold firm to his policy intention. That means rebasing the figure at least every two years. I want a commitment, please.
Secondly, like many other noble Lords, I want the Minister to keep his policies under review. I am sure that he will say, as I would have done in his place, “We always keep everything under review all the time”. However, precisely because the Social Security Advisory Committee regards these policies as high risk and deeply undesirable, we need a report published along the lines outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Best. If the Government are right, they have nothing to fear from the noble Lord’s Motion. If the Government are wrong, the distress caused to thousands of families with children will not bear thinking about.
Perhaps I may say one final word to the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The policies of his right honourable friend Mr Pickles will undermine much of what the noble Lord seeks to achieve. Mr Pickles proposes that almost all social housing new build will come from the revenues from increasing rents for new tenants to 80 per cent of market levels in new builds and re-lets. Yet almost every new tenant coming into my housing association is on HB. Indeed, the only sensible strategy for housing associations is to ensure that those who will always remain on benefit—including low-income pensioners, those with disabilities and those always marginal to the labour market—go into the most expensive intermediate-rent properties, because HB will cover the bill, while those who hope to get back into work go into the cheaper properties, where HB is less of a barrier, because you need cheap rents if you are to get back into work. This is perverse. Those who seek to help themselves need to live in the cheapest property, because only in that way can they spring the housing benefit trap. Mr Pickles’s policies will undermine the universally credited project of bringing people back into the labour market.
What about the benefit bill? That, too, will soar, thanks to Mr Pickles’s proposals. Inside Housing, a magazine that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Freud, reads, has calculated this weekend that, instead of housing benefit being cut by £2.26 billion, as the DWP hopes, footing the HB bill for Mr Pickles’s intermediate rents will actually force the HB bill to increase by £1.56 billion. The DWP’s benefit bill will be paying for Mr Pickles’s capital programme. It is a brilliant policy.
In the light of this perversity, there will be worse housing for private tenants, reduced stock for private tenants and deep financial hardship for private tenants, yet there will be increased housing benefit bills, along with reduced incentives to work. This set of policies is an indecent mess, in which the bill, not just in money, but in hardship, stress, grief and distress, will be paid by many thousands of families in this country. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will accept the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I hope, too, that the Minister will, when we consider the welfare reform Bill, be able to accept amendments that will tackle some of the dreadful implications and the false premises that lie behind this strategy.
My Lords, I know that everyone is waiting for the Minister’s response to this debate, so I will be brief. I support my noble friend Lord Best’s Motion, and wish to speak on two issues. One is the availability of social housing and the other is the child protection issue, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, my noble friend Lord Adebowale, and other speakers. I join the consensus of concern in this area.
The noble Lord, Lord German, raised the question of the availability of social housing. Most of us can agree that it is a tragedy that in this country we have failed to invest in good social housing for our people. I visited recently in Walthamstow a mother with a young, six week-old infant who was sharing the house, the bathroom and the kitchen with five other households. We have let such families down badly. I have visited private housing which is being used to fill the gap in Redbridge and some of it is of appalling quality. We have let these families down by not investing and not thinking strategically about securing sufficient social housing supply. The concern, in a sense, is that this will add insult to injury: we have let these families down and we may yet let them down further. I strongly support my noble friend in his call for a considered assessment of the impact of this change.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, spoke about the impact on children’s services of the migration of families from one area to another. Among other local authorities, he mentioned Haringey. Your Lordships may recall from the report of my noble friend Lord Laming into the death of Victoria Climbié what he discovered about the state of the social services department in Haringey. Among other things, there was a shortage of social workers and a high number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children entering the local authority, putting an additional and unexpected burden on the children’s services. Social worker managers said that it became like a service production line. Social workers were overloaded and Victoria Climbié’s social worker, Mrs Arthurworrey, had far above her maximum case load. This was the context of what happened to Victoria Climbié and the terrible fate that befell her. I urge your Lordships not to forget what happened in that case.
It would serve the Government’s interests well if they were to consider carefully the impact of these changes on children’s services. If something goes wrong and children’s services become overburdened and social workers cannot answer the needs, the media will understandably be very scathing about what they see as the roots of such problems. It might be unhelpful to the Government in the longer term if it seems that the policy on which they are now embarking might lead to the failure of services and the death of a child or some other outcome. I strongly support my noble friend’s Motion and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.