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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 724: debated on Monday 31 January 2011

Committee (15th Day)


Moved by

My Lords, from time to time I keep the House informed about progress on this Bill, and this is one of those occasions. As we start this, the 15th, day in Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, I am delighted to be able to inform the Committee that there is now agreement among the usual channels on a timetable for completing Committee. As a result of a series of productive discussions, the usual channels agree that Committee should be completed by the end of business on Wednesday this week. This is within the time that has already been scheduled and indicated on the Order Paper. I am sure that all noble Lords who have followed proceedings on the Bill, and perhaps a few who have not, will welcome a return to the effective functioning of the usual channels on the Bill, and I sincerely hope that this means that there is no longer any need for me to ask the Committee collectively to come to a resolution on how proceedings on the Bill should be regulated.

During Committee so far, the Government have held meaningful discussions with the Opposition and with a number of other Members of the House, in addition to debate on the Bill in the Chamber. As a result, the Government will bring forward a package of concessions on Report, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome that. Therefore, we are in the welcome position of having agreement to complete Committee by the end of Wednesday this week. Equally, I am sure I have no need to remind the Committee that we need to return this Bill to the other place by the end of Monday, 14 February—that is, two weeks today—if the referendum is to be held on 5 May. From the soundings that I have taken, I feel confident that the majority of Members from all parts of the Chamber share this aim.

My Lords, I am obliged to the Leader of the House. As he has said, we have agreed through the usual channels that Committee on the Bill should be completed at the close of business this Wednesday. This is the product of good discussions on the substance of the Bill over the weekend and today. Focusing only on the key issues on Report and employing the economy and focus which your Lordships will expect on Report and at Third Reading, the timetable will depend on further agreement between the parties on substantive issues. The Cross-Benchers have played a critical part in getting us to the good point that we have reached, and we now commit ourselves to work hard to try to reach the necessary further agreement.

My Lords, on behalf of a number of us who have been here for long hours into the night, I congratulate and thank those who have been involved in these discussions, not least the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers. I hope that this spirit of compromise will extend into the planning of Report, on which we might otherwise find ourselves in a repetition. I remind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that he and his colleagues endorsed the working group of Labour Peers, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, which recommended that a reasonable time limit be set for all Bills to complete their passage in the Lords. I also remind the noble and learned Lord that in endorsing that recommendation, in a speech to the Labour Party conference on 29 September 2004, he said very wisely:

“The Second Chamber should have the powers to revise, to amend, to scrutinise, but not finally to frustrate the programme of a legitimately-elected government”.

Motion agreed.

Clause 12 : Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation

Amendment 94

Moved by

94: Clause 12, page 13, leave out lines 17 to 23 and insert—

“(2) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receive any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one thousand or more.

(3) In subsection (2) above, “elector” means a parliamentary elector for any constituencies affected by the recommendation.””

My Lords, I note that there is an amendment to my amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Williamson of Horton. I think that the Committee wants to debate that amendment. To facilitate this, I wish to move my amendment formally so we can move on and have the debate that we all want to have.

Amendment 94A (to Amendment 94)

Moved by

94A: Clause 12, line 7, leave out from “one” to end and insert—

“hundred or more.(3) A Boundary Commission is not obliged to cause a local inquiry to be held under subsection (2). They may only do so if—

(a) the objection raises substantive issues that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals; and(b) any counter proposals it makes are prima facie within the stipulations of the Rules for the distribution of seats contained in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act.(4) A local inquiry held under subsection (2) must be completed within six months of the close of the consultation period referred to in subsection (1) above.

(5) Once a local inquiry has been held under the terms of subsection (2) above in any given locality, no further inquiries shall be held in that locality under the terms of this Act into the same objection.

(6) In subsection (2) above, “interested authority” and “elector” respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.””

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, very much indeed. Before I talk briefly about the amendment, it is unusual for a Cross-Bencher to intervene at this late stage in a Bill, particularly one that has become so politicised. As noble Lords know, Cross-Benchers are independent and not politically aligned. We are very mindful of that and I do not want to lead us in any way on one side or another. However, as many of your Lordships will know, something of an impasse had been reached towards the end of last week and I was encouraged by one or two people to see whether there was any useful role that we might play. I did so in great humility and, given that there seems to be very welcome movement, it is our wish to sink back into the background and again fulfil our role as occasional experts rather than being in the political fray. I say that with some feeling and certainly with some meaning.

The other thing that has moved me and a number of Cross-Benchers to see whether we could do something useful was the shadow, or the threat, of anything approaching a closure Motion in this House, which would have been historic. It has never happened before, and as many noble Lords have said it would undoubtedly impair the role that we play in revising and scrutinising legislation. Many of us felt that it was important to try to avert this threat. That is why I am here.

Last week, Amendment 93, moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was discussed in the Chamber. The amendment seeks to reinstate the right to public inquiry on boundary changes, with many limitations, as set out in the 1986 Act. The outright ban in Clause 12 was felt to be unreasonable and possibly even not sustainable. Nevertheless, there was also a very general acknowledgement that a long drawn-out inquiry would necessarily delay the boundary changes that the Bill seeks to enact. The initial discussion on this amendment took place late on the evening of 26 January, and consequently was not brought to a vote. There is a feeling that if it had, it might have had wide support.

Amendment 94, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, makes it clear that there would be a reinstated right to oral public inquiry only if the Boundary Commission itself thought it necessary, and that the commission would undertake to limit any inquiries in order to ensure that any changes would be finalised by 31 October 2013, thus not affecting the proposed boundary changes for the election in 2015.

The question of oral public inquiry remains pivotal. On it hung the negotiation between the two sides of the House and the further progress of the Bill. Amendment 94A, in my name and those of distinguished noble Lords from the Cross Benches, builds on the original amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and on that moved today by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, in that it caps the time allowed for such public consultation to six months by disallowing a second local inquiry. This makes clear the commitment to complete any inquiries well in time for boundary changes to be undertaken.

I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, agreed to take Amendment 93A away and come back on Report, an offer that was greatly welcomed by all sides of the House. We are still at such a delicate juncture in trying to move forward on the Bill. My own feeling—my instinct, even—is that we need further clarification at this stage from the Minister on whether the Government can accept oral public inquiry in the Bill.

In doing so, I am trying again to underline the need to obviate the shadow of any kind of closure Motion. Additionally, although the amendment points to a rocky path ahead, that is nevertheless a pathway down which perhaps we could all go if there is the political will to do so. I believe that this is what we all actually want. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is not necessary for me to say anything but a few words more than what the Convenor of the Cross Benches has already said. I agree with everything that she said. Perhaps I could add something about judicial review, a subject with which, in a previous incarnation, I have had a certain amount to deal.

It is important to note that the amendment as drafted would reduce judicial review to its proper place in the context that we are discussing. The courts should rarely, if ever, become involved in the activities of this House. That is an approach that the courts always wish to adhere to, although sometimes it is impossible because the law as it is developed requires them to consider applications for judicial review. However, the amendment makes clear that the Boundary Commission is not obliged to cause a local inquiry to be held but gives it a circumscribed power to require a local inquiry. With the amendment worded in that way, I suggest to the House that it would be very unlikely that judicial review would be a problem in future.

If the Boundary Commission did not require a local inquiry, I cannot conceive that its decision could be reviewed. If there is a local inquiry, again I cannot conceive of circumstances in which it would be possible for there to be judicial review, because, under the clear language of the amendment, the situation into which the Boundary Commission could seek a local inquiry is obviously the sort of issue on which it should properly require the help of such an inquiry.

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 94A. I agree with everything that has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I thank the Minister and Mr Mark Harper in the other place for the courtesy they have shown in spending time with me discussing possible amendments to crucial aspects of the Bill. I take the view—I know that I am not the only noble Lord who does so—that the Government are certainly entitled to get their business through this House. However, the Bill would benefit considerably from improvements to Part 2. I am delighted to hear from the Leader of the House that concessions will be brought forward. The Clause 11 formula of a 5 per cent band either way for an electoral quota is simply too rigid to allow for proper consideration of geographical considerations and local ties. It is wrong in principle for Clause 12(2), which we are now debating, to abolish the power of the Boundary Commission to hold a public inquiry.

The Boundary Commission process, including public inquiries, has served this country very well. It has maintained public confidence by a transparent process which has avoided even the suspicion of gerrymandering which blights so many other democratic countries. The Boundary Commission needs to retain some form of discretion to call for an inquiry, at least in those cases where it considers that it is necessary, with appropriate safeguards. I am sure that improvements can be made to the statutory scheme to promote efficiency and reduce delays but there really is no case for abolition. I very much hope, and expect, that the Minister will tell the Committee that this is one of those matters on which the Government intend to bring forward concessions.

My Lords, we welcome the amendment spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The amendment to reinstate public inquiries into Boundary Commission proposals provides your Lordships’ House with an opportunity to start edging back from the precipice. It builds on an amendment moved by the opposition Front Bench which your Lordships debated last Wednesday. Although the Cross-Bench amendment that we are debating is more restrictive than ours, we willingly support it in the interests of breaking the deadlock on Part 2. It is a sensible and practical proposal for which we are grateful.

Clause 12 will, if enacted, abolish completely—indeed, it would go further than that and ban—the right to hold a local public inquiry into the recommendation of a Boundary Commission. The Government have chosen to put in the place of a public inquiry an extended consultation period by written submission of eight weeks. It is our submission that this is not an adequate replacement. Part of the function of a local inquiry is to provide people with a fair hearing and an explanation of why a proposal has been turned down. That is essential to the legitimacy of the process and we believe that it improves the decision-making process as well. Perhaps one of the most telling facts is that in every single case where the Boundary Commission was proposing significant changes, such as an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies in a particular locality, its initial proposals were in every case amended following a public inquiry, so public inquiries are at their most valuable when the recommendations under consideration are the most dramatic. That fact is particularly salient in the context of this Bill which provides for a boundary review based on a reduction of 50 constituencies and the new set of rules dominated by a rigid electoral parity rule.

As the heads of the four Boundary Commissions have made clear, those factors mean it is inevitable that the next review will result in considerable changes to the electoral landscape, so considerable in fact that the Bill states in Rule 9(2), in Clause 11, that the Boundary Commissions are not permitted to take into account Rule 5(1)(d),

“inconveniences attendant on such changes”,

when conducting the forthcoming review.

They can take account of inconvenience in future reviews, but not in this first one.

As we debated in your Lordships’ House last week—I recommend that your Lordships read Hansard to see the relevant quotes—even psephologists who are sceptical about the value of public inquiries have said that on this occasion, in this context, they should be retained. Indeed, they have made the point that, while political parties have tended to be the major participants in inquiries, the scale of change that will be brought about by the next review is likely to provoke a much greater level of involvement by individuals and groups of local people. That is one of the reasons why we on this side of the House have not been willing to drop this matter.

I accept that there is a case for amending the current provisions in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 so that boundary commissions have some discretion about whether to go ahead with an inquiry, even where the basic threshold is met. However, the amendment proposed by the Cross Benches addresses that issue. The amendment that we moved last week provided that element of discretion. The variation on our amendment, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has tweaked the drafting on that point and made the position clear. We are grateful for that.

There is also the point about judicial review, made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in the dead of night last week, which he makes again today. I will not repeat what he said, because he said it a lot better than I ever could. His intervention on Wednesday was a powerful one and I very much hope that the Government will listen to it.

The Cross-Bench amendment keeps our initial six-month limit on a local inquiry but states that no secondary inquiry should be allowed. Given that these are very rare in practice, we have no objection to that change in the proposal.

I hope that the Minister, in responding to this debate, will be able unequivocally to accept this amendment. It has nothing to do with partisan advantage. It is a practical proposal concerned with the legitimacy of the process for drawing constituency boundaries. Helpfully and constructively, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, confirmed last week:

“It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries.”.—[Official Report, 26/1/11; col. 1070.]

We have high hopes that the noble and learned Lord will enable us to progress in this matter by broadly accepting the proposal in the Cross-Bench amendment. I support the amendment.

My Lords, in the spirit of the Chamber, I want to make two simple and quick points. I make a comment about the thought of a local inquiry not only from the experience of twice having my constituency rejigged through the process, but also from my experience as the chairman of our party a number of years ago.

Local inquiries can occasionally develop a life of their own. I wonder about the six-month limit because I can fairly easily foresee a legal argument arising out of a consultation that had not been satisfactorily concluded in this six-month period. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that I have some concern about the concept of a public inquiry in this context. Having said that, I add something that they may not welcome quite so much. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he said that the Boundary Commission needed some “discretion”—I use his word. I hope—indeed, I think the whole House hopes—that the Government will find it possible to meet the spirit reflected in what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has said and what I am saying in sympathy with what has already been said: that whether it is a local inquiry or not—and I have concerns about the concept of a local inquiry—there needs to be some element of discretion for the Boundary Commission.

My Lords, I will raise one point. The Leader of the House made a very welcome statement. The amendment that we are discussing is in the spirit of the statement. However, I do not see or hear anything about the conventions on Report. As the Leader of the House will be aware—although I stand to be corrected—the rule of thumb is that Report shall be allocated half the number of days of Committee. That is the convention of the House. This is what this side and that side have insisted upon in opposition. My simple question is: has there been any discussion or agreement on the number of days allocated to Report?

My Lords, perhaps it would help if I replied to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has enormous experience of this from being opposition Chief Whip for some time some years ago. The answer is that we have not yet agreed the number of days on Report. However, as I pointed out in my statement, we will need to complete Third Reading on the evening of 14 February in order to get the Bill back to another place in time for Royal Assent. Various conclusions can be reached from that.

As far as concerns conventions, almost from day one the Bill has been a scenario of broken agreements and conventions. I very much hope that we can all agree that it would be sensible to move forward on the basis of how the House traditionally handles Report, within the rules. I am hopeful that we will be able to deliver the Bill on time.

My Lords, I will not go into technicalities, but I wish to express strong support from the Bishops’ Bench for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and fellow noble Lords, as a reconciling way forward at an impasse.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for the way in which he introduced his amendment, which facilitated the debate on the very important amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the Convener of the Cross Benches. I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment and for the helpful spirit in which she moved it, and all noble Lords for the general tenor of the Committee debate. As was indicated in some contributions, we have already had debates on the shape of the consultation process, most notably last Wednesday evening, when opposition Amendment 93 was debated. It was similar to Amendment 94 in a number of respects, but not identical in one crucial respect. My colleagues and I have listened with care to the arguments and strong opinions of both sides, expressed last week, today and, it is fair to say, in a number of other debates in Committee when the issue of public inquiries was raised.

I thank the noble Baroness for the valuable contribution that she is making, not only with this amendment but in the process of discussion and negotiation on the Bill. I hope that she knows that I am as keen as she is to find a satisfactory resolution to these matters. A week ago, she made clear during a short debate the desire of the Cross Benches that both Government and Opposition should engage in discussions in order that progress could be made on the Bill “with dignity and resolve”—I think those were her words. We welcome that sentiment. As we have made clear, the Government are open to considering reasonable improvements to the Bill provided that they do not compromise its fundamental principles. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, quoted me saying last week that there was no objection in principle to the idea of oral hearings.

The Bill establishes a consultation process that the Government consider is already an improvement on the process set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. That Act allows one month for written representations followed by a local inquiry if objections are received from an interested local authority or from 100 or more electors. A further month for written representations follows where a commission revises its recommendations, with the discretion to hold a second public inquiry. The Bill extends the period for written representations from one month to 12 weeks, with a second period of 12 weeks where recommendations are revised.

However, as has been pointed out, the Bill as it stands removes the facility for local inquiries. Having considered the detail of the amendment, and recognising and acknowledging the spirit in which it was moved, our concern about its detail is that it effectively could reintroduce the current system of local inquiries, which, as my noble friend Lord Mawhinney indicated, has not always been the best means of conducting these matters. At least one inquiry in the previous general review lasted for 12 days, and a number of inquiries lasted for 10 days. I indicated last week why we did not wish to go down that particular road of public inquiries. However, we heard the points made that they could nevertheless be important safety valves. It was the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who said last week that an inquiry can be an opportunity for people to have their say. That is certainly something that we very much recognise.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I do not wish again to go over all the arguments made last week, including some of the academic arguments for and against the public inquiry system. However, I said last Wednesday that we had listened carefully to the concern of those who argue that there should be some oral element to the boundary review process. We have listened to the concerns of those who consider that this will be the first such review under the new arrangements—one of the points made by the noble and learned Lord in response to my reply last week—and in the review at which the Commons will first assume its new size, there ought to be some means by which the commission’s proposals can be presented publicly and debated in a public forum. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, encouraged me to go further than I did last week. I can assure not just her but the Committee that considerable discussion, consultation and consideration has been undertaken since last week.

I am in a position to say that the Government propose a public hearing process, enabling an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their view, and provide sensible discretion for the Boundary Commissions to ensure that the timetable for completion of the review by October 2013 is met. This obviously would be put in the Bill. This process can be carried out in a modern and efficient manner to meet the timetable.

I think and I hope that my reply is very much in the spirit of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. Perhaps I should remind the Committee that together with this—because it was very late last Wednesday—the Government have already said that we will, in addition, provide for an initial counter-representation stage. Nothing I have said today detracts from the concession we made to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, last week, whereby all written representations received during the period allowed for representations to be made on the commission’s initial proposals will be published, and there will follow four weeks for comments on the representations. Indeed, we would wish the public hearings to which I referred kick in upon publication of the initial Boundary Commission proposals. The proposal in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, emanated from recommendations from the British Academy report on the Bill, and we believe that it will provide scrutiny for the arguments put forward by others.

These two changes—a public hearing stage, aimed at improving public understanding and letting the public have their say in the process, and a counter-representation period—represent substantial changes to the proposals that were initially in the Bill. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have been willing to show considerable flexibility and a willingness to accommodate reasonable concerns, reasonably expressed. We remain very happy to discuss the detail of how these proposals will operate—obviously with the noble Baroness who has proposed her amendment and with the official Opposition. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness will, in the light of what I have said, feel able not to press their amendments.

My Lords, I very much thank the Minister for his words and for the spirit in which he expressed them. Before I perhaps comment on the detail, I also thank all noble Lords who supported my amendment. One of the major features was the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, when he said that there should undoubtedly be in the Bill some discretion for the Boundary Commission to do what it has to do, because it has a long history of doing some quite useful work.

What the Minister said about ensuring that there will be public hearings for political parties and the public is extremely important and very welcome. Indeed, that was what my amendment was aimed at. The facility and opportunity to express views is something that we should always cherish, and any opportunity to do so should be supported in any way possible.

I am particularly glad that the Minister feels that it is important that this process should kick in right at the start when the initial report is published by the Boundary Commission. That is also welcome. The words from the Minister, taking into account the long hours of discussion and negotiations—pleasant as many of them have been on all sides of the House— suggest that the Government have gone very far in meeting our requirements. I thank Members for their support and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 94A (to Amendment 94) withdrawn.

My Lords, having heard the debate and the Minister’s response on the amendment to my amendment, and to enable the Committee to consider other important amendments on the Order Paper, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 94 withdrawn.

House resumed.