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Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, I will most graciously yield—as they say in the US Senate—to the noble Baroness opposite shortly, but I should like to say to the House that we conclude now our work on the Parliamentary Consistencies Bill, which is the first Bill I have had the privilege of taking through the House. Once upon a time, it was my delight on a shining night, but I find now that I am no longer a poacher but a gamekeeper. I thank all noble Lords who have made this new role so properly testing but also rewarding in doing the work of the House and trying to get the best results on this legislation. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Young and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for their constructive contributions on important amendments, and the many other Peers who spoke. Even though we have come to different opinions, of course I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the quartet who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Sharkey, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, for the time they put aside to explore their amendments and look for common ground in the margins of our debates.

I am sure noble Lords would like to join me in thanking the clerks and the digital team who have enabled these hybrid proceedings, not always without surprises, but that is no fault of theirs, I am sure. I also thank the officials on the Bill team for their tireless work in helping all of us to see the Bill proceed in a proper manner and to have the information needed.

We all agree on one thing: the constituencies of the UK Parliament are at the heart of our democracy. They are integral to a voter’s right to choose the Government of the day. As a result, the number, size and location of constituencies, and the way they are kept under review and up to date, are matters of the greatest importance. We therefore look forward to the further views of the other place and I look forward to continuing our discussions on these and related issues in future. I beg to move.

The Bill made parliamentary history by being the first to have a Lords Committee stage in the hybrid Grand Committee, so just in case it makes the Government’s history by being the first to have all our amendments accepted in the other place so that it is not returned here, I shall take this opportunity on its last outing to thank those who smoothed its passage. As the Minister said, the broadcasters and the parliamentary staff did enormous work to enable those hybrid sessions to take place in the new Moses Room.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord True, and congratulate him on his maiden Bill. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, made valiant, not always successful, efforts to defeat our arguments, although at every stage they heard our points, explained the Bill and its rationale and assisted us in the handling of business. We particularly welcome the Government’s adoption of—if I may call it this—the Young-Cormack amendment, which gives greater confidence about the impartiality of the move to automaticity. The Bill team, who are not here, but who I am sure are listening somewhere, were, as ever, helpful, including to the Opposition. On our side, my noble friends Lord Lennie, who has been mentioned, and Lady Gale did much of the heavy lifting, and we were assisted behind the scenes by our colleagues Catherine Johnson and Dan Stevens.

As the Minister indicated, this is a serious Bill on a serious matter. We congratulate the Government on restoring 650 seats to the other place. As the Minister said, we all want a fully functioning democracy, and how MPs are elected, who they represent and where they represent are part of that, so we welcome the Bill and look forward to its use in a general election—perhaps even an early one.

My Lords, the Bill will return to the Commons substantially improved. I, too, pay tribute to all who have helped to make it so, including the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, by accepting and endorsing the important change originally promoted by the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Cormack. The Minister explicitly accepted that it is the right and responsibility of your Lordships’ House to perform this task, not least when MPs and the governing party may need the corrective of relatively dispassionate, non-partisan, independent scrutiny of electoral law. Although he was not able to endorse the specific proposals for strengthening the independence of the Boundary Commissions, I sense that he was sympathetic there, too.

The Bill is improved in particular because it now provides more continuity and less disruption for all concerned, especially for electors, as well as for those whom they elect. It is more people-friendly and less obsessed with party advantage. Neither the extension of the review periods from eight to 10 years, nor the greater flexibility available to the four Boundary Commissions will materially weaken the Government’s declared aim. We may argue, when other legislation reaches us, that their manifesto promise of

“making sure every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy”

will have to be addressed by a more effective voting system but, in the meantime, we can surely agree that to insist on retaining the previously drafted eight-year review or the narrow 5% variation in the electorate quota would be absurd in this context. The exhaustive and forensic analysis by authoritative academics, which has been the core factual evidence provided to us all, should reassure MPs that they can accept these improvements without materially undermining the purpose of the Bill. Had the Bill continued in its original form the majority of constituencies, up to two-thirds of MPs, could have been faced with the knock-on impact of absurdly irrational and irritatingly regular alterations. To stick with the original proposals, at the risk of far too much disruption, too often, for constituencies and constituents, would be as perverse as it would be pointless.

The other very welcome change relates to the inclusion of immensely practical provisions to encourage young people who should be taking on their civic role as full citizens at the age of 18 to be registered. The current shortfall, reported by the Electoral Commission, is scandalous. Some people—even Ministers—seem unaware that there is a firm obligation for these attainers to be on the electoral register. Voting is entirely voluntary, of course, but not so registering, as this is the pool from which juries are appointed—hence, those who are eligible and are not specifically exempted can be fined for failing to do so. I hope that Ministers will not seek to undermine that obligation and will encourage local electoral registration officers to remind people at every opportunity of that civic duty.

The formidable case for this modest reform set out in the letter to Ministers from the group of senior academics should be conclusive. This team, from the universities of East Anglia, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, provides point-by-point analysis of both the need for and the efficacy of these changes. Again, we must hope that MPs will recognise that the very large majority in your Lordships’ House for that new clause on registration represents a substantial cross-party, non-party agreement on the way forward.

Finally, on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Peers, particularly those who have worked on the Bill, I express our thanks and admiration to all those who have assisted the House in reaching this consensus success: the Minister and his team, the Public Bill Office and other officials of the House, Members from all sides who have valued the integrity of the democratic process and, most especially, the academic experts who give us their well-researched and non-partisan advice.

I too add my thanks, and thanks on behalf of the Cross-Benchers, to the Minister for the very courteous way in which he has brought this Bill before the House. Being somewhat inexperienced in these matters, I had not appreciated that this was the first occasion on which he had piloted a Bill through the House. I would never have known that from his magnificent performance. I also thank him for the courtesy he showed me in discussing the various provisions of the Bill in which I was interested. We had very good discussions and they were carried out in a spirit of great courtesy and friendship.

Perhaps I may add two further observations. First, the hybrid nature of these proceedings require me to find a substitute in case the connection from Wales, where the broadband provided is not as good as it should be, fails. I had to ask my noble friend Lord Janvrin to be available to deliver my speech. Having on occasion prepared speeches never to deliver them, I know that that is rather a thankless task, so I am most grateful to him. Secondly, I thank all noble Lords who supported the amendments that I and other Cross-Benchers put forward.

I have two concluding observations. First, thanks are due for the way in which the broadcasting team has so skilfully enabled us to carry through these proceedings. Secondly, thanks are due also to the Bill team and the clerks, and in particular the civil servants in the Cabinet Office, who have been so helpful to me in explaining the intricacies of some parts of the appointments process. Sometimes we do not sufficiently recognise the devotion to duty of those who form our Civil Service and are the backbone of the way in which we run ourselves.

I have one final observation. On the day of Report, I was meant to be at a conference in the United States by videolink. When I explained to those at the conference the reasons for my delay, they expressed the hope that some of the procedures in our House and some of those that we have for altering constituency boundaries might be introduced there and that gerrymandering will be brought to an end. I am sure that this Bill will ensure that we will never have any gerrymandering in the UK.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.