Committee (1st Day)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, after a short glitch, the Hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
We now come to the Grand Committee on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. A participants’ list for the day’s proceedings has been published by the Government Whips’ Office, as have lists of Members who have put their names to the amendments or expressed an interest in speaking on each group. I will call Members to speak in the order listed; Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously. The Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted. During the debate on each group, I will invite Members, including Members in the Committee Room, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister, using the Grand Committee address. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time.
The groupings are binding: it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to move formally an amendment already debated should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Committee Room only. I remind Members that Divisions cannot take place in Grand Committee. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not Content”, an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part. If a Member taking part remotely intends to oppose an amendment expected to be agreed to, they should make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
Clause 1: Reports of the Boundary Commissions
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (2)
My Lords, it is an honour to move the very first amendment of the first Bill to be taken in Grand Committee in its hybrid form. It is an unexpected pleasure. I wish the Chair luck in dealing with this new configuration.
Amendment 1, which is also in the names of my noble friends Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott, simply re-establishes the existing practice whereby once the Boundary Commissions have done their work, Parliament puts it into legislation. Without this amendment, the Bill provides that the Boundary Commissions’ reviews will be implemented automatically by Order in Council, which, as we know, are not subject to parliamentary approval or any procedure.
There are four reasons to support this amendment. First, there has been no indication of any problem that the Bill seeks to solve with this change. There has been no pre-legislative consultation and no pre-legislative scrutiny of it. We have seen nothing of any debate with the commissions; there has been no suggestion of any demand for such a change and there has been no pre-discussion either with parliamentarians or the political parties, unless within the governing party itself.
Secondly, it is surely clear to the Committee that what happened last time was ample demonstration of the importance of parliamentary oversight to issues that might appear to be merely implementary, but in fact are constitutionally important. The coalition Government decided to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600, with no reason given for that number. At the same time, they were increasing the size of this House with more unelected politicians. No rationale was given for the number 600 and no account was taken of its implication for Scottish and Welsh seats, or for those in rural or geographically challenged areas. Unsurprisingly, it was, in effect, rejected by the House of Commons. Without that ability of Parliament to have the final say, we would today have only 600 MPs, perhaps with 50 former MPs becoming Peers in compensation. It is proof positive of the need to take the elected House with you when a Government are suddenly seized with an unsustainable notion.
Thirdly, it will be clear from other amendments tabled for today that there is some distrust about the proposed procedure and the ability of the Executive to retain an influence, which under the Bill they will still have, either by the timing of the Order in Council or by the composition of the Boundary Commissions. We might note, therefore, the amendments to be moved by the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Young of Cookham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, which we will deal with later.
Furthermore, although our Constitution Committee agrees in principle with the change, it particularly said that the proposed automatic implementation of recommendations of the Boundary Commissions will protect against undue influence only if they are genuinely independent. The committee therefore suggests that the House consider safeguards to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and their recommendations. We will come to specific proposals on this later, but the themes underlying this resonate with Amendments 1, 2, 5 to 9, and 12. In other words, both the Constitution Committee and these other amendments are in fact all part of a piece, that the Government—perhaps especially this Government—are capable of a certain flexibility when it comes to decisions that they might seek to influence. Their appointment of their friends—Tony Abbott or others whom I will mention in another group later—or the removal of those whose advice they do not like, and here I cite a swathe of Permanent Secretaries, in addition to the sad loss today of the head of the legal service, indicate a willingness to use subtle pressure to get what they want, or less than subtle pressure, as we witnessed over the attempted Prorogation, the threat to judicial review, and basically the attempt to sideline any whose advice or decisions get in their way. We do, therefore, have a concern that without absolute, very solid safeguards, the ability remains with the Government and not with Parliament.
Fourthly and lastly, there is a vital issue about the role of Parliament vis-à-vis that of a quango. I hear what our Constitution Committee says on that matter, and about the exclusion of Parliament. However, this is about the Executive vis-à-vis Parliament. It is about the Government removing a democratic backstop to an issue where decisions are not black and white but involve judgments, and—vitally—affect communities, devolution and regionalism. These are choices which Parliament cannot shrug off to unaccountable appointees, who may, as the Constitution Committee suggests, be looking to their reappointment.
In brief, we do not need this change. It was not requested; it has not been discussed; and it removes an important backstop role from Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, well done to those who have been involved in setting up this hybrid Grand Committee. It is an innovation and my mind boggles at how it is done. But, despite its wondrous characteristics, the sooner we get back to normal the better. As a very early speaker in this Committee, I want to make one constitutional point. There is one very unusual thing about today’s proceedings, which I accept because of the circumstances we are in. To my knowledge, there has never been a major constitutional Bill—which this is—held in Grand Committee. Such Bills are always held on the Floor of the House. One cannot imagine anything more fundamental to our constitution than the way MPs are elected and the areas that they represent. So I hope that this Committee may be the last of its kind and we can get back to the more usual practice of debating these Bills on the Floor of the House.
I have put my name to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayter in the full knowledge that she would explain them lucidly and leave me little to do. I am sure she has been comprehensive enough even for Lord Tyler who, I am sure, will be listening and will have heard what she said. I will add, with some strength of feeling, to a couple of the points that my noble friend made. The first relates to the huge importance of Parliament having an ultimate say in the Boundary Commission’s recommendations and their implementation. The Government will deal with this later, but it is also relevant to this clause. The Government will argue that they are taking power from Parliament and the Government and giving it to an Order in Council which is absolutely neutral. I am afraid that that is not very accurate language. When the commission’s report is finally sent to the Order in Council is a matter for a government Minister. So, if the Bill goes through unamended, it will, effectively, transfer the final word from Parliament to Government. We can argue about that, but let us at least argue as if we were on a level playing field and understand what is actually being done.
As my noble friend has said, if there was ever an argument for Parliament having a crucial role in these kinds of decision, it is the fiasco of what happened when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was being considered in 2011. The Government were hell-bent on reducing the number of MPs by 50. Anyone who knew anything would know that that would lead to worse parliamentary representation and MPs with bigger constituencies. I speak with some feeling on this. Once upon a time, I had a constituency with an electorate of 100,000; at another, I had one with an electorate of 57,000. Believe me, the level of service you can give to a large constituency is much lower than that which you can give to a smaller one. So it was tremendous that Parliament exerted its authority and stopped the Government in their tracks. If they had only had the sense to see their mistake then, we would have had a new Boundary Commission long ago—probably two since 2011—and we would not be having to catch up now, with such a long gap between Boundary Commission reports. If anyone is an expert on parliamentary constituencies, it is Members of Parliament, and this is a parliamentary constituency Bill.
There is something I would like to know, and it is not just out of idle curiosity. Although we cannot ever bind them, it is important that no future Government ever try again unilaterally to reduce the number of MPs. If that were happening anywhere else in the world, we would say it was shocking. The Government have, fortunately, had a Damascus-road conversion from a position in 2011 when a Conservative-led Government decided to reduce the number of MPs, to now, when they have seen the error of their ways and it is back to 650. Thank heaven for that; I congratulate them. However, I would like to hear from the Minister when he responds some reason why that change of heart took place. How soundly based and rooted is it? How confident can we be that there will be no future attempts to reduce numbers of MPs during this Parliament? Are they convinced by the argument rather than by party advantage, which was the overwhelming reason why they tried to reduce the number in 2011?
With that final, minor, sour note, this is a genuine request for the Minister to give the Committee his version of why it is now important to have 650, rather than 600 MPs. That being said, I am pleased to support these amendments.
My Lords, I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has just said about the use of Grand Committee for this stage of a very important constitutional Bill.
I have listened with great interest to the arguments of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for these changes to the Bill. The noble Baroness’s most formidable reflection on the previous legislation reinforces our concern for careful parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill, not of the eventual recommendations of the commission. I can best sum up the current view of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in both Houses on these amendments, and the opposition to Clauses 2 and 3, as sceptical and unconvinced. The Labour Party has got to persuade your Lordships’ House that the proper last word, however limited, on constituency boundary changes should be left to the Government of the day—after all, that is what is being said here: the party with a current majority in the House of Commons—rather than trust the independence and integrity of the non-partisan statutory bodies tasked with this delicate democratic exercise.
Quite apart from the element of MPs “marking their own homework”, in the colloquial phrase, this does not sound very realistic. If the suggestion is that it would not work like that, the recent experience of No. 10’s approach to constitutional convention and propriety, to which the noble Baroness referred, would surely suggest otherwise. Just look at the outrageous attack on the Electoral Commission. Even the timing of the tabling for approval by Parliament could become highly politicised. Crafty delaying tactics could be employed, as we will be discussing shortly.
We were delighted to be supported in these views by the forthright report last week of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, to which reference has been made. I want to read out the first two, key findings:
“The removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations is constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome … automatic implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations will only protect against undue political influence if they are themselves genuinely independent.”
Amen to both. I note that the current chair of that formidable, important and highly respected Select Committee is the noble friend of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott: the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton. I know from my experience of working with her in the other House when she was Leader of the House and then Chief Whip that she does not suffer fools gladly. I therefore highly respect the conclusion that the committee has come to under her chairmanship. We wholeheartedly endorse those recommendations.
As long as the commissions are permitted to undertake this important job without fear or favour by the Government of the day, or anyone else for that matter, they should surely be given every encouragement to get on with it. As long as each of the four Boundary Commissions is given a truly appropriate operational framework by this legislation, it would be both constitutionally preferable and a great deal more practical to leave the responsibilities as set out in the Bill.
However, that surely requires the Government to see sense on the danger posed by the very tight straitjacket permitting the commissions only a 5% variance on the constituency electorate norm. We will come back to this core concern later. For the time being, I ask the Minister to note that no fewer than 20 Peers who spoke at Second Reading, from all sides of the House, expressed concern about those restrictions. If the Government prove obdurate on this issue, we may have to reconsider our attitude on Report, but for the time being we are not persuaded to support this group of amendments.
My Lords, parliamentary boundaries seem to have been at the heart of my political life. Legislation concerning alteration of constituency boundaries has always been a challenge for constituencies, as close friendships are formed and jealously guarded, but it is always in the knowledge that boundary review adjustments can frequently be made and even new constituencies created—I live in one myself: Kenilworth and Southam, which was new in 2010 and sends councillors to three different councils.
It was in the run-up to the 1970 election that I first came upon boundary reviews. I had just become a senior officer in the constituency and wanted to make sure that we did everything correctly. Ever since then, I seem to have been around when reviews have come up. However, opposition parties—obviously, under different Administrations—have by clever ruses thwarted efforts to give the country proper representation. The last occasion was in 2013, when Sir Nick Clegg and his party’s gerrymandering altered the date of implementation to 2018. Now we are left with constituencies ranging in size from 21,200 to 111,400. It is monstrous that we are working from registers that are 20 years old.
Development has changed the landscape in the past 20 years, so it is essential that the review takes place as soon as possible. We must ensure that, once the report has been published, it cannot be held back in any way. The country must not be defrauded again. There must be automaticity so that the Bill is enacted as soon as possible. I would be happy for the report to be sent to both the Secretary of State and the Speaker simultaneously—after all, a highly charged Speaker could withhold it for any period if it were left to him or her alone. I just hope and pray that this Bill will finally give the people of this country, before the next election, the fair and automatic changes that have been needed for so many years.
My Lords, I share the view that it is ridiculous—in fact, quite improper—that this legislation is being dealt with in a Grand Committee. Constitutional Bills are not usually dealt with in this way, so I go along with that view very strongly.
I shall raise in speaking to my own amendments later on a number of other matters relating to the importance of the link between a Member and their constituency. I am concerned by the total preoccupation with arithmetic and size—getting it absolutely right, getting the balance and the numbers absolutely right—which forgets about the importance of MPs representing their constituencies and not being just a pawn of the Prime Minister or the leader of their party here in Westminster. Trying to get the arithmetic right leads to a preoccupation with frequent changes, which again seem not to have much to do with proper representation of the people in a Parliament.
There are a lot of ex-Members of Parliament here who will recall the trauma of boundary changes and going along to boundary hearings. My former leader, John Smith—much respected—was so concerned about the boundaries in his constituency that the day before he sadly died, he was at a boundary hearing in Lanark in relation to his constituency. He wanted to be there in person because it is such an important matter for Members of Parliament.
However, like my noble friend Lady Hayter, I am suspicious about the motivations behind the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, explain the U-turn and why the Government now think that 650 is the right number, having pushed strongly for 600. If I recall rightly, some people here used to argue strongly in favour of 600, so perhaps they could explain why the U-turn and why 650—and why particularly 650 and not 649 or 651? The Boundary Commissions came to the conclusion that, because of community links, it was better have more or fewer constituencies to get the communities right. Why make it absolutely 650? I do not understand the preoccupation with that particular number.
Seeing some former Ministers here, I know that they will recall, as I do vividly, that Governments are not Governments for ever—thankfully so in the current case—and they eventually become Oppositions. It is important to recognise—I say this particularly to the younger Members on the government side here today, if there are some—that, one day, they will be on the Opposition Benches, so they need to think about the implications of this legislation for when that time comes.
When I was Minister of State for Scotland and my noble friend Lady Liddell was Secretary of State, she received the report of the Boundary Commission and put it immediately, without any changes or alterations, to Parliament for approval. She said, “George, it is my duty to do so.” That was an exemplary decision and an example that I would hope other Secretaries of State might follow.
I have great pleasure, therefore, in supporting the amendments put forward by my noble friend Lady Hayter, and look forward to a perhaps more spirited discussion on Report if we do not get some decent replies and explanations from the Minister.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Grocott explained perfectly how well my noble friend Lady Hayter introduced this set of amendments. She took us through the main issues and the main points within them. I wish to emphasise just a couple of issues that my noble friend Lord Foulkes touched on at the end of his speech.
British politics is cyclical. Removing proper parliamentary scrutiny is not just wrong but could prove to be a very short-sighted action by this Government. Empowering the Executive over Parliament raises issues and concerns. If this was the only change brought forward in the Bill, we would be questioning it and raising issues with it, but what makes it more concerning is that it is coupled with other changes that make it harder to have that democratic oversight: the timetabling of any future changes—we will be discussing later the 5% that has been mentioned—and the nominating process for the Boundary Commission.
Boundary Commission recommendations deserve a democratic parliamentary backstop. These are judgment issues: major constitutional issues and changes that could be implemented around the parliamentary landscape. Although MPs, political parties and communities can feed into the earlier stages of the Boundary Commission review, the full oversight of all the packages across the different nations really takes place only when they enter Parliament itself.
We have heard that the Commons would now have 600 MPs if we had the system proposed in the Bill. What happens if the Prime Minister of the day decides that 600 is not right, and that 200, 300 or 1,000 MPs are needed? Not having full parliamentary oversight and decision-making power on would just not be right. Like my noble friends who have spoken, therefore, I am more than happy to support these amendments and look forward to the Minister’s comments and response.
My Lords, the speeches by my colleagues before I was called have left me very little to say that is fresh, but I will try to make some new points, if that is possible.
My first point is that I am instinctively opposed to what the Government are trying to do here—to take this issue out of Parliament’s hands—mainly because I see it as part of the general trend of what the Johnson premiership is doing to Britain. It sees Brexit, and the constitutional changes resulting from Brexit, as an opportunity to strengthen the power of the Executive, and not to bring power back to Parliament, which was what the leave people argued for in the referendum. Across the board we see—for example in the Trade Bill and the Immigration Bill—a concentration of power in the Executive, with Parliament having less say than before. This is a deplorable trend, and it is not giving power back to the people.
My second point is that what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has said about the need for impartial consideration of constituency boundaries, and what the Constitution Committee says about this proposal being appropriate, would be all very well if one felt that one could trust this Executive to behave impartially. The way in which the Government have behaved since the December general election gives one no confidence that they will behave in a decent and impartial way, so why should we give them this power that they currently do not have?
I also believe that there has been inadequate consideration of the Bill, in the Commons and in our own House as a result of the way we are now dealing with the Bill, of the very big issues that it raises. If you apply a strict population basis to representation in this country, you will gradually see a shift in political power to London and the south-east, where most voters are. The Government decided to opt for 650 Members rather than 600 because they were deeply aware of the fact that the redistribution is likely to see a shift of representation from the north of England to the south, and that with the new “red wall” MPs who have been elected, a further reduction in the number of MPs would lead to very considerable party problems for the Conservative Party in the north of England, where it has just won representation.
We ought to be taking a bigger look at these issues. Representation is not just a feature of the arithmetical equality of the size of constituencies; it is also about whether, within a union such as the United Kingdom, all parts are fairly represented. I deeply regret that the numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs are being reduced—when the debate about the union’s future is becoming critical, this is a grave mistake.
Similarly, within England, we need to think about the balancing of power between the regions of the country. My noble friend Lord Foulkes and I would probably agree that we would like to see this done through reform of the upper House—but, while we cannot achieve this, it is a bad political and constitutional mistake for the Government to go down the road of strict arithmetic equality. The different parts of the United Kingdom have to be decently represented.
So I support these amendments, for the fundamental reason that you cannot trust this Executive to behave fairly.
My Lords, as someone who tried to be a constitutional lawyer when I was a law officer, I agree entirely with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Grocott and others that a constitutional Bill should not be handled by this Committee. I had a hand in proposing a number of devolution Bills rather a long time ago, and they were all taken on the Floor of the Commons and, in due course, on the Floor of this House.
I wish to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Hayter. I hope that I am not given to extraordinary language. As a lawyer, one should be moderate in the use of words, if one is to have any effect on a tribunal. In my Second Reading speech, I referred to the proposals for Wales, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, a few minutes ago. I shall not go on about them; I will come back to them in due course. I hope that I am not too extravagant in my language but, as I see it, what is happening plainly in this Bill is gerrymandering on a huge scale. It is the second time that Governments have sought dramatically to reduce the number of Welsh MPs, all with the aim of reducing Labour representation, since we have been the majority party in Wales since 1905. There is no regard in the Bill for continuity, ties with local authorities or particular problems in south Wales, where communication is down the valleys and not across huge mountains.
I strongly believe that decisions so far as possible should be as distanced as one can from political Ministers. This reduces the temptation to gerrymander. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the former Lord Chief Justice, has a very helpful amendment in which he seeks to replace the Lord Chancellor with the Lord Chief Justice in the Bill. I will support him and will expand on my remarks in due course. The purpose is to reduce and remove political interest, because the Lord Chancellor is very much a political animal. As Secretary of State, I tried to be impartial; whether I succeeded is not for me to judge but for others. But one had a whole range of appointments to make, from chairmen of quangos to submissions of appointment to Lord Lieutenant and managing the honours list. One tried one’s best, and a diverse number of people, including ex-Conservative Ministers and ex-eminent Liberal MPs, were appointed to my quangos. I hope that I succeeded. I may not have done as much as I would have hoped to do, but I did my best.
It is of fundamental importance to the golden thread of fair representation in this House to ensure that there is independence and no political influence, and that the day-to-day management of electoral commissions is done by deputy boundary commissioners. I have appeared professionally before such bodies, and I applaud the experience and fairness of distinguished silks who know what they are about and do their best. I am not aware of any conflict of interest. But we should have all the time in the forefront of our minds when considering the Bill that there should be independence, there should be respect for the decisions, and they should be generally acceptable.
My Lords, before I pick up on the specific question of automaticity, I will pick up on one or two comments made by other noble Lords during this discussion. In relation to the timetabling and inadequate consideration, I have sympathy with that view but, given the timing process that one faces in terms of completing a full boundary review, a timetable must be set so the Boundary Commissions from the different countries can go through that due process. In terms of timetabling, that process is set out and, in fact, in this particular piece of legislation, had the agreement of the Electoral Commission and the other Boundary Commissions as well as the other political parties involved in the discussion. The slight foreshortening of the timetable has been agreed, but it means that we need to complete the legislation within a certain timescale. I have sympathy as to whether this should be considered in Grand Committee or on the Floor of the House—no question about that—but the circumstances we face are somewhat different.
When talking about inadequate consideration, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, also talked about trusting or not trusting the Executive. This clause takes the power away from the Government and gives it to the Boundary Commissions in the different countries.
Just as an aside, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made reference to reducing numbers of politicians without any hesitation. It may reflect that I am a sad git, really, but I turned up the extract from the BBC for October 2019. At Second Reading, I said that we should have fewer politicians, not more. On 19 October, Italy voted to reduce its lower House from 630 to 400. Significantly, it also voted to reduce its upper House from 315 to 200, and that is in the process of being implemented.
I seek guidance—and it may be that the Minister can clarify this now or at some other point. I read the Constitution Committee’s report somewhat differently. Paragraph 4, which I have in front of me, says:
“The removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations is constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome.”
Others have cited it, but that seemed to me to be an indication that it was acceptable.
And acceptable it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to whom I always listen with great care, referred to the fact that there had been no discussion—but this is not a constitutional aberration. As the Minister said, in his response at Second Reading, it operates in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I pointed out to him after the debate that it also operates in India. This is a process that has worked for decades in a large number of countries, and there has been no objection. The run-up to the New Zealand election is going on at the moment, and there has been no objection that I have been able to trace.
I had discussions some 10 years ago when, I am afraid, it is probably my fault that I coined the word “automaticity”. I was in discussions with the then Australian commissioner about the Australian process. It works well in Australia, New Zealand and other countries. I have checked with Tom Rogers, the current Australian electoral commissioner, and I thank them both for their help in relation to the details of the process. So this is not some constitutional aberration that does not exist and has not operated anywhere else.
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, raised the question, quite reasonably, of changing the numbers—from 650 to 600, or some other number—but that would still have to go through primary legislation. I have here the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, to which there has been reference. All those considerations would have to be made to change the existing primary legislation—and, significantly, this is the process that one is following, which leads up to automaticity. We have a judge-led commission process. There is a series of stages that one goes through, which under the current legislation, on page 11 of the Act, are bound by the factors in Section 5. You have to follow certain guidelines. Clearly, if the commissions failed to follow those guidelines as outlined in the rules, it would be perfectly reasonable for somebody to go to court and say that they had not followed those rules—any of the Boundary Commissions. We will come back to certain other elements as well. But it is a judge-led process; it is not some process that has been thought up and is part of a government appointment. It is fully independent. On the actual discussions, I have not heard anything so far that persuades me that automaticity should not be adopted. It is a perfectly reasonable process.
What is significant about the discussions and the comments that we have had so far is that while people have referred to the efforts of the aborted reviews and the associated legislation, not one person has referred to 1969 or 1983, which saw specific attempts by government to interfere with the final stage of the process. This clause and set of clauses find another way whereby Governments cannot interfere with the process. There are quotes in relation to 1969, in particular, in which members of that Government acknowledge that they were operating on a constitutionally unsound basis.
As far as I am concerned, we have here a process that is tested in other countries. It is independent. It goes through a whole series of stages of independence and due consideration. It operates within a set of principles outlined in the existing legislation. There is clear evidence that Governments have interfered with the process on previous occasions and therefore it is appropriate that we should remove that from the system and introduce something that has been constitutionally tested in other countries.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, might also refer to what happened when he left in 1992, when the then Conservative Government more or less doubled expenditure on the Boundary Commissions in order to expedite the process and to try to bring forward a review earlier than might otherwise have been the case in an attempt to save their skins. People might say that it did them a fat lot of good in 1997 but it was an attempt by a then Conservative Government to alter the process.
I am inclined to disagree with these amendments in principle, but I may be willing to support them if the same kinds of flaws remain in the Bill as were contained in the previous legislation from 2011. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that it was with the aim of preventing gerrymandering and because of these flaws that I was one of the movers of the crucial amendment in the House of Lords that halted the boundary review in 2013. A cross-party group in the House won approval for our amendment and this then achieved a clear majority in the Commons, which had the effect of blocking the implementation of that review. I have no regrets at all about that.
The Bill before us now is better in many respects than the one introduced at the beginning of the coalition. The plan for 600 MPs was a bad one when the so-called payroll vote remained so large. Reducing the number of MPs, while maintaining the same number of Ministers, Whips and PPSs, would have given greater power to the Executive and weakened the legislature when we should be moving in the opposite direction. That problem is addressed by retaining the number of MPs at 650. This change will also reduce—at least marginally —the disruption involved with boundary reorganisation and which is proposed to be every eight years, as opposed to every five, although perhaps 10 would be better.
However, two significant problems remain with the Bill and they are relevant to these amendments. If not addressed, I think that Parliament should still be given the final say over implementation. The first problem relates to electoral registration. The Electoral Commission has reported that 9 million people may be missing from, or inaccurately included on, the electoral registers. This is a very high proportion given that the registers contain around 47 million names. The potential figure of perhaps 6 million people completely missing from the registers is far higher than was suggested to Parliament when it approved the 2011 legislation, and the missing millions obviously greatly distort the work of drawing up boundaries properly. I await with interest the Government’s response to the discussion on Amendments 11 and 24 relating to automatic voter registration.
The second major flaw with the process proposed is that it is unnecessarily disruptive. Whether inadvertently or otherwise, it will allow for small population changes in one constituency to trigger massive changes in many others throughout the remainder of the relevant English region, or in Scotland, or Wales, not just in neighbouring constituencies. This problem can be addressed, as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee concluded in its excellent report in March 2015, by allowing perhaps 7.5% or 8% flexibility. A little more flexibility in the 5% margin allowed for variation to the quota for each constituency would enable more natural constituencies with sensible boundaries to be created, with fewer constituencies proposed that cross county boundaries, for example. Perhaps more importantly, more flexibility would help ensure that the entire map of constituencies is not ripped up whenever a review takes place. The Government should note that the Liberal Democrats are not under the same constraints as in 2011 to support aspects of the Bill such as the principle of 5%—which was very nearly changed to 10% to secure the passage of the Bill, but the compromise was not made.
A good process, with fair rules, using independent commissioners, should not be halted, varied, or expedited according to the whim of the party which can control a parliamentary majority. However, when so many people are not included properly in the electoral registers and there is the likelihood that the process will be unnecessarily disruptive in a way that would particularly disappoint many good constituency MPs, the case remains for Parliament having the final say.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on automaticity. It has been a very interesting debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott, for tabling the amendments that have helped us have this debate.
I need not remind the Committee of the shape and purpose of the amendments—it is well aware of those. It has been explicitly stated that the amendments seek to retain the present position where Parliament can intervene and frustrate the intention of the Government and, indeed, the intention of the House of Commons, as resolved on examination of this legislation, to go for automaticity.
I note that most noble Lords who spoke against the proposals were from the Opposition. I was not persuaded by many of the reasons that they put forward. I note and welcome the support of the Liberal Democrats who spoke in favour of automaticity, although I note—as I was asked to by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—that this is conditional. They support this principle now, but they might change their minds by Report. I will be interested to understand how they turn on its head the fundamental principle that there should not be political interference with the electoral process. I hope—I am sure—that they will continue to support the principle of automaticity.
Noble Lords have raised other important issues in this debate, some of which we will discuss later today and some on subsequent occasions. I assure the Committee that I will be listening carefully to all the points that come forward.
I support the principle of automaticity. I hope it is recognised that I am a staunch supporter of Parliament and its role—and your Lordships’ role—in scrutinising and agreeing the laws by which we live. I suppose my gut instinct is that Parliament gives up so much. Some have said, “Is it not a good thing that Parliament should be involved?”, that we parliamentarians always have a right to reject. While it perhaps goes against my instinctive grain to let go of that opportunity, in this instance I believe that we should not follow those instincts and that there is more to be gained for the citizen by us letting go, as was movingly expounded by my noble friend Lady Seccombe.
Boundary reviews exist for one purpose: to ensure that electors are fairly represented in our democratic system and in this Parliament. When electors cast their votes at a general election, it is the boundary review that ensures that those votes carry the same weight. When those electors seek the support or advice of their MPs—the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was interesting on this—it is the boundary review that ensures that the access they have is fair and reasonable. With an enormous constituency it is harder to give such a good service, as the noble Lord said.
Without regular boundary reviews that come to full fruition, the citizen cannot have confidence that their vote is equal and their representation fair. That is the purpose of this Government. There has been a lot of suspicion expressed about the Executive. The aim of the Government is to take politics out of it and ensure that the system is fair and above political interference. The current affirmative parliamentary procedure allows for interference. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said there was no evidence of any problem that needed solving. My noble friend Lord Hayward, among others, referred to the case in 1969, when Mr Callaghan attempted to bring in new legislation to suspend the alteration to constituencies proposed by the Boundary Commissions. That met opposition in your Lordships’ House. It was lost. The orders were laid before the Commons on 12 November 1969, but the Government moved that they be not moved—a notorious case of political interference. Noble Lords have referred to other, more recent occasions and have alleged different forms of interference by different parties in different ways. I believe that this is a sensible step. It puts parliamentarians—and, I hope, the Government—beyond temptation. I hope that it will also deliver a system where the citizen will no longer suffer from outdated boundaries, unequal votes and public funds spent on reviews that do not see the light of day.
I agree with much of the powerful speech by my noble friend Lord Hayward, who has great experience in these matters. The truth is that we have excellent and independent Boundary Commissions, which work according to robust, thorough and consultative processes. We want to keep it that way. I know your Lordships wish to discuss that issue later. The Boundary Commissions’ record is of careful work. There is nothing slapdash about it. It is painstaking and fully framed by primary legislation that Parliament will always be able to decide.
Reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and others, to changing the number of MPs and whether that might be possible. As my noble friend Lord Hayward pointed out, that would require primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others asked whether maintaining the 650 as now was the settled intention of the Government. It is the settled intention of the Government, which is why this legislation has been presented. People spoke of a U-turn. It was not always comfortable. Earlier in the 2010s we had a coalition Government and now we have a Conservative Government presenting this legislation and intending to stand by this number.
Since the coalition Government decided on the reduction to 600, our population has grown, we have left the European Union, and significant areas of policy-making and lawmaking are coming back to all the legislatures of the union, including this Parliament. It is widely agreed in those circumstances that the Bill’s provision for retaining 650 constituencies is right.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, referred to gerrymandering and the risk of executive power—“We don’t trust this Government”, et cetera. I am always sad when people say that. I like to believe that we in your Lordships’ House trust each other and the words we put across in debate. But it is the Government’s contention that this provision actually safeguards the independence of the process.
My noble friend Lord Hayward reminded us again that there is nothing unusual about this internationally. He did indeed come up to me after Second Reading to point out the other great nation—apart from Australia, Canada and New Zealand—which has this policy and has no difficulty with it.
I hope that, on reflection, the great Labour Party, which has always fought for the equality of the common man, will come to join us—and, at least temporarily, the Liberal Democrats who have spoken—in believing that this temptation should be taken away from the sticky hands of politicians and the process given to the Boundary Commission. We learned today the word—some of us have been rude about it but now we must all be polite about it—“automaticity”, invented by my noble friend Lord Hayward. Let no one ever again criticise that new word.
There are issues we will discuss in later amendments —as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, legitimately said at the start, there are issues we need to worry at on the Bill—but I hope that on the broad principle I have been able to persuade the Committee that this is a sensible constitutional reform. Indeed it is, as was said by two of the noble Lords who spoke. In conclusion, I remind the Committee of the words of our own Constitution Committee:
“The removal of Parliament’s power to block … is constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome.”
In that light, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I start by thanking the Minister but also the former Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott; the former law officer, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris; the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and the others I am going to mention, for their contribution to this debate.
First, I have some bad news for the noble Lord, Lord Hayward: he did not invent “automaticity”. It was used for the allocation of the seats on the TUC, of which I was supportive, but I confess that it was part of the grubby deal. We shall have to read the book to see the details. He may have applied it here, but I am really sorry, it is not his original term, although it is quite useful.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, says that automaticity is reasonable if one trusts the Government—I may have added “if” in rather strong language, but that is important. My noble friend Lord Foulkes says he is suspicious of the motivation behind this. I think my noble friend Lord Liddle is right when he talks about what else is going on—what is the environment that has led to the change to remove the parliamentary say?
I hope the stuff I am getting on my other devices is not accurate, but we are hearing from the press that Brandon Lewis has admitted that the Northern Ireland protocol proposals would indeed breach international law. Obviously, we saw the resignation of a senior legal officer earlier today. Asking us at this moment to trust the Government and all their motivations is quite a hard ask. Therefore, the ability of this mother of all Parliaments to have its final say is important.
Orders in Council, which are the suggestion in the Bill, are pretty rare. I have been involved in them in changing the name of a university and with an organisation gaining chartered status. I think the noble Lord, Lord True, kindly sent me a couple of other examples, but no others have actually involved major constitutional issues. I think my noble friend Lord Grocott said, although others did as well, that these are constitutional issues. How MPs are to represent their constituencies as well as their constituents—we will come on to that; I dealt with it at Second Reading—is an important constitutional issue. It is not simply a technical one.
I am very pleased that we have had this discussion in Committee, because it will enable the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, to look at whether the Government will move on their other amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, could think about supporting this to retain the parliamentary role if other changes are not made. Although the noble Lord, Lord True, quotes from the Constitution Committee report, there is the word “however”—and I think it is in bold. Our colleagues suggest that there should be changes to absolutely ensure the independence of the Boundary Commission. Even there, although it says that it is constitutionally acceptable, there is a big “however”.
As colleagues will have gathered, the Opposition do not support having the automaticity of Boundary Commission recommendations becoming law with no parliamentary intervention. The noble Lord, Lord True, always treats our amendments very seriously. He said that I have not persuaded him, but I am afraid he has also failed to convince me of the need for this change. Clearly, we will look at what response is given to the other amendments, but we might need to return to this on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “2031” and insert “2033”
My Lords, I am very pleased to speak to my Amendments 2 and 3 to Clause 1 regarding expanding the Boundary Commission review period from eight to 10 years. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has already indicated his agreement with this. It would mean that after the 2023 report, the commission would no longer need to conduct another review until 2033. I have a number of reasons for this, and I will go through them all.
The first is that it will actually chime more coherently with electoral cycles across the United Kingdom, both for the devolved nations and for local and regional elections. Scottish Parliament elections are now every five years. Although I understand that we might be moving away from a fixed-term Parliament here, it is normally the case that Parliaments last between four and five years. To have such frequent Boundary Commission reviews causes great disruption, as I hope I am about to explain.
I thought that I had asked to speak after the Minister on the previous group, but perhaps I did not email the right address. The Minister argued very strongly —I think this was his main argument—that everyone’s vote should have equal weight. That is what I call the arithmetists’ argument when we come to boundary reviews. Is not the logical conclusion of that to move towards some form of proportional representation? That would seem the basis of his argument. I am not in favour of proportional representation because I am very strongly in favour of individual Members representing constituencies. That is the argument for these amendments and for further ones that I have later on.
The Tories—sorry, the Conservative Government—now seem to see the Commons’ main, if not sole, function as being an electoral college to elect the Prime Minister. After that MPs can sit back, pick up a directorship or consultancy here or there and go about other business, and Mr Cummings, with the help of Mr Johnson—let us get it the right way round—will continue to run the country. Well, that is not my understanding of what Members of Parliament should be. When my noble friend Lord Cormack—I call him my noble friend—was a Member of Parliament, I remember that he was a very active constituency Member. The number of times I heard about Lincoln—was it Lincoln?
It was Staffordshire then.
Where was the cathedral, then?
That is in Lincoln.
Yes, we kept hearing about the cathedral. But I also kept hearing about his constituency. He was a very active constituency Member of Parliament.
Representing a community is important. I have later amendments that will come round to this on community ties being more important than arithmetic. I have seen one side of a street being in one constituency and the other in another just to satisfy the arithmetists. There have been all sorts of crazy boundaries just to get these numbers right.
My job as an MP, as those here who are ex-MPs will know, was to represent the people. We were not just lobby fodder for our parties. I used to go to meetings with pensioners and all sorts of other groups. I went to schools, received petitions and held surgeries in 25 places around Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. You build up a rapport with your constituents. Because of that rapport, sometimes, when there is a major issue, you consider whether it is important to put your constituents before the party. I have done it, and I know others have. We are able to do that. That rapport needs to be built up over a number of years. That is why I think five years is ridiculous—eight years is equally unsatisfactory—and why I am moving an amendment to 10 years. Of course populations change in different constituencies, but there are swings and roundabouts. Some parties will lose on the swings and gain on the roundabouts, and vice versa. To change so speedily just to get the arithmetic right seems wrong.
I was elected in 1979 and I went straight into a boundary review. It was changed in 1983 and I got added to it. It made my seat safer, by the way. It was not too bad, but it was a difficult period going through that. However, the Boundary Commission changed the name from South Ayrshire to Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. I suggested that it would be easier for the people I represented to keep the same name, but the commission would not accept that. It was crazy that it would not. I do not know how that helps my argument, but it is an interesting anecdote. Mind you, I came to like Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley as a name. It is very evocative.
We make special cases in the Bill for Orkney, rightly, for Shetland and the Western Isles, and now for the Isle of Wight, because they are islands. I can see that argument but it means we have some very small constituencies, so I do not know where the Minister’s point about equal weight comes in as far as those are concerned. If the Government are to take account of the fact that they are islands, why can they not take account of sparsity? There are a few Members here who used to represent parts of Scotland. There are huge constituencies in the Highlands and Islands, which used to be represented by people such as Charlie Kennedy. He did brilliantly as a Member but it was a huge job to get around the whole of his constituency. There is not enough account taken of these community differences. Very often, where it is so obvious that a river, a major road or a mountain range should be the boundary, the Boundary Commission takes no account of it because it wants to get the arithmetic right.
I will argue that case on a later amendment. However, the reason for having 10 years rather than eight is to give some stability for the Member of Parliament to get to know her or his constituency—to become acquainted with it and have the support of their constituents—and to be able to come to the House of Commons as a representative, not a party hack. That is a very important thing. It would give them much more power individually. I hope that other Members of the Committee will consider it and that, at a later stage if not today, we will perhaps have a vote on it. Meanwhile, I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted once again to find myself in broad support of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It is almost embarrassing to find myself in his company because we do not always agree, but on this occasion I have a strong reason for doing so. Before I get to the specific point on extending the period from eight years to 10 years, which I broadly endorse, I want to pick up the point he made about the wonderful and unexpected commitment of the noble Lord, Lord True, to equal value for equal votes—I hope I quote him correctly—and for making the system entirely fair in that respect. It would inevitably lead to a better system of elections, because the present system is ludicrously unfair and does not give equal weight to equal votes.
In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about the individual representation of individual constituencies, I never saw a problem in being an elected Liberal Democrat Member for one part of Cornwall, while recognising that Liberal Democrats in other parts of Cornwall would no doubt welcome multimember seats for the whole area, so that everybody would be better represented in political support, as well as individual local support. It is not necessarily a contradiction to be strongly in favour of local representation but, at the same time, of multimember proportional representation.
I was extremely proud to be a Member of Parliament for North Cornwall. Indeed, I think that I was the longest-serving Member for North Cornwall since the seat was founded in 1919, if only by a few months, as there have been frequent changes there. Nevertheless, I have a long family tradition connecting me with that part of Cornwall. I was told, by my mother in particular, that my ancestors arrived in north Cornwall in 1066, so the connection was strong. I was very proud that even though the electorate had grown to 87,000 by the time I retired in 2005—it was then redistributed within a big change of all the boundaries in Cornwall—I think I was nevertheless able to give good service. I do not find this argument about the size variance so persuasive that we have to stick to a very narrow margin. We will of course come back to that later in the Committee’s consideration.
The key issue that noble Lords have referred to, so far as I am concerned, is that if you do the calculation on a narrow basis—and too often—you create a degree of disruption which is entirely inimical to taking full account of the interests of the communities concerned and their integrity. It is not just for the convenience of the elected Member, which noble Lords referred to; it is for the communities themselves, if they constantly have to face disruption. That is surely the issue we should address and it is not properly addressed in the present Bill. It is not just about the eight-year cycle. There is also the issue of the very narrow variance, to which several of us have already referred this afternoon. That will come back as the core issue for the whole of the Bill.
I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said about the balance between more remote constituencies in some parts of the United Kingdom and those in London and the south-east. I am sure he is right, particularly if it is combined with a degree of rurality, where the geography makes it difficult for the communities concerned and their elected representative to communicate effectively with each other. That is extremely important, and therefore an additional reason why we have to approach with care the too frequent and massive disruption from relatively small-scale changes in the electorate. That would clearly be the case if the Bill went through in its current form. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is absolutely right on that point.
Given what my noble friend Lord Rennard said in the previous debate about the missing 9 million, I also emphasise that if we find that that figure is still there as these current proposed Boundary Commission examinations go forward, we will also find some very curious results coming out. That would be another argument for taking this a bit more slowly and trying to improve the degree of registration—automatic registration, I hope—as my noble friend said. We therefore cannot rush this process, only then to find it is way out of date.
The key issue in the Bill is surely to give people confidence that it is not going to be a rushed job—a job which does not fully take account of local circumstances, or which creates new and artificial boundaries, or which has a salami effect where one constituency is slightly out of kilter and a number of others in that part of the country therefore have to be changed too. Once the newly elected 2019 entrants to the House of Commons recognise the dangers of having too quick, too narrow and badly considered boundary changes, I believe that they too will take our view that this will be a mistake and moving in the wrong direction.
I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and to commend my noble friend Lord Foulkes on his two entertaining speeches this afternoon. They were both extensive and informative: I know more about the change of name in south Ayrshire than is good for me, but he made some extremely useful points. I did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, had relatives who invaded Britain in 1066, which is another revelation.
I am joining in because this emphasis on numeric equality is dangerous. Just like the algorithm which was applied to examinations this year, it places a particular imperative at the centre when it should often be ancillary. It is clear that on boundaries, with the exceptions already enunciated about islands on the edges of the UK, you cannot have constituencies with vast disparities of numbers. Equally, to have in place a tight numeric value and therefore a restriction on the commission being able to take into account sensible, logical community-related issues is a nonsense.
By the way, we ought to note—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will correct me if I am wrong—that quite a lot of boundary changes have taken place over the last 20 years. My own former constituency was substantially expanded in 2010 on the back of local authority re-warding boundary changes, which often take place in this country. The devolved Parliaments have also seen such changes.
I want to make just a couple of points. The first has already been made but needs re-emphasising. Large rural areas are a major challenge and the numerics are less important than the ability of the Member of Parliament truly to represent those areas.
Secondly, at the opposite end, inner-city constituencies are incredibly difficult to represent. I remember having a conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, whose friendship over the years I have really valued, about his riding around to different villages on a bicycle trying to persuade people to come to his advice surgery. In my case, it was an effort to persuade them not to come as often as they did, because they were repeat offenders. One reason I stood down in 2015 was not that I did not think that I could do the job any more but that I could not do it as well as I had done; frankly, I got sick of advice surgeries after all the years I had held them.
I mention that because the missing 9 million relates to this. You have a very large number of people in inner-city constituencies who are not on the register, but you still represent them and hear their complaints and problems. You could not possibly—although I had a colleague on the Labour Benches who did this—ask people who came in whether they were on the register and, if they were not, say, “Well, go get registered and then I’ll deal with you”. Nobody really wants to do that, so we need to be sensible about the balance.
The difference between eight or 10 years in re-boundarying is really important. As has already been said, people just about get used to knowing the name of and being able to relate to their Member of Parliament in a single-Member constituency. I favour it for that reason: people know who they should hold to account. They just get to know whether they will say to them, “I’m voting for you at the next election because you’ve done a really good job for me and my community”, or “You’ve been an absolutely lousy MP and I hope you’re not expecting me to vote for you”—and then somebody changes the boundary and they do not have the choice. This can seriously affect the way in which people respect their local Member of Parliament and the way in which MPs see their constituency. Although through the single-Member constituency system we elect a Government—that is its primary purpose—we hold dear the accountability at local level and people taking the community seriously.
Some of the proposals in the last effort at boundary changes—such as in the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency, where you have to traverse a reservoir, or on Merseyside and the Wirral, where people would either travel two miles to find a bridge or the constituency MP would have to have his or her own motor launch to get to the other side of the Mersey to represent the people there—were just a nonsense. It is made worse the more often you change those boundaries to fit in with a 5% variant, because by hook or by crook, no matter how bright the commissioners and the people working for them are, they are drawing lines on a map to fit in with those numerics.
We know that they are doing that because, had the previous boundary changes gone through on top of the boundary changes already made in Sheffield, you would have seen that people had drawn lines. I do not blame them; they sit in an office in London. I do not expect anybody to research this, but I would be surprised if anybody on or working for the Boundary Commission has ever lived in the north of Sheffield. If you do not know an area and you do not have a clue about its nuances, you are bound to get it wrong. The tighter the task you have been given, the more likely you are to mess it up. So having longer periods of stability, with people genuinely representing their areas and having the ability to adjust to changes and turnover as time goes on, makes sense, but being rigid about 5% and an eight-year timetable does not.
We have had some excellent contributions. I want to make a simple point: the ties of community should be given equal weight to arithmetic. To strengthen those ties, there should be a longer period between each distribution.
My Lords, first, I want to refute the calumny that I am participating in this debate only to go down in parliamentary history as one who was present at the first-ever hybrid Grand Committee of the House of Lords. It is not true. Indeed, it goes contrary to my strongest principles because, as a noble Lord said earlier, this Bill should be on the Floor of the House; it is constitutional, but it goes beyond its constitutionality.
We should consider the scale of the change in the Bill, the degree of disruption that it will cause if it is put into effect in full, the ruined lives down the other end of the Corridor—going from 600 to 650 helps, but it does not help as much as not having a 5% variant—the disruption it will cause and the loss of confidence among the population because they will not know who their Member will be next time round. This is really large-scale stuff—and that is without getting into the issue, which I do not intend to cover this afternoon, of whether this is in fact a gerrymander. No doubt we will have a chance to discuss that later in Committee and on Report. So I am not participating just to be in a hybrid Committee. I wish we were not in a hybrid Committee but on the Floor.
The second calumny is that I am intervening on this amendment only because the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I are such comrades, if I may use that word in the House of Lords. We are great veterans of the 2011 attempt to persuade the Government of the points, or most of the points, that I have just made. That attempt narrowly failed, due to a piece of stubbornness on David Cameron’s point of view. It is a great pity that those measures went through—they had to be ditched anyway—but it gives us a chance to have a second, more sensible, go. Unfortunately, I do not think that the Government have succeeded in doing that.
As I say, my noble friend Lord Foulkes is a comrade. He knows that we disagree on electoral reform. The idea that electoral reform would necessarily destroy the relationship between MPs and their constituents is nonsense. It was shown to be nonsense by something that nobody round this table other than me will remember: the Jenkins report on the electoral system. I remember it quite well because I was on the commission. Those noble Lords who remember that will remember that it had most constituencies represented by a single Member, as now. There were some additional Members to deal with discrepancies in the amount of support that each party needed to elect somebody, but they were on a county basis; they were not asked to represent the whole country at large or any of the things that go with other proportional systems, so there is no necessary link between electoral reform and whether you go ahead with this sort of system. It should be debated on its own complicated merits. I suppose I had better come to the amendment about now.
At the moment we have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which implies that elections take place every five years. It makes sense to me that you should have a fixed gap between a boundary review and an election—they should come in that order. If you had 10 years under the present system, that is what would happen. It would come at the same distance before an election each time. Eight years tells you nothing. It means that sometimes you will have a boundary review immediately after a general election, so you will fight the next election on completely outdated boundaries. The time after that will be just before an election, so no would-be Member of Parliament will have time to get to know his electorate. It is a complete absurdity. It is so absurd that I can think of only one argument that the Minister could use to defend it, which would be to say, “We committed in our manifesto to get rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act”—and I recognise that that is the case.
However, do not be surprised if the Prime Minister and his party do not in the end show the enthusiasm that they have shown so far for the proposition that they go back to the old system where the Prime Minister calls the election every time. I should say, first of all, that the record of Prime Ministers calling elections when they have that discretion is bloody awful. I go back to Jim Callaghan, who I was then privileged to be an adviser to, funking autumn 1978 and going for 1979 and therefore making Mrs Thatcher possible. I understand why he made the decision, but I think he was wrong—and I think he thought he was wrong. More recently, Theresa May, befuddled by the opinion polls and having adopted a policy for social care that was bound to lead to at least a 10-point drop in the Tories’ reckoning, went for an election that was the end of her.
Even more recently, not the Prime Minister but the leader of the Labour Party, in the face of irrefutable evidence that his party would be massacred if it went to the country under his leadership, nevertheless decided that his party should vote for an early election, thus handing Boris Johnson the easiest victory in electoral history. My experience of politicians is that they do not much like choosing election dates anyway. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, for all its defects, seems to be basically right, so if we keep that, we will keep five-year Parliaments and one review for each 10-year stretch.
That would also avoid unnecessary disruption. Every time constituencies change, as ex-Members of the Commons have told us so eloquently this afternoon, there is considerable disruption. There is a tremendous problem that may do for these plans in the end. It is perfectly true, and if Ministers were honest they would admit it, that on the whole this change is probably slightly biased in favour of the Conservative Party. But that is one thing. It is another thing when the Back-Benchers are going to see the Chief Whip every week and saying, “We can’t have an election, look at what’s been done to my constituency. We only held it last time because I had so many supporters in Borrowstown and now they’ve been moved off to that fat, useless Tory Member for Bugglestown.” That is why they did not do this last time. It was not a matter of principle or because they saw that they were wrong, or even because of what the Lib Dems might have done about it. It was because it was rightly causing bedlam on the Conservative Back Benches.
This may seem to those who advise the Prime Minister like a bumper wheeze for getting a few extra Conservative seats. I promise that, before the next election, they will be eating their words and the Prime Minister will be saying, “Who the hell got me into this? Haven’t we got anything better to do than deal with Back-Benchers who feel that they’re going to lose their seats and it’s our fault?” There is no worse accusation to be made against a Government than that they are knifing their own party in the back.
My Lords, I have enjoyed the speeches so far in this debate. I come here as a former chair of the political parties parliamentary panel of the Electoral Commission. We had something to do with elections and it is our fault that MPs had those reviews and the consequences of them. It seemed to me that the most important thing to the MPs whom I and other parties dealt with at the same time were the lines on the map: “Where will my majority be most or least affected?” So the co-operation between parties was immense in many respects in drawing up the constituencies, because it was a question of trading these voters for those voters and so on, to protect each other’s majorities and therefore the relationship.
I take the point that my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Blunkett made that the importance to MPs was about their ongoing relationship with their constituency and their constituents. To have that interfered with too soon would be a mistake. Therefore, 10 years is about right. There is no absolute in this, but it is better than eight years and certainly better than five years. It allows the relationship to exist between the MP and those whom he represents.
It is also true that the 10-year cycle aligns better with the other electoral cycles that we now have. We still have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, although I know that there is a commitment to review it; we have Scottish and Welsh Assembly elections; we have mayoral elections; and we have police commissioner elections, and so on and so forth, all on fixed cycles. Therefore, the predictability of the electoral cycle, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, and the outcome of the boundary reviews coming 10 years in advance of a subsequent election a year or so beyond that, would be hugely beneficial from where we are now. So it seems to me and the Labour Party that 10 years is about right. I ask the Minister to consider: why not 10 years? Why eight years rather than 10 years? Why is it seen to be a fairer system to have a shorter period between reviews? I personally feel that the 10-year cycle would allow for greater alignment and greater relationship building between those who represent a constituency and those who are represented.
My Lords, the amendments in this group seek to change the timing of boundary reviews and the submission of the final report by the Boundary Commissions. Under the lead amendment, a review would be undertaken every 10 years, rather than the eight proposed in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, seemed to be straying, if I may say so in the nicest possible way, from these amendments, which are very narrow and clear. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be answering many of the questions in debates later this afternoon.
The clause as it stands sets 1 October 2031 and then by 1 October every eight years after that as the date by which the Boundary Commissions must submit their final reports. In effect, a boundary review would take place every eight years. This is itself a change from the current law of a review taking place every five years. The Government’s intent is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated on a regular basis, but without the disruption to local communities and their representations that might occur with the current five-yearly reviews. That is accepted, I think, by most noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon.
The Government consider that the eight-year cycle strikes the right balance between ensuring that our constituencies are based on a contemporary database and avoiding the disruption of constant reviews. Prior to the Bill’s introduction we engaged with all the parliamentary parties and with the electoral administrator representatives, and an eight-year cycle was the one that was supported.
With reviews held only once a decade, there would be the risk, as there is now, that constituency boundaries would become out of date and unequal between the boundary reviews. This was the case prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years and when a system of interim reviews was used to consider whether particular constituencies should be updated between the general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in particular areas.
We believe that those interim reviews should not happen, if possible, as they are disruptive. They were at the discretion of the Boundary Commissions and they made it difficult for MPs to develop stable and effective constituency relationships with communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said. The balance of the eight years is to try to avoid having interim reviews, which could have to happen if we agreed to the amendment and the period was extended to 10 years.
The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Lennie, were particularly interested in making sure that the boundary review cycle was aligned as far as possible to other elections. That is difficult to do, particularly with the devolved Administrations and elections happening across the UK at different times, both for national legislatures and for local government. It is impossible to align in an optimal way with a particular electoral cycle—we would have to go back to square one.
As I said, in the development of the Bill we engaged with stakeholders on the boundary review cycle. There was strong support for the eight-year cycle. The Government believe that having the reviews every eight years strikes the right balance in allowing us to have parliamentary constituencies that are regularly updated without the disruption of boundaries changing at every election. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I think that everyone who has spoken, apart from the Minister, supports the amendment. There seems to be widespread support for it in the Grand Committee, including from the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Tyler, who have been Members of Parliament and have experienced this at first hand, as well as from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who has a great deal of experience in government, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, who has experience of the Electoral Commission. That is widespread support.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, without in any way rebuking us, understandably said that we had strayed more widely than the amendment. That is because these matters relate to the amendment. The whole question of identification with a constituency relates to the period of time during which Members are able to serve.
I say to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that we do not disagree as much as he thinks. I understand that there is an increasingly strong case for electoral reform of some kind. He is right about that. In Scotland, we have an interesting system, which is so strange that I managed to get elected through the list, much to my surprise. However, the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament are constituency Members and have that link with the constituency. There are also top-up Members, who are elected on a proportional basis, to ensure some degree of proportionality.
That system was agreed between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats when we formed the Scottish Parliament. Until the people in Scotland started voting on the basis of identity rather than on politics, it was a very workable system. We had some effective coalitions between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats and the system worked extremely well. Now people are voting for an entirely reason, but I will not go into that in detail, otherwise the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, will certainly rebuke me for straying even further from the amendment.
With respect, I did not hear any argument about why the period should be eight years rather than 10. The only two arguments were that the balance is better—I am not sure why. We are not suggesting 12 or 15 years, because if we went too far that might create problems. The other argument was that the period had been discussed with various people who thought that it was a good idea. The various people with whom it was discussed represent the establishment. I do not mean the party establishment; I mean the establishment in this whole area, which tends to think on tram rails rather than more outwardly and imaginatively. The reason why we are here in Parliament is to consider these representations and to decide whether to accept them. I would say that we do not accept them. The argument in favour of 10 years is very strong.
However, I read in the Lord Chairman’s brief that
“Lord Foulkes is expected to withdraw the amendment”.
Lord Foulkes is willing to do as expected and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 to 5 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 6. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. I should inform the Committee that if Amendment 6 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 7.
Clause 2: Orders in Council giving effect to reports
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out “As soon as reasonably practicable” and insert “No later than six weeks”
My Lords, I am delighted to be surrounded by so many colleagues this afternoon, but this is not Parliament or the Grand Committee as I know, love and understand it. The sooner that we can get back to a normal parliamentary system, the better.
I pay tribute to the ingenuity of those who have created this extraordinary series of booths—a cross between a call centre in Calcutta and a language laboratory somewhere else. We have what we have, but we should not be here at all; we should be in the Chamber, as others have said in speaking to previous amendments. Nothing is more constitutional than the constitution of the elected House of Commons. It is a pity that we have had to depart from what is a tradition in your Lordships’ House and to move a constitutional Bill into this extraordinary room. But, as I say, it is very good to see so many colleagues here. Let us hope that there will be more and more as the weeks go by.
My amendment is here slightly by accident. I took part in the debate on Second Reading and made it quite plain that I am one of those who do not like to see Parliament excluded from ultimate decision-making—a subject that was touched on in the first group of amendments. During the debate, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who is sitting by me here on the other side of the glass, raised the important point of curbing the power of the Executive. He realised that the Executive could hold things up for an inordinate period if they so chose.
I was taken by that point and put down my amendment. There was no consultation between us because, at the time, my noble friend Lord Young was speaking virtually and I was in the Chamber, so we both put down amendments. I will not make a long speech, because I recognise that he was the trailblazer and I want him to have plenty of time—although he has promised me that he will not detain your Lordships for more than an hour and a half.
It is very important that we curb the ultimate power of the Executive here. There must be a time limit. I have suggested six weeks; my noble friend Lord Young, being much more used to the ways of the Executive than I am, has opted for three months. I would settle for that, with reluctance, but I do prefer my six weeks. Having now had 50 years in Parliament, I have a deep-seated suspicion of all Executives, of whichever political party or combination of parties, and it is very important that they cannot prevaricate on issues such as this.
My noble friend Lord Young has become a pretty good poacher since he ceased to be a gamekeeper but, because of his long experience in Executives, he still has an innate partiality for them. I hope that, on Report, an amendment along the lines of this one, or that of my noble friend, or maybe a combination of the two, will be incorporated in the Bill. It would be very wrong if this seminal piece of legislation—which is what it is—went on to the statute book leaving ultimately untrammelled power to the Executive to choose the moment. That they must not have the opportunity to do, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that build-up. I will speak to Amendment 7 in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Randall and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem. Like the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack, it puts a time limit on the interval between the submission of the reports by the Boundary Commissions and the order being laid before Parliament. My noble friend has outbid me by shortening my proposed interval of three months to six weeks, but otherwise the objective is the same; six weeks might be too tight. Amendment 9 is a consequential one, applying the same time limit to Clause 3, which deals with the statement of modifications.
The objective of the amendment is to deliver the Minister’s commitment in his Second Reading speech that,
“the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, developed through the meticulous and consultative process I have described, should be implemented without political influence or interference”.
In the next paragraph of his speech, my noble friend reinforced the point by saying that,
“the purpose of this measure is straightforward: to bring certainty and confidence to the citizen and the elector that updated constituencies will be implemented without interference and further delay.”—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 38.]
My noble friend’s point about delay is apt, as we have seen two years pass after the Government got the last recommendations in 2018 and there is still no Order in Council. Any future Government could do the same.
I know that many noble Lords want Parliament to have the final say, and we have had that debate. Crucially, my amendment is neutral on that issue. Indeed, the amendment is essential to those who want Parliament to have the final say because, unless the Government lay the order, there can be no debate or vote in Parliament. So those hostile to automaticity should support this bridge-building amendment. I should say at this stage that I am grateful to the Minister and his officials for two virtual meetings, one in July and one at the end of last week. They were courtesy itself in explaining the practical problems with time limits, but I have not so far been persuaded: hence the amendment.
I will not repeat what I said at Second Reading, when I gave two examples of political interference in the implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations, one in 1969—to which my noble friend the Minister has just referred—and the other following the report in 2018. In a nutshell, without a time limit, the objective of the Bill could be neutralised. I will come later to the argument about “as soon as practicable” being liable to challenge in the courts if the Government delayed.
After Second Reading, I contacted the Electoral Commission, whose remit includes promoting public confidence in the democratic process and ensuring its integrity. I enclosed a copy of my Second Reading speech and asked for its views. This was the response:
“The Commission has not made any comments in regards to this legislation, as it doesn’t directly relate to the administration of elections or the regulation of political finance. However, we can see how greater clarity about the timescales for implementing any recommendations from the Boundary Committees would probably be helpful for Electoral Registration Officers, Returning Officers and campaigners ahead of any election that will use the new boundaries, so that they can confirm their plans in good time.”
I think it is fair to say from that that the Electoral Commission supports the principle of the amendment. I have permission to quote the email.
I also contacted the Boundary Commission, drawing attention to my amendment and asking what the length of time had been between receipt of reports by the Government and the laying of Orders in Council. I emailed them at 18:52 on 30 July. At 21:17 the same day, the acting secretary to the Commission, Tony Bellringer, replied. I mention him by name because of the promptness and detail of his reply, long past any reasonable working hours. I hope that the Committee will bear with me if I quote from his reply:
“The last General Review to be implemented … was the Fifth General Review which reported to Government on 31 October 2006. The Order to implement the recommendations that it contained was subsequently made on 13 June 2007. The report of the Fourth General Review was dated 12 April 1995 and the subsequent Order to implement was made on 28 June 1995. The report of the Third General Review was dated 1 February 1983 and the subsequent Order to implement its recommendations was made on 16 March 1983. As you will probably be aware, these Orders are actually laid in draft and subject to debate in both Houses, under the draft affirmative procedure, so the date of laying the draft of the orders will have been some time in advance of the “Made” date. (In other words, the gap is even shorter than the dates I have just given.) Unfortunately we do not have records of when the Government actually laid the draft Orders in each case. Either the Government itself or the Parliamentary authorities may possibly retain the records.”
So I went to the Library and am most grateful to Edward Scott for the following information about the gap between report and the order being laid, rather than made, as this is the time necessary to check the recommendations. The first periodic review for England was submitted on 10 November 1954, and the order was laid eight days later, on 18 November. The second periodic review was in 1969, when the unhappy sequence of events already referred to took place, so it is not representative. The third periodic review for England was submitted on 1 February 1983 and the order laid on 14 February, 13 days later. The fourth review for England was submitted on 12 April 1995 and the order laid 55 days later on 20 June. The fifth review took longer. It was submitted on 31 October 2006 and laid 118 days later—just outside my three months. The one for Scotland was submitted on 30 November 2004—perhaps that was what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes referred to—and the order was laid 14 days later on 14 December. It is not clear why the fifth report took longer, because the legislation was the same.
So it is not at all clear why an open-ended commitment is necessary. It is worth noting that all the other processes in the Bill have time limits attached to them. The Boundary Commission, local authorities, political parties and individual electors all have time constraints on their involvement, some tighter than at the moment. The only party not subject to time constraints are the Government. My noble friend Lord Hayward, psephologist in residence, may develop this point.
I will now deal with my noble friend the Minister’s response at Second Reading. In his wind-up speech, he chose his words carefully in responding to my suggestion. Noble Lords will have their own unhappy experiences of their amendments being unacceptable to Ministers. What my noble friend said was the mildest possible put-down:
“We are not minded to go in that direction.”
I put that in the same category as that well-known ministerial response: “We have no current plans”, often a precursor to a change in policy.
My noble friend had two arguments. The first was that the current words were needed
“purely in order to maintain some flexibility for the necessary work in preparing the draft boundary order and the associated order that designates the returning officer for each newly drawn constituency. Time would be needed to allow for this preparatory work and setting hard time limits can cause practical difficulties down the line.”
The second argument was:
“Any Government who sought to drag their heels over the submission of a draft Order in Council would be at risk of legal challenge. With something as high profile as a boundary review, it seems likely that the move to challenge would be swift.”.—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 94.]
So far as the first argument is concerned, I will quote from an article published by the LSE on 1 May 2019 by Ron Johnston, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol; Charles Pattie, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield; and David Rossiter, an independent researcher. This is an extract.
“The Minister was then asked about progress on the preparation and tabling of Orders in Council to implement the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations.”
They quote the Minister’s reply—not this Minister, but a Minister in the other place—that
“once the orders are prepared, they are ready to go before the House. It is a complex motion, given that it covers every street and house in the United Kingdom, in terms of ensuring that they are appropriately represented in this place. It will be submitted in due course.”
Of course it was not, but this is what the academics say about this alibi:
“This is an odd statement … The Parliamentary Constituencies Order (England) 2007 is a lengthy document but all but two pages comprise a schedule listing the new constituencies and their component wards. That list was in the Commission’s report and could have been compiled and checked relatively quickly. The same is the case with the Commissions’ reports delivered in 2018; it is difficult to understand why Orders implementing the four sets of recommendations could not have been prepared and tabled within weeks of delivery.”
My amendment allows three months.
I have the relevant two pages of the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007. It is 27 lines: Citation and commencement; Parliamentary constituencies in England—which refers to the Schedule from the Boundary Commission; Electoral registers; and Revocation. There would be no difficulty in drafting that in a day. As for checking the work of the Boundary Commission for England, its work and decisions would have been trawled over by the political parties—all only too anxious to spot inaccuracies—during the process set out in the Bill. Again, my noble friend Lord Hayward might amplify this point.
I will make one related point: it is not the case that when the report lands on the Government’s desk its contents are a total surprise. The vast majority of the recommendations will have been put to bed months before, with only a few cases going to the final stage. There is ample time for the department to scrutinise the bulk of the work if it wanted to before getting the report.
As to my noble friend’s second point about legal challenge, I make two brief points. First, in the two years since the last recommendations were submitted, there has been no legal challenge, despite it being manifestly obvious that there has been ample time to lay the orders. Why was progress not made? It was because the Government did not want progress to be made. That is exactly the sort of interference that the Minister has made clear it is the object of the Bill to prevent. Secondly, if that is the long-stop, it does confidence in our democratic system no credit if the Government have to be dragged through the court to deliver the orders, with legal arguments as to whether or not it was reasonable and practicable so to do. It is far better to have the clarity of a time limit in primary legislation as with the rest of the Bill. Finally, I ask my noble friend to think again about this between now and Report and see whether there is the possibility of some movement in the Government’s position at Second Reading.
My Lords, I am tempted to say: “Follow that!” The noble Lord has given us something that is not just elegant and eloquent but very firmly researched. To avoid the risk of being accused of being repetitive or even repetitious, I propose to adopt the contribution not only of the noble Lord, Lord Young, but that of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, both of which point very firmly in favour of this amendment.
I took some time—but not as much as the noble Lord, Lord Young—to look at the dictionary and examine what the word “practicable” is said to mean. There are a series of alternatives: realistic, feasible, possible. The point about them, however, and the point about practicable, is that these are all subjective. The consequence, as was hinted at just a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Young, is that there is a discretion which is virtually unfettered. The potential problem for Governments, of course, would be that a failure would be subject to the possibility of judicial review. Very few Governments would want to be put to the embarrassment of being taken to the High Court to explain their failure to do something which, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, has just pointed out, is routinely a matter of administration.
The point is this: the amendment does not destroy that discretion but limits it so that Governments cannot use it for their own interests. We have had several examples of that, both at Second Reading and again today. It cannot possibly be wrong to allow the Government discretion but to ensure that they do not abuse it.
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendments 7 and 9, to which I have added my name, along with those of three of the most noble of colleagues from the other place, for whom I have the deepest respect. What has already been said, particularly by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, says it all.
My noble friend Lord Cormack spoke about the Executive and I think he is right to have a cynical view of Executives of all political colours. As was said in a previous debate, the governing party should always remember that the electoral cycle will go round and it will be on the receiving end of some of these measures and they may not seem like such a good idea. I cannot see a good reason for not accepting these amendments, to be perfectly honest, as my noble friend Lord Young has eloquently expressed. It would be very wise for the Government to have a little think about this and insert a time limit. It might not be 12 weeks—although 12 weeks seems like an excellent idea—but, to make sure that they do not look like they have given in, they could make it 13 weeks, and then it would be a government victory. That is the way I see these things evolve.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow my noble friend Lord Randall, who was a superb Deputy Chief Whip when I had the privilege to be Chief Whip of the Conservative Party. We are both supporting the excellent arguments made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who, among his many jobs, was Chief Whip of the Conservative Party at least once. I say to the Minister that if he has three colleagues who have served at senior rank in the Conservative Whips’ Office, our point of view, as we are unanimous in this, should not be dismissed too lightly.
Since I am speaking from the cheap seats at the far end of the call centre, let me make the cheap political point first. The Conservative Party, of which I am a proud member, has absolutely clean hands on Boundary Commission reports. I want to keep it that way and I want the perception to be that way. The only parties that have mucked around with those reports were Labour, when Jim Callaghan ditched the boundary commission proposals in 1969, and the disgraceful ploy by the Lib Dems to kick into touch the 2011 review. They are responsible for our boundaries being eight years out of date. Those are the political points. The Conservative Party has never done that and I do not want it ever to do that and I do not want there to be the slightest ability for it to be perceived to be able to do that.
That is why it is terribly important that, in a Bill that has got everything else right—reducing the number of seats and cutting out the possibility of Parliament interfering and kicking Boundary Commission reviews into touch—we have an amendment that says it must be delivered within three months. I do not need to go through any of the excellent details that my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham delivered—in any case, I do not have that ability—but a couple of other points struck me as crucial. One is that everyone else in this process has to perform within strict time limits, but not the Government. The Government should also be held to a strict time limit, and three months is right. Six weeks is too little.
This has nothing to do with the Delegated Powers Committee, which I have the privilege to chair. We did not comment on this Bill because there was nothing relevant to us, but time after time in the Delegated Powers Committee we see skeleton Bills coming along with all the details to be filled in later by complicated regulations. Yesterday, I participated in the Chamber on the immigration Bill. The opposition spokesman criticised the Government, understandably, for bringing in a regulation which would run to dozens of pages on highly complex new Immigration Rules, which would be made under the “made affirmative” procedure and take effect immediately.
If it is possible for the Government in that instance—they are doing it on dozens of occasions—to invent, almost overnight, highly complex regulations, it is a piece of cake for them to pass a simple regulation that, as my noble friend pointed out, on the last occasion consisted of no more than 27 lines. It would be simple for them to produce an Order in Council implementing someone else’s report. The Government have no work to do: it has already been done by the Electoral Commission. All they have to do is make a simple order in Parliament and bring it into force within three months.
My noble friends Lord Randall and Lord Young of Cookham have made impeccable arguments for implementing the Boundary Commission reports within that three-month timescale. I conclude by repeating my opening remarks: the Conservative Party has had an impeccable record on this and the Bill is excellent in every detail, except for this one lacuna. I say to my noble friend the Minister: let us plug that lacuna and remove any possible suspicion that a Conservative Government could muck around with Boundary Commission reports and delay them.
The word of the day seems to be “automaticity”. The noble Lord, Lord True, wants to remove any political interference or influencing from future boundary reviews. But as the noble Lord, Lord Young, eloquently said, this is the one area where any future Government could use political influence or interference, with the Executive slowing down the implementation of such future boundary reviews. You cannot pick and choose your automaticity. If it is good enough to remove Parliament from the ability to debate, question and vote on the boundary review, it is good enough to remove any possibility of the Executive delaying the implementation of a boundary review, especially if they do not like it. I offer another word of advice to the Minister. I seriously suggest that, apart from adopting this amendment, the Government should look at getting the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, back on to the Front Benches.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Young, on the exemplary way in which they have introduced their amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Young, suggested that I might follow on from some of his detail. I do not want to bore the Grand Committee with excessive detail, but I will make one or two further observations on the process.
Until 1986, there was no timetable for any part of the process of boundary reviews. The 1986 Act introduced one change: to identify the point at which each review should start. Later legislation introduced timetables for each stage with one notable exception, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra has just said, which is the concluding stage. If we have moved to a position where we should identify the timing for each stage in the process, it would be sensible to do so for the conclusion as well.
As I have said, there is just one stage that has no timetable, but it is worth looking at the justification for “as soon as reasonable”. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, has said, it is just 27 lines with vast quantities of pages thereafter. The argument made to me on previous occasions was, “Well, the maps have to be prepared; we have to ensure that we have got the wards right and all the rest”. As already identified in an earlier debate, however, all the political parties spend their time throughout the process trawling around the edges of every single ward—and nowadays even the polling districts—with a view to ensuring that the right arguments are put forward and the right boundaries are set.
There is absolutely no reason why much of the work cannot be done in advance. The noble Lord, Lord Young, has identified many of the timescales, but it is worth while looking within the process of each review. When a review is brought forward, the initial recommendations are tabled by the boundary commissioners. Some 50% of those are changed, meaning that 50% are not. Some of the changes are agreed across the political parties. In the last abortive review, all three parties put forward exactly the same proposal for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. This means that officials can start working if there is excessive work, which I am not convinced that there is, since the councils have much of the detail anyway. Given the way the review process works much of the preparatory work on maps, street identification and the like can be done well in advance.
From 50% of the initial recommendations being changed, depending on which review you look at you might get down to changes of perhaps 8%. There was one review where the final stage resulted only in the change of the name of Yvette Cooper’s constituency. There was an argument about whether two locations or three should be identified within the constituency name, rather like that of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
There is an enormous opportunity, in this day and age, for a large amount of preparation. Most of the data is already computerised. It is readily available: you can go on the web and look for the ward map or constituency map. I could do it for any constituency in the country within 30 seconds. It was suggested that it needs a long time. The noble Lord, Lord Young, identified the timescales. I must admit that when he showed them to me, I cynically observed that they seemed to be getting longer, despite the advances in technology associated with the process.
The other argument that might be used is that we might make an error, but that is where Amendment 9 becomes relevant. I must admit that I did not even know that there would be such a process. Amendment 9 deals with modifications. If in haste—which I do not accept—an odd error is made in one place or another, it can be adjusted under “modifications”. I said that wards and polling districts applied in most cases; being fair, I should say that in Scotland they do not. Scotland tends in its boundary reviews to split streets; its wards are quite exceptionally large. Therefore, more than any other part of the United Kingdom, it will make changes, which makes the process slightly difficult. However, that can be done relatively quickly and involves one part of the United Kingdom.
It is appropriate to have a timescale associated with this final stage, as has been identified by all other noble Lords who spoke on this amendment. It is not necessary to say “as soon as practicable”; we can move to a date. As we have with other parts of the legislation, a timetable should be associated with it. Neither of the proposals that have been put forward are unreasonable, as far as I am concerned.
I have little to add. We have had a very interesting debate. I was particularly impressed by what the research of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, revealed and the huge effort to establish what had happened in the past. It is important to ensure fairness and ensure that it is seen. We are talking of the needs of constituents and not primarily of MPs; I say that as somebody who served for 41 years to represent my constituency, which was torn apart after 23 years with numbers made up by pinching them from a neighbouring constituency. There is a fundamental problem: the association of constituents with a Member of Parliament. They want to know who it is; they want some degree of stability. That is why the constituent is vital. There is very little else I can add. I shall not take up the time of the Committee.
My Lords, I very much agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, has just said. It is remarkable that the majority of those participating in this debate are former MPs with extensive and distinguished constituency representation behind them. That comes through in the way in which they have approached this issue.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the experience of the former Ministers. If they are sceptical about what exactly will happen behind the scenes if there is the sort of delay that could happen and has happened in the past, we should take that very seriously. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem said, “reasonably practicable” is a subjective judgment and could therefore be challenged at judicial review. The fact that these former Ministers are sceptical, perhaps even slightly cynical, about what could happen behind the scenes is extremely significant.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, whom I have known for a number of years, has had extraordinary ministerial experience; he must be one of the longest-serving Ministers in the whole of our Parliament. I venture to suggest that he probably has had more experience at close hand of ministerial or even Civil Service foot-dragging than anybody who was giving him advice in the meeting to which he referred. I therefore take far more seriously what he says about the potential dangers of unlimited delay than those who sought to persuade him against his proposed amendment.
When the noble Lord spoke at Second Reading, I thought that there was a general mood on all sides of the House, not least because of that experience, that he was on to something extremely important and that this provision was one of the few serious weaknesses in terms of potential ministerial and partisan interference. I therefore take what he says today very seriously indeed.
There is only one way in which I perhaps take a slightly different view. Despite the fact that the Minister at Second Reading was reading his brief religiously—and loyally to those who brief him in the Cabinet Office—I thought that his body language was rather more sympathetic to the points being made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the rest of us. Therefore, I am more hopeful and optimistic that the Government’s eventual conclusion will be that they cannot possibly combine automaticity with sticking to this bit of no automaticity in terms of the speed with which Ministers have to bring the order to the House.
I also believe that there is a strong argument, which the noble Lord, Lord Young, enunciated and has been repeated elsewhere, about what exactly would happen if there is a long delay. What exactly would people do in whatever department would think about these matters? What would they be up to? After all, if the Bill goes through in its current form, all they would be looking at are the firm, strong recommendations of the four Boundary Commissions. How could they spend months on that? Incidentally, that is my only concern about the difference between the six weeks recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the 12 or so weeks recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Young, and others. I am not sure what Ministers might do in those second six weeks. There may be a strong argument for sticking firmly to the shorter period if, as has been suggested by people with a great deal more experience than me, there really is not that much to do.
I strongly recommend the well-briefed academic evidence given by the late Professor Ron Johnston—we are still missing him from this debate and these discussions—and his fellow academics. He pointed out just how simple in practice the process becomes at that stage; that was endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, with his expertise and experience.
There is a simple solution to the problem of potential mistakes in the modification arrangements. Again, I take very seriously the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, from the DPRR, on which I used to serve under his excellent chairmanship. Again, we are looking at an area where the Executive cannot be expected to take a long period to consider recommendations from the Boundary Commissions that will be so firm, detailed and complete.
There is an open-and-shut case for a firm limit on the period during which a delay could be permitted at the hands of bureaucrats or Ministers. In the words that have already echoed around the Grand Committee today, automaticity must lead to one or other of these sets of amendments. I hope that the Government will accept them.
My Lords, as I made clear in the debate on the first group of amendments, we do not support the automaticity of Boundary Commission recommendations becoming law with no parliamentary intervention. In an ideal world, Clause 2 would not be in the Bill. Nevertheless, we share in the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and other speakers, and the worry that some decision is still left with the Executive while none is with Parliament. If this clause is to be in the Bill, clearly, these amendments are very welcome.
This is important not simply for parliamentarians but for Boundary Commissioners. In knowing that they rather than Parliament are making law, it will be important for them to be confident as they assume this new responsibility that the Government will not play games with any delay—should, for example, an early election be on the cards, given that we hear that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is to be removed, thus leaving the calling of an election back in the hands of the Prime Minister. Incidentally, my noble friend Lord McNicol is, like me, not a former MP, but along with others, we have been involved from a party position. As he said, if we can remove Parliament’s ability to discuss, we should remove the Executive’s ability to delay.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that we need to curb the ultimate power of the Executive. Hear, hear to that. Six weeks sounds better to me. If it is going to be automatic, then automatic it should be. Furthermore, if the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, says that it is doable within a time limit, my judgment is that it is doable within a time limit. He knows whereof he speaks, along with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, my noble friend Lord McNicol, and other former Chief and Deputy Chief Whips.
I confess that my eyebrows rose just a little at the protestations of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, as to the pristine, impeccable holiness of the Conservative Party. Maybe he needs reminding about Dame Shirley Porter and Westminster. I will go no further, but I think he overegged that particular pudding. If we are to have automaticity, clearly this delay must not be in the hands of the Government.
My Lords, I am troubled that my body language should be coming under examination, particularly since most of my family are saying that I am getting so grotesquely fat, it should never be examined in any circumstances. Perhaps that is an argument to reinforce the case that a number of noble Lords have put and with which I personally profoundly agree: there is great merit in our proceedings being in the Chamber, where body language can be examined, as it cannot with these glass screens.
For accuracy, I should say that there have been a number of strictures about this discussion taking place in Grand Committee. All your Lordships will understand the exigencies of the present situation. We are all chafing against the limitations placed on us, but the reference to Grand Committee was agreed in the usual channels and supported by the other political parties. The conduct of our business by the usual channels is traditional. It is not reasonable, in the circumstances, to impugn the Government, or indeed the House authorities, on that point. I add to what others have said about the great work that has been done in putting this Room together.
This is a very important debate, body language or no. The amendments have been very skilfully spoken to by all noble Lords, from my noble friend Lord Cormack onwards. Noble Lords have largely said the same thing so it would be invidious to pick out anybody, but obviously the now poacher, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, made a very powerful case to the Committee.
A six-month figure has been suggested, as has three months. I regret to say that both those deadlines could bring problems to the closing stages of a boundary review. I will return briefly to that point, but I start by explaining why the Bill is as it is. It is drafted to give some flexibility, but it demands that the Secretary of State submits the boundary order:
“As soon as reasonably practicable”.
This terminology is widespread in legislation and in this case it allows for some small degree of flexibility in the scheduling and completion of the work needed to prepare and submit the boundary order and the associated orders. However, it is only a small degree because, as has been pointed out, any Government who unreasonably delayed a piece of work as high-profile as this would likely come in for swift legal challenge, so there is not, in a sense, an untrammelled power, as my noble friend Lord Cormack contended. None the less, many parliamentarians would agree that leaving resource to the courts is not always the best or most agreeable way of conducting our proceedings. I will return to this point later.
The preparatory work is the reason given for the demur on too tight a time limit. I have a full set of figures for all the periods, all the reviews and all the Boundary Commissions going back to the first review. While I do not contest some of the figures put forward by my noble friend Lord Young—nor do I submit that there was any selective quotation—other figures suggest that there have been longer intervals. We need not go into the reason: I am not talking about the deliberately political ones. There is room for discussion in theory without arriving at the point of a specific date in the Bill. There certainly is room for discussion about how much time the thing takes and could legitimately take.
There is a lot of policy and legal work involved in the drafting of a boundary order and the associated orders that designate returning officers for all new constituencies in Great Britain, requiring some consultation, and the charges orders which set out the fees and expenses payable to returning officers at an election. The orders are not always brief. The 2007 order was 76 pages long. Although I listened very carefully to the arguments of my noble friend Lord Hayward, unfortunately a lot of this work cannot be done in advance. We cannot commit public money to resource it because the final report has not been delivered. There are limits on the ability of government to undertake contingent work—although that is not absolute, I concede.
In addition—and it is a lesser issue, I am sure, for some—there is the question of the reference to the Privy Council, the destination of the orders. As many noble Lords will know, the Privy Council sits on average nine times a year. It is not a fixed schedule. Its meetings do not necessarily happen at regular intervals. As a rule, meetings do not take place in January, August or September. The constraint of this schedule is another reason that a small amount of flexibility is allowed and why six weeks might be a very small period.
Powerful arguments have been put forward in Committee. I repeat that the fundamental position of the Government is to place—I would not necessarily use the same arguments as my noble friend Lord Blencathra did, although I am always hugely entertained by his speeches—the purposes of not just this party but all parties and all Executives beyond temptation, as I said on an earlier amendment, and that we should have a system that attracts trust.
The Government believe that “as soon as practicable” is a suitable constraint and should deliver that trust. I have heard what noble Lords have said. I will reflect on the discussions my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and I have had. I found them extremely informative and helpful. If my noble friend Lord Cormack is prepared to withdraw his amendment, I will certainly take this matter away and give it the most serious consideration. I am very ready to have discussions between now and Report.
It is of great importance that it should not be felt that Parliament in its wisdom or unwisdom has left it open for a degree of political interference—or worse, from my point of view, that anyone should think that this Government have any kind of ulterior motivation in this. We most certainly do not. With the assurance that I will reflect further on the points made and that I am ready to meet colleagues in the Committee and outside between now and Report, and that I have listed carefully to the arguments put forward today, I hope that I may be able to persuade my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, first, I thank all those who took part in this interesting debate. Rarely do I hear a debate that has as its hallmark such unanimity on the essential issue. There was a little disagreement on the exact time—that is, whether it should be my noble friend Lord Young’s three months or my six weeks. I have slightly firmed up on six weeks, but I have not made my mind up; it would be stupid so to do because although I could not see the Minister’s body language, I heard his language. I thank him very much for what he said. I know that, in saying that, I speak for my noble friend Lord Young, to whom I am very grateful. He told me that he had done a bit a work on this subject and that he must have the opportunity to reveal it to colleagues. He did so brilliantly; I am grateful to him.
Further discussions should be held. We must seek to persuade the Government—the Minister is clearly persuadable—that thou need not block and thou should not stop. We need to make sure that the Government are properly constrained by a workable timetable that Parliament has devised.
With those words, I am delighted to withdraw the amendment. I hope that I do not have to return to this matter on Report. I hope that there will be on Report a government amendment to the Bill that meets what we have asked for today.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Modifications of recommendations in reports
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 10. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
10: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact on constituency boundaries: reduction of voting age
Within the period of 12 months beginning on the day on which this Act is passed, the Boundary Commission must review the impact on constituency boundaries of extending the entitlement to vote at a parliamentary election to those aged 16 or 17 years.”
My Lords, a key part of the last boundaries Act—parts of which this Bill seeks to amend—was to make the numerical size of constituencies more equal. It was based on an exact number of electors rather than, for example, residents, where the old method allowed some flexibility. As we heard from my noble friends Lord Grocott, Lord Foulkes and Lord Blunkett, it is potentially residents who cannot be in surgeries rather than those on the electoral roll. The focus in the current boundaries Act takes the numerical equality, if you like, of voters as central to the new constituency boundaries.
Even if one agrees with that focus on numbers—and I have my doubts about this overarching focus on it—it could be undermined either by population moves or, in the instance of this amendment, by an extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. That is a policy change which we would obviously like to see but, should it happen, it is possible that it could undermine the concentration on arithmetic equality, given the unequal distribution of age groups across the country. As we know, we have certain constituencies with an older age profile, which would therefore be overrepresented if there was a switch in the franchise.
I recognise that we have yet to persuade the Government to alter the franchise, but it would be useful to see the impact of any such change on constituency boundaries. This simple and short amendment simply asks the Boundary Commission to look at extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds and at what impact, if any, it would have on the distribution of seats. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on this amendment. I am one of its signatories and it is a cross-party amendment. We have to start to think in firm terms about providing for the eventual, inevitable extension of the vote for parliamentary elections to 16 and 17 year-olds throughout the United Kingdom. The Grand Committee should think in terms of what is likely to happen over the next few years by looking back at what has been happening in recent years on this issue.
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have long campaigned for this reform, convinced as we are that this age group have shown themselves to be quite mature, and responsible enough to undertake this civic duty. It would be only sensible, right and responsible for us to start to take into account this potential change because, of course, the general election is not likely to take place until 2024, for the reasons admirably advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in a previous debate. It would be sensible for us to take that into account now, together with the greater flexibility that will undoubtedly be required to improve what is said on that matter in the Bill.
We were delighted when our Ministers in the coalition Government persuaded the Conservatives to permit this group to vote in the Scottish referendum in 2014. We were even more delighted when that group took the issues of that campaign so seriously, registered and voted in substantial numbers and, as far as could be ascertained after the poll, demonstrated their maturity by the way they voted. It seems that they were rather more responsible on all counts than some much older cohorts.
When it came to the 2015 debates in your Lordships’ House on the arrangements for the EU referendum, Members on all sides were able to refer to this successful experiment. We were no longer advocating on the basis of theory, however principled; we had practical evidence to support our case. As with Scotland, the argument that the referendum could create huge change which would have vast consequences for many generations to come and which, unlike an election, might not be easily reversed was recognised as persuasive. Prime Minister Cameron appeared to accept that argument. Younger citizens could expect to have to live with those consequences for much longer than many here in your Lordships’ House.
To my embarrassment, or perhaps even horror, Hansard apparently records that I made no fewer than 28 contributions to those debates in support of the proposition. However, I have checked and some of them were very brief. But I found that I was a signatory to the successful amendment on 18 November 2015 which sought to extend the franchise to this group. It was passed by your Lordships’ House by 293 votes to 211, with 91 Liberal Democrat Peers and 155 Labour Peers in support.
Sadly, less than a month later, on 14 December, our attempt to retain that extended franchise for that referendum, against MPs’ opposition, was lost by 263 votes to 246. The Liberal Democrats were only two votes down at 89, but Labour dropped by 19 to 136. It is sad to recall that, had those 19 not abstained, we would have won again, and I venture to think that the Cameron Government and the Commons, with the Scottish success in mind, could have accepted that reform, not least because the Bill had to make progress to keep to its timetable.
The lesson for us all here is that this campaign cannot relax just because there has been some modest progress in Scotland and Wales. Why should English young citizens be judged less mature and less responsible than their Scottish and Welsh counterparts? In that regard, we also previously attempted to secure reform of local authority elections in the context of city deals and devolution in England. I succeeded with an amendment to the cities and local government Bill on 15 July 2015 by 221 votes to 154 to do just this. Unfortunately, both Houses then got cold feet.
The history of this long campaign is that we are gradually moving closer and closer to this important addition to the franchise. Therefore, it is only right that we should take some preliminary, precautionary steps along the lines recommended in the amendment. The franchise is such a fundamental foundation stone of the UK’s representative democracy that we should work constructively to achieve consistency throughout our country. If the UK is still a united kingdom, surely that must be the eventual outcome. I am delighted to support the amendment. It is just a modest step in that direction and I very much hope that it will be passed. I am glad to be one of its sponsors.
My Lords, 16 and 17 year-olds already participate very actively in politics, whether as young members of the parties in the Grand Committee today or through involvement in single-issue campaigns. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, touched on the Scottish referendum and how well the lowering of the voting age worked in 2014, with individuals registering, taking their responsibility seriously for such an important issue and delivering their vote, and on how they handled it afterwards.
Lowering the voting age will also encourage more politicians to listen to what young people have to say. Especially through Covid, when they have not been at schools, colleges or universities but have been at home, many have been through a very difficult period. They can also feel very ignored.
Young people’s lives would also be improved if they felt that they had the ability to influence the wider country and wider communities. Interestingly, no advocate for lowering the voting age argues that all young people will always vote intelligently—especially since not everyone can agree on what that means—but the same could also be said for those aged over 18. When one of the strongest arguments against lowering the age is that young people do not have a mature enough understanding of the world they live in or of politics, why are they held to a higher standard than everyone else who is allowed to vote?
As my noble friend Lady Hayter said, this amendment is very short. It is not even looking to change the position or the law. It asks the Boundary Commission to carry out a review of
“the impact on constituency boundaries of extending the entitlement to vote at a parliamentary election to those aged 16 or 17”.
It is not going the full way. It is basically a first step to look at what the impact of making those changes would be. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I speak today as someone who at the age of 16 was secretary of the Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Liberal Association, so I have always supported votes at 16. When it was possible to do so, I really enjoyed talking to school groups visiting Parliament. The case for this has always been reinforced by that experience. There have been very good questions from school pupils of all ages. The sixth-form groups in particular have often engaged in lively debates about many of the issues that we debate here in Parliament.
I understand that the first thing that someone wants to do on their 16th birthday is not to rush down to a polling station. However, if the franchise remains where it was 50 years ago, some of them may have to wait until their early 20s to be able to cast their first vote in a Westminster general election. This is very late to acquire the habit of voting and may partly account for why so many young people simply do not vote at all. In Scotland and Wales, 16 and 17 year-olds are now able to take part in many votes. It is time that we had a common franchise across the UK, in which everyone can vote at the first opportunity after their 16th birthday.
This amendment is very limited in its scope. It would be a small step forward and would show the need for constituency boundaries to be drawn up in future, including more of the next generation of voters.
My Lords, I support this amendment for 16 and 17 year-olds to be entitled to vote at parliamentary elections. As has already been mentioned, they were given the vote in Scotland in 2014. In Wales, they will be able to vote in the Senedd general election in 2021 for the first time. This means that 16 and 17-year olds will, for the first time, have influence in choosing the Members who will represent them, giving them a voice in the decisions that will define their future.
These proposals were recommended by the independent Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, following a public consultation. The consultation showed that 59% of people responding agreed that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Allowing young people the right to vote at 16 is a powerful statement from the Senedd that their views are important and are valued. This will be accompanied by appropriate political and citizenship education and public awareness raising to ensure that young people are encouraged and supported to exercise their right to vote.
The argument about what 16 and 17 year-olds can and cannot do under the law is not of great relevance to the debate on whether they should be allowed to vote. We know that, for example, they can get married or enter a civil partnership with their parents’ permission, but these days very few do. They can join the Army with parental permission; that is a mature decision to serve one’s country. They can leave full-time education at 16, but most take advantage of higher education and stay on to get qualifications. That is, again, a mature decision. Other noble Lords have mentioned today how mature 16 and 17 year-olds are.
What is the difficulty with giving young people the right to vote in a general election, if there are any? Scotland has proved that young people can vote and make mature decisions. In Wales, they will certainly have the opportunity next year, and I am sure there will be many young people voting. I suggest to the Minister that, if he has any doubts about whether 16 and 17 year-olds are mature enough, he should consult the devolved nations and learn how it is done. I hope that the time will come, and this is the time to give young people in England the same democratic rights as those in Wales and Scotland, with regard to local elections. Unfortunately, although they will have some votes in Wales and Scotland, they will still not have the right to vote in a general election. I support the amendment and see it as a first step towards bringing young people into the voting system, and giving them a right to decide on their future. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment.
I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. No? I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
My Lords, the case for extending voting to 16 year-olds is getting stronger year by year. We already have the problem that our generation—the elderly Members of the House of Lords and others who can vote only in local elections—now have a rather disproportionate impact on the way Governments operate and choose financial priorities, because the old vote in larger numbers. There is a case, therefore, for increasing the weight of the young, and a very strong case for combating the disillusion and disengagement from British politics that younger generations now have by encouraging them while still at school to see themselves as citizens taking part in the electoral process.
The issue we have is how far we think it possible or even likely that, within the next eight to 10 years, this may be carried into law. There may well be a change of Government at the 2024 election. If we have already reconstructed the boundaries, we need at least to have a look at what such a change would do.
I add in passing that, if we still have a Conservative Government, and if the Conservatives hold to their previous commitment to expand the allowance for overseas voters to vote beyond a 15-year period after they have left the UK, that would also distort the figures considerably. Do the Government have any plans to extend voting for overseas voters, or have they conducted on that issue yet another of Boris Johnson’s U-turns, having discovered that Britons who live abroad are often rather internationally minded and therefore are not certain to vote for this rather narrowly nationalist-minded Government?
The Government want to draw the net very tightly about the balance between voters in different constituencies. Here are two matters—the extension of the vote to 16 year-olds and, potentially, the extension of the allowance for voting to overseas voters—which could blow that balance out of the water. It makes a great deal of sense to at least assess what the impact would be as a result of that change. I hope that the Minister will either answer my question on whether the Government have any plans to extend overseas voting rights or at least write to me on that matter.
My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords who tabled this amendment. It has provided this afternoon an opportunity once again to discuss the pros and cons of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote. The Government have consistently opposed that idea, and I am glad to set out the reasons why.
Less than a year ago, the Government were elected on a manifesto that committed to retaining the current franchise at 18 years old. We have therefore no plans to lower the voting age. The age of 18, not 16, is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult. Full citizenship and individual rights, from buying alcohol to smoking to voting, should be gained only at adulthood.
The age of 18 is recognised in the vast majority of democratic countries as the age at which one becomes an adult. More than 170 countries worldwide maintain a voting age of 18 or above, including other liberal democracies comparable to our own. Only a handful of countries in the world have reduced their national voting age to 16.
Our manifesto commitment on this point is important, and the reasoning for aligning the voting age to the age at which one becomes an adult is clear. As a result, there would be little point in spending public resources on an assessment of the effects of enfranchising 16 and 17 year-olds.
There are inconsistencies on this across the union. As I said, full citizen rights and responsibilities are given at 18; 16 year-olds do not have full citizen rights. Those aged 16 or 17 must gain parental consent to join the Army or to marry, indicating that they have not yet reached adulthood. The current drinking age is 18. There has been a lot of discussion about this in the past, with the Liberal Democrats mired in confusion as to whether they believe the drinking age should be lowered to 16. The SNP Scottish Government, when Nicola Sturgeon was Health Secretary, attempted to raise the age for alcohol off-sales to 21. Labour was utterly inconsistent on the age of majority, suggesting that its motivations are partisan rather than principled. The Labour Government raised the legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 to protect children. They raised the age for buying knives to 18, as they did the age for buying fireworks—I could go on; I am trying to show the inconsistencies in where we are on this case.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, talked about the Welsh Government, who are seeking to change the electoral law in Wales to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. However, at the same time, in 2017 Public Health Wales raised the legal age for tongue piercings and other intimate piercings to 18, arguing that young people may be less likely to have the experience or knowledge to have a piercing before 18. We can see the inconsistencies, which is why we as the Government set out clearly in our manifesto that we will continue to say that 18 is the age at which young people reach adulthood.
I should also point out our concern with the substance of this amendment, as well as the amendment which we will move on to next. Both require the Boundary Commission to take on an entirely new function: publishing a report into the potential impact of two policies that have not been introduced. The commission would be obliged to publish opinions and judgments about what might happen in the future. Of course, speculating about the future, however well-designed the models that one uses might be, is a risky business, but that is not my primary concern. More important is the fact that publishing such reports would almost certainly damage the Boundary Commissions’ reputation for impartiality and independence.
The technical work that the commissions were created for does not include a role of expressing opinions or making judgments, however balanced or well founded. Indeed, the secretaries to the Boundary Commissions are rightly assiduous in avoiding expressing opinions on anything other than the technical nature of their work, as they demonstrated when giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee in another place earlier this year. We should not give them any duties that would prevent them continuing to act with neutrality and even-handedness. This is central to maintaining the trust we all have in the Boundary Commissions and their ability to act impartially.
I hope that noble Lords have enjoyed hearing the debate on the franchise as much as I have, a debate which will no doubt continue in the coming years, but are content not to press the amendment.
I have received no request to speak after the Minister. Therefore, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter.
I thank all noble Lords who have supported the amendment. I will simply make two points. First, as my noble friend Lady Gale said, Scottish and Welsh 16 and 17 year-olds have, or will have, the vote, but do not appear in the numbers on which their constituency boundary is drawn. That does not make sense. We just want it examined. Secondly, I give a gentle warning to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and, indeed, her Government. After the summer we have just had, with the disruption to the education and futures of 16 and 17 year-olds, her staunch refusal to consider or even discuss the issue, indeed, not even to allow the Boundary Commission to look at any impact, will not go down well with the exact voters who will be 18 at the next election. They will have heard her words today, but I do not think they will be impressed.
I personally regret her response—it feels short-sighted and over dismissive of the ask. It would not undermine the independence of the Boundary Commission. It would enable it to report on an important issue of franchise. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, the Minister quoted the manifesto commitment not to lower the voting age. I have just checked the Conservative manifesto and it has the parallel commitment:
“We will make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”
I want to press the Minister on whether the Government actually plan to implement that manifesto promise within the lifetime of the coming review. If they propose to carry this manifesto commitment through, they should at least allow for this, given that they do not actually know how many of the 5 million British expats might now register. It could blow the entire exercise well out of the water.
I thank the noble Lord. I am sorry if I did not answer his question. I did not believe it was in the scope of this amendment. I do not have the answer, but I will make sure that he has a written response.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 11. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
11: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact on constituency boundaries: automatic registration
Within the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Boundary Commission must review and report on the impact on constituency boundaries of the introduction of automatic voter registration, including for attainers.”
My Lords, we were about to find out during the adjournment what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours will say about this amendment, but he quite rightly got cut short by the clerk. The amendment calls for the now rather beleaguered Boundary Commission to conduct another independent review of all the consequences of automatic registration, from improved numbers of electors, to absence of democratic participation and everything in between.
This issue has gone to and fro for some time between the major parties without any party being able to point to conclusive proof that theirs is the right position. I am particularly grateful to the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which produced a report on this issue and in broad terms supported automatic registration. It said in its second key recommendation:
“The Government should pursue further modernisation of registers, including piloting automatic registration for attainers and introducing assisted registration to prompt eligible voters to register when accessing other public services.”
We are talking about up to 9 million people—more than 100 constituencies-worth of voters—who are currently unregistered. They are mainly in rented accommodation, from the BAME community, from poorer households, students or vulnerable community members—people whose votes matter and who should take issues to their constituency MP and have them looked at, but do not participate in democracy. When they are surveyed, they all say that they want to participate in the democratic process, register to vote and vote, but they do not take the action to do so. It seems that this is pushing at an open door.
I think that the Conservative Party generally feels that this conflicts with their policy of individual registration, which has been around for a few years now. I do not think that individual registration has increased democratic participation in our country. Therefore, something is missing in attracting people into democratic participation. It is our view that it should be reviewed and looked at. We should look at all the evidence. People should come to give their views. The Boundary Commission would not hold an opinion on this, but it would hold the review. At the end of the review, we can take a decision, one way or another, about whether automatic registration should apply or be piloted throughout the land. However, we would need to have the evidence before us to make up our minds on automatic registration. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 24, which is in the same territory as that which has just been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, but this is not tickling the Boundary Commission’s fancy; it would require government action. It is particularly influenced by my serving as chairman of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, on which a dozen Peers served and toiled over several months to produce its report. As an interesting point, I looked up today that between us we had contested at least 47 parliamentary elections and I do not know how many local government elections.
The decision to introduce individual electoral registration in place of head-of-household registration was the major feature of the Act that we were looking at. This is not the time to have a fulsome debate on that report: that is for another day. The report was published on 8 July and the Government have got until today to respond; they have less than six hours. Bearing in mind what we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, there is a chance that we might get something at 9 o’clock tonight—is there not—depending on who is responsible for this. We look forward to that, and that debate on another occasion.
The concern of the Committee on the state of the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers was our number one item of our six key recommendations. The polling district and ward registers affect constituency electoral boundaries: they are the building blocks. Our recommendations include: piloting automatic registration for attainers—that is young people over 16; introducing assisted voter registration—we heard a little about that in the earlier amendment; greater use of data matching; civic engagement and public engagement, particularly in respect of young people and under-represented groups. The UK looks closely at international experience, where other countries have a far greater percentage of the population registered to vote. It was good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, speak earlier today commending overseas experience. We should not be frightened of it.
We were surprised to learn that the completeness of registers is no better under IER than under the old system. It cannot be right that only 85% of the eligible population is registered, while in Canada it is 96%. In Northern Ireland, where IER was introduced much earlier, back in 2002, completeness was reported to us as being only 74% in a 2018 survey. You would think that having had the experience of that for 16 years, we would be getting a more complete register there. It is evident that IER has not enhanced completeness.
The IER system has led to much event-led registration. On the cusp of an election we heard that 3.85 million people applied to register to vote between the MPs voting for an election on 29 October 2019 and the last date when it was possible to register, 26 November. Only half were subsequently added to the register, as half of them were already registered. Nevertheless, 2 million people were added to the register in that brief period. It cannot be right that our hard-working electoral officers—we met several of them—have to cope with all these registration events alongside the plethora of activity in organising an election and the increasing multitude of postal votes.
This late registration has meant that the registers immediately after the December 2019 election are perhaps as good as it gets under the old registration that we now have. It is in line with the committee’s view that the Government have agreed that it is the register of 2 March 2020 that is to be used for the electorate for the 2023 review. This amendment is to make certain that, as well as endeavouring to maximise the register so that everyone entitled is able to vote, henceforth the constituency boundaries will be based as near as possible to 100% of the eligible population rather than the 85% or so that it is at present.
My Lords, I have refrained from speaking on other amendments so as to concentrate my remarks on Amendment 24. I was a member of the ad hoc electoral registration Select Committee, brilliantly chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. I express my gratitude to Professor Maria Sobolewska and Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, who were the brilliant advisers to our committee. Equally, it was a pleasure to work with members of that committee from different political persuasions without rancour. Our only real division was, and remains, over ID cards and their use in polling booths. As I keep repeating, their day will come but we kept that division under wraps.
My concerns were elsewhere, in that I felt that the whole individual registration agenda, as originally promoted by the Labour Government—my noble friend Lord Wills, who I understand will be speaking today, was its grand advocate—was a huge mistake. As the ad hoc committee made clear, the Act “has not improved” completeness, which was one of its principal objectives. In that sense, it has failed. Completeness stands at the heart of Amendment 24. Furthermore, the agenda has been effectively hijacked for political advantage, which brings me to the amendment.
Local authorities, starved of the resources that they need to ensure accuracy and completeness, will inevitably give advantage to well-heeled, articulate and stable communities and disadvantage the less well organised and underprivileged in socially deprived areas. That has implications for the Labour vote, in particular in the inner cities where there is a transient, unsettled and footloose population, often living in substandard rented accommodation. I do not want favouritism; I want fairness. Low turnouts in these areas are too often misdiagnosed. They do not fully reveal the nature of the problem. There is low turnout due to lack of motivation, which is our fault—the fault of the parties—and then there is low turnout that arises out of failures to register. They are separate considerations: the latter can arise from shortfalls in accuracy, but primarily the problem is completeness.
I learned that lesson from working in elections in the 1980s, when Lady Porter was the leader of Westminster Council. I always remember canvassing the Peabody estate off Lupus Street in Pimlico and noticing the number of flats where not all the people were registered. In my view, the dropping of a head-of-household declaration, deficient as it is, was at that time and has since been considerably aggravated by individual registration. Yes, that sounds counterintuitive, but it is the case. Look at the evidence. I regard individual registration as an unnecessary and expensive disaster, costing tens of millions of pounds. As an intellectual exercise, it was utterly brilliant; in practice, it was a disaster. In my home county of Cumbria, which I can confidently predict is fraud-free, we are throwing public money down the drain with an unnecessary, burdensome and complicated system. Unfortunately, we are now paying the price for a consensus developed a decade ago and have to live with it.
Amendment 24 calls for a report to be laid before Parliament, setting out proposals for accuracy and completeness. Members have already heard or seen the stats, as published in our report—the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, set them out in his contribution—which in many areas expose the failures in the application of the law. The question is: what are we going to do about it? My preference is to repeal the law but that is not on offer. However, we could loosen electoral administrative requirements in some areas and concentrate resources elsewhere. We could target the areas where there are real problems of under-registration and electoral fraud. That has been my case for the last 12 years. As the Electoral Commission put it to our committee,
“under-registration increased among some of those groups that were already less likely to be registered under the old system: young people and especially attainers.”
In other words, it got worse. As our report goes on to say,
“millions … may still be missing from registers, risking disenfranchisement and damaging the integrity of elections.”
In other words, the Act is failing in its objectives.
Our committee valiantly sought to make recommendations that dealt with these problems: the online checking system; lessons from Canada on good practice; registration targets; attainer automatic registration; notification prompts; measures to deal with duplicate applications; data-transfer registration. These can all help, but they need resource. Without it, you will inevitably find gross miscalculations of the size of electorates in the inner-city constituencies where we have most of our problems. As the British Election Study academics put it in the findings of their dramatic report, incomplete registers have implications for constituency boundaries in the inner cities.
That brings me to my final point: the issue of targeting. I have argued for years to spend the money where it is needed; do not be guided by concerns over political correctness. The now famous Andy Erlam makes my point. This man fought in the East End of London for what he believed was right. He was not cowed by distorted concepts of political correctness. In 2008, I moved an amendment to the then Political Parties and Elections Bill. It would have allocated additional resource to those areas where local authorities were reporting inaccuracies, incompleteness and fraud in electoral administration. After a memorable meeting with the Ministers involved, the Labour Government rejected my amendment on one count: they were concerned about targeting areas where there were substantial ethnic minority populations, despite the fact that that was where the problem was. If we had gone down that route, we could have saved millions. The irony is that the idea behind my amendment came from those very ethnic minorities who were concerned about electoral fraud and were victims of it.
Amendment 24 calls for the Government to lay before Parliament a report on accuracy and completeness. That is exactly what we need. This is a serious amendment that should be taken seriously by the Government. That report should pay special regard to electoral problems in the inner cities. It should set aside misplaced concerns over political correctness. There are lessons from the pandemic, in the early days of which a clear effort was made to avoid levels of high media exposure to the incidence of the virus in ethnic minority communities. The lesson is clear: mistaken political correctness undermines confidence in administration and decision-taking. Amendment 24 could help identify and target the real problems that confront us.
My Lords, the Committee has heard three excellent speeches. I thank the noble Lords who tabled these amendments. I am acutely aware of the expertise of these speakers and the efforts they have put in over many years to try to deal with this fundamental weakness of our democratic structure. I cannot claim to have that level of expertise, but it is obvious to me that, however wonderful the Bill comes to be in its final form, it is still, to a worrying degree, a castle built on sand.
The basis of our representative democracy is, of course, the right of people to vote. It is assumed that everyone of an age is able to exercise that right. If, as has been amply demonstrated—there is no need for me to repeat it—it becomes more and more apparent that these figures are seriously inaccurate, and that the numbers on which we determine constituency boundaries do not reflect the number of people living in an area, it is a castle built on sand. It is a bit like an architect saying, “Here is a terrific design for your new house. I like everything about it. The bricks are really dodgy, but you can still go ahead.” The bricks are dodgy; that is the problem.
It is not just a question of numbers; it is also to do with the integrity of our democracy. We hear so many arguments about the size of electorates; for example, pointing out that some inner-city seat has only 50,000 electors, so “My word, it must be a bit of a cakewalk being an MP for that area, with only 50,000 electors.” Of course, it may be true that there are only 50,000 electors, but you can bet your boots, if it is a city-centre constituency, that there will be a lot more people than those 50,000 who live in the constituency and have the right—which they undoubtedly have—to come to you for help. I doubt whether any former MP speaking on this group of amendments, when faced with a long queue of people coming to see them at their surgery, checked before they agreed to help them whether they were on the electoral roll—I certainly never did. There may be MPs who are more effectively bureaucratic than I was who make sure they find that out even if it does not affect their performance, but one’s obligation is clearly to those people. To say that constituency A in an inner city with 50,000 is unfairly overrepresented compared with the rich suburb with 90,000 misses that fundamental point that the bricks out of which the building is constructed are flawed. There is no simple answer, but we have already heard from the previous three speakers that numerous practical things could be done to deal with this fundamental weakness of our democracy—I am not given to hyperbole, but, clearly, if electoral registration is not accurate, people are not able to vote who in our democracy ought to be able to.
I shall say no more and leave it to the experts, but I am so glad that this matter is being debated and with so many really informative contributions.
I want to say a few words on Amendment 24, to which I have put my name in support of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on whose committee I had the pleasure to serve, but, first, I hope that your Lordships will accept my apologies for my inability to be present at Second Reading.
The Conservative Party manifesto commits the Government to
“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”
While there are several ways to interpret how exactly every vote counts the same, what I think informs the phrase is a proposition with which I hope everyone can agree, which is that the vote gives every citizen the ability to help choose their Government and to hold those in power to account. That is the cornerstone of democracy and political order. As we have heard, that is true only if every citizen who is eligible to vote is able to vote. They are able to vote only if they are registered to vote. The Government’s aim of equalisation can be achieved only if everyone eligible to vote is registered to vote.
However, as we have heard, there are millions of people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the electoral register and so cannot do so. In this country, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, the register is only 85% complete, which is not a figure with which the Government should be content. In Canada, as the noble Lord pointed out, the register is 96% complete. In normal times, this level of completeness in our electoral register would be a concern, but these are not normal times. Across the Atlantic, in the world’s most powerful country, which has always prided itself on its democracy, there is now unprecedented questioning of the process for electing the next President. Politicians and commentators across the political spectrum are questioning the integrity of that forthcoming election. At the heart of much of that questioning lie well-documented techniques of voter suppression: techniques for stopping voters registering and voting. Such techniques benefit one party, the Republicans, at the expense of the other, the Democrats. Some of those voter suppression techniques are identical to those to which this Government seem attracted, and they use the same justifications as those used by the Republicans in the United States.
I do not want to go into those now. But in these circumstances I hope that the Government would want to take every opportunity to reassure Parliament, and the country, that their motives in pursuing electoral reforms are noble and non-partisan. This simple, straightforward amendment seeks to help them in that endeavour: it gives them an opportunity to share with Parliament their proposals for improving the electoral register until it is as close to being 100% accurate and 100% complete as possible, and it would allow the elected representatives of the people, and your Lordships’ House, to assess the merits of these proposals. It is an amendment that embodies a commitment to democratic transparency and scrutiny, and as such I see no good reason why the Government should not support it. I very much hope that the Minister will now commit the Government to embedding it in the Bill.
My Lords, I, too, put my name down in support of Amendment 24, having been a member of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, which reported in July, and I pay tribute to the astute chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland.
The purpose of Amendment 24 is to oblige the Government to address the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers as a matter of urgency. The Minister, to give him his due, has expressed the Government’s commitment to the importance of this issue, most recently only last week in the debate on the representation of the people regulations. This amendment seeks to inject that sense of urgency and priority into doing something about improving the present situation—there are very good reasons for doing so, as other noble Lords have said.
In the context of this Bill it must be right to improve the data on which decisions on constituency boundaries are taken. The Government—as we constantly hear—value good data, and they are right to do so. Our present level of voter registration, as we also heard, is by many accounts not good by comparable international standards. Nine million missing voters suggest that improvement is long overdue. We could and should do better.
There are a number of possible measures that would address the issue, including, but not confined to, automatic registration, as mentioned in Amendment 11. The proposals for action are out there and are well known. The most important reason to inject a sense of urgency into addressing voter registration, however, is that it is one way—not the only way—of addressing the disenchantment and mistrust with politics in our society. It is about the integrity of our democratic process, and, as I said at Second Reading, it takes us into the wider political debate about regional disparities, race and inequality. That is what this amendment is about and why a sense of urgency is required. I hope that the Government will accept it.
My Lords, I am pleased that we are all paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland and the membership of his Select Committee, and their advisers, for their excellent review of the workings of the electoral administration legislation from 2013, and I shall stay awake until midnight waiting for the government response to their excellent report. In any event, I look forward to it being debated properly in the House.
The committee achieved cross-party consensus on the crucial issue of automatic voter registration. The principle of fair boundaries, with MPs representing roughly equal numbers of people entitled to vote, requires a complete electoral register, but we are far from achieving that.
Even if the principle of automatic voter registration is accepted and is implemented as far as possible, there will still be gaps and inaccuracies. However, introducing it would be a significant step towards increasing the capacity of people legally entitled to vote and to take part in elections or referendums.
It would also mean that constituency boundaries will be more likely to reflect actual populations and those legitimately entitled to vote. At present, only those people who are already included on electoral registers count for the purpose of drawing up boundaries. We know that those now on the registers are not representative of all those entitled to vote, especially young people, private sector tenants and, perhaps especially, people who rely on the widespread misconception that they are registered to vote automatically.
I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing last week that there is a legal obligation to comply with the registration process and for his undertaking to try to ensure that all registration forms make this clear, as many people do not understand the fact of these obligations. However, in a reference to automatic voter registration, he suggested that the problem was that no single dataset had been identified that could be properly used. It seems to me, however, that several different datasets could be used to contribute to the process of automatic voter registration.
Last week, the Minister highlighted the problems of checking nationality. Nationality is specifically included in passport information, so every time someone obtains a new passport, perhaps with a new address, they should be included on the relevant electoral register, without having to check whether they want to opt in to the right to vote. The right to vote is fundamental. Whether to exercise it is as matter for the individual, but they cannot do this unless they are registered.
Last week the Minister said that
“the sacrifices and battles that people made across the generations to secure the right to vote for every citizen mean that it is vital that it should be enjoyed.”—[Official Report, 3/9/20; col. 501.]
The Chartists and the suffragettes demanded the right to vote, not the right to opt in to a register if they happened to know that this was needed and how and when the relevant paperwork must be completed. These amendments are about removing unnecessary barriers to facilitating that fundamental right to vote.
The DVLA database, for example, may not contain details of nationality, but if someone is already properly included on the electoral register, then when they notify the DVLA of a change of address, their electoral registration details could and should be automatically transferred.
Some databases, perhaps including those of the DWP, universities registering students or those held by the Student Loans Company, may include details of nationality. Where it is appropriate for people on such databases to be included in electoral registers, this should be done automatically, without further ado about inviting them to apply to register and to opt in to a basic right—the right to vote.
Finally, I will put to the Minister one very clear proposal that would be a step towards automatic voter registration and could be easily implemented. It was made in the recent report sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, written by academic experts at the University of East Anglia. It was included in the “missing millions” reports produced by the APPG on Democratic Participation, for which I have been an officer, and it was supported by the House of Lords Select Committee looking at electoral registration issues.
Will the Minister undertake to promote the practice of ensuring that all 16 year-olds should be automatically registered to vote when they receive their national insurance number? This is a simple and very achievable proposal that could greatly improve registration levels of young people, enabling them to vote as soon as they reach the age at which they are entitled to vote. The Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society have all supported this. I suspect that there may be some opposition within government to improving the completeness of the register, in spite of what we are told. But this practical proposal may enable cost savings to be made in the registration process, and it should be seen as a necessary step, given the difficulties of canvassing young people, particularly in the current Covid crisis, or engaging with them in school.
Much excellent work has been done on this subject by Dr Toby James, professor of politics and public policy at the University of East Anglia. I hope that the Minister and his team will study the excellent report that he helped to produce for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and respond positively to this idea in particular, before we have to consider further amendments on the issue of automatic voter registration on Report.
My Lords, I am going to start with an element of agreement with a number of others who have spoken. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for his excellent chairmanship of the committee, which produced an excellent report and brought people together in any number of different ways.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for his charming request to me to put my name to Amendment 24, from which I demurred. The reason I did so was specifically highlighted by the introduction and opening comments from the noble Lord, Lord Lennie. I subscribe to the key recommendations of the report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred and which he quoted in part. Recommendation 2 refers to,
“further modernisation of registers, including piloting automatic registration for attainers.”
That is all one phrase. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, managed to pause before he moved on to “for attainers,” because this is in some people’s minds an automatic commitment to move on to automatic registration in general, and I do not support that.
I do support, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has just suggested, assistance/automatic registration for attainers, because it is absolutely crucial that we get people involved in the community and the politics of society from an early age. That is the reason why attainers are so important. And I recognise that there are other groups—no question about it—that should be registered. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, made reference to Canada and identified that I had referred to Australia earlier in the debate. When I had the conversation with Tom Rogers, the current commissioner, the other day, he talked to me about how Australia has increased its level of registration. We did not take evidence from Australia, but the Government should look at it.
However, the Government have introduced a series of measures and efforts to ensure that registration improves. Although the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was right in saying that the register is not more complete, it is more accurate, and that was the evidence that we received in relation to registration. For those who are not economically deprived, the availability of online registration has been proved to be an enormous boon—hence the surge in applications at the general election. Many of them were not valid—they were duplicates and the like—but they were important.
We talk about getting people involved by ensuring that they are registered. One of the other points on which I disagreed with the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, was when he said that people when asked say that they want to participate. Well, the vast majority have the opportunity to register online, and they do not—and, even if they do, I have just checked and the figure for turnout at the last election was 67%. If you ask the question, “Do you want to do something?”, the automatic response, unless you phrase it carefully in polling research, is going to be, “Yes.” It is like motherhood and apple pie— nobody ever sins. So one has to take that in context.
There are groups that do not want to be registered. “Government”, “IT systems” and “well operated” are not usually heard in the same sentence. We must identify that many people do not want to be registered, for whatever reason. One of my neighbours chooses not to be registered. In my second week as a Member of Parliament, I went to a battered wives’ refuge; they did not want to be registered. There are ways of hiding that they are registered—no question about that—but, as I say, I am concerned about doing things automatically and finishing up with dire results for such people.
I regret the hyperbole in some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. As somebody who was one of the first MPs in the 1983 intake to vote against a government three-line Whip—it was on the then Government’s paving Bill, because they were altering the system of elections in relation to the GLC—I find his comments unacceptable.
While ensuring that we maximise the numbers for boundary reviews—the original direction of this issue—we should also recognise that large numbers of people are on the electoral roll twice. If we are to have an accurate electoral roll, the people on it should be counted only once. That applies to constituencies in Cornwall and Devon, but particularly to university constituencies. The other day, I was astonished to discover that there are 41,000 students in the Canterbury constituency at three different universities—or arms of different universities. Many of them will be overseas voters. However, if you are talking about levelling up, getting the people who are not registered and measuring a constituency boundary in terms of proportionate electorates, you must at the same time take out those who are double-registered. There is no question that people in inner-city areas suffer deprivation. They move from one home to another, so are not on the electoral roll. But in many constituencies close to here, they are cheek by jowl with people who are registered two or three times because they happen to have two or three homes, or their children are students and the like.
All in all, while I want to see improving levels of registration—and I recognise the achievements in places such as Australia and Canada—we must acknowledge the challenges associated with that. As far as I am concerned, elections are voluntary and registration should therefore be voluntary.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the Lords Minister in the coalition who had to carry through the change in patterns of electoral registration. I still carry some of the scars from the speeches made by the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Campbell-Savours, and others during those debates. That was when I became well aware of our antiquated system of electoral registration, which we inherited from the days when only heads of households voted. I was also conscious that changing to individual registration was like the 1999 House of Lords report: a halfway house that was not going to take us all the way.
During our discussions within the Cabinet Office I also became interested, for the first time, in digital transformation in government. It was clear that if we were to make much fuller electoral registration our aim, we would have to employ data sharing and data transfer. I remember my shock when we approached the Ministry of Transport on whether we could share at least the outlines of addresses and names in the driving licence scheme. The DVLA and Ministry of Transport’s first response was to say no. I understand that we now compare the names and addresses of people with national insurance numbers on the DWP database with electoral registrations. That is a step forward. We all know that moving toward data sharing within government is a complicated and sensitive area where we must take great care.
I remark to the noble Lord, Lord True, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that responsibility for this matter has just moved back from DCMS to the Cabinet Office. They will therefore answer to us when the Government, if they hold to their promises, publish the digital strategy White Paper which they have promised before the end of this year.
I remind the Minister that the Conservative manifesto refers to voting as an expression of someone’s “full citizenship rights”. If it is a mark of one’s full citizenship rights, we should do our utmost to ensure that all citizens are on the register. We have this problem in Britain that many people do not want the state to know who and where they are. Thus, the concept of citizenship is itself in some ways contested. We need to move towards automaticity, if I may use that term. We will move slowly towards it, rather than relying on underfunded and overworked electoral registration officers at the local level to fill this 6 million to 9 million gap.
The noble Lord, Lord True, was unhappy that I hinted at Second Reading that some Conservatives are as concerned to exclude some people from the register as to include everyone in voting. If that is the case, let us do whatever we can to include everybody. That means moving towards use of comparative databases to ensure that everyone is on the register. Rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised the question that some people do not want everyone to know where they live. That raises large issues of transparency versus privacy, which we will again want to debate.
We also understand the questions of publicly-owned digital identity. That is another sensitive area, on which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, takes a strongly held view. I take a middle view, and there are others who believe that privacy overrides the right of the state to know who and where we are, or the right of the citizen to have access to all the public data the state holds on them. This is an area that we should look to move further forward on. That means we have to move towards automatic voter registration, including for retainers. I therefore support the amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has withdrawn his name from the speakers’ list, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to the end of this debate because it has been of considerable importance. Although I am a co-signatory of the cross-party Amendment 11, I will refer particularly to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland. He had a great deal of expertise in his Select Committee, some of which has been on display during the Grand Committee.
The point I want to make is that we do not set up Select Committees lightly. Notoriously, some of their results and recommendations have been ignored in the past. In this case, there was a particular legislative reason for the committee to take advice, to take evidence and to recommend to your Lordships’ House. It would be extraordinary if the Government did not respond very positively to its recommendations, presumably by one minute to midnight tonight. I confess that I will not stay up; my expectation is that it will look just as good in the morning.
The issue that has been the subject of this debate and the Select Committee’s report is of huge significance. I pray in aid in particular the point from the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, who said that we have to see this in the context of public disenchantment and disengagement. I hope I quoted that correctly. If the public do not see the register as something that they as citizens need to be involved in, it is not just a matter of personal choice; it is that our citizenship has not been fully engaged in its responsibilities and rights as citizens.
I part company in a small way from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. He is perfectly right that we in the UK have always had a tradition that voting is entirely voluntary, but we have also said for many years now that the register should be the pool from which juries are appointed. So if you are not on the electoral register, you are not in fact fulfilling your responsibility as a citizen. Hence there is an obligation, and it can be backed up by a civil fine if you do not register. That has been true right through the recent changes for IER, which have maintained the case.
While I entirely accept that there will be some circumstances, which people have referred to, where people are in some sort of difficulty from domestic violence and therefore try to protect their current address, that is dealt with by the right of people not to be on the publicly available register. That has been the case for a number of years and is very proper protection for people in those sorts of circumstances, but the actual responsibility to be registered is extremely important.
There is a tendency for people to think that this is a relatively small problem, but as has been made clear, not least by members of the Select Committee and their report, if there are between 6 million and 9 million people who are eligible to be on that register who are not, that is a far bigger problem than, for example, the Government’s alleged concerns about people impersonating others in polling stations, which is a tiny problem in comparison. As many noble Lords have said, it can mean that there is a fundamental weakness in the very basis for the Bill; it means it is, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, a castle built on sand.
There are ways in which there could be some immediate improvements without a great deal of bureaucratic change. For example, as my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, it has been recommended that when a 16 year-old gets a national insurance number and is therefore an attainer in terms of getting on the register, that would be an automatic entry on the system. That is asking at this stage not for any elaborate automatic registration everywhere, but, in the terms of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for some selective, targeted automatic registration.
I understand that there will be difficulties in moving smartly to the sort of automatic registration that we would prefer, as set out in Amendment 11, but the Select Committee’s recommendations need a full and firm commitment to action from the Government. It is not enough now to just say, “Let’s have some more consultation.” The whole point of having a Select Committee, to return to the comment I made at the outset, is that Members of your Lordships’ House across the parties, with a lot of expert advice and evidence, take a hard, sober and non-partisan look at problems. This is something the committee was asked to do by the House itself. It would, frankly, be ridiculous—outrageous, some would think—if Ministers simply brushed that advice aside. I therefore look forward very confidently, even optimistically, to the Minister responding on behalf of the Government to say that they will now not just listen to what the Select Committee said, but act on it.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled these amendments. They have provided an opportunity to discuss the merits of not introducing automatic voter registration and for me to update the Committee on what initiatives the Government are undertaking to improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers.
The Government are not considering introducing automatic registration, for reasons of principle and practicality. On principle, we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties; it therefore follows that people should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. There is also the principle of individual responsibility, which is why we introduced the individual electoral register in 2014. Automatic registration is not compatible with the idea that it is each eligible citizen’s responsibility to register to vote. An approach based on individual responsibility also leads to the outcomes that we all want to see. After the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers for the 2017 general election were the largest ever. There is also some evidence from overseas to suggest that those who register themselves are more likely to vote.
Coupled with that individual responsibility, a more general duty falls on society as a whole, and on all of us here, to explain the importance of registering to vote. The Government welcome and share in these efforts to encourage people to register and to participate fully in our democracy. The Government’s online registration service does exactly this, supporting citizens who want to register by making the registration process easier than ever. Satisfaction with the Register to Vote website is consistently above 90%.
On the practicalities, we have many concerns about automatic registration. I will briefly outline five of them. First, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on grounds of the significant security and privacy implications of holding that much personal data in one place, as well as the significant cost that such a system would imply.
Secondly, any system automatically registering citizens who, for example, are applying for a driving licence, a passport or universal credit could present accessibility challenges to those citizens who do not use any of those services.
Thirdly, there is currently no public service whose application procedures capture all the data required to determine eligibility to vote—name, address, age, nationality and immigration status. This means that any so-called automatic system would still require significant amounts of human intervention.
Fourthly, electors have faith in our current registration system. The results of an Electoral Commission survey on the 2019 general election found that a net 78% of those surveyed were satisfied with the registration system. Of the 10% who were dissatisfied, 9% said that people should be automatically registered to vote and 1% said it should be compulsory.
Fifthly, we should also take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration. Registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. For example, shortly after the introduction of automatic registration in Canada in 2000, the General Election Post-event Overview reported that,
“a majority of candidates and political party representatives indicated a low degree of satisfaction”
with the preliminary lists of voters generated by the national register, and that returning officers reported having
“to deal with widespread or major complaints about the preliminary lists of electors, indicating that the accuracy of the lists did not meet their expectations.”
Before I move on from Amendment 11, I reiterate what I said in the previous debate about the risk of damaging the independence of the Boundary Commissions, were they to be asked to do this work. They would be taking on an entirely new function, publishing a report on the potential impact of the policy. More than that, it would almost certainly damage the Boundary Commissions’ reputation for impartiality and independence. I just wanted to make that clear.
The second amendment in this group is the one tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt of Greetland, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Janvrin and Lord Wills. It would require the Government to lay before Parliament proposals to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers. I want to reiterate what my noble friend the Minister said recently and what the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said this evening. The Government are totally committed to ensuring that we have as complete an electoral register as possible and we are working to that end. Between 2014 and 2018 the register rose from 86% to 89%, but the Government are not complacent and we will continue to work to improve that.
I will update noble Lords on the work going on to this day. I share with many in both Houses the ambition that every eligible elector who wants to be, should be included on the electoral register. However, the Government strongly believe that the individual must make the decision to engage with the democratic process themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, pointed out that people have reasons why they do not want to engage. The Government have an important role in making the process as easy as possible to ensure that there are no barriers to registration. That is why the Government have been working hard with electoral administrators to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers through initiatives such as online registration and reform of the annual canvass process.
I will highlight a few pieces of work in this area. The introduction of online registration has made it simpler and faster for people to register to vote. It takes as little as five minutes. This improvement benefits all electors, including groups that have traditionally experienced barriers to making an application to register. From my own experience, I know that many local authority librarians will help people who do not have the IT knowledge that some of us might have.
The Government, working with partners, have developed a wide range of resources to promote democratic engagement. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that this is putting too much on to electoral registration officers. This is the bit of work that they like doing. I know that from my experience of working with many electoral officers over many years. They are passionate about making sure that as many people as possible in their communities are engaged in the democratic process. Events are aimed at electoral registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and others to encourage people, particularly young people, to get involved in the process.
We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain. That will improve its overall efficiency considerably. This will allow electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups. Many noble Lords mentioned these groups. It is interesting that it is the local electoral registration officers that often know who these groups are and how to communicate with them. Electoral registration officers also play an important role in helping to make the registers accurate and complete. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, is right that it is not just about completeness but accuracy.
When thinking of another group of people where we know it is difficult to keep it to one name on the register, we can look at members of the Armed Forces as well as students. They are another group of people that I know well. The Government are also analysing the impact of the new student electoral registration condition which requires higher education providers in England to comply with ERO requests for data and obliges them to work with local authorities to promote electoral registration among their student communities. This is yet another piece of work that is being done locally that will increase the numbers on the roll.
I hope that provides noble Lords with sufficient assurance that the Government are dedicated to improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers, while maintaining individual electors’ liberty to choose to register of their own accord. I therefore thank noble Lords for their amendments but invite them to withdraw or not move them.
My Lords, given the time, I will concentrate not on what previous speakers have said, but on what the Minister contributed in her response. The practical measures that she has outlined do not appear to have impacted on the 9 million missing voters. There may be a shuffling between students here or registrations there and so on, but there are still 9 million people who could, and want to, participate but do not do so because they are not registered in the process. We need a step change, moving away from well-motivated and well-meaning electoral registration officers, student leaders and others in institutions, to get to where we need to be, with a marked increase in participation at the next election. This legislation will not happen every single year or Parliament. It is a one-off parliamentary opportunity to make a real impact on the missing voters.
This issue is not going to go away. The Committee has heard the passion on it from the members of the noble Lord’s committee. I believe this will come back at the next stage but, in the meantime, I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 7.12 pm.