Committee (13th Day)
My Lords, I have the temerity to ask for the forbearance of the House to say that, on behalf of those on these Benches and, I think, of the whole House, I would like to send good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is unwell. We hold him in very high regard—indeed, we are very fond of him—and we hope that he returns soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her remarks, and indeed for the way in which they were responded to throughout the House. I will ensure that they are passed on to my noble friend.
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
75: Clause 11, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) Should the Boundary Commission conclude in the case of any individual constituency or constituencies that these considerations are of exceptional importance, and that they cannot be appropriately accommodated with the provisions of rules 1 to 4, it shall have the power to give priority to those considerations over the provisions in rules 1 to 4.”
My Lords, I assume that I will not be accused of filibustering if my first remarks are not as relevant to the amendment as my later ones will be. They are to enable those who have more pressing engagements to leave the Chamber. Such very modest success as I have achieved in my life has been due to one thing only, and that is people confusing me with the genuinely world-class economist, Richard Lipsey—Lipsey being a very rare name. That name got me into Oxford, it got me out of Oxford and it got me most of the jobs for which I have applied. I assure the House that we will come to some relevance in a minute.
Richard Lipsey is known to anyone who has studied economics at university as the author of An Introduction to Positive Economics, the standard textbook. However, among economists, his main reputation is founded on the paper that he wrote with Kelvin Lancaster in 1956 called The General Theory of Second Best; and, in pursuing the guru’s great career, the amendment that I put before noble Lords today concerns the practice of second best. It is a practical second-best solution to the problem that has been bugging the House throughout proceedings on this Bill.
This problem, which has emerged from so many debates that by now the penny must surely have dropped, is the extreme rigidity of the Government’s proposed 5 per cent variance in constituency size. There is complete consensus in the House that there should be greater equality in the size of constituencies—that is not in question—but there is no consensus that that should be within the 5 per cent limit, under which only 36 per cent of present constituencies would qualify.
I make no apology for saying again that the best solution to this issue would be to move, wholly or perhaps in part, to a 10 per cent variance, which would, at a stroke, remove nearly all the problems that we have with this Bill. No doubt it would also prolong the nights of sleep which some of us are enjoying at the moment, because it would then be a much better Bill. I say that yet again without hesitation. The second best solution is the one incorporated in this amendment. It is not a full substitute for 10 per cent. It might be a modest supplement to 10 per cent, and it is designed with that in mind. I understand from what the Leader of the House said yesterday—and very welcome it was—that discussions are taking place. I trust that that is happening and I hope that this amendment might provide some grist for that mill.
The amendment starts from the chunk of the existing Bill that is rule 5. Rule 5 lays out that the Boundary Commission can take account of special geographical considerations. Those would include the following: size, shape and accessibility of a constituency; local government boundaries; local ties; any inconvenience that it would cause by change; and, mirabile dictu, as a result of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, last night and accepted by the Government, existing constituencies. It is a very good list. I commend the Government for accepting the amendment on rule 5. It is a great improvement on similar provisions in previous Acts on this subject. I echo the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who has referred to the British Academy’s study of the subject, which says that these are a big improvement and that they have the enormous advantage that now we do not have rules that contradict rules within the system; we have rules that make perfectly good sense and stand up.
You could add one other exception to the list of exceptions. It is not a subject of this amendment, but we could consider it. It is the problem, which came to light in our earlier debates, of some seats having very low electorates compared with population. In one case the electorate was only half of the population. Therefore it would tend, under the Government’s proposal, to end up underrepresented and with an MP who has far too great a workload, but that is cavilling. I very much like the proposals set out in that list, except for this; unfortunately, they have only a very limited effect because these exceptions—and they are exceptions—can apply only within the 5 per cent limit.
Whatever bizarre shape a constituency might be, however many local authorities it might include, whatever local ties will be shattered—one thinks again of the Welsh valley constituencies—and however much inconvenience the change might make, none of these counts for anything should the seat differ by one single registered elector from the 5 per cent limit laid down in the Bill. My noble friend Lord Kinnock rightly described the resulting rule as a “eunuch rule”. It is castrated from having the effect that it should have because no exception is made to the 5 per cent rule. I was trying to devise a way around that restriction so that second best could apply and we would get some progress on the rigidity, which has been recognised from all sides of the House.
This amendment would do this because, if the Boundary Commission thinks that a particular case is exceptional and cannot appropriately be accommodated within the 5 per cent rule, the special circumstances take priority over the 5 per cent. In other words, the constituency becomes an exceptional constituency, and that takes priority over the other provisions in rules 1 to 4. Where might it apply? At the moment, the Isle of Wight is dealt with directly, although it might not be when the Bill has been to the other place. The Isle of Wight is a good case, because it is one of the few anomalies that would not be dealt with by a 10 per cent rule, because the electorate is just too big. The Boundary Commission might well decide—because it would be a matter for the Boundary Commission, not for politicians—that in view of the very strong feeling of the islanders and their MP the Isle of Wight was an exceptional case that should be exempted. That would occur under my amendment.
My amendment would also deal with the Cornish problem, which we will come to later. If the Boundary Commission agreed that the case of Cornwall was as strong as the case that it has put to Members of this House, it could exempt Cornwall under these terms. It could also exempt the other very difficult problem, which I am not sure is fully recognised yet, which is that of the valley constituencies in Wales. The thought of having constituencies divided by unclimbable mountain ranges is absurd, and the Boundary Commission might well take that into account. A case has been made very well in this House for some of the big semi-island constituencies of Scotland. I also pray in aid the case of Brecon and Radnor, which I argued in this House to very widespread support, including from the Cross Benches, last night.
However, this is a very narrowly drawn amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is not in his place at the moment, sadly, but he has argued strongly for no exemptions, which is a perfectly viable point of view, although I suspect that he will not be booking his holidays in the Western Isles in the near future because he might not have the enjoyable time that we would all wish him to have. However, among those in this House who are not, like the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, absolutists about this and who agree that there should be some exemptions, this is still a very narrowly drawn provision. It is narrowly drawn for two reasons. First, it says that the cases must be exceptionally strong, not just a minor matter of a road here or a community there, and judged as such by the Boundary Commissions in their independent wisdom. The amendment then says that the provision applies only if it cannot be accommodated within the 5 per cent. If you can accommodate the exceptional circumstances within the 5 per cent, that is well and good; that is what the Boundary Commission should do, according to the amendment.
I emphasise that the amendment is narrowly drawn for this reason. When faced with other amendments, including the issue of 10 per cent, Ministers have pointed out—and the first half of this point is certainly fair—that the disparity in the size of constituencies has grown despite the fact that the Boundary Commission is already supposed to aim at equality. They draw from that the implication that there will be a constant and underlying drift to more and more exceptions if the Boundary Commission is given more freedom. We can disagree about how desirable it is to allow drift, but I hope we would not disagree too strongly that it is right that the Boundary Commission should have an important say, at least in these judgments, as to how much there is. However, given the word “exceptional”, and given that the 5 per cent must be tried for wherever possible, I really do not think that there is room for drift. I am sure that the Boundary Commission will have read carefully debates in your Lordships' House and another place and will have understood and taken on board the universal view on every side of both Houses that we need a greater equality of constituency size, taking in some of the arguments as to how that has changed over the years, so that we can now go for greater equality without prejudicing the result or affecting the rights of MPs—or, most importantly, their constituents.
I do not believe that there is a serious risk that this measure will lead to unreasonable drift or that we will get a huge crop of exceptions as opposed to half a dozen or a dozen. If it did, it would be perfectly open to the Government to legislate to change the rules so that that did not happen in future. We have five-yearly reviews of constituencies. I regret that, but one advantage would be that it would not even take very long. It might be all skew-whiff once, but then the Government would no doubt get support if they said that they wanted to remove the rule in their discretion because it was being abused. In the light of the debates that we have had in both Houses, I am sure that they would get fair wind for that, but I would be astonished if it ever proved necessary to go down that line.
My amendment would also fit very well with the wider 10 per cent variance, for which there has been much support throughout this House. There would be a consensus in favour of it, if a couple of people were excluded from the discussion, one of whom is probably the Prime Minister. I hope that flexibility is occurring even there. If the 10 per cent went through, this would be a partner to it, to deal with the Isle of Wight case. There might be one or two others, although it is hard to do that without the detailed figures.
The amendment would also fit with another amendment if the Government were worried that this went too wide. The Government could decide to deal with the Isle of Wight by a specific exemption and go above 5 per cent if they needed to, to accommodate exceptional circumstances, but with a limit to say that they could not go beyond 10 per cent to cope with exceptional circumstances. The Government could easily bring forward amendments on Report that included the principle of this amendment, which would prevent the proposal from going too wide.
This is a modest amendment, but I mean it sincerely and I hope in my heart that the Government will give it a fair wind. I have a more remote but, I hope, not empty hope that it might play some part in the kind of negotiations that are needed to resolve the dangerous impasse in which the House finds itself.
I apologise to the Lord Speaker and to the House. Will my noble friend clarify his thinking, so that we really understand what he is inviting the House to agree to? He is saying that the Boundary Commission should have the power to give priority to the very important considerations set out in rule 5 and give those priority over the requirements of rules 1 to 4. Rule 1 is the one that says:
“The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600”.
It is my view that the Boundary Commission might frequently conclude that an exception should be made if it had discretion to exercise its judgment and to attach significant importance to various factors in rule 5 such as geography, local government, local ties and so forth, within existing constituencies’ boundaries. The consequence could be that the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom would rise significantly above 600. I would favour that for a whole variety of reasons, but would my noble friend draw out the implications of his amendment in that regard—or what he thinks the implications could be for the eventual number of constituencies in the United Kingdom?
Secondly, what does he really have in mind in giving priority to the factors in rule 5 over the requirement of rule 3 that,
“Each constituency shall be wholly in one of the four parts of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland)”?
Here, I would be much less happy with the consequence of my noble friend’s amendment if the Boundary Commissioners took the view that the factors in rule 5 were so important that it made sense for constituency boundaries to cross the frontiers between England, Wales or Scotland. Indeed, while it is a reductio ad absurdum, conceivably there could be a constituency jointly drawn between Scotland and Northern Ireland under the terms of his amendment. I am sure that he does not mean that but does he envisage that it would be appropriate, in circumstances which the Boundary Commission would take into account, that constituencies should cross the boundaries of the countries of the United Kingdom?
To fill the silence for a minute, my noble friend is of course right on his first point that this could lead to a small rise in the number of constituencies—I said half a dozen to a dozen. However, if the Government do not like that, since we are in Committee and these are exploratory proposals, they could remove rule 1 from my amendment and apply the other three rules as the exception. They would then need to change the formula, for reasons which will be evident, but they might have to change that anyway. On my noble friend’s second point, it is inconceivable in view of the guidance given to the Boundary Commission in the Bill on its general rules, that it would consider crossing a national boundary. What he describes is a perfectly fair theoretical possibility and if the Committee wished to nitpick, it could draw the Bill accordingly to prevent that in law. I do not think it would make any practical difference to his very good point.
Briefly, I support my noble friend on this amendment. I agree entirely that it would be better if the Government chose to go for the 10 per cent rule option, which would take a lot of the sting out of this Bill and reduce the dangers of long-term gerrymandering. One of the things that constantly troubles me about the Bill is that, although we might not like the amount of time it is taking, it is allowing a situation where, after every Parliament, a Government come in and change the rules on boundaries and numbers in the House of Commons in a way that suits their party-political advantage. Down that road lies gerrymandering and I really do not recommend it. They really need to think again but, if they are not going to move on the 10 per cent rule, the proposal being put forward by my noble friend is a good one.
I have a couple of points on this amendment. First, last night I raised the issue of “may” in paragraph 5 of the proposed new schedule in Clause 11 as opposed to “shall” which, as the Committee will know, has a much stronger legal meaning. It would therefore state that,
“the Boundary Commission shall take into account”,
instead of “may”. That was on an amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Kennedy. Unfortunately, the Minister replying at that time was not able to respond because he was rather sadly taken ill, as we know. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, tried to deal with it in passing but if we were to have that in, along with my noble friend’s amendment today, it would give the Boundary Commission not only greater flexibility but the strength to say that there are certain geographical or other factors, as listed in paragraph 5, that would allow it to override the rules in the four points of the allocation method.
I do not want to spend too much time on it, but I draw attention to this; the Committee has heard quite a bit, over the past day or so, of the problem of large, rural areas and the drawing of their boundaries. I really do not want to go into the details of my previous constituency, or others, but at times—and this would have applied to my constituency and to many other inner-city ones too—the Boundary Commission is faced with particularly difficult situations on areas which have suffered as a result of a development there which has divided the community in some way. It might be a major road, a shopping site or whatever. The Boundary Commission needs to have the ability to take that into account. That is why I would prefer the stronger wording in paragraph 5 to allow the Boundary Commission to say, “We regard this as being of such importance that it must override the four points otherwise”.
There are many examples; the geographical ones are probably the best, inasmuch as they deal with both rural and urban areas where the geography changes significantly. For example, the building of the Westway in London divided communities very significantly, which had a big effect on my constituency. Obviously, in rural areas it would be mountains, rivers, estuaries or whatever. That geography example is very important. To put the Boundary Commission into a position where it is, in my noble friend’s words, tied in to such a degree that it cannot be flexible is a big mistake. The same applies to headings (b), (c) and (d) in paragraph 5(1). All of those will come up from time to time and the Boundary Commission will be faced with that decision.
As I indicated yesterday, I would prefer a situation where we change the wording in the proposed new Schedule 2 to read “shall” not “may” and, at the same time, to accept my noble friend’s amendment. The better alternative is to accept the 10 per cent rule but the Government seem thoroughly dug in on that, for many wrong reasons. It is one of the things giving us so much trouble on this Bill, because of its long-term implications for the political structure of our Parliament. The Minister is always very thoughtful on these things. I appreciate why the noble Lord, Lord McNally, could not answer the point about “shall” and “may” last night but perhaps the Minister could bear this in mind when he sums up: my noble friend’s amendment, combined with the use of “shall” instead of “may”, which therefore gives the Boundary Commission greater authority and strength in its decisions, would benefit the Bill. It would be a small step forward and I recommend it to the Government.
My Lords, this is a good moment in the Committee to look quite clearly at the contrast between the provisions in the 1986 Act, which currently apply, and those which the Government are trying to bring forward in this Bill and, against that contrasting background, to evaluate the amendment being put forward by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. The 1986 Act is really pretty clear; it establishes the rule about not crossing county boundaries as an absolute rule. In paragraph 4(1)(a) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, it first says that,
“no county or any part of a county shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other county or the whole or part of a London borough”,
and under heading (ii) that,
“no London borough or any part of a London borough shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other London borough”.
That is absolute, subject only to the phrase:
“So far as is practicable”,
with regard to rules 1 to 3, which predominate. Those rules are that the number of constituencies should be 613, then that:
“Every constituency shall return a single Member”.
Then there is the rule about the City of London. We have already discussed the City of London and the issue of its single Member does not seem to be controversial in the modern world. In effect, the only real limiting provision on that rule in the 1986 Act is the requirement that the number of constituencies should particularly be 613.
What happened in the 1986 Act was that the recognition of the importance of county boundaries was stated as an absolute rule and the Boundary Commission has to look at it as such. Then at paragraph 6 of that schedule to the 1986 Act, the commission is told that it is given a let-out from an absolute rule. The rule is stated as absolute, subject to the conditions that I mentioned. Then there is this let-out:
“A Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of rules 4 and 5 if special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, appear to them to render a departure desirable”.
Our predecessors in 1986 thought that there was an absolute importance in having county boundaries respected and an absolute importance in having a particular number of constituencies, but the county boundary rule could be broken if there was an unreasonable outcome in terms of the size of constituencies. The Government have changed this completely in the Bill, in which the absolute criterion is not a total number—a different number, as it happens—of constituencies, but the 5 per cent rule; that the electoral quota must be observed, or must not vary by more than 5 per cent. That is stated as an absolute rule. Then, in paragraph 5 —we dealt with this yesterday—the Bill says:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account”—
there is no encouragement, let alone compulsion to take into account—
“special geographical considerations … local government boundaries … local ties … inconvenience”.
That is in paragraph 5 of the new Schedule 2 on page 10 of the text before us. That has been the shift that has occurred between 1986 and now, and the real importance is that the Government now think that the criterion of uniformity of number, or near uniformity of number of constituencies, is the only important thing. In fact, the phrase,
“A Boundary Commission may take into account”
is almost dismissive. There is hardly any suggestion that the Boundary Commission needs bother too much about that particular consideration.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey has brought forward a third model, which is that, while the uniformity of numbers point, the 5 per cent rule, remains enormously important, the Boundary Commission may waive that on one condition; that it states that these other considerations are of exceptional importance. That requires a very explicit decision by the Boundary Commission and would be something which the Boundary Commission would have to defend. Presumably it would have to be defended at judicial review—there is not going to be any parliamentary debate on the subject nor, if the Government have their way, any public inquiries.
Nevertheless, if there was some bar before which the boundary commissioners had to defend themselves, they would have to state very clearly how they came to conclude that these consideration were of exceptional importance. It is a very high threshold and any public body would be very cautious of stating that something was of exceptional importance—it is a very major judgment to make and one which potentially exposes them to a great deal of criticism, so they would be quite reluctant to make it. However, if they really felt persuaded that these other considerations were so important that a real scandal and injustice would be created, or real damage done to the fabric of our electoral system if, let us say, some local government or county boundary was not respected, they would, at least, have that let-out.
So it is a very small concession that the Government would be making if they were moved to accept my noble friend’s amendment. In most cases, it must be very much less than likely that the Boundary Commission would want to use this provision. By definition, they cannot say that everything is exceptional; they cannot say that most things are exceptional—if they stated that, they would be contradicting themselves. In practice, therefore, it is only on very rare occasions that they would be able to use this provision.
My Lords, my noble friend’s Amendment 75 alters the extent to which the Boundary Commission is able to take account of possible factors extraneous to the size of parliamentary constituencies when conducting boundary reviews. It alters the weight that it can place on these additional factors. It would permit the Boundary Commission to give priority to special geographical considerations, including the shape and accessibility of a constituency, to local government boundaries, and any local ties when defining the new boundaries. It would subordinate the size of a constituency, its fit within the electoral quota, to these other factors if, but only if, the relevant boundary commission were to deem the other factors to be of exceptional importance.
The various boundary commissions are acknowledged experts in this field. They have been doing their job for a long time. It is their job to come to an informed and reasoned definition of a constituency boundary. I judge that it is they who are in the most suitable position to make an assessment on whether geographical or local factors are of exceptional importance to a particular constituency.
My noble friend’s amendment strikes us as reasonable, but I put it to the Committee that, if the Government had been amenable to accepting the Front Bench’s Amendment 75A that we debated last night, during the long debate that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, answered in the wee small hours, the amendment before us would not be necessary. As the rules currently stand, without this Bill being passed—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for reminding the Committee of the 1986 rules, which stand today—boundary commissions are permitted to use their judgment in cases where geographical or local factors may need to override the size of constituencies. We think that this should remain the case. A concerted effort to achieve more equally sized constituencies can be consistent with allowing the Boundary Commission this discretion.
How does my noble friend consider that the Boundary Commission could be in a position to make a well informed judgment as to whether factors in rule 5 should be considered to be of exceptional importance if it is not to have the opportunity to hear representations from members of the public in the process of inquiries?
Obviously, I do not believe that it can. That is why I think that public inquiries, which we will come to later, are of such fundamental importance to the position.
Of course, the Boundary Commission draws up conclusions at present and then, in many cases, particularly where there is controversy, there will be public inquiries in order to see whether the original suggestion by the Boundary Commission should stand or be altered. Of course, arguments as to whether these are exceptional cases or not would be argued out both early on, I suspect among the commissioners themselves, and then also at the boundary review—that is, the public inquiry. That has proved to be incredibly successful over the past number of years and I think that the boundary commissioners, if they were standing here, would agree that this has prevented some Boundary Commission suggestions that were not very sensible coming into effect. Therefore, I agree with my noble friend’s point.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey emphasised in his amendment that he is thinking about exceptional factors. He is not advocating—nor are we, for that matter—that the factors mentioned in rule 5 should dominate in all cases, just that they should be given their due weight and that, in some areas, this weight is pretty significant. Existing rule 6, by which I mean rule 6 in the 1986 rules, says:
“A Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of rules 4 and 5 if special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, appear to them to render a departure desirable”.
That does not make the present rule 6 more important than size but makes it equally important. Both are considerations that the independent Boundary Commission can take into account. The difference with the way in which the Bill is drafted, of course, relates to the size of the constituency; unless the constituency is within 5 per cent, none of the considerations in the Bill’s rule 5 will come into effect.
I remind the Committee that if the flexibility in the variance in the size of constituencies were increased from the 5 per cent stated in the Bill as it stands, the problems that my noble friend set out when moving his amendment, and which his amendment seeks to avoid, would be far less likely to occur.
My Lords, I start by indicating to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that in the days when I had to attend economics lectures from the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, I also had to read Richard Lipsey’s Positive Economics. I hope he will take it in the spirit that it is intended when I say that I find the noble Lord’s contributions much more engaging than what I recall of his textbook.
The amendment would allow the Boundary Commission to decide, in particular instances, that the factors in rule 5 are so important that it should override the preceding rules. It has been evident from the debates that we have had so far that the core principle of this part of the Bill is to ensure that votes cast across the country have an equal weight. The best way to achieve this is to ensure that there is broad equality in the number of registered voters in each constituency. The principle of parity must be paramount.
In introducing his amendment, the noble Lord said that there was consensus in the Committee on the principle of equity, although he indicated that there was no consensus on the 5 per cent or 10 per cent variation from the electoral quota figure. I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s ingenuity for coming forward with this amendment. He claims that it is a very narrow exemption but, while ostensibly reasonable, the amendment would undermine the principle of parity that we have said ought to be paramount by allowing other factors to take precedence over the equal weighting of votes. This could, and almost certainly would, perpetuate a situation in which constituencies can be of very different sizes, and votes cast in one part of the country can have a very different weight from those cast in another.
The amendment would override rule 2(1), so it would not just be a question of a debate about a 5 per cent or 10 per cent variation. Indeed, by that rule being overridden, the variation could be sizeable indeed. Existing differences in constituency size matter. There is a 41 per cent difference between Manchester Central, with 85,522 electors in 2009, and Glasgow North, with 50,588 electors in 2009. That means that 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. Frankly, that simply cannot be right.
One of the reasons why we are still here in this Committee on the 13th day is that the Government persist in the illusion that if they equalise the number of electors in every constituency, desirable of course though that is in principle, that will produce votes of equal value. The reality is that differential turnout and differential marginality mean that votes in different constituencies will continue to have different values. If the coalition really wanted to achieve votes of equal value, it would have put an alternative option on the referendum for people to vote for proportional representation. Why did the Government not do that?
Obviously the noble Lord is right to the extent that differential turnout has an effect on the value of votes, but the Bill at least gets everyone to the same starting point. The argument that seems to be coming from the noble Lord is that somehow or other you can have an equal starting point that would then be compounded by differential turnout, making the situation even worse. That is what I find unacceptable.
Why is it not right in terms of constituency sizes but right in terms of London elections—in Westminster in particular? The Minister was here last night when I read those statistics out for Westminster that showed a huge differential between wards in central London. Why is it all right for one and not for the other?
I was here last night and I heard those interminable statistics. The point is that this is not what we are debating at the moment; we are debating parliamentary constituencies. I have enunciated a principle that the Government consider important for this part of the Bill, and one that we believe would be seriously undermined by the proposal that is implicit in the amendment.
In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, acknowledged in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, this also overrules rule 1, and the Committee has debated at considerable length the question of the size of the House of Commons and the fact that the Government’s position is that there should be a House of 600.
The current situation is that there is no hierarchy of rules and there is a flexibility to move away from the aspiration, which is there in the current rules, that the Boundary Commission should go as close to the quota as possible. It was clear from the exchanges that took place in the debate that in fact there is that flexibility to move away that has led to the kind of wide variation that I have just illustrated with the difference between Manchester Central and Glasgow North, and indeed has led to a steady increment over many years, almost invariably in an upward direction, in the number of seats.
I have followed the noble and learned Lord’s course, and I am going to try to be helpful. He is worried that the amendment put forward by my noble friend would conflict with rule 2 on parity; he has made that point and I understand it. Not for the first time, I shall put to him a possible compromise. Would he be prepared to have a provision under which there was a 10 per cent divergence from the electoral quota that was an absolute ceiling and could not under any circumstances be exceeded or broken through, but the Boundary Commission would have the right to breach the 5 per cent ceiling up to 10 per cent in the event that it gave the assurance—the text of which is in my noble friend’s amendment—that it had considered that there were matters of “exceptional importance” that justified that move outside the 5 per cent band?
That is not far away from the amendment that we debated almost exactly a week ago. Indeed, I have already had discussions with at least one of the noble Lords over this, and I believe that other discussions have flowed on from that between Mr Harper and representatives of the Opposition.
I hear what the noble Lord says, but the point that I was on at the moment is not just that there is no limit on the 10 per cent—I shall come on to the question about exceptional circumstances in a moment—but that the number of 600 could be reached. I think that it was my noble friend Lord Eccles yesterday who raised the question of 630, which is the target aspirational number. Even that varies, though. With the one exception of when the Scottish seats were redistributed following devolution, the number has gone up after every Boundary Commission review.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about “shall” and “may”. The fact that it is at the Boundary Commission’s discretion whether and to what extent at present it should take into account the factors in rule 5 does not mean that it is able to decide simply to ignore a relevant factor on a whim. The commission cannot just dismiss it. I shall give two reasons why “may” is preferable to “shall”. First, and this reflects back to what I was just saying, the 1986 Act currently has conflicting rules. The British Academy said that,
“the rules set out in the Bill are a very substantial improvement”,
because they are clear and not contradictory. Our fear is that changing “may” could reintroduce conflict between the rules. Secondly, it is important that the independent Boundary Commission has the freedom to use its discretion. Many of the noble Lords moving amendments similar to this have talked about the importance of giving the commission flexibility. I fear that by using “shall” rather than “may”, one takes away with one hand what is perhaps sought to be given with the other.
As I have indicated, the Boundary Commission cannot ignore these factors on a whim. Issues such as local geography and historical factors are important. We have also provided flexibility; we have allowed a margin of 10 per cent—5 per cent either side of the quota—for these factors to be taken into account. However, we do not believe that they are so important that they justify a situation in which one person’s vote counts for only 41 per cent of one cast elsewhere, except in those very tightly defined cases where exceptional geographical circumstances make an exemption from the parity rule necessary.
The current position in the Bill is that the principle of equity is paramount. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referred to the British Academy report, which, I repeat, says that,
“the rules set out in the Bill are a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions (they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory)”.
I am concerned that rule 6, under the existing rules to which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred, is the part that does away, as it were, with the hierarchy and leads to contradictions. The amendment would blur the clear hierarchy and introduce potential inconsistencies and confusion. With regard to the point about there being exceptional circumstances, we all know, if we are honest in our heart of hearts, that these words open the door to arguments, particularly from political parties, that considerations of exceptional importance arise in nearly every constituency. This would make the commission’s task far harder. Boundary reviews would become slower and lengthier, and the result would be the unequal weight of votes that we see today. I have tried to answer the noble Lord’s points.
There is still confusion here. On that matter, there is a great difference between individual political parties arguing that their cases are of exceptional importance—the noble and learned Lord is absolutely right: they will all say that—and the Boundary Commission sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity and allowing itself to be seduced into accepting that something is exceptional in a majority of cases. That could never happen; the Boundary Commission would not do that. It would be too jealous of its own credibility and integrity to allow a procedure that could be justified only in exceptional circumstances being used in anything more than a very small number of circumstances. There is a great difference there between the impact of this word on the Boundary Commission and the likely arguments—about which I quite agree with the noble and learned Lord—that individual litigants and representatives will make to the Boundary Commission.
My Lords, even if one puts aside for a moment the question of public hearings, there is still opportunity under the Bill for representations to be made. The minute you import words such as “exceptional importance”, however the case may be presented, you can bet your life that organised groups such as political parties would find some means of suggesting exceptional importance in almost every constituency. Some have argued that the constituency boundaries should be drawn on the basis of population. We have heard that argument; it was suggested earlier that it would be one way of dealing with the situation, but I hope we have dealt with that in times past.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that this is a modest amendment. However, some of the key principles that the Government have enunciated about what is important in the Bill—for example, that there should be no increase in the size of the House of Commons beyond 600—could be undermined by this amendment. Even if we set aside the question of whether there is a 5 per cent or 10 per cent variation, the amendment would allow for a variation that goes beyond even 10 per cent. That would override the parity of one vote, one value and would almost certainly inhibit the Boundary Commission’s ability to report that it had ensured that the new boundaries were in place for the May 2015 election. It is against the background of these different points being undermined by this modest amendment, as the noble Lord called it, that the Government cannot accept it and I ask him to withdraw it.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief but informative debate—my noble friends Lord Howarth, Lord Soley, Lord Davies of Stamford and Lord Bach. They have all made substantial contributions to moving the argument forward. I thank the Minister for a comprehensive reply but I cannot apply the phrase “moved the argument forward” to his remarks. I know there is a feeling in many quarters of the House that this debate has gone on too long; I share it. However, one reason for that is that scrutiny is not just about making changes to the Bill; it is about listening to each other’s arguments and hearing what we are saying—not merely repeating one’s starting position. I was saddened to hear the Minister repeat what we debated last night when the noble Lord, Lord McNally—I join in wishing him a very quick recovery—repeated this stuff and nonsense about the equal weight of votes. Indeed, he did not seem fully to have wrestled with the concept because he thought we were talking about something to do with differential turnout.
Differential turnout has nothing to do with it. In a majoritarian system only some votes affect the result of a general election. Those are votes cast in marginal seats. Everybody else’s vote has no weight whatever, except in so far as it is used to claim that the system is biased in some way after the election. Sadly, under our system most people might as well not bother going to the polls for all the chance they have of affecting the result. To talk of some cast principle of equal weight for equal votes when our system embodies a quite contrary principle seems wrong. Moreover, it is sad that it is still being repeated after 13 days of argument
My noble friend has been very generous and tolerant. Does he share my puzzlement that the Government are so obsessed by this question of exact numerical equality across electorates in different constituencies, given that the existing distribution of electors across constituencies in this country is not out of line with what is found in other countries, such as Canada, France, Australia and the USA? The Minister expressed his great concern that there was a 41 per cent difference between the size of the electorate in one constituency and another. However, is it not the case that in the United States of America, where it is generally held that the distribution of districts for the US Congress is pretty equal, there is an 88 per cent difference between the electorate of a single seat in Montana and the electorates of two seats in Rhode Island? There is nothing particularly out of line in our existing arrangements by international standards. Unless we are prepared to tolerate some numerical inequality, we will get the absurdity that all sorts of other valid and important factors will be too much discounted.
My Lords, I come to another point that the Minister appeared not to have absorbed fully in our earlier discussions. He again said that there was constant upward movement in the number of seats in the House of Commons. This is simply incorrect. In 1918 there were 707 seats in the House of Commons— 57 more than there are today. In 1983 there was precisely the same number of seats in the House of Commons as there is today. The figure varies, and I agree that there is a flaw in the rules at the moment. It is like the Schleswig-Holstein question; I have forgotten exactly how it works but it has something to do with the use of the harmonic mean. There is a flaw in the rules that can tend, if not otherwise compensated for, to raise the number of seats. You just deal with the flaw; you do not need a Bill of this kind to deal with that. It simply is not true to say that the number of seats has increased.
My noble friend is absolutely right, although the number of seats has tended to increase in recent years because of the tendency to round up, rather than down, at the end of a redistribution in individual areas. I mention this point simply to remind my noble friend that at some unearthly hour on Monday I spoke to an amendment that was intended to do precisely this in an attempt to meet some of the Government’s concerns. That would have provided that in each of the five-yearly boundary changes—of which I am not in favour, but we have to give and take in this kind of situation—there would be rounding down and not rounding up. I need hardly remind my noble friend that that persuasive amendment was not listened to by many noble Lords because it was spoken to at an unearthly hour. However, that is the kind of thing that we need to do if we are to reach a settlement on the Bill.
Indeed, and the point about the escalation in the number of seats could quickly be dealt with if the admirable Professor Iain McLean were to be summoned by the Bill team to explain the changes in the rules, which I have heard him explain at innumerable academic conferences, to my great edification. That is how I know that the harmonic mean comes into it, even if its precise meaning escapes me for the moment.
I want to conclude where the Minister ended, when he said that the task of the Boundary Commission in producing a reasonable electoral map would be far harder if my amendment were to be passed. I agree that it is hard work being a boundary commissioner. However, although far harder work might be produced by my amendment, his Bill makes that work not harder, but impossible. We cannot produce an electoral map of Great Britain that makes sense with this Bill as it stands. I hope that in discussions on either the Floor or discussions that I devoutly hope are taking place elsewhere, there will turn out to be more flexibility in the Government’s position than the Minister, with all his courtesy, has indicated this afternoon, and that we can therefore move beyond this sterile position whereby arguments are repeated without evolving. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 75 withdrawn.
75ZA: Clause 11, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) In Newcastle and Gateshead, a Boundary Commission shall ensure that no constituency shall cross the river Tyne.”
My Lords, I wish to introduce the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady McDonagh and to speak to the amendment tabled in my name, which has a similar theme. It was after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, speaking last week about the Isle of Wight that I was minded to table my amendment. The noble Lord and many others in this House have, over many hours, talked graphically about the importance of geography and community, but the noble Lord also talked powerfully about the effect of water in that context and its psychological importance.
I know that levels of weariness are increasing and I will speak briefly. In doing so, I am attempting to highlight the difficulties of an inflexible approach by the Boundary Commission in relation to a defined geographical feature and its cultural effects. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, reminded me of the significance of the River Mersey in designating and affecting communities around Merseyside and the marked differences in the history, culture and community on each side of the river. When I was growing up and at school in Liverpool, no one ever talked about Birkenhead or the Wirral; it was always “across the water”. Frankly, that could have meant the Atlantic, such was the feeling of otherness. My only contact as a child was on ferry trips during school holidays to the beaches at Hoylake or New Brighton.
Of course, before the creation of Merseyside, which is still not accepted by many, Liverpool was part of Lancashire, while the Wirral was part of Cheshire. Liverpool was a city with a strong, confident personality, built around the port and then reinvigorated by the Industrial Revolution. It remained dominated by the docks, with all the labour implications and challenges of that beyond the 1960s. The container port, still on the Liverpool side, is now closer to the mouth of the river, and the old port area has been successfully regenerated in the past 15 years. It is a thriving, busy area, with a lot of tourism.
In contrast, Birkenhead retained its agricultural status until the advent of the steam ferry service in 1820, which opened up the town. In later years, Birkenhead developed a successful shipbuilding industry based on a very different employment base from that in Liverpool. It was employment for skilled workers. The Wirral today, beyond Birkenhead, remains a markedly different place from the concentrated urban community of Liverpool. The Wirral still contains villages, large areas of land owned by the National Trust, country parks and beaches. It looks more to Chester than across the river. It is wedged between Liverpool and Wales, with the Mersey on one side and the Dee on the other.
When one looks at that feature of modern culture, football, Liverpool has two strong and competitive Premier League clubs—Liverpool and Everton—while people on the Wirral look to Tranmere Rovers. Liverpool has a tight, strong and famous arts scene, renowned for a distinctive identity in its poetry, art, theatre, comedy and, as we heard today, art galleries and museums. Liverpool’s strong cultural identity is tightly focused within the city—around the pier head, between the cathedrals, around Hope Street and around the universities.
So-called Manchester bands, which are compared with Liverpool bands, are in fact from a much wider region. People talk about bands such as Joy Division, who were actually from Macclesfield, not Manchester, or the Verve, who were from Wigan. By contrast, Liverpool bands are from a very small area within Liverpool. I have here a long list of Liverpool bands, courtesy of one of my sons, but, frankly, given that I do not recognise most of them, I suspect that most noble Lords will not either. However, noble Lords will have heard of the Beatles, and possibly the La’s and Ladytron, who are more recent. If anyone wants to see the longer list, I can provide it afterwards.
On a more serious note, it is inconceivable that a constituent could consider crossing the river to see their MP. The train networks and timetables for Liverpool and the Wirral are not connected. Getting from Liverpool Lime Street to Birkenhead takes 45 minutes. Alternatively, a constituent would have to pay to drive through the tunnel or would have to undertake a round trip of an hour and a half to go over the free bridge at Runcorn.
The strong personalities of Liverpudlians are well known. At worst, they could be described as somewhat inward-looking and defensive against the world; at best, they are independent and confident. Perhaps less well known are the strong views of those on the Wirral, who object strongly to any notion that they could be perceived as part of Liverpool. This was ably demonstrated by a letter in the Guardian last year from a previous mayor of the Wirral. He was commenting on a description of the Wirral as part of the “Liverpool city region”. He said:
“This ghastly term relegates our community to a suburb of Liverpool, which is far from the case. Wirral, with over a third of a million inhabitants … [does] not need either Cheshire … or our cheeky neighbours over the river to mould our identity”.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that it is inconceivable that a constituency will be divided by the river. He will even mean it. However, the point of my amendment is that, if we remove the necessary flexibilities, foolish and inappropriate decisions may indeed be made. I beg to move.
I speak in favour of Amendment 75ZB, which is about boundaries not crossing the Thames. It is possible that in the far west of the Thames, near its source, this may not be an issue, but I will leave that to one side and address just what we know as this great river on which this great city of ours developed.
When one talks about some of these areas, it is always important to mention where one has lived. I should say that I once lived in Chelsea with the poshest address that I will ever have—Cheyne Walk. Unfortunately, I was on a house-boat there; nevertheless, my address was Cheyne Walk. I moved from there to Battersea. Going to the other side of the river was seen as an enormous move.
The difference between Chelsea and Battersea is not simply what we all know. They have different schools, catchment areas and transport links—akin to the situation in Merseyside. As far as my research has been able to discover, they have always had different health authorities. During the time that I lived there, we had the North West Thames, North East Thames, South West Thames and South East Thames Regional Heath Authorities. Despite all the reorganisation that has happened since, there remain great differences within London—including our phone numbers, which are slightly less important to this issue.
Us Londoners joke about having to take a passport or a visa to visit friends on the other side of the river, but there are reasons for that joke, because south London is definitely south London. It would be difficult for an elected Member to do justice to representing very different communities on both sides of the river. However, as I have said previously, I am less concerned about the difficulties faced by a Member of the other place representing people from those two communities than about the difficulty for citizens of those communities in addressing their Member of Parliament. There are different patient groups, parent groups, rotaries and charities. Their organisations differ on both sides of the river. The parishes and even the Girl Guides are divided in their organisations between north and south, partly because the divisions are of long standing.
However, London has developed in that way. That makes it hard for people to reach their Member of Parliament. It is not simply a question of transport. As I have said before to the Committee, constituents often want to group together on an issue—for example, as parents or users of the health service—to address policy concerns. The idea that they would have to address two different MPs or find a similar charity or group on the other side of the river in order to take a common approach is difficult. From the point of view of residents of London, this much loved city of ours, we should respect the border that the Thames provides and make sure that no constituency covers both sides.
My Lords, I will speak to the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Kennedy. I will make the same case for the River Tyne as has been made for the Thames and the Mersey. They should not be crossed in order to make up the numbers. I appreciate that the Minister or anyone else can say, “Well, there are no proposals to do that”. Of course there are not, but this is a warning shot across the bows. If the public are going to be deprived of their say at a public inquiry, we have an additional responsibility to air their views here.
I was born on Tyneside, in a place called Scotswood Road, which runs parallel to the River Tyne. It was years before I crossed the river into Gateshead. Now, of course, people talk about Newcastle and Gateshead because of the great work that has been done by One North East, which is due for the chop. That is a disgrace, because it was very successful.
There was never any enmity or animosity, just indifference. Of course we on Tyneside and in Newcastle knew that Gateshead was there. It had a football team in the Third Division; Newcastle United was in the First Division. We were the Magpies and the other team had its own name. The Minister would be wise to give an assurance that this is not intended. The sad fact is that that is what we are relying on, rather than a public inquiry.
I am delighted to see in the Chamber my good and noble friend Lord Dixon—Don Dixon. When he spoke on an earlier amendment, he injected a level of passion and emotion that we have seen rarely in this House. Whenever I see someone emotionally involved in an issue, I say to myself, “He’s doing a Don Dixon”. The noble Lord was able to convey to this House—and, I hope, to the local press and to those whom he represented so well in Jarrow—that this is the place where, if it has to be said, it will be said, and with passion.
When I wrote my book, I called it From Tyne to Thames Via the Usual Channels. The title wrapped up three aspects of my life. I chose it because all my memories are of Newcastle and not Gateshead. There is nothing wrong with Gateshead, Jarrow, Hebburn, North Shields, South Shields or any of the other shipbuilding towns along the Tyne such as Wallsend. However, one is proud of one’s roots and I am proud to come from Newcastle. I once had a trial for Newcastle boys. I was 13 and played in goal. I never wondered afterwards why I was not selected, because we were beaten 5-0. I was not very good. However, there is nothing wrong in pride. There is nothing nasty in not wishing to be associated with somebody else.
There has been a renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead over the past 20 or 30 years. It had a shaky start. My noble friend from Jarrow will have memories of the Jarrow march in the 1930s. He and I worked together in 1986, when the march from Jarrow to London of 1936 was replicated in commemoration. I am sure that I do not have to press the Minister too hard for him to recognise that people feel very strongly about protecting the memories of their youth. This is not idle talk. I am not standing up merely to take up five or 10 minutes of the House’s time. We have an opportunity here. I have resented very much the way in which colleagues have had to use the opportunities over the past few days to say what they want, because I fear that this is the only place that we have at the moment, given the possibility that the Boundary Commission will act in the absence of a public inquiry. I have attended public inquiries and so have most noble Lords here. We pleaded, won and lost cases, but at least we were able to say what the people whom we represented wanted us to say.
Good luck to Gateshead and to all the developments. People there should be as pleased as I am that the Tyne Bridge was built in 1924. Very few people comment on the fact that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was modelled on the Tyne Bridge. It is a feat of engineering. Whenever I talk about the things that I am proud of in Newcastle, I mention the bridge. I also mention the Tees industrial estate in Gateshead. When I was a boy, before the war started in 1939, I began to learn about Gateshead. There is a place called Jackson Street in Gateshead, which was the headquarters of the Gateshead Co-operative Society. Eventually it became the headquarters of the North Eastern Co-operative Society. Gradually, over the years, sporting, industrial and cultural opportunities have brought together people on both sides of the Tyne.
The Minister would be well advised to say that the amendments are well understood. He might say that they are not necessary—he has his own speech to make. However, I support the argument that on either side of the River Tyne, good as it is—better as it is, with fish coming out of the Tyne that have not come out for years because of the clean-up of the pollution—Newcastle and Gateshead should remain distinct and separate. They both have good Members of Parliament: men and women who speak up, and speak positively and strongly, for their areas. But leave us divided.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for intervening in a debate on a Bill in which I have hitherto played no part. I have listened to noble Lords opposite talking about rivers being boundaries. It was part of my early education to be taught about mountain ranges. These were discussed in the early hours of this morning, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, who talked about people making boundaries having looked at flat maps, although he put it rather more strongly. In Cumbria, we had county divisions made from flat maps, which presented problems. However, whereas each noble Lord who spoke about their own area may well have had a point about their communities, it is not because of rivers that communities are different. Water unites and mountains divide. That is a historical rule that the Committee might take note of.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Graham for his kind words, which I have not earned. I will talk about the amendments dealing with the River Tyne. I spent 32 years working as a shipwright on both sides of the River Tyne. I do not think that the Boundary Commission or the Minister realise the rivalry that exists between the north and south.
I served my time on the south side of the river in Palmers. I remember working in Wallsend, which is on the north side of the river. One of the shipwrights in North Tyneside said to me, “You people from the south side—from the other side of the river—are taking our jobs”. I had to remind him that, if it was not for the river, there would be nobody in a job, because there would be nowhere to launch the ships. So there is a rivalry.
I think that it was in 1979 when the River Tyne was breached for a parliamentary boundary for the election of MEPs. The first MEP elected for our area was my noble friend Lady Quin. In 1983, we had the nonsense of the Boundary Commission creating the Tyne Bridge constituency, which was half in Newcastle and half in Gateshead. The first Member for the Tyne Bridge constituency was my late great comrade Harry Cowans. He had represented Newcastle Central, which he took over when Ted Short was elevated to this House. Despite representing that north part of Newcastle, he had also been a councillor in Gateshead for many years, so he did not have the problem that some people would have had going to the other side of the river. He did an exceptionally good job because he had that knowledge of Gateshead and of Newcastle.
In the 1983 boundary changes, we had quite a lot of constituency changes. At that time, most of the Labour MPs had already been selected. What we had then was called a resettlement, where, if someone took part of a constituency, the other MP could claim that constituency, and vice versa. In the northern region at that time, we all agreed on who should go and who should not for various constituencies. For example, my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere was MP for South Shields; I was MP for Jarrow. If part of Jarrow went to South Shields or part of South Shields came to Jarrow, we could both go for that constituency, but only us two could go for it.
That worked well all around the northern region, with the exception of North West Durham, where Consett was eliminated as a constituency. The two MPs at the time were the late Ernie Armstrong and David Watkins. Ernie Armstrong was the father of my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top. They fought for that constituency; Ernie won and David Watkins lost. The new constituency of Sedgefield was created during that reorganisation. David Watkins did not have a claim on Sedgefield because none of his constituency went into it, so the result of the 1983 boundary changes was that we lost an MP and gained a Prime Minister, because Tony Blair got the Sedgefield constituency. So constituencies and constituency boundaries are important, especially across the river. My exiled Geordie friend, Ted Graham, talked about Newcastle and Gateshead. I can remember the Callender brothers playing halfback for Gateshead—do you remember that, Ted?
There is a rivalry. There are the makems and the takems. I am a Sunderland supporter. Those on the north side of the river are Newcastle supporters.
I hope that the Government do not take the amendment lightly. They should accept this simple, important amendment that constituency boundaries should not cross the River Tyne.
In the first part of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, pointed out that the River Tyne brought work to both sides of the river. That is exactly the same with the Thames. The river is therefore a unifying force within the constituency and is not divisive at all.
My Lords, I find what the noble Lord says interesting. My experience all through my life has been that sometimes the river is unifying and sometimes it is divisive. I was born and brought up on the Wear, which is the river further down from the Tyne. We never wanted to have anything to do with the Tyne. The Wear cuts through Sunderland—that is where it gets its name, the land is cut asunder by the river.
However, there are other things that the amendment is really about. It is about saying that democracy is a precious thing and that, yes, voting is the essence of democracy, but people's culture, identity and sense of belonging and pride in their area are also very important parts of a democratic system. When we are voting, we are voting not just for an anonymous object, we are voting about a relationship that we will have with someone who will represent us, whoever are the Government. For me, that means that if you say that community and identity do not matter, you break the opportunity for that relationship.
I have listened very carefully to the Minister's words. He keeps saying that I was wrong, in essence, last week when I said that I thought that it was part of the coalition’s ambition to break that link. I want to hear more from him to show that I was wrong and that he is right—that the Government see the link between the elector and the representative as very important. The problem is that once you admit that, you need flexibility.
I remember well the occasion that my noble friend Lord Dixon was talking about when the boundaries were changed in County Durham. My father was a very loyal member of the country but also of the Labour Party. He would always do what the Labour Party asked. This was the first occasion when he did not. They wanted him to go for the Sedgefield seat, so he is sort of to blame for Tony Blair. He had only one ward going from North West Durham into the Sedgefield seat, and he felt strongly that, if he represented anywhere, he wanted to represent the area he was born in and that he had played football in. As we have heard, football is very important in the north-east. I have to say that my noble friend Lord Dixon and I both disagree with my noble friend Lord Graham about loyalties and the success of Newcastle in the 1960s and 1970s, but there we go.
My dad played amateur football and was also a referee. He knew intimately the folk around him. I remember someone from the Consett side saying to me, “Why is he not doing it?”. I said, “You’ve just got to listen to him”. They came to me later and said, “We absolutely understand it. Your dad has a passion for Little Stanley”—as it was called. We all called it the Hill Top, which is why I took that title. It is not the name you find on the map, but that is what we knew it as. Dad had a passion for that area because it made him who he was. It gave him his values and his sense of real passion for community and opportunity. I think that they are important elements of democracy for both the elected and those who are electing. My fear about the Bill is that it drives a dagger at that whole concept that drives us and gives us a passion for democracy. Democracy is often not the easiest or most straightforward method of government. Sometimes it drives us all dotty, but we have not come up with anything better. We also know that it is fragile.
This amendment simply reminds the Government that whether it is the Tyne, the Mersey or the Thames, there are identities and cultures that add to our democracy and enable us to feel strength in representation. The Government destroy them not just at their peril but at all of our perils. I understand the Government wanting to say that they want every vote to count the same, but we have heard arguments about how none of us can legislate to make that happen everywhere because it will still depend on people out there using their vote. It will still depend on people feeling that it is worth while and that people will listen to them. Breaking the links that mean that people feel that someone they know and can get hold of represents them and their community is a very important part of our democracy. I know it works differently in other places, but I have a feeling that that is at the heart of how people in this country react to the democratic process. That is where the difference lies, and that is why we are simply asking the Government to give a little more flexibility whether through this amendment, other amendments or an amendment that they bring forward so that those key things that I am talking about are not lost in our country.
My Lords, we owe my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton a debt of gratitude for introducing this group of amendments which are extremely important in the context of this Bill. First, they raise the issue of geography, and we have already had some debate on that on the amendment that was passed in respect of the Isle of Wight. Secondly, they raise the question of the way in which communities are divided. This group of amendments is about division by rivers. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said about rivers uniting and driving communities, but the reality is that rivers do divide communities, and communities on one side or other of a river feel very differently from those on the other side. My noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top has just articulated it supremely well. If we believe in the principle of representation whereby individuals are elected to the other place on the basis of a community of feeling and are able to represent that community of feeling, that should be taken into account as part of these discussions.
I know that the Government are committed to the concept of fairness. There are other ways of achieving fairness. For example, I fail to understand why it is a given that when Members of the House of Commons go through the Division Lobby and are ticked off in the way that we are familiar with in this House, they each count for one vote. If you really want to have equality of representation, have them have a statistic associated with them so that one gets 1.1 votes and one gets 0.9 votes and, at a stroke, you have solved the problem that the Government claim they are trying to deal with. I am not suggesting that that is a solution that we should follow, but it is a much easier way than the many hours that this House has debated this issue.
I am particularly grateful for that intervention because I can see the value of such an analysis, though I must admit that I was not previously aware of that historical fact.
What is it that creates a community? Do we value community in terms of representation? I should have thought that for the quality of our democracy we want to value the quality of representation and the way in which there is a link between the community that elects a representative and that representative. It is interesting that if you look at constituencies and the history of where there has been division by a river, you see this problem. For example, my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton talked about the Mersey. I have a report from a Boundary Commission inquiry into that issue. The Boundary Commission clearly wished to cross the Mersey on that occasion but was overwhelmed by the nature of the representations. It stated that,
“local opposition is a factor to be weighed, but it cannot of itself be decisive”.
It went on to say that,
“the unusual factor in this case, is this: opposition to the proposed cross-Mersey constituency is voiced by all political interests as well as a number of individuals without any party political affiliation. The Commission will know whether such practically universal opposition to an aspect of their Provisional Recommendations is unique. However, if not unique, I suspect it is something which is rarely found”.
Another inquiry report looked at crossing the Clyde. The inspector concluded,
“that strong feeling exists on this issue on both sides of the Clyde and that none of it is supportive of the Boundary Commission’s proposal for a river-spanning constituency … It is I think significant that their opposition does not appear to have a connection with any party political advantage that might be derived from having or not having a cross-river constituency but it is based purely on a conviction from their local understanding that an attempt to span the Clyde is quite simply wrong for the area”.
The report went on to talk about the differences between the communities.
That is why we should recognise those considerations regarding the Bill. I particularly want to speak, but shall not speak at length, about Amendment 75ZB, which deals with constituencies not crossing the Thames. I appreciate that those who are not part of London may not realise that there are such strong feelings between the north and south of the city. I speak as someone who, although an unabashed north Londoner, has had the privilege of representing the whole of the city when I chaired the Association of London Government, now London Councils. I was very well aware of the strong feelings between the north and the south. It goes into every aspect of community life. A study published just a few weeks ago demonstrates—I think this is fascinating—that 54 per cent of Londoners living north of the River Thames never, not occasionally, but never, venture south for work or cultural pursuits. It is interesting that south Londoners are more likely to go north. I make no comments about the quality of life in south London or about whether anyone would wish to travel south. I have travelled south of the river on many occasions for cultural pursuits. However, it is interesting that more than half of north Londoners have never done so. If that does not indicate that there is a difference in terms of community feeling, then nothing does.
The same survey demonstrates some quite interesting findings about the different interests of north Londoners and south Londoners. I am a north Londoner, and 55 per cent of north Londoners rated eating out as one of their top three interests, followed by the visual arts and popular music. While eating out and visual arts also ranked highly for south Londoners, they were more likely to enjoy the capital’s performing arts, heritage, classical music and markets. Again, I make no judgment about that. The indication is that on these issues alone there is a distinction in the approach of north Londoners and south Londoners.
Where does this come from? In the 1850s, London was already the world’s wealthiest city, but that success had come at the expense of many of the people of London. Population growth and overcrowding had created a divided city, with Londoners living in separate worlds of rich and poor. Up to half of those born in the capital’s slums did not survive their first year. However, not only the poor died young; tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid also killed the rich. The significant point was that London had failed to provide clean water, basic sanitation and housing for its growing population. In its analysis, the People’s City, the Museum of London stated:
“The deadly River Thames flowed like an open sewer through the heart of the city”.
That open sewer feeling is the reason why the divide is so deep and cultural between the different parts of the city.
Even more modern literature reflects this. Wise Children, the novel by Angela Carter, centres on a particular family and focuses on the distinctions between members of the family as represented by the physical divide of the River Thames. A very deep-seated difference exists between north Londoners and south Londoners.
If we are to have any concern whatever about the importance of geography and community to representation in Parliament, we have to take these issues into account. If the Government say that that would wreck the central purpose of the Bill of fair representation, I would ask two questions: first, will they consider an alternative which changes the value of the votes of Members at the other end of the Corridor; and, secondly, what is the value of fairer representation if you destroy the basis on which it rests in the communities that elect Members of Parliament?
My Lords, over the centuries, rivers have been essential to the characters and fortunes of the cities of this country. My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has given an account of the significance of the Thames in the life of London. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens compellingly describes the myriad human lives on the Thames; the power of the river is a symbol of the power of the city.
The noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, suggested, as a general proposition, that rivers unite while mountains divide. However, some of the speeches in this debate have demonstrated that that is too simple an antithesis. My noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton has described convincingly the divide that the Mersey creates. Equally, I agree with my noble friend Lord Harris that the character of London south of the river feels and is profoundly different to the character of London north of the river. On the other hand, Newport, which I had the honour to represent in the House of Commons, is a city united by its river. Notwithstanding that the River Usk has one of the largest tidal rises and falls of any river, the history of Newport as a port astride the River Usk—and its subsequent history when the port was less important to its economy—has produced a state of affairs in which the Usk unites Newport West and Newport East very satisfyingly. In Norfolk, where I now live, the fortunes of the city of Norwich grew with the commerce and traffic on the River Yare, while the fortunes of King’s Lynn depended on the traffic on the Great Ouse. The tragedy of King’s Lynn was that the Great Ouse silted up and the town’s greatness waned from that point onwards.
Whether rivers unite or divide—or whether, indeed, there is no river, in which case it is not an issue—almost all our major cities and towns have grown up astride a river and, I would say, have been unified by a river. Birmingham is an oddity; it is perhaps the one great city in this country that does not have a river. I broadly accept the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness—with the important exceptions that have already been discussed—but the point is that this matters and people have strong feelings about it. It is foolish of the Government to design legislation that will, in practice, make it difficult for the boundary commissioners to take adequate account of this extremely important factor.
The Government will certainly say that, under rule 5 in Clause 11, the Boundary Commission has a measure of discretion to take account of important geographical factors. However, as we have argued almost to the point of wearying ourselves and others, because of the other constraints in the Bill it is not possible for the boundary commissioners to give proper attention to this. Given the exceptions outlined in rule 5 to take account of geographical considerations, the alignment of local authorities—presumably one of the problems about the creation of the constituency of Tyne Bridge was that the Member of Parliament representing Tyne Bridge would have to relate to different local authorities on either side of the Tyne—local ties and inconveniencies, on all the grounds set out in the rule it must be right for the boundary commissioners to be able to take account of the significance of rivers.
The consideration of the significance of rivers has underlined the point that we have been making again and again. We need two things: a wider tolerance than 5 per cent either side of the numerical norm; and a continuation of the rights of people to give evidence to the boundary commissioners in public inquiries. If they were able to do so, my noble friends Lord Graham of Edmonton, Lord Dixon, from Jarrow, and Lady Armstrong of Hill Top—all of whom have spoken eloquently and with strong feeling about the significance of rivers in the parts of England that they understand intimately in political terms and about which they care deeply—would give evidence to those public inquiries and press on the boundary commissioners the fact that, while appearing to be, perhaps, an accident of geography and history, this is a factor of emotional, almost visceral, importance to the people whose lives are made on these riversides.
On this point, I should say to my noble friends of many years, Lord Graham and Lord Dixon, that the idea of a member of the Boundary Commission sitting in London reading their written submissions on the feelings that they have about the communities in which they were born and brought up is evidence of the unacceptable way in which the Government have decided how boundaries will be determined in the future. In no way can the feeling behind the words that we have heard today—which will not be allowed under the legislation—be conveyed by means of a written submission.
My noble friend is right. Communities and territories will be divided up, presumably on a computerised calculation, in a way that entirely ignores the feelings that, rightly and powerfully, animate people in their political views.
The Boundary Commission in its wisdom—or in its unwisdom—made a judgment some time ago that the constituency of Tyne Bridge should be created and no doubt vigorous representations were made then. However, the fact that it got it wrong on that occasion—if it did get it wrong, and I am persuaded by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton that it did—does not mean that it should not have to take account of the expressions of public opinion that would come to it through public inquiries.
Building into the Bill one exception after another to take account of specific circumstances is not the right way in which to legislate on this matter. It would be much better if the Bill were constructed on general principles that enabled the boundary commissioners to make sensible judgments and decisions.
My Lords, I have no wish to delay proceedings and I shall be extremely brief. I was born in a place called Rowlands Gill on the River Derwent, a tributary of the Tyne, and I went to school in a place called Spennymoor, which later became part of the Sedgefield constituency. When I moved as a student and later spent my professional life in Newcastle, it was made very clear to me that the south began at the Tyne Bridge.
There was a story about the man from the south of England who came to Newcastle. He was walking up and down Northumberland Street and said to Geordie, “Can you show me the way to Gateshead?”. Geordie said, “Well man, it’s quite simple. Ye gan doon yon street and ye gan ower yon bridge. On t’other side ye’ll come to a whole lotta hooses and ye’ll say to yersel, ‘This canna be Gateshead’, but it certainly is”.
I make these points to stress the sense of community, which was stressed so effectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. Newcastle and Gateshead are speaking together and collaborating very well indeed, but it is important to recognise that people in the north-east regard the Tyne as an important barrier.
My Lords, the amendments that we are considering this afternoon go to the very heart of the widespread anxiety about what this Bill is doing to our democracy. Anyone who has felt the spirit of democracy, let alone studied our constitution, knows that the fundamental principle on which we operate in the two Houses at Westminster is that we are a representative democracy. We are not delegates; we are representatives. There is no way logically that any Member of Parliament can speak with authority for each individual member of his constituency. That is a physical, intellectual and mental impossibility. However, the way in which that representation can be meaningfully conducted is by speaking for the community of which those who voted—and even those who did not vote—for a particular Member of Parliament are a part. The first thing that fundamentally worries those of us who are exercised about what this Bill will do to our democracy is that it strikes at that principle of how people are effectively represented.
I will spell that out a little further. As I understand it, the Government have a deep commitment to the individual. They believe in enhancing the role of the individual in society. They have a great commitment to localism and making sure that as much government as possible is conducted away from the centre, in the community where it really matters. How on earth will that happen without communities in which people can find their place, discuss and formulate their ideas and bring pressure to bear on those in authority? The danger is that, deliberately or just by unforgivable accident, the Bill will undermine the very purposes that the Government express on other occasions in other proposed legislation.
There is another consideration. I was very glad indeed that in the brief but telling intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, he referred to the fact that, while rivers were significant in some people’s minds, they were not the only consideration. For example, in the county in which we both live, there is a strong sense of community. In a rural area, it is important that people can find identity in a community, because they can become very isolated and disempowered in their isolation. Communities are very important. In a great county such as Cumbria, there is history and tradition. We have had quite a job—in fact, some people feel that it has never really happened sociologically—in making the county of Cumbria, because we have Westmorland and Cumberland and people’s loyalties are for one or the other.
We also have Yorkshire and north Lancashire and much else besides. While I am on my feet, I will say that a beck runs though my village and I remember that, when I was a boy, there was a seat on either side of it. There were men sitting on those seats who in their entire lives never crossed the beck. Today, because of local leadership and the fact that we participate and have mobility, those people talk to one another and I think that the communities are probably better for it.
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord took the opportunity to expand a little more on his strength of feeling, much of which I share, about our county. I think that the noble Lord will agree that the arguments that we have heard about London and Tyne and Wear strengthen the concern. They are a geographical reality, which emphasises the point that we are both making.
There is one other issue that needs serious consideration. We live in an insecure age and one of instability. It is important to have communities as the basis for security and stability. London is a huge multicultural gathering of people. It is possible in that situation for people to feel that they have no particular identity whatever. Surely in London of all places, with its great mass of people coming together, it is important that people can develop a sense of community and belonging, a sense of being able to discuss their anxieties with others and bring their representations to bear. For all those reasons, the issue of the constituency community base is fundamental. I simply cannot envisage how we can continue to have a representative democracy if we diminish the significance of the constituency.
My noble friend Lady Armstrong made a particularly powerful speech. I was a friend of her father and knew him well. She made a strong point about her father breaking his loyalty with his party because he felt so strongly about these matters. I would have only one argument with her. The other day, she talked about the link being broken. I ask her to consider that it is not a link but the fundamental cornerstone of a meaningful representative democracy. If we tamper with that, what road are we beginning to go down?
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on the merits of the Bill and I want to be brief. I have two points to make. It is important that there is a degree of flexibility for certain communities. The community that I want to speak about is Newcastle. As a complete outsider to Newcastle, I sat there as a judge on numerous occasions and was the family division liaison judge for the area. There is absolutely no doubt that Newcastle is, among other parts of the country, one of the most obviously tightly knit communities. The river undoubtedly divides Newcastle from Gateshead. I could have replicated the lovely story told by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, although without his accent, because I actually asked where Gateshead was and people were very unkeen to tell me.
I support Amendment 75ZB on the River Thames. It is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, because she has put her finger on the problem again, just as she did in the debate on the Isle of Wight. If the Government are really concerned to do the equal voting bit, they need to face up to the fact that the way to do that is to go down the road of PR and get rid of the constituency link. I personally would strongly oppose that, but that is the way in which you equalise votes. In doing that, you destroy the constituency link, which has always been the centrepiece of British parliamentary democracy.
I remember being followed around by a Dutch television team in two general elections. Each time they expressed amazement that an MP had to stand on corners and go out into the constituency to campaign for votes in the local area. Their own MPs, because they were on a list system, could talk about general issues and not relate them to constituencies in the same way. It is a major difference. Now that the Government have accepted—although they might reverse it in the House of Commons—the Isle of Wight example, we should recognise that we need, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, some flexibility in these other areas.
Absolutely. I am no great expert on voting systems, but my understanding is that certain PR systems inevitably destroy the constituency link. I think that the list system is one of those. It is true that AV+ and one or two others allow for the constituency link to be kept, so it need not be ruled out. However, if you are going down the way of full equalisation of votes—that is, a full PR system—it is hard to maintain the constituency link. The acceptance of the Isle of Wight as an exception is a recognition of the importance of community.
All that my noble friend Lord Harris said about London is true. I have spent an awful lot of my life in London—I spent some time in the Mersey area when, for reasons that were beyond me at age five, I was taken from the bombings in London and moved to Liverpool, where I thought that they were trying to get me the second time round because they had missed the first time—and I agree that the Thames presents an interesting issue. I do not wish to dwell on the issue, but my noble friend Lady Hayter made the important point about the powerful impact of such factors on people’s lives. The south and north of the river are very different.
However, I do not entirely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, when he says that rivers can unite. I do not know whether this was just an experiment, but there was an interesting attempt in the early 1980s—by, I think, a group of companies connected with the river, including, if I remember rightly, Thames Water—to form a group of riparian MPs comprising those of us whose constituencies fronted on to the water. It was felt that the river’s importance was not truly recognised. I was enthusiastic about that, but I have to tell the noble Lord and others that the attempt failed. That was a great pity. In my case—I was representing Hammersmith at the time—the group ended up dealing with all the house-boat people. I distinctly remember having meetings on house-boats near Cheyne Walk. I do not know whether my noble friend was there at the time, but this would have been in the early 1980s so I guess probably not.
That is a relief to hear, but I remember that someone else there caused some trouble.
The point is that the river is important, but it divides. You would have had great difficulty organising community activity across the river. If you ran a campaign because someone had led off with an issue—not necessarily on school closures but perhaps on other wider issues—it was really difficult to unite people across the river. Transport was another example. For reasons that I understand are to do with the geography and soil of the south, it is difficult to provide underground systems south of the river. Getting a campaign going on underground links was difficult or almost impossible because—with the exception of one or two links, such as the Victoria line, that cross the river—everyone south of the river wanted to talk about buses either on their side or on the northern side. Where there are real issues about community, the river is an important factor. Given that the Government have moved, or I hope have moved, on the Isle of Wight under pressure from the House, we need to recognise that there are other divisive factors. The further you go down the River Thames towards the mouth of the Thames, the more impossible the issues become, although constituencies quite commonly cross the Thames at the Oxford end.
The community bit is important. We need to give the Boundary Commission much more flexibility—as we have said a thousand times—so if the Government were prepared to move towards 10 per cent, if they were prepared to make any movement at all, that could help significantly. While the Government are not prepared to talk or move, that makes it difficult to ignore individual cases, whether those relate to the Thames, the Tyne, the Mersey or whatever. We then have to address these issues, which seems a rather painful way of making these points.
As I mentioned before, another factor that came out of the research that was done on my constituency casework was that the majority of an MP’s cases—this seems to apply particularly in inner city areas—come from the wards immediately round the centre. The further that you try to go out, the more difficult it is to reach out unless you go to those areas. I know that that happens all the time in rural areas—you have to do it, and I know that you can get round it to some extent with modern technology—but the reality is that that brings home the importance of the community.
Indeed, when I represented Hammersmith for many years, my constituency was virtually the smallest in the UK. I had grand plans to persuade the Boundary Commission to let me link up with the north-west coast of Scotland, so that I could do that in the summer and Hammersmith in the winter, but the Boundary Commission did not buy that. The important thing for me was that, when the size of the constituency was increased and I took over the Ealing-Acton part, there was a significant difference between the outer London borough and the inner London one. The groups in the inner London borough had a different psychology.
I will finish on one point to remember about all great cities, which is particularly true of London. We all think of London as the greatest city in the world, and it is. London is recognised as such for its variety, ethnicity, wealth, diversity and everything that makes it so. Yet we forget at our peril that London is made up of villages. I talked the other day about the turnover of people on one of my constituency’s estates being 25 per cent every year, but the other 75 per cent included another group who never moved, who were there from birth to death and who remembered their parents, grandparents and so on. There was a real community sense. Particularly in Shepherds Bush, people could trace their ancestors back for several hundred years. We do not think of London like that, but London is an incredibly powerful, influential and great city that has its roots deeply within what I call village communities—people who have lived there for years and have family links and so on.
If we are to stay with constituencies—as I hope that we do—we need a system that allows the Boundary Commission to recognise that community links are profoundly important.
I do not want to ruffle these apparently cathartic and calming waters, but the speeches that I have heard from noble Lords opposite would, each in turn, make ideal personal representations to the Boundary Commission when the Boundary Commission is sitting, when it is appropriate for noble Lords to make such representations. Even though they are unelected and unrepresentative, under existing law the noble Lords would still have a right to give their views to the Boundary Commission. In my experience of at least four Boundary Commission reviews in my constituency, everybody was widely consulted, everybody was able to put forward their views and often those views were listened to. Noble Lords opposite have also made the point that there is something undemocratic about imposing this legislation on the Boundary Commission. I remind them, briefly, that 10,726,614 people voted Conservative at the last election for this legislation, some 6,836,824 voted Liberal and less than half that amount—if we put those two figures together—voted for something that is not in the Bill. Therefore, as far as I am concerned—no, I will not give way—the case is made.
On the subject of reading and remembering, and since the issue of manifestos has been brought up and how many millions of people voted for them, I refer to two manifestos on the subject of parliamentary reorganisation. One manifesto said that the number of seats in the House of Commons should be reduced to 500 with proportional representation and devolution in England. The other manifesto said that the number of seats in the House of Commons should be reduced by 10 per cent to 585. The figure in the Bill is neither 500 with PR and devolution, nor is it 585. The figure is 600—no more, no less, no movement, no negotiation, no pause, no hindrance and no let. At the same time, the Boundary Commission, uniquely in history, is to be constrained by a 5 per cent movement either way and with further constraints related to geographical size. In those circumstances, nobody voted for this legislation.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I could suggest to him that he look again at the Cunningham report on the conventions of this House. The Cunningham report made the point very strongly that the Salisbury convention, which was originally formulated in terms of manifesto commitments, now operates and has for some time operated on the basis of applying to the major Bills of the Government of the day. The point—
My Lords, I am glad that I gave way, even though I did not give way. The point about manifestos will be in the clear recall of the noble Lord. It was explicitly and forcefully made by the noble Baroness opposite. I was responding for the sake of accuracy and in the interests of this House on that very point. I am well aware of the Cunningham report and of the conventions of the House. I do not think that any convention or any established custom is superior to the truth.
My Lords, I would like to speak to Amendment 75ZB and move back on to the amendments, which I think some on that side of the House were slightly straying from.
I was born in Brixton—hence my title Baroness Nye, of Lambeth—but I strayed north of the river at one point, where I had a very nice time as I got married and had three rather lovely children. So there are advantages to both sides.
When I looked at Amendment 75ZB, I wondered why the Boundary Commission would ever want to split constituencies on either side of the River Thames. Let me read one section of the British Academy report, which I think proves that the inflexibility of the Bill is such that we could end up in the situation where constituencies could cross the river. The report states:
“Greater London is the part of the UK where borough boundary-crossing has been most common at recent reviews, and where it is likely to be widely necessary under the new rules. With an electoral quota of 76,000 only three of the 32 boroughs would have an entitlement of as many as three constituencies (Bromley, Croydon, and Ealing). No more than eight of the boroughs have an entitlement which means they could be treated separately in the allocation of constituencies, but because of the non-integer entitlements of their neighbours it could well be that virtually all of the boundaries have to be crossed”.
In that case, it is feasible that we could get a situation where constituencies are cross-river.
I know that that point slightly exasperates some people. For example, in regard to the Devon and Cornwall situation, the Prime Minister has said:
“It’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake”.
I know that you could just as easily say “It’s the Thames not the Amazon”. However, as has been demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Howarth and others, with a smidgen of flexibility we would not be in a position where constituencies were not within geographical boundaries and communities would have to be split. If the Minister could be a little more flexible, we would not get into a situation where rivers would have to be crossed.
My constituency was Gateshead, as my noble friend knows only too well. Perhaps in just making a very short contribution I can confess to something of a split personality, because I was proud to represent Gateshead for many years in the other place and would like to pay tribute to the huge economic development achievements that it has realised in recent years. Indeed, it has brought a great deal of jobs and prosperity to Tyneside and the whole of the region as a result. Although I am fiercely proud of having been a Member of Parliament for Gateshead for that time, I also happen to be in my spare time a tourist guide for the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Perhaps any of your noble Lordships who have visited that city would care to come on one of my tours this coming August and learn about the history and development of that great city. Therefore, I believe that, on occasions, rivers can unite as well as divide, but the point that has been made so powerfully during this debate—that the sense of community has to be recognised—is the one that is really important. Occasionally, as my noble friend Lord Dixon reminded us when he spoke of the tremendous parliamentary record of Harry Cowans, it is possible for a Member of Parliament to be a perfect representative for two constituencies across the river, but at the same time we know in the course of this debate that people’s geographical identities are extremely important, and it would be very unwise for the Government to ignore these in the way in which they are approaching this legislation.
I was born in the borough of Hackney. I lived in Hackney. I was a member of the council there and I represented Hackney in the House of Commons for nearly 13 years. People who came from Hackney came from all different parts of the world. There were Turks, people from the West Indies, Indians, Pakistanis and many, many Jews. The important thing was that they had a common bond, as my noble friend Lord Graham would acknowledge, and the important thing from their point of view was that they were quite different from people in adjoining boroughs such as Islington and Tower Hamlets. They had some shared preoccupations, undoubtedly, but in the main they were different and they recognised that difference. It was very important to them as far as their lives were concerned. I do not think that that ought to be underestimated. We are talking about the River Thames but we are also talking about tributaries of that river, such as the River Lea. In my time, it was absolutely inconceivable to consider that people in Hackney could be divorced from the River Lea. They were part of it, they recognised it, and when we think of the possibilities of change it would be very remiss of us to consider that the people who live in Hackney should be part of another borough. That is inconceivable.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton for introducing this group of amendments, which have led to an engaging and important discussion about both rivers and communities. My only regret was that she did not reveal the list of bands that her son gave her to see whether noble Lords knew about Liverpool or not. I have to say I have longed for many a year to use the expression that the unfortunate High Court judge used many years ago, “Who are the Beatles?”, but I am sure all noble Lords these days know very well who the Beatles are and many of the other bands that she kept from us. I am very grateful to her for moving this amendment.
We have heard from noble Lords on all sides of the Committee today. It is interesting to consider that the following place names have arisen from their speaking: Huyton, Kentish Town, Edmonton, Furness, Jarrow, Newport, Detchant, Hill Top, Harringey, Portsea, Marsh Green, Lambeth, Tankerness—he hopes very shortly, I am sure—Hammersmith and, last but not least at all, Gateshead. For unelected noble Lords, place names are important. Lutterworth is important to me, and I am sure that Tankerness is important to the noble and learned Lord. That shows that a sense of community runs not just in the House of Commons, where it would run a great deal for those fortunate enough to represent people of a particular community, but in this House.
On the rivers that make up the three amendments in this group, the amendments are a direct consequence of the stringency of the proposed 5 per cent variance in constituency size. Such a tight discrepancy in the size of parliamentary constituencies will result in unavoidable anomalies. Similar strict rules were applied in recent boundary reviews into the Scottish Parliament constituencies, which my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey talked about briefly. There were numerous well chronicled objections to the recommendations of the Boundary Commission. One of the most contested was a proposal to have a cross-Clyde constituency. The assistant commissioner’s report wrote of the proposed cross-Clyde constituency, of what would have been called North Renfrewshire and Clydebank, that,
“strong feeling exists on this issue on both sides of the Clyde and … none of it is supportive of the Boundary Commission's proposal for a river-spanning constituency".
The report went on to say:
“I have to say that the opposition voiced at the inquiry from both sides of the river struck me as not only vociferous and strongly held but also as based on sound sense. I did not think I was being made to listen to opposition voiced for opposition’s sake nor to objection being made merely against change. It appeared to me on the contrary to be true to say that the communities on the two sides of the river live very separate lives save for the fact that each looks eastward toward Glasgow”.
He went on:
“It is I think quite clear that it is only for reasons of ‘regrettable necessity’, as the Conservative Party puts it, in order to get closer to satisfaction of Rule 2”—
that is, proximity to electoral quota under the existing rules—
“that this cross-river constituency proposal has been devised at all. Clearly the proposal is entirely unacceptable to the actual inhabitants, the voters, on either side of the river and what, I am inclined to ask myself, is the point of doing all this and causing all the annoyance and dissatisfaction which became evident at the inquiry merely in order to provide an extra 18,500 or 23,500 voters to the proposed new constituencies of the old Renfrewshire?”.
Those words are well worth bearing in mind when we consider what we are being asked to do in this Bill.
There have been other similar examples of river-related boundary controversies. A recent boundary review provided for a constituency in Liverpool that would cross the Mersey. The report of the public inquiry, called on the Boundary Commission's recommendation, reveals that,
“opposition to the proposed cross-Mersey constituency is voiced by all political interests as well as a number of individuals without any party political affiliation ... In the context of a representative democracy, I believe that such extensive opposition is a matter which must be given careful consideration whatever the reason or reasons which underlie it”.
It is common sense that if those public inquiries had not been held, the assistant commissioner would not have picked up in both those boundary reviews the sense of popular feeling among politicians and, markedly—from what the two commissioners were saying—among ordinary members of the public about what was proposed. An open element in public inquiries is absolutely essential. Our debate today about rivers is proof of that.
If the rules remain as they are envisaged in the Bill, these and related problems, such as constituencies divided by hills or mountains, will occur when the then Boundary Commissions present their reports in 2013. The first boundary review will precipitate wide-scale upheaval by redrawing the entire UK constituency map on a basis of 50 fewer seats. We strongly believe that allowing a 10 per cent variance in constituency size could avoid some of the anomalies. It could prevent constituencies crossing, for example, the Mersey, the Thames or the Tyne.
In the context that the Government do not budge on the size of constituencies, we can think of no greater cause for retaining the public inquiry process than the likely creation of constituencies that have been outlined. Such constituencies would likely excite considerable concern, which should rightly be given an oral hearing and a forum in which to present fears and alternative suggestions on constituency formation.
We will get to the issue of public inquiries in due course. There is a lot of feeling in the House in favour of their retention. We hope that the Government will listen to it.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, for introducing the debate, which focuses on three rivers: the Mersey, the Tyne and the Thames. Although there have been a number of contributions about the Tyne and the Thames, I am sure the noble Baroness knows that she is not alone in her concerns about the issues of the Mersey.
I indicate at the outset that it has never been considered, even in the 1986 Act, which sets out the current rules for the Boundary Commissions, that rivers are geographical features that are so exceptional as to be unable to be crossed by a constituency boundary. Perhaps that is not surprising. As my noble friends Lord Cavendish and Lord Swinfen indicated, in many cases rivers can actually link communities. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, indicated that in Newport the river was by no means a barrier but was a link between communities. In many places, the transport arrangements are such that there is no particular issue.
An important issue has been raised in the debate on the importance of community. It was mentioned specifically by the noble Lords, Lord Walton of Detchant and Lord Dixon, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Quin and Lady Armstrong, mostly in the context of the Tyne. It is recognised that there are a number of rivers where north and south have a certain resonance.
In his introductory remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, reeled off a lot of the territorial names of noble Lords and Baronesses who have taken part in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will no doubt speak later. Strathclyde is a much bigger place than Tankerness or, for that matter, Gateshead or Detchant. The important point is that Tankerness is not even a whole parish in Orkney, whereas Gateshead is a constituency and Strathclyde was a territorial name even before it was a Scottish region. There are many different levels of community. It would be a rare Member of Parliament indeed who represented only one community; most Members of Parliament represent a number of different communities. I fully understand the strong sense of belonging that Members who have represented constituencies for many years have, but no Member of Parliament has a right to represent them. If there are boundary changes or there is a fluctuation in the swing of the pendulum, a Member of Parliament may find that he or she is no longer there, and a new Member of Parliament must start building relationships with the constituents whom they represent.
The important point is the relationship between the constituent and the Member; the constituent feels that they can go to their Member or the Member can go to them. That was the point that struck me during the early contributions to this debate on the idea that somehow or other the constituents would face problems having to cross a river to see their Member of Parliament. I thought, “Why can’t the Member of Parliament cross the river to see their constituents?”. When some of us have to travel hundreds of miles to visit different islands, it is not too much to ask a Member of Parliament to cross a river to see a constituent. That is not to deny the sense of belonging in communities that rivers often define. Nor is it to say that the Boundary Commission for England would necessarily recommend a constituency that crosses the rivers named in the amendments, although such constituencies have existed under the present rules—I think Tyne Bridge was mentioned. No constituencies in Newcastle, Gateshead, London or Merseyside sit on two sides of the areas’ respective rivers.
However, the Boundary Commission is independent. The Government’s difficulty is that they cannot say definitely that the Boundary Commission would not make such a proposal, and it would be wrong to do so. Equally, in a number of debates in which noble Lords have sought and pleaded for more flexibility, it would not have been right to pass amendments that would tie the hands of the Boundary Commission. If recommendations were made in the future that resulted in constituencies spanning any of the rivers concerned, anyone who felt that that was undesirable would be able to make representations to the Boundary Commission.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, made a great point, which I have no doubt we will come back to, about public hearings and tribunals. My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes indicated that people are perfectly able to make written representations to the Boundary Commission if they feel strongly.
I assure the Minister that there is no ambition on this side of the Committee to tie the hands of the Boundary Commission; the opposite is the case. The whole reason why we have spent many hours making the case for flexibility is to seek to ensure that the current power of independent discretion possessed by Boundary Commissions is retained. It is radically diminished by the formula in the Bill that allows for a margin of flexibility of merely 5 per cent. Conscious of that, this side of the Committee has offered an amendment which would allow a variation of more than 5 per cent but provide an absolute prohibition on one of more than 10 per cent. If there was an inclination to accept such an attitude, this side of the Committee and Cross-Benchers would not have to expend any more time and energy on trying to find a way to provide the Boundary Commission with effective discretion relating to the reality of boundaries and communities, because it would be able to exercise it within a realistic margin. I would be very much obliged if the noble Lord recognised the absence of an ambition to tie Boundary Commissions’ hands; indeed, our motivation is the opposite.
My Lords, the terms of the amendments are quite deliberate, stating that “a Boundary Commission shall”. If we go back to the original principle of parity and one vote, one value, the Government are not saying, “Get what the electoral quota should be and that must be it, with no flexibility whatever”. There is flexibility, and there is a genuine debate as to its degree, but this and earlier amendments use “shall”, which takes away some of that discretion.
If people feel strongly about a proposal when it comes forward, it will be possible for them to make representations to the Boundary Commission. Local ties and geographical considerations are among the factors to which it may have regard if, and to the extent that, it sees fit. As I indicated in response to the previous debate, the Boundary Commission cannot set aside those considerations at a whim when it makes its initial recommendations. Where “shall” does come into effect is in Clause 12. Subsection (1), which allows for a period for making representations that is three times as long as under existing legislation, states that,
“the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made”.
The suggestion made in the debate that such representations can simply be swept aside and not given proper consideration is just not right. It gives the impression that the public will somehow be excluded from the process. In many respects, the public may have more opportunities, and certainly longer opportunities, to make representations; it may just be that the parties will not be represented by Queen’s Counsel when a public hearing takes place.
I make two points in response. Yes, there is a quota, but, first, in making recommendations, the Boundary Commission may have regard to local ties. As I indicated yesterday, the Government are minded to look again before Report at the question of wards, which, perhaps more than any other electoral area, best reflect local ties.
Secondly, as I indicated in my opening remarks, there are a number of different communities within one given constituency. Members of Parliaments of all parties seek to represent as best as they can different interests in different communities within their constituencies.
If the noble Lord is saying that the Boundary Commission should have regard to the political makeup of a particular constituency, I can tell him that I am aware of no statutory basis for doing that. I would be very surprised if that was a function. Indeed, the way in which political parties presently dress up political considerations in all sorts of different guises when they give evidence to inquiries suggests very strongly that the Boundary Commission would not do that.
Our reservations about the amendment are nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of past and future representation in the areas concerned, but this is not the right place to deal with such specific exceptions. Where the situations described arise, they can be dealt with under the provisions presently in the Bill. If local circumstances argued strongly for a avoiding a cross-river constituency, the Boundary Commission’s detailed consideration of specific elements of the case would produce the most effective result, where local specifics of geography and the importance of community structure in each riverside area would be balanced with the need for electors in all parts of this United Kingdom to have equal-value votes. That is the best way of achieving balance between equality of constituency size and having proper regard for community in design of our future constituencies. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, there are times, particularly perhaps in the early hours of the many mornings that we have been here, when this Bill sounds like it is about practical maths and equations. We have seen in the past hour and a half or so that it is about people, relationships and the health of our democracy. These are illustrative amendments, but they show the practical and emotional implications of the Bill. I am grateful for that reason to the many noble Lords who have spoken. They have spoken from the heart, which has been very important in demonstrating why the Bill really matters. The debate has shown also why it is important that people still come to make representations in person to the Boundary Commission, which is so much more powerful than a lot of paper.
I hope that the Government have listened and that we will start to have practical and serious conversations about how we can move forward. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 75ZA withdrawn.
Amendments 75ZB to 77A not moved.
77B: Clause 11, page 10, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) The Boundary Commission for Scotland may take into account the boundaries of constituencies of the Scottish Parliament.”
My Lords, we now return to Scotland. We have heard a few mentions of the Clyde—the River Clyde in particular—from my noble friends Lord Harris and Lord Bach. Of course, the arguments that we had in relation to the Tyne, the Thames and the Mersey rivers apply equally to the Clyde and to the River Forth. I think it is inconceivable that we would have a constituency in Scotland that would straddle the River Forth. It would create so many problems, and it has never been considered by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. This brings me to my second preliminary point. During the previous debate—and I have no quarrel with it because we were talking about rivers in England—there was constant reference to the Boundary Commission, singular; but, of course, there is more than one Boundary Commission. There are a number of Boundary Commissions; and, of course, my particular concern is the Boundary Commission for Scotland. This amendment would insert in the Bill, on page 10, at the end of line 21, the following sentence:
“The Boundary Commission for Scotland may”—
and I use the same word, “may”, as is used in the Bill for other factors—
“take into account the boundaries of constituencies of the Scottish Parliament”.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be the Minister who will reply to the debate, and I welcome him back to our discussions. As I said on a previous occasion, he is an old friend and he used to be a constituent of mine. We have worked together—not always on the same side—for a long time. He knows Scotland well, and I think that he will understand some of the arguments that I am going to make.
In starting to think about how the Scottish constituencies would be allocated and distributed by the Boundary Commission for Scotland, I came up against a particular problem. It is one of these things that keep coming back to hit one as one sits through more and more of these debates—namely, that in this Bill there are many more problems, difficulties, traps and obstacles than seems to be the case initially when one reads it and thinks about it. The particular obstacle that I came across in thinking about the allocation of constituencies for Scotland is how many constituencies there will be for Scotland in the new arrangement if this Bill is enacted. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will give us some indication of that when he first replies, as it would be useful.
I looked at page 11, line 12 onwards, relating to the allocation method. I have tried very hard to work out from this how many constituencies there will be. If we have 600 for the whole of the United Kingdom, if we have the two preserved constituencies, how many will there be for Scotland? The allocation method—which we will discuss in greater detail later on amendments laid down to change it—is referred to in rule 8(2) as follows:
“The first constituency shall be allocated to the part of the United Kingdom with the greatest electorate”.
I am not sure whether this means that England—because England has the greatest electorate—or the constituencies that have the greatest electorate would be the first to be agreed. If the latter, I assume that if the Isle of Wight remained one constituency it would be the Isle of Wight, and if it does not, it would be Daventry on the present arrangement.
I am really grateful to the noble Lord opposite—I never thought that I would be saying that. That is really helpful. That was my initial understanding, that the part of the United Kingdom would be England. Therefore the first constituency is allocated in England. The rule goes on to say:
“The second and subsequent constituencies shall be allocated in the same way, except that the electorate of a part of the United Kingdom to which one or more constituencies have already been allocated is to be divided by … 2C+1 … where C is the number of constituencies already allocated to that part”.
By the way, when they say,
“the part of the United Kingdom”,
I do not understand why they do not say England, because it is so manifestly obvious that England has the greatest electorate, greater than any other part of the UK if we are talking about countries. Nevertheless, I accept that the noble Lord’s interpretation is right. It goes on to say:
“This rule does not apply to the constituencies mentioned in rule 6, and accordingly the electorate of Scotland shall be treated for the purposes of this rule as reduced by the electorate of those constituencies”.
We can understand that. Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are not included, so it is mainland Scotland. I have tried to work out how many constituencies this would give Scotland, and I have not been able to do so. The Minister has many more resources than I have. He has behind him all the departments—principally the Cabinet Office, as well as the Ministry of Justice. It would certainly help our discussions today and subsequently if we could get some indication of how many that would leave for mainland Scotland if the Bill were enacted as it stands and there were 600 constituencies for the United Kingdom, with the two preserved constituencies.
Then we come to a dilemma. As I said in an earlier debate—I do not blame the present coalition for all of this—in Scotland we have a plethora of constituencies and of voting systems. These include council wards and council areas which have been changed on a number of occasions. We have election by single transferable vote. We have the Scottish Parliament constituencies, the Westminster constituencies and the whole of Scotland—which is one constituency for Europe. We also have the eight European constituencies, which are used for the regional elections to the Scottish Parliament, which makes it particularly difficult. As a result, we have ended up with 73 Scottish Parliament constituencies, elected by first past the post, 70 of them on mainland Scotland; we have the Western Isles as a separate constituency, Orkney as a separate constituency and Shetland as a separate constituency. Therefore, we have 70 mainland constituencies electing Members to the Scottish Parliament by first past the post.
Furthermore, we have 59 Westminster constituencies electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons by first past the post. However, because of the way that the Boundary Commission decisions have been made in the past, of course there is no correlation, there is no contiguity, there is no exact coterminosity between the Scottish Parliament constituencies and the UK Parliament constituencies. There could not be—59 and 70 are different numbers. As I said earlier, it was originally planned that, when the number of UK constituencies was reduced to 59, the number of Scottish Parliament first past the post constituencies would also be reduced to 59 on the same boundaries. However, this was not done by agreement across the parties of the Scottish Parliament and, I think, against the wishes of this Parliament. Nevertheless, the power had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, we end up with constituencies for the Scottish Parliament which are totally different from the constituencies for the UK Parliament. Very often, the overlap is not just that each Member of the UK Parliament has two MSPs to deal with. Sometimes it is three MSPs, sometimes four, because the overlap is so great and the system is so complicated.
When the Boundary Commission for Scotland looks at the new constituencies for the UK Parliament, it should take account of the Scottish constituencies and try to get a greater degree of contiguity. It will not achieve 100 per cent, of course—it cannot—but it might achieve some greater degree of coterminosity. I have thought about whether it would be worth suggesting that each Westminster constituency should consist of two Holyrood constituencies, but in fact the arithmetic does not work out because there will be more Westminster constituencies than half of the 72—there will be more than 36. I do not know what the number will be, but I certainly know that it will be more than 36.
It is still possible for the Boundary Commission to draw up boundaries for the UK Parliament that cover no more than two Scottish Parliament constituencies. To take a random example, there must be a new Rutherglen parliamentary constituency, outside Glasgow, for Westminster. It would include the Rutherglen constituency in the Scottish Parliament and part of just one other constituency. In this case it would be Hamilton. That would make things a lot easier and understandable, and I think that it could be achieved. It is a very simple suggestion. It would be helpful for the public and the Members of Parliament and it would produce a much simpler and more coherent system for the Scottish constituencies. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on behalf of the Government, if he cannot accept the proposal in the form that I have put it, will say that it should be given sympathetic consideration.
I wonder whether I might offer a word of advice to the noble Lord. At 1.30 this morning, in one minute flat, I proposed a very simple and very straightforward amendment to the Bill, which was passed by the Committee. Rather than hearing from everybody who has ever had any constituency experience in Scotland—a repetition of the argument that the noble Lord gave us in 12 minutes of fascinating discussion—I wonder whether very simply we could now proceed to some conclusion.
I support in general what he says. I have two points to make. I think that his amendment may be in the wrong place. It should probably have come in under rule 5(1), where it says:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit”.
That is a very important qualification, and all four of the Boundary Commissions are advised by that.
In addition, this amendment may be too broad in its present terms. The intention is right and it may well be that my noble friend is prepared to accept it, but if the noble Lord would keep quiet now it would be more likely to be accepted.
I rise to support the amendment and, pace the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I have never had anything to do in a representational capacity in a constituency in Scotland, since I am not an ex-Member of another place.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will I know be very well aware of the crucial role that the Scottish Constitutional Convention played in the preparations for everything to do with the Scottish Parliament, although other noble Lords in this House are possibly much less aware of the convention and its very important role. The convention worked for some 10 years. It began in March 1989 and wound up very happily in a very celebratory meeting in 1999, when it wound itself up before the opening of the Scottish Parliament.
The convention hammered out a blueprint for the Scottish Parliament that was almost wholly incorporated into the White Paper and the Scotland Bill. The convention consisted of the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party and the Scottish Labour Party, as well as nearly all local authorities, trade unions and churches in Scotland—in fact, almost the whole of civil society in Scotland except the Scottish Conservative Party, unfortunately, and the Scottish National Party. I declare an interest here, of which I am very proud. I shared with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, the honour to be one of the final two co-chairs of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In 1995, the convention launched a document entitled, Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right, in which it laid out its blueprint for how a Scottish Parliament should be set up and should from then on proceed once the legislation passed through the Westminster Parliament.
On the electoral system—and this is where it is very relevant to this amendment—the convention said that there should be a new method of electing Members of the Parliament. It said that the Scottish Parliament should have 129 Members, 73 elected by the first past the post system in the existing Westminster boundary areas and 56 additional Members elected from a larger geographical area through lists prepared by political parties and other organisations. The additional Members would be elected to reflect a degree of proportional representation depending on the votes cast for each list. Those additional 56 Members were to include seven Members for each of the eight European regional constituencies.
I hope that, in paying attention to what that establishes as the system for choosing the Scottish MSPs and allying it to what my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock said about the complexity of the whole system in Scotland, noble Lords will agree that because of this system—which is unique in the United Kingdom—it is crucially important that the Boundary Commission for Scotland may take into account the constituency boundaries of the Scottish Parliament. In a way, it makes the situation quite different from the rest of the United Kingdom. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I suspect that not for the last time in the debates this evening I take a different point of view from my noble friend Lady Ramsay of Cartvale. The relevance of that is to do with her comments on the record of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. She says that it is relevant to what we are discussing now because it has been quoted as an example or a way of working or because the information that came from it is relevant. I do not wear quite the same rose-tinted glasses in relation to that organisation. I did not intend to speak, but as usual I failed to resist my annoyance—no, that is too strong a word and I would not say it, or not in your Lordships' House—or my reaction to the jibe from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about the time that noble Lords are taking to revise and review the legislation. I hope that nobody on any side of the House is intimidated by these continual jibes. We are here to revise and, I hope, to improve the legislation.
I bring myself to the relevance of the Scottish convention’s record, to which my noble friend referred. Once again we had a situation where the great and the good got together and where everybody was all caught up in an atmosphere of being nice to each other and trying to work together for Scotland. I do not criticise that, as it was with the best of intentions, but in doing so they allowed the Liberals to sucker them because the Liberals gained more out of that system than anybody else. They gained an infamous list system—infamous is the right word—of electing MSPs in Scotland. It is not even just about electing them. These list MSPs, especially the Liberals, wander all over the Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies, plucking the cases that suit them for political purposes and ignoring the rest. Also, instead of concentrating on the regions which they supposedly represent, lo and behold, guess where they seem to spend most of their time? Again, this is especially the Liberals. It is in the constituency where they stood as a first past the post candidate. We should not let anyone get carried away, in my opinion, by the eloquent words of my noble friend Lady Ramsay of Cartvale because it is just not right.
I also tell my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock that I am still not quite sure about the primacy that his amendment would seek to give the Boundary Commission—advice or guidance on taking more account—because the Westminster constituencies are the true measures of how the commission should go about its work. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, made a relevant point. There are indeed many communities, or more communities than one, in a Westminster constituency. The one that I know best, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, has about five or six with the three core ones being, as I have said before, Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway. I have to tell my noble friend that I am not convinced that the Scottish parliamentary constituencies are the real thing to take account of here. I remain to be convinced. I may come back in again once I hear from the noble Lord the Leader of the House, with the benefit of his experience, and my own Front Bench but at this stage I certainly reserve my position regarding my noble friend's amendment.
My Lords, this amendment, put down by my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, proposes that:
“The Boundary Commission for Scotland may take into account the boundaries of constituencies of the Scottish Parliament”.
Three specific points emerge from this amendment. First, it is worth while to look at the experience of the Boundary Commission for Scotland in dealing with the drawing of the boundaries for the Scottish Parliament. The experience of those involved in public inquiries was that the rules were “too rigid”. The rules, although much more rigid than previously, are less rigid than the current rules.
Sheriff Principal Kerr, who conducted a public inquiry into the West of Scotland constituencies, said that the Act,
“introduced a rigidity which had not previously existed”,
and, in the foreword to his report, said:
“Too little attention has been paid in my view to local authority boundaries, to geographical considerations, to inconveniences resulting from proposed constituency changes and to the sundering of local ties; and too much emphasis has been laid on the requirement (although qualified by the other rules)”—
which is not the position here—
“of Rule 2 that numerical proximity to the electoral quota be achieved. This consequence”,
the Sheriff Principal said,
“came out very clearly in the present inquiry and it is I think necessary to remedy it so far as reasonable, at least for the West of Scotland, in order to avoid the continuance of a sense of grievance which appears to be widely or even universally felt in some quarters”.
Point number one: the effect of too rigid rules is, in the view of Sheriff Principal Kerr, to create a sense of grievance.
Point two is that public inquiries were very important in dealing with it. There were, in the wake of the drawing of the boundaries for the Scottish Parliament, 10 major public inquiries relating to the constituencies. That is in the context of the paramount importance, although not quite to the extent in this Bill, of the electoral quota. Very significant changes, which came about because of those 10 public inquiries, were made to the initial proposals made by the Boundary Commission. Those public inquiries constituted both a safety valve and a means of looking at the specific problems that arose. I suspect that they would not have emerged if there had not been a judicial figure, such as Sheriff Principal Kerr in the West of Scotland, to deal with and listen to submissions.
The third point is, in a sense, specifically raised by the amendment:
“The Boundary Commission … may take into account the boundaries of constituencies of the Scottish Parliament”.
It seems to me that, when drawing the boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies, it would be sensible for the Boundary Commission for Scotland to have regard to where the boundaries are in relation to the MSPs’ constituencies. They cannot be coterminous because, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes has pointed out, there are 59 parliamentary constituencies and—I cannot remember what the number is in relation to first past the post.
There are 70 in relation to the Scottish Parliament, so while they cannot be coterminous it must be sensible, as far as possible, not to try rigidly to make them coterminous but to have regard to them. I hope that the prescient words of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who said, “Shut up and listen and you might make some progress”, might mean that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will say that he will accept this amendment, because it seems sensible to me. Then we will regret not having followed the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, because it may be that talking too much has cost us the warm opinion and the change of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.
My Lords, that was interesting and, by the standards of this Committee, a relatively short debate, so I will try to be as accommodating to the noble and learned Lord as the Government were to my noble friend Lord Tyler. I thought that the point which my noble friend was making, which was very sensible, was that we did not necessarily need to listen to everybody who had once represented a Scottish constituency to get the point being put forward—although it was useful to hear from other noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was right. He was indeed the MP for my part of the world for some years. We worked together but it was, on the whole, on opposite sides. He was rather more successful at it than I was, unfortunately.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked a specific question about how the formula will work and how many seats there will be in each nation. It obviously depends on the estimates that will take place in each nation but if the calculation were to be run on the basis of the register as of 1 December 2009, Scotland would have 52 MPs, England would have 503, Wales would have 30, and Northern Ireland 15. However, I want to emphasise that these allocations may change, depending on the electorates in each nation. That is clearly understood.
What the noble Lord is after here is to add a fifth factor into the existing four in the Bill that the Boundary Commission may take into account. The Boundary Commission has indicated already that it takes into account issues which are brought to its attention as part of the public consultation process, if it believes them to be significant—that is the key. For example, the Boundary Commission for England said in its fifth general review, published in 2007, that, where practicable, it took into account district boundaries. The report noted:
“The Commission have previously recommended constituencies which recognise both metropolitan and non-metropolitan district boundaries, where it is practicable to do so, but often it is necessary to cross district boundaries in order to avoid excessive disparities. It is expected that this will be the situation during this general review but, of course, each review area will be treated on its merits”.
That was the Boundary Commission for England in 2007.
What this means, if I may translate, is that anyone could make a representation to the Scottish Boundary Commission arguing that an element of Scottish parliamentary constituency boundaries constituted a significant factor to take into account when settling Westminster constituency boundaries. There would be nothing to prevent the Scottish Boundary Commission taking that into account. In this sense—I am trying to be helpful to the noble Lord—the intention that underlies his amendment would be achieved by the way in which the Boundary Commission has always worked, without the need to amend the Bill. The significant change which the Bill makes, as the Committee now knows, is the requirement to prioritise the “5 per cent above or below electoral parity” rule over other factors. There is nothing in the Bill that we think would cause the Boundary Commission to change the way in which it considers any factors brought to its attention in representations from local authorities or members of the public, including precisely the kind of things raised in the noble Lord’s amendment.
I expect that I have disappointed the noble Lord in not accepting his amendment, but I hope that I have said enough for him to feel satisfied that it would not make very much difference if we did not accept it. I hope that he will withdraw it.
My Lords, that was a very full reply. I am learning that, if I speak briefly, listen to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and do not listen to my noble friend Lord McAvoy, I make progress. In light of that, I will not say any more, but, if I bring the amendment back again, I will bring it back in the form suggested most helpfully by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in his contribution.
Amendment 77B withdrawn.
Amendments 78 to 78C not moved.
Amendment 79 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
79A: Clause 11, page 10, leave out lines 23 to 30 and insert—
“Whole numbers of constituencies(1) The following shall be allocated whole numbers of constituencies by whichever Boundary Commission is responsible for them—
(a) Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands council areas;(b) Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council area;(c) Argyll and Bute council area;(d) the Isle of Anglesey county area;(e) the Isle of Wight county area; (f) the County of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly council areas;(g) the Highland council area.(2) The number of seats to be allocated to each area shall be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the United Kingdom electoral quota and rounding to the nearest whole number, and each area must be allocated at least one whole seat.”
I apologise for arriving late. The Government have consistently argued that the core principle underpinning their proposed new rule for drawing parliamentary constituencies is equality. The Bill is designed within a very narrow tolerance to create equal-sized seats. We agree with the principle of creating more equally sized seats but, as we have consistently pointed out, the Bill sets about that objective in a way that we regard as in many respects clumsy and unfair. As we have heard—and, I think, we will continue to hear—the Bill’s aim to equalise seats will be done on the basis of an unequal electoral register and in a way that will override all other factors, such as geography, community and history, that ought to be taken into consideration when designing patterns of representation.
A curiosity about the Bill, however, is that, while the principle of numerical equalisation is deemed to be the trump card in almost all cases, there are some circumstances where the iron law of uniform statistics has been disregarded. For example, a new rule on the maximum territorial extent of a constituency has been set out in the Bill, accompanied by a clause to free at least one Scottish highland seat from the requirement to adhere to the electoral quota.
Alongside that, in the proposed new rule 6 in Clause 11, is a further exemption from the electoral quota. Two Scottish island seats, Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, are to be preserved in perpetuity. Despite having substantially fewer electors than the proposed new quota of 75,800—in the case of Orkney and Shetland, the electorate is around 37,000 and in the Western Isles just 21,000—these constituencies are deemed to warrant a special status in the Bill.
Some of your Lordships and Members of the other place have taken the view that this carve-out is unacceptable. We have already heard the view of Mr Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative MP who is often described as the brains behind the boundary review policy. He did not favour any exemptions when he produced his pamphlet on redrawing constituencies in 2004. In Pruning the Politicians, he wrote that,
“‘special geographical considerations’ ... should be abolished … The principle of equal representation is too important to be compromised by get-outs”.
I disagree with Mr Tyrie. I agree that we should create more equally sized seats, but we should do so in a way that continues to allow factors other than pure statistics to influence the shape of constituencies. There are occasions when the goal of equal numbers ought to be compromised in order to take into account other considerations such as geography, history and community. The two Scottish island seats that are specific exceptions in the rules are a case in point; I accept them as sensible exceptions. The question for this House is whether they should be the only case.
The Government do not think so. They have also made special allowances in the Bill for the Scottish highlands to escape the principle of equal numbers through the size exceptions. Your Lordships’ House does not think so either, as it demonstrated last week in the vote on the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, regarding the Isle of Wight. In addition, the Government have exempted the whole of Northern Ireland from the principle of equal representation. Rule 7(b) explicitly states that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland may disapply the electoral quota rule if it considers that the rule would “unreasonably impair” its ability to take into account factors including geographical concerns, local ties and so on, listed in rule 5(1) of the new proposals.
That said, Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are the only specific constituencies named in the Bill, as it originally came to this House, as having a preservation order. Mr Mark Harper, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs in the other place, said that they have been afforded that special status because they have “unique geography”. That seems to be a difficult and unsatisfactory basis for their inclusion in the Bill and for others’ exclusion. Many constituencies would argue that they, too, had “unique geography”.
Mr Harper was presumably referring to the fact that these constituencies are island seats. As such, they are separated from the mainland by the sea and have natural borders that arguably help to create and, over time, reinforce a particular sense of community. That certainly makes them unusual—I repeat that I accept their entitlement to special status—but it does not make them unique. For example, they are not the only island seats in the United Kingdom. What about Argyll and Bute? That constituency is comprised of 13 islands. What about Anglesey? It is not in exactly the same position as Orkney and Shetland or the Western Isles, but then Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are not in exactly the same position as each other. They are all islands; they are island communities; they have very obvious natural borders, which give rise to issues of accessibility; and they have powerful local ties and traditions. While the two Scottish island seats are to be preserved by this Bill, however, apart from the change made by your Lordships’ House, the other islands are not.
This House has rightly judged that the way in which the Bill would have split the Isle of Wight was not suitable. Tagging 40,000 Isle of Wight voters on to a part of Hampshire would have had a significant ripple effect throughout that county, as constituency boundaries were forced to be redrawn all over the place as a consequence of the influx of new voters. If a special case can be made for the two Scottish island seats, it can also be made for several other hard cases.
I am pleased to say that Amendment 79A is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has put his name to it. It would give special treatment to six areas where the primacy of the electoral quota rule would give rise to disproportionate disruption and practical difficulty and would unravel long-established patterns of representation that local people legitimately wish to protect. The six areas are: Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, which have already been covered; Argyll and Bute, which I have referred to; the Anglesey county area; Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly council areas; and the Highland Council area. The Isle of Wight is also covered by the amendment, but it has already been dealt with in an earlier amendment. These six areas would, under this amendment, always be allocated whole constituencies by whichever Boundary Commission was responsible for them.
The allocation of seats would be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the UK electoral quota. In the view of the Opposition, this ought to be the total UK electorate divided by 650—the Bill at the moment says 600—and then rounded to the nearest whole number, with each area allocated at least one whole seat. In practice, that would mean that the Western Isles, with its 21,000 electors, would send the same number of representatives to Westminster as the Isle of Wight, with its 110,000—more once the prisoners on that island are enfranchised by the forthcoming Bill.
I am sure that Mr Tyrie will not be satisfied by that—he wants a calculator purely to draw the electoral map—but it is what the people living in those places want. They do not just regard themselves as numbers on a map. They regard themselves as members of a distinct community with a particular history and geography. If the Government judge that the people of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are entitled to have those factors taken into consideration when determining the size and shape of their constituency units, they should extend the same respect to the people who live in the additional areas listed in our amendment, which are covered in exactly the same way. I beg to move.
Amendment 79AA (to Amendment 79A)
79AA: Line 10, at end insert—
“( ) the county of Cumbria”
My Lords, I have never before moved an amendment to an amendment in any other democratic body that I have been in. It is quite against Citrine’s rules of procedure, from what I remember from my political education in the Labour Party. None the less, I hope that the House will recognise that this is a natural amendment to an amendment, which the House can agree to. The only reason why Cumbria was not in the original draft of the amendment that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer submitted is that I failed to get to him in time. I hope that noble Lords opposite will accept this as evidence of the chaos and lack of co-ordination on this side of the House, rather than the planned filibustering that they claim is going on.
This is a serious amendment and there are serious local concerns. Why do I think that Cumbria qualifies for special treatment? I give several reasons. First, it is a very remote part of England. I am pretty sure of my facts but I might have got them slightly wrong. In the north-west region, Cumbria accounts for half the geographical area but something like only 6 per cent of the population. It is a geographically large and scattered area. It is also a naturally bounded area in its geography. To the north is the Scottish border. I am glad that at least the Bill allows for Cumbrians not to have to take any Scots into their electoral areas. That is a boundary that, under this Bill, cannot be crossed. It is a natural boundary as well as a national boundary, with the magnificent Solway Firth and the forests of the Borders dividing the two nations. To the east of the county lie the Pennines—again, a natural barrier that divides the communities of the east from those of the west. To the south is Morecambe Bay, which divides the south of Cumbria from Lancashire. There is a natural boundary to this county.
There is also a very strong sense of community in Cumbria. I am not saying that it is a community spirit that embraces the whole county in exactly the same way, but there is a community spirit in the many different parts of the county. It is a county that is divided naturally, not just by the geographical features that surround it, but by the Lake District mountains, which lie in the middle of it.
Cumbria is also divided by the economics that founded its communities. I was born in Carlisle; there is a very good story about why Carlisle became such an important railway town. One of the reasons was that it was physically impossible for a fireman on a steam train to manage to fire the train over the Beattock summit into Scotland from Carlisle and over the Shap summit south of Carlisle. It was a physically impossible task for a single chap, so all the crews changed at Carlisle. That demonstrates the natural boundaries of the area.
Then there is west Cumbria, which is a distinct old industrial community and is now the home of Britain’s nuclear industry. West Cumbria’s prosperity was made on iron and coal, exported through the ports of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. That is a distinct community. In the south, there is Barrow-in-Furness, where there was a marsh in the mid-19th century. It became one of the most successful steel-making, iron-making and shipbuilding towns in Britain and has played a key role in the history of the Royal Navy since that time. It is an isolated and distinct community.
I have talked about the industrial communities of Cumbria, but the rural communities are also distinct, because the Lake District divides the county into different rural communities—east, north, south and west of the Lake District hills. There are also distinct rural areas, such as the Solway plain and the Eden valley. This is an area that an expert in geography, demography, geology, economic history and all the rest would think was distinct. It is distinct geographically to the extent that it is difficult to see how you could hive off bits into other parts of England without creating the most unnatural parliamentary constituencies.
That is a case for adding Cumbria to the list in Amendment 79A and I hope that the House will accept it. It goes along with the argument that I have made at other times. For the sake of completeness, not because I want to bore the Committee unduly, I wish to say that the Boundary Commission has, on successive occasions, recognised the distinctness of the county. The commission decided in its previous two reviews that, despite the fact that the application of the quota did not strictly justify Cumbria’s six parliamentary seats, when community considerations were taken into account—before the issue was put to a local inquiry—the six seats should be retained.
This makes a very strong case for adding Cumbria to the list of places where there should be special exemption. Ideally, this is not the way in which I would like this matter to go. I would prefer that we did not have a rigid cap on the number of Members of Parliament and that we had a Boundary Commission that was able to exercise proper discretion, as it saw fit, to deal with these kinds of circumstances. However, the Government have so far refused to show any flexibility on the cap on the number of MPs and on the rigid corset within which the Boundary Commission will have to do its work. As long as the Government are rigid about this issue, those of us who care about community considerations and parliamentary representation have no alternative but to move these amendments. That is what I now do. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak for the first time on this Bill—on Committee day 13. I have obviously been remiss on the previous 12 days, but it is a pleasure for me to speak on an issue that is fundamental and important. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, I agree with the two principles of the Bill. The first is that, on the whole, constituencies should be of roughly equal size, whereby at least we have a starting point for equality of value of votes. I also agree that the people of this country should be given the opportunity to choose the electoral system by which they elect Members of Parliament.
However, no system is perfect—particularly in politics. There will always be exceptions to the way things work. That is because, in politics and communities, things are not even or homogenous. History and many other things shape society, which means that sometimes there should be different solutions for different situations and areas. I am not, on the whole, a traditionalist, but it is important that this Parliament and the Bill recognise that there is a history in particular communities, cultures and geographical parts of our islands that should be recognised within the way that democracy functions. That is why I have put my name to the amendment, because it is essential in terms of people and communities believing in the democracy in which they participate and allowing them more to participate in it.
However, one of the big problems when drawing up a list is deciding whether there should be any special cases and which they should be. We know that we could all make that list as long as the list of 600 constituencies which are supposed to be created when the Bill is passed. If we are to be realistic, there must be a limited list. It may be difficult to get to that. I have not spoken in Committee on the Bill before, but I have sat in on a number of debates. A number of areas that are listed in the amendment have been mentioned on many occasions, because they deserve to be treated in a different way. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, the Bill and the Government have already recognised that some exceptions should be made to the principle of equal constituency size on the grounds of geography—for example, Orkney and Shetland. I welcome that deviation from the model. Last week, this House considered the Isle of Wight, which is listed in this amendment, and accepted that it should be treated separately. It is instructive to see that, particularly in the case of the Isle of Wight, the issue is not one of trying to get as much parliamentary representation as possible, but of the wholeness of that island and other areas. It is not a grab for more seats, but a desire to have wholeness and a natural community within a parliamentary constituency.
I will not extol the virtues of all the regions and areas that are listed in the amendment. I am sure that other noble Lords are far more expert on those regions than I am. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not use the official Gaelic name of the Western Isles; I look forward to another noble Lord doing that later. Ynys Môn—Anglesey—in Wales, the Highland council area, Orkney and Shetland, and Argyll and Bute were mentioned a number of times earlier. I will concentrate on the south-west of the United Kingdom, on the county—indeed, the Duchy—of Cornwall. I will also refer to the separate unitary council of the Isles of Scilly. Although I could be tempted to add the Isles of Scilly to the list—I was privileged to represent it in the European Parliament—it has only 2,000 electors, so I might be pushing my luck too far. Cornwall naturally comes together with the Isles of Scilly, although they have separate councils. That is why they are together here.
Something that I remember from the 1970s, when I listened to the news and was interested in politics— I think I was even a member of the Labour Party for a year in 1973, but I will leave my revelations at that—was a very important report on the constitution produced by the Kilbrandon royal commission. I am sure that many noble Lords remember the name and have referred to the report. The report states that what the people of Cornwall,
“want is a recognition of the fact that Cornwall has a separate identity and that its traditional boundaries shall be respected ... Just as the people of Scotland and Wales tend to resent the description of their countries as regions of the United Kingdom”—
I am sure that noble Lords would agree with that—
“so the people of Cornwall regard their part of the United Kingdom as not just another English county”.
The report recommends that the designation “Duchy of Cornwall” be used on all appropriate occasions to emphasise the,
“special relationship and the territorial integrity of Cornwall”.
Cornwall sees itself as the fourth Celtic nation of the United Kingdom. It has a strong and separate historical tradition. It has a definite boundary: the River Tamar. It does not in any way deny that the rest of the United Kingdom, or England, exists beyond that river, but it is very proud of its separate identity, its history and its community. I have been privileged to be a resident of Cornwall and to represent it in Brussels. Until recently it was a region, Celtic nation, county, Duchy—however one wants to look at it—that looked backwards in many ways. However, over the past decade it has become resurgent. It looks forward, it is successful and it enjoys being a progressive contributor to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why there has been such resistance in Cornwall to the risk of a constituency crossing the Tamar between it and Devon.
We should make no mistake: this is not antagonistic towards Devon. Both are great areas. However, the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall form a special area. It is a Celtic nation with its own language and an exciting future. It wants to live as an important contributing part of the United Kingdom, but it wants to retain its identity. One of the main ways in which it should be allowed to do this is through its voting, its democracy, and the way that it is represented in Westminster. The amendment is important because I am sure that other listed regions feel exactly the same way. The list is limited and does not undermine in any way the general principles of the Bill, which I would not want to see undermined. I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to consider this amendment and those regions favourably in his reply.
I have not been entirely helpful to the Government on the Bill until this point. I am a member of the Constitution Committee, whose rather critical report has been perhaps too often repeated during these debates. I supported the amendment moved from the opposition Front Bench increasing from 5 per cent to 10 per cent the variation of constituencies. I still strongly feel that that would be a sensible amendment for a variety of reasons on which I shall not elaborate today, and I shall continue to press my colleagues to consider that amendment very carefully. I also supported my noble friend Lord Fowler in his vote on the Isle of Wight.
However, turning to the case of the island of Anglesey, I support the Government’s position. I start with the numbers. They are relevant in the light of the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, about his general belief in the equalisation of constituencies. The honourable Member for Ynys Môn, Mr Owen, was elected with 11,490 votes on a turnout of 34,444 and an electorate of 42,998. The constituency of Arfon, across the Menai Straits, is the smallest mainland constituency in the United Kingdom measured by electorate. It is larger only than the two Scottish island constituencies. The honourable Member for Arfon, Mr Williams, was elected with 9,383 votes on a turnout of 26,078 out of an electorate of 42,998. If we are talking about equalisation of constituencies, there is obviously something a little wrong there. Across the Menai Straits, in the Arfon constituency, are the towns of Bangor and Caernarfon, Bangor with a population of just under 14,000 if you do not include the resident university members and Caernarfon, again with about 14,000 voters and with natural links with Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which has an electorate of 48,823. Those are the numbers.
The comparison with the Isle of Wight is slightly absurd. The Isle of Wight is separated from the mainland by sea. The Menai Straits are rather narrower than the Cleddau, which used to separate the two halves of my former constituency of Pembroke. When I became the Member of Parliament, there was no bridge across the Cleddau. You could either drive a long way round by road or you crossed by ferry. Indeed, on the very last day of my first election campaign, when I had to cross from an election meeting in Pembroke Dock to Milford Haven in the launch, my seven month-old pregnant wife and I were seen drifting fast out to sea on the ebb-tide in growing darkness when the engine failed.
However, those who had organised it had foreseen that possibility and, luckily, there was someone watching with binoculars and we were brought ashore. In the case of Ynys Môn and the mainland, there is a short suspension bridge that you can walk across in a couple of minutes which, incidentally, bears an inscription that tells us that the grandfather of the present Chairman of Committees removed the tolls when he was Secretary of State for Transport. The other bridge, the great Brunel railway bridge, which was severely damaged by fire and, when it was reconstructed, had a road built on top of it, is again a perfectly comfortable walk across. I walked across it during its reopening ceremony.
The truth is that a great many people in Anglesey do their shopping not on the island but in Bangor. If they are going to hospital, they certainly go to Bangor, because that is where the district hospital is. When I used to travel up frequently as a director of Anglesey Mining, I usually got off the train at Bangor rather than Llangefni. The university obviously provides a hub of activity in Bangor, and great services are held in Bangor Cathedral. When my dear friend Kyffin Williams, the great Welsh artist, died, his service of commemoration was in the cathedral at Bangor, not on the island.
People say, “Ah, but history”. If you go back into the depths of history, the links between the mainland and the island had been very close. When Edward I launched his first assault on Llewelyn the Great, Llewelyn-ap-Gruffydd, the Prince of Wales, he sent the ships of the Cinque Ports to capture Anglesey. Immediately, they destroyed the grain harvest and Llewelyn capitulated. Since then, Anglesey has not been the granary of Gwynedd, but it has been the place to which the farmers of Snowdonia sent their sheep to fatten. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy will recall, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it became a central part of the agricultural activity of the area that lambs had to be sent down to the island for fattening. Indeed, I believe that some of them still are.
The links between both sides are extremely close. The natural constituency is therefore Anglesey linked to Bangor. Dividing the Arfon constituency so that Caernarfon is linked with the neighbouring constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd fulfils pretty closely the general objectives of the Government, and I cannot see that in the case of Anglesey a strong case can be made out for special treatment. Therefore, on this occasion—I think for the first time during my activities on the Bill—I find myself supporting the Government.
My Lords, I listened very carefully to what was said yesterday, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, about the procedure being adopted in this House, and I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. I think he is being slightly modest about the strength of views expressed by the Constitution Committee on the content and processes envisaged for the boundary review in this legislation. The noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong, but I think she advocated that an all-party committee ought to look at the constitutional implications of what is happening in this House. That has already been done by an all-party committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, was a very distinguished member. I have been in your Lordships' House only since 1994. With one exception, which I will refer to, I have never seen more damning condemnation of government legislation than your Lordships' Constitution Committee’s condemnation of this Bill and the Public Bodies Bill.
To those who are going to get irritated by me if I speak about Lancashire or Cornwall, or by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, speaking about Ynys Môn—and I do not think he would have been speaking for my late friend Lord Cledwyn about Ynys Môn—I say that the irritation should be directed at those who brought forward legislation that seeks to do something that we all agree should be done—to establish much more numerically equal representation—but does it the wrong way, against all the practice of your Lordships' House and of Governments since 1832. I am assured by those who look back at 1832 that the then Government got that legislation through only by packing the House with new Members, a thing that could never happen these days.
I speak to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and support him on his point about Cornwall. At a very early age, I was taught about the importance of Cornwall by my grandfather who lived in Wales. He taught me about the importance of Wales, but his grandfather was a tin miner who had left Cornwall to work in Wales. I support everything that the noble Lord says about identity and the sense of belonging. I am saddened that he does not feel able to extend that sense of identity to other parts of the country. I say to him that every time a noble Lord in this House talks about, and is supported on, the principle of local community mattering—and I support local communities mattering, for example, in Northern Ireland—and every time an exception is made, it leads to a bigger question about why this Government have, for the first time since 1832, decided in advance what the number of constituencies will be at the end. That is what is so wrong.
If an exception is made for Ynys Môn, the Isle of Wight or Cornwall, it has numerical implications. If you have determined in advance the final number of constituencies, it is bound to come back and affect the rest of the country. That is my concern.
Where exceptions can be made—for example, for Cumbria, or, if your Lordships wish, for Ynys Mon, and, as your Lordships have determined, for the Isle of Wight—I hope the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the Government will be honest enough to say that that will have implications for where we end up, otherwise the rest of the country could be penalised.
I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Marland, thinks that this is amusing. It may be amusing in his part of the world, but I can assure him that memories die hard in the north-west of England. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours will tell him that people still resent being taken out of Lancashire in the last boundary review, and that is a long time ago.
I do not want to have to do this in the House tonight. I want to know that the people of Lancashire, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland can make their own case through a tried and tested procedure. The Government are wrong to smash that procedure.
I said earlier that there had been damning reports of two major government Bills. I was on duty as the government Whip when it was deemed in No. 10 that the Lord Chancellor could go forthwith, but the Government of the day had to accept that they did not have the power to do that. I do not know whether the Government have the power to do what they suggest in this legislation but, even if they have that power, they ought not to exercise it by trampling on tradition. I can understand that the Liberal Democrats may wish to interfere with tradition, but the Conservatives?
My Lords, I listened with concern to what the noble Baroness said at the beginning of her speech. I think I made it clear yesterday that many Cross-Benchers—and I can speak only for the Cross-Benchers—are deeply concerned about the Bill and feel strongly that many elements in it undoubtedly could and should be improved. The point I was trying to make was that the conventions of the House suggest that these concerns should be brought to a head by means of an amendment, which is then called and divided on. Many Cross-Benchers would undoubtedly support such an amendment. The concern for a long time has been that no amendments have been brought forward and that the talk has gone on for far longer than is necessary to convince the Cross-Benchers that an amendment should be supported.
My Lords, when I came into this House I was told that it was not a tradition to divide the House too often in Committee and the general view was that we should concentrate our efforts for divisions on Report. I hope that noble Lords on the Cross Benches who have told us privately that they feel sensitive about areas of the Bill will join us in the Lobbies when amendments are moved in the next few weeks or months.
I wish to speak to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Liddle as an amendment to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson.
I would dearly love six parliamentary constituencies in the county of Cumbria but I recognise that there are problems. I want to go into this in some detail because, although we have each personalised areas in the debate, there are principles involved when dealing with boundaries in Cumbria that apply more widely.
Over the years, Cumbria has made a great contribution to British politics. We have provided a large number of Secretaries of State—Edward Short, now the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara; the noble Lords, Lord Cunningham, Lord Jopling and Lord Hutton; Lord Peart, my predecessor; and Lord Whitelaw—all of whom have been members of the Cabinet. We have provided many junior Ministers—the noble Lords, Lord Henley, Lord Inglewood, Lord Brett, Lord Judd, Lord Dubs and Lord Cavendish, who intervened in the debate today, and a number of other Peers have strong connections with the county.
My noble friend Lord Liddle took us on a quiet canter around the county and explained the interesting characteristics of many of the communities which it comprises. He stressed the very strong local loyalties and community identities that are often incomprehensible to people coming from outside the county. Noble Lords should remember that we are talking primarily about the Lake District and the communities that surround it. These are historic places with a long history of community involvement and identity.
I talk this evening about what I can describe only as a sensitive issue because I was MP for Workington for 21 years. I often say to people who write to me or even stop me in the street when I am in the constituency that I have had my time and I try not to interfere, as do many of us former MPs. We do not interfere in our former constituencies. Therefore, it is with great sensitivity that I venture into the numbers. We are now in the numbers game because this Bill is about numbers not communities. I will take the county as a whole and explain the problem and the possible solution, and how the Bill may well offend lots of people within the county.
At the moment, there are six parliamentary constituencies. Broadly, without going into the actual detail, Barrow has 68,000 electors, Carlisle 65,000, Copeland 63,000, Penrith and the Border 64,000, Westmorland and Lonsdale 67,000, and Workington 59,000, within a few hundred. That makes a total of approximately 390,000 electors across six constituencies in the county. That is an average of approximately 65,000 per seat.
Those who know the detail in the Bill will know exactly where I am going. It means that every seat in the county falls under the requirement in the Bill for 76,000. The actual figure is 64,972 people per constituency. Subject to the 5 per cent leeway or 76,000, we are 14 per cent under the 76,000 target in every seat, so unless there are major changes in the way in which this legislation is implemented, there will be major changes within the county of Cumbria. We will lose a seat.
How do we proceed? On the basis of the 76,000, we can cross boundaries and to some extent destroy the identity that Cumbria has tried to build up over the past decades of being a county with our various district authorities and MPs who do not cross the boundary. That is one way of proceeding. We can cross county boundaries and compromise that principle, or we can settle on five seats, which I will come back to later.
On the basis of the 76,000 target, if we crossed county boundaries and kept strictly to the target, a part of the county—that is to say, 11,000 votes—would have to go into a neighbouring county, which in itself may create difficulties. On the basis of 72,000, which is the 5 per cent leeway deducted from the 76,000 target, crossing county boundaries would mean that 35,000 voters in Cumbria would have to go into another county, which brings us to the amendment that was moved last night when I referred to the problems that might arise in Kendal or possibly in Penrith.
If we go for the five-seat option, there will be a major reorganisation within the county. What worries me is that Workington, when I represented it, was a seat with a wide social mix. We had the Lake District with its population and the industrial west coast. A by-election in 1974, which I lost on a 74 per cent turnout, indicated the marginal nature of that constituency, which is why I intervened today on the issue of marginal seats. I recognise that the Boundary Commission cannot take political decisions, but within its calculations there must be some understanding of the need for social and economic issues to be considered. If you do not provide for some recognition of the wider socioeconomic profile within constituencies, you may well end up in Cumbria creating five safe Tory seats. I have no problem with people voting Conservative—that is their right—but for many years Cumbria has been split. At the moment there are three Labour, one Liberal and three Conservative MPs. In other words, we have a wide spread of seats, some of which are fairly marginal. We must include the marginality of seats when considering the future of boundary arrangements by making not political judgments but socioeconomic ones.
Some people might say that it does not matter, but I would object just as much if the position had been reversed and the whole county was to go Labour as the result of a boundary review. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, mumbles from his seat. I do not know what he mumbled to himself but the point is that some of us are interested in balanced communities and electorates. I am in favour of increasing the number of marginals in general elections. There will be some debate this evening about the whole question of marginal seats. A very small number of seats nationally changing hands can actually change government. I do not think that that is the proper way unless you have proportional representation. With a first past the post system, a very small number of seats can change government. That is not a particularly effective way to run a national election system. That is one of the reasons why I am in favour and have moved steadily towards proportional representation over the years.
The Boundary Commission, when making its judgment, could be organising it simply by saying that it will publish its findings, without realising the consequence that it will create a large number of seats that will rarely change hands. Carlisle, Barrow and Furness, Workington, and Westmorland and Lonsdale have all changed hands over the years, often with swings. That might stop because of the way in which this formula is being applied under the provisions of the Bill.
Some might argue, “Why bring all this statistical evidence to a debate on the Floor of the House of Lords?”. The answer is that the discussion I am having now should take place during a Boundary Commission inquiry. There should be a discussion about whether we bridge the county boundary and basically export voters into other constituencies, or somehow accept that we are going to end up with five constituencies. If it is to be five constituencies, I would like to think that the Boundary Commission will have in mind the need to create some marginality in the seats and not simply create a series of safe seats that is damaging to the British constitutional arrangement.
This question of safe seats goes slightly wider because, under this mathematical formula, we might end up with a lot more safe seats—and because of that, we might end up with a reduction in the some one and a half per cent of individuals in the total national registered electorate who can influence a result. I find that worrying. Under this new formula, the danger is that that might well happen, which is why I would like to see greater flexibility in whatever decisions are taken by the commission.
I hope I may be able to say something as a native of the isle of Anglesey, which features in this amendment. The view from my home, which is of Snowdonia across the straits, is permanently engraved in my mind. Belonging, as I do by birth, to the southern part of the island, it is quite natural that I should look, as do others living in that part of the island, towards the Snowdonia end and the mainland. Of course, bridges have been built. We have virtually three: the Telford Bridge, since 1825; the Stevenson railway bridge; and now a road deck over that railway bridge.
Not only was I born in Anglesey, so I know something about the place, but I represented Conwy for 27 years in the other place. Conwy, in my day, included the city of Bangor, which, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, is the shopping centre for Anglesey and contains a lot of people who had come from Anglesey, as I found among my constituents. It really looked as though Telford’s bridge of 1825 had proved to be a floodgate for people from Anglesey to come over to the mainland site. Anglesey is small, with a total electorate of some 42,000. If we are to equalise and abide by that principle, the Ynys Môn electorate could be amplified to include the Bangor area. Indeed, this has been anticipated by the inquiry conducted by the Welsh select committee of the other place. It quoted in evidence Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit, who suggested this very combination, which would result in a constituency of some 73,400 people and meet the criteria required by the Government.
Of course, there might be some objections from the Holyhead end of the island, which has tended to dominate the island politically ever since the days of the much loved late Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. On the whole, if we are going to move towards equalising electorates and constituencies, this would not be an impossible move. Indeed, it might very well be welcomed. It would give additional strength—the combination of Bangor on the mainland and Anglesey—to whoever represents that constituency. I simply plant that thought, which means, of course, that I am against this amendment.
My Lords, I support Amendment 79A, specifically from the perspective of its reference to the county of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I will speak briefly now because in a later group of amendments, when the House will be considering amendments proposed by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley, we will be looking at amendments specifically focused on Cornwall.
I do not come as well prepared for this as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I do not have a list of the size of the constituencies, nor can I immediately recollect great Secretaries of State who have represented Cornish constituencies in the other place. From the past 30 years, I can think of only one: John Nott, who represented St Ives and the Isles of Scilly. From recollection, I think that we had one junior Minister who represented a Cornish constituency, but I remember the local press observing that his most frequent contact with the constituency was when he flew over it in Concorde rather than from his attention to the needs of his constituents. The honourable Member of the other House now sits in this House as a noble Lord, so I will leave it to him to say whether that description fits his own recollections of his service.
One reason why Cornwall has had very few Ministers is because of the nature of the area and its geographical distance from London. At an earlier point in the Committee’s proceedings, I listened with great interest to the persuasive arguments about the Scottish constituencies and I thought to myself that many of those arguments also apply to Cornwall. Cornwall is geographically distant from London; our constituencies are wide and diverse. The challenge of representing them is very significant. That would tend to support the argument that ours should be smaller constituencies than those that are derived from a formulaic proposal as put forward by the Government in this Bill.
I developed my political knowledge and interest in Cornwall. I remember as a teenager following the general election campaign of the Labour candidate, Ron Blindell, who was the chairman of Plymouth Argyle Football Club. He had a Rolls-Royce—we very rarely saw Rolls-Royces in Cornwall—and he went from village to village speaking. It would be advertised in the West Briton that Mr Blindell would speak at 7.45 pm at St Agnes, at 8 pm at Perranporth and at 8.15 pm at St Merryn, and the same people who listened to him at 7.45 would then jump in their cars—or, in the case of Labour supporters, on to our bikes and pedal madly—to get to the next constituency in order to carry on our engagement with the candidate, either in support or in opposition to whatever he said.
We also had some great MPs in Cornwall. I think of one in particular from the Liberal Party—Mr David Penhaligon, with whom I went to school and who represented Truro. David was taken from us in a tragic accident while visiting the postal workers immediately before Christmas in the very early hours of the morning in an accident on a very icy road. David was a fine representative of the people of Truro and St Austell and would have been a figure of considerable national significance if he had not been taken from us in that cruel and tragic way.
There are currently no Labour Members of Parliament in the six constituencies for Cornwall. However, three of the seats are held by Liberal Democrats. I would like to believe that they are of the progressive wing of that party, who understand the needs of those who are most vulnerable in the community and speak up from time to time in the other place in support of the arguments that my colleagues there bring forward when pointing out the tragic consequences of the economic policies that the Government are currently pursuing. We have of course seen those policies reflected today in negative GDP growth figures, which do not come as a complete surprise to me.
As I said, Cornwall is geographically isolated. The constituencies are dispersed. Cornwall also has a distinct culture. We have heard this referred to in respect of other constituencies as well. Cornwall has its own language, which is growing in its usage. More people are showing an interest in understanding the history, culture and pastimes of the Cornish people. Indeed, we have a nationalist movement, which stood in all the constituencies in the last general election.
Cornwall also suffers from acute economic pressure. Our core industries of the past—tin mining, the kaolin, or china clay, industry, and fishing—are all under enormous pressure. Tourism has had to readjust its offering, which it has done extremely well, but the industry of the past has now had to target a completely new segment of visitors. This is an economy some distance from London that is suffering from an acute set of issues similar to that of a microclimate.
I am disappointed that, in the other House, the six Members of Parliament for Cornwall played very little part in the debate on this Bill. They did not speak passionately in favour of keeping Cornwall’s current representation. This was in part because the governing party guillotined procedures in the other place. No doubt, if those Members had had the opportunity, they would have spoken, but it falls to us in this House to speak up when the process followed in the other place does not allow good and clear expression of the deep-rooted anxieties that are being created in communities such as Cornwall by this legislation.
I also believe that one of the reasons that so few of the Members representing Cornish constituencies in the other place played an active part in the debate on the Bill is because most of them are new to the House. They are new to understanding the challenges of representing a constituency. I suggest—without the benefit of having sat and represented a constituency in the other House, unlike many Members such as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, who spoke before me—that it is difficult for somebody contesting a constituency and then winning a seat to have a clear grasp of how much work is involved in representing constituents. One reason why Cornwall’s MPs were not more evident in the debate in the other place is that they are still coming to terms with the difficulties of doing so, particularly given the geographical distance.
It is important to say that all six MPs are of the same opinion on the issue, although there was certainly some limitation on what they could say in the other place. The point about the political movement within Cornwall is that it has been across all political parties, from Mebyon Kernow to Labour, to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—and even the Stannary Parliament, which would usurp your Lordships’ own role if it had the chance.
I welcome that intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, which correctly informs our debate on this amendment. A general sense is being allowed to develop in Cornwall that the equalisation of the size of constituencies is not a matter of great consequence because they might be adjusted later through the work of the Boundary Commission. That is a misunderstanding of the fact that this is the point at which we have to make our stand, to ensure that the constituencies of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly remain whole.
At a later stage in Committee, I shall argue the case for Cornwall retaining its current six constituencies. For the time being, I think that it is important that we recognise that the culture and history of Cornwall, which has not had a parliamentary constituency cross the River Tamar into the county of Devon for 700 years, should be respected. The people of Cornwall however close they might live to Devon—be it in a small hamlet, a farm or a village abutting Devon—nevertheless look to Truro for leadership and regard themselves as Cornish. Parliament would be ill advised to disregard the strength of such feelings by adopting an approach that is entirely arithmetic, with regard neither for local culture, history and sensitivities nor for people who proudly believe that they are part of a geographical inheritance and who wish to be listened to.
I urge noble Lords to support these amendments. Later on, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, my noble friend Lord Berkeley and I will speak again—at some greater length, I anticipate—to issues relating to Cornwall.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lord Bach. It is important in bringing together those parts of the country that believe that they are exceptional and should be added to the two exceptions that were already in the Bill and the Isle of Wight, which has subsequently been added by your Lordships. At the root of that is the argument, as we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Myners, that some parts of the country have a particular character and are fiercely proud of it, and that they think that that should be recognised in their parliamentary boundaries.
My Lords, I have listened avidly to the discussion about Cornwall. As somebody who came to this country about 46 years ago, I have always thought that it is wonderful to have local involvement in politics, but that has been on the basis of local people getting involved in local or parish councils. Representatives from those local areas have had a wider vision of the contribution that their area could make to the national situation. That is how we came to vote for our MPs. It is wonderful to visit every part of this United Kingdom and to walk around looking at local cathedrals et cetera.
This is a speech.
However, I fear that if you bring everything local to representation in the national, economic, political and social government of this country, you might lose sight of the big picture. It is wonderful to have representatives from these areas, but they should concentrate just on Westminster and not on local issues which can be dealt with locally. I do not think that that point has been made. I have come in, looked at this matter and thought that. It is a strength, not a weakness.
I think that I understand the point that the noble Baroness is making; that is, that regardless of which part of our country you come from or represent in the other place, you are making decisions here in Westminster largely on national issues, unless it is in relation to a Private Bill.
However, the Bill already acknowledges that there are certain boundaries that you should not cross, such as the boundaries between Scotland and England and between England and Wales; and Northern Ireland should remain discrete. Those are the beginnings of acknowledgement that it is not just about the UK issues or the GB issues; it is about something slightly more fine-grained now. In turn, the Bill already acknowledges, by making the exception for the Orkney and Shetland constituency and for the Western Isles, which are much smaller in population than would normally be allowed according to the formula in the Bill, that there is something so particular about those communities—as communities—that they should be separated out in the Bill. What I am seeking to argue in my relatively brief contribution, I hope, to this debate is that there are other particular communities. This has already been decided by your Lordships’ House in respect of the Isle of Wight, and the electorate in that community should feel that it has a voice.
My understanding of Cornwall, as an example, is that the Cornish people to whom I spoke when I was the Regional Minister for the South West of England up until the last election already feel an alienation from London and that Westminster does not really understand Cornwall. It is an awful job to get politicians from Westminster to go all the way to Cornwall, which is quite a journey. You have to set aside probably a couple of days to do it—certainly if you want to go to the Isles of Scilly—and we do not really understand that. If they in turn feel that we in London have, through a formula, imposed a solution which means that they will have to start to share Members of Parliament with Devon—that boundary across the Tamar River is a profound one psychologically for many in Cornwall—I think they will feel more alienated from politics and from what goes on here. I do not think that we should cross that boundary easily. I am happy to give way.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I have a question. My figures may not be accurate but, if you were faced with a choice of having six constituencies, one of which crossed the Tamar, or of having only five, all of which were in Cornwall, which would you prefer?
From the MPs, and from what we have gathered from the people in Cornwall, it appears that they are happier to have five than to share. In fact, I was speaking to my honourable friend Dan Rogerson, MP for North Cornwall, earlier, and he made that point to me. It may seem strange, but that seems to be the answer. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has raised the question.
I add my voice in agreement with the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. The soundings that I have taken indicate that the people of Cornwall do not wish to share a constituency with Devon; they would rather have five representatives in the other place than a sixth if it involved going across the Tamar.
I make one observation again. There are the examples of Liverpool and Everton and of Celtic and Rangers. It is a situation where we are actually having tensions within an area, where we are all supposed to be part of—dare I say it?—a big society, and where we help one another irrespective of boundaries.
The reason why my noble friend is getting interventions is that this is precisely an issue that would arise at any public inquiry on boundaries: the dilemma of whether you export votes to another county or confine your constituencies within your county boundaries. What has just happened is very interesting. Everyone suddenly is alight; and it is only because this is the central issue in our inquiries today.
My noble friend hit the nail on the head. We will have separate debates around the need for the opportunity for a public inquiry, but I am absolutely convinced that the electors of Cornwall, the area in this list that I know best, would want the opportunity to make their voice heard and to protest, should the Boundary Commission suggest that the county boundaries crossed into Devon. Indeed, it must be an indication that all of us, certainly those who received correspondence by e-mail, have received considerable and assiduous representations from Cornwall about this Bill. People are watching. I have not spoken many times during the 13 days of this Committee; this may be only the fourth or fifth time that I have spoken. But I know from responses that I have had that people from Cornwall are watching us on the Parliament channel as we speak because they really care about this. They will know that we are debating their issue and that we will look forward to debating probably one or two more amendments as well. They will be paying careful attention to what we say.
I like to holiday in the Argyll and Bute area—and I know that there is a strong case to make and that the Member of Parliament in the other place believes that it should be an exception. I intend to go there on holiday again this year, because the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, who is not in his place, assures me that the midges will have been wiped out by the cold weather this winter, and that it is a good year to go. But my case is really around Cornwall. What I like about the amendment is the flexibility that it offers. It is not saying that there should be five Members of Parliament for Cornwall, or six Members of Parliament; it just says that there should be a whole number for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and that it should be discrete on that basis. That is exactly the sort of steer that the Boundary Commission should expect from Parliament and your Lordships, which gives it the flexibility and then allows it to get on with its job.
I did not want to delay the House unduly with a long speech, but I am delighted that somehow I have managed to stimulate some debate across the Chamber on this. I urge your Lordships to support this fine amendment.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Knight reminds us that this is day 13 of the Bill. During the dinner break, one of my colleagues told me that the Second Reading of the 1832 Reform Bill took five days alone, so perhaps we are making some progress. I was deeply impressed by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who made a powerful argument about Cornwall. He made the point also that Cornwall, like Wales, is a Celtic nation with Celtic people. Indeed, at some time in the past, Cornwall was considered to be in west Wales. Indeed, the region of Strathclyde was occupied by the Welsh as well and was considered to be north Wales. We have no such ambitions at present, I assure the noble Lord.
I rise to support the amendment and am therefore at the opposite end of the argument to my Welsh colleagues sitting on the other Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts of Conwy. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, made some very important points about the links between Ynys Môn and mainland north Wales. In my previous incarnation as Wales Minister, we had this novel idea called prelegislative scrutiny. I regularly came to your Lordships' House to talk to your Lordships about proposals that we had for Bills effecting Wales. The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts, who bring extensive experience from their time as Ministers in the Wales Office, contributed to those discussions. I believe that at the end of the day we made better law as a result of prelegislative scrutiny than we are seeing at present.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, rightly makes the point that Ynys Môn is separated from north Wales by the Menai Strait—not by a sea, as is the Isle of Wight, although I am sure that like me he would not really fancy trying to swim the Menai Strait, which is quite a turbulent channel. Ynys Môn—Mam Cymru, or the mother of Wales—has been a parliamentary constituency since 1535 and it is the largest Welsh island, at 720 square kilometres. It is the fifth largest island in offshore Britain and the largest island in the Irish Sea. Its economy depends very much upon agriculture, as the noble Lord mentioned, and upon tourism. Indeed, when I was Wales Minister I went there to promote tourism as I understand that about 2 million people from the Republic of Ireland pass through Ynys Môn every year on holidays. The trouble was getting them to stop and spend some money. To my mind, the only way that we are going to get the Irish to do that in north Wales is to have a good golf course and some good saints. I am not sure whether the tourist board took up that suggestion, but I did make it generally.
The people of Ynys Môn have seen themselves as separated from the mainland not just by the Menai Strait but by having a fiercely protective local culture. Sixty per cent of the people of Ynys Môn are Welsh speakers. Our decision on the Isle of Wight means that it is the only island constituency in the United Kingdom which is not protected. That is wrong. As I say, the constituency has existed since 1535 and is coterminous with the local government area—the county council area of Ynys Môn. It enjoys the unique distinction of being, I think, the only seat to have had MPs from four parties in the past 50 years. It was once a Liberal stronghold; the Conservatives captured Ynys Môn from Labour in 1979, following the retirement of the late Lord Cledwyn; they lost it eight years later, when Keith Best stood down and Plaid Cymru then emerged as the successful party to represent the constituency in Westminster. When its leader stepped down, it was regained by Labour’s Albert Owen.
I want to emphasise that the Bill has not been the subject of a Green Paper, a White Paper, any consultation or any pre-legislative scrutiny. If it had been, then I have no doubt that my points and those of other noble Lords—indeed, the very valid points made by the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts—would have figured in that kind of pre-legislative scrutiny. The only answer, in order to make sure we get the best result for the people of Ynys Môn and the people right across the country, is for the Government to agree that there should be local public inquiries. The points made by my fellow countrymen—the quite valid points from the opposite Benches and those made on these Benches—would be properly considered by an independent body, which would then make a decision in the best interests of the community concerned.
My Lords, I suppose that, as one of the Peers from Scotland, I am duty bound to speak up for the Argyll and Bute council area. However, there was quite an extensive outline of the very justified case for Argyll and Bute in a previous debate and it would be wrong to repeat that. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his speech and I have certainly been impressed tonight by the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts, who were outstanding in displaying their local knowledge. However, I make the point that when Labour or, I think, Cross-Bench Peers were making speeches of that nature we were getting accused of having a filibuster. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was keeping an eye on the Door in case the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, came in and moved for closure but, fortunately, he did not appear. That emphasises that we are now getting a bit of balance in the Committee in that it seems that, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, people are now being allowed to make the case for their local area without being accused of filibustering. It is a legitimate thing to do.
The breadth of knowledge coming from all sides of the House is deeply impressive, although I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, shuddered a wee bit at being part called part of a Celtic nation, with a hard “C”. He should really think himself quite lucky that he was not called part of a Celtic nation, with a soft “C”. Then he would really have had something to get upset about.
I welcome the change in attitude in the Committee. The display was terrific. I support this amendment with, at this stage, a small caveat over Orkney and Shetland, because I want to reserve my position regarding the amendment that will be moved at some point this evening. However, coming from Scotland, I think that the case for Argyll and Bute has certainly been made.
My Lords, what a fascinating debate we have had on these amendments—rather more interesting than I was expecting. It went around the House and people spoke from their different experience and knowledge. I was particularly pleased to get the support of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, which is always welcome.
It is not that rare, but very occasionally—about once every 10 years—my noble friend is vociferous in his opposition. It is very nice to see him being so supportive today. I was also pleased to have the support of my noble friends Lord Roberts and Lady O’Cathain.
To me, this debate demonstrated the width and depth of the gulf that exists between what the Government are trying to achieve and the position of noble Lords opposite. At the heart of what we want is equality across the country of the number of constituencies. To me, that is entirely logical: 600 seats—we do not need to debate again why 600—divided by the number of the electorate to get a figure, plus or minus 5 per cent. That is what we are trying to do.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Myners. That is precisely what I mean.
Noble Lords opposite say that equality of the size of constituencies is not important; they say that something else is important. The Bill, of course, provides for some of the other things that are important. They talked about community links and they talked about counties, as if counties were the same thing as constituencies. I totally dispute that. I live in Ayrshire. Ayrshire is, in fact, not a county. Everybody recognises it as a county, but it is not, as it has been divided in two. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, used to represent part of it. However, I do not say, and nobody says, “I come from Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley”, or whatever the constituency is called. I say, “I come from Ayrshire”. I have no emotional link with the constituency at all.
I want the noble Lord to respond to this—I am looking forward to it. Not only do I live in a Westminster constituency, but I live in a Scottish parliamentary constituency, which is called something else that I cannot remember. It simply does not matter what constituency I live in. It is of no interest to me at all.
I will give way to the noble Lord in a moment. I know that some noble Lords opposite have represented part of the country for years and feel a strong emotional bond to that area. I understand that. What I do not understand is the belief that most of the people of this country identify the area that they live in by the constituencies in which they live. They do not.
May I gently correct the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde? There are in fact three parts of Ayrshire—East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and North Ayrshire—but there was a vigorous campaign to keep Ayrshire whole, as one county. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will remember it well, because it was his Government, bringing in local government reform, who insisted that Ayrshire should be divided in three, against all the wishes of local people. They were gerrymandering Ayrshire to keep South Ayrshire as one unit, because they thought that the Tories would take control of South Ayrshire. That was the purpose behind it and that is the kind of gerrymandering that, unfortunately, we are seeing again in the Bill.
That exactly proves my point. The people of Ayrshire did not really care very much which constituency they were living in. To them, it is Ayrshire, whether or not there are different boundaries for different parts of it.
Noble Lords opposite will remember that in 2008 there was a by-election in a place called Crewe and Nantwich. I spent quite a lot of time in Crewe—the Conservative Party thought that I would be better in Crewe than in Nantwich, although I never quite understood why. They were two very different parts of the constituency. The Member of Parliament had no trouble representing both parts, even though they were very different. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, wants to jump up again.
I thank the noble Lord. I have been sitting quietly through the whole debate. At the most recent reorganisation of Westminster parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, there was an initial suggestion, supported by my noble friend Lord Reid when he was a Lanarkshire MP, to put part of Ayrshire into a constituency with Lanarkshire. All the Ayrshire constituencies, including the Ayrshire Conservatives, fought to keep Ayrshire with five constituencies. We won. Where did we win? At the hearing that was held to hear the views of local people from Ayrshire, including the Ayrshire Conservatives, of which the noble Lord is one.
Again, this rather proves my point. It is politicians who want to fix all these constituencies in a particular way, not people. They do not mind. That is my fundamental point: people do not identify themselves by the constituencies in which they live.
I was born in the constituency of Hillhead in Glasgow, which was represented by my father. People from Hillhead do not say that they come from Hillhead; they say that they come from Glasgow. That makes sense, as there is no such identity. People do not say that they come from Westminster North; they say that they come from London, or from central London. That is the point.
I have a simple question for the noble Lord the Leader of the House: has he ever attended a public boundary inquiry? He is making the assertion that local people do not get involved. That is not my experience or that of many other noble Lords.
I apologise for interrupting my noble friend the Leader of the House. It is important to say that nowhere in the amendment are we delineating an actual constituency. That is the point. It specifically does not delineate an individual constituency. I agree with my noble friend that constituencies change around, as they have in Cornwall, from Truro and St Austell to Truro and Falmouth. That is not an issue; the issue is the wider, broader community that people actually identify with, but that is not the constituency. I wanted to make that clear and I apologise again for interrupting.
I am happy to be interrupted on that. I understand my noble friend’s point plainly. The point that he and others have made is that an MP cannot represent well a constituency that crosses county boundaries, but my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Scotland Office represents a seat in the south of Scotland that crosses, I think, three local authority boundaries, and he does it rather well. The fact that the seat crosses several such boundaries makes no difference to his ability to represent it, so I do not accept the argument that my noble friend makes. I do not take away from him and other noble Lords the passion with which they make their argument. I just think, and this is the Government’s point, that it is a better and safer principle to stick to an equality of numbers of electors in constituencies across the country than to try to make these arguments.
I think that the noble Lord is slightly misrepresenting the point that we are trying to make. There is no attachment here to lines on maps that mark county boundaries that cannot be crossed. We are talking about the fact that these lines on maps represent real communities, which in some cases are very geographically isolated communities, and it is impossible to draw constituency boundaries that would maintain that essential sense of community. We are asking for the flexibility to take that sense of community into account, not local government boundaries.
That is exactly what noble Lords opposite are saying. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that crossing county boundaries destroys local identity built up in Cumbria. He said a couple of times that it would export voters into other constituencies. I just do not understand what that means or why it should be important.
I have heard the noble Lord. The parliamentary constituencies do not create or destroy historic identities; it is simply wrong to suggest that they do. I know the noble Lord, Lord Knight, is trying to trick me by moving from that place to another but I spotted that.
I certainly would not want to trick the noble Lord the Leader of the House. When I represented a seat in the other place, my constituency crossed four local authority boundaries. I am not for a second suggesting that Members of Parliament would not do their best if they represented across significant community boundaries. However, I put this scenario briefly to the Minister. When the previous Labour Government came to office, one of the things that they did for Cornwall was to ensure that the European Union considered Cornwall as a region in its own right, so that it became eligible for Objective 1 status. If a Member of Parliament had represented a seat that straddled Cornwall and Devon—the European Union previously looked at Devon and Cornwall together—he would have been in a very difficult position. The Cornish people would have been passionate about the need for him to represent Cornwall, and the Devon people on the other side of his patch might have had a very different view. We should not put Members of the other place through that difficulty.
I am sure Members of Parliament are able to deal with such clashes. I know the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will get up again. Am I right in thinking that the North Ayrshire constituency includes the Isle of Arran? It is part of the Highlands and Islands development area, which has Objective 1 status. However, North Ayrshire certainly does not have Objective 1 status.
I know the Isle of Arran quite well. I look across to Argyll from my house on the Isle of Arran. It would be easy, given the hard logic that the Minister wishes to follow, to look at the map and say that the Isle of Arran ought to be part of the Argyll and Bute constituency. There are 3,500 electors on the island. It would be easy to say, “If you look at the map, there is a shorter sea journey between Argyll and Arran than between the mainland and Arran”. You would say, “Why not?”. However, there is no direct, regular sea connection between Arran and Argyll and Bute. Let us be clear: if you apply the noble Lord’s hard logic, Arran might well become part of Argyll and Bute, but it would have nothing to do with the constituency itself.
My example answered the question of the noble Lord, Lord Knight. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, raises a perfectly valid point but it is not for us to decide where the constituency will be drawn. It will be the Boundary Commission that takes into account all the criteria that it has.
This comes back to the Boundary Commission, which some of us do not trust to take the right decisions. Tony Cunningham, my successor in my former constituency, asked the Boundary Commission why it had put Keswick into the Copeland constituency—the nuclear industry-based constituency. He was told that it was because Keswick and Whitehaven are strongly linked. That was a myth. I have lived in Keswick for most of my life. There is no connection whatever to Whitehaven, yet the Boundary Commission took that decision. How can we trust people to understand what real links exist unless we have those local inquiries that we are all arguing for?
The noble Lord’s words spoke for themselves when he said, “I don’t trust the Boundary Commission to come up with the right answer”. Most of us do trust, and want to trust, the Boundary Commission.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said in his main speech that we must beware of destroying political balance in Cumbria, but the Boundary Commission is deliberately blind to such questions. That should continue to be the case. It is not the Boundary Commission’s responsibility to create marginality or safe seats. It has to look at the criteria laid out in the legislation and come to its own conclusions. It is for all those reasons that we fundamentally disagree with the amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned Cumbria. There are geographical circumstances in Cumbria that the Boundary Commission would want to take into account. However, the whole of Cumbria would fit into Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, let alone the largest existing constituency. Although the noble Lord put the case for Cumbria eloquently, it does not compare. What about Workington, which has an electorate of 59,000? The Bill allows geography to be considered within the 10 per cent range allowed between the smallest and largest constituencies. Is it really fair—this is the point that Bill is trying to deal with—that three electors in Workington have the same say as four in, for instance, East Ham? I do not think so. That is what the Bill is trying to correct.
My Lords, there could be complete agreement around the House if the noble Lord were to concede that the people who live in these areas may have much stronger views than his about his home and allegiance. After all, the noble Lord does not have a vote in a parliamentary constituency. Therefore, he is perhaps less interested. However, the problem does not relate to whether or not we are making a case that can convince the noble Lord. Has he investigated how often the original proposals put forward by the Boundary Commission have been changed as a result of public inquiries during the process? Therein lies the rub. The fact is that the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, are taking unto themselves decisions which we believe should be put back to the local people. The Boundary Commission listens. The noble Lord is not listening.
That is not what we are trying to do. We are saying that there should be a certain number of constituencies, there is a variance of 10 per cent between the smallest and the largest, there is a Boundary Commission, and there will be an appeals process. I know it is not an appeals process that the noble Baroness likes, but people’s views will be heard and taken into account.
I always like to be positive when replying to noble Lords, but it is hard to find a way to be positive on all this. My noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy made a point about Ynys Môn extremely well. I would have said the same thing about the bridges. It is a different kind of island from those in Orkney and the Western Isles. I hope that noble Lords opposite feel that I have tried to do justice on this Bill. Of all parts of the country, I think there is a genuine feeling in Cornwall. There is a unified view from the four MPs. However, we reject the argument made in Cornwall because we want clarity and similarity to stretch right across the country. Cornwall has many links and communities of interest which stretch across the Cornish border. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Myners, will agree that a large number of Cornish residents work in Plymouth in Devon. Therefore, there is a transfer of people on a daily basis which crosses local authority and county borders, and I do not see why that should not work in Westminster representation.
I keep going on about the question of marginality, although I do not see it in a political context, as the noble Lord does. Does he think that the review that will be carried out under the new law if the Bill goes through will be successful if its effect is to create far more safe seats nationally? Would he regard that as a successful conclusion after the next general election?
My Lords, there is no evidence to suggest that that would be the likely result. The review might result in more marginal constituencies: I have not the faintest idea. The people who decide whether a seat is safe or marginal are the electors in that constituency, not the Boundary Commission.
My Lords, I will reply and then the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will reply. That was a debate from a golden age in the House of Lords. It had three particular characteristics. We focused on the issue, we heard brilliant speeches from all sides of the House and we had a fabulously attractive speech from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in which he pretended that the argument was about one thing and answered that.
I will speak first about individual places. The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts, made powerful speeches about why Anglesey should not be treated separately because of its relationship with Bangor. My noble friend Lord Touhig made an equally powerful speech about why it should be treated separately. It is inevitable in the light of the way that the Bill was drafted that this is what must be done. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, stated that we say that there should be other factors and Government say that the issue is numbers. I am afraid that that is not what the debate on this amendment is about. The Government have accepted that there should be exceptions. We accept the principle of equality. There should be a small number of exceptions: the question is what they should be. Because there is no independent process to decide this, it must be done in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, managed with the Isle of Wight, and in the way that has been done tonight. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and in admiration for the attractive way in which he can distract us from the real point, the question is: what should the exceptions be?
The powerful speeches made by the noble Lords, Lord Roberts and Lord Crickhowell, show that we need to think about whether Anglesey should be an exception. In relation to Cornwall, I hope that I will not make the same mistake as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, by saying, “This is what I think the people of Cornwall want”. We must listen to what they have to say. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, rightly placed her finger on the point; we are seeking to determine the way in which we elect people to a national forum. However, that does not answer the question about how we select the units within which they will select those national representatives. I am very conscious of that, having spoken to people from Cornwall and having heard what they said to me. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was good enough to acknowledge, Cornwall appears united on the issue. If I was allowed to refer to the Public Gallery, which I am not—I am conscious of the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is not here—I would imagine that any elected representatives there would have nodded vigorously when I said that the people of Cornwall were united in this respect. I am conscious of the fact that there is strong feeling on this issue.
The amendment has given us the opportunity to consider a range of possible exceptions. There is agreement in this House on three of the exceptions: the two Scottish island constituencies and the Isle of Wight. There is a division of view about the Isle of Anglesey. There has been broad support for Argyll and Bute, but we have not had a detailed debate on it, nor in relation to the Highland Council. The striking thing about this debate has been the position of Cornwall, which everyone has acknowledged. We cannot vote on this compendious amendment because it covers too many constituencies and there are different views in relation to it. However, it is perfectly obvious that we will have to revisit the issue of Cornwall.
On the question of Cumbria, I do not necessarily agree with my noble friend Lord Liddle that it was not included in our amendment simply because he did not get to me in time, although, having heard what he and my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said, one can see that there is a case for Cumbria. I say with respect and tentatively that it does not appear to have the same universal support as Cornwall.
We note very carefully what has been said in the course of what has been a very good debate, and we will obviously come back at Report with what may be a more honed amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for least going through the arguments. I must admit that I find them difficult to follow on this amendment. These small exceptions—exceptions have already been made—do not make a fundamental difference to the Bill, nor to the way that the solution for constituencies and democracy in this country would work. I find that response disappointing. I accept that not every area in that list may be correct, and that it is perhaps therefore not right to vote on the amendment this evening, but I strongly believe that community matters. Although what the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, said, was absolutely right—this is a national forum—we sometimes forget in this House a thing called casework, which comes to Members of the other place. That is hugely community-based.
I have to make one last admission. When I was an MEP, I was MEP for the Isles of Scilly, for Cornwall and for West Plymouth, and the constituency covered the River Tamar. It was not a good solution and did not necessarily work well for the city of Plymouth—although I felt that I did a fantastic job. The difference between those communities was huge, and the practical outcome was that that was not the right solution. I hope that the Government—whom I support in every other way—will reconsider this important area for the future. We live to fight another day for Cornwall in another argument. That is important.
To tell you the truth, I was not sure what I was supposed to do. I just wanted to say that I hope that we do not have to raise this issue again at Report, because I hope that the Government will bring forward more flexibility in the way that the Boundary Commission operates so that the needs of communities in places such as Cumbria can be taken more fully into account. If the Government do that and allow much more local flexibility in the rules than at present, which does not breach the principle by which we have operated in Britain since the Second World War of equal constituencies, there will be no need to press this issue again.
Amendment 79AA (to Amendment 79A) withdrawn.
Amendment 79A withdrawn.
79B: Clause 11, page 10, leave out lines 25 to 27
This amendment deletes the constituency of Orkney and Shetland from the preserved list. I hope a Liberal Democrat Minister will reply. The amendment contradicts the previous amendment moved by my Front Bench to keep Orkney and Shetland on the preserved list, and I shall explain the thinking behind what I am doing. First, I state that I support the aim of equalisation. The disparity between electorates in different seats has long been an anomaly, and I have always thought that some effort should be made to tackle it because the principle is right. The aim is right, but the methodology in this Bill to achieve that aim is too prescriptive and too tightly drawn. It does not take any real cognisance of communities, which is where I am coming from and how I approach this Bill.
My party supported the principle of having a referendum on AV, as did I. I think it is right that the people should speak. To my recollection we did not specify a date, and that is causing problems, but they are not insurmountable. I think it is important that I state that as part of the background to this amendment because a myth has built up that I and others are determined to stop this Bill, and I have never stated that that is the case. I hope that by stating my position vis-à-vis equalisation and support for an AV referendum, we can stop the spinners from the various newspapers saying otherwise.
The idea is surely to revise and improve, and that is what we are looking for in the Bill. In moving this amendment, I am trying to help the Liberal Democrats. Believe it or not, my name is Tommy and I am here to help. I can say that to our Liberal colleagues. The twists and turns that are going on to try and arrange the geographical condition and the natural state of the highland seats for Charles Kennedy, who is a first-class Member of Parliament, Danny Alexander and other northern Liberal MPs are quite unedifying. The position being taken on Orkney and Shetland is all right for us, but the rest of you will need to bend to this, and the contortions that are going on in the highlands do no good to the reputation of the Liberal Democrats. I say to my Liberal Democrat colleagues—or Peers, if they object to me calling them colleagues—that they are bringing an air of chicanery to their party, especially in Scotland, because every time boundaries or voting systems are discussed, the Liberals use their position as part of any set-up to argue for PR, list MSPs or not reducing MSP seats when the Scotland Act called for it—the so-called settled will of the Scottish people, except when it came to reducing MSP seats.
I am here to help the Liberals. By moving the amendment I am giving them the opportunity to justify on the Floor of the House why Orkney and Shetlands should still continue to exist, in contrast with Argyll and Bute, which has the best case in Scotland, even when compared with the highlands. As I said, Charles Kennedy is admired by nearly all of us on this side of the House—he is a first-class MP—but, of course, he comes from social democratic rather than Liberal roots, which makes a difference.
I am not demeaning anything that the Liberals are doing or how they are behaving, but their case lacks justification compared with the highland seats. Charles once told me that it takes him five hours to drive from one end of his constituency and back again, so he has made that case, but what is happening with the seat of Argyll and Bute is nonsense. I am not arguing a political interest in this matter because we have never won the seat. However, going back to my schooldays and early teens, John Maclay—who ended up here as a very distinguished Peer—stood for Parliament and was elected as a National Liberal, if I remember correctly. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for confirming that. There is perhaps a lesson here for the Liberals—and maybe a threat—because we know that history shows that members of parties who enter into a coalition with the Conservative Party end up, in effect, as Conservative Members of Parliament.
I am not arguing from a party political point of view. If there is a case for Orkney and Shetlands and a case for the highlands, the case for Argyll and Bute at least equals those. If Orkney and Shetlands is to be preserved, so should Argyll and Bute.
The Leader of the House mentioned fair votes and made calculations.
I remind my noble friend that the Argyll and Bute constituency is a political construct from the previous Conservative Government. I well remember in 1994 pleading with the then Minister of State, Allan Stewart, “Do not take Helensburgh and put it into Argyll and Bute”. The people of Helensburgh had a difference with their representatives at the time, the Labour councillors, and rightly so, but they had a short-term interest in doing that. I represented the Helensburgh seat. Now, less than 10 years later, the Helensburgh people are saying, “It was wrong for us to go into Argyll and Bute”. The lesson is that if you carry out exercises in this House with politicians and do not include the Boundary Commission and the local element, you will get artificial constructs. That is the history of Argyll and Bute.
I am grateful to my noble friend for sharing that local knowledge, because it is surely relevant when discussing amendments on Bills such as this one.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, calculated how much one vote was worth when compared with another. How does the calculation compare Orkney and Shetland, which has an electorate of just over 32,000, with, say, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, which has an electorate of 77,000? I am not having a go at the people in Orkney and Shetland; I am making the point—I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is no longer in his place—that a party and its supporters are taking the benefits of the toleration and support of people who quite rightly see the case for Orkney and Shetland, but those same people and the areas that benefit from that tolerance and consideration do not give an inch to other areas. The case of Argyll and Bute gets to me in particular. It is a case of “I’m all right Jack”, or “I’m all right Jim, but the rest of you have to suffer”.
The thing about this Bill and the various amendments is that a bit of a legend is being put about that I am the leader of the gang that is out to destroy this Bill. That is absolutely wrong. It is about time. I hope that the Cross-Benchers listen to what we are saying.
No Cross-Benchers are here.
I know. I was not being sarcastic. I hope that other Members listen as well because I have been speaking to Peers on all sides of the House over the past week or so. People have not been unfriendly. They have gone out of their way to speak to me and take me to tea. That was great, especially as they were paying, but the legend is that somehow I/we were being completely obstructive by trying to stop, damage and finish the Bill rather than get some concessions.
No concessions have come from the Government at all. The justified case for the Isle of Wight had to be pressed by a coalition of various Peers who tried to get common sense on that, but nothing has been gained. The noble Lord can disabuse me of that later if he can persuade me, but the Government are in a straitjacket. The straitjacket is the agreement that they reached behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms with the Liberals. They extracted their price and the Government are quite willing to extract theirs, which does not seem to allow any room for reasonable compromise to come from the Government towards the Opposition.
Some points of view are held by many Peers in the House. For instance, the amendment that has the most support from noble Lords around the House is the extension of the variation from 5 per cent to 10 per cent. That would not destroy the Bill—it would be pointless to do that—but it would make a difference. I am told by a number of more experienced Peers than me that it would tackle a lot of the anomalies and many of the injustices in the Bill. It would not be a cure-all, but it would be a gesture towards recognising that there is a problem.
We would like local inquiries as per what has happened in the past and what is normal. If there were a gesture to indicate that there should be some form of restricted local inquiries, which could be the subject of discussion between the usual channels, a whole host of recommendations might go through on the nod. Folk would see the point and logic of them. A limited number of restricted local inquiries—a comparatively small number compared with the 600-odd—perhaps to clear a huddle before a local inquiry to allow local people and organisations to have a say, is the sort of compromise and concession that could come from the Government without destroying the Bill.
A number was plucked out of the air for seats. I will not go on about that, but is it so set in stone that it cannot be eased just a little for the sake of getting some kind of agreement in this House? A better attitude could ease the crisis that seems to have developed towards the conventions of the House. There are two sides to every story, but some concession from the Government along the lines that I mentioned would help.
Another item that I and others would like to see—
Before the noble Lord sits down—I assume that he must be reaching a conclusion after 14 minutes—perhaps he would explain something to help us. If he is so strongly opposed, as he is in this amendment, to the preservation of a separate constituency for Orkney and Shetland, why did he support in the other place the Labour Government’s Scotland Act 1998, which provided for separate constituencies for the Orkney and Shetland in the Scottish Parliament and in particular preserved the specific identity for Orkney and Shetland constituency in the Westminster Parliament? Also, does he have any fears after 15 minutes that an impartial observer of his previous contribution might fear that this is another frivolous filibuster in this debate?
The noble Lord has given me half a minute to answer about four questions. If the mood of the House is that I should sit down, I will. If the mood is that I briefly answer the noble Lord, I will. I will try to answer. That seems to be okay, but if someone objects I will sit down—do not worry about that. The noble Lord objects?
That is fine. I will answer the question. Let me make it clear that I have no intention of putting this to the vote. It is a probing amendment to find out why Orkney and Shetland is given this preferential treatment and Argyll and Bute is not. I will mention the Scottish convention briefly, because I am sure it will come up. The whole attitude at the time of the Scottish convention was to get consensus. In that mood of consensus, there was recognition of the need to get everyone on board with Orkney and Shetland getting two seats. Internally, I disagreed, but I am a democrat. I played my part within my own party to alter that and did not win. Overwhelmingly, folk were in favour of it. I know the noble Lord was not listening to that answer, but that is the answer, and I can justify it at any time. I am a democrat and will play my part within my own party. I am not one of life’s natural rebels, so I am not inclined to rebel. I would rather not encourage the wrath of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. With that, I beg to move.
I must tell my noble friend Lord McAvoy, for whom I usually have a great respect and affection, that on this occasion I cannot support his amendment. I mentioned the Scottish Constitutional Convention earlier this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows well, the convention considered the issue of Orkney and Shetland for a long time. It was considered for separate parliamentary representation in well debated and well considered discussions. The decision was to accord separate parliamentary representation in the Scottish Parliament for both Orkney and Shetland.
I do not pretend to know Orkney and Shetland well. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, knows—although he is not in his place—that I have had the enormous pleasure of visiting both Orkney and Shetland with my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane and his family, and with the late First Minister of Scotland the right honourable Donald Dewar, when the noble and learned Lord and his wife accompanied us on an enjoyable, informative and educational political working holiday. To visit both these areas is to appreciate at once how different they are from one another and from mainland Scotland geographically, topographically, in flora and fauna, in history and socially. They are in effect two different countries, and neither of them is like Scotland as we know it. Indeed, without going too much into the historical detail, most noble Lords are aware that Norway was the mother country in the past.
That is why, allied to the physical difficulties in connections between these two, the convention was persuaded that they should have two separate seats in the Scottish Parliament. As I explained to the House earlier this afternoon, the convention worked for 10 years on hammering out a blueprint for the Scottish Parliament—one that was almost wholly incorporated into the government White Paper and then into the Scotland Act.
The question of Orkney and Shetland was considered very carefully. Everyone in the convention was aware that there were important implications for other parts of Scotland by allowing special status for Orkney and Shetland. Such a major departure from what had been the Westminster practice of treating them as one constituency was serious but, in the end, that was agreed. In fact, when it came to the White Paper and then the drafting of the Scotland Bill, all the arguments had been so well rehearsed that there were no problems in agreeing to it. Surely that has to be an important lesson for this Government. Instead of the careful, painstaking, wide consultation that the convention provided, the Government are trying to rush this Bill through with no pretence at consulting the people of Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord may point, but I have not been speaking for 20 minutes. That is the length of the debate.
The noble Lord anticipates my next point. The Benches opposite have the temerity to complain when we try to examine the detail in this Bill. That shows an arrogance that none of the participants in the convention, including the party of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and my own, showed on this kind of issue.
That brings me to a second lesson for the Government, if I may give it to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. The first was about wider consultation. The second is about objecting to how the Bill is scrutinised. The Scotland Bill, which was a well defined, self-contained and constitutionally important Bill, came from a White Paper arising from almost 10 years of the widest possible consideration by the convention. It was dealt with in this House by two days on Second Reading, which is very unusual, 10 days in Committee and four days on Report. All 10 days in Committee went on after 10.30 pm, five of them until after midnight. The four days on Report all went on after 10.30 pm.
I was one of the three government Ministers who took the Scotland Bill through the House and I remember this very well. On the Conservative opposition Bench were the very much missed Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, known affectionately some of the time as the Mackay twins. What a difference there was in the way in which we negotiated and behaved towards one another from what we see now. As the Government, we did not accuse or complain about the many amendments and the long hours that the Opposition originated or about the mantra—
Just let me finish the sentence. The mantra that we kept hearing repeated, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will remember, was that, although the Conservative Party had campaigned for a no vote in the referendum on a Scottish Parliament, it accepted the decision of the Scottish people and all the many amendments were, as it said, only “to make it a better Bill”.
There were many clauses, but it was one Bill—one self-contained, sharply focused Bill on the Scottish Parliament, quite different from the hybrid Bill that we have in front of us.
I am not claiming that there was some kind of golden age in 1998 when we were in government and the Scotland Bill was being debated. Of course we got tired and we got angry with one another sometimes. However, we kept our cool and even accommodated in the timetabling of the Bill the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish’s love of salmon fishing by allowing dates when he could do that.