House of Lords
Thursday 8 October 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.
Introduction: Baroness Fox of Buckley
Claire Regina Fox, having been created Baroness Fox of Buckley, of Buckley in the County of Flintshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Glasman and Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Baroness Fleet
Veronica Judith Colleton Wadley, CBE, having been created Baroness Fleet, of Hampstead in the London Borough of Camden, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Black of Brentwood and Baroness Morgan of Cotes, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Oaths and Affirmations
The Lord Bishop of Ely took the oath, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them very short, confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Low-income Families
A direct assessment of Covid-19’s impact on low-income families with children has not been made. However, we are monitoring several data sources, including Her Majesty’s Treasury’s recent distribution analysis of Covid-19’s impact on working households. The Treasury analysis has shown that the Government’s unprecedented support package, including job retention, self-employment protection schemes and an additional £9 billion to strengthen the welfare system, has supported the poorest working households the most, with those in the bottom 10% seeing no income reduction.
My Lords, the Government may not make an assessment but I am seriously worried by mounting evidence from Action for Children, CPAG and the Trussell Trust of parents struggling to pay the bills and to feed their kids in this pandemic. We could help by lifting the benefit cap and the two-child limit and topping up legacy benefits, but Ministers have said no and now the Chancellor is threatening to scrap the £20 a week he put on universal credit. I have two simple questions. Does the Minister accept the evidence that a growing number of parents are struggling financially? If she does, what are the Government going to do about it?
I take the noble Baroness’s point well. I assure her that we are considering all evaluations—the Trussell Trust, Joseph Rowntree and Action for Children, as well as Understanding Society, the Covid-19 survey and the opinions and lifestyle survey by the Office for National Statistics. I am sure this question will come up many times today, so I say that the £20 UC increase was put in for one year only. As my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the other place said, dialogue is continuing with HMT on this, and the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that it is under constant review.
My Lords, in 2010 the UK poverty rate stood at 15%; it now stands at 26%—an increase of more than 1.1 percentage points a year. An additional 670,000 people are expected to be classed as destitute by the end of 2020. I want to press the Minister a bit more on the detail on the supplementary question from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. The Minister talked about what has been done. It does not seem to be working. Can we have some explanation of what the Government will do in the future?
My Lords, a recent report by the Church of England and the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on low-income families with children, saying that:
“Without a radical change in policy direction, the prospects for many families are likely to deteriorate further through the remainder of this year as unemployment rises”
and more families become reliant on the welfare system. Following Prime Minister’s Question Time in the other place yesterday, will the Government do more than consider? Will they commit to making the temporary uplift in universal credit permanent? Will they also commit to a commensurate increase in the level of support for children, to reflect the additional needs of families with children?
I know that my noble friend is a great champion of work coaches. They do a great job and we are proud of the work they are doing at the DWP. I am also proud of the fact that we are doubling the number, spending £895 million. We will have 13,500 more work coaches, 7,500 in the next three months. I am sure that they will do a great job.
My Lords, in the first four months of this pandemic, 300,000 people applied for universal credit because they had lost their job, and failed to get it. Far too many people are falling through the trapdoor of unemployment and finding that universal credit is not available to them. The Minister has just said that we are going to have a review. Will this be a root-and-branch review? Will it look at bringing our tax and benefit systems closer? The evidence now is that, if we do that, we will have a much better system by unifying the two.
We are all aware of the difficult time that people are having in these days. I will take the noble Lord’s request for a root-and-branch review back to the Minister for Welfare Delivery. I will write back to the noble Lord. If he has some very good ideas, would he please write and give them to me?
Will my noble friend the Minister recognise the work of StreetGames and community organisations which encourage young, disadvantaged people from low-income families to adopt a healthy and active lifestyle through the work of locally trusted organisations, which are the first port of call for many families struggling to cope with the crisis?
My Lords, children of school age have had their education severely disrupted, with those in the poorest households affected the most. We know that Covid-19 is passed on through droplet transmission, particularly in small, ill-ventilated spaces. Will the Minister assure the House that no families with school-age children will be evicted during this academic year, to prevent families being placed in bed and breakfasts, with the increased risk of transmission of Covid-19, to prevent mental health breakdown in children, and avoid further disruption to their education?
I thank the noble Baroness for bringing that important point to the notice of the House. My best response is that I will go back to my colleagues at MHCLG to get their position on the issue of evictions and write back to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, welcome as what the Government have done is, there is growing evidence of hardship among low-income families with children, most recently from Save the Children today. Following on from the right reverend Prelate’s question, why have the Government not done anything to improve social security benefits for children?
The Government have put £9 billion into the welfare system to help the poorest. As I said in my original Answer, the bottom 10% have not had their income lessened at all. I know how passionate the noble Baroness is about this, and I respect her tenacity in raising it on a regular basis. I have put my head above the parapet and organised an all-Peers briefing session on the benefit cap, with the Minister for Employment, next week. I am sure these issues will be talked about in greater detail then. I extend an invitation to all noble Lords to attend that briefing.
In 1942, William Beveridge introduced his report which led to the welfare state and the NHS. We are still facing the same giants that he was tackling at that time: squalor, want, idleness, ignorance and disease. Is it not time that we had another commission like that, and found an outstanding person with Civil Service colleagues to produce a report that will really tackle the long-term issues facing us?
I can only assure the noble Lord, and the whole House, that the excellent civil servants we have got, and the partners that we work with at DWP, are all the time trying to find better ways to deliver services to people so that they can realise their destiny.
I thank the Minister for her clear efforts in this area. I know that she is very sympathetic. My point is similar to that of other noble Lords. Save the Children said today that 27% of families are finding it harder to find food than they were in April. This is obviously going to get worse over the winter. I particularly want to ask about children: are the Government going to implement the three recommendations in the national food strategy, particularly about holiday hunger? The Christmas holidays will be upon us before we know it and we need a plan in place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, also raised with me, outside the Chamber, the issue of food, children and holiday cover. I pledged to talk to my noble friend Lady Berridge. I have been so busy that I have not been able to do that, but I give an undertaking to do so and to write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that there was no time for her question. We now come to the second Oral Question, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Polak.
Iran: UN Arms Embargo
My Lords, the UN arms embargo on Iran is due to expire on 18 October. We remain committed to countering Iranian proliferation to non-state actors. The EU’s arms embargo and the UN ballistic missile restrictions will remain in place, as will other prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Our abstention on extending the UN arms embargo was an error of judgment. China and Russia were always going to veto, to support Iran. Those three countries are not known for honouring gentlemen’s agreements. We should have voted with the US, to make it clear that we oppose Iran accessing arms through the legitimacy of the UN but, sadly, we chose to leave the US exposed and lonely when, in truth, we agree with it. There are 10 days before the expiry. Will my noble friend the Minister to take a lead and do what we know is right? If not, will he explain our policy going forward? How are we going to stop the spread of arms to the terror-supporting Iran?
My Lords, I share with my noble friend the intention to stop the destabilising influence of Iran. The United Kingdom abstained because the resolution could not attract the support of the council, and therefore did not represent a basis for achieving consensus. He asked about the way forward. We are addressing systematic Iranian non-compliance. Iran must engage seriously with our concerns, and I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has asked the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, to convene a ministerial joint commission as soon as possible. On what else the UK is doing, we sought to facilitate dialogue between the two positions to achieve a desired outcome. However, as I said earlier, sanctions remain, both from the EU and through the UN ballistic restrictions on Iran.
My Lords, I declare my registered interest as chair of the European Leadership Network. This is all about the JCPOA and the US Administration’s desire to destroy it, or to make it difficult for a Biden Administration to recant it. The Minister knows of my support for the Government’s policy on the JCPOA: Iran not having a nuclear weapon is a priority for our security. Does the Minister agree that however we may otherwise support arms embargo sanctions on Iran—which we do—we cannot fight to keep the JCPOA alive and at the same time impose an arms embargo relating to the treaty itself?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support. While the JCPOA is far from perfect, it remains the only agreement on the table. We continue to press with our E3 partners on this issue to ensure that it is sustained, to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear state in any sense. We also remain committed to Resolutions 2216 and 1701 of the Security Council, which prevent further exporting of arms, as well as the other sanctions from the EU and on ballistics that I have already alluded to.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister will answer both my questions. Has the United Kingdom said anything to the United States about the importance of adhering to international agreements? Secondly, given the volatility of the region, does he agree that very active involvement with Iran is required to build on the JCPOA?
My Lords, on the second question of the noble Baroness, I have already referred to the fact that we are working with E3 partners and with High Representative Borrell on that very issue. On adhering to international agreements, the JCPOA was agreed by all and we were disappointed by the United States’ leaving it, but it is important, in order for it to remain on the table, that Iran fulfils its obligations.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to the register of interests and my role as the trade envoy to Iran. While I totally agree that there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of Iran’s behaviour, if we want stability in the region is it not important to recognise that Iran has its own legitimate security concerns, having been—within living memory—invaded by its Arab neighbour and having lost more lives than we lost in the whole of the Second World War? Given that, if we really want Iran not to want to buy more weapons, should we not be more careful about selling weapons into the region—to Iran’s heavily-armed Arab neighbours, some of whom have spent much more on weapons than Iran?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, and I have said repeatedly that our challenge and our opposition are not directed at the Iranian people. It is a rich culture, whether it is Persian, Arab, Turk, Baluch or Kurd—the list goes on. On his wider point about exports of arms to the region, when making any arms sales we engage one of the most rigid processes, and we ask other countries to adopt similar measures.
My Lords, I refer to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is no doubt that Iran has not observed it, and the United States has called for snapback sanctions. Will the Government comply with these, and how, otherwise, will they ensure that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are blocked?
My Lords, I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness about ensuring that we curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That is why it is important that we keep the JCPOA—an imperfect agreement, I accept, but the only one on the table—and work to ensure that Iran adheres to it.
On that precise point—how we keep the JCPOA alive—will the Minister say what practical steps he is taking with our EU partners, particularly as part of the E3, to bring it back to the table and to get agreement, with a view, in particular, to avoiding some of the sanctions? What is happening to INSTEX and the special purpose vehicle—has it worked?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are working with our E3 partners, as he has suggested. On INSTEX, a number of countries have come on board. It was set up so that important sectors such as healthcare could be dealt with, which is particularly important in the current coronavirus crisis, and—I can confirm—the first transaction under INSTEX has already taken place.
My Lords, the Minister said that the United Kingdom abstained at the UN because there was not going to be agreement. Is that not a dangerous precedent: surely that would be true of many decisions taken at the UN? Should the UK not be voting?
My Lords, as Ministers at the UN we often take a decision to abstain. It is very rare for us to veto any resolution: it should be a last resort. On this issue, the Security Council resolution is valid, and can go forward, only if all P5 members agree to it, and we will continue to work with permanent members of the Security Council to find a resolution.
My Lords, last year the Government were found to have acted unlawfully in selling to Saudi Arabia—another oppressive regime—arms which it then used for the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen, leading to a huge humanitarian crisis. The Government have resumed sales to Saudi Arabia: how do they justify that?
My Lords, this issue was looked at in great detail by my colleagues at the Department for International Trade, including the Secretary of State. As I have said already, we have a very rigid arms export regime, and that continues to apply to all countries.
Does my noble friend agree that damaging and destabilising activities are undertaken in the region by many states, including some UK allies, and that the way forward is not unilateral action by the United States—or anyone else—but a collective diplomatic endeavour to establish, over time, a regional security co-operation regime based on the principles of international law and negotiated primarily by the countries of the region themselves?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the intent to get all regional partners engaged on this matter. That is why we believe that on issues and areas such as Yemen it is important, in order to reach political settlement, for all parties to be at the table. We continue to employ our resources to help that happen, but equally we require regional partners to think very carefully: their continued intervention in other countries adds to the destabilisation of that region.
My Lords, a stated foreign policy priority of a Biden presidency is Iran—and rightly so. Should that become a reality, will the Government call for an urgent gathering in Washington of JCPOA E3 participants—including, perhaps, Iran—to put the whole sorry mess back on track, and take that opportunity to press the importance of Israel recognition, and Saudi and Yemen processes?
My Lords, as it is pretty obvious from the exchanges of the past few minutes that on Iran we are not really on the same page as the Americans, is it not time for a complete rethink of our own Iran policy, making much more use of our old friends and connections in the region, such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates? Would it not be a good starting point to take this into the integrated review of foreign policy and security which, I understand, has just been reactivated—albeit with rather a low profile—and is currently being orchestrated from the Cabinet Office?
My Lords, on my noble friend’s latter point, the integrated review is under way and the outcome will, I am sure, be debated in your Lordships’ House in due course. On his earlier point about our policy on Iran, and that of our partners, it is right for us to continue working with our E3 partners, but we also need to work with the United States to achieve a desired outcome that brings peace and stability to the region. In that connection, I participated recently in a UN event, initiated by the UAE and involving Bahrain and Israel, where Israel was recognised by another two countries of the region. These are important steps forward. Israel is a reality and part and parcel of the Middle East. All the countries in the region and beyond need to recognise its status and work together to ensure peace in what has been a troubled region for far too long.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and we now move to the next Question.
NHS: GP Vacancies
My Lords, in 2018-19, 1,398 practices reported 652 vacancies in the NHS Digital GP workforce data collection. Fewer than a third of practices submit data to the NHS Digital collection each year, and it is not possible to make estimates for practices that did not submit data, therefore a comparison between years cannot be made.
I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. This small reduction in the number of GPs covers huge differences across the country. Can the Minister explain, for example, why there is such a shortage of GPs in parts of Cumbria, where there are even discussions on closing the purpose-built surgery in Windermere, the largest town in the national park, which would leave in excess of 5,500 locals and literally millions of tourists without any primary care cover?
My Lords, the closure of an individual practice is not something the central Government take charge of. However, the noble Lord is right that there are areas of the country where it can be hard both to recruit and retain doctors in general practice and other specialities. That is why the Government have put in place a programme of £20,000 one-off payments to recruit doctors in areas where recruitment is hard. The number of placements available under that scheme is increasing this year, next year and the year after.
It is clear that virtual and telephone appointments enable more consultations to the hour and are, in that sense, more efficient. However, a doctor told me recently that he hoped virtual appointments would not become the norm after the pandemic, as in his view it was essential for a doctor to have face-to-face consultation and examination where possible. Will the Government encourage physical consultations again after the pandemic has passed?
My Lords, the shift to virtual consultations and, in particular, virtual triaging, has been a positive development in the NHS. However, for many patients, a face-to-face appointment may be most appropriate. So, I say to the noble Lord that we do encourage digital working; it can be more efficient, and it protects both GPs and patients from potential infection. But face-to-face appointments can be incredibly important and should take place where needed.
My Lords, like everyone in the NHS, GPs have had to work extremely hard during the pandemic. I wonder whether my noble friend could enlighten us on what support the Government are giving front-line practitioners for their mental health. I note that the Government recently—Matt Hancock is to be congratulated on this—set up the National Academy for Social Prescribing, recognising, at last, the crucial role the arts play in supporting people’s mental health, particularly those in the health service.
My Lords, for GPs, NHS England and the Royal College of General Practitioners have launched the Looking After You Too service, which is there to provide mental health services to all primary care workers in the NHS. On social prescribing, that is an incredibly welcome development. The Government’s loneliness strategy, launched in 2019, committed to every eligible patient having access to a social prescribing connector scheme by 2023, and we look forward to delivering that.
My Lords, from my personal experience, waiting times to see a GP have always been long, and appointments limited to five or six minutes only. Now, it is even worse, with many appointments by phone, denying patients the proper medical care they urgently need. I believe the situation is mainly due to shortages of doctors and nurses. I also realise that the Government are committed to filling the vacancies as soon as possible. Could the Minister say how and when these vacancies will be filled so that GPs are able to provide a better and more comprehensive service?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the Government are committed to increasing the number of doctors working in general practice. It is about not only increased recruitment—that is why we are increasing training places to 4,000 next year—but increased retention, which is incredibly important. A number of new retention schemes, which were included in the updated GP contract, have now been launched.
My Lords, will the Minister concede that, in spite of the much-vaunted promises by Tory election manifestos, the actual number of GPs has decreased for the first time since the 1960s. Does she not find explaining the difference between rhetoric and reality somewhat embarrassing?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the number of GPs is down by 600 on last year. My understanding is that a number of factors have impacted this, including foundation doctors on placement in general practice being redeployed to secondary care during the Covid crisis; GPs working in NHS 111 during the Covid crisis; and the quality and completeness of data being impacted by Covid. But he is right: we need to do more. We have increased recruitment, and our emphasis is also on increasing retainment so that we can increase the number of GPs.
My Lords, data from a 2018 survey in Pulse magazine showed that during the six years between 2012 and 2018, 565 GP practices closed. What plans have the Government put in place to alleviate the intense pressure on the remaining general practices in the areas most affected, such as the north-east, given that 1.7 million people were left without a GP?
One aspect of our response is to increase the number of GPs, but there is also an important role for other healthcare professionals working in primary care. Those numbers increased last year—both the number of nurses working in primary care and the number of other workers, such as physiotherapists and social prescribing link workers. A more diverse workforce and a better mix can free up GP time to focus on those with the highest clinical need.
My Lords, there are complications in calculating the number of general practitioners, because a large number of them do variable numbers of sessions—some do four, five, six, seven, eight and so on. The size of the general practice workforce is often calculated in terms of whole-time equivalence, but this is unlikely to be accurate because there are GPs who are paid for five or six sessions but do many more. Is this taken into account when calculating these numbers?
The noble Lord is correct that the numbers are calculated at full-time equivalence. There may be more individual GPs working, because one trend we have seen is that with increased workload, people with families to look after, or who are either at the end or the start of their career, are choosing not to work full-time. With the retention programme, we are looking at both freeing up time and workload pressures on those GPs and providing specific support with childcare and costs to those looking to join or return to general practice.
My Lords, analysis by the Health Foundation think tank has found that people in the most deprived communities are less well served by GPs, who are struggling to cope with shortages of doctors and receive less funding per patient than those in more affluent areas, despite the fact that people living in poorer areas have greater healthcare needs. What action are the Government taking to tackle the lack of doctors and the funding disparity between poorer and wealthier communities? Is not addressing the inequalities of provision in general practice the key to tackling health inequalities, which have worsened because of the coronavirus pandemic?
As I said to noble Lords before, one of the initiatives the Government are undertaking is providing extra funding to doctors to train in those hard-to-recruit areas, to increase provision there. The noble Baroness is right to say that equality of provision is an important part of the NHS, and it is something that we strive to deliver.
My Lords, it is worrying that the situation has changed so much, and that two-thirds of GP consultations now have to be done by telephone, as time and practical access to surgeries are so limited, and it is no longer possible just to walk in. In those circumstances, it is difficult to know whether a case of obesity, for example, is getting worse or improving. Seeing patients personally is much to be preferred. But when they ring the doorbell they have to be let in, they can only be spaced in a certain number of chairs, and everything has to be cleaned after each patient leaves. It really is difficult. As for the shortage of GPs, I wonder whether we might get some from Commonwealth countries—as I came, years ago, when there was such a shortage of dental practitioners. There may now be surplus doctors in some other countries, who we could ask to help us out.
The noble Baroness is correct in her references to the measures taken in GP surgeries to control infection. Those are incredibly important during a pandemic. However, telephone and video consultations can be a triaging process to allow people to have face-to-face consultations for the appropriate amount of time with the appropriate primary care worker.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who have not been able to put their questions.
Housing: Rent and Covid-19
My Lords, I refer to my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. The Government have noted the results of Shelter’s attitude survey of 5,077 adults. We have introduced unprecedented measures to protect renters. Not only have we increased notice periods to six months, but we have extended financial support for workers and strengthened the welfare safety net by over £9 billion. We continue to take action to improve standards and supply, we recently introduced stricter electrical safety standards, and we are announcing £12 billion of investment in affordable housing.
My Lords, thousands of renters are shocked to find the amount of benefit they receive does not cover their rent payments. I am sure the Minister will say that the tenants concerned can apply for discretionary housing payment—but the problem is that although there was a modest increase in DHP this year, it was announced in September 2019, so it was intended to deal with a non-Covid level of demand. Can more money therefore be made available for discretionary housing payments to deal specifically with the extra demand due to Covid-19, and to help renters with growing rent debt, due to the benefits cap, to stave off the risk of eviction? If the noble Lord cannot answer that question today, will he agree to write to me with a full written answer?
My Lords, I would point out that discretionary housing payments have increased by some £40 million, to £180 million. We do not have great data on rent arrears: the data from the National Residential Landlords Association indicates that about 7% are in arrears. However, I will write to the noble Lord, as he requested.
My Lords, in answer to an Urgent Question on this very subject a fortnight ago, my noble friend the Minister said, of measures to help renters:
“They are kept under constant review in the light of evidence of public health, and we are prepared to take further measures as they are needed to protect landlords and tenants alike”—[Official Report, 24/9/20; col. 1948.]
Since then the public health evidence has, sadly, deteriorated significantly, so will my noble friend now introduce the further measures that he then referred to? Might those include the recommendations of Shelter’s recent report, Renters at Risk?
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that there is no evidence yet of an eviction epidemic. We have established an unprecedented package of support, and the Chancellor has announced in the other place the Government’s winter economy plan to support people through the winter, and to support jobs, including the new job support scheme. We have increased local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile, which will remain in place at least until the end of March 2021.
My Lords, 300,000 people are now reported to be behind on their rent. As the Minister will know, debt because of rent is one of the major causes, if not the major cause, of anxiety, and it is very prevalent at this time. The Government are to be commended on the steps they have already taken, but in view of the seriousness of the present situation, and rising anxiety levels, will he consider a special coronavirus relief fund for private renters?
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation. A report by the federation and Heriot-Watt University found that within the last two years, the number of people in need of social housing has increased by 5%, supporting Shelter’s findings. We now have almost 4 million people living in inadequate and overcrowded homes and in desperate need of social housing. As we move into winter, this is going to get worse. Will the Minister look carefully at both reports and commit to building the 90,000 social homes a year we need as a matter of urgency?
My Lords, the Government have set out clearly a very significant investment of £12.2 billion for affordable homes, around 50% of which will be social housing and 50% intermediate homes to provide the housing ladder of opportunity. We have to recognise that what we have actually seen is a collapse in home ownership, from a peak of 71% down to 64%. It is that that we are trying to address, to ensure that we give people the opportunity to own their own home, as well as providing the social homes that this country needs.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that this report shows a 40-year legacy of failure to build sufficient social housing? Blackpool, for example, has two-thirds of private renters on benefits but no AHP grant funding locally to build social housing. Does he accept that levelling up will remain a pipe dream if poor quality private rentals are the only option available to people on benefits?
My Lords, I accept the challenge that we want to see more councils building council homes. I am delighted to point to Wandsworth, “a brighter borough”, which has announced the building of 17 three and four-bedroom properties in Roehampton. There is a growing recognition among councils that they can build again and they should: that is part of their core role.
My Lords, despite the court ruling earlier this year that made blanket bans on renters who are on benefits unlawful, such renters are still being discriminated against. Landlords and letting agents are still stating that landlords’ mortgage and insurance policies prohibit them from letting to tenants on benefits. A number of people are now on benefits due to Covid. Can the noble Lord confirm that any reference implying this prohibition on renting to people on benefits in mortgage and insurance policies and on property websites should be removed immediately? If he is unable to do that today from the Dispatch Box, will he write to me to clarify the situation?
My Lords, there is no obvious indication of discrimination against people who require housing support, housing benefit or universal credit. As noble Lords know, the increase in the housing benefit bill is substantial, but I will write to the noble Baroness on the matter.
We should congratulate Shelter on outlining that 60% of people in the rented sector are only one paycheque away from falling into arrears. That is the kind of information we need to work on. I suggest that the Minister speak to the Government. If we are to have a Cockaigne, as suggested by Boris Johnson at the party conference recently, we need to support people who will fall into evictions because of Covid-19. The only way to do that is for the Government to pay now, rather than later, when these people slip into homelessness.
My Lords, I just point out that as a Minister, I am part of the Government and I will always try to respond as such. We do not see an eviction epidemic. We are fully behind the noble Lord’s mission to end homelessness, as he knows, and we will invest in that endeavour.
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of the people in arrears and liable to fall into homelessness are young people working in the hospitality or entertainment industries, which are very much at risk now? Will he urge his Treasury colleagues to lift the benefit cap to support them and others like them through the winter? Does he agree that this is bound to be cheaper and more humane than the cost of more homelessness?
My Lords, we recognise that this is a terribly difficult pandemic, and a number of renters have had to move back home on losing their jobs. That is the kind of mobility you see in a seismic pandemic such as this, but the Government have increased the benefit cap, which has cost £9 billion in total. We will take further measures if necessary.
Noting my register of interests, I ask the Minister this: more than 1 million households are registered on council waiting lists; the number is rising, due to the Covid crisis. Meanwhile, the number of homes for social rent has plummeted. Can he explain how the housing needs of desperate families are to be met now?
My Lords, the statistics do not bear that out. We have seen a slight drop in social housing, down from 20% in 1999 to 17% in 2018, but there has been a seismic collapse in the levels of home ownership. Of course, we need social homes, but we also need those intermediate homes that enable people to get on in life.
My Lords, I commend the work of Shelter. Changes to permitted development will have a profound impact, as many living in the shadow of Canary Wharf will testify. For the past 30 years, they have heard promises of job creation and social housing for local people. With 75% of the workforce coming from outside, leaving the boroughs with severe shortages of family housing, and rising numbers of expensive apartments leading to a further need for family housing, will the Minister engage with local authorities and housing associations to ensure that 1 million inbuilt permissions for housing are mandated to commence immediately, with guarantees of at least 50% social housing for families? Otherwise, the rental generation will remain the purview and gesture of the Prime Minister’s podium rhetoric.
My Lords, I will not give that precise assurance; however, it is important, when we develop schemes such as that at Canary Wharf, that there is social value, that jobs are created for local people and that the benefits of redevelopment and regeneration spread out to the whole community where such schemes take place.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed and I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who has not been able to put her question.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe of today’s list. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted and uncalled speakers will not be heard. Other than the mover of an amendment or the Minister, Members may speak only once on each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged; a Member wishing to ask such a question, including Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk.
The groupings are binding, and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect the voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group.
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Reports of the Boundary Commissions
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (2)
Amendment 1 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “2031” and insert “2033”
My Lords, I also speak to Amendment 3 in my name. Amendment 2, if agreed to, would move the next review, beyond 2023, to 2033 instead of 2031, thus making it a 10-year gap. Amendment 3 would make that a permanent arrangement.
As a former MP, I am acutely aware of the disruption caused by reviews, not just for MPs but for their constituents, councils, councillors, local organisations and many others within the constituency. Others who are going to participate in the debate will confirm and testify to that.
Some Members will recall that in Committee, in discussing amendments giving priority to communities over arithmetic and amendments on the percentage variation—which will be covered again today in the debate on Amendments 12, 13, 14 and 18—we discussed the importance of the linkage between the MP and her or his constituency. Good MPs work in their constituency, very hard: helping individuals at surgeries and in other ways; working with organisations of all kinds; and building up a rapport and an understanding to enable them to represent their constituents at Westminster. An MP is a representative, not simply a member of an electoral college to elect a Prime Minister and thereby a Government, as some of the current special advisers seem to believe.
I know well the excitement, or rather the trauma, of boundary reviews. I was first elected in 1979 and experienced my first review very quickly, in 1983, so I know what it is like. Thankfully I survived, but I have seen many good MPs have their careers ended arbitrarily as a result of a review.
We currently have fixed five-year Parliaments—I know some consideration may be given to that—but previously we had four or five-year Parliaments as normal. If that continues, a review every eight years would mean that most MPs would face a review in every second Parliament, which is not much time for them to settle in and get to know their constituency, their constituents and how to represent them effectively. Time would be taken up by MPs preparing for the next review, perhaps even for selection and reselection—all this just in the Government’s wish to get more arithmetic exactitude.
The Government argue that this makes every person’s vote equal—of equal strength and equal value—but that does not take account of other factors, like marginality. If they really wanted every vote to count, they would be moving towards proportional representation, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is following me, and others would like, but I know the Government do not want that and are not going to move in that direction.
My main argument is to minimise disruption, to increase the accountability of MPs to their constituents and to increase their effectiveness—something that is being sidelined in our parliamentary democracy. I beg to move Amendment 2, and I wish to seek the opinion of the House by Division when we come to that point.
My Lords, the Bill sets out a system for reviewing constituency boundaries which will result in changes much more dramatic than those of any previous reviews ever put in place.
I would like you to imagine the position of a newly elected MP in a general election in 2025. They will have won a seat with new boundaries, but just four years later a new boundary revision process will begin. From 2029 they will be engaged, over a two-year period, in arguments about whether the constituency might exist again, or whether it should be redrawn in a very different form. They will not know the decision of the boundary commissioners until the end of September 2031.
Under these rules, Parliament will no longer have a say over whether the proposals are implemented. The new boundaries will therefore take effect in any general election from February 2032. There will be just four months between the Boundary Commissions’ reports being finalised and their proposals automatically taking effect in any general election. All that is certain is that the proposed constituencies will be very different from those at the previous election.
The problem with eight-yearly reviews, a fixed number of seats in each state or region and very limited flexibility from the quota of electors in each seat is that they will involve major changes to more than 300 constituencies every time. Not many more than 100 constituencies are likely to have unchanged boundaries. This is not a one-off problem but is what will happen with every boundary review in future.
The frequency of reviews involving dramatic changes to boundaries does not make sense if the link between MPs and their constituencies is to be valued. Unfortunately, little consideration was allowed in the other place for the question as to how frequently reviews should take place. Over the past 50 years, we have had 14 general elections. That is an average of one every three and a half years. Therefore, with a boundary review every eight years, and with the rules as proposed, we can expect that only one in five constituencies will exist with the same boundaries for two consecutive general elections.
Somebody winning a seat shortly after a boundary review will know that they will get the chance to fight that same seat just one more time. There will then be a 50% chance that it is reorganised in a major way, and an 80% chance of the boundaries being changed in some way. But somebody winning a seat more than four years after a boundary review will immediately face a 50% chance that the constituency boundaries will change in a major way at the very next election, and an 80% chance that the constituency boundaries will be changed. It may be that some people welcome this kind of disruption to constituencies. Internal selection battles may be a great joy for some people but constantly having to engage in them cannot be good for anyone who wants to serve the people of a constituency or to demonstrate that they could do so in future. Party HQs may welcome frequent reorganisations so that awkward MPs might find themselves forced out and without a seat, while more obliging loyalists could be rewarded with new opportunities.
One of my friends on the Cross Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was an excellent constituency MP, but he twice found that a constituency that elected him with large majorities was effectively abolished by the boundary review process. Constituents cannot be well served in a system in which constituencies are likely to exist for only two general elections.
The late and much missed Professor Ron Johnston, has been quoted by all sides many times in our debates on the issue of boundary reviews. In Grand Committee, the Minister, referred to his “respect and appreciation” for him. Professor Johnston felt that a constituency should exist for three general elections before its boundaries could be redrawn. The only way in which to make that more likely while keeping boundaries reasonably up to date is to make the reviews every 10 years, not every eight.
My Lords, I apologise for not participating in Committee, having spoken at Second Reading, but I followed the three days of debate in Committee. I saw the feed on the first day, in which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, raised his proposal for a 10-year cycle for reviews. I was surprised at his persistence in bringing back the issue on Report. Not only has he gathered comrades in arms from the opposition coalition, he has the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as co-signatories to his proposals. However, where are the interests of parliamentary democracy served by another example of foot-dragging on boundaries? I excuse the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I suspect, from listening to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and Lib Dems generally, he would wish to do away with single-member constituencies altogether, in the hope of achieving something more advantageous to the Lib Dem cause of proportional representation.
Where is the radicalism in the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes? No Clydesider he on this issue. He sounds positively reactionary in what he tells us about the relationship of an MP with his constituency. He said in Grand Committee that
“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”.—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 165.]
While I would not have supported my noble friend Lord Forsyth in Committee, I believe that the more frequent the review the better. Eight years is a fair balance and keeps as closely as is practical to the perfection of equal electorates at general elections.
In returning to these amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, disappoints me, as do the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for whom I have a high regard. In my experience, candidates should get to know their constituencies before elections, not learn on the job as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, suggests. I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will agree with me on that. In his talk of disruption and the concept of “swings and roundabouts”, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, called it in Committee, he forgets the poor voter and the purpose of the Bill in providing fairness of representation as the registered electorate changes to provide 650 MPs. However, despite his observations, I think that changing boundaries in the pursuit of fairness is not something with which he disagrees. The difference between us is, in practice, between his proposals in the amendment, for reviews every 10 years over three elections, and the Bill clearly stating eight years and the probability of two elections.
I have always seen the noble Lord as an early bird, a personal clock on continental time, not a stop-abed, reluctant to meet the day. Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator, has nothing on him as he seeks to avoid a battle with public opinion. Perhaps he has already achieved that objective by being in this place. He might, however, reflect on how the apparent policy of his party and his amendments will be received by the other place if, as he suggests, he pursues them to a Division and, more importantly, on how that will appear to the voters who they seek to represent.
I have little to add to what I have heard. It is important that changes to constituencies are not too frequent. A Member of Parliament gets close to the local authorities, the electors and all sorts of organisations. I have had the experience of representing a constituency for 23 years and then half of it being taken away from me to the east because the county boundaries changed. The numbers had to be made up by adding two new wards to the west. It was not easy, but we conquered the problem. One had to rebuild new associations, friendships and interests, and people wanted to know you better. It is therefore a very bad thing, in my experience as a Member of Parliament for 41 years, for constituency changes to be too frequent. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I spoke at Second Reading but not in Committee, but I have been following the Bill’s progress with great interest. It is fundamental to our democracy. I want to express my concern about this grouping and to speak against Amendments 2 and 3 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.
The fundamental reason for boundary reviews is to ensure that constituencies of equal size are maintained. To do this, we need the data to be reviewed on a regular basis, balancing this with the need to avoid constant disruption. In a fast-moving world of significant changes in our demographics, which can be through housebuilding or geographical migration, including changes to people’s work patterns and locations, it seems that the Government’s proposal in the Bill to conduct boundary reviews on a cycle of eight years is fair and reasonable. If, as the amendments propose, boundary reviews are held only every 10 years, there will be an even greater risk than there is now that constituency boundaries will become out of date and unequal between the reviews.
Prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years, it was a very unsatisfactory system where interim reviews would take place 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. Those interim reviews were disruptive. They were made at the discretion of the Boundary Commission and they made it difficult for MPs to develop stable and effective constituency relationships with communities. A balance of eight years should avoid the need to hold interim reviews, which has to be a good thing.
It is right that all parliamentary constituencies should be of equal size and that everyone’s vote carries equal weight. It is a balance between regular reviews and minimal upheaval while ensuring that constituency boundaries accurately represent significant demographic shifts in a fast-moving world. Eight-year reviews strike the right balance.
My Lords, I support the amendment and I want to focus on one particular point. The Minister, in replying to the debate in Committee, put great weight on the support that he alleged his proposals had received from interested parties. I shall quote him:
“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.”—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 171.]
I had hoped for rather more than that, so I put down a PQ. I did not get a lot more in response; I will come back to that in a moment. It said:
“Ahead of the Bill’s introduction, the Government engaged with parliamentary parties, and electoral administrator representatives, and there was general acceptance of an 8-year cycle.”
In Committee, the Minister said the eight-year cycle was “supported”, but in reply to the PQ he said it was accepted. Those are very different things. Being supportive is, “What a jolly good idea, Minister. How wise you are.” Being accepting is, “Well, Minister, if that is really what you want, I suppose that we will have to go along with it.” That comes perilously close to misleading the House.
I would be inclined to forgive the Minister for that if, when he winds up the debate, he is able to give a clear and concise summary of exactly what the consultation consisted of, who was consulted and exactly what their replies were. If he cannot do that in winding up—I understand that he might be a bit short of time—I would be grateful if he would give a commitment to write to all noble Lords involved in this debate setting out at greater length and in more detail what the consultation was. In doing so, he will make us a great deal more confident that this is not a product of ministerial whim and the justification for it thought up only after the event.
My Lord, I believe that it is sensible to have more frequent boundary reviews than those being proposed in the amendment. Prior to Covid, this country was enjoying very substantial employment figures and people were relocating around the country to where the jobs were to be found. However, the pandemic has changed absolutely everything. The jobs market is dreadful and getting worse, and when we eventually arrive at a new normal, I suggest that it will bear little resemblance to what we knew pre-Covid. Jobs will be extremely difficult to come by, and to find employment people will have to translocate in pursuit of work. This will inevitably change the shape and size of many constituencies and demographics in general. That is one reason that I believe it is vital that boundaries are reviewed on a more frequent basis than that being proposed in this amendment. That is why I shall support the Government.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, not least because of his own and his family’s historic links with the city of Sheffield. However, I have to disagree with him on this occasion. I shall speak briefly in favour of the amendments because I want to speak again on Amendment 12 and the substantive issue around that.
To pick up the point that was just made by the noble Earl, if we are not to have the catastrophe of a major shift in population further away from the north of England, we will have to take the opportunity of the use of social media and more imaginative and creative ways of bringing jobs to people, rather than people having to go to existing jobs; otherwise, we will have an even greater imbalance in the country, both economically and socially, than we have already.
The simple point I want to make is one that I made in Grand Committee. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I do not believe that the issue is about the Member getting to know the constituency before they are elected, if they are lucky enough to be so; it is about the constituents getting to know the elected Member. In the single-member constituency framework that we have and of which I am in favour, it is absolutely fundamental that the constituents know who is representing them, that they know where to contact them and that a constituency Member gets to know the critical areas of the community so that they become a voice for the area, whichever party they start off representing.
I want to make just one additional point in response to the noble Baroness who has spoken against these amendments. I experienced an interim boundary change because of local authority boundary reorganisations. It was nowhere near as disruptive as the major and complete rebanding of constituencies in the period that I experienced otherwise. It added a part of Hillsborough into the Brightside constituency, which has allowed me to take the title of Brightside and Hillsborough—although I spent a lot of time in Hillsborough, not least in the football ground, when we were permitted to do so.
This is all about stability and the arrangements that complement and develop the concept of the citizen knowing who represents them in our system. These amendments are a sensible way of ensuring that we do not have constant disruption. That may be good for numerical equality, which we will come to later, but it has absolutely nothing to do with democratic representation.
My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has just said about the emphasis on people’s interests rather than those of politicians, and I shall come back to that in a moment.
In the interests of brevity, I wish merely to reiterate our support for these two amendments which have been clearly explained by my noble friend Lord Rennard, and to emphasise our approach to the Bill, because we are just starting on this process again. We are concerned to minimise excessive, unnecessary and pointless disruption. Anyone who has had the privilege of serving as a Member of the House of Commons knows that the commitment is to people—the human geography rather than just the physical geography—and for that purpose we are concerned about the way in which this Bill has been drafted. However characterful a constituency may be in its built as well as its natural environment—I challenge anyone to compete with north Cornwall on that score—you represent views rather than vistas. That is why a better electoral system with multi-member constituencies would indeed be much more representative than the present one.
In the context of this Bill, for those reasons, we are determined to maintain a consistent relationship between people and their representatives wherever and whenever there are no overriding reasons to break it. I admit that this is a conservative approach, but it is also the people-friendly one, and I hope that that will appeal to the Minister. It is a matter of appropriate balance, as other noble Lords have said. We support the amendments.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes and all noble Lords who have spoken today on these amendments, the majority making a very good case to have Boundary Commission reviews every 10 years.
Those who have been through boundary changes will know the upheaval that can happen. Former MPs have spoken today on the impact they can have. I have never been a Member of Parliament, but I speak as someone who has had to reorganise constituency boundaries. It is difficult for all concerned, including party members, party organisers and electors, some who can find that they have not moved to a new home but that they have moved into a new constituency.
A change in constituency boundaries takes some time to bed down, with new relationships having to be formed and the sitting Members sometimes having to find new constituencies to represent. In some cases, they find that they do not have a constituency, which will happen when this Bill goes through. I know that these things can happen whenever there are boundary changes, but a 10-year period means less churn and less upheaval and is better for democracy. The MPs have time to build up good relationships with the constituencies that they represent, which provides stability for all involved. Political parties play a big role in our democracy and work closely with the MP or their party’s candidate. It is a crucial role. When boundaries are altered, there can be big changes to make, not only for the Member of Parliament, but for all those who work with them to get them elected. A 10-year period would allow for much more stability.
There is support for this from most Peers who have spoken today on this amendment, as there was in Committee. I ask the Minister to take careful note of the views expressed today in favour of a 10-year review. My noble friend Lord Foulkes said that he will call a vote on this, and we will, of course, be supporting him.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to change the timings of boundary reviews so that a review would be undertaken every 10 years. Currently under the Bill, a boundary review would take place every eight years. This is a change from the current law. I think many noble Lords have forgotten what the current law is: under it, a review should take place every five years.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and many other noble Lords, in supporting this amendment, said that they wanted a lack of disruption to local communities. Many noble Lords also talked about disruption to Members of Parliament, but I am more interested in local communities. Our aim, as committed to in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly but without the disruption to local communities and their representation that might occur with the current five-yearly reviews. I, and the Government, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the Opposition Benches, who said at Second Reading:
“Eight years seems to me a sensible compromise, ensuring that constituency electorates are kept reasonably up to date, and in normal times would operate for at least two general elections.”—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 82.]
We believe that an eight-year review cycle strikes the right balance between ensuring that our constituencies are based on contemporary data and avoiding the disruption of having a review roughly every time an election occurs. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has a lot of experience, for supporting our view on this.
While we were drafting the Bill, we shared our broad plans for the Bill’s contents with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators. We also discussed a range of technical issues with them. During those meetings, we stated that the move from a five-year to an eight-year review cycle was government policy, but that we would be interested to hear from anyone who disagreed with this idea. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that there was general acceptance that the eight-year cycle was the right approach.
Parliamentary parties also raised understandable concerns about ensuring that the data used was as up to date as possible. This was particularly notable regarding the use of local government boundary data. I am surprised that nobody has brought that up today, because it was brought up in Committee. The Boundary Commissions take all that data into account when drawing up proposals for constituencies. This was the rationale behind Clause 6, which allows the Boundary Commissions to consider a more up-to-date picture of local government boundaries and allows them to factor that into their proposals where appropriate and relevant.
When we engaged on this measure—I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that it was an engagement—representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators were supportive of it. They thought that reviews only every 10 years would further undermine the aim of having updated constituencies. It would mean that the data used would be even more out of date, and that over time constituencies would become less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic changes. The parties also told us that they find it helpful, for campaigning purposes, for up-to-date local government wards to be used in constituencies.
With the longer review cycle of 10 years, the question of interim reviews, which has not been mentioned this afternoon, also arises. The representatives of political parties and the electoral administrators with whom we engaged were against the prospect of introducing interim reviews. Let me explain the chain of reasoning here. Prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years, interim reviews also took place to consider whether certain constituencies should be updated in between general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in certain areas. Were we to move to a 10-year review cycle, the rationale for interim reviews would remain strong. Our stakeholders told us clearly—and we agree—that we should not return to this approach. Interim reviews bring further disruption and confusion to constituencies, and uncertainty to sitting MPs. An eight-year cycle removes this problem. It treads the most balanced path between the need for stability and the need for contemporary data.
I will address some of the arguments made in support of the amendment when it was discussed in Grand Committee and which have been repeated this afternoon. Most of the noble Lords who are supporting this amendment—the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Blunkett, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris—argued that eight-year reviews would prevent MPs and constituents building a rapport. There is an assumption in that argument that I find problematic. I agree that it is important for representatives to know their constituents well. However, the realities of the electoral cycle surely mean that MPs must be able to build a rapport with constituents in less than five years. If 10 years is needed to establish good relations, that would seem to take for granted that one will be re-elected.
The argument was also made that a constituent might approve, or disapprove, of their MP’s behaviour, but be unable to express their opinion at the ballot box because a boundary review had now made them part of a different constituency. This is not an argument for reviews to take place every 10 years as opposed to every eight or five, or any other length of time, but an argument never to change constituencies. The Government believe that a far more unfair and frustrating situation to be in as a voter is knowing that the vote one is casting is not of equal value to those cast in a neighbouring constituency. I thank my noble friend Lady Pidding, who has a lot of knowledge of this, for her explanation of this issue.
It was argued that a 10-year cycle would enable reviews to take place at a predictable point before each election and thus ensure that the boundaries used for each poll were fully up to date. Some Lords acknowledged that their reasoning assumed that each Parliament would last for five years. However, we should test the strength of that assumption with care. Since 2010, the law has required Parliaments to last five years, notwithstanding certain exceptions, but in that time only one Parliament did last five years. Therefore, even when terms of Parliaments are fixed, a world in which boundary reviews are conducted at a particular point before a general election has proved impossible. Will it be more possible, however, when terms of Parliaments are not fixed? Neat schedules where boundary reviews and election dates align perfectly are attractive in theory, but this has not proved possible in practical terms and is unlikely to in the future.
I agree with my noble friends Lord Taylor and Lord Shrewsbury: we believe that the middle ground proposed in the Bill today is the right way forward. Eight years removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but it also ensures that boundaries remain up to date and fair by making sure that not too much time elapses between reviews. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate which has served to convince me that we were absolutely right to move this amendment and to pursue it. However, I would like to congratulate the Government Chief Whip, who has done a good job in mobilising the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and above all, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, his predecessor, to speak against this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, says he is surprised at my persistence. As a former Government Chief Whip, he is one of the people who should be least surprised by my persistence, not just on this but on other matters. He said he was surprised because I am normally a radical, and I am making what he sees as a reactionary move. Perhaps he is thinking that there is a Private Member’s Bill along the same lines in the House of Commons, supported by Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. I hope he will look at that; it might convince him to rethink his opposition to my proposal.
It is interesting to note that all the former MPs who have spoken in this debate support this amendment. They have experience on the ground of how these things work, and I am very encouraged by their support. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lipsey for finding out that when the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, who dealt with this issue in Committee, said that the Government’s proposal was “supported” by all those consulted, that was totally wrong. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, confirmed, they “accepted” it, and my noble friend Lord Lipsey pointed out the difference between those two things extremely well.
I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Blunkett for reminding me of one other important aspect of constituency representation that I had forgotten—the football teams in each Member’s constituency. I had a slight problem there, in that I had both Cumnock Juniors and Auchinleck Talbot in my constituency, and they are bitter rivals. I had to be neutral when they played each other, which was not an easy thing to do. However, I understood the respective supporters and their various interests.
I remind the Minister and the House that up to 2011, Boundary Commissions were instructed to hold reviews every 8 to 12 years. On that basis, 10 years seems to strike a sensible balance. I therefore intend to press my amendment and hope the House will support it as a sensible way forward.
Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 6. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 2: Orders in Council giving effect to reports
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out “As soon as reasonably practicable”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendments at page 2, line 26 and line 38 ensure that a draft Order in Council implementing the reports of the Boundary Commissions must be submitted to Her Majesty in Council no later than four months after they have all been laid before Parliament unless there are exceptional circumstances.
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 6 in my name, which is reinforced by the names of my noble friend the Minister and the three noble Lords who supported my original amendment in Committee.
Noble Lords will recall that, as Second Reading, I drew attention to the following words in Clause 2:
“As soon as reasonably practicable”.
This refers to the requirement for Ministers to lay the draft Orders in Council giving effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commission reports. Without repeating those arguments, I will say that this lack of precision could enable the Government to delay implementing those recommendations, thereby negating the objective of the Bill, which is to put this issue out of reach of political mischief.
We debated this further in Committee in relation to my amendment to require the Order to be laid within three months, in my case, and in a more exacting six weeks in a similar amendment from my noble friend Lord Cormack. The principle was supported by all those who spoke, and my noble friend the Minister made an emollient reply while reiterating the Government’s preference to leave the words as originally drafted. We had further discussions, as promised, in the interval between Committee and Report, the outcome of which are Amendments 6, 7 and 8.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for listening and then seeking and ensuring collective agreement to the amendments. They are a compromise and, like all compromises, each side ended up with slightly less that they would have liked but enough to be satisfied with. May the negotiations on the EU treaty have a similar outcome.
Amendments 6 and 7 make changes to Clause 2 and provide that
“a draft Order in Council implementing the reports of the Boundary Commissions must be submitted to Her Majesty in Council no later than four months after they have all been laid before Parliament unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
This is in addition to
“As soon as reasonably practicable”
after the reports have been laid before Parliament, so it is a sort of backstop.
My noble friend persuaded me that there should be some elasticity in my original three months, and this updated amendment provides for a four-month limit. The period of four months is deemed by the Cabinet Office to be sufficient to allow the necessary work in drafting the Order in Council bringing the recommendations of a boundary review into effect to be completed. It also provides a measure of flexibility to ensure that a meeting of the Privy Council is held during the specified period within which the Order must be submitted because, at certain times of the year, it does not meet regularly.
My noble friend also persuaded me that we needed an “exceptional circumstances” clause to deal with, for example, a global pandemic or the death or prolonged illness of the sovereign, when it would not be feasible to submit the Order. Without this clause, if those circumstances arose, it would not be possible, without further primary legislation, to lay the Order once the circumstances returned to normal.
Amendment 7 inserts new provisions into Section 4 of the 1984 Act to provide that
“If the draft of an Order in Council is not submitted … before the end of the four month period, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must lay one or more statements before Parliament … specifying the exceptional circumstances.”
This regular reporting requirement would prevent any delay being quietly swept under the carpet.
Amendment 8 inserts new subsection (7A) into Section 4 to define “sitting day”, which, surprisingly, means:
“a day on which both Houses of Parliament sit; and for that purpose a day is only a day on which a House sits if the House begins to sit on that day.”
I hope I have explained the background to the amendments as well as their key details. My noble friend the Minister, whose DNA is all over the amendments, will be able to answer any detailed questions that arise during the debate. I beg to move Amendment 6.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has withdrawn from this group, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem.
My Lords, I will be brief, taking full advantage of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, whom I wish to congratulate on bringing this matter to the attention of the Committee and, indeed, persevering with it to the extent that we now know that consensus has been achieved. In that respect, it would be only right and proper to thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for being constructive in these discussions. The noble Lord referred to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who certainly deserves a mention in dispatches as having been a very fervent supporter of the principle, albeit with a different figure in mind.
The mischief that this amendment seeks to address is the fact that, under the previous legislation, the Government had what one could reasonably describe as an unfettered discretion, which has now been substantially removed. The consequence is that the onus will rest with the Government to establish whether or not the exception that is contained can be fully supported. I venture to suggest that the Government—any Government—will find it a lot more difficult to defend exceptional circumstances that would have had reasonable practicability.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome this amendment and to add my name to it. I can also be brief because of the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. I strongly supported the three-month provision in Committee, and I welcome this amendment, because it keeps the Conservative Party’s hands absolutely clean and above board. I make no apologies for reminding the House, as I did in Committee, that there have been only two occasions when Boundary Commission reports were abandoned: one was the disgraceful episode involving Jim Callaghan’s Government, who scuppered the report; and the other was a rather grubby move by the Lib Dems in 2011 to scupper the Boundary Commission report then. That was done purely out of spite because they had lost the PR referendum.
Enough of going over old bones: this now means that this Conservative Government will deliver on the commitment to make sure that Boundary Commission reports are presented automatically within four months unless there are these exceptional circumstances. My noble friend Lord Young cited a couple; they do seem to be rather serious and very exceptional circumstances. I will be grateful if my noble friend the Minister has got any more examples, but they do seem to set a standard that it would be very exceptional circumstances indeed before a Boundary Commission report did not proceed. Therefore, I welcome this compromise and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I certainly support this amendment; without it the Bill would have been based on a false prescription
Repeatedly during the passage of the Bill, we heard from Ministers that through it, Boundary Commission proposals can be brought forward without political interference. The dreadful word “automaticity” entered our vocabulary —or was refreshed—repeatedly. Under the system prior to this amendment, which I hope will pass, there certainly was not automaticity; there was automaticity “up to a point, Lord Copper”. An automatic car goes up through the gears without any interference from the driver. In the case of this Bill, the Boundary Commission proposals could move forward seamlessly over the first few hurdles, but at the point where the Order in Council had to be presented, that involved the driver, who, in this case, of course, is the Minister. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young, deals with that problem to a considerable extent—not quite as far as far as I would have liked, but there we are.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young. I reread his Committee stage speech and it really was masterly. The Minister, in fairness, realised this and all but said, “game, set, match and tournament” when he was winding up. Of course, we still do not quite have automaticity, and the part of the amendment that maybe I should have put down an amendment to and do not feel too happy about is that the four-month requirement for the laying of the Order shall proceed
“unless there are exceptional circumstances.”
In his speech today, the noble Lord, Lord Young, was all too aware that the validity and strength of this amendment depends to a degree on what is meant precisely by “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. The Minister said that they would be things like the Covid crisis. No one would deny that that is an exceptional circumstance but of course, as far as I can remember in my political life, whenever there are exceptional circumstances of anything approaching that level, emergency legislation is immediately introduced. Among other things, as with the Covid legislation, this sets asides all sorts of aspects of normal political behaviour. It postpones local elections. You cannot get anything quite as interfering in the normal processes of democracy as postponing local elections.
I am quite certain that if exceptional circumstances of the sort the Minister is envisaging were ever to take place and emergency legislation were required, it would be easy to insert a provision stating that the four-month rule must be overruled. I really see no need to put in the Bill the phrase “unless there are exceptional circumstances”. It may have been one of the compromises that the noble Lord, Lord Young, acknowledged are necessary when parties are involved in discussions, but the Minister really does need to address this point when he winds up. Can he please list the exceptional circumstances the Government have in mind and are worried about? In each case, can he give me an example of when it would not be necessary to introduce emergency legislation? Any emergency legislation could easily deal with this issue—I do not think it is a problem, but it is addressed in the Bill—by allowing this “exceptional circumstances” exemption. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this, because I think it is a weakness in the amendment.
My Lords, not for the first time I find myself very much in sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who always contributes sage and sensible comments to debates on constitutional affairs.
I would like to begin by congratulating and thanking my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. By accident, my amendment went ahead of his in the debate in Committee, but he was the one who did all of the work and he made a most impressive speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said a few minutes ago; he has also been foremost in the negotiations following the debate. It would be churlish—because my noble friend Lord True was effectively replying to my amendment— not to thank him for what he said and what he has subsequently done.
I do not want to enter a discordant note, but I was tempted, as I said to my noble friend Lord Young the other day, to put down an amendment on the timing. I am very disappointed that it is four months. My noble friend Lord Young suggested “three months”, I suggested “six weeks”. I would happily have compromised, but I think four months is a shade long and I would like a brief explanation from my noble friend Lord True as to why he felt he had to go to that far.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talked about exceptional circumstances. Of course, I accept that there are certain very sad and exceptional circumstances—one of which my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham referred to—but “exceptional” really has to be exceptional. I remain, always, suspicious of the Executive, from whichever political party they come, and I am always, first and foremost, a Parliament man. We have at least got a better outcome that we had in the original Bill. I am grateful for that, and I very much echo the words of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who said there is great virtue in compromise. Of course there is, and may this indeed be a lesson to those who are currently conducting the most important negotiations in which our country has been involved for a very long time.
My Lords, before I comment on this amendment, can I pick up on what two noble Lords have said? When I spoke in Committee, I referred to automaticity and its derivation in this particular context. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, pointed out that the trade unions had got there first. I have mentioned to her since that, while we were in Committee, I was doing a search on the word “automaticity”, as was one of my noble friends, who managed to come up with an even earlier use of it. Shall I say, he was “cycling” through the web, which may indicate who found this wonderful piece of information. It is a study of the
“Effect of adenosine on sinoatrial and ventricular automaticity of the guinea pig”.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra talked about the years 1969 and 2011. Of course, he missed out 1983. I know that he, like the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, does not have a direct interest in 1983, but it affected some of us very strikingly and was the third occasion when this occurred.
I welcome this amendment, because in effect it achieves a declaration of full time. When this legislation originated, there were no timescales in it. I pointed out in Committee that the 1986 legislation introduced the first timescale, which was not that useful because it just said when the reviews would start, which was wonderful, but it did not say when they would finish, giving no timescales whatever. In the process of legislation we have now seen, each different process has a timescale of four months.
However, like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I would like to have seen a much briefer timescale, because the amount of work involved is overdone. Here I might correct myself and apologise, because in Grand Committee I said:
“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”—
this is in relation to the need to prepare the orders—
“‘Well, the maps have to be prepared; we have to ensure that we have’”—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. GC 180-81.]
got them complete. I have done some research on these orders since and, in fact, there are no maps, so I apologise for misleading the Committee. I thought you would need laptops, websites, et cetera; in fact, all you need for the orders is a photocopier, because you lift it straight from the reports of the Boundary Commissions, which give the details of the wards.
On the question of returning officers, all you need is a list of them. I can stand here now and say that there will be two constituencies in Richmond borough and therefore who the returning officer will be. Some 90% of all returning officers can be identified now. It is almost the reverse of the game “Pointless”, where in one round they give you a few letters and you have to fill in the blanks. In this process, in relation to returning officers, it is only in those constituencies which cross borough boundaries where you have to wait until the final decision. As I say, I know how many there will be in Richmond, Bristol, Manchester or wherever, give or take one or two constituencies.
There is justification for this and I hope, as my noble friend Lord True has identified, that that is the maximum necessary period. It should be possible to do it in a shorter period. As I think a number of Members know, I had discussions with him because, as well as this issue about the end of the process, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, identified on Second Reading the question of what happens if there is a general election. I tried to find the phraseology for an amendment which would be operable if all the reports had been received. Unfortunately, due to time pressures and other events, I was unable to find a satisfactory amendment, or else I would have done so, because this is another issue that has not been touched on at any point and could apply—and did actually apply in 1983, in those very circumstances.
Therefore, I regret not being able to put down an amendment. I accept and welcome this amendment, but I hope there will be recognition that the vast majority of these processes are not lengthy, complicated and unnecessary post-drafting processes. The vast majority can be undertaken at a much earlier stage.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has brought some very important, practical questions to your Lordships’ House this afternoon. I hope the Minister will be able to reply to them. The noble Lord speaks with a great deal of experience and expertise on these issues. It is significant that he has done the research to spot some potential difficulties.
In the meantime, I am full of admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. We have known each other for many years and I have a huge amount of respect for his experience of the way in which ministries, Whitehall generally and the House of Commons and House of Lords operate. He has almost unique experience. It is interesting that so many distinguished former MPs and Ministers have contributed to the development of this amendment at all stages, some of whom spoke again this afternoon. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Young, who must be one of the best experts to tell us about what happens behind the scenes, is wholly confident that the amendments he is now promoting, as he said, put these matters out of reach of political mischief. If they are totally out of reach of political mischief, we will be all be relieved; if he is confident of that, I take his word as very persuasive.
However, I take seriously the issues originally raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem and then referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Cormack—quite a trio. They were asking what exactly the exceptional circumstances were that would permit any return to a more lackadaisical approach to the timing of the tabling of these proposals from the Boundary Commissions. If the Boundary Commissions are, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, just said, absolutely specific and there is no room for manoeuvre for Ministers or the House of Commons, surely it should be a much smoother operation than is implied here, even in exceptional circumstances. I hope the Minister will explain in his response exactly what he has in mind.
We should pay tribute to the Minister. It is always a mark of a good Minister and a listening Government when there is a move between Committee and Report. There has been a move; the Government have accepted a change here and we should all welcome that. It is a sign of a Government who are prepared to think again, and that must be healthy.
It also indicates that this Bill is being improved in your Lordships’ House. I know there were some Conservative Members who thought it was rather inappropriate for the House of Lords to make any changes to a Bill that dealt specifically with elections to the other place. As a former Member of Parliament, I take exactly the opposite view; after all, there is a degree of self-interest at the other end of the corridor which we hope at this end we are largely able to avoid. We have a greater degree of impartiality in that respect.
As a result of two Divisions and likely support for this amendment, we now have some changes that will undoubtedly have to be considered in the other place. It is very healthy that MPs be asked to think again about these issues. As was mentioned in a previous debate, there is already substantial Conservative Back-Bench rethinking on the important issues of the 7.5% quota tolerance in preference to 5% and on the 10-year review period. I therefore hope that the fact that there is now government support for a government change to their Bill will be taken as an indication that our role in this House is to make sure that this Bill is improved before it goes back to the other place.
My Lords, we do not need to detain the House on an amendment where everything has been said and has been said by everyone. I simply applaud the Government, as we have just heard, for seeing sense on this amendment, which answers one of the two fundamental issues which concerned us about moving from a final parliamentary sign-off towards automaticity—that is, the ability of the Executive to delay the implementation of the Boundary Commissions’ plans, despite having handed effective authority to the commissions to put those plans into law. Without this amendment, no one, neither the commissioners nor Parliament, could have forced the Government’s hand had they chosen to delay.
I retain one concern, which is that retained by the guinea pig—not the guinea pig, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who obviously gets his feeds on automaticity even faster than I can. The issue he raised about what might happen should the Government decide to call an election during that four-month period should continue to concern us.
I had assumed that “exceptional circumstances” meant that, but that in itself is quite worrying. As my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have said, we need more explanation about what exceptional circumstances are—putting aside Covid because, as my noble friend said, that would be dealt with in another way. Given that the Government are committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which puts the decision back into No. 10, there must remain a worry that a difficult boundary review could somehow be circumvented. The Minister needs to allay these fears which, as he has heard, are from across the House.
The issue of the time cap introduced by this amendment was a major concern to us. It was not the major one for the Constitution Committee—we will come on to that shortly in Amendment 11, about moving to automaticity—but it was certainly one of our two major concerns. The fact that the Government have accepted and even put their name to the amendment means that it would be churlish for me not to say that we support it too.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. The House will not object if I say first that I thank and, indeed, congratulate my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. Whenever I hear him speak in your Lordships’ House, I realise how much I have to learn in responding to your Lordships at this Dispatch Box. He has done a service to this House and to the electoral system, along with others who have raised this point. He was also skilful enough to get into a debate about Orders in Council and aperçu on the EU negotiations, which I do not think was strictly germane—my noble friend Lord Cormack followed on that—but I also agree with his sentiments there and hope very much that they will be translated into the languages of all 27 nations of the European Union.
The Government were happy to accept this amendment. The case was clear. The Government’s intention is to put beyond reach the idea that there might be unconscionable delay in laying these orders. It is of the utmost importance to us that it should not be felt by anyone that Parliament or the Government should have the opportunity to interfere politically in that way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to discuss with my noble friend Lord Young, other Members of the House and, indeed, the noble Baroness opposite the points raised. The noble Baroness has been very gracious and I greatly appreciate the courtesy with which she withdrew the first amendment and responded here. We may not be in agreement for all of today, but I appreciate that response.
I think there is widespread agreement and welcome for this. Therefore, I do not need to detain the House at great length. One or two points were raised about a Government calling a general election. Obviously, at the moment the rules around a general election are controlled by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. So long as that obtains, we are legislating in that light. As far as the future is concerned, no doubt points have been put on the table, privately and publicly, which may be considered. There would always be a difficulty if there was suspicion in legislating on the matter. I am here to talk about future legislation, but the example of 1983 shows how difficult it would be to prevent a general election in the period before orders had been laid. That is something that people would have to wrestle with. The Government have no intention of seeking a general election. No Government should seek a general election to frustrate the presentation of these orders to a meeting of the Privy Council. The whole political world would deprecate that action and any Government that sought to do it would not be rewarded by the electorate.
Two other major points were raised. First, why is the time limit so long and why is it four months? My noble friend Lord Cormack suggested six weeks. The original amendment was three months. We believe that there has to be a prudential element in the legislation. There are two elements here. The first is the period of four months. My noble friend Lord Hayward said that things could be done much quicker: you could just photocopy something. I say, with respect, that the legislation is not prepared by photocopying other documents. Even if that were the case, we cannot legislate for the shortest possible time if we are imposing a time requirement. We have to go for a prudential time and that includes, for example, the need to accommodate the potential irregularity of Privy Council meetings, as well as the preparation time. In discussion and reflection and with the wish to place a time limit in the Bill, which the Government agree is the right thing to do this matter having been raised—it was not something that occurred to me before it was raised in Grand Committee—we believe it better to have the prudential element. A four-month period would surely accommodate anything that might arise in normal circumstances. Secondly, there should be a provision for exceptional circumstances. I will come on to this shortly.
I remind the House that there is an implied misunderstanding of how my noble friend’s amendment will operate. The primary legal obligation that remains in this amendment is to submit an order as soon as is reasonably practicable after the four reports are laid. This is certainly not an invitation from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else for anybody to be lackadaisical—to pick up a word used. The four-month period is a deadline to help ensure there is not deliberate, unreasonable delay. The Government would be in breach of a legal obligation if they submitted the order only at the end of four months when it was reasonably practicable to have done it sooner. It is important to put that point on the record. The primary expectation of this Government, all future Governments and this Parliament in passing this legislation is that all those involved should present the material as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly not later than four months.
I believe I said something about “exceptional circumstances” at an earlier stage. In case I did not, I will say it now. If we did not have an exceptional circumstance element in the provision, were it not possible for whatever reason—and my noble friend has given one—to deliver this in the four months then it would need full-scale primary legislation to overcome the failure to meet the four-month time limit. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, invited me to give a full list of the exceptional circumstances envisaged with explanations for each one. The Government do not envisage exceptional circumstances being the norm. I point out that not all circumstances are foreseeable. The noble Lord said that it goes off like an automatic car—you start it and it moves up through the gears. My wife would rather like that her automatic car would move up through the gears at the moment. Not every contingency in life is foreseeable. Some very exceptional things, such as a war—God forbid—could arise.
I am not going to follow that invitation, not because I do not wish to help the House, or assist Parliament further; it is simply that legally I am advised that giving a whole series of examples would risk people in the future erring on the long side as well as the short one. I repeat that our expectation is that this Government and this Parliament—and, I hope future Parliaments—will ensure that they are presented as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly within four months. The exceptional circumstance would arise only in the rarest and most undesirable cases. In those cases, the amendment provides an extra requirement that Ministers would have to come repeatedly to the Dispatch Box, in both Houses, to explain their actions in being dilatory. Were the circumstances not exceptional, and the matter concerned not grave, that would be a humiliating and devastating admission of dereliction of duty. I am sorry that I cannot go further on that, but I hope that the House will accept my assurance on this Government’s intention and my hope that future Governments would operate in the same way.
To conclude, I hope that, in backing the amendment, the Government helped to bring more certainty and confidence to your Lordships’ House, and to electors, that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions will be implemented without political interference or unnecessary or undue delay, as soon as practicable. I hope that noble Lords will, therefore, be able to support the amendment. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in particular my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. I urge noble Lords to support the amendment that he has put before the House.
I have received a request from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to ask a short question for elucidation.
My Lords, this is not a question as such. I want to commend my noble friend Lord Hayward for mentioning the 1983 Boundary Commission review, which I intended to mention but clean forgot. That was implemented by the late, great Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith. He did it, even though it added large swathes of Lib Dem-held wards to his own constituency. In the by-election which followed his elevation to this place, I almost lost the seat because of that. As usual, Willie did the right thing. The Government are doing the right thing now and I commend them.
Does the Minister wish to respond?
My Lords, I can be brief. I join the Minister in thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I suspect it is one of the more consensual debates that the House will have on the Bill. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about my role in the amendment. That approbation needs to be shared with the Minister.
Two issues arose in the debate: four months rather than three, and exceptional circumstances. It would be impossible for me to improve on the excellent explanations on both issues given by my noble friend in his reply to this debate so, without further ado, I beg to move.
Amendment 6 agreed.
Amendments 7 and 8
7: Clause 2, page 2, line 26, at end insert—
“(1A) The draft of an Order in Council must be submitted under subsection (1)—(a) as soon as reasonably practicable after all four reports have been laid before Parliament as mentioned in that subsection, and(b) in any case, no later than the end of the four month period unless there are exceptional circumstances. (1B) “The four month period” means the period of four months beginning with the first date on which all four reports have been laid before Parliament as mentioned in subsection (1).(1C) If the draft of an Order in Council is not submitted under subsection (1) before the end of the four month period, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must lay one or more statements before Parliament in accordance with subsection (1D) specifying the exceptional circumstances.(1D) A statement must be laid—(a) before the end of the period of 10 sitting days beginning with the first sitting day after the end of the four month period, and(b) before the end of each subsequent period of 20 sitting days beginning with the first sitting day after the previous statement was so laid, until the draft of an Order in Council is submitted under subsection (1).”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment at page 2, line 20.
8: Clause 2, page 2, line 38, at end insert—
“(4) After subsection (7) insert—“(7A) In this section, “sitting day” means a day on which both Houses of Parliament sit; and for that purpose a day is only a day on which a House sits if the House begins to sit on that day.””Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment at page 2, line 20.
Amendments 7 and 8 agreed.
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 3: Modifications of recommendations in reports
Amendment 10 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 11. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Any noble Lord wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
11: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“The Boundary Commissions: constitution
(1) Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act (the Boundary Commissions) is amended as follows.(2) At the end of paragraph 2 insert “in accordance with paragraph 3A below”.(3) In paragraph 3(a), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(4) In paragraph 3(c), for “Lord Chancellor” substitute “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales”.(5) After paragraph 3 insert—“3A The two members of each Commission appointed by the Secretary of State shall each be appointed in accordance with the following process— (a) a selection panel shall be convened by the Secretary of State to select the members of the Commission, which shall comprise—(i) the deputy chairman of the Commission, and(ii) two persons appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons;(b) the selection panel shall determine the selection process to be applied and apply that process;(c) the selection panel shall select only one person for recommendation for each appointment as a member of the Commission;(d) the selection panel shall submit to the Secretary of State a report stating who has been selected and any other information required by the Secretary of State;(e) the Secretary of State shall on receipt of the report do one of the following—(i) accept the selection,(ii) reject the selection, or(iii) require the panel to reconsider the selection;(f) the power of the Secretary of State to require the selection panel to reconsider a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, there is not enough evidence that the person selected is suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(g) the power of the Secretary of State to reject a selection is exercisable only on the ground that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, the person selected is not suitable for appointment as a member of the Commission;(h) the Secretary of State shall give the selection panel reasons in writing for requiring the reconsideration of, or rejecting, any selection.”(6) In paragraph 4, at end insert “, but the term for which each member (other than the chairman) is appointed shall be a non-renewable term.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that the appointment of members of the Boundary Commissions is made and is seen to be made independently and without the influence or appearance of influence of the Executive, to remove the possibility of political interference in the process of setting the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies.
My Lords, Amendment 11 seeks to put in place matters essential to dealing with the important consequences of automaticity. As the decision of the Boundary Commission will become final, and there will be no parliamentary veto, it is essential that the commission is, and is seen to be, entirely independent and so is its appointment processes. Although I have taken up the kind invitation of the Minister to discuss this issue with him, and have done so very cordially on two occasions, the Government have made it clear that they consider that no change is necessary to the current position. I do not believe that this accords with constitutional principle, hence I will seek to take the opinion of the House on the amendment.
In many senses, the new role of the Boundary Commission will become very much nearer to that of a judicial tribunal: sitting in a panel of three, gathering and hearing the evidence and coming to a decision. There will be no appeal from that decision and the other two branches of the state must accept it, just as they accept decisions and judgments of judges. The amendment therefore seeks to ensure that, in a manner akin to the appointment of judges, the appointment of the boundary commissioners is wholly independent and that that independence is guaranteed during their period of office. It seeks to do so in three ways, and I will deal with each in turn.
The first of these is the appointment of the deputy chairman. Under the 1986 Act, the deputy chairman must be a High Court judge. In Scotland and in Northern Ireland, that judge is appointed by the head of the judiciary in those jurisdictions—the Lord President and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, for historic reasons, the appointment is made by the Lord Chancellor. That was all very well with the old-style Lord Chancellor in 1986 when the Act was passed. At that time, he was head of the judiciary of England and Wales. There was, therefore, nothing anomalous in him making that appointment, like he appointed all judges. However, that all changed in 2005 with the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor ceased to be a judge and head of the judiciary. He became, in essence, a political Minister. All allocation of judicial responsibilities passed to the Lord Chief Justice and appointments were made independently by the Judicial Appointments Commission. For some reason—no doubt oversight—the position was not changed. Although the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, the time has come when it should now be made clear that the decision is that of the Lord Chief Justice. We should bring this provision into line with constitutional principle. The appointment of a judge who chairs a tribunal which makes the final determination of a series of sensitive issues should be in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, just as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is no reason for England and Wales to be treated differently.
As I understand it, the objection is not grounded in constitutional principle but on the view that, as all judges of the High Court go through a rigorous selection process, they must all be qualified and therefore appointable. It is, therefore, open to a political Minister to select one of them. It could not possibly be disputed that it would be the antithesis of justice if a political Minister could select a judge to try a case, let alone one where there was a party-political consideration. In principle, the position of the Boundary Commission is no different, but there is one further consideration. There is a danger to the independence of the judiciary. A decision of the Boundary Commission is always open to attack on grounds that the chair, although a judge, had been selected by a political Minister because he had shown himself sympathetic to the Government, or had some distant connection with them. We all know how the media can find those connections. We should do all we can to avoid the risk of such an attack, because attacks are so damaging to the rule of law.
I turn to the second part of the amendment on the appointment of the other two commissioners. The Act specifies that the other two members of the Boundary Commission are to be appointed by the Secretary of State, but says nothing about the manner of appointment. As I understand it—I pay tribute to Minister’s officials for their helpful assistance on this—the other two members are appointed under a process set out in the Government’s Code on Public Appointments, promulgated under the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019.
That process, as for any other public appointment, gives the Minister extensive powers: as your Lordships will know, the Minister can appoint the panel that selects the commissioners; he must be consulted at every stage; he can reject names; he can ask for the competition to be rerun; and he can even make an appointment of his own choice, without a competition, or appoint someone whom the selection panel does not think appointable, though he has to make disclosures in respect of that. Furthermore, the code does not bar the candidacy of a person who has had significant political activity, though this must be disclosed and will be investigated by the appointment panel. If those conflicts can be managed, it will not form a bar. I respectfully ask the House to consider that such a method of appointment is no longer appropriate for the new automaticity process.
Amendment 11 seeks to put the appointment on a clear statutory basis. The selection panel must contain a deputy chairman—current practice envisages this, but it should be made statutory—and the other two people who are to form the appointment panel should be appointed independently by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The panel should determine the process and should then select one name for each post. The Minister has a role: he can ask for reconsideration and even reject the name, providing he gives reasons, of course.
The process that the amendment sets out is modelled on the process for the appointment of judges, for, as I said at the outset, the Boundary Commission will be akin to a judicial tribunal. As I understand it, the argument against this part of the amendment is that the present system is entirely adequate, but I do not think that this takes into account the new and distinct position that requires the commission’s independence to be put beyond doubt. Furthermore, it is argued that having a different process for the appointment of the two commissioners might damage confidence in the public appointments system. The answer to that can be put briefly: the fact that judges are appointed by a special process does not call into question the public appointments system. It is a process designed for an office where the officeholder makes decisions to which there is no appeal, and which the other two branches of Government must accept. This process is designed to follow that. In reality, the Boundary Commission is a tribunal that is no different to a judicial tribunal. The process for appointing judges has worked well; it has not affected confidence in the public appointments system, and there is no reason think that the proposed amendment would affect confidence in public appointments in any other way.
I turn to the third part of the amendment on the term for which the appointments are to be made. The amendment does not specify the length of the term and, in light of the proceedings earlier in this debate, I am glad that it does not. All the 1986 Act does is to provide that the two members hold their appointments under the terms and conditions determined by the Secretary of State. My amendment seeks to provide that the appointment be for a non-renewable term. There are two reasons for this, which can be explained briefly. First, as has been pointed out by Professors Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit of University College London, a vital safeguard for independence is that the appointment is for a fixed, non-renewable term. Like judges, commissioners must have security of tenure for the whole period necessary for them to carry out their functions. They cannot be put at risk of being subjected to pressure or undue influence by the prospect of not being reappointed or by being offered reappointment. As they have pointed out, there are numerous posts that are now made on non-renewable fixed terms: the Civil Service Commission, the Commission for Public Appointments, HOLAC and many others.
Amendment 11 simply seeks to import this principle into the terms of the appointment of the two members of the Boundary Commission. The only objection seems to be that having a renewable term will make it easier to attract good candidates and then review their performance to ensure they are doing their job properly. In my view, the second reason is plainly contrary to principle, and the first is untenable, given the new cycle of the work of the Boundary Commission. Let me deal with that point: the move to an eight-year or 10-year cycle for the Boundary Commission—I do not wish to commit myself to either at this stage, but I take it now to be 10—means that the commission will have a period of intense activity for two to three years every 10 years. Thus, appointing a person to the office for a single term, probably for eight or 10 years, will better fit into the new cycle, rather than the shorter-term appointment renewable for a further term. The longer term will not discourage the appointment as any candidate will know of the cycle and the period in which there will be intense activity. When they are not active, they will have time to obtain the necessary skills and experience. Each of these three ways set out in the amendment will ensure that the Boundary Commission, in its new role, is fully independent and seen to be so. I beg to move.
I support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas; I do so because the impartiality and independence of the Boundary Commission assumes greater importance if automaticity of the implementation of the commission’s findings is accepted under this Bill. I readily accept that the Government understand this, as the Minister pointed out so clearly in Committee. If that is so, it surely makes sense to consider ways to strengthen the impartiality and independence of the commission to meet these new circumstances. The three proposals put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in this amendment to achieve this are simple and straightforward and he explained them comprehensively in moving the amendment.
The appointment of the deputy chairman by the head of the judiciary, rather than a political Minister, is a reversion to the practice before 2005, when the nature of the Lord Chancellor’s role changed. It brings England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into line. It would significantly reduce the scope for accusations of political interference, whether real or perceived, in the future.
Changing the appointments process to one more akin to judicial appointments follows the same logic. It is not a criticism of the public appointments system but a recognition that appointing members of the Boundary Commissions must be seen to be in a special and quasi-judicial category. They are crucial arbiters of the integrity of our electoral system. The introduction of non-renewable terms of appointment merely brings these appointments to the Boundary Commissions into line with other constitutional and political watchdogs and regulators.
As has been said, this is about reality and, above all, perception. We are talking about small changes aimed at strengthening the real and perceived impartiality of those who define the framework of our electoral system. We are talking about small changes, but they are changes that might increase trust in elections, politics and the way we are governed. I strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, I was unable to take part in the Second Reading or the Committee stage of the Bill, but I have read Hansard in full. The importance of the issue raised by this amendment is such that I had to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in this debate. What struck me was that the Minister’s reply in Committee was a stout defence of the status quo as regards the appointment of commissioners. It did not recognise the fundamental change to our democracy made by this Bill. The exclusion of any parliamentary procedure to approve the recommendations of the commissioners is presumably designed to prevent any suggestion of gerrymandering. The political party in power, with a sufficient majority, could control the alteration of constituency boundaries. I welcome, therefore, the change.
The fact, however, that the final shape of the boundaries is determined by the commissioners’ recommendations in their report, without any parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, means that they must be—and must be seen to be—completely impartial. I have attended Boundary Commission hearings where I have endeavoured to put forward the case most favourable to my party—and representatives of other parties present did precisely the same. The commissioners, who are not as familiar with the political geography of a constituency as are the party hacks pleading their cases before them, must consider the evidence of population changes and the submissions made to them. In so doing they are obviously acting in a judicial capacity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has made clear.
The boundary change that affected me most personally was in 1983, when I was the candidate in Wrexham and the sitting Labour Member of Parliament, Tom Ellis, joined the SDP. Naturally I stood down in his favour at the next election, and as it approached I thought I was out of the contest. However, the boundary commissioners stepped in and created a new constituency called Clwyd, South-West. Since Tom was born and bred in Rhosllanerchrugog, part of the new constituency, he moved there, and I, born and bred in Wrexham, fought Wrexham. Needless to say, we both lost. In Tom’s constituency, the previous Labour vote was split: 13,000 went to the SDP and Labour’s candidate, Denis Carter—the much-respected Chief Whip in the Lords in 1997—came third, with 11,000. The Tories won with 14,000. A later Conservative candidate for that constituency was an unlikely old Etonian by the name of Boris Johnson. He lost.
I hope that I may be forgiven for this anecdote: I mention it to illustrate how crucial the decisions of the Boundary Commission can be in the lives and careers of individuals and the life of political parties. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has put forward a proposal that ensures the impartiality of the Boundary Commissions. In Committee, the Minister did not explain why there should be a distinction between England and Wales on the one hand, and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other, in making appointments. Why should a political figure with his own constituency to nurse, the Lord Chancellor, appoint the commissioners in England and Wales? The only reason given by the Minister was that it has always been so. However, he knows that the nature of the office has fundamentally changed, and by this Bill so too is the role of the commissioners: they have the final say. That is a clear and obvious distinction, and is very different from the normal run of public appointments.
Secondly, the amendment calls for an independent panel to consider the applications and to put forward to the Secretary of State not a choice but a single name, which may be rejected, but only on the single ground that the candidate is unsuitable. Furthermore, if the candidate is rejected, the Secretary of State must give his reasons, and such reasons could, if necessary, be scrutinised by way of judicial review, which would test the legality and rationality of the decision. That is another safeguard against political bias.
Finally, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, proposes that the appointment should be for a single non-renewable term. That is entirely appropriate, given that the members of the panel have to make a quasi-judicial decision. That is why we give tenure, as other noble Lords have said, to our judges. The decision must be seen to be uninfluenced by the fear that it will upset the political interests of the ruling party, or by the hope of re-appointment. I wholly support this amendment.
My Lords, first I comment on the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, to “party hacks”. I shall disregard that description, given that I spent so many hours, days and weeks at so many inquiries, initially, and then hearings, and I take his comment in the spirit in which I hope it was intended.
This amendment is really divided, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, identified, into three sections—and it is important that we treat them as such. First, there is the historical accident, as I think it probably was, in 2005, when the circumstances changed. The amendment attempts to bring back the position in England and Wales to where it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland, of total impartiality.
The noble and learned Lord touched on the point that it has to be seen to be independent. Today I am wearing the rugby tie of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Many noble Lords will know that I am a fervent rugby supporter and participant; in many ways it is probably more important to me than my membership of this place. The near-neighbour of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Nigel Owens, is not allowed to referee at the Millennium Stadium except at a club match, because he might be accused of bias, if Wales were playing another country. Nobody believes that Nigel Owens would be biased, but there is that risk. Equally, Wayne Barnes, who was voted last year’s Referee of the Year, was not allowed to referee the World Cup Final, for exactly the same reason: England was in the final.
This amendment addresses an exactly parallel situation. Two years ago I went to Zimbabwe to monitor the elections. We all know that elections, if they are fixed, are fixed not on voting day but by the processes beforehand. Sad though I am, I looked at the size of the constituencies in Zimbabwe. Funnily enough, they had not been reformed for years. The most anti-Government constituencies were in Harare and Bulawayo, and they were the largest constituencies. If we Brits had said to the Zimbabweans, “You should deal with the question of boundary redistribution”, the automatic response from the Zimbabwean Government—what I would have said as a member of that Government—would have been, “Well, you have a political Minister making the appointments to your own commission”. That is why it is important that we bring the position back into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, on the second part of his amendment. I have indicated that to him. He refers to appointments by the Speaker. I discussed this with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and he said that I was over-reacting to the previous Speaker. Lindsay Hoyle has made untold improvements in that position, and we are all very pleased that he has taken us back to a traditional Speakership. Long may he continue in those efforts. I would not, however, want to put appointments in the hands of the Speaker, because of what I have seen could happen in recent years.
The third part of the amendment deals with one-off appointments. I had a view for several years—this was touched on in Grand Committee—that when you appoint somebody to a Boundary Commission they sit there for years doing virtually nothing, and then they are under extreme pressure for a period of time. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their local government boundary reviews and parliamentary boundary reviews handled by one body. Surely it would be better to do the same in England and Wales, so that these organisations would not lose the expertise acquired in handling one set of boundary reviews—it would be cumulative, and they would take it to the next review.
I have made three different comments in relation to the three different parts of the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. They tackle the problem in very different ways, but I would have hoped that the Government could have accepted, in particular, the impartiality in the first part of the amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, has withdrawn from the debate on this group, so I call the next speaker, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and I encourage him to press his amendment to a vote. I do not wish to repeat the observations I made in Committee in support of the noble and learned Lord, save to say that, first, as he has outlined, the office of Lord Chancellor is much more political now that it is held in the Commons. Instead of a quasi-judicial figure who sat as a judge in the Supreme Court and usually had no further political aspirations, we now have a highly political and mobile politician as Lord Chancellor in the Commons; these are not personal remarks.
As one who campaigned for the Ministry of Justice to be headed by a Commons Minister, and welcomed that, because it is a spending department, I have no complaint. But a political Minister should not have his hands on the machinery of elections—or, indeed, anywhere near it. The office dealing with elections should be manifestly independent.
There is one point that I wish to repeat: it is a parallel and wider argument. I noted the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, a few moments ago, and in Committee I gave my experience as Secretary of State for Wales in appointing the chairman of the Welsh Local Government Boundary Commission. I certainly was a political Minister, and headed my party’s campaign in Wales for six years in my tenure as Secretary of State.
Local government boundaries are one of the building bricks of parliamentary constituency boundaries. On the previous amendment, the Minister confirmed that. I once lost the eastern part of my constituency because of a new county council boundary, and I had to be compensated by the addition of a number of wards from the same county council area to the rest of my constituency. My submission, therefore, is that not only should a judicial figure appoint the Boundary Commission, but the Government should also consider doing likewise for the Local Government Boundary Commission.
Since the power of appointment might already have gone over to the Government of Wales, it would too late to legislate for Wales. But the Government could certainly legislate for England. Indeed, I believe that they should do so. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s views. Local government boundaries are inextricably linked to parliamentary boundaries, and decisions should be politically distanced on both of them.
My Lords, when the Constitution Committee considered the Bill, we took the view that the removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations was constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome. But we warned that automatic implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations would protect against undue political influence only if the commission itself is genuinely independent. This makes the selection and appointment of impartial boundary commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has, at this stage of the Bill, moved an amendment that incorporates both his own original and entirely appropriate insistence that the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor, should make the appointments, and some of the other suggestions that the Constitution Committee referred to, which have been mentioned, in particular, by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. The Minister should listen carefully to the noble Lord, who knows what he is talking about when it comes to boundary hearings. His insistence that we need to safeguard independence is entirely justified, and I hope that his disagreement with other aspects of the amendment will not deter him from continuing to support the efforts of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, to achieve the kind of independence that the noble Lord has recognised is important.
No assurances the Minister can give could possibly satisfy us that we have guarded against the danger that lurks here. That is because we are talking about any future Government, of whatever political party, who have a majority in the House of Commons, and thus the prospect of using that majority to disrupt the electoral process, or pervert it to their advantage, in ways that will always be defended on the most respectable grounds, beneath which, however, will lie political motives —motives of party advantage and protection.
What is extremely likely to happen is that, at some time in the future, a Government, recognising that they can no longer block Boundary Commission recommendations or delay them until after the next election, will say, “We’d better make sure we don’t get unwelcome recommendations that are disadvantageous to us, and which we might think are wrong in principle. We must stop that from happening by appointing to the Boundary Commission people who have got the political message—people who understand the significance of ensuring that our views remain predominant in any future Parliament.” These things happen; they are part of the reality of political life, and constitutional provisions are there to protect us from their malign influence.
Along with that, of course, goes perceived impartiality, to which the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred. We are in an era when the principle of getting one’s revenge in first seems to apply in the United States. President Trump says, “If I win the election, it’s fine, but if I lose, it’s because the election has been rigged.” So he has already started his attack on the postal ballot provisions in American election procedure. That is an illustration of the fact that the impartiality of the electoral process is easily traduced or complained about, and if there are aspects of it that, on sound authority, can be shown to be at least weak in protecting impartiality, they will be criticised and exploited, and will be used as arguments to question the validity of the democratic process, at least in some individual seats, if not in the election as a whole.
This is an important matter, and I am disappointed, because I thought the Minister had realised that something could be done about it. There is still time for a Third Reading amendment that would at least pick out some of the proposals of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. To fail to act on that is to compromise an otherwise sensible and constitutionally appropriate change, by leaving this matter open to political pressures of a kind that cast doubt on the validity of elections.
My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has argued, the amendment reflects a constitutional principle. In an effective democracy, in which the power of the Executive is limited both by the rule of law and by the scrutiny of Parliament, regulatory authorities independent of undue executive influence play a vital role. Separation of powers between legislature, courts and Executive is central to constitutional democracy —and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, they must be seen to be separate.
We are all painfully aware of the baleful impact of gerrymandering in American politics. The institution of independent Boundary Commissions is there to ensure that political representation in the United Kingdom does not follow any distance down that path. The change in the position of the Lord Chancellor that took place in 2005 makes it entirely appropriate, therefore, that the Lord Chief Justice should now inherit that role in England.
Our current Government have recently demonstrated worrying tendencies towards authoritarian populism. Their attacks on the Supreme Court and on judicial review have uncomfortable echoes of the approaches of the Polish and Hungarian Governments. The Electoral Commission is now under sustained attack, including from a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, for attempting to enforce the rules on campaign spending and political advertising. Calls from some Conservatives for its abolition suggest that they reject regulation of electoral campaigning as such.
In addition, we have seen some recent calls in the Conservative press to throw over the idea that regulatory bodies should be independent of government. The argument is made that future appointments should come from people sympathetic to the Government’s approach, as against the “liberal elite”, who are thought to dominate the BBC, Ofcom and many other regulatory bodies.
I have been sorry on several occasions to hear the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, using the language of right-wing populism to claim that this Government represent “the people” against the elite. His political life has been rooted in Richmond—a place that contains, as he will know well, an unusually high proportion of the liberal elite. I hope that he does not call them “enemies of the people” or he must face difficulties with many of his neighbours.
This amendment is therefore not only valuable in its own right but a precedent in maintaining the autonomy of regulatory bodies, free from executive influence and control. For both those reasons, I hope that the House will give it its full support.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, our Constitution Committee accepted the move from parliamentary sign- off to automaticity, but it stressed that this change would
“only protect against undue political influence”
if the Boundary Commissions were “genuinely independent”. As it said:
“This makes the selection and appointment of impartial Boundary Commissioners, independent of political influence, all the more important.”
As we have heard, it is hard to see how an appointment by an elected politician—a member of the Cabinet—can look independent, especially, I am sad to say, when this Government seek to appoint their own to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS Test and Trace or other major bodies. Sadly, because we are all here now, we have not been able to watch Peter Riddell appear before the relevant committee in the House of Commons this afternoon, but I gather that he has interesting things to say about the expansion of appointments beyond the normal lines of restriction. As people have said, what looks bad is bad, even if it is not actually the case. However, as a good Welsh girl, I think that we should always have the Welsh to judge our rugby matches, as we would then win every single match.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon said, when the present system was set up, the appointments were overseen by the Lord Chancellor, who at that stage was a Member of your Lordships’ House and the head of the judiciary. The impartiality was guaranteed and outwith the purview of an elected politician.
Given that the recommendations of a boundary commission could affect even the seats of the Secretary of State’s own party, then no matter how much, like Brutus, they were an “honourable man”, or even an honourable woman, it is really hard to see how the appearance of disinterest could be demonstrated. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said, it is perceived impartiality, and that is vital. The solution in this amendment is surely right, in that it would demonstrate that, as the commissions now effectively make law, with no parliamentary role, their decisions were patently free from any political taint. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, now that their decisions cannot be appealed, they effectively make law with the same force as any tribunal.
The second proposal—for non-renewable terms—is equally important to ensure that there is no temptation to curry favour with the reappointing Minister, nor, again, even an appearance of that. Our Constitution Committee, without endorsing the proposal, noted that the Commons committee had discussed ideas to strengthen independence, such as by single, non-renewable terms. However, even more important than any one thing, our Constitution Committee urged us to consider
“what safeguards are required to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and their recommendations.”
Sadly—and, I think, inexplicably—the Government have refused to produce any change in response to that call. Fortunately, however, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has done so, and we are happy to support that.
My Lords, there is a short period in the life of a Minister between being thanked by your Lordships for a response and disappointing your Lordships in a response, so I have enjoyed the last 10 minutes or so.
I have also enjoyed the last 40 minutes of this debate, which of course touches on extremely important points. The issue between us is whether the current system is capable of delivering people who are of high calibre, impartial, able and suitable to perform this key public responsibility. The simple contention of the Government is that the present system is suitable for purpose. I do not accept the animadversions of those who say that our public appointments system is in any way corrupt, or indeed corruptible. Also, I have never said anything about this Government other than that they are secured on a strong mandate from the people. That is perfectly legitimate to point out, although it is not relevant to the arguments before us. Those arguments, put so ably and charmingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, are about not the nature of the mandate but the nature in which any Government carry out, and are enabled to carry out, their mandate.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, not only for raising these issues and tabling his amendment but for the meticulous research and work that he has undertaken, which he presented in Grand Committee. I also thank him for the opportunity to discuss, more than once, various ways in which one might address the conundrums that he has put forward. However, my strong contention is that the statutory approach that he suggests is not one that the Government can accept. I must politely resist it and reiterate the appropriateness and robustness of our existing appointments system.
The Government accept the importance of these posts but they argue that the processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is not room for inappropriate influence. The Government believe that the processes that we currently have in place for the recruitment of boundary commissioners are more than adequate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, says that he does not think that they are sufficient. Therefore, I must remind your Lordships of some of the systems and safeguards that apply.
Appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The commissions are listed in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for a governance code on public appointments and for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to regulate the process. The detailed governance code and the commissioner’s oversight ensure that appointments to the Boundary Commissions, and indeed to many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work, are made openly and fairly on merit.
In addition to requirements in the governance code, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has acknowledged, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. To have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will therefore have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure: their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre will have been tested in many walks of life. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to provide that the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for these appointments in England and Wales to safeguard, as he puts it, the independence of the deputy chair role. The Government do not consider this to be necessary, as the persons to be appointed are High Court judges, I repeat, and the Lord Chief Justice is consulted over these appointments. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that what people say looks bad is not necessarily bad. I believe that the system has delivered high-calibre appointees.
The second part of the amendment looks at the selection panel. The governance code has equally robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of members appointed to the Boundary Commissions. Members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, yes, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. I am advised that it has never happened that a Minister has appointed someone not found appointable by an advisory assessment panel. In accordance with the governance code, the panel will include a senior departmental official, an independent member and a board-level representative of the body concerned. In the case of the Boundary Commission, that would, in practice, be the deputy chair—I repeat again, a High Court judge.
At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity of various kinds over the previous five years—having made significant donations and so on. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations and, in the case of these particular appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. We cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, but it seems likely that recent, significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with their finding a candidate appointable.
The Government’s contention is that the public appointments system is fit for purpose. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued that this was insufficient, but I put it to noble Lords that, to date, this system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades, and the Government believe it should remain in place. To create a bespoke system, in primary legislation, for Boundary Commission appointments, as the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, sets out to do, could cast doubt, although he said it would not, on an independently regulated system that has ensured, and does ensure, that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government carrying out vital public work. Are we to doubt those people appointed in this way today? Are we to doubt those recently appointed under this system to be Boundary Commissioners for Wales?
The noble and learned Lord’s amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term of office for deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential, as he puts it, for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. We do not think it advisable to make this change, and there are specific difficulties. We consider that if an individual is to serve one term only—a single, non-renewable term—it would need to be, my brief says, for eight years to ensure that they cover a boundary review, since, in future, reviews will be held every eight years. I seem to recall that, a few minutes ago, your Lordships voted for a review every 10 years. That would mean a single, non-renewable term of 10 years to ensure that a member took part in a boundary review. We are not aware of a board appointment of such length, and it is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. Our contention is that appointments are currently based on a robust system. The system would prevent partial candidates being appointed in the first place—or, indeed, reappointed. We do not consider there to be a risk of appointing candidates who would be partisan.
In conclusion, I pay tribute again to the experience and advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I say to him that we have reflected on a number of the points he has made in conversations. His advice has been of great benefit to the House today during this debate. It has been helpful to take time to discuss these issues in further detail with him, and he has had the opportunity to discuss them with my officials. While the Government will resist this amendment if he presses it today, I am grateful for the constructive and courteous manner in which he has approached our discussions. I do not demur from the significance of the issues he has raised. Notwithstanding that disappointing conclusion, in many ways, I hope I have been able to give some assurance along the way to your Lordships that the system we have in place is strong and appropriate and deserves to stay in place. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received a request to ask a short question for elucidation from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, the matter before the House is whether the system for England and Wales is sufficient and effective. The contention I put to your Lordships’ House is that it is sufficient and effective. My noble friend will know in any case that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland have long demanded different approaches.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this interesting debate and, in particular, I again thank the Minister for the courtesy he has shown me and for the time that his officials have given to looking at this matter. It seems to me, however, that four points emerge.
First, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, put is so powerfully, we are concerned to ensure that not only is the commission impartial but that it is perceived and seen to be impartial. With the change brought about by automaticity, its role has changed so fundamentally that fundamental changes are needed to ensure that there is perceived impartiality.
Secondly, as to the position of the Lord Chief Justice, it is very difficult to see any argument in principle—the Minister has advanced none—for why it is not brought into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland or, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, put it, the position is restored to the appointment of the person by the head of the judiciary. It is important to appreciate the kind of world in which we now live. Certainly, my own experience is that people will dig to find connections, however spurious they may be. Some may remember the connections that were dug up in relation to a decision on which I sat in 2017. No judge should be put in a position where his or her appointment is called into question on the basis that they may have some connection that has made them favourable to the political Minister, particularly a Minister whose own constituency might well be affected by the Boundary Commission review.
Thirdly, it seems to me that this must be put in statutory form. I have made no criticism of the current appointment process in relation to how the commission currently works, but it has fundamentally changed. No assurances—as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, pointed out—can work because assurances do not bind future Governments and this is in a code not made under statute, merely by an Order in Council.
Fourthly, as to the term, there simply is no reason why the tenure cannot move to being akin to other important constitutional watchdog posts. Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised the interesting issue of bringing together the Local Government Boundary Commission in England and Wales and the parliamentary Boundary Commission. When looking at this matter, there is much that can be said in favour of such a move. However, that should in no way affect the basic constitutional principle that the appointment should be for a fixed, non-renewable term so that, in a case, the decisions that they make are not subject to a review by Parliament, or by anyone else, and must be accepted.
In the light of the Government’s position, I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 12. I have to inform your Lordships that we have had three people scratch from this group, the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division should make that clear in debate.
12: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Electorate per constituency
In rule 2(1)(a) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (electorate per constituency), for “95%” substitute “92.5%”.”
My Lords, technically I rise to move Amendment 12, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lennie and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, but I must say that I will withdraw it at the end of this group. However, I will move, and shall now speak to, Amendment 13, in the name of my noble friends Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott. It is on that amendment that we will seek to divide the House.
Everything that we heard in Committee made it clear that the change in the 2011 Act—setting such a very low tolerance level within which the boundary commissioners could do their work—will mean that communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and motorways will have to be crossed to engineer exactly the right mathematical numbers. Those final boundary moves—sometimes mere tweaks—to reach the required numbers make even less sense when set against the number of people not even on the electoral roll.
It is estimated that some 20% of eligible voters are not registered, which is, on average, about 10,000 per constituency; the Government are obsessed with the last 3,000 or 4,000. I remind the Minister that this is a smaller number than when there were to be 600 constituencies under the 2011 Act. The average number per constituency was therefore larger, so the 5% tolerance then gave a larger number of electors for the margin in which the Boundary Commissions work, but the very welcome return to 650 Members reduces the average number per constituency and therefore reduces the 5% either way within which the Boundary Commissions can do their work. Therefore, the last 3,000 or 4,000 the Government are so wedded to is actually very small compared with the about 10,000 per constituency who are not even on the electoral roll. Indeed, perhaps if the Government could spend as much energy on getting those 10,000 on to the register, any talk of democratic equivalence and fair votes would have a little more resonance.
The resulting splitting of communities that 5% requires also flies in the face of the reality—as we heard in the debate on today’s first group of amendments—that MPs represent areas, not just individuals. Of course, areas do not vote, but it means that MPs can best represent those individuals if they understand and have a good relationship with the organisations within those constituencies. Therefore, breaking through, for example, a school’s catchment area—sometimes for small numbers to get the percentage right—means that issues of education could pull in more than just the MP in whose seat the school is located, because the narrowness of the margin does not allow for the catchment area to be included in that seat. That will sometimes happen at the borders of constituencies, but to make it happen for a mathematical formula seems particularly unhelpful.
It can also be argued that it is not good for accountability as it does not help an MP represent the totality of an area. Communities have natural boundaries and sometimes they will have to be cut through, as I say, but we should minimise that by giving the Boundary Commissions a bit more space to allow them to respond to local circumstances.
The very slight change to an extra 2.5% either way would give the commissions an extra bit of leeway to respond to travel patterns, geographical community or the needs of an area without having the knock-on or ripple effects on neighbouring seats so that again, and sometimes for no good reason, a neighbouring community is impacted just because the numbers do not quite fit in the first seat.
This will be of particular help in rural areas or, I have to say again, communities in Wales where the mountains and valleys impose geographical constraints which perhaps are not particularly well understood in SW1, or indeed some other conurbations. Amendment 13 would make the margin 5,500 rather than 3,500 and provide some helpful flexibility—if it is needed; it does not have to be used—so that those who are holding the pencil can draw boundaries that really do represent communities and which allow people to have a community-based relationship with their Member of Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, our own amendment in this group is Amendment 14 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard, but I will refer also to others in this group which offer slightly different solutions to the fundamental problem with this Bill that all the signatories agree is so apparent. As Members of your Lordships’ House will have observed, we have modified our suggested solution in the spirit of compromise appropriate to Report. We had previously recommended a basic quota variance of 8%, but we took careful note of the developing consensus in Grand Committee, and we now endorse 7.5% as providing the essential and reasonable flexibility that so many Members are seeking and to which the noble Baroness has just referred.
From Second Reading right through our discussions, a clear majority of contributors have expressed concern about the very narrow 5% tolerance currently in the Bill. As has already been indicated, that concern is now echoed across the House of Commons. We must all hope that the Government are also determined to reach a sensible consensus by compromising on this figure. They have nothing to lose by doing so. As the forensic academic analysis by the late Professor Johnston and his colleagues has demonstrated so conclusively, the perceived electoral imbalance between Conservative and Labour constituencies would not be especially adversely affected by this simple and flexible adjustment. What would be changed would be the widespread disruption of so many constituency boundaries. Those newly elected Conservative MPs, especially from seats hitherto not held by the party in the north and the Midlands, may now recognise the attraction of a more measured approach in this forthcoming review. They may also be especially apprehensive about potential “blue on blue” contests. This was the core of the evidence presented to the Commons Bill Committee.
We take very seriously the point just made by the noble Baroness about the number of people who are currently eligible to be on the register but who are not there. We believe that in the months of the process of the review, this may be improved; in which case, of course, there might be quite considerable increases in particular constituencies. It is also true that if the Government eventually pursue their intention of increasing the franchise to those who have moved abroad, that too could mean a considerable difference during the actual process of the review. If, for example, anyone decides to move permanently from the London area to the Ancona area in the east of Italy and they wanted to retain their voting rights after 15 years, that could make a major difference to one of the boroughs in London. That may be true of other areas and for other individuals as well.
Meanwhile there is common ground across your Lordships’ House that the insistence on the 5% variance straitjacket, imposed on the four Boundary Commissions, will result in more changes with 650 constituencies than were proposed with the previously proposed 600 constituencies; then more regular changes for more constituencies at more reviews; and there would be more consequent knock-on changes even to adjoining constituencies which are themselves within the limits. Incumbents who believed themselves to be safe would suddenly find that they are far from it. There would also be more disruption of historic, geographically and socially cohesive communities. Finally, there would be more disconnection between MPs, councillors and the public at more regular intervals than is either necessary or desirable.
I know from my personal involvement in the coalition discussions that these reasons were basically those that motivated the then Conservative Leader of our House to recommend to the Prime Minister that the variance should go up to 10%. We can, perhaps, take it that there is a strong argument for more flexibility. The question in this debate is therefore how we should adjust this figure. Our amendment recommends a normal 7.5% variance in the quota, but permits each of the Boundary Commissions to explore the validity of 10% where exceptional circumstances demand it in each of the nations of the UK. This might include avoiding crossing the major administrative boundaries of English counties and unitary authorities, for example, or greater problems of rurality and limited transport links, or other special factors. The reference to Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act in our amendment is very specific and gives clear guidance to each of the Boundary Commissions.
Of course, constituencies within the four nations vary enormously. These factors may not be material in seeking to serve constituents in inner cities. However, as I mentioned in Grand Committee, in my previous North Cornwall constituency before the boundaries were redrawn, to drive from an advice surgery at one end to the next one at the other end could take 90 minutes in winter but up to 150 minutes at the height of the summer holiday season.
As has been emphasised by all participants at all stages of the Bill, our prime concern should be for the effect on individual residents, groups and communities in a distinct area rather than on their political representatives or their local parties. It is for that reason that we prefer our formulation to that in Amendments 12 and 13 on the one hand, or in Amendment18 on the other. The former pair seem to us to be a real improvement, but not to fully recognise the special local circumstances to which I have referred. Some scattered rural areas, not least in mid and north Wales, would certainly benefit from more variation than 7.5%. The latter amendment provides so much variation, but in just one part of the UK, that again it fails to accept the significance of the smaller number of potential constituencies with unusual requirements while at the same time loading extra electorates on to others.
The common cause we all recognise in this group of amendments is that the unacceptable level and regularity of disruption, implicit in the current 5% straitjacket, must be avoided. Here I must note my personal experience: the drastic change between my original Bodmin constituency and the subsequent North Cornwall constituency was very confusing for residents and for all those who were involved in trying to represent their interests. Indeed, I would say that that change was much more significant in trying to get good service to the electorate than the fact that by the time I retired, it had gone up to 87,000.
There has already been a lot of compromise on Report, and I accept that. The rest of us must now hope that the Minister will accept the strength of the case for greater flexibility that so many noble Lords are advancing, and accept that that, too, would reach a good consensus for us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, have withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My Lords, I shall speak to my noble friend’s amendment and I agree with every word she said. I do not have a great deal to add. I also agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. That emphasises that we are not talking about an issue of principle in any of the amendments in the group but one of degree. It is worth reminding ourselves that there is widespread agreement across the House on most of contents of the Bill. That has been recognised even on a day like today when there have inevitably been Divisions, as there always will be. We are all agreed in our opposition to huge variations in the size of constituencies and that we should aim for equality—not precise arithmetic equality but much greater equality.
As regards my background in fighting elections, if anyone is qualified to speak on the issue of huge variations in constituency size, I can probably, without too much vanity, claim that qualification. At one stage, I represented a seat with an electorate of 57,000 and at another represented a seat with an electorate of 100,000. I therefore bow to no one in my belief that there should be far greater equality in constituency size, and that is agreed across the House.
We also all agree across the House—I include the Government in this—that there is much more to it than the simple question of arithmetic when determining constituency boundaries. We know all the guidance given to the Boundary Commission but in the Bill the Government acknowledge this issue by exempting certain constituencies from the general framework in which boundaries must be drawn. There are five such constituencies, whose inclusion I support but not for the flimsy reason that the Government claim—that they are all in one category. That is true to the extent that they are all islands or groups of islands but there also is a great deal of difference between them. No obvious similarities spring to mind between Anglesey and the Shetlands, or between the Isle of Wight and the Western Isles. Many more geographic issues need to be taken into account than the category of being islands, which is the only one that the Government seem to acknowledge, with all the frailties of that argument.
I agree with my noble friend’s amendment, which seeks greater flexibility and, in particular, has the important characteristic regarding Wales mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lady Hayter. I do not hesitate to repeat what I said in Committee. I was shocked at the impact of the boundary review proposals that we are considering in the Bill on representation in Wales. The House should walk on the other side on that issue with great care.
In conclusion, there is no great issue of principle that divides the Government from those of us who feel that there should be greater flexibility. All that we are asking is that they should change the rules in the Bill to allow a little more flexibility for the Boundary Commission, and Minister should offer more flexibility when he responds.
My Lords, I very much agree with previous speakers on this group of amendments and support Amendment 18, to which I have added my name and, in the absence of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, would be happy to move it, were that to be appropriate, if the Government were unwilling to move in that direction or to adopt an amendment moving in that direction.
Amendment 18 might be seen by some colleagues as being the more extreme option within this group, which seeks greater tolerance around the mean number of electors per constituency. That amendment applies only to Wales, and I appreciate the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Grocott. All referred to the challenging situation in rural Wales. It is therefore perfectly in order for noble Lords to support the smaller variations around the mean in England or Scotland, if they so choose, and I support their amendments seeking greater flexibility there. However, the imposition of still further flexibility in Wales can be taken on board because it does not change the number of seats allocated to Wales, merely the distribution within it. As has been stated, this would allow greater flexibility in respecting natural communities, geographic sparsity and ease of travel.
Wales should have at least 36 parliamentary seats but that is not the issue at stake in Amendment 18. It gives the Boundary Commission for Wales greater flexibility, if it chooses to use it, to respond to the topography and communities of Wales. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested, constraining them into a straitjacket imposed by Westminster is not helpful. I urge the Government to accept this amendment or at least table an amendment of their own to meet these pressing arguments.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Hayter in her amendment and have added my name to the important amendment for Wales of my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, Amendment 18. I encourage them to press it to a vote. I shall not repeat the case that they made in Committee. However, the figure of 35 Members from Wales has been sacrosanct for decades in my long political career. Specifically, can the Minister say when that principle was breached in the past? Please give me the year. There may be one but it stands out as an exception.
The only matter that I wish to emphasise is that travel in south Wales is from north to south, down the valleys, and infrequently across mountains from east to west, mentioned by my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lady Hayter. My constituency for 41 years bordered that of my noble friend Lord Hain to the west. I can count on one hand the number of times that I went on political business to his constituency. Likewise, the Maesteg part of the Bridgend constituency to the east met mine on the top of a mountain. I probably went to that constituency less than half a dozen times, although many constituents from there came to work in mine. That demonstrates that the travel direction in Wales is north to south, not east to west, and that is the community interest.
The reduction in the number of Welsh seats now proposed would cause havoc in the make-up of south Wales seats, be a massive reorganisation and break up long-standing ties. The Brecon and Radnorshire constituency has been mentioned as one example where there should be special consideration. Coming from a family of sheep breeders, I enjoyed campaigning there and seeing the sheep of Breconshire. However, I travelled 40 or 50 miles there not looking for sheep but for voters—and towns, of which there are few and they are far apart. I pray in aid what Sir Alfred Mond, founder of Mond Nickel and ICI, and the MP for the old Carmarthenshire seat, once said. He later became the first Lord Melchett and his statue is in Pontardawe. He said that Carmarthen is not a constituency but a continent. The same could be said of Brecon and Radnorshire, and other large seats. There should be some flexibility and the number of seats in Wales should not stand at the figure now proposed.
My Lords, it was a delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, move the amendment. I recall her saying in an earlier debate that everything that could possibly be said had already been said. I suspect we shall hear the same in this debate. It reminds me of a time 30 years ago when I was a junior Whip in the Commons pushing through hundreds of Lords amendments. I had a deal with the opposition Labour Party; colleagues were speaking for one to two minutes each. Then the great MP, Sir Ivan Lawrence, got up and said, “Everything that could possibly be said on this amendment has been said, but not by those of us qualified to say it.” With his having spoken for 20 minutes, the deal fell through and we were there until midnight. I hope that will not happen tonight.
It was also a delight to listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. He is a wee bit older than me, but I would love to have lived in that golden era where constituents loved their MP, did not want any boundary changes, were committed to the community and must have been appalled at having general elections where their MP could possibly be lost to them. It was a wonderful era and I wish we had it now. He mentioned there are many sheep in his constituency. In my part of Cumbria, there were infinitely more sheep than voters and my opponents used to claim that it was where my majority came from. Therefore, I congratulate the noble Peers who have proposed these amendments and spoken in favour of them. I commend them because they did so with an extraordinary degree of earnestness and a straight face.
Anyone who has not participated in the boundary changes game might have been fooled for a moment into believing there was a great mass of constituents who cared passionately about the exact boundaries of their constituencies and the necessity of retaining a relationship with the same MP. Who are we kidding? Let us be honest: the vast majority of constituents have not a clue where their constituency boundaries are and could not care less. They care about the politics of the MP and using their vote to change the Government, as we saw last year. Once an MP is elected, constituents care about issues and someone to take them up on their behalf. Boundaries are irrelevant. I only ever had one constituent who cared passionately about the boundary and that was the late Earl of Lonsdale, who was deeply upset that Willie Whitelaw, as he then was, implemented the 1983 boundary report which put a bit of Lord Lonsdale’s beloved Westmorland into the Cumberland/Penrith constituency.
All of us who have been MPs in a former life have played the boundary commission game, which is a bit like Monopoly but with electors in play rather than money. We try to land a ward or a parish which gives us the voters we want and try to get rid of wards which are unhelpful to our majority. Instead of playing with hotels and railway stations, we use rivers, roads and mountain ranges. We would happily split Park Lane if it aided us and disadvantaged our opponents. The Labour and Conservative parties would give away Park Lane to Lambeth if it helped them retain the seat or win the seat of Kensington and Chelsea.
We have all produced spurious arguments why our constituency boundaries must or must not be changed and have cited ancient history, travel-to-work areas or strong community ties. While there may have been some truth in these facts, the motivation for advancing them was all bogus.
I recall in Grand Committee the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioning that the River Tamar could not be crossed because it was a boundary since pre-historic times. I can imagine the Neanderthal Lib Dem predecessor to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, a good party hack, arguing before a Palaeolithic boundary inspector that their caves in Devon were a distinct community and different from those in Cornwall.
The real motivation behind the representations made by Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Members and their parties to the Boundary Commissions and the inspectors is to carve up as many seats as possible to give the party more seats. There is nothing wrong or immoral about that, and in my experience the commission has never been fooled by any of these bogus political representations, no matter how hard or earnestly we tried.
What makes the work of the inquiry inspector more difficult is when there is a wide range of constituency sizes, thus permitting political parties to mount a range of suggestions for wards and districts to be included or excluded. I support the 10% range in the Bill, from a low of 95% to a high of 105%. My noble friend Lord Hayward, who called himself a political hack—he was a brilliant political hack—tells me that the model constituency will be 73,000 electors. This permits constituencies ranging from 69,350 to 76,650. That is almost 7,000 electors to move about and it should take care of all claimed, so-called unique communities which cannot be split, as noble Lords have argued.
Amendments 12, 13 and 14 would increase the range not to 7.5% but to 15%. Amendment 14 goes even further—to suggest an extraordinary 20% range. If the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, were accepted, one could have a constituency of 65,700 sitting next door to one of 80,300—a 15,000-elector variation. It was noticeable that all noble Lords from the Opposition who have spoken did not mention those figures. It is always: “A slight tweak here, a little difference there, a small percentage change here and there”. The figures are astronomical. I suggest that those figures are utterly unacceptable. They undermine the principle of having constituencies of similar size and electors having an equal vote. I say to my noble friend the Minister: do not play the Opposition’s Monopoly game; do not pass Go and collect 15% and 20% ranges; stick with the range in the Bill.
My Lords, I think parliamentary language allows me to use the term, balderdash. In a stroke, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, dismisses the constituency link and the identity that people have in communities with one another, speaking to their Member of Parliament and expecting that Member to speak for them. That is why dividing communities, which so often happens with the narrow range, is not about the Member of Parliament and whether people hold them in contempt or could not give a damn about the boundaries, but about the community of interest that people have in their area and the expectation of a voice to speak for them.
All of us know that political parties put forward the best possible case to the Boundary Commissions to ensure they maximise their success in parliamentary elections and local elections. However, to dismiss the notion of a small additional variation in the way that the noble Lord just did is to be contemptuous of the electorate, citizenship and identity. If we want equality in the numerics, as the Minister said in response to Amendments 2 and 3, then let us have a national list system—the noble Lord has actually made a good case for it. Let us have total equality in a crude form of proportionality: the political parties put up their list, the electorate vote, and they get straight down the line the number of seats that the electorate have allocated themselves. None of us wants that, do we? Even the Liberal Democrats do not want a national list system, because they accept the importance of the community link and the identity that goes with it.
The way in which we have started to debate this gets off the point, which is that the Government have accepted that there are five exceptions. At a stroke, they have accepted that it is important to recognise difference, identity and geography. Those who had previously pressed for a larger variation have accepted that getting as close as possible to numeric values does matter—without employing a dreadful algorithm that could do the job for us, leaving us to pick up the mess afterwards. Therefore, 5% to 7.5% gives a greater ability to the Boundary Commission and those working for it to use common sense and ensure that people do not have a boat to get across the Mersey or, in the case of Iain Duncan Smith in the last proposal, to spend three hours going around a reservoir. It is about identifying what really matters, which is common sense, and the proposal of 7.5% in Amendment 13 does that.
I will say one word on Wales. I said in the Grand Committee that I was deeply impressed with the case that was made in relation to what the proposals would mean for Wales. It would matter in terms of the valley identity; it matters greatly. People made the case that, although they had travelled well out of Wales, many people had not actually travelled between the two adjoining valleys because of the nature of the geography. As I said in Grand Committee, my great-grandfather was born on the edge of Brecon and Radnorshire, and I was impressed, again, by the way the description of the travelling time and the size of that constituency affected the ability of the Member to do their job on behalf of constituents.
If we get back to constituents, identity, citizenship and the reason we have elections and the link represented by that crucial Member of Parliament with a voice for, speaking on behalf of and understanding their community, as well as the role of Parliament, we might just take a deep breath and say “When we start arguing on the head of a pin, that is when we turn off the electorate for good.”
My Lords, I am entering the debate on this group of amendments and speaking to them because I am afraid I disagree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I find his emphasis on community and the sense in which that plays a critical part in the function of a Member of Parliament a somewhat flawed idea.
The truth is that I live in the house I was brought up in; I have had three Members of Parliament and lived in three different constituencies. My constituency has not changed, but other bits have been added on or taken away during my lifetime. They were never part of the community, which is, after all, in the fens and surrounded not by mountains but great unpopulated areas; they are no more part of a community than Welsh valley communities that may, perhaps, have been connected to communities over the mountains. However, it was fair, and it is fairness that my noble friend Lord Blencathra managed to convey in his excellent speech. There is a huge difference in the way constituencies are distributed in this country, and this is unfair to the voter. It means that, if you start off with a variation with a wide spread, you end up with an enormous variation. I believe that the top 20% of constituencies total the same as, or more than, the constituencies that make up the city of Sheffield. That cannot be right.
I think that noble Lords might well consider that these amendments are the elastic amendments; they appear to be designed to stretch the starting point, which we should emphasise, of an electoral quota being considered by the Boundary Commission from a variance between constituencies, under the current rules, of 5% either way or 10% overall. These amendments propose 7.5% or 15% overall variance and, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra explained, those figures are sizeable when it gets down to actual voters. In its second part, the Lib Dem Amendment 14 talks of a 10% start-off and a 20% overall variance. This cannot be justified. However, it is as nothing to Amendment 18, which has a special case for Wales, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, who I believe is the only one who will be speaking to us.
I should, perhaps, tell noble Lords that I have a fondness for Welsh politics since I acted as the agent for Plaid Cymru in my school’s mock election in 1959. We did not win, but we came a respectable second to the Conservatives, leaving the other parties far behind. I had not been to Wales at the time, and that may have stretched the political norms but no less than the girth that the noble Lords seek to encircle by their amendment. I suggest to them that we have an opportunity to discuss exceptionality in a number of subsequent amendments.
Meanwhile, I will go back to where I started and remind noble Lords that the electoral quota is a starting point. The differential from that quota at the beginning of a review means that any variation from the quota at the beginning can lead to very wide variations towards the end of the review period. The current rules are a sensible compromise for a practical fit between geography, community and constituency representation in Parliament. We should be very careful about departing from that principle.
My Lords, I am not going to go back over all the arguments about 7.5%, 5%, 10% and so on; they have been wonderfully rehearsed by noble Lords who are much more knowledgeable than I am. I want to take this opportunity to make a general point about the process in relation to parliamentary constituencies.
We go to great trouble, as noble Lords said earlier this afternoon, to protect the effectiveness and neutrality of the Boundary Commission. It seems to me to be in complete contradiction to that to allow the Government of the day, effectively, to decide matters that are greatly going to affect the electoral geography, such as the number of years—as we debated yesterday—for which a Boundary Commission report should apply or, in this case, the degree of variety that should be permitted in their size.
Across the Atlantic, we have a dire warning of what happens when you let politicians decide for themselves on the rules that will determine whether they are elected. The danger of appearing to be partisan when doing it our way seems to me great, and more effort should have been made by the Government and, I am sure, by others to achieve a consensus reform of parliamentary boundaries—we all agree there should be one—rather than one that can be accused of being partisan and that is, in any case, not being addressed with the seriousness that should apply.
I speak as someone who worked for the late Jim Callaghan, who was for a long time an esteemed Member of this House, as well as, briefly, an esteemed Prime Minister. In 1969, Jim Callaghan got his own party to vote down a set of recommendations from the Boundary Commissions for purely partisan reasons. Lord Callaghan, being of a different mould from many of the politicians who lead us today, had the decency in later years to admit that he had made a mistake and that he deeply regretted his actions. We are making a mistake in accepting a Bill so close to the one that was presented. It would have been very much better if there had been a process of negotiation and compromise, rather than an edict brought by a political majority. It will represent a further erosion of the esteem in which our Government and our Houses of Parliament are held.
My Lords, I cannot understand why the Government continue to insist on this reduction in the variation of size between constituencies. The original justification was the Conservatives’ complaint that the width of variation created a structural imbalance in favour of Labour. Others have pointed out that this arose from differences in levels of electoral registration, in turnout and in the size of majorities. The last three elections showed that this allegedly structural bias had disappeared. It must be inertia at Conservative Party headquarters that explains why the Government are persisting with it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said earlier, in our unwritten constitution the House of Commons is supposed to a body that represents communities throughout the United Kingdom, not just an electoral college that votes for the Prime Minister. The first-past-the-post voting system rests upon the principle that there is a close relationship between each MP and his or her constituency, which means that each MP, and each voter, needs to grasp which constituency they are in and its relatively natural boundaries. Throw that out—as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that we have begun to do—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, argued, you have made the case for proportional representation instead. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said that this widening of variation would be “unfair to the voter”. Let us have a wider discussion about what a fair voting system would be, if he wishes. This is nothing to with overall fairness for the voter.
This Government are chipping away, bit by bit, at many of the assumptions and conventions which constitute our constitution. Last December’s Conservative manifesto pledged to establish a commission
“to look at the broader aspects of our constitution”
before the end of this year, which is now less than three months away. Since then, we have heard nothing about this, nor does there appear to have been any consultations with other parties about the membership and working of such a commission. I do not see how a constitutional commission could possibly gain legitimacy if it emerged only from the Government, without any wider process of consultation or consent. Can the Minister tell us if the manifesto pledge has now been dropped, delayed for the indefinite future or is about to be sprung on us without prior consultation?
In the UK’s constitutional tradition, each MP represents a place, a recognisable community. To reduce the variation among constituency sizes to the narrow band which the Government propose weakens that link between MP and local community. Honest and traditional Conservatives, those who still remember and revere Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan, should join others in this House in supporting the amendment.
My Lords, I speak briefly against the amendments in this group.
As I said in my remarks on group 2, this Bill is about balance and fairness. It seeks to redress the inequality of constituencies. Fundamentally, the purpose of boundary reviews is to ensure that constituency boundaries are of equal size and based on updated figures. In reviewing constituency boundaries, I believe that a tolerance range of 10% strikes the right balance, allowing the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies 5% larger or smaller than the quota. Any larger figure would simply mean that constituencies continue not to be properly equalised, perpetuating unfairness. I make these comments notwithstanding the exceptions made for protected constituencies, and with the addition of Ynys Môn.
In Committee and again today, some noble Lords have expressed a shared concern about the need for communities to be kept together within single constituencies, about particular geographies being respected, and, therefore, about greater flexibility being required in the redrawing of boundaries. This understandable sentiment has been balanced with the importance of ensuring that every elector’s vote carries the same weight; that every person has the same call on their local MP. The tolerance of 10% strikes the right balance, ensuring an approach that allows appropriate flexibility for the Boundary Commissions to consider important local factors such as geographical features and community ties, without introducing significant variability. Any greater tolerance for disparity between constituencies is totally inequitable. I ask noble Lords to consider that the elected Chamber—those Members of Parliament who are directly affected by any boundary changes—has agreed that the variance in seats of 10%, plus or minus 5%, strikes the right balance. I urge noble Lords not to support these amendments.
My Lords, these amendments are about equity and fairness—or, rather, inequity and unfairness.
I represented the people of Blaby—now South Leicestershire—for 23 years and I can tell those who have never been Members of the House of Commons that representing a constituency is a real privilege. Polling revealed that some 25% of people in each constituency know who their MP is. I was thrilled to be told that local polling said that nearly 50% of the people of Blaby knew who I was. Whether that was true, I cannot say; perhaps it was because they wanted to vote against me. However, I promise noble Lords that most people in this country are not bothered about who their constituency MP is. They are bothered about his or her politics and they want to know who that person is when they want some assistance: that is the truth. When my constituency lost a few wards, people said, “I’m sorry you’re no longer our MP”, and while they may have been sorry on a personal level, frankly, they could not care very much. I agree with my noble friend Lord Blencathra: every Boundary Commission review is plagued with party-political manoeuvring. I am afraid that I see that slightly in these amendments too, although they do not always work quite as well as they might.
Consistency in politics is a great thing, as it is in life. Of course, one can change one’s mind—circumstances change as a country evolves—but generally we should stick to what we say, say what we believe and believe what we say. We are discussing the electorate per constituency. I had meant to table an amendment to Clause 5, but with great efficiency I did not realise that it had to be done so swiftly, so I did not get it down, but I will speak on the percentages instead.
I stick with the Conservative manifesto upon which I was elected in 2010, which wanted to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 MPs. There was no party-political advantage in that, as far as I am aware. It was also in the Conservative manifestos of 2015 and 2017. I would love to know why it changed; perhaps the Minister can tell me. On 6 September 2010, when introducing the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out that the percentage difference—which we are discussing—between Manchester Central and Glasgow North was 41%. In fact, that has got a lot worse. Glasgow North has remained approximately the same, but I looked it up today and Manchester Central has gone up by about 5,000, so it is probably about 45%. The discrepancy has grown, and that cannot be right. On this occasion, I agree with Nick.
Mr Clegg said:
“We settled on 600 MPs, a relatively modest cut in House numbers of just less than 8%, because it saves money … and because we think it creates a House that is sufficiently large to hold the Government to account while enabling us all to do our jobs of representing our constituencies. It also creates a sensible average number of constituents—76,000, as I mentioned earlier—that we already know is manageable … That is why we feel 600 is about right.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 39.]
We are now talking about 76,000 as an average. I do not quite see why that has change either, because in the 2010 manifesto, of course, the Liberal Democrats, called for 500 MPs elected by PR—and that is why it was called the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—and on page 88 they said:
“We will … reduce the number of MPs by 150”
to 500. What has changed there? There are too many Peers, I think we all agree with that, and perhaps we will all volunteer to go out the door today. There are too many Members of the House of Commons as well. Perhaps we could look at starting with a bit of a change: reducing the numbers in the House of Commons and the numbers in the House of Lords as well.
My Lords, in 2013 and 2018 plans for revisions to constituency boundaries were published. They did not find favour with MPs, the Government dare not even produce the 2018 report before Parliament for it to be considered, and these plans were never implemented. The plans themselves clearly demonstrated how much more massively disruptive all future boundaries will be compared with anything that has ever happened previously, when the boundary commissioners worked to their old rules, if they are now given very limited flexibility.
MPs on the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee looked at the issue in the light of having seen the 2013 proposals. There was cross-party agreement then that there must be greater flexibility in the numerical quota for each constituency than 5% either way. That cross-party group of MPs examined the issues in detail and concluded that in order to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries, and major disruption with every review in future, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. The amendments now being considered are a compromise between that conclusion and the position of the Government, who seek only a 5% variation.
Amendment 13, the position of the Labour Party, provides for a variation of 7.5%, which is exactly half way between the position of the Commons Select Committee in 2015 and that of the Government now. Amendment 14, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler, provides for 7.5% variation, but also allows the Boundary Commission flexibility of 10% in exceptional cases.
A short while ago the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that there was a political conspiracy in these amendments, but the academic experts studying the issues have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no party advantage at all in permitting greater variation. I draw noble Lords’ attention in particular to a Private Member’s Bill currently before the House of Commons, which proposes a 7.5% variation, with 10-yearly reviews. The sponsors of the Bill are Mr Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. These two Conservative MPs can hardly be described as champions of liberal democracy or as socialist conspirators. They may be accused of disloyalty to Boris Johnson, but I have checked, and there was nothing in the last Conservative Party manifesto about a 5% variation from the average electorate.
The aim of roughly equal-sized constituencies is one that we all share. There are international standards that can be applied to the creation of constituencies of roughly equal size. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says that
“in a majority voting system, the size of the electorate should not vary by more than approximately ten percent from constituency to constituency.”
The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters produced by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission states:
“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion … should seldom exceed 10%”.
The additional variations proposed in these amendments are within these guidelines. Sadly, the time for deliberation about the consequences of allowing only a 5% variation was extremely limited among MPs when they debated the issues.
In Committee, the Members present heard the expert testimony of Dr David Rossiter. He explained how the Boundary Commissions must work within the boundaries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, very significantly, also within the nine recognised regions of England. With the likely population changes over the eight-year period between each review, there would be changes to the quota of constituencies to be created in eight of these states or regions. Four of them would gain a seat and see new constituencies created; four of them would lose a seat and see constituencies abolished. This would trigger major changes, in at least two-thirds of these states or regions, in constituency boundaries.
The movement of local government wards, to redistribute those voters, would trigger large-scale changes across the entire state or English region. With an abolished seat, over 60,000 voters would have to be redistributed. When added to neighbouring seats, nearly all of those would then be over quota. These surplus voters would then have to be redistributed to other seats, in turn sending many of them over quota, and so on. Similarly, with the newly created seats, around 60,000 voters must come from somewhere. Taking them from other existing constituencies will put those constituencies under the quota. The knock-on consequences of putting those voters elsewhere will also stretch across the entire state or region. Unless we change the rules, a small population shift in Kent could, for example, require major changes not just across Kent but in East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey and involve the creation of illogical seats that cross those county boundaries. In every region or state it will be the same.
Splitting local government wards may ameliorate some disruption, but for many reasons it is not generally possible to do that. Many MPs have clearly not appreciated the fact that a constituency within quota is not safe from change. Moving one ward from a constituency to the next one will not be the end of the matter. The upshot of all this is that there will be major changes to the boundaries of half or more constituencies every review. Only about one in five constituencies is likely to be unaffected by boundary changes.
Earlier in the debate, the Minister praised those who have previously served the Boundary Commissions. Let us look at what some of them have said. As the then secretary to the Boundary Commission for England told the Commons Select Committee in 2015,
“the smaller you make the tolerance level from the actual quota, the harder it becomes to take into account properly the other factors that are mentioned in the Act, such as not breaking local ties, respecting local authority boundaries, and minimising change.”
It is clear that 5% is too small a variation. It means that we will have many illogical constituencies that will ignore local ties, local authority boundaries, communities and basic geographic considerations. More importantly, perhaps, they will not last for very long because every time there is a review, there will again be massive disruption to the boundaries, with at least half the constituencies having major boundary changes. That is why we need to give the boundary commissioners a little more flexibility.
My Lords, it has been another long and interesting debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. As some noble Lords have said—I recall the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, giving a notable speech—we have to be careful about seeing it top-down. A great deal has been said about the disaster for local communities if their MP changes. That can be exaggerated. The important thing is that the political system delivers good service from elected representatives.
I remember being absolutely horrified when I lost my best polling district—it was part of East Sheen and I thought it could not be moved out by a Local Government Boundary Commission into another ward. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said, I am sure that nobody really noticed, for all my efforts over many years. I do not think we should exaggerate the sense that it is a disaster for a community if its elected representative changes.
The other thing I would say is that 5% tolerance either way is the existing position. It is not as if the Government have suddenly come out of the blue and said we must do this. Prior to 2011 there was no standard, but the coalition Government set in train the existing arrangements.
I thank those noble Lords who have put forward amendments similar to those in Committee. The arguments were much the same and I fear the response will be much the same. Amendment 12 is for a 12.5% difference, Amendment 13 is for a 15% tolerance, Amendment 14 is for a combination of 15% and 20%, and Amendment 18 is for up to 30% in the case of Wales. As I have clarified throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government believe that the current tolerance range of 10%—which is set out in existing legislation and agreed cross-party—remains the right one. This range allows the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies up to 5% larger or smaller than the average UK constituency size. It is what we know as the electoral quota.
The Government are determined to ensure that all votes carry the same weight regardless of where an elector resides. I have been surprised that so many noble Lords are concerned at how equal the size of constituencies in this country might be. I can think of many things about which your Lordships might get exercised, but the idea that, in a democracy, the size of constituencies might be too equal seems an odd thing to get so excited about. Maintaining the current 10% tolerance is critical to delivering the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge of retaining the status quo. It would be contradictory and counterproductive to wind back the current reasonable and practical 10% range.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, and again today, we have heard heartfelt and enriching anecdotes—I have enjoyed them—in efforts to emphasise the importance of community ties, local government boundaries and physical geography. The Government and the Boundary Commissions do not overlook these factors of importance. However, I repeat that the concept of equal votes—the simple idea that each constituency weight should count the same—is an equal, if not more powerful, factor. The Boundary Commission retains other criteria, and this is the cornerstone of our democracy. The only tool we have to ensure that equality—applying the electoral quota on a universal basis without introducing significant variability in constituency size—is to make the kind of provision in this Bill to sustain the current position, while simultaneously allowing an appropriate degree of flexibility to the Boundary Commissions so they can take account of some of the other important factors your Lordships have raised.
Deviations of up to 30% from a central point, as have been suggested in this House today, would cause an unacceptable disequilibrium. Deviations will indefensibly disrupt the equitable balance our current 10% tolerance range has established. We will stick to 10%. It quickly becomes apparent, as some noble Lords have pointed out, that when the 10% tolerance range is diverged from, the potential for disparity between elector numbers in each seat becomes unacceptably high. Using the House of Commons Library calculations —we all have different ones—a 15% range, as proposed by Amendment 13, which we are told may be pressed to a vote, would potentially allow one constituency to have 78,000 electors and its neighbour to have almost 11,000 fewer at 67,167. Some of the other amendments would allow greater differences. As previously argued in Committee and again today, my judgment is that there are no admissible arguments for having constituencies varying by up to 11,000 electors, or even 20,000 electors, as would be the consequence from other amendments. It is simply not just.
The Boundary Commissions would be granted room to manoeuvre within a 20% range for certain cases by the Liberal Democrat amendment. We are told that this would be in exceptional circumstances. I was taken to task earlier for “exceptional circumstances”, and up pops the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, with an exceptional circumstance amendment within 90 minutes. If a 20% tolerance were applied across the country, it would mean that more than 80% of constituencies—all but around 100 of the 650—would be untouched in the next review. That is at the opposite end of the scale from the kind of mayhem that some of your Lordships have been presenting to the House as resulting from what we propose. It would completely undermine attempts to update boundaries that are now approximately 20 years out of date. Amendment 14 proposes that that would apply only in certain districts in exceptional circumstances. However, if the Boundary Commissions were granted discretion to apply a greater tolerance in certain situations where they judge it to be needed, surely their job of constructing constituencies may in fact become more difficult and the outcome of boundary reviews considerably less certain.
It is not difficult to envisage that the Boundary Commissions would quickly come under pressure to use the discretion allowed by the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and when a commission used that discretion in one part of its territory, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, illustrated, a domino effect would ensue. It would be more than likely that other communities who perceived themselves as having cases just as viable would call for discretion also.
The Government cannot accept Amendment 18 relating to Wales. I was asked when the last time was that Wales had fewer than 35 seats: it was 1885. In that election the Conservatives, led by the Marquis of Salisbury, won 10 seats and the Liberals lost 33—so it cannot have been all bad.
We should be careful about pushing the argument that somehow this is unfair to Wales. Boundary reviews are not about losing or gaining constituencies. As I said at the outset, they are about ensuring that individual electors can feel that they make an equal contribution to deciding who will form the UK Government. The Government want Wales, like every other part of the United Kingdom, to be fairly represented. Wales has a solid system of local government. It has the Senedd Cymru, with legislative powers over a range of policy areas. It has a strong voice in Westminster, including through the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Welsh Grand Committee and voices on all Benches in the House of Lords—as we have heard again today, they are some of our most outstanding Members.
The Government are a passionate supporter of our United Kingdom. It is the most successful union of nations in history and I reject the argument that a change in representation at Westminster undermines the union. The union is strengthened by equal votes. Wherever a vote is cast, it should have the same power to decide who governs our country.
The Government are firmly committed to devolution and have devolved more powers to the constituent nations. This Government’s Wales Act 2017 strengthened the powers of the Welsh Assembly, which is now the Senedd/Welsh Parliament. In the additional layer of powerful devolved institutions, Wales is strongly represented. Currently, for each legislator, Wales has 23,000 electors, compared to 50,000 for the UK as a whole. We should be extremely cautious of talking down Wales and representing the idea that constituencies should be equal across our union as somehow a conspiracy against Wales. It is an advantage to democracy across this kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made another entertaining speech, taking us down memory lane. He mentioned Lord Lonsdale; I remember I had to wear a yellow rosette when campaigning with Lord Whitelaw in the north-west, I believe because of Lord Lonsdale—he was probably more upset about losing the yellow than he was about anything to do with constituencies.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, asked about the 2019 manifesto. I am afraid I cannot answer that. You have only to look at my grey hairs to see that it is a little while since anyone was foolish enough to ask me to help with a manifesto.
I did not agree with the response of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, passionate though it was. I always listen with tremendous respect to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is highly regarded in every corner of this House. The system this Bill enables allows for common sense; it allows latitude to the Boundary Commissions. However, we must recognise that one of the fundamental reasons the Boundary Commissions are as effective and respected as they are is that they implement clear and unambiguous rules. We have heard a lot about the attempts that political parties make to rig the system; usually, in my experience, they fail. All the clever arguments we put up are seen through, normally very skilfully, by the Boundary Commissions. When they act with clarity and transparency, steering clear of subjective judgments and rankings, the scope for disagreement and challenge will be limited.
The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill was introduced to ensure boundaries constructed in the early 2000s receive a greatly needed update and to guarantee that every vote across the United Kingdom carries more equal weight—we are all agreed on that, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, reminded us. Several other levels of tolerance—including that in Amendment 13, which was twice rejected in the elected House—were proposed, debated and rejected. That means the 10% tolerance range in this Bill, the existing system retained by the Government, has recently been reaffirmed on multiple occasions by the elected Chamber.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach made the compelling point that if you start from a wide base with a broad tolerance towards the natural evolution of constituencies to shrink and grow, you will have even greater disparity at the end of the boundary review period, which your Lordships have said should be 10 years. It is prudent to start from the sensible 10% proposition we have now. Retaining that is an important part of achieving our manifesto commitment of equalised and updated constituencies.
I therefore urge your Lordships to resist the desire to fix something that is not broken, however you look at it, in each of these amendments and to withdraw them.
I agree completely with the Minister that the union is most successful, and that we want to stay in it and keep it strong. However, I do not agree with the rest of his speech quite so much, particularly because one of the things about keeping the union strong is recognising the differences as well as the similarities. That particularly affects Wales; not just because it is Welsh, but because of its geography.
My noble friend Lord Hain, because he is working in Grand Committee on the Trade Bill, was not able to participate and therefore could not speak to Amendment 18. On his behalf, I want to say that the reason this has been put is that half the Welsh population live in just 14% of the Welsh land mass. That is different from virtually all of England. Only a small proportion of England is sparse, but 80% of Wales is. The geography is different. For a Parliament to be able to respond to a part of the nation that is so different by allowing greater flexibility about how it is represented in the Parliament of the United Kingdom strengthens rather than weakens the union. I am sorry we could not hear from my noble friend today; he had wonderful maps he could have referred to in order to show this.
As my noble friend Lord Grocott said, this is about more than just arithmetic. Just as he said, the exempted constituencies show that. Geography is about more than islands; it is about valleys, mountains and other areas. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, is wrong to say that this is about bogus arguments—I may not have called them “balderdash”, like my noble friend Lord Blunkett, but I do not believe these arguments are bogus. It is about the strength of community representation. It also depends on turnout, which is important, and the greater the feeling of some sense of community. There is no point having absolutely numerically equal constituencies if we then find that some people have to travel so far, for example in Wales, to meet their MP that the turnout ends up being much lower. The number of people voting is very different in each seat. We are trying to give the independent Boundary Commission a little more leeway to use its common sense—I am not saying that this would be for all constituencies—and not to have to split communities unnecessarily.
The noble Lord said twice, I think, that we were trying to safeguard the current position by keeping the 5%, but in fact it has never been used. It exists only on paper. The 2011 Act brought it in. It is not the “current position” other than on a piece of paper; it has not been used. Trying to pretend that this is retaining something is not true. As I said at the beginning, if 5% was right in 2011 for an average number with 600 seats in the House, almost by definition it cannot be the right number when we move to 650 seats. It may be dancing on the head of a pin, but sometimes allowing that pencil to go a bit more broadly will draw a better boundary.
I end on what my noble friend Lord Lipsey said. It would have been nice if we could have worked towards compromise in a cross-party way on this rather than by edict. Then we would have reached something that would be good for the whole of Parliament, rather than doing it this way. But this way we must do it. I will seek leave to withdraw Amendment 12 and then move Amendment 13 formally so that we can test the opinion of the House. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 12.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
13: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Electorate per constituency
(1) Rule 2(1) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (electorate per constituency) is amended as follows.(2) In paragraph (a), for “95%” substitute “92.5%”.(3) In paragraph (b), for “105%” substitute “107.5%”.”
Amendment 14 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 15. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 6: Taking account of local government boundaries
15: Clause 6, page 5, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) After rule 5(2) insert—“(2A) Each constituency in any part of Cornwall must be wholly in the unitary authority area of Cornwall Council, and no other authority area, except for the Isles of Scilly.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure constituencies in Cornwall remain within the unitary authority area of Cornwall, with the exception of the Isles of Scilly.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 15 in my name. Again, I am delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who has consistently endorsed my plea that the especially distinct identity of Cornwall should be recognised in this legislation. I am also pleased to have the support of my noble friend Lord Teverson, who has given great public service to Cornwall.
Members will know that every single group leader on Cornwall Council has also endorsed my proposition since we discussed this matter last, in Grand Committee. As they have reminded us, Parliament has an obligation to recognise the historic and cultural identity of Cornwall. The 2014 inclusion in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities spelt out that recognition of the unique identity and integrity of Cornwall, and the need to protect the political integrity of its territory. Uniquely, physical geography reinforces that separate identity. If you try to follow the boundary between England and Wales, or England and Scotland, or even Northern Ireland and the Republic, you find yourself following the devil’s own job. Indeed, you can find yourself endlessly crossing invisible lines. On the other hand, if you try to cross the boundary into Cornwall, you will get very wet. The constituency I served ran for miles along that natural boundary; the administrative separation is clear and logical. I would have found it unnecessarily bureaucratic and hugely time consuming to have to deal with Truro and Exeter council officials 100 miles apart, and my constituents would inevitably have suffered had the boundary been removed and a constituency crossed it.
As we all know, physical geography can determine human geography, and never more so than in the history of the Cornish peninsular. I admit that I am strongly prejudiced. As I mentioned in Grand Committee, my ancestors arrived in north Cornwall around 1066. Perhaps more significantly, I am directly descended from Bishop Jonathan Trelawny, on whose behalf the national song records that 20,000 Cornishmen threatened to march on London to secure his release from King James II’s clutches. This reminder of the extent of Cornish self-awareness, this pride in our distinct history and determination to maintain the identity and integrity of Cornwall is obviously very relevant for the Bill. Hence the support of Cornwall Council.
In Grand Committee, the Minister seemed sympathetic to our case, but then went off on a tangent about Devon and other English counties. I admit that the wording of our amendment then may have helped to create a misunderstanding. With the admirable assistance of the Public Bills Office, we have tightened up the amendment for this debate. It refers solely to the electoral integrity of Cornwall.
I acknowledge that the combination of 650 constituencies and the 7.5% margin, which we have just voted for, on either side of the expected base figure of around 72,000 electors will probably mean that breaking out of Cornwall’s traditional boundary may not be necessary in this review. However, it would surely be wholly preferable for the legislation to leave no shadow of doubt, any more than it does with the borders of England with Wales and Scotland. It could be helpful to create this clarity for future boundary reviews. Who knows how the electorates will vary in years to come?
One does not need to be a separatist to acknowledge the strength of this case. Indeed, I believe that the continuing unity of the United Kingdom depends on accepting the lessons of diversity here, as with the other Celtic nations. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak to this amendment, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his characteristically courteous and constructive approach in handling the Bill.
I strongly support the unity of Cornwall in parliamentary terms, so that its constituencies are solely within Cornwall. I appreciate that, as became apparent in Grand Committee, the case for Cornwall is echoed in other parts of the country. My noble friend the Minister made this point very forcefully in Committee. I think he cited Suffolk as an example, while acknowledging the distinctive nature of Cornwall. There are two aspects that make Cornwall unique. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, Cornwall is the only county that borders just one other; it is thus much easier to protect Cornwall’s unique position in any constituency review.
Secondly, and again uniquely, Cornwall has a distinct culture and language which mark it out. In 2014, this status was recognised in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. That distinctive character is underlined by the Cornish language and culture. The use of the Cornish language supports the visitor economy in Cornwall and is being used increasingly in tourism. A Conservative Government should be in the vanguard of protecting an indigenous language of these islands and indeed supporting the culture of Cornwall. This amendment presents a real opportunity to do so; a real way of accomplishing that.
I believe that in this legislation we currently protect the coherence of islands in our parliamentary arrangements, which is something that I strongly support. We do this in Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles, Ynys Môn and the Isle of Wight. If it is right to protect the integrity of specific islands in parliamentary terms, and I believe absolutely that it is, then it is right to protect Cornwall too. It is, after all, an island as well, but one that just happens to be joined to Devon.