My Lords, Parliament has approved that the current boundary review should be based on the December 2015 registers. Unless there is a defined date and a set of registers to assess, it is impossible to run a review. Changing the date now would risk the work of the Boundary Commissions not being implemented for the next election, meaning that it would be fought on demographic data from 20 years ago rather than last year.
My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that if there were to be a general election this year or next, it would be on the basis of the present constituency boundaries with no reduction in the number of Members of Parliament? Does she recall that when the register was looked at in December 2015, the Electoral Commission made it quite clear that some 2 million people had been excluded, while last week we were told that some 2 million additional people had come on to the register? Would it not be extraordinary to use those previous figures, which are now so out of date as to be bogus and demonstrably unfair, as a basis for allocating the new constituencies, to an extent where people will think that it is gerrymandering? Those were not ghost voters who voted last week, as Ministers implied would be the case earlier last year. Would it not be ridiculous to use out-of-date figures in this context?
It is important to remember that there are always similar upturns in registration—for instance, ahead of a general election, as publicity and media coverage drive up registration activity. There are always peaks and troughs throughout the year and registers for the boundary reviews are necessarily a snapshot. Let us imagine the expense if we kept updating them every couple of months. A great many recent amendments to the register will be people who have moved but want to ensure that they can vote at their local polling station. Moreover, a number—we do not yet know how many—may be applications from people who have already registered and are therefore duplications.
My Lords, will the Government also take steps to ensure that our electoral system becomes vaguely democratic? After all, there is not much point in messing around with the register if the system itself no longer works. I say that because at the last general election, UKIP received one-third of the Government’s vote, but only one seat in the House of Commons. Surely that proves that our first-past-the-post system, although it may have worked when we had only two parties, at the moment disfranchises two-thirds of the electorate.
The noble Lord certainly gets top marks for pursuing the same question over and over again. My answer is the same as it has always been—there is no change. It is important to remember that equalising the size of constituencies in the boundary review means that everyone’s vote will carry weight. If we let some constituencies stay smaller than others, voters in them will have more power than people in the bigger ones, and the boundaries will be based on data that are 20 years out of date. That cannot be fair or right. The principle of equally sized constituencies was endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and will ensure the vital demographic principle of one elector, one vote.
I declare an interest as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham. The noble Baroness’s response today has been disappointing. How does she justify redrawing boundaries for the House of Commons using electoral data when millions of valid entries on the register will not be taken into account, due wholly to the decision taken by this Government to reduce by one year the transitional period?
I do not want to make a political point but this appears to be a cynical delaying tactic. In the previous Parliament there seemed to be a conspiracy to delay the boundary review by legislating to put it back until 2018. Here, we have new excuses to push it back again, but to do so would mean that the next general election would be fought on incredibly outdated constituencies. We need to move ahead and have the boundary review in place by 2018. We need to be able to put our candidates into their constituencies in time to fight the 2020 general election. This has been decided as the way forward. For goodness sake, let us just go ahead and do it.
My Lords, I do not dissent from what my noble friend has said. However, can I again make a plea for the Government to look in an open-minded way at the issue of compulsory registration, which would solve many of the problems that have been referred to? That way, if people did not register they would be liable to a penalty. It would be entirely right and proper to insist upon compulsory registration. I beg my noble friend to have an open mind on that.
Is the work being undertaken by the Boundary Commission on the basis of a 650-constituency Parliament, or is it adaptable to a 600-constituency Parliament? What, therefore, would be the result of giving or not giving effect to the proposed reduction regarding the present work of the commission?
The Government acted speedily a few weeks ago to extend the deadline, allowing another 400,000 people to be included in the voting register. Should they not now act speedily to ensure that the 2 million-plus people added to the electoral register since 1 December are included in the boundary review? They could, as they did in 1992, simply speed up the process of the Boundary Commissions, put a little more resource into it and make sure that we get what they say they want—boundaries based on equal numbers of electors in each constituency—but only by letting the Boundary Commissions act on the basis of the registers as they now are, not as they were last December.
There simply is not time. It was decided that this is the way forward and it is going to happen. The Boundary Commission started its work in February of this year and it will be completed in time for 2018. Any delay would mean that we do not get it done in time for the election. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said in 2010 that votes should have equal value and equal weight, whether they are in the furthest reaches of rural Cornwall or in the inner cities, or in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Any delay will mean that that takes longer and longer to happen. We just need to get on with it.