Committee (14th Day)
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
89BA: Clause 11, page 11, line 26, at end insert—
“(5) If the number of constituencies allocated to Wales under sub-paragraph (3) is fewer than 35, an additional allocation shall be made to Wales to ensure that it has 35 constituencies.
(6) Where an additional allocation is made under sub-paragraph (5) above, sub-paragraph (7) shall apply in place of rule 2.
(7) The electorate of any constituency in Wales shall be—
(a) no less than 95% of the Welsh electoral quota; and(b) no more than 105% of that quota;the “Wales electoral quota” meaning W/P, where W is the electorate of Wales and P is the number of constituencies allocated to Wales.”
My Lords, I am pleased to be opening this debate on Wales so that we can air some issues that concern many of us. But at the same time I am saddened because none of these amendments was debated in the other place because of the use of a guillotine, which shows the importance of the scrutiny that your Lordships’ House is able to afford at this time.
Wales, more than any other part of the United Kingdom, will be adversely affected as a result of this Bill. Wales has just 5 per cent of the United Kingdom’s population but in this Bill Wales will lose 10 parliamentary constituencies. That equates to 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of constituencies the Government are seeking across the whole United Kingdom. The Bill will see the number of MPs Wales sends to the Parliament of the United Kingdom reduced by one in four. That is 25 per cent compared with around 7 per cent for the rest of the country. That means fewer MPs than after the great reforms of 1832 when the population of Wales could be counted in thousands.
We are a small nation within a large country but our contribution to our democratic parliamentary life has been far greater than many would think possible for a country of around 3 million people. Sons of Wales at one time or another have dominated the British political scene. David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan are but two. Our adopted sons James Callaghan and Michael Foot rose to great offices of state and came to lead their party. From the Conservative Benches the noble Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, changed the course of British politics when he resigned from Mrs Thatcher’s Government. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, became leader of his party. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, the longest-serving Welsh Office Minister who was in office for half the time the Welsh Office actually existed, was responsible for steering through the Welsh Language Act which gave Welsh equal status with English for the first time. And I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who served as a distinguished Secretary of State, is also with us this afternoon.
More than 700 years ago, with a population that counted in thousands, 24 Welsh MPs were summoned to Parliament. In those seven centuries, as the population has grown to 3 million, that number has increased to just 40. Parliament in its wisdom passed the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and in Schedule 2 it states:
“The number of constituencies in Wales shall not be less than 35”.
That, I would argue, gives a valid and sound basis for the amendment we have before us. It was based on the unanimous conclusions of the 1944 Speaker’s Conference and that 1986 Act went through Parliament without a Division. In fact, it was supported by all parties. If anything could be said to have support on all sides of the political spectrum it was that Act. Contrast that with the present Bill which was not the subject of a Green Paper, a White Paper or any pre-legislative scrutiny and certainly cannot be said to have widespread parliamentary support. I further believe that, by guaranteeing that Wales should have a minimum of 35 Members of Parliament, recognition was given to the need to make special provision for the small nations in our United Kingdom. With only 5 per cent of the UK population, Wales needs this sort of provision if we are to play our full role in the multinational British state.
Many people fear that reducing Welsh representation in the other place by 25 per cent when many aspects of Welsh life, including the ability of the Welsh Assembly to do its job, depend on the Government and Parliament in Westminster, would fuel a further interest in separatism. I raised the matter at Second Reading when I warned that this could be a threat to our union. When the people of Wales voted by a very small margin in 1997 for devolution and the creation of a Welsh Assembly, it was on the clear understanding that this would have no effect on Welsh representation in the British Parliament. I can, albeit reluctantly, accept that that now could be interpreted in terms of the minimum 35 seats in the UK Parliament, which this amendment seeks to achieve. Based on the many comments that I have received from noble Lords on all sides, I cannot accept that the protection afforded to Wales of a minimum of 35 seats should be removed.
Even after the establishment of a Welsh Assembly, huge areas of Welsh life continue to be determined by decisions of the Government and Parliament in Westminster: everything from pensions, benefits, criminal justice and policing, taxation, levels of public expenditure, macroeconomic policy, and defence and foreign policy, will remain the responsibility of the Government and Parliament in Westminster. This will continue to be the case even if the people of Wales vote in the referendum in March to devolve further powers to the Welsh Assembly.
The situation in the United Kingdom, with devolved Administrations in the various nations, is not uncommon around the world. It is common for countries which have a mixture of central and devolved government to exercise positive discrimination in their constitutions to safeguard the smaller, devolved areas. In that way, the strength of the union is made secure. In the United States, California, with 37 million people, sends two senators to Washington—as does Wyoming, with a population of 544,000. Again, it is important for their union. The smallest state in Germany, Bremen, with a population of 220,000, sends three members to the German Bundesrat, while the largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, with a population of 3 million, sends six. Again, it is important for their union that the smaller regions and nations are protected. Nor should we forget who helped the Germans to devise their constitution after the last war. Representation in the Spanish senate is weighted towards the smaller regions. That also happens in Australia. This is all done because of the need for a strong, central, good union.
Noble Lords on the Conservative Benches should wake up to the threat to our union posed by a 25 per cent reduction in the number of Members of Parliament that Wales sends here. The Conservative Party rightly and for a long time prided itself on being called the Conservative and Unionist Party. Regardless of our political differences—they will always remain, which is good and healthy for our democracy—we should make common cause to defend our union. Noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the heirs to Lloyd George, know in their hearts that it is not right to remove 25 per cent of Welsh Members from the House of Commons, with Wales bearing 20 per cent of the total reduction in the number of MPs for the whole United Kingdom. A week ago last Monday was the anniversary of the birth of Lloyd George. He loved Wales, her people and her language, and he would never have done anything to diminish her role in the United Kingdom.
The Government have made a case for special treatment for two parliamentary seats in Scotland, which will not be required to meet their ambition for seats of equal size. Your Lordships' House has done the same for the Isle of Wight. Why, therefore, will the Government not consider that there is a case for special consideration for Wales? The Bill proposes that Wales should lose the largest number of MPs in percentage terms of any part of the United Kingdom: 20 per cent of the reduction for the entire country will come from Wales. In the interests of fairness, that cannot be right.
There is another important aspect of Wales that merits special consideration: the Welsh language. In five parliamentary constituencies—Ynys Môn, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr—Welsh is the first language of a majority of voters. Mr Lewis Baston, a senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, has been much quoted in the debates that we have had in the House in recent days. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place, he criticised the impact that a reduction of 10 seats would have on Welsh-speaking areas. He said:
“The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament”.
Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where some 20 per cent of the population speak two languages, Welsh and English. Surely that merits special consideration. If special consideration can be given to preserving two parliamentary constituencies in Scotland because of geographical, historical and community factors, surely Wales can be given special consideration. The same historical and community factors exist in Wales, on top of which there is the unique factor of the Welsh language, which is the first language for a majority of people in five parliamentary constituencies. Have the Government given any consideration to the fact that Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where a second language is spoken by 20 per cent of the population? What thought has been given to ensuring that the sparsely populated areas of Wales are properly represented in Parliament?
We had a very good debate the other evening about Brecon and Radnor. As many noble Lords will know, this constituency in eastern Wales runs along the border with England. The northernmost tip of that constituency is closer to the north Wales coast than it is to the southernmost tip of the constituency, and the southernmost tip of the constituency is closer to the south Wales coast than it is to the northernmost tip of the constituency. It is a huge area. It is conceivable, if the Bill is not altered, that there could be just two Members of Parliament representing an area from the Welsh/English border in the east to Cardigan Bay in the west: two Members from the Heads of the Valley Road in the south to the borders of Wrexham and the A55 in the north. At a stroke, the long-established community links between MPs and constituents would be lost. Rural MPs in Wales would have to travel great distances to see their constituents, and they would have to travel great distances to see them.
I remind the House of a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, in our debate the other evening. He said:
“This piece of legislation says that you should look at representation from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament and the number of constituents that he has. No, my Lords: you should look at it from the other end of the telescope—from the end of the ordinary constituent, who asks himself, ‘How accessible is my Member of Parliament to me?’. If you ask that question, you are likely to get a more reasonable and just result”.—[Official Report, 24/1/11; col. 800.]
I endorse what the noble Lord said.
I will take a step further the argument for the need to preserve community-based representation in Parliament. Has any consideration been given to sustaining the distinctive community-based representation of the south Wales valleys? The noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, made powerful arguments the other evening in favour of sustaining the close link between an MP and his constituents when they admirably put the case for the Isle of Wight. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said:
“This is not just a numbers game. If we end up making it a numbers game, we may very well find that respect, support and influence that Parliament is able to bring to bear through its Members in their constituencies are greatly diminished at a time when we need to strengthen Parliament”.—[Official Report, 19/1/11; col. 413.]
We face the loss of community-based representation across the Welsh valleys. I mentioned this at Second Reading and again in the debate the other evening.
The Electoral Reform Society carried out an exercise redrawing the electoral map of Wales and reducing it to 30 parliamentary constituencies. In the case of my former constituency of Islwyn, it would put the community of Abercarn in the new constituency of Caerphilly. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. It would put to the community of Cefn Fforest in the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil, when it is not even in the same county. I give the same illustration that I gave the other night. Think of the South Wales Valleys as being like a hand. The valleys are the fingers, the palms are the cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. There is movement from valleys to city for jobs, shopping and entertainment. The transport links, rail and road, are from valleys to city. There is very little cross-valley movement. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when the Minister comes to reply.
The amendment in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon, my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, and the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, and supported by many others—the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea cannot be here today—would ensure that Wales had a minimum of 35 seats in Parliament.
On the day of Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord McNally—like many others, I wish him well and look forward to seeing him back at that Dispatch Box and giving us all a bit of a ticking off and amusement as soon as possible—spoke on radio about fairness in relation to this debate. I fear that, throughout this debate, the Government and their supporters believe that fairness in representation in Parliament can be achieved only by constituencies of equal size. Why is that the only definition of fairness that they are prepared to admit to? I said on Second Reading that the Union of the four nations of these islands, which has united us as one country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have a greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held our Union together for these past centuries. The amendment ensuring that Wales has 35 seats in the Commons will go a long way to protecting that Union.
Amendment 89BC would ensure that no English region, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would suffer a reduction in the number of seats of more than 10 per cent at any one review. None of us knows what will be the effect of individual registration. Many would argue that the heavily populated inner cities, where there is a greater population turnover, will be severely underrepresented if we are not careful. The amendment provides that there should be a reduction of no more than 10 per cent in the number of MPs at any one time.
The final amendment, Amendment 102AA, would ensure that there could be no change to Welsh parliamentary constituencies unless the referendum results in March say yes to additional powers for the Assembly and those powers are actually passed to the Assembly.
I hope that I have been able to convey to your Lordships the very real anxiety that many of us have about the impact of the Bill in Wales. I am sure that other noble Lords will now have their say, and I look forward to hearing them with interest. I especially look forward with interest to the reply of the Minister. I hope that he will at least agree that a fair case has been made to cause the Government to reflect and reconsider these issues concerning Wales. Based on his reply, I must consider whether or not I should seek leave to divide your Lordships' House. Let me say now that I hope that when he replies, the Minister will give me every reason not to do so.
My Lords, it is many years since I represented North Wales at cricket, but I assure the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, that I shall follow these discussions with considerable interest. I hope that he will allow me to make one brief intervention, which relates to Clause 11 as a whole. Thereafter, of course, the tour of Wales will continue. I have today tabled an amendment, to which we shall come eventually, but not immediately, which would defer the coming into force of Clause 11 until the end of the work of the Boundary Commission on the constituencies—that is, until the reports are laid before Parliament, the Secretary of State proposes to appoint a date and there are affirmative resolutions of both Houses.
I intervene briefly now to avoid any misunderstanding, thats if the coming into force of Clause 11 is deferred, we do not need to amend the clause now. I have tabled my amendment in the hope that it may contribute to an agreement that the Bill should pass, with a view to the referendum on the alternative vote on 5 May. In my view, it remains very important that we should try to get the Bill right. Obviously, there are the key questions of 5 per cent and the excluded constituencies. Before long, we shall come to the question of public inquiries. Today we have the question of the Welsh constituencies. I emphasise that I believe that all these amendments should be properly considered. If we can reach agreement, that is good. That is not inconsistent with my amendment, which would defer the coming into force of Clause 11 if the Bill is passed.
I thank my noble friend Lord Touhig for laying out the case on behalf of Wales so impressively. These three amendments, to which I have added my name, together form a coherent whole. There is the amendment that states that the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales should not be reduced below 35; there is the amendment that states that there should be no reduction of more than 10 per cent in the number of Welsh parliamentary seats at one boundary review; and there is the amendment that proposes that the measures in the Bill should not come into force unless and until powers have been transferred to the Welsh Assembly in consequence of a vote of the people of Wales in the referendum that is to be held this spring.
This is an important debate. It is a debate that we have to have, not least because in another place, there was no debate specifically on the measures in the Bill which would have such an enormous impact on Wales. In Committee in the other place, when amendments dealing with the situation in Wales would have been reached, I understand that some 30 Members of Parliament stood to catch the eye of the Chair, but the guillotine came down and that debate did not take place. That timetable Motion was not a proper way to treat the House of Commons, least of all when dealing with major constitutional legislation. As a consequence of that, aside from other considerations, it is our responsibility in this House to scrutinise the measure as it would affect Wales and discuss our amendments.
The Government are proposing an extreme and rapid reduction in parliamentary representation for Wales. Wales, which has only 5 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom, would, under the Government's proposals, suffer 20 per cent of the reduction in the number of parliamentary seats for the country as a whole. Wales would lose 25 per cent of its existing seats. By comparison, Northern Ireland would lose 17 per cent of its seats; Scotland 9 per cent; and England only 5.5 per cent. Of course, it is in England that Conservative electoral strength is most concentrated. Whether or not it is the Government's intention to rig the parliamentary system in support of the Conservative Party, I must tell them that there is a real perception in Wales that that is what it is about.
The noble and learned Lord the Minister may contend that, as things are, Wales is overrepresented in the House of Commons. I recognise that, by reference to the principle of numerical equality between constituencies, that is indeed the case. But, as we have frequently contended in the debates on this legislation, there are other factors that it is proper to take into account. Wales is a nation. It was joined with England in 1536, but over the centuries it has had its own history and, as my noble friend emphasised, its own language. Until now, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has recognised that and has accepted that proportionally Wales should have more seats in the House of Commons than the numbers in its population alone would imply.
There are very good reasons for that. Aside from the reality of Welsh nationhood, there is also the geography of Wales which, as the House is aware, is singularly intractable when it comes to trying to achieve numerical equality between constituencies. There are very large rural areas that are very thinly populated. We have spoken about the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire in our debates. It is 80 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west. It is a huge constituency geographically. If the Government’s proposals were to be implemented in their undiluted form, we would have a constituency that might stretch from Crickhowell in the south to Wrexham in the north. It would be an impossible constituency for a Member of Parliament to represent satisfactorily.
RS Thomas wrote some lines about a Welsh farmer penning his sheep in a gap of cloud on the bald Welsh hills. It is that kind of constituency. It is very difficult to traverse the length and breadth of it, and I wonder how the Member of Parliament, even so excellent a Member of Parliament as Mr Roger Williams, would be able to do justice to the work that needs to be done in the constituency on behalf of his constituents and also to his responsibilities here at Westminster. In the south, there are the valleys, the deep valleys, each of which contains its own very distinct community. Let me again say to the House that the Reform Act 1832, which the Deputy Prime Minister cites as his inspiration, introduced into our system of parliamentary representation the principle that Members of Parliament should represent communities and interests. That way, the people of this country would know that they were represented in the House of Commons and Members of the House of Commons would know what the responsibilities of their colleagues were in terms of representing their communities. It is not wise to ask Members of Parliament to attempt to represent at one and the same time very different communities separated by geographical realities that you cannot simply or sensibly ignore.
It may also be argued by the Government that this wholesale reduction in Welsh representation in the House of Commons is the more justified because Wales has its own Assembly which exercises devolved powers of government. I must remind the House that the powers the Assembly exercises at present are powers of secondary legislation and, as my noble friend Lord Touhig explained to the House, great swathes of the policy that determines how life in Wales is to be led emanate from central government. In macroeconomic policy, Wales receives a block grant that is transferred from London to Cardiff. It is an essential responsibility of Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies to consider that block grant and make representations on behalf of their constituents as to its implications. Benefits policy, pensions policy, police, immigration, criminal justice, broadcasting, defence and foreign policy are not devolved responsibilities. The people of Wales accept the policy made on their behalf by the Parliament of the United Kingdom and, correspondingly, they need to have representation that enables their interests to be articulated and allows them to make their contribution to our debates. The Welsh nation has a right to see its interests protected through adequate representation in the House of Commons.
It is the practice across the world where you have decentralised government or devolved government for small states or small nations to be allowed a somewhat disproportionate representation in the central government. That occurs in the United States of America, Spain and Germany. In the case of Wales, where there is so much dependence on the public sector for employment, it is particularly important that the representation of the people of Wales in the House of Commons should not be abruptly and drastically reduced. We are entering exceedingly difficult times. We saw figures yesterday that showed the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom actually contracting. Wales is a part of the country that is peculiarly vulnerable to that contraction and to the policies that the Government have judged appropriate to try to extricate our nation and our economy from this situation. They have thought it appropriate to cut public spending on a large scale and at a rapid pace. They need to recognise that the impact of this in Wales is going to be felt with peculiar force, and I put it to them that it is not a sensitive thing to do to drain Wales’s parliamentary representation at the same time as they are draining its economic life blood. The people of Wales feel strongly about that.
My noble friend spoke of the contribution that great Welsh parliamentarians have made to our Parliament of the United Kingdom. He spoke of Lloyd George, Aneurin Bevan, James Callaghan and Michael Foot, and I would add the name of my noble friend Lord Kinnock. I also respect very much the contribution that distinguished Conservative Ministers, such as the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts of Conwy, have made, and they take their place in that pantheon. I do not think it is in the interests of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that the contribution of Welsh parliamentarians should be so reduced.
It is not wise, probably in any circumstances and certainly not when you are trying to reform the constitution, to impose a one-size-fits-all solution. I put it to noble Lords opposite and appeal to them not to apply the full rigour of the numerical formula to Wales. Government by formula, almost by definition, must be insensitive and is liable to produce inappropriate and unhappy consequences. Whatever reduction in parliamentary representation for Wales the Government intend, they should proceed more gradually than they have proposed. In their response to the fourth report of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in another place, the Government said that,
“there is a need to get on with the job of constitutional reform as soon as we can”.
Why this rush to constitutional reform? Surely the appropriate approach to constitutional reform is through sustained debate, gradual advance, the negotiation of compromise and the construction of consensus. That is the spirit of these amendments.
I say to noble Lords opposite, please do not break faith with the people of Wales. When they were offered devolution in 1997 and voted for it, it was on the understanding that there would be a continuation of the same representation in Parliament. I am prepared to accept that it is reasonable to review the representation of Wales in Parliament as and when the devolution settlement is significantly altered. That may occur this year. There will be a vote of the Welsh people in a referendum which will ask them whether they wish to see primary legislative powers transferred to Cardiff in those areas that are already devolved. The scope of devolution would not otherwise be widened. If the people of Wales, knowing that the implication of a yes vote in the referendum would be that their representation in the Westminster Parliament would be reduced none the less decide that that is what they want, then, and at that point only, it would be reasonable for a change to be made in the number of Welsh seats.
The manuscript amendment tabled today by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is significant, and I am grateful to him for drawing it to our attention early in this debate. I agree with him absolutely that it is more important to get the Bill right than to rush these proceedings and the implementation of any measures. If in 2015 the dates of a general election and elections to the Welsh Assembly coincide, it is possible that there will simultaneously be two sets of elections on two sets of boundaries with two different voting systems and, in many parts of Wales, two languages. This is a recipe for confusion if not chaos.
When the Government replied to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, which raised many of the same objections of principle to this legislation as we have in your Lordships' House, the Government, in reference to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, said:
“The Government believes that these two pieces of legislation will be the foundation on which we can rebuild public confidence in our political system … This demonstrates the practical benefits of the Government's Respect agenda”.
Rebuild confidence in the political system? Respect? This Bill as we have it shows disregard for Wales as a nation; it shows contempt for the people of Wales as citizens of our democracy; and it shows a reckless willingness to alienate the people of Wales from the union.
My Lords, save for a short intervention of about one minute, I have not so far taken part in debates on this Bill. My short intervention was on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McNally—whom I wish well—when, in a fragile mood in the early hours of the morning, he reminded the Committee that the other place had lost its freedom of unlimited debate at the time of the Fenians in the 19th century. Whether the purpose of his remarks was a gentle hint, a threat—which was denied—or just a Freudian slip, I know not, but I was not surprised when, in a very short time, government supporters trooped into the Lobbies, in a very illiberal step, to force a closure not once but twice on the debate. Was that a sheer coincidence of comment and action, or was it something else?
I shall be very brief and I shall not go into the detail of the admirable speech of my noble friend Lord Touhig, who has broadened the canvas and dealt with most of the points. However, I shall return to his main issue: our proposal that the number of parliamentary seats should be 35, rather than the 25 per cent reduction from 40 to 30 as proposed by the Government.
The figure of 35 has a long, almost entrenched history. In 1918, the number of seats in Wales was 36; in 1954, it was not less than 35. The figure remained at 36 through each review until it reached 39 in 1986, as recommended by the Boundary Commission in order to take account of geographical considerations in the county of Gwynedd. The fifth periodical review, operating under the same rules, determined that the number of seats should not be less than 35 and, in fact, it allocated 40.
I have been in politics more than 50 years, I have to confess—I have been in Parliament for more than that period. I had it always in mind that the figure of 35 is, somehow or other, entrenched so far as political representation for Wales is concerned. The reason for that goes back to the basic point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig: that Wales is a nation within a larger country. We need go no further than that. It is because we desire and need good representation as we are a small part of the United Kingdom. That is the basis on which our distinctive voice should be heard, in the way that it has been heard over the centuries.
We need within that very small number of 35 Members of Parliament of all political persuasions from north Wales, mid-Wales and south Wales to articulate the needs of Wales. Its distinctiveness as a nation is exemplified in one way—it may be a small way, but it is important—by the fact that no one in his senses would dream of chopping off bits of either Wales or England and adding it to the other. Why? Because England is a nation and Wales is a nation, and you would not go over the boundary of either country to make a brand new seat which straddled the two countries. Our basic case is that our need as a nation for strong representation at Westminster has in the past been recognised. If there is concern about the Tamar, the Tyne and the Isle of Wight—I have heard the debates about them—how much more concern there is when a nation is concerned. We are dealing not with counties in England but with the nation of Wales, hence our need for our traditional representation.
I understand the case for arithmetic equality across the whole country, but it is a fact that, in the past, Boundary Commissions have been allowed—indeed encouraged—by Parliament to take into account a whole host of other factors. Arithmetic equality is not the beginning and the end and it has never been thus. If it were, we could draw straight lines and squares across the whole of the United Kingdom. Allowing for the coast, we could parcel England and Wales into neat little squares. That is what relying solely on arithmetic equality would result in. Indeed, we would be behaving like our colonialist forefathers in Africa, drawing straight lines and creating new countries regardless of tribes one way or the other. It was my privilege as a young Minister as long ago as the early 1960s to help draw up plans for sharing the wealth of the North Sea. Well, that was very easy to do by drawing squares, because it was only water that stopped you from extending the square one way or the other, but you cannot do it when countries are involved and without having regard to strong community ties.
In the past, valleys and large areas such as Brecon and Radnor and Gwynedd have had to be taken into account by Boundary Commissions. People in the valleys do not often cross from one valley to another—I can count almost on the fingers of one hand how much I went over from my valley, the Afan valley, into other adjacent valleys. Some people did—there was some community of interest—but, generally, people went up and down, and the community of interest was north and south. The imagination boggles at the thought of trying to create maps in the north of Glamorgan and the north of Gwent to meet the needs of those different communities and of the poor, eventual, long- suffering Member of Parliament having to attend to those needs time and again.
I have seen this happening. I have appeared professionally before Boundary Commissions, and generally they do their work well. It is the assistant commissioner, usually a Queen’s Counsel, who sits. Arguments are heard. They are very short—three or four days at the outside, in most cases. Communities can express their interests, and political parties can appear and put their interests. Everyone feels at the end of the day that they have had their day in court. Anything that constrains, limits or diminishes the discretion of a Boundary Commission is bad news.
My worst experience was appearing professionally for the city and county of Cardiff, when there were four seats to be distributed. An inquiry was necessary, although the two main parties—the Conservatives and Labour—had agreed. Unfortunately there was a split in the Conservative Party and therefore there had to be a public inquiry. The local Member of Parliament was a witness; he happened to be Mr Callaghan. It was my big moment to call this star witness and I had the proof of his evidence before me. Unfortunately, I relied on that proof too much. I asked, “Is your full name James Callaghan?”, and he said, “No, Mr Morris. It is Leonard James Callaghan”. It was the worst moment for me of that inquiry. I should have known better, having seen those magic initials, LJC, on so many documents.
The question for the House is how to achieve fairness with the least turmoil. Do we want candidates to be constantly reselected because of redistribution? A constituency that has had a Member of Parliament of either party knows whom to look to. It is a strain on that relationship if they have to change time after time, not for political reasons but because of the arithmetic which the legislation has determined. Such regularity of changes is not good, and I speak as a former Member of Parliament of more than 40 years’ standing. It was that internal relationship which I valued very much. I saw young, rebellious men and women growing up to be mature leaders in their communities and to see their children doing the same. It would be a tragic loss if there were this unnecessary change because we were acting far too quickly.
If there is to be a change and if there has to be more arithmetical fairness, let it be as limited and as infrequent as possible in order to retain that sense of community which constituencies, local authorities, local political associations and political representatives have, whether there is a change in that representation or not. They have acquired this long relationship with their communities over the years.
I will close with one very real illustration. For 23 years, I represented the constituency of Aberavon, but because of the change in the county boundaries, it became necessary to detach three of my eastern wards and give me instead a couple of wards from the neighbouring constituency of Neath. There has always been long and intense rivalry on the rugby field between Aberavon and Neath. There I was, in my new ward, canvassing in what I regarded as a 90 per cent safe area, when someone came up to me and said, “I can’t vote for you, Mr Morris”. “Why?” I asked. “Well, I’ve got my little boy here, and when he grows up I don’t want him to play for Aberavon, I want him to play for Neath”. It was an uphill task for me to try to persuade that man that boundary redistribution had nothing whatever to do with rugby rivalry or loyalty.
With these few words, I hope there will be pause to consider the needs of Wales.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has made some very helpful points about Wales as a whole and about the valleys, the language and a certain number of counties. In view of his familiarity with west Wales, in particular Ceredigion, perhaps he could help the House by saying something about the special needs for representation in those areas.
I do not want to detain the House. I have made the point that there is a long association between a Member of Parliament and a constituency. If anyone knows anything about west Wales, and I venture to suggest that I do, other Members of this House also do; I see the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, nodding.
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate already, and nearly all the salient points in favour of these amendments have been made with great force and eloquence by earlier speakers. I endorse, adopt and applaud everything that has been said. I am deeply flattered by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, quoting from an intervention of mine. Was it some days or weeks ago? I am not sure; time now seems to have lost its significance. I believe it goes to the very heart of truth. The most important contributions that have been made have centred on the nationhood of Wales. I do not believe that there is anyone in this House who does not accept the fact of Welsh nationality and respect that as an historical and incontrovertible fact. TS Eliot, I think, says that a,
“Rose is a rose is a rose”.
It says everything. We could say, “A nation is a nation is a nation”, which means that surrounding that concept of nationhood there is respect for, and indeed an acceptance of, that entity, and that is the basis on which we should approach this question tonight, as I am sure we will.
Wales is one of the oldest nations in Europe. Noble Lords will remember that Milton, who was not only a great poet but the Principal Private Secretary to Oliver Cromwell for many years—in many respects the spin merchant of the Government of that day—spoke of Wales as an ancient “nation, proud in arms”. That was three and a half centuries ago. David Lloyd George, as I am sure his distinguished grandson will recollect, said once in the House of Commons that we in Wales were a land of poets and kings when the Anglo-Saxons were on the shores of the Baltic subsisting on piracy and periwinkles. I do not necessarily adopt that historical theory as the basis of my case, but one thing is certain and it has been said so clearly and eloquently; what is proposed here is not just a marginal change but a savage amputation of Welsh representation in the House of Commons. That is no exaggeration. It means that Wales, with 5.3 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom, has to bear 20 per cent of this surgery.
To put this another way, in the whole of the United Kingdom there is a diminution of seats to the tune, I calculate, of about 7.6 per cent. In Wales it is 25 per cent. We can bandy figures around, but the fact is that Wales is disproportionately dealt with to a very cruel degree as far as this part of the legislation is concerned. Do we deserve that? Is that right? Is that just? Is that inevitable? Those are the questions which I think that the House would wish to exercise in relation to this matter.
I believe there to be real sincerity in the attitude of many Members on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches, who believe that they can achieve fairness by a slavish adherence to arithmetical consistency. I respectfully suggest that they are wrong. Of course, some idea of a norm that would apply generally, all other things being equal, to constituencies as a whole would be utterly admirable. I have no doubt, and I accept, that in every consideration arithmetical consistency has some part to play. However, my first submission is that it is entirely chimerical. It does not achieve fairness because of so many other factors, with which we have dealt earlier. For example, the accessibility of a Member of Parliament to each and every constituent is far more important.
Secondly, mathematical correctitude cannot be achieved. Let us think of it in these terms. The register will be inaccurate, so far as the population and the possible electorate of a constituency are concerned, to the tune of about 3.5 million. As for Wales, my calculation on the basis of 5.3 per cent is roughly 185,000. That is a considerable totality of votes, which can of course completely affect this philosophy. It is as if the Government are saying, “We are aiming at a target through telescopic sights, and once we have that target in the crosshairs, we will be satisfied that we have done everything”, but they forget that the barrel is bent. That bullet will never reach the spot at which the crosshairs are aiming. It will be a long way away. What possible validity can there be, therefore, for the theory that arithmetical correctitude governs all? There can never be.
I know that the noble and learned Lord who will reply to the debate will inevitably turn to devolution. In many public statements, he has already done so in relation to Wales and Scotland, but in Wales in particular devolution is linked with this considerable diminution in the number of seats. With great respect, I challenge that completely. Just before the Summer Recess, I asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally—I join everyone in wishing him a speedy return to this House—whether the culling of seats in Wales and Scotland would be affected by devolution. His answer was clear and to the point. He said, “No”.
I know that the noble and learned Lord, who is a man of high intelligence and total integrity, will consider this argument very carefully. It can be tested in this way. Let us pretend for a moment that there had never been devolution in Wales and that no Wales Office had been created in 1964. Let us assume that no Welsh Assembly had come into being in 1998 and that there had been no Government of Wales Act 2006. Wales would still be losing 10 out of 40 of its constituencies. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, must have been right; this problem has nothing to do with devolution.
Further corroborative evidence, were it necessary, comes from the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution. The Deputy Prime Minister gave evidence before it and was asked why the diminution should be so great in Wales? All he said was, “Either you apply the same rules to Wales in order to bring about a commonality of electors or you do not”. Not a word was mentioned about devolution. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord would accept that, but from the way in which I have looked at that, whatever can be said about devolution I see that it has nothing to do with the reduction of seats from 40 to 30.
The case is simple. For a long time, Wales has enjoyed generous overrepresentation. There is no doubt about that. I think it was in 1377—I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will correct me—that the figure of 24 was decided upon. Some centuries later it went up to 28. In 1832, it was 32. We know—indeed, we have had the benefit of the researches by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, into the latter period—that there is considerable overrepresentation.
People might say, “What are you whinging about? The thing to do is to say not that you should continue the overrepresentation but that it is wholly just that you should bring it to an end”. That argument would be overwhelming, were it not for the central dominating feature of this issue: the nationhood of Wales. In 1992, when many Members here would have been Members of the other place, a Bill passed through the House of Commons that dealt with boundaries and the Boundary Commission. The right honourable Kenneth Clarke was Home Secretary at the time. He was exhorted by many Members to bring about a massive review of boundaries in Wales and Scotland with a review to diminution. He said, “No. There are national, cultural, historic, geographical and many other weighty factors that would make it impossible for me to do that”. The situation is exactly the same now as it was then.
Finally, many speakers have referred to the federality —if that is the correct term—of the United States and many other countries when small communities have been given, at a certain level, the same or virtually the same representation as other larger units. One might say that a federal system is not possible in England, Wales and Scotland because of the massive size and power of England compared with the other two countries. However, it seems to me that some concession to the principle of federality has been made over the years by allowing that very overrepresentation. That has a great deal to do with the ethos of a United Kingdom. Destroy that by savage surgery and the future of the United Kingdom might well be fundamentally affected.
My Lords, I had rather expected that I might follow the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, whose name is on the amendment, but probably it is right that we should split the Cross-Bench speakers at this time—the noble Lord will have the opportunity to demolish any arguments that I may make.
I hope that it is not out of order for me to start with two personal remarks. The first is that it is a great pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, in the House. He and I often did not agree with each other, but I always respected his views and the way in which he put them forward. My second personal observation is that the amendment was introduced with the extraordinary courtesy that is always shown by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. It is in the spirit with which he spoke that I wish to take part in this debate. He said that we should all think about this issue. I have been thinking about it and I shall continue to think about it, but I would like to discuss a few thoughts that I have had along the way.
The noble Lord spoke about going too quickly. Others have also raised that subject. I greatly welcome the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, because it gives the possibility of some further consideration along the road. I contrast that with the third amendment in this group, Amendment 102AA, which seems to me to kick the whole thing out so far into the future that it would effectively kill this legislation. I find it difficult to have any but negative thoughts about the third amendment, but I, too, understand the need for thought.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, referred to the 1944 Speaker’s Conference. My first thought is that there have been considerable changes since then. At that time, we did not have a Secretary of State for Wales in the British Cabinet. We did not have a Welsh Office or, as it is now, a Wales Office. We had not taken the first steps down the road to devolution and the creation of a Welsh Assembly, whether it has the existing powers or the powers that it may have after the referendum. Even the world of the valleys, about which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, spoke with feeling and great knowledge, has changed a good deal. Communities in those days were probably even more tight-knit than they are today. People walked straight out of their homes and into the pit or the mine and the road links between the valleys had not been improved. The first moves in 1944 were made at a time when the horrors of the recession were in many people’s minds and it was felt that Wales needed special consideration. But things have changed.
My second thought is about the effect of having more Welsh Members of Parliament. In part, the answer was given by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, when he started listing the names of distinguished Welshmen. In my experience, what has influenced the decisions of Governments has not been the number of Welsh Members of Parliament but the quality of the arguments that they advanced. I spent a number of years leading on Welsh affairs from the opposition Benches and then for eight years I was Secretary of State for Wales. I cannot think of a single occasion when an important decision was taken—or, indeed, when any decision was taken—with the thought in Ministers’ minds, “My goodness, there are 35 Welsh Members of Parliament, not 30”. The number was, I think, 35 in those days. I was influenced by the quality of the argument that was put to me.
I will cite one example, which will be all too familiar to Welsh people in this House. In the dramatic early days, when the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, and I had only just become Ministers, we found ourselves in passionate debate about the future of Welsh language broadcasting. The crucial moment in that consideration was not, as has sometimes been said, the actions of Mr Gwynfor Evans. In fact, it was a visit paid to Lord Whitelaw and me by three very distinguished Welshmen: one much-loved former Member of this House, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, the then Archbishop of Wales and Sir Goronwy Daniel. After the meeting, Lord Whitelaw asked me what I thought we should do. I said, “If we cannot carry sensible, wise, moderate, middle-of the-road opinion on this issue, we should change our policy, because we cannot deal with the extremists if we cannot have the support of people like that”. The point that I am making is that it was the weight of the argument that was put to me that influenced the Government; it was never the thought of there being 35 Welsh Members of Parliament rather than 30. Therefore, I start with a certain scepticism about that argument.
Then it was argued—I think that the implication was made in this debate today, but it was certainly argued in another place at the time—that somehow the case for the Welsh language would be weakened if there were fewer representatives from north Wales, probably one fewer, incidentally. I think that I am probably right in saying that today there are more Welsh-speaking Welshmen living in Glamorgan, Cardiff and the industrial belt in the south than there are in north-west Wales. Furthermore, many of them represent the professional classes. They are in government, local government and the media. A number of them are very distinguished Members of this House. It is their voices—not just the voices, however strong, of the Members of Parliament for the north Wales constituencies—that support and sustain the Welsh language. Perhaps I might dare to add that it is not only the Welsh-speaking Welshmen. Regrettably, my grandfather was the last Welsh-speaking member of my family—I greatly regret that I do not speak the language—but I do not think that any Government of any political party have done more to support the Welsh language than the Government of which I and my English-speaking successors in the Welsh Office were members, supported and sustained all through, of course, by my Welsh-speaking noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. The Welsh language has its defenders without the need for that special representation.
Then there is the argument that I thought that I must consider most carefully and which I do consider most carefully. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, will advance this argument, too. It is about the pace of change.
I have listened carefully to the noble Lord’s most eloquent submissions in favour of the argument that numbers do not really count; it is quality that counts and the ability to put a case. Would he with equal equanimity view the prospect of the number of English Members of Parliament being reduced by 25 per cent, confident that the remaining 75 per cent would put all the necessary arguments?
I do not really wish to add to the strength of the argument that I have already put. I am talking about the quality not just of the Members of Parliament but of all the other advocates who speak for Wales. They are not all in the House of Commons; indeed, some of the most effective ones are outside it.
I was going on to the question of the pace of change. I might be rather tempted on that, but I do not see how you seriously undertake the process gradually if you are to set about change. It is difficult. I cannot think of anything much worse than having a series of reductions taking place in successive elections. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said that the relationship that the individual Member of Parliament has with his constituency should as far as possible be stable and long-lasting. I therefore doubt whether a step-by-step change is feasible.
The other argument to which I have given thought was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in moving his amendment. Indeed, he brought me up short and made me think again. He suggested that somehow this would increase the threat of separatism and would threaten the union. I am doubtful about that proposition. It may be right, and I will listen to the argument, but I suspect that those who are so deeply moved by the question of whether there should be 35 or 30 Members of Parliament that it affects their view of the union are mostly politicians—Members of Parliament and perhaps Assembly Members—rather than members of the great Welsh public. I may be wrong, but I do not think that Owain Glyndwr is rising from his unknown grave and about to lead the people of Wales into a great campaign because our nation is threatened by this terrible change. I am a bit doubtful about that argument.
Then there is the proposition about small nations needing special representation. While pondering these issues over the past few days, I said to myself that it was rather demeaning for the Welsh nation to believe that it has to have a few more Members of Parliament in order to stand up as a nation. Surely that cannot be right. I know that there are examples elsewhere in the world—normally because of the structures of government in other nations, such as federal systems—where more Members are given, but I believe that the Welsh nation can take pride and have confidence in itself because it is the Welsh nation and not because it has 35 rather than 30 Members of Parliament. I do not find that argument wholly convincing.
We come to the final issue of community-based representation, which gives me some concern. I have some sympathy with the argument advanced by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde last night that most people are much more interested in the county or the area in which they live than in the political constituency. Indeed, I confess that I still have some difficulty remembering the new names for the two constituencies that now make up my former constituency. I have a feeling that, if any of my former constituents were asked where they live, almost without exception they would say “Pembrokeshire”. Very few, if any of them, would ever refer to a particular constituency. Yet, of course, community-based representation is extremely important and it is because I believe that it is important that I have consistently supported the proposal that there should be a 20 per cent spread from top to bottom rather than a 10 per cent spread. Indeed, I supported Members on the opposition Front Bench when they put forward that proposal, which deals with many of the community problems that have been identified in the debate today.
I do not see how we can go gradually down this road, although I was glad to have the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I will continue to think about it. I hope also that my colleagues on the Front Bench will continue to think about the genuine issues that have been raised today. In that spirit of consideration, although I would find it rather hard to support a vote if the amendment was pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, I shall certainly continue to consider very carefully the arguments that have been advanced.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for whom I have great respect. Yesterday he was courteous enough to mention that he was going to attack certain aspects of the three amendments with which I am proud to be associated. I am sure that your Lordships have had quite enough of special pleading. During the past few days, special pleading has really been the game around in the many hours of debate that I have sat through—although certainly not as many as other noble Lords. Yes, this is special pleading, but with a great difference. Wales is not a region but, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, have both mentioned, we are a nation of the United Kingdom.
At the weekend I looked again at my set of Encyclopaedia Britannica from the late 19th century which stands on a shelf in my library. I just wanted to remind myself and perhaps get a little worked up for this moment. There it was: under “Wales” it says, “See England”. We have come, admittedly, a long way since then. Rather perversely I could turn that on its head and say that if we were part of England, we would have a reduction of only 5 per cent. Coming from one section of the encyclopaedia to the “W” section and getting a full explanation of what our nation does appears to have cost us 25 per cent of our parliamentary seats.
So much has been said most eloquently by previous speakers, but I have three problems that I want to address: process, perception and fairness. I shall take process first. Last night, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, drew our attention in a different context to the report of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution. I shall read just two brief excerpts from it. The first relates to a report produced last October by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of another place which was highly critical of process in the Bill. Paragraph 50 of the Lords committee states:
“We also note their view that ‘the unique position of Wales in terms of its geography, culture and history has long been recognised in its Westminster constituencies’ and their recommendation that the Government amend the Bill ‘to permit the Boundary Commission to give greater weight to these factors when drawing up new constituencies’”.
That is the considered opinion of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee. The report goes on to say in paragraph 51:
“We reiterate that pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation would have provided an opportunity for these concerns to be properly addressed”.
That, to my mind, puts a question mark against process. When things are done, they have to be seen to be done in an equitable fashion. Equity is quite a distorted word, so let us just call it doing things in a fair way. I can understand, though I disagree with, what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said about whether we needed so many MPs. I overhead a noble Lord saying, “We could halve the number of MPs to 15 on that basis and we would still be a very proud nation”. The question is not whether Wales is overrepresented; it has been acknowledged for a long time that Wales was overrepresented, but it is overrepresented for a reason. I do not want to rehearse the reasons that have already been mentioned.
My attention was drawn to an exchange of correspondence between the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Speaker Clifton Brown on 24 May 1944. I am not going to quote it to you, though it would actually do us all well to hear the words of one of the more eloquent gentlemen of the last hundred years. In the letter that the Prime Minister wrote to the Speaker, he requested that the Speaker set up a Speaker’s Conference to report within a certain period on—of course—redistribution of seats, reform of the franchise and methods of election. It does not seem to go away, does it? There are two points to make. One is about the process. The Speaker had assembled 22 or 24 Members of both Houses and some outsiders. They came back to the Prime Minister within four months with some very good recommendations which were sent to the Boundary Commission. That was the process: there it was; one could see how the whole thing started. It was a committee of all political parties which wanted to address what was concerning the Prime Minister at the time—that he wanted to take a look at the redistribution of seats in the United Kingdom.
We have heard that the last time there was an Act in which it was clearly stated that Wales should have “no less than 35 seats” was back in 1986. What we are missing in this is some reason why the Government have decided on numbers and then went on to fit parts of the United Kingdom into those numbers. I cannot be convinced. If I feel that way, I am sure that other equally ignorant people in the world will feel it also. The process is really faulty—it is faulty to my satisfaction, and will be faulty to the people of Wales when it is presented to them.
Let me draw the attention of noble Lords to my second point, about fairness and perception. In respect of fairness, I have talked about the reduction of seats—25 per cent, 40 to 30 and so on. I said in a slightly jocular way that if we were still part of England—“For Wales, see England”—or even Monmouthshire, we would only have got a 5 per cent chop. Where is the fairness in that? It just escapes me. Yes, I put my name to 35 MPs—the 1986 Act of Parliament has never been repealed. There are other parts of the Act that have been repealed. Why should it now just be thrown out because somewhere some group of individuals have put themselves together and said, “Wales is overrepresented; take it down by 25 per cent”? Really, the more I think about it, the more I think it is just extraordinary and savage—that was the word used by my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan.
I am a great supporter of these amendments. I believe that we really have to ensure that the Government think carefully about their treatment of Wales. I am a unionist, but I am talking about perception. What will the people of Wales think? I can tell you that the 10 MPs who lose their seats are going to make a great noise about it throughout Wales, and only one side of the story will be heard, and the perception will be there. I think it is dangerous.
Before I conclude, I would like to correct something that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said. He said that the third amendment, Amendment 102AA, was to kick the issue into the long grass. It was no more kicking it into the long grass than the amendment recently tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. He was actually saying, “Look, hold on a second. If you are going to do something, just wait, because, if in March the people of Wales say, ‘We want to give more powers to our Assembly—to give them some power to make primary legislation’, then there could be a reason to look at representation”. But certainly in my opinion, it should be no less than the 35 seats that sits on the statute book today.
I lend my support to this amendment, which has been so admirably moved; there have been a number of excellent speeches. I see that I do so in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who, among other things, represents the powerful traditions of David Lloyd George, whose spirit hovers over this debate. I think that the proposals to reduce Welsh representation in this way are deeply unfair to Wales as a nation and deeply damaging to its interests, to the House of Commons and to the United Kingdom.
Parliamentary representation is central to what has happened in the modern history of Wales. We heard the famous quotation from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was a Welsh Bishop—not the Welsh Bishop who is the distinguished ancestor of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, but another, the Bishop of St David’s—who said that there was no such place as Wales. He said that it was geographical expression, as Metternich had described Italy.
Since then, Wales has advanced rapidly. It has acquired increasing recognition of its nationhood and its identity. It has, in important ways—if the Minister will allow this thought—achieved equality with Scotland, and with other areas on the rugby field, more than equality, I think. This has been acquired through parliamentary persuasion. It has been in large measure political, but it has had social and cultural aspects as well. The interesting feature to me, and a feature of the history of modern Wales, is that this recognition of nationhood has gone along with ties with the Union of the United Kingdom remaining extremely strong, even after devolution. Therefore, the history of Wales in the United Kingdom, and the history of Ireland in the United Kingdom have been manifestly different.
The motor of change has been democracy; that means the use of the parliamentary persuasive method. I note the very sound point made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that the quality of the people involved is important. If Wales were represented by 40 idiots or people of mediocre talent, perhaps it might not matter how many you had. If you had a genius, Wales could be represented by one person. But I also think—to quote a famous advert—size matters, and a significant number to make a collective point at all levels of the legislature of the United Kingdom is extremely important.
If we look back, as I am prone to do, we find that the achievements of Wales have relied very heavily on the parliamentary pressure that Welsh MPs have been able to bring. A great landmark was the beginnings of legislation for Wales alone. That legislation was the ill starred Sunday Closing Act 1881, which is commonly thought of in a moral or religious context, but it was very important because it stated for the first time that you could have a statute that applied to Wales—a distinct legislative principle that did not apply to England. Obviously, that depended heavily on Welsh parliamentary pressure and representation. It was followed by the famous Act that set up the county schools in Wales and eventually, as it was seen then, the great triumph of the disestablishment of the church in 1920. There have been many cultural aspects associated with this, such as the National Library, the National Museum of Wales and the University of Wales, for which I had the honour to be vice-chancellor for some years. All of that depended on effective political pressure through Parliament. That was the way the Welsh chose—the method of persuasion. It is significant that throughout this period not only did Welsh parliamentary representation increase in quality but the numbers of Welsh Members of Parliament went on increasing, from 34 to 36.
In the period after the First World War, parliamentary achievement stalled. I think that that was because the United Kingdom was involved in social and economic problems of a great kind. Trade unions were strongly unionist in sympathy. The Labour Party changed quite remarkably in the interwar years from support for local devolution shown by people, such as Keir Hardie, to a strong commitment to centralisation. There was no advance between the wars but no retreat either. What we have heard about the Speaker’s Conference of 1944, including the very sensitive approach adopted by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister at that period, shows how the point about Welsh nationhood and identity had been absorbed.
From the 1960s, as everybody knows, there was a period of very dramatic change. We had the Welsh Office, devolution and associated major changes in the cultural life of Wales, including aspects of a culture in the visual arts, for example, not traditionally associated with Wales. The movement for Welsh recognition has gone on but, as we have heard, the connection between Wales and Westminster and Whitehall has remained extremely powerful. We have heard of many areas such as social services, justice, and so on, indicating the enormous importance for Wales in having strong representation and pressure to sustain its interests. Throughout that period, representation went up until it reached a total of 40 in the Act of 1986.
One important point that strikes me from this historical background is that all the parties have contributed. It has been profoundly to the advantage of Wales that all the main parties have adopted a non-adversarial and constructive approach. The Liberal Party played a glorious and distinguished role before 1914. It is interesting to see how the Liberal Party changed its approach to Welsh matters. Gladstone, that great man who was concerned with home rule for Ireland, came to realise that Ireland and Wales were different. If you had, for example, disestablishment of the church in Ireland, that was taking you along the road of separatism. In Wales, that disestablishment of the church was an alternative to separatism and was committing you the more strongly to being in the United Kingdom.
The Conservative Party has been increasingly sympathetic, if the Bishops’ Bench will allow me to say so, since the disestablishment of the church. That was the great incubus for the Conservative Party in Wales. It was thought of as an English party and the party of the Church of England in Wales. Since the disestablishment of the church, the Conservative Party has been able to be hugely more constructive. Winston Churchill set up a Ministry of Welsh Affairs. We heard the recollections of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on setting up the Welsh television channel, which I was fascinated to hear. We have had a series of remarkably sympathetic Administrations under the Conservatives in the Welsh Office. I recall the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and when I was in Aberystwyth, Lord Walker. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is remembered with great affection; Mr Redwood, I do not recall with quite the same warmth and affection. However, we had the talisman of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, who was enormously valuable and deeply sympathetic. I used to argue that the Conservative Party would benefit enormously from devolution in Wales and that it would have a much more positive and central role in Welsh life. So it has proved.
The Labour Party has oscillated. It began with a very devolutionist view, then became a very centralist party, perhaps in the 1920s to the 1960s or 1970s, and has suffered from that electorally. The Welsh Office and devolution were the work of a Labour Government and the Government of Wales Act took the process of devolution considerably further. We will have the referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly in March and I hope very much that it will be successful. All that will create a more diversified but more durable United Kingdom and sets Wales firmly in its place.
I worry that this Bill is quite different. It gets away from this all-party constructive approach to Welsh politics. It inflicts greater damage on the Welsh political system than any legislation we have had since the mid-19th century. The ties of Parliament with Wales will be weakened at a time when the powers of the Welsh Assembly call for a strong Welsh presence in Parliament and when, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said, the economic recession will make the need for a strong protective mechanism for Wales in Parliament more necessary than ever, given the greater importance of the public sector in Wales. This is a very damaging change of stance by the present Government and I find it deeply ironic that the party of the union is proposing a step that will weaken the ties between Wales and Westminster.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, observed, the perception is deeply important, and perception can lead to other things. It has been done in a thoughtless and casual way. We look forward to what the Minister will say, but so far there has been no compromise, no consideration or alternative views. We had the rejection of an idea of a Speaker’s Conference. There is no suggestion that we might have the kind of Boundary Commission that would take local views into account and reflect on a range of issues. As my noble friend Lord Touhig observed, a mishmash of new constituencies will be created, based on the crudest mathematical formula without concern for geography, history or community—the idea for which philosophers whom the Conservative Party reveres, such as Edmund Burke, have called across the centuries. The crudity of the process ignores the subtle variations within Wales, which as we have heard has very large constituencies, where the connection between electors and the Member of Parliament can be very difficult to sustain. It is particularly harmful to the Welsh-speaking areas of Wales. Again, slightly demurring from the stance of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, I believe that what is important is preserving Welsh communities. It is quite true that most Welsh people live in south Wales—the Cardiff et cetera bourgeoisie—working in the public service. The huge concentration of governmental machinery in south-east Wales is a major reason for that. We want to take account of communities in sparsely populated rural areas. As I mentioned the other day, I have a Meirionnydd mother and a Cardiganshire father divided by the River Dovey. There are subtle variations that the mathematical formula pays no heed to at all.
I dread the thought of some of these new constituencies coming into play. We have already had aberrations in the reorganisation of Welsh local government. I well recall when I was at Aberystwyth dealing with a monstrous aberration called Dyfed, and confronting the councillors in Llanelli and Burry Port, trying on occasion perhaps to play the Labour Party card and totally failing because they did not really regard that area of the frozen north, as they saw it, as a part of Dyfed at all.
We must have a formula for the size of constituencies that is flexible. I find the irrational process in which this change has been conducted deeply distasteful. It is a result, as with so many of the policies we currently have, of secret backstairs private discussions within the coalition. But we have not had them within Parliament so far. The House of Lords is doing, as it so often does, what the House of Commons was not enabled to do. There was no debate on these dramatic changes in Wales that occurred because of the use of the guillotine. I regard these proposals as a throwback to the cultural imperialism of the 19th century, with a coalition claiming, in effect, that there is no such place as Wales; that they really do not care about it and they are not prepared to listen. That is, unless their policy changes, very deeply to their discredit.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is a fellow north Walian. I look forward to hearing his maiden speech, but perhaps not this evening. We have gone on long enough I think.
As we are all aware, under the Bill as it stands, the total of Welsh parliamentary seats will be reduced from 40 to 30, which is an unprecedented figure. Even in 1832 Wales had 32 seats and, of course, the number has grown since then to 35 under the Representation of the People Act 1918, 36 under the Representation of the People Act 1948, to 38 in 1982-83, and 40 in 1995, under various statutory instruments passed by Conservative Governments. So the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, is perfectly correct in saying that both major parties have contributed over the years to this increase in Welsh representation. It is interesting to note that in 1948, while the Labour Government reduced the overall number of Members of the House of Commons from 640 to 625, they increased the number of Welsh seats by one.
How have the present proposals come about? The Government made their views very clear in the evidence that they supplied to the Welsh Affairs Committee, which conducted an inquiry into the implications for Wales of the Government’s proposals. It is clear from that evidence that it is the equal value of votes cast at parliamentary elections across the UK that is the overriding principle. Currently they do not have equal value. The Government go on to say in that evidence:
“The electoral quota for Wales’s forty constituencies averages around 56,500, the lowest of the four nations in the United Kingdom. Welsh constituencies now have on average some 20% fewer electors than constituencies in England; almost 14% fewer than constituencies in Scotland; and some 13% fewer than constituencies in Northern Ireland”.
Those are the facts. The Government go on in that evidence to point out the inequality in vote value among constituencies in Wales. They say:
“For example, the vote of an elector in Arfon, with an electorate of around 41,000, is worth almost twice that of an elector in Cardiff South and Penarth, with an electorate of over 73,000. The votes of electors in Aberconwy, Dwyfor Meirionydd and Montgomeryshire, all with electorates below 50,000, are worth considerably more than those in the Vale of Glamorgan, with an electorate of over 70,000 … The Government believes that, again, there is strong justification for ending this manifest inequality”.
I cannot say that that is felt at all acutely in Wales. Nevertheless, those are the facts that we must consider.
Some would think that the Government’s proposals are among the consequentials of devolution and the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales with its 60 representatives. They would recall that Scottish representation was reduced in 2005 from 72 to 59. The Government’s evidence appears to deny that in the case of Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, was absolutely right on that. In their evidence the Government deal with the view,
“that given the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales and the extent of devolution to the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government, Wales’s representation at Westminster should be proportionally less than that of England, not the same. The Government disagrees with this view. Since devolution, Parliament continues to legislate for the whole of the United Kingdom on matters that are non-devolved, including social security, tax, immigration and defence. It is surely right in principle that the people of Wales should have the same level of representation in respect to these matters as the people of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
There we have the Government’s reasoned justification for their proposals. We are all aware of the factors that the Boundary Commission may take into account in deciding boundaries. We would all probably agree that a 10 per cent variation on either side of the quota would probably make life easier without mortally injuring the basic equality principle that lies at the heart of this Bill. As has already been said, Mr Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit has drafted a list of a possible 30 constituencies approximating the required size. The list is to be found in the Welsh Affairs Committee evidence. It merits close study. Of course it would be controversial, as any proposals for boundary changes are bound to be.
Devolution and the election of 60 National Assembly Members should have reduced the constituency workload of MPs, especially in the areas of devolved government—health, education, housing, and so on. But some MPs tell me that constituents still come to see them rather than their Assembly Members. If so, that is a problem that they should sort out among themselves at ground level. Wales has many problems. Indeed someone asked where Wales would be without its problems. More MPs than average is not the answer in my view. I agree that it is a matter of quality. Better quality MPs might help, but not more.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell has expressed my views very well about the very eloquent arguments that we have heard in the course of this debate. Like him, I shall continue to ponder, but your Lordships may rest assured that there is no doubt that the issue of parliamentary representation of Wales is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has said, Parliament has played a very important part in our history. I hesitate to say it but surely the 16th century Act that was passed requiring the translation of the Bible into Welsh was a unique piece of Welsh legislation. If my memory, which is faulty, nevertheless serves me correct, it was 1563 and it was a fellow countryman from the Conwy valley, where I reside, Richard Davies, who actually pressed that statute in this very House.
My Lords, I wish to speak very briefly. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, introduced this debate with eloquence and discipline and summarised the points beautifully. I wish to address two aspects only: devolution and Wales’s contribution to the UK today.
In the devolution settlement for Scotland, the powers were much clearer. Even if Wales has greater devolution —the Liberal Democrats had always said that they wanted to cut the number of MPs when the Assembly was stronger—and we go down to 35 MPs, we in Wales will still have lost a greater percentage than Scotland will have done. Fairness in devolution needs to be looked at.
What about Wales in the UK today? I refer noble Lords simply to the Armed Forces. We should remember that the population of Wales is just over 5 per cent of that of the UK. There are 37 regular battalions in the British Army, three of which are Welsh and six Scottish. Eleven per cent of recruits come from Wales and more than 7 per cent of casualties in Afghanistan are from Wales. At the height of Operation Panther’s Claw in summer 2010, the proportion of Welsh soldiers was between 20 and 25 per cent, as Welsh regiments such as the Welsh Guards were on the front line. An MoD spokesman, Paul Barnard, said in an interview last year:
“It’s certainly true … that Wales punches above its weight in the armed forces … And for that Welsh people should be proud, and the rest of the UK should be grateful”.
Indeed, the rest of the UK should be grateful, as Wales does contribute. We have a devolved Assembly, but the role of the MPs in the other place is important. We contribute to the UK. That is why this is such a serious debate and why the amendment as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is well crafted and should be supported.
My Lords, I had the privilege of representing for 30 years one of the most remarkable constituencies in the country. It cannot be denied that Merthyr Tydfil has played an enormous role in the political, social and cultural developments in Wales, particularly in south Wales. It also has a remarkable sense of continuity. There has been mention of the Reform Act 1832. That Act created Merthyr Tydfil as a constituency, although not until the very last minute. In the last moments of the debates in the Commons and the last stages of the third Reform Bill, the Government eventually gave in to pressure to create the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. In three successive Bills it was proposed that Merthyr should be a contributory borough of Cardiff. Neither Merthyr nor Cardiff thought that that was a good idea. Cardiff believed that it would be swamped by the Merthyr hordes and Merthyr considered that it was—as it was at that time—a more populous and more economically thriving community than the decaying county town of Cardiff. At the very last minute, the boundary change was made, and the concession was made.
When I reread the proceedings of the 1832 Reform Bills, two things struck me. One was that the Government of the day, and Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell, made considerable concessions to gain parliamentary assent. They seem to have accepted that the only way they could get that major Reform Bill through was by building parliamentary assent. They made concessions that some people thought they never should have made, but they were made. You do not create great parliamentary reform of this kind through ministerial macho approaches. It is important to build parliamentary assent. One of the saddest things about our lengthy debates is that no such attempt to build parliamentary assent has been made—not so far, anyway. I hope that at this late stage that process can and should start.
As I say, Merthyr Tydfil was created by the Reform Act 1832. During the 19th century it grew in population and electorate and became a two-Member seat. In 1900, it produced a remarkable dual membership: the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie, who served the constituency alongside one of the richest men in Britain, the mighty coal owner DA Thomas, later Viscount Rhondda. In 1918, it reverted to a single-Member seat. Since 1918 to this very day, the core of the Merthyr constituency is the Merthyr county borough. However, given its remit, I have no guarantee or assurance that the Boundary Commission will respect that core. It may do what a former Boundary Commission once recommended and fracture the core of that constituency—the community-based constituency that I had the privilege of serving. I am fortunate that, in 34 years in the other place, I went through only one parliamentary Boundary Commission.
Listening to these debates has brought back many memories of that experience. One of the first proposals of the Boundary Commission convened before the 1983 election was that Aberfan and the Merthyr Vale ward in the heart of the Merthyr Valley should be transferred to a new constituency in the Cynon Valley. There were two problems with that. First, there happened to be a rather large mountain between the two and there was no direct route between them, which meant that local people thought that the Boundary Commission was working off a flat map with no contours of any kind.
Secondly, can one imagine the total insensitivity of supposing that Aberfan and Merthyr Vale be removed from the Merthyr constituency at a time when, some years after the Aberfan tragedy, we were still dealing with its long-term consequences at both parliamentary and borough level? That is the kind of insensitivity that I fear will arise time and again if the Boundary Commission’s remit stays as it is. It will not respect the community feeling that is such a passionate part of our political and community life. I felt that most forcefully when in 1983 the then Boundary Commission eventually amended the constituency by attaching the Rhymney Valley to Merthyr. This was not thought well of in the Rhymney Valley. There are deep attachments not necessarily to counties but to constituencies. The people of Rhymney Valley were passionately attached to their constituency of Ebbw Vale. It was little wonder that that was the case as they had been represented for more than 30 years by Aneurin Bevan and were represented at that time by Michael Foot. It took a huge effort to try to rebuild and connect communities to make the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney feel as one, and these were communities with identical political and social values.
While Boundary Commissions are impartial, they are certainly not infallible. The great value of local inquiries is that they allow communities to educate the commissioners in what communities are all about. However, communities will be denied that under this Bill if the Boundary Commission makes the absurd proposals that have been made in the past, which happily were quickly rejected because of the outrage that they caused locally. That experience could be repeated over and over again, as they cut across normal communities and move wards around, as is feared will be the consequence of the Bill.
I also want to touch upon the second point about the relationship between the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster and the union. I heard and reread the first attempt by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to defend this argument a week last Monday. He said:
“The important point to remember is that the reform means that a vote in Cardiff will have an equal value to a vote in Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh or London. To me, that does not undermine the union; giving an equal value to a vote in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London will, we hope, bring the union closer together”.—[Official Report, 10/01/2011; col. 1227.]
The notion that by cutting 10 constituencies in Wales and reducing representation to the Commons by 25 per cent will somehow create a closer sense of union is an absurd suggestion by the noble and learned Lord, who has made a very good fist of a very poor case throughout most of these debates. I do not think that the kind of cut that is envisaged will create a closer union; I think it will sow seeds of disunion.
I cannot follow the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that numbers do not matter. Besides equality, they matter every now and then in the Lobbies. Among other things, therefore, a proper representation—certainly not 30—is essential for the good maintenance of the union, alongside devolution itself. I might be a bit of an endangered species in this case. My noble friend Professor Lord Morgan was, I think, thinking of me; I am an old-fashioned Labour unionist at heart and in the Bevanite tradition that meant that you had to be where power is. Power is and will remain, very substantially, in Whitehall and Westminster to influence the affairs of Wales. We cannot afford to reduce that representation, or to be perceived to have done so. Never mind being perceived; it will have happened if we cut the numbers by the amount suggested.
I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, feel any affinity to the great Whig/Liberal tradition that created the Reform Act 1832, with Lords Grey, Althorp and Russell. At least during the course of that Bill they made very strategic concessions to create parliamentary assent. Thankfully, as a result of that pressure, they created the constituency of Merthyr Tydfil. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, that they start making strategic concessions tonight by accepting these amendments.
My Lords, I rise because my name has been mentioned on a number of occasions during this debate and I ought at least to thank noble Lords for the plug. I promise that my contribution really will be brief because all the songs have already been sung so expertly—probably the correct analogy to use in relation to Wales. There is a great deal of pleading for special causes in the Bill and there is, of course, ample justification for Wales to be included. Even if it were argued, as it has been today, that Wales might have been slightly overrepresented in recent years—no one is arguing about that; there is no dispute about it—it does not deserve to lose 10 constituencies at the stroke of a legislator’s pen. These amendments, so powerfully moved by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, would address this unfairness.
A number of distinguished former Welsh MPs from all sides of the House have contributed to this debate, and in terms of such practical experience I am indeed a piping voice without substance. However, I can at least claim this; I had a grandfather, father, aunt and uncle, all of whom represented rural Welsh constituencies—for all the parties represented in this House, I have to say. I can testify to the additional burdens that physically large constituencies can impose on their representatives. This is compounded by a road network that has hardly improved over the years—I am sorry, but that is the case—and a rail system that many would argue has actually deteriorated. The personal ties which an MP can establish with constituents fairly easily in a well defined and concentrated urban area must be far harder to achieve over a large and disparate geographical mass. In the case of Wales, any attempt to extend the size of already large constituencies to encompass the 76,000-elector figure could result in the entirely inappropriate solutions referred to so tellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in what I will call the Brecon-Radnor debate earlier in the week.
All these matters should surely be looked at carefully without a ticking clock in the background, which is why I hope that Amendment 102AB, in the name of my noble friend Lord Williamson, will be received favourably by all sides of the House.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be taking part for the first time in this debate tonight. The Welsh Affairs Committee report has been quoted several times tonight. I will quote from it again:
“The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than any other nation of the UK. Wales is projected to lose ten of its forty parliamentary seats, a reduction of 25%. We agree with the principle that all votes should have equal weighting. However, equalisation between constituencies is only one of a number of factors to be taken into account when deciding constituency boundaries. The unique geography, history and communities of Wales must not be ignored when the Boundary Commission undertakes its review”.
The former Secretary of State for Wales, my right honourable friend Paul Murphy MP, said in evidence to the committee that the reduction in the number of MPs is unprecedented:
“Wales has had a dedicated number of MPs in Parliament since the middle of the Sixteenth Century. This is to safeguard the rights of a small nation in a United Kingdom”.
The report goes on to say:
“In a democracy, it is an important consideration that every effort is made to ensure that votes have equal weight. However, no electoral system genuinely delivers a wholly ‘fair’ outcome in these terms. Notwithstanding this principle, other factors legitimately weigh in the consideration of where the balance of fairness lies. It is also important that the interests of each region of the United Kingdom are properly heard at Westminster. The Government's proposals would reduce, at a stroke, the number of MPs representing Wales by 25%. By any yardstick, this would be a profound change to the way that Wales is represented”.
Tonight, we have heard a lot about having equal weight in voting, but does saying that something is equal mean fairness? Does it mean democracy? One aspect of this is that Welsh Assembly boundaries will be different from Westminster boundaries, and I think that that will cause problems. I know that this has happened in Scotland, but Scotland is not Wales. Scotland has already reduced its numbers because it has much greater devolved powers than we have in Wales. I think that it will cause problems if we have 30 Westminster seats and 40 Assembly seats, especially if we have elections on the same day in May 2015.
We do not know what the result of the referendum on 3 March will be. Most of us will be hoping for a yes vote, but even with that yes vote no greater powers will be devolved to Wales. It will mean that Wales can make primary legislation without coming to Westminster on matters that have already been devolved to Wales.
I am not sure whether the position of women has been mentioned in the 14 days of Committee debate, but with equality and fairness, surely democracy must be mentioned. There are not many women MPs in Wales. We have never had many women MPs. There have been only 13 since 1918. At the moment there are seven. The largest number that we ever had at one time was in 2005 and we are now down to seven. It could be that, throughout the country, with a reduction of 50 and the new boundaries, women will lose out. There will be fewer women MPs at Westminster in 2015 than we have now, and that is something that all parties should consider deeply. The main parties want to see bigger representation and this must be taken into consideration.
The south Wales valleys have been mentioned several times. My noble friend Lord Rowlands mentioned Merthyr Valley in his former constituency. I have lived for most of my life in the Rhondda Valley, which has an electorate of just over 50,000. We are surrounded by the Cynon Valley, Pontypridd and Ogmore, which would be possible areas where you could expand. Lewis Baston, who has been mentioned several times, suggests that in order to fit in the numbers to get to the magical 75,000, Rhondda and Ogmore could become one constituency. My noble friend Lord Kinnock is smiling because he knows the area, as many noble Lords will as well as I do. We know that Rhondda and Ogmore have no natural links whatever. How on earth can you have a Rhondda and Ogmore constituency when you have a great big mountain between us? You can go over the mountain road, but that is closed the minute there is any fog, ice or snow. It would be extremely difficult and the Rhondda and Ogmore people are totally different communities. The Rhondda Valley is unique, as are all the valleys. There is no other place in the United Kingdom like the south Wales valleys.
It is worrying. Where will you get these extra votes? Wales is taking such a big hit because 22 of the smallest constituencies are in Wales. Was it taken into account when the figures of 50 and 75,000 were decided that Wales would be the hardest hit? I doubt it. I suppose it was done on a piece of paper and someone thought that it was a good formula, but as a result Wales has taken a big hit.
In the Rhondda Valley, the community spirit is still very strong. We people in the Rhondda practised the big society before it was ever heard of. People have a strong community spirit. The miners of the Rhondda built their own hospitals and we had our own libraries, all contributed from the miners’ pay packets every week. We had our own doctors before the NHS ever came into being.
I would like to say a little about how strong the Rhondda spirit is and how strongly people feel in the valleys. John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, decided that there would be local government reorganisation and we would have unitary authorities instead of districts and counties. There would be 22 councils. One of them would be made up of Rhondda, Cynon Valley and Pontypridd and it would be called the Glamorgan Valleys, which meant that Rhondda would no longer be in the title of our local government. Two wonderful Rhondda women, Betty Bowen and the late Carys Pugh, who noble Lords will remember, decided that this was not on and that Rhondda would not disappear from local government.
They fought a campaign—just the two of them—and this was before the internet and mobile phones, Facebook or Twitter. They had support from all over the world from ex-Rhondda people who said that Rhondda must not disappear. They secured a meeting with John Redwood and he had the good sense to meet these two wonderful and formidable women. As a result, the Secretary of State eventually bowed to their wishes and the council was called Rhondda Cynon Taff Council. After all that effort, the council is generally now known in the Rhondda by its initials RCT. That is just one example of how strongly people in the Rhondda feel about it.
The Welsh language has been mentioned, which is very important to all of us in Wales. I do not speak Welsh myself, but my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren speak Welsh. The Office for National Statistics states that the increase of people speaking Welsh in Wales in the 2001 census was largely as a result of children being taught the language in schools. This goes way back to the 1950s, when the old Glamorgan County Council, in a non-Welsh speaking area, made sure that Welsh medium schools were started, and they have been a great success. The report said that because of the Welsh medium schools, we now have many more children speaking Welsh. The report states that in all age groups, women are more likely to have Welsh language skills than men, and the,
“difference was most notable in the 10 to 15 and 16 to 19 year old age groups—in both cases the proportion of girls able to speak, read and write Welsh was seven percentage points higher than boys”.
I make that point because much was said about Welshmen speaking Welsh.
I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Touhig because we would lose 25 per cent of our MPs, but not gain any more powers. I can see that there might be a case if we had more powers, similar to Scotland, but it is wrong. Stifling the voice and the strength of the Welsh people is wrong. I ask the Minister to think again before allowing this to happen and to take into consideration all that has been said today because Welsh people will be listening to this debate. They did not have a chance to listen to what went on in the House of Commons because of the guillotine, but they will listen closely to what this coalition Government have to say about Wales. I am sure that they would want a really good response and that they will take note when the elections come on 5 May.
I am glad to follow my noble friend Lady Gale because she has huge insight into Wales and its workings. My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport quoted the poet RS Thomas. I wondered then how he would have responded had this Bill come before him. I think that the Nobel-nominated genius would have responded with a grimace and a frown and with sharp, thunderous, angry denunciations. That leads to what the genius of the south, RS Thomas’s cousin Dylan, might have done. Had he encountered this measure, he would, after a glass or two, have presented a laughter-filled satire of English arrogance.
The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Roberts, both shrewdly emphasised the qualities of shrewdness in terms of representation here in Westminster as opposed to numbers. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, instance his argument by reference to James Callaghan, a man of great quality. I studied Leonard James Callaghan in his use of power for many years, and I thought that it was seated not simply in his great quality but in his absolute certainty that he would always be followed by many Welsh Members of Parliament. That was part of his capacity. I have studied these debates for, perhaps, over two weeks and I have noticed the numbers and the power of Scottish Peers. I concluded—shrewdly, I think—that the Scots people, that great nation, negotiated themselves into our union and that that great brute, Henry VIII, the founder of the English state, annexed Wales without any public consultation whatsoever.
The coalition is off course. It puts more and more Peers into your Lordships’ House yet it legislates to take many Members of Parliament out of the Commons, which does not seem logical. Instead of two Bills, we have one which is disparate and disjointed. It is not good enough. I believe that it is wrong for the coalition to debit 25 per cent of MPs in Wales. That cannot be right; it is unjust. We are talking of something approaching a parliamentary birthright. That is how the Welsh people see their representation here in Westminster. They always have and they would not be pleased if this Bill progresses. I believe Wales to be a very mature democracy. Wales likes its parliamentary politics. It is proud of its political heritage and it gives so much to the body politic here in Britain.
I am not the only noble Lord to say that Britain has gained so much from the Welsh constituencies; our great Mr David Lloyd George, who founded our welfare state; the mighty Mr Bevan—we all know what he contributed to Britain and to Wales; Mr Ness Edwards, who was very much a representative of the Welsh mining constituencies; Mr James Griffiths, a passionate man from the west who gave us national insurance Acts. Here are risks for the future, yet the coalition seems blind to them. Wales deserves better than this. It is a careless measure with more than a hint of a Heath Robinson disjoint.
Welsh people rate their Members of Parliament. They use them and their services with gusto. Now is not the time to denude the Principality of its favoured defenders. The MPs in Wales do a magnificent job of responding to their constituents’ concerns. They deploy their staff most effectively. I would say that is the case with all Members of Parliament, whatever their party, in Wales. The service that they give now is instant, devoted and very effective. The measures in the Bill are not a reform; a reform is an advance. These measures are a negative, not a positive—deleterious, in effect. I am not the first to pose the questions, but where was the pre-legislative scrutiny? Where is public consultation? Where is the consideration of our geography and its peculiarities or of our economic and social history?
What is proposed is unjust and we now know that, in the immediate years ahead, there will be economic and social changes of the greatest seriousness. There is the imminent impact of major cuts in local government services. There has been too much legislation, by all Governments—ill considered and careless legislation. The history of our modern Parliaments is littered with examples of hurried, ill judged legislation and for these reasons, I support the amendment.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Touhig on his amendment. I do not want to repeat much of the discussion that has taken place in the Chamber during this debate. I have studiously avoided, during my repeated interventions on this Bill, accusing the Government of gerrymandering, because I do not believe that that is the motivation behind this legislation. However, in Wales the accusation of gerrymandering will stick because removing 25 per cent of Wales’s Members of Parliament will create—indeed, it is at this moment creating—great suspicion in the minds of the Welsh people.
I claim a right to speak in this debate by way of my birthright in Swansea. My family is almost entirely Welsh. Due to the somewhat rare nature of the Savours name, which is easily traceable to 1602—a task carried out by a great relative of mine at the beginning of the previous century, before the age of the internet—we have quite a lot of information about my family’s activities over several hundred years. In preparing for this debate, I particularly researched the role that my family may have played in setting boundaries in Wales. I had been informed —incorrectly, as it turned out—that sheriffs and high sheriffs had historically had the responsibility of setting boundaries. There are two high sheriffs in my family: Edward Savours in 1747 and Robert Savours in 1845. Both were in south Wales, so I obviously had an interest. It seems that the only influence that they may have had was on parish or county boundaries. Since 1832, sheriffs probably had very little influence, as boundaries appear to have been set by a boundary commission after that.
However, during the research, I turned up some interesting background material on the boundaries in Wales. It seems that in 1944, as has already been alluded to, a Speaker’s Conference was established. From a pamphlet written in 1995 by Mr Iain McLean, a notable academic in this area, entitled Are Scotland and Wales Over-represented in the House of Commons?, we learn the lessons of history on the use of mathematical formulae and seat reductions in Wales—and how interesting these lessons are. Mr McLean explains what actually happened during the 1944 Speaker’s Conference, which was established to resolve arguments over representation. The conference, he says,
“was appointed and run on very similar lines to its predecessor of 1916-17 … Like its predecessor, the conference published only its conclusions”.
However, the minutes of the Speaker’s Conference committee are very illuminating. They say:
“It was pointed out that a strict application of the quota for the whole of Great Britain would result in a considerable decrease in the existing number of Scottish and Welsh seats, but that in practice, in view of the proposal that the Boundary Commissioners should be permitted to pay special consideration to geographical considerations … it was … unlikely that there would be any substantial reduction. It was strongly urged that … it would be very desirable, on political grounds, to state from the outset quite clearly that the number of Scottish and Welsh seats should not be diminished. The absence of any such assurance might give rise to a good deal of political feeling and would lend support to the separatist movement in both countries”.
The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, referred obliquely to that matter. I think that he was suggesting that that was a likelihood arising out of this legislation as it stands. Mr McLean goes on:
“Accordingly, the conference resolved not to cut the number of seats in … Wales and to establish a separate boundary commission … The 1944 recommendations have provided a template for all subsequent legislation … There should be no reduction in seat numbers for Scotland, or for Wales … There should be a Great Britain-wide quota, or target electorate, for each seat … The maximum deviation of any seat from this target should be 25 per cent … Boundary Commissions might ‘depart from the strict application of these rules’ if necessitated by ‘special geographical considerations, including the area, shape, and accessibility of a constituency’”.
Those are exactly the same arguments as we are having today. He continues:
“The Redistribution Act 1944 implemented these rules … During 1946 and 1947 the Labour Government announced that the 25 per cent rule was too restrictive and was leading the commissioners to break up historic communities. This conservative argument was accepted by the Conservatives; an Act of 1947 removed the explicit 25 per cent rule, and placed equal constituency size below respect for local boundaries in the Commissions’ rules”.
In other words, no cuts in the number of seats and respect for local boundaries put above a 25 per cent deviation from targets—a lot more than the 5 per cent that is being proposed in this legislation.
As far as I am concerned, this legislation’s effect on Wales is utterly absurd. It is unjust. It treats Members of Parliament miserably. It will interfere in family life for many Members of Parliament because the Bill is not even staged—and I heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on the question of staging. It also provides for a great level of disruption in the public service careers of Members of Parliament. Many Members go into Parliament because they believe in public service and the need to contribute to their communities. It is quite unreasonable suddenly to remove 25 per cent of them in the way that is being suggested.
Wales is being punished on the back of a populist response by the coalition Government. The expenses scandal has provoked a backlash against Members of Parliament. The Government’s response has been to cut expenses, promise September sittings and cut the number of MPs. It is a kneejerk response and Wales is being appallingly treated. It is absurd that this Parliament should treat the Welsh people and the Welsh nation in this way.
We have had an extraordinary debate with many outstanding speeches from all sides of the Committee. I say more in sorrow than in anger that I am disappointed that no one from the Liberal Democrat Benches has spoken, particularly with their great tradition as a party in Wales. I cannot believe that they had nothing to say on this issue.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than on any other nation of the United Kingdom. Wales is projected to lose 10 seats of the 40 that it currently has. This represents, as we have heard, a 25 per cent reduction in its Westminster parliamentary representation. It is clearly a very significant proposal. What is so astonishing is that there was no debate in the other place on this matter. The guillotine came down. Does the Minister agree that it is outrageous and hard to understand how the elected House of Parliament could not debate this matter?
But it is worse than that. Many noble Lords who have spoken come from Wales and know how Wales is represented in another place. They will know that the Welsh Grand Committee, comprising all Members of Parliament from Wales, provides a forum for debate relating to Wales. The Grand Committee can meet only when the House directs it to do so. In effect, the Government decide when there is a need for such a meeting. A request was made from a distinguished ex-Secretary of State on 15 September 2010 to the current Secretary of State, the right honourable Mrs Gillan, to convene the Welsh Grand Committee. Unusually, the request was refused. In its report, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee made this comment about that refusal:
“We consider the Secretary of State for Wales’ decision not to convene a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee in this instance to be very disappointing”.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he thinks that that decision can be justified.
As many noble Lords have said, the prospect of this drastic reduction in the number of Members of Parliament has caused great concern in Wales and among those who are interested in Welsh matters. The all-party Welsh Affairs Select Committee of another place, made up of six government supporters and six opposition supporters, produced a report shortly after the Bill began its legislative stages in another place which was highly critical of the proposed changes. It said:
“A decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change”.
The Select Committee concluded, as we have been arguing during our discussion on the Bill:
“There is no need to rush into reorganising the electoral system without careful and measured consideration of the differential effects on the different parts of the UK”.
As the debate in the Committee today has shown, this drastic reduction in the number of MPs has provoked more than considerable concern. For a start, it is a complete departure from the current legal minimum of 35 seats for Wales, enshrined, as we have heard, in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which was passed by a Conservative Government, who should take great credit for that piece of legislation. It is also a significant reduction from the level of Welsh constituencies that was in place at the time when the Welsh people voted for the devolution settlement in 1998. That settlement, as the former Welsh Secretary, my right honourable friend Paul Murphy, noted in debates in the other place, was a package. It was, he explained,
“not simply the establishment of the Assembly, but the continuance of Members of Parliament, at that level, here in the House of Commons to protect the interests of the people of Wales and their nation. If we have a referendum, and there are greater powers, that might change, but at least people would have voted on it. However, in 1998, they voted for the opposite—the retention of Members of Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 72.]
Importantly, that point was echoed by Mr Simon Hart, the Conservative Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, who warned the Government that a reduction of 25 per cent in the number of Welsh constituencies ahead of the referendum on new powers for the Welsh Assembly was being decided,
“without any reference to the Welsh nation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 119.]
Will the Minister please explain why the forthcoming referendum on powers has no bearing in the Bill on the level of Welsh parliamentary representation?
Leaving aside the issue of the referendum, a number of factors suggest that this sudden and deep reduction in Welsh representation goes too far, too fast. The imposition of a UK-wide electoral quota of the kind imposed by the Bill is bound to create one or two enormous Welsh constituencies that will be overwhelmingly rural in nature and will cover wide and in places inaccessible territories. It will force the construction of new constituencies in the Welsh valleys, which will be impractical and injurious to local community ties, as many noble Lords have said.
Previously, these were the sort of concerns that could have been soothed to a degree through the application of common sense and through the forum of public inquiries, which the Bill proposes to abolish. Will the noble and learned Lord clarify whether there will still be a right to hold public inquiries in boundary reviews concerning the constituencies of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not of the mother of Parliaments in Westminster?
I return to the issue of whether a uniform approach is right for the whole of the United Kingdom. In fairness, the Bill contains one rule to override the electoral parity rule, which acknowledges the fact that the United Kingdom is a union of four parts. That rule prohibits Boundary Commissions from creating any constituencies across national borders and recognises that the different parts of the union have their own special characteristics, traditions and administrative structures. My right honourable friend the shadow Welsh Secretary and ex-Secretary of State, Peter Hain, said:
“Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission for Wales, with cross-party support over the generations. For that reason, Parliament first decided in 1947 that there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts between the population over the past 60 years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to 40. As a note from the Commons Library of 28 July 2010 confirms … during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) rejected the argument that over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long-standing constitutional arrangement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 123.]
That was mentioned in the debate. I ask the Minister whether he thinks that his right honourable colleague was wrong in that judgment.
We are not arguing that Wales should be protected from any reduction in parliamentary representation. The Committee is made up of political realists and we understand that the Government have some legitimate basic objectives, including the creation of more equal-sized seats. The question that has run through all our debates is whether those objectives need to be pursued in so rigid a fashion. Two noble Lords today used the word “savage” to describe the way in which this has been dealt with and questioned whether it must be pursued in a way that excludes all other factors.
We are beginning to see, in debates and votes on amendments that would inject a little more flexibility into the rigid rules set out in the Bill, a growing acceptance around the Committee that the Government should pay more attention to other considerations. Wales is an obvious area where some sensitivity at least should be given to special geographical characteristics, as well as to its status as a nation—this point was made by many noble Lords—within a larger union in which clearly England is the dominant force in wealth, population and political representation. The Welsh Affairs Committee stated that its concern was,
“about how the Government’s proposals will affect Wales in ways distinct from the overall picture for the UK”.
We know that, if the Bill passes, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its MPs, Northern Ireland will lose 17 per cent, Scotland 16 per cent and England 5 per cent. If the Government profess to be interested in fairness, it is important that the interests of each region are properly heard at Westminster.
The Government’s proposals would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs representing Wales by 25 per cent. The Select Committee said that by any yardstick this would be a profound change to the way in which Wales is represented in Parliament. Paragraph 51 of the committee’s report states:
“No persuasive argument has been presented to justify the haste with which this legislation is being pursued. There is no need for the legislation paving the way to the AV referendum to be linked to that fixing the size and number of parliamentary constituencies. Indeed, there are strong grounds for separating consideration of the two issues in time, both for Parliament and for the electorate … a decision to cut the representation in Parliament of one of the nations of the UK, Wales, by a quarter at a stroke should be one that can be shown to have been subject to the most careful and measured consideration, and should be taken in the light of proper examination of alternative approaches, including a slower pace of change”.
The vast majority of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have agreed with that conclusion. We on the opposition Front Bench agree with it. If my noble friend seeks to test the opinion of the House, which is a matter entirely for him, we will encourage Labour Peers to support him.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for moving this amendment almost three hours ago, and for the measured and considered way in which he advanced his arguments. He encouraged Members of the Committee to be thoughtful, and triggered a considerable number of thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions to the debate. They ranged widely over parliamentary, cultural and family history, and over the contribution that distinguished Members representing Welsh constituencies have made to the parliamentary democracy of our United Kingdom. I will also refer at the outset to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about Wales being a nation. My noble friend Lord Morgan and the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, echoed that point. Certainly I accept that Wales is one of the constituent nations of our United Kingdom. I, too, would bristle if I looked up “Wales” in an encyclopaedia and found, “See under England”. Even though I am not Welsh, I would find that offensive.
The amendment seeks to guarantee a minimum of 35 constituencies in Wales. In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, it is my understanding that when there was a debate on Report in the other place on the provisions of the Bill to equalise the size of constituencies, there were contributions from 16 Welsh MPs. Although the Government did give consideration to a Welsh Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Wales and my honourable friend Mr Mark Harper, the Minister who is responsible for this Bill in the other place, held a meeting to which all Welsh MPs were invited. There was extensive discussion and Mr Harper offered individual follow-up meetings to all Welsh Members. That was the spirit in which the meeting took place.
No; I wish to answer some of the points that have been made in the debate.
The amendment stipulates the figure of 35, which—as was said by one or two contributors, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in moving his amendment—reflects the figure set out in the 1986 Act, which stated that there should be no fewer than 35 Members from Wales. I observe that the same Act stated that there would be no fewer than 71 Members for Scotland. That provision was repealed by the Labour Government. I do not complain about that; indeed, I encouraged them to do so. The number of Members of Parliament from Scotland under the Labour Government fell from 72 to 59, and is set to fall again under the Bill to 52, which is about a 26 per cent reduction. That will be relevant when we come to consider issues about devolution raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan.
My noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy gave a clear expression of the Government's position as admitted in evidence. One of the underlying purposes of the Bill is to try to secure fairness—equal vote, equal value—throughout the United Kingdom. The amendment which has been moved and those which have been spoken to would go against that fairness of one vote, one value throughout the United Kingdom. We believe that every elector’s vote in elections to the other place should have the same value, regardless of where that vote is cast in the United Kingdom. It is important to emphasise that we are not in any way proposing less representation for Wales than other parts of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the value of a vote in Wales will be the same as the value of a vote in England, the same as the value of a vote in Scotland, the same as the value of a vote in Northern Ireland.
We have allowed for a 10 per cent range of tolerance between the largest and smallest constituency to take account of local and other factors. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, gave the impression—a caricature—that it was simply a matter of drawing square boxes on maps. That is not the case and does great disservice to the Boundary Commission, which will look at the issues and take account, to the extent that it thinks fit, of important matters such as special geographical considerations—the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency. The noble and learned Lord put it very well when he gave the illustration that a parliamentary boundary does not define which rugby team you will play for. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, said, when people are asked where they belong, they tend to answer in terms of old counties or smaller towns and communities. They tend not to identify where they belong in terms of parliamentary constituencies.
I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Steel is present—I saw him at one point—but he will recall that when he represented the seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, having the rugby teams of Hawick and Gala in the same constituency set up some interesting issues of rivalry between different communities. As I said in response to a debate yesterday evening, Members of Parliament by their nature represent a number of different communities within their constituency. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, made the point about size and accessibility. Brecon and Radnorshire, which is the largest constituency in Wales, is often given as an example. To give a sense of perspective, it is worth stating that at 1,160 square miles, the current Brecon and Radnorshire constituency is considerably smaller than the constituency represented by my honourable friend Lord Thurso in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which is just under three times larger than Brecon and Radnorshire. Then there is the constituency represented by my right honourable friend Mr Charles Kennedy, of 4,909 square miles. Of course, there are geographical limitations which the Government have submitted in the rules.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recall that the late Lord Livsey, who for many years was the Member of Parliament for the then Brecon and Radnor constituency, was one of the most loved Members of Parliament, hard-working and known throughout the whole of that constituency?
I think that that would be accepted and acknowledged on all sides of the Committee. It is not just me standing here saying that it is feasible to represent a constituency of such a size, but the electors of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and of Ross, Skye and Lochaber have returned their respective Members of Parliament on several occasions, which suggests that they have been able to address the genuine needs of a constituency covering many communities.
As we are explicitly discussing Wales, and the issue of Brecon and Radnorshire has been brought up, how does the noble and learned Lord suggest that that most rural constituency in Wales and England, with an electorate of 58,000, can be brought into consistency with the Government’s formula of a tolerance of 5 per cent either way and about 75,000 or 76,000 without making the size of the constituency now formed by Brecon and Radnorshire absolutely absurd and communication in that constituency almost beyond reach? I recognise the experience in Scotland. To create a constituency in mid-Wales that has about 70,000 to 80,000 constituents, there would have to be an effective destruction of neighbouring constituencies—to the north, in Montgomeryshire; or to the west, in Ceredigion; or to the south, in the former mining valleys. A suggestion about how a cogent constituency of between 70,000 and 80,000 can be formed would be helpful to the debate.
The first thing to note, because it happened very late at night, is that the Government accepted an amendment from my noble friend Lord Tyler with regard to existing constituencies being a factor to which the Boundary Commission may, if it sees fit, have regard. Perhaps that was not widely appreciated because there were not many of us around.
I think that the noble Lord congratulated us on that at the time.
The point I am trying to make is that the two Scottish highland constituencies to which I referred are substantially greater than Brecon and Radnorshire—in the case of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, almost three times as big; in the case of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, more than four times as big. We would have to go a very long way before we got anywhere near constituencies of that size, which have equally challenging geographical issues. Nevertheless, Members of Parliament have successfully represented those constituencies, as can be seen by the fact that they have been returned regularly in elections.
I take on the genuine issue, which several noble Lords have mentioned, of the effect of the interaction with the Union. I express myself as a passionate advocate of the benefits of the United Kingdom, while at the same time as someone who has vociferously argued for devolution. I recognise the sincerity with which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, raised his concern about the Union.
My point, on which the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, picked me up, is not unreasonable. I think that there is an issue of fairness, and I have not yet heard the argument why it is in some way unfair that a vote in Cardiff should have the same value as a vote in Belfast, London and Edinburgh. Indeed, those who argue the contrary must tell us what explanation we give to a voter in Edinburgh that a vote in Cardiff should be worth more. I have not yet heard that explanation. Neither do I believe that in some way that difference in value will cement Wales’s place in the Union. In fact, I think there is some merit in saying that if all parts of the Union are treated equally, that is positive. I would have hesitated to say it, because I am not Welsh, but my noble friend Lord Crickhowell made the point that the Welsh nation can have true confidence in itself. It does not need overrepresentation in order to have confidence in itself. That is worth bearing in mind.
I come on to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when he asked about various points I had made in the past about devolution. Points have been raised about the Speaker’s Conference. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, much has happened since the 1944 Speaker’s Conference, and much has happened since the remarks attributed to my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke in 1992. We cannot hypothetically say, “What would happen to this Bill if we had the Wales Office and had never had devolution?”. That is not the situation today. It is the case that on the back of devolution, Scotland reduced its representation from 72 to 59, but devolution is not relevant to the proposals that the Government are putting forward because we are not seeking to make a distinction between Scotland, which has a different form of devolution from Wales, Wales, which may have more powers following the referendum on 3 March, Northern Ireland, which has a different system of devolution again, and England, which has no devolved government.
Noble Lords made the point that the United Kingdom Parliament deals with macroeconomic policies, defence—the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke of the contribution that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom make to the Armed Forces—social security matters and pensions matters. The Government are saying that representation should be fair in all parts of the United Kingdom. There may be some who would argue that because Scotland has its Parliament dealing with a range of domestic issues, there could even be an argument for underrepresentation, but that is not the position of the Government. The Government believe that there should be equal representation in all parts of the United Kingdom, and that is what underlies this. We do not find it particularly acceptable that, for example, the constituency of Arfon, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, has an electorate of just over 40,000 whereas Falkirk has an electorate of 80,000. Indeed, it was pointed out that even within Wales, there are substantial divergences in the number of electors.
I shall pick up the point on the Welsh language. I cannot see why the reduction in the number of Members from Wales would have an impact on the Welsh language. As my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, some of the great steps forward for the Welsh language were taken by people who were not Welsh-speaking in response to those who made very good, cogent arguments for the Welsh language over many years. It is the case that many Members of Parliament in our inner cities are dealing with constituencies in which a variety of languages are used by people from minority ethnic communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, made an important and valuable contribution when he referred to his manuscript amendment and there will be an opportunity to debate it more fully when—when—we come to Clause 18. The amendment would, as I understand it, mean that the first boundary review would take place as though the new rules were in force; the existing legislation would remain in force in the mean time; the new boundary provisions would be commenced only once the Boundary Commissions had reported; and votes in both Houses on the commencement order would be at that point. The House would effectively have the choice of commencing the new rules or retaining the 1986 Act rules. I recognise the intention behind this amendment, which was briefly spoken to by the noble Lord, and I salute the helpful spirit in which it was proposed. We will clearly want to give thought to the issues that it raises, but I will put down a caveat in that it invites Parliament to do what it does not usually do. Parliament usually sets the rules for the Boundary Commission and does not give people who have more than a vested interest in them the opportunity to decide whether they should introduce new boundaries that have a direct effect on them. Having said that, it is an innovative suggestion that I would be very happy to discuss with the noble Lord. I hope we will be able to have that discussion soon before we debate his amendment in due course.
In conclusion, I repeat that the provisions in this Bill will mean a reduction in the number of Welsh constituencies, just as in the rest of the United Kingdom. In opening this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, pointed out that Wales has 5 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. On the 2009 figures, the overall proportion of Welsh seats in Westminster would go from 6 per cent to 5 per cent. I do not believe that that poses a threat to the Union. If anything, I believe that greater fairness and equality can help strengthen our union, and I beg the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, we have had a first-class debate. Seventeen of your Lordships have taken part. We have had a debate in the unelected House of our Parliament that the Government denied the elected House. In responding, the Minister took an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, who mentioned the late Lord Livsey. I, too, knew, admired and respected Richard Livsey, and if he were here tonight, I have no doubt about which side of the argument he would be on. I hope the House will forgive me if I do not follow the normal courtesy and respond to all the contributions that were made because I do not think that I could match the eloquence and power of the argument. We have spent just over three hours on this debate, and I am not here unnecessarily to take up your Lordships’ time.
Those who have spoken in this debate and I have sought to improve this Bill in the interests of the people of Wales. I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. We have clearly failed to impress upon the Government our concerns about the adverse impact this Bill will have on Wales. I believe that we have approached the debate in the best traditions of your Lordships' House. We have expressed our view and our concerns about the implications of this Bill on Wales. We have not been prescriptive and said, “Here’s a problem; here’s an answer; you must take it”. Noble Lords who have signed the amendments in this group have put their names to not one but three possible alternatives which the Government might have considered and reflected upon and come back at a later stage with some proposal that might have assuaged our fears. I believe it is in the best traditions of your Lordships' House to give the democratically elected Government time to reflect on the arguments that have been put. We offered an olive branch, but I fear that that olive branch has been tossed away. I worry because those of us who feel passionately about Wales and about the Union of the United Kingdom intend to continue to make this argument and this debate. The other place did not have an opportunity to debate these amendments or to express a view. It is with a heavy heart that I feel it is necessary to divide your Lordships' House so that we may express an opinion on Amendment 89BA.
Amendment 89BC not moved.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 9.09 pm.