Thursday 10 September 2020
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, the Hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering, except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
A list of participants for today’s proceedings has been published by the Government Whips Office, as have lists of Members who have put their names to the amendments, or expressed an interest in speaking, on each group. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously; the Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted. During the debate on each group I will invite Members, including Members in the Grand Committee Room, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister, using the Grand Committee address. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to de-group an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to move formally an amendment already debated should have given notice in the debate.
Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Grand Committee Room only. I remind Members that Divisions cannot take place in Grand Committee. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not Content”, an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part. If a Member taking part remotely intends to oppose an amendment expected to be agreed to, they should make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
It is currently intended that we will take a break at 5 pm for 15 minutes. There has been some suggestion that not all Members are happy with this. I suggest, therefore, that the three Whips get together at some point to decide whether they wish to have this break. It being a Thursday, I can understand that people might have different feelings about it.
12: 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.
The background to Amendment 12 is the effect of automaticity in moving the focus to the Boundary Commissions, which will now make the final decisions. This means that any risk of interference or perception of a lack of partiality or other matters will move to the commission and the process of appointing it. The Constitution Committee suggested we should consider what needed to be done to ensure the independence and impartiality of the commission. I am sure that there is complete agreement that the process must be wholly independent and free from the possibility of political inference or, more importantly, any perception of political interference or influence. Decisions must be independent and be seen to be independent and we must safeguard the process from the US problems of gerrymandering.
The amendment seeks to address this issue in three ways, so that the commission is not only independent and impartial but seems to be so. The first way is the appointment of the deputy chairman. Commissions are chaired by deputy chairmen. In each of our four nations the deputy chairman has to be a High Court judge. In Scotland, the deputy chairman is appointed by the head of the judiciary, the Lord President, and in Northern Ireland by the head of judiciary there, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
However, that is not the position in England and Wales. The appointment is not by the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice, but by the Lord Chancellor, a Government Minister. For England and Wales this anomaly predates the change to the position of the Lord Chancellor in 2005. Until then, he was the head of the judiciary in England and Wales and a judge. Now, not only is he not head of the judiciary, he is no longer a judge but a political Minister.
The Act should therefore now be changed so that the deputy chairman is no longer appointed by a Government Minister but, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by the head of the judiciary. Although the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, that is insufficient in the light of the proposed change brought about by the Bill. That is because it is necessary to ensure that the independence of the judiciary is not undermined by any perception of partisanship in the appointment. It must be seen to be wholly independent of the political Minister which the Lord Chancellor now is. That is a small and, I hope, uncontroversial change.
The second matter relates to the independence of the appointment process of the other members. I put forward a process based on the commission used for the appointment of the senior judiciary—the Judicial Appointments Commission—and the appointment process it has adopted. I have done so as the process of the commission will be far more akin to a judicial process. It must be impartial and independent and seen to be so. It must make its decision on the evidence and the decision is then put into effect by the other branches of government, without any power to change the decision.
Therefore, I suggest, first, that the panel must be independent. I propose in my amendment that the panel should comprise the deputy chairman, as that reflects current practice, and two panel members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Secondly, the process should be that determined by the panel. If the panel is appointed as suggested, the selection process should be left to it. I am not in favour of automatic disqualifications, as something you decide now can come back and disqualify someone for something they did many years ago. Thirdly, the panel must put forward one name to the Minister, who can object only on a limited basis and must give reasons in writing. That is the practice followed in judicial appointments. This has proved a very effective mechanism for the appointment of judges and exists—I must emphasise—without in any way undermining public confidence in other appointment processes. It is because the appointment process to the Boundary Commission is so similar to the appointment of judges that I put this forward.
The third means that I think should address the question of impartiality and independence is the non-renewable term. It is clear that the members of the commission must be free of any pressure during their work by the prospect of being offered a further term. That is why a number of bodies with special status have fixed terms that are not renewable. Security of tenure, again, is like that given to judges. If they are not liable to reappointment there cannot be subjective pressure or undue influence. In recent years, the trend has been for constitutional watchdogs to be appointed for a single, non-renewable term. A dozen such bodies whose members cannot be reappointed include the following six, which come under the Cabinet Office: the Civil Service Commission, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Committee on Standards on Public Life, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Advisory Commission on Business Appointments, and the Local Government Ombudsman. It seems to me that if the Cabinet Office believes in the importance of non-renewal terms for these bodies, why would it not apply this logic to the Boundary Commission?
Parliament also believes in the importance of single, non-renewable terms for constitutional watchdogs. The law was changed in 2006 to make the parliamentary ombudsman appointable for seven years, non-renewable; in 2011 to make the Comptroller and Auditor-General appointable for 10 years, non-renewable; and in 2012 to make the Information Commissioner appointable for seven years, non-renewable. Noble Lords will note that I have not recommended the length of the term. That is because I think it remains to be clarified as to what is planned for the activities of the commissioners, bearing in mind, first, that they are likely to be active for only two to three years in the envisaged eight-year cycle and, secondly, the way in which this is done must make the post attractive. Those are the three bones of this amendment. I beg to move.
I will speak briefly in support of the amendment introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. As was discussed on Tuesday, the Bill introduces automaticity into the implementation of new constituency boundaries following a boundary review. This is a move which I support. This amendment is a further step to ensure that the review process is, and is seen to be, totally impartial. Its aim is to strengthen the independence of the Boundary Commissions themselves by setting out how the appointments of their members can be made independently and without the possibility of political interference. The importance of this was underlined by the Constitution Committee and the arguments in favour of this additional clause have just been well set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas.
I simply add that I hope there will be no temptation to argue that this amendment is unnecessary. If the Minister does take that line when he replies, he would be saying in effect that we can trust the present appointments system. I ask him to reflect on this in the context of the level of public trust in politics today, which was touched on in our debate on Tuesday. When winding up the Second Reading debate earlier this year, the Minister said that the Boundary Commissions
“are independent and neutral; they must and will remain so”.—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 96.]
This amendment will surely assist the Government in meeting this worthy pledge.
Lord Liddle. No? We will move on to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. As Welsh Secretary, I ran a mile whenever I thought there was a conflict of interest. It is for others to judge whether I succeeded. It goes without saying that I did the same as Attorney-General. The spirit and meaning of this amendment is that the office of Lord Chancellor has been changed. It certainly gives the appearance of being a more political office. I will make no comment on his statutory duty to maintain the rule of law in the present circumstances, but it is important to distance the appointment of the Boundary Commission from a perception of closeness to party interests. The machinery—the bread and butter—of general elections is the make-up of constituencies. This is what the Bill does, with disastrous consequences for the representation of Welsh electors. A judicial method of appointment removes the semblance of political interests.
As Welsh Secretary, I had experience of a parallel matter. In what I would call my vice-regal role, it was my duty to appoint the chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission and, I believe, its members. I presume that this duty went, on devolution, to the Assembly and it is too late to amend it, but it is important so far as England is concerned. The same argument—the need to distance decision-making from a politician—applies to this kind of appointment and the Boundary Commission itself. On assuming office, I inherited the proposed appointment of the Local Government Boundary Commission chairman from my Conservative predecessor. I was not satisfied with the proposed appointment.
The make-up of local government constituencies can have a considerable effect on subsequent parliamentary constituencies. I decided not to implement my predecessor’s proposal; I wanted a judicial figure as chairman. I appointed Mr Ronald Waterhouse QC, who later became a distinguished judge in the High Court and Court of Appeal. His first recommendation involved St Dogmaels, a village between Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire which, given the history of those two constituencies, was of fundamental importance. My predecessor may have been right; I may have been right. We were both political Secretaries of State and neither of us should have had this duty. It can become a political bone of contention. It can give the impression that the appointor—the Secretary of State—has a conflict of interest.
I therefore not only support this amendment but hope that the same issue will be borne in mind in the field of local government, certainly so far as England is concerned. I hope that that will remove the impression of political interference. Local government boundaries are one of the building blocks that the parliamentary commissioner takes into account in resolving what the constituencies should be. It is, therefore, of equal importance. The spirit of the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, is to ensure fairness and remoteness from any political decision-making; I strongly support it.
My Lords, I begin by apologising for not being able to take part at Second Reading. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for tabling this important amendment. As the Committee heard in debates on other amendments on Tuesday, the Bill removes the present power of Parliament to approve the Boundary Commission’s proposals at the end of the process of reviewing boundaries in the UK. As it stands, the process allows MPs only to ratify or block the commission’s proposals, not to amend them. Even this can still be viewed as politicians being able to influence the final decision, as happened in, for example, 1969 and 2001. However much we deplore these situations and others like them, that is what current legislation allows. However, the removal of this power from parliamentarians and, therefore, the introduction of automatic review implementations, has been described by MPs as a “power grab” by the Executive from the legislature and a constitutional outrage. It is seen by many as another attempt to silence or sideline Parliament.
The UK’s four Boundary Commissions pride themselves on the impartiality of their reviews, as they work within the parameters set by various Acts of Parliament. However, up to now that impartiality has ended when the review arrives in Parliament for approval, as history has shown. It is therefore probably right that the UK follow in the footsteps of countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand in removing politicians from the process. After all, during the process of a review, politicians and political parties have the ability to express their views in the submissions they make to the commissions, and those submissions are given due regard.
However, this is the most unequal of changes. The Bill takes away the rights of parliamentarians, but the right of the Executive to appoint members to the Boundary Commission remains intact, leaving the impartiality balance skewed in favour of the Government. This is a situation I do not wish to see in Wales—a future Welsh Boundary Commission, influenced by the UK Executive, could hardly claim to be impartial. If the system is to be seen as fair and impartial, all political influence must be avoided. The noble and learned Lord’s amendment achieves just that. If the Government are reluctant to accept it, the accusations of a power grab by the Executive over the legislature will be seen to have substance. On these Benches, we support measures to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commission.
Diolch yn fawr. It is very nice to have so many Welsh people speaking in this debate. I think it would be a brave Minister who rejected the advice contained in this amendment from a former and very eminent Lord Chief Justice—and one, I might add, whose term of office coincided, I think, with that of Chris Grayling as the Secretary of State for Justice, although why I should make that particular point I cannot think at the moment .
It is clear that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, knows a thing or two about the relationship between a Secretary of State and our independent judiciary and legal system. He has no doubt seen at close quarters how decisions are made or influenced and is able to draw on this experience in his advice to the Committee and in the amendment that he has moved today.
The amendment covers two points. First, and crucially, it effectively takes the appointment of commission members out of the hands of an elected politician—indeed, a member of the Cabinet—and places oversight in the hands of the Speaker and the Lord Chief Justice. Secondly, it makes the appointments non-renewable to ensure that Boundary Commission members can carry out their function with absolutely no glance over their shoulder at the possible renewal of their mandate. As the noble and learned Lord says, this fits in well with the Constitution Committee’s view that if we are to move to automatic implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations, this will protect against undue political influence only if the commissioners themselves are genuinely impartial and completely independent of political influence, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, also said .
In particular, the Constitution Committee recommended that commissioners should be appointed for a single, non-renewable term; the Secretary of State should appoint only from names recommended by the selection panel; and the deputy chair of each commission should sit on the selection panel.
The issue of independence was similarly stressed in a useful briefing note by Dr Alan Renwick and Professor Robert Hazell of the UCL Constitution Unit in their submission to the Commons Bill Committee, where they stressed the need to:
“Protect the Boundary Commissions from Government Interference”—
where, as they say,
“automatic implementation is clearly appropriate only if the review process itself is genuinely independent of any improper interference. If that condition is not met—if, for example, government ministers can unduly influence the appointment of Boundary Commission members or the conduct of reviews—then the independence requirement is violated again.”
The view of those two eminent academics is also that this amendment meets their benchmark for independence.
I would have hoped that we would not need to write such obvious safeguards into the law, but the recent effective removal of those whose advice does not gel with the Government gives one cause for concern. As was discussed earlier in the Chamber today, Tuesday’s news, on the very day of Sir Mark Sedwill’s departure, of the resignation of the head of the Government’s legal department, Sir Jonathan Jones, over his concerns about a threatened breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol, makes him the sixth senior Whitehall civil servant to resign this year. It sounds as if, “If you don’t say the right thing, you don’t stay.”
In a similar manner, recent appointments suggest that a certain push from No. 10 has magically seen Conservatives appointed to a range of positions: the aforementioned Chris Grayling to the National Portrait Gallery; and our own noble Baroness, Lady Harding, appointed as the effective chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, without any advertisement or selection process, and despite being neither a doctor nor a public health professional.
Angela Bray, a former Conservative MP, was suddenly appointed to VisitBritain as a board member. Sir Patrick McLoughlin, a former Conservative Party chair, is now to chair the British Tourist Authority. Nick de Bois will chair VisitEngland and David Ross, a major donor to the Conservative Party and to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, is now chair of the Royal Opera House. Political friends have been recently appointed to so-called independent departmental non-executive directorships.
It may well be that all these Conservatives were simply the absolute best, most experienced, most dynamic applicants for these various posts, and that such skills can never be found among Labour or Lib Dem activists, but it does feel as if appointments to important positions may be being handed out on a less than non-political basis. It is therefore crucial, if the Boundary Commission is to have the final say—unchallengeable in Parliament—that we have absolute confidence in the integrity and independence of its members and recommendations and in the appointment of those members.
I say again that I regret that we feel the need to legislate for this. I would have thought that our way of doing government would normally not need this to be written into legislation, but I believe we have to do it. I look forward, therefore, to the Minister’s response to this particular suggestion, and I hope very much that the Government will adopt the amendment and put it forward themselves on Report.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for the detailed thought that he has put into drafting his amendment and to the fact that he has drawn the Committee’s attention to this very important topic. I am also grateful to him for the time that he gave to have a private conversation on this matter. I am certainly open to have further conversations with him in the days and weeks ahead. I am grateful to all those who have spoken on this topic today.
I must in preface take up what I thought was a very strikingly polemical political utterance from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in which she purported to impugn the overall integrity of the public appointments system—an implication which was also left in a much more acceptable but similar fashion by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin. I will come back to that, because I believe that the integrity of the public appointments system is absolutely fundamental and I am concerned that these kinds of generalised political charges should surface in the manner that we heard from the noble Baroness. I will not trade time in your Lordships’ Committee or at a later stage on Report by listing the names of other people of other parties who have taken up political and public appointments.
For my own part, I do not believe that the desire to give public service as a Member of Parliament or as a humble leaflet deliverer for any political party which is represented in Parliament means that that person should be automatically excluded or regarded as suspect if they are appointed to a public body. I believe that the course of politics—the vocation of politics—and public service through politics are honourable vocations, and that ought to be borne in mind as we address this subject.
Equally, I do not accept the characterisation by the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, that the Bill represents a “power grab”. We have had this discussion before. We had it at Second Reading and we have heard it again. This legislation takes power away from the Executive and invests it by automaticity in the Boundary Commission, which brings us—setting aside the political chatter—to the gravamen of the serious, non-political argument which has been put forward.
There is no doubt, and the Government accept, that the introduction of automaticity to the boundary review process—a change the Government regard as critical to achieving regular and effective boundary reviews—shines a light on the Boundary Commissions themselves. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, that point was indeed made by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which said:
“The House may wish to consider what safeguards are required to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions and their recommendations.”
That is accepted.
We believe—and I hope to persuade your Lordships—that the existing system does ensure independence and impartiality. What the Constitution Committee did not do, however—as the noble Baroness sought to persuade the Grand Committee—was to recommend any particular course. In fact, in paragraph 6 it noted merely:
“During committee stage of the Bill in the House of Commons, proposals to strengthen the independence of the Boundary Commissions were suggested”.
It set out four, one or two of which are included in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. Others are not; for example, that
“the Commissioners should be subject to the same political restrictions as the Local Government Boundary Commission for England”.
So it is not the case that the Constitution Committee specifically recommended these proposals, as was suggested to the Committee.
If we believe that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions should be implemented automatically, of course we must be able to trust that the commissions themselves are effective and independent. That trust will depend in part on having confidence in the process by which the leaders of the organisations—the deputy chair and the two supporting members—are appointed and reappointed. So I accept the importance of the subject we are discussing. We need to be able to satisfy ourselves that those processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is no room for inappropriate influence of any kind.
We believe that the processes we have are all of those things. I hope the Committee will forgive me if I set out the arguments, as the Government see them, in a little detail. I repeat that appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. That means that the four commissions are listed, alongside many other public bodies and independent offices, in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for the Governance Code on Public Appointments and the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who regulates the process. The detailed governance code and the oversight of the commissioner ensure that appointments are made openly and fairly, on merit, to the Boundary Commissions and many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work.
In addition to the requirements of the governance code, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. In my submission, to have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure that will have tested their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool of High Court judges. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to change the current system so that the Lord Chief Justice appoints for England and Wales as an additional safeguard of impartiality. But, as all the candidates will be High Court judges, and their appointment—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, acknowledged—will be made in consultation with and with advice from the Lord Chief Justice, we do not see this as a necessary change. As High Court judges, surely these individuals are impartial.
I turn to the main point in relation to the integrity of the public appointments system, which was addressed reasonably by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and more polemically by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. In line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments, the two members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, 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. 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, who would, in practice, be the deputy chair—the High Court judge—unless there were practical reasons why this was not possible.
At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity over the previous five years, which includes: being employed by a political party; holding significant office; having stood as a candidate; having publicly spoken on behalf of a party; or having made significant donations or loans. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations on suitability, and any such activity undertaken by a successful candidate must be publicly disclosed.
So I hope that noble Lords will rest assured that recent significant political activity would have to be declared during the recruitment of members of the Boundary Commissions. In the case of these appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. It would be for the advisory assessment panel to consider such conflicts, and whether and how they could be managed, and to satisfy itself that appointable candidates had no conflicts of interest that would call into question their ability to perform the role impartially and in line with the seven principles of public life. While we cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, it would seem likely that recent, significant political activity would be seen as presenting a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with finding a candidate appointable.
The public appointments system is used across government for hundreds of senior appointments each year. In the case of the Boundary Commission, following assessment the panel will submit the candidates judged appointable to the Minister, who then makes the appointment from the list provided or asks for the competition to be rerun. The amendment suggests that only one name be put forward. But the safeguards are there within the well-tried system.
The system is well understood, well trusted and fit for purpose. It is a system that I was certainly prepared to trust as a member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, while watching many members of other parties perfectly reasonably finding themselves in a public appointment. It is a system that in various forms has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades—appointments are being made under that system as we speak—and the Government wish to see it remain in place. To do otherwise could cast doubt on an independent, regulated system which ensures that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to these vital roles.
The amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, is carefully thought out and substantial. In essence, it would create a bespoke, detailed system of appointment, in primary legislation, for four small public bodies. This would likely be incompatible with the public appointments process, meaning that the current regime and oversight might need to fall away in the case of the Boundary Commissions. I understand the argument that the work of the Boundary Commissions is particular and sensitive. As I indicated earlier, if I am unable to satisfy the Committee today, I am prepared to discuss any further arguments, thoughts and ideas that are put forward, but the Government regard the direction of this amendment, in questioning the current public appointments system, to be unhelpful. We have a robust and respected system of public appointments.
Finally, I must address the noble and learned Lord’s suggestion of a single, non-renewable term of office for the deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential—I understand the argument—for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. There are some practical considerations that I hope the Committee might take into account.
As noble Lords know, this Bill moves boundary reviews to an eight-year cycle. Although we discussed an even longer term on Tuesday, the move to eight years has been widely supported. The new cycle and, one hopes, the avoidance of interim reviews, if that is possible, will inevitably mean some fallow years between boundary reviews, which, as we have discussed, may take a little less than three years out of every eight to complete. Understandably, an incoming deputy chair or member will want to participate in an actual review, which means that, if we were to have a single, non-renewable term that would attract candidates of the very highest calibre, as the post must do, it would need to be at least eight years in length. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, gave two examples of lengthy appointments, but, in general public appointment terms, that is a very long term indeed. It is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. The pool of applicants for these positions is not limitless and we would not want to create additional barriers that might see that pool shrink or become less diverse. On these grounds, we are not persuaded that it is advisable to make this change.
I should add that under the current system deputy chairs and members are generally appointed for a maximum of two terms of three to five years, and the governance code sets out a strong presumption that no one should serve more than two terms or a total of 10 years. Therefore, in practice, the current system already delivers what would be the likely result of the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. His suggestion would result in a single, eight-year appointment with no reappointment opportunity. In practice, most commissioners serve two appointments of three to five years, subject to a satisfactory appraisal.
I hope that I have provided some reassurance to the Committee and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that the system we have in place is strong and appropriate—certainly more so than was characterised—and deserves to stay in place. I cannot accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendment as it is drafted and urge him to withdraw it. Obviously, I shall reflect on the points made by Members of the Committee. As on all matters in this Bill, my door will be open to further consideration and discussion between now and Report.
It is important—it is more than important—that these posts are held by figures who are as impartial as High Court judges and are seen to be impartial in the broadest sense. That does not mean that they have to be a High Court judge in every case, but the aim of impartiality is one to which the Government definitely subscribe. In that spirit, while I cannot accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendment, I thank him for raising the point. It is a substantive point; it is an important point; it is one that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee drew to our attention; and it is one on which I am certainly open to hearing further suggestions. However, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.
The Minister and I obviously have our political differences, but he probably knows that I would very rarely make a claim that was not accurate. I was speaking quite quickly, so he probably did not quite catch what I said, because my quote from the report of the Constitution Committee, which I have in front of me, was absolutely accurate. What I said was—and this was my opinion—that the amendment fits well the Constitution Committee’s view, which I quoted, that
“automatic implementation … will only protect against undue political influence if they are themselves genuinely independent.”
I then quoted the committee’s recommendation that
“the Commissioners should be appointed for a single, non-renewable term … the appointing minister should be required to appoint only from the names recommended by the selection panel; and … the deputy chair of each commission should sit on the selection panel.”
I was not claiming that the Constitution Committee endorsed the whole of this; my quote was absolutely from the Constitution Committee, and it was on those lines. I realise that I may have been gabbling and the Minister may not have heard me accurately, because I am sure that he would not have made the error otherwise.
My Lords, perhaps I might be permitted to reply to that. I always try to be gracious and I enjoy the challenge that comes from the noble Baroness. The cut and thrust of politics makes it worth while being a Member of your Lordships’ House, and let us have more of it. I accept what the noble Baroness says: that she was simply referring to paragraph 6 of the report, which I also have before me. I accept that she was not saying that those were specific recommendations by the Constitution Committee. I hope that she and I, and the whole Committee, will agree that we should consider, as we are doing “what safeguards are required”—which was the recommendation—
“to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Boundary Commissions.”
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has put forward some proposals. I have argued that the system currently satisfies that objective. But, as I have said, I am open to having further discussions on this matter.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the amendment. Perhaps I might briefly reply to the points made by the Minister. First, as to the position in respect of the appointment of a judicial member, this is now plainly anomalous. I simply cannot understand why the Government seek to have this particular aspect of a judge’s deployment within the control and decision of a political Minister. Ministers are not allowed to appoint judges to particular cases. If as a result of a Boundary Commission it was felt that the commission had unduly favoured one party, it would be very damaging to the independence, and the perception of independence, of the judiciary if someone was able to say, “Well, that judge who is the deputy chairman was appointed by a politician.”
Further, there seems to be absolutely no reason why the position of those in England and Wales should not brought in line with those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the logic of the position: namely, that at the time this was done, the Lord Chancellor was a judge. The Lord Chancellor is no such thing these days; he is a political Minister.
Secondly, on the issue of public appointments, I hope that the Minister will reflect further on the unique nature of the decision-making of the commission. It is not a body whose decision can in effect be challenged; it is an independent decision. Therefore, a special process much more akin to that of the judiciary is required. Appointability should not be the criterion.
On renewable terms, it is clear that the Cabinet Office accepts, as Parliament has accepted, that there are certain positions where it is essential that the term of appointment be non-renewable, to remove pressure. The Minister said—I think I heard him correctly, but one is always cautious when hearing matters over a remote link—that someone is reappointed subject to a satisfactory appraisal, but that really has no place in the process of appointing someone who is meant to be independent and who may be expected to make decisions of which Ministers do not approve.
I therefore would very much like to take up the opportunity of discussing this further with the Minister and others because I believe that we should be able to put this matter into a situation where everyone can have confidence, and the perception of confidence, so that the judgment of the commission is never capable of being called into question on the basis that politicians have been involved in its appointment. On those terms I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 13. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
Clause 5: Number of parliamentary constituencies
13: Clause 5, page 4, line 31, leave out “650” and insert “800”
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cormack, who is a signatory to the amendment, sends his apologies for not being able to be present today, but has asked me to stress his support for what I shall be arguing this afternoon.
My amendment to increase the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 800 is drafted for one purpose, and that is to get the Minister, on behalf of the Government, to explain the arguments against having a legislative Chamber of 800 Members.
We have a second Chamber of roughly 800 Members. The Government have not taken any steps to reduce the number—quite the reverse. What change has been achieved has been through pressure from within this House, primarily in the form of Private Members’ legislation, such as the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which enabled the retirement of Members and the removal of Peers who fail to attend for a Session. Without that measure, the House would be closer to 900 Members. The committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has come up with recommendations to reduce the number to give effect to achieving a House that is no bigger than the House of Commons.
If there is to be a disparity in size, it makes more sense for the Commons to be larger than the Lords. The greater the number of MPs, the smaller the size of the constituencies. That arguably would be to the benefit of constituents. It would make possible even closer contact between Members and their constituents. It would facilitate more cohesive constituencies, avoiding some of the anomalies that were described in Tuesday’s proceedings on the Bill. It would potentially reduce the workload of individual Members, which is now becoming quite onerous.
This House has no constituencies. Members do not carry the substantial burdens shouldered by Members of the other place. This House fulfils the role of a reflective Chamber. As such, it merits being smaller than the elected Chamber, as is the norm in other bicameral legislatures.
There is a case not only for this House being smaller than the Commons—a relative point—but for reducing the size of both Houses. I have form in making that case. I chaired a commission that recommended a reduction in the size of the House of Commons over time to 500. I have argued the case for this House to be no bigger than the Commons. Having smaller Houses reduces the pressure on resources, be it in terms of physical space or legislative proceedings. We are, I think, especially alert to the pressures on this House in terms of the number of Members seeking to intervene in time-limited proceedings. However, this is not a question of the convenience of Members. It is important from the perspective of the House if it is to fulfil its core role as a reflective Chamber. There is the danger of quantity overwhelming quality.
The Government also have form, but only in favouring a smaller House of Commons. This Bill stipulates a House of 650, but the Government would have preferred a House of 600. Why, then, has it argued the case for a smaller House of Commons but not for a smaller House of Lords?
Furthermore, what this Bill does is stipulate the number of parliamentary constituencies. The size of the House of Commons has varied. It has had a larger membership in the past, as a consequence of the number of seats in Ireland, but since 1918 the number of constituencies has varied between 625 and 659. The key point is that the number is set in statute. There is no such statutory limit for this House.
If a House of 650 is appropriate for the Commons, why not for the Lords? If there is a fixed number in statute for seats in the first Chamber, why do we not have a statutory cap for the number of Members of the second Chamber? A cap is an important discipline. Those wishing to be MPs have to compete for a parliamentary candidature. A set number for the upper House would impose a discipline on the Prime Minister of the day in nominating Members.
To argue that this House could not operate effectively if it was the same size as, or smaller than, the Commons, is clearly not sustainable. Following the enactment of the House of Lords Act 1999, the size of the House was very similar to that of the House of Commons. The number has expanded massively since, for reasons unrelated to what the House needs to fulfil its key functions.
If having 800 MPs will place too great a strain on resources in the Commons, why does a membership of 800 not place too great a strain on resources in the Lords? In short, what are the arguments against having a House of 800 in respect of the Commons that do not apply to the Lords?
This House has agreed, without a Division, that we are too large. We have pressed for action to reduce our size, making the case for a reduction in terms of output—that is, Members retiring from the House—and a limit on input, in the form of Prime Ministerial nominations. It has to be both if our size is to be reduced. That is key to the work of the Burns committee. The problem in seeking to reduce the size of the House of Lords lies not with the House but with the Executive—hence the following questions to my noble friend Lord True.
Do the Government accept, as the House does, that the House of Lords should be no bigger than the House of Commons? Why are the Government prepared to condone a second Chamber of 800 Members when they seek to limit the first to 650? I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s answers, and I beg to move.
My Lords, in light of the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, perhaps I might start with, “Rwy’n flin, dwi ddim yn siarad Gymraeg.”. For those who are not fluent in Welsh—as I have just proved that I am not—that was my attempt at “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Welsh.” All I wish to add in relation to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is that I have signed and supported his amendment, which endorses the Burns committee report that was accepted by all sides of the House of Lords.
My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said and, therefore, I oppose this amendment, because it is clear to everyone that 800 MPs in this or any other legislature in the world is too great a number for ease of debate, expense, space, collegiality and concentrated expertise. Indeed, 650 Members of Parliament was thought to be too many, and it seems that that number has been chosen over 600 to avoid too many MPs losing their seats. If that is the case, 800 is certainly too large for this House as well, even though a substantial proportion rarely show up or participate. Even when we have been operating virtually and many of the barriers to physical arrival in the House have been removed, only about 550 have participated in votes. One is grateful to those who absent themselves because it relieves the pressure on facilities but, at the same time, one asks what they are doing accepting a peerage if they do not want to join in the work of the House.
In opposing this amendment, I call for a renewed effort to reduce the size of the House to a number comparable with the Commons. The fact that our efforts so far have turned out to be in vain is not our fault. This House, sadly, seems to be as unpopular as it has ever been, partly because of its size and partly because of unexpected appointments. It might have been more explicable if a practice recommended by the Lord Speaker’s committee of appending a notice to the announcement to a new appointment of how that person qualifies and expects to serve had been adopted. It is unpopular, too, because it has vigorously and repeatedly rejected the clear will of the electorate, expressed first in a referendum and then confirmed by two subsequent general elections, that they do not want to stay in the European Union. But I wish there was more understanding of our role as scrutineers of legislation and, on occasion, as the moral conscience of the nation—an issue that is likely to come up shortly.
On the issue of size, your Lordships know very well the sensible measures for reduction put forward by the Lord Speaker’s committee. We were progressing quite nicely with reduction until the addition of the new appointments made by this and previous Prime Ministers in the last few years. Despite the pledges made, it seems that Prime Ministers cannot resist the temptation of handing peerages to supporters and donors. There is no way that the House can defy the Writ of Summons calling them to Westminster. The size and composition of this House are also hemmed in by the presence of 26 Bishops and the hereditaries—elements that work to block a better gender balance. Therefore, we have to take matters into our own hands and ask the party groupings again to consider how each may reduce its share of membership. Some will have to be thrown off the life raft in order that more may survive. Rejection of this amendment is a spur to action, and I call on it to serve as such.
My Lords, the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on the size of the House of Lords are not quite relevant, with respect. When we discussed this before, I said—I was a lonely voice—that our efforts to reduce the size of the House of Lords were bound to fail because of the grim truth that no one could restrain future Prime Ministers. It is the like the puzzle you had as a schoolboy doing your 11 plus or the equivalent—filling the bath at one side and emptying it on the other; there is no means of controlling the end product. That is what I would say on the relevance.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, whom we all respect for his contributions in this field, has put his case very strongly. There is no magic number of 650. Nobody has explained to me why it should be 650 and not 651 or 649, or whatever number is justified. There is no case in my view for reducing the present membership of the House of Commons. That is why I support the principle, whatever the details of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
Being an MP is now much more demanding. In 41 years of representing my own constituency, things were fairly level. There were other problems, mainly industrial problems, but now the task of the MP has become much more difficult. There is an expectation, with the development of email, of instant action on behalf of a demanding constituent. I tried to pursue two professions—of being a Member in the House of Commons and practising at the criminal Bar—and I hope that I succeeded. I doubt that in the present circumstances, such are the demands on a modern Member of Parliament, one could have done the same thing for 41 years.
This is an important amendment. I support it on the principle that the greater the number of MPs, the lesser the chance of wrecking the physical make-up of the membership in Wales. Under the present proposals, the county that I represented in part would again be subject to a huge wrecking operation to justify an equality of numbers for each of the new constituencies. Therefore, the principle of the greater number helps me in my argument of trying to preserve representation that offers some degree of continuity. I used to speak for constituents; those were the people I represented. They value continuity, value the membership of the House of Commons and value the fact that they know who their Member of Parliament is. In my part of the world that may be more important than in a major industrial area, where perhaps there is more anonymity. In our area, it is important that constituents know who to go to when there is trouble.
I support this amendment very much, because it tries to meet present needs, and a reduction in the House of Commons to 650 is no more justified than the original proposal to reduce it 600.
My Lords, I am speaking to your Lordships from the far end of the Room. It is not that I consider noble Lords extra-contagious, and I hope they do not consider me so, and I am not extra-social distancing; it is just the only place that I can get into in my wheelchair. It was an absolute delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, speak, and I agree with every word she said. I hope that that does not do irreparable damage to her reputation, but there you have it.
First, I did not intervene at the end of the Minister’s last speech, but I was very surprised by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for whom I have the utmost respect. I thought she was treated abysmally by Jeremy Corbyn, and I am glad she is back in position. I say simply that I recall from 1997 onwards that Tony Blair stuffed every single quango full of Labour Party apparatchiks and the Tory party is a bit slow in catching up.
I go back to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am afraid that I disagree profoundly with him. There are too many MPs already. I regret that we have gone back to 650 from 600, but I can live with that—I am okay with it. We will come to this later, under the next amendment but, in my opinion, Scotland is heavily overrepresented. Scottish MPs at Westminster have little to do and are earning money on false pretences. English MPs have to deal with all political matters, but Scots at Westminster have MSPs who do the bulk of the work. However, I shall say more about that under the next amendment.
The answer is not to have more MPs or Peers but to increase the powers of parish councils, district councils, county councils, unitary authorities and elected mayors, and to devolve authority down. I agree entirely that the House of Lords should not be larger than the House of Commons, but the answer is to cut the number of Lords and not increase the number of MPs. I am afraid that we have seen, as I said in my detailed report to the committee looking into the size of the Lords, that Prime Ministers will not play ball with recommendations voluntarily to restrict the number of Peers they create. They cannot and will not do it, for many well-known reasons. Like it or not, we are going to have to take matters into our own hands and, at some point, invent a system to have retirement of Peers over a certain age—whatever that may be—and chuck out those who attend less than 20% or 25% of our sittings. But that is for another occasion.
I will also say that MPs do not have a heavier workload now there are no longer MEPs. I am not sure that I ever had any constituents who went to an MEP to handle local problems. They expected the MP to do it. In my experience, most constituents who had a complaint about an EU proposal came to the MP.
I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said that, with email, people expect instant answers. That is the case, but there is also instant availability of the answers on government websites, and on information supplied by the political parties and by the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries. I do not accept that the workload is so exceptionally increased that we need to increase the number of MPs. I hope my noble friend the Minister will reject the amendment. Admittedly, it was well argued by my noble friend Lord Norton, but I hope he will still reject it.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made an interesting speech and made points that the Minister might find hard to answer, but he did not make a case for this amendment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, made an argument in support of it because he wants there to be more Welsh MPs, even if this means more MPs in every other part of the UK. However, I doubt that this proposal would ever make it into a serious party manifesto.
The key question for the Minister is whether the Government accept the principles of the Burns committee and agree with the House of Lords, which wants to reduce the number of its Members. The amendment is clearly born out of frustration that the Prime Minister has just appointed more than 30 new Peers. Perhaps the Minister will explain why.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on his ingenuity in bringing this amendment forward. I describe it as an enabling amendment. He hit the nail on the head. He said that one reason was to try to get the Minister to justify why any House with a size of 800 should be deemed acceptable. It also allows us to discuss a very topical issue that has been in the news recently and which gives us all cause for concern: the increasing size of your Lordships’ House.
It is relevant to discuss this when we discuss the size of the House of Commons and boundaries, because we cannot look at one House in isolation. The two Houses function as a Parliament. What happens in one, and any changes to one, impact on the other. The two come together. I agree with the noble Lord. It is incredible that the Government were talking about reducing the size the House of Commons at the same time as increasing numbers were being appointed to this House.
At this point, I should say that I find it very difficult to speak without moving my arms. I feel like I am in the language lab when I was at school in the 1970s. If noble Lords hear occasional clicking, it is because my hands have hit the sides. I find the Dispatch Box easier than a Perspex box.
The role of a Member of Parliament is becoming increasingly demanding. I know that a number of former MPs are here today. When I was a Member of Parliament I used to say that my work was in thirds, but not of equal sizes. A third of it was my constituency casework and another was advocacy work for the constituency. I used those two-thirds to inform my parliamentary work. It sometimes strikes me that MPs are finding it harder and harder to carve out the time for that work in Parliament to debate and engage with legislation. That is why our relationship with the House of Commons is so important, because that is the work we focus on. It has rightly been said that we do not have the constituency work or advocacy work, but we have to focus on legislation in a different way from MPs because we are not informed by constituency casework.
To me, that role has always been a very serious point about how our parliamentary system functions effectively. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is quite right. She made her own point in some ways when she said that people dislike the House of Lords partly because of its size and partly because of our role on Brexit. People thought that the House of Lords was trying to block Brexit. It never did. All the House of Lords can do is make suggestions to the House of Commons for it to have the final say. In some ways, we are like an advisory body that can be helpful to any Government and the House of Commons.
The Government often misunderstand the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as being the relationship between the House of Lords and the Government. Drawing a distinction between the House of Commons and the Executive is very important. Our challenge and scrutiny role has a purpose: to be useful and a benefit to the elected House. That is sometimes not a benefit to the Government, but that is not our role, which is to be useful and a benefit to the elected House.
This discussion about the relative size of the Houses is not just academic, but one that boils down to the implications of how we operate as a second Chamber. The Burns report has already been mentioned. I think that the Burns report was born out of the House of Lords’ frustrations with the Government failing to take action to reduce its size. We looked for a non-legislative solution because the Government said that they would not provide parliamentary time or legislation. There had to be some way to do that and it was wise to do so. My noble friend Lord Grocott’s hereditary Peers by-election Bill, which has been before the House and no doubt will come back to the House when we are able again to discuss Private Members’ Bills, has overwhelming support in your Lordships’ House. The Government support it so that a tiny handful of Peers can block it again and again. It is a sensible reform being stopped by the Government and a small minority.
Theresa May responded positively to the Burns report and, following her appointments, said that she would urge and exercise restraint. That restraint she spoke about has now gone. It exposes the flaws in the system: not having a cap of some kind—I am not sure that I would necessarily support a cap, but a range of numbers that are reasonable for the House to operate under—allows a Prime Minister to see the House of Lords as a numbers game that they have to win. They just want to make as many appointments as they possibly can. Obviously, it has been and will always be the case that a Prime Minister will want to appoint more Peers of their own party than other parties. That has happened since time immemorial.
What happens is that, over time, the party of government often becomes the largest party in your Lordships’ House. In 1997, when Labour came into government, it was not the largest party, but nine years later it was. That timescale has now been truncated by the Conservative Party, which, having not been the largest party, became the largest party within two or three years of taking office in the coalition Government. David Cameron appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister since 1958. There was a consequence of that. Because he appointed coalition Peers—most of those Peers were government Peers—we have an inflated number of Liberal Democrat Peers. Inevitably, when the Liberal Democrats crossed sides and went into opposition, the Government had to appoint more Peers to get their majority back. There have been escalating numbers ever since. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, this current list of 35, four of which are Labour, does not reflect the needs of the House but of the Government.
The Burns report’s two-out, one-in approach makes sense. It is easy to argue that that now needs to be accelerated to make up for lost time since the report was published in 2017. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, commented about party groups taking some responsibility. She is right on that. I can tell her that since June 2017, just before the Burns report, my group has lost 30 of its Members, some voluntarily through retirement and some involuntary through death. We have lost a huge number of Peers. There is then an argument that the role of opposition can be conducted only if there is some balance in numbers and how we look at the House.
Professor Meg Russell has an interesting take on this that I think is quite interesting, which is that we should look at the numbers of the House of Lords and have a link with elections to the House of Commons. It would not be a direct link, but if, for example, we see trends over three elections, that could be reflected in the numbers of the House of Lords. Three elections is a sensible way forward to look at the proportion of MPs and how that could be reflected in the House of Lords. The authority of the House of Lords would then be derived only from the authority of the elected House and we would not have this issue regarding legitimacy. The only legitimacy drawn in the Lords would be from the Commons and we would maintain the primacy of the elected House.
We should value the work that we do. A lot of us feel unhappy when that gets undermined by bad stories in the press, because this House should be really proud of the work of our Select Committees and legislative committees. Look at the work of Ministers in the House of Lords; I am sure they are equally proud of the work they do. But that is undermined when criticism comes, as it has in relation to the appointments we have just seen.
I do not like singling out individual Members, but a point was made about quantity overwhelming quality. After the noble Lord, Lord Frost, was introduced on Monday, I commented during a Question which I asked this week that we looked forward to hearing him take part in debates on Brexit. I hear today that he has already taken a leave of absence from your Lordships’ House. In many ways, it would be more sensible to delay the introduction to the House of someone who has to take a leave of absence immediately. I want people who come into this House, including the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to be active participants, using their experience and expertise to contribute to the work that we do. It is disappointing when that does not happen.
If our numbers continue to increase as we do our work, the resources to allow that will be stretched too far to be adequate. There is a clear sense that the House of Commons has a greater justification for larger numbers than we do. Whether we support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is almost irrelevant. I suspect that he does not, but has put it forward so that we can have a debate. I would not support an increase to 800, but there is a strong case for this House to be smaller in number than the other place. That would allow us to be more effective in the work that we do.
I thank noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Hayward, and all others who spoke. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Norton for his typical ingenuity in transforming a Bill on parliamentary constituencies, referring to the House of Commons, into a House of Lords Bill 2020. I will address the points that he put, even though the purpose of Clause 5 is narrowly defined and keeps the House of Commons at 650. The Bill really is not a legislative vehicle for considering the size and membership of this place. But here we are in Committee in the wonderful, free House of Lords, whose revising greatness, historically, rests a great deal on the freedom of noble Lords to put forward amendments for discussion—a freedom that I personally greatly value.
I will come to the point about the size of the House of Commons, which can be dealt with fairly quickly. My noble friend was really asking about the size of this House and said, “What is the difference between the House of Lords and the House of Commons?”. We heard a number of the differences explained in the excellent speech by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition. The roles of the two Houses are fundamentally different. Beyond that, this is—or has been, historically—a part-time House of expertise, with a broader pool of expertise. I cavil at using the term “part-time” because it implies that I think Members of your Lordships’ House, as in the nonsense said about them, turn up and do not do the work. This is an extremely hard-working House. Perhaps I should have said that it is not a full-time, professional political House in the sense that the House of Commons is.
A House that is a revising House benefits from a wide pool of expertise and, rightly or wrongly, historically, the House of Lords has worked in that way. When I first had the honour of serving your Lordships’ House as private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition in 1997, yes, there were Members who came very rarely in those days. Some spoke perhaps two or three times a year. But some of those individuals—and we all know some who are with us today—came with extraordinary expertise, from which the House benefited and which it listened to. I am not necessarily happy with the argument that the House of Lords must become more and more like the House of Commons—full of professional people who are here all the time. It has a different role. Historically, that has been the reason for a larger number in the House of Lords. The prescriptive history of the House and the process of creations was obviously also the historic reason.
There have been some criticisms of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for creating new Peers. I am not going to irritate the Committee because I am in an emollient mood, particularly as I am about to try to persuade my noble friend to withdraw his amendment. However, it is the case that Mr Tony Blair created 354 Peers. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, reasonably said that Mr David Cameron created a very large number of Peers, including the Member of the House speaking at the moment. So clearly he was not absolutely accurate in his sense of everybody whom he should appoint, since he dumped me on your Lordships. But the point is that those very large numbers of creations had led to a great bump in the size of the House. To become displeased when a new Prime Minister wishes to make appointments is just a smidgen unreasonable.
The Government have acknowledged that the size of the House of Lords needs addressing but, given retirements and other departures, some new Members are required to keep the expertise and outlook of this place fresh and relevant. A number of ideas have been put forward. The Burns committee has put forward proposals and other statutory ideas have been put forward. The position of the Government is that any reform needs careful consideration and should not be brought forward piecemeal.
The previous attempt to reform your Lordships’ House, which did not find favour either in this House or in the other place, would have introduced an elected Chamber. Some of us are not exactly opposed to that; I have not always made myself popular on this subject with some of my colleagues. That would have achieved two things: a limit to the size of the House, and a House whose membership would have been refreshed by Dissolution. This would have addressed some of the problems that have been described. But that is water under the bridge; it is done and just a historical reflection. It is not to be taken as any kind of intimation of the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.
What I would reject—and this certainly would be the position of Her Majesty’s Government—is the idea put forward by my noble friend that the number in an appointed House should be fixed in statute and could not be increased. The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition rightly said that in some circumstances, that could not happen. If an unelected Chamber is in conflict with an elected Chamber, while the House of Lords is now unique, history and the past experience of other countries suggests that a Government must have the ability to make new creations. It was useful to the Liberals to threaten that in 1910 and useful to the Labour Party to threaten it in the 1940s and 1990s. The threat was not really necessary in the 1990s, but it was there.
The arguments for having a fixed number for an appointed House were had at some length on the peerage Bill in the early 18th century. The House of Commons took the view then, rightly, that it could not accept that the numbers of the House of Lords should be limited. So the idea of a cap—not allowing a Prime Minister of whatever party to make appointments beyond a certain number—is not something that could fly.
Although the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, supported the amendment, she referred to—this illustrates my point—the challenge, to use the word used by the Leader of the Opposition, that the House of Lords presented to the other place last year over Brexit. If there were a cap on this House and the House of Commons, with the support of the British people, resolved to go in one direction and the House of Lords, in its wisdom—as it saw it—took a line in the other direction, that would be a recipe for constitutional mayhem of a high order.
I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, whom I respect enormously, would argue that she was not seeking to obstruct Brexit at that time. I must say that some of it did waddle like a duck and quack like a duck, but I accept that it was in fact a docile tabby cat and was not really threatening anything. The serious point is that having the number in an appointed House fixed by statute, as my noble friend suggested, would not be constitutionally comfortable. I repeat: the size of this place needs addressing overall but it must be through some considered, not piecemeal, reform.
As far as the size of the House of Commons is concerned, I hope noble Lords will agree with me rather than my noble friend that if the difference between the number of elected Members in the other place and the number of eligible noble Lords in this place needs to be addressed, it should not be addressed by increasing the size of the other place. That is certainly not the Government’s view; it was not the view of the major parties in the House of Commons, both of whom supported the number of 650 in the debates in the other place; and it was not the view of Members of the House of Commons in their deliberations on this Bill. They took the view that 650 is the right number—that was the view taken by the political parties in the other place—and I urge my noble friend to accept that position.
We had a discussion about 650 rather than 600 in the debate on an earlier group of amendments, so I will not repeat at length the arguments that were put forward then. Circumstances have changed; indeed, the composition of the Government has changed. Since the figure of 600 was put forward, our population has grown and we have left the European Union. I will not rehearse the arguments that we discussed then but, in my judgment, no argument overrides what we now know to be the settled view of the House of Commons: that 650 is right. It has been well supported in the other place.
Clause 5 should stand part of the Bill and this amendment to increase the size of the other place to 800 should be rejected. I therefore urge my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received a request from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, to speak after the Minister.
My Lords, I will speak briefly. First, I make a plea to the Minister never to refer to this House as a part-time House. He half-corrected himself but this House often sits longer and later than the House of Commons. We are a full-time House. The only difference is that not all Members are full-time Members of your Lordships’ House; they have other interests and activities. We are a full-time House but not all our Members are full-time.
I want to make a couple of points. The Minister said that reform cannot be piecemeal because it must be considered. Reform can be both considered and piecemeal. Most reforms in British constitutional history have been quite gradual. That does not mean that they have not been considered; they have just taken a step-by-step approach, not the big bang approach. The Minister harked back to ducks and tabby cats; I would liken the House of Lords more to a tabby cat than to a duck.
The night in question, when the Minister and I had many discussions late into the night, went later than either of us wanted to be here in Parliament, but potentially the point the Minister is missing is that, after the conflicts that he referred to, both the 1911 and the 1949 Parliament Acts constrained how the House of Lords works. It is quite clear that we have an advisory role and that the House of Commons has primacy. We do not block legislation, we have no intention of blocking legislation and we have no remit or legitimacy to block legislation, but we have an opportunity and an obligation to advise the House of Commons on the basis of the information that we have.
On the Minister’s point about a Prime Minister needing to be able to appoint lots of Peers to get their legislation through, I am not aware of anything that Boris Johnson would have more difficulty with in the House of Commons than in the House of Lords. Even on the rule of law, I suspect that his colleagues in the House of Commons are not terribly happy with him, but that is not why he has appointed these 36 new Peers. It is nothing at all to do with legislation; it is a Prime Ministerial whim and a numbers game.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments on the size of the House of Commons being 650 Members. There is something that we can agree entirely on.
First, as I hope I indicated in my remarks, I accept the strictures of the noble Baroness on the phrase “part-time House”. It is a House whose expertise derives in part from the presence of people who are here part-time and bring us their expertise, which is a slightly long-winded way of saying the same thing. I think I said specifically that I would not want anyone to run away with that remark and say that that is what I think of your Lordships’ House. I revere it.
With that correction, I will not detain noble Lords further but I will bank the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that this House’s role is not to block legislation. We shall test those words in the coming weeks and months.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who spoke. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just made two of the points that I was going to make but that will not stop me making them anyway.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, supported my case by speaking against the amendment; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, supported my case by speaking for it. I am not whether that means that I am more skilled or abysmal at drafting amendments than I thought.
That leads me to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. She argued the case for a formula linking the size of the House of Lords to the membership of the House of Commons. I agree; indeed, I tried to devise an amendment on that very point but getting it within the scope of the Bill was problematic, which is why I moved the amendment I did. The noble Baroness and other noble Lords will appreciate that sometimes one must go through some contortions to produce an amendment that will trigger a debate. I speak as someone who, a few years back, moved an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Bill that would have had the effect of banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol. I realise that it was not going to go anywhere—it was not designed to—but it drew attention to a problem in that Bill.
I have four points to make, two of which the noble Baroness just made in response to my noble friend Lord True. One of her points was that the two Houses have different functions. Of course they do; that was precisely my point. Deriving from that is the case for the House of Lords to be smaller than the House of Commons, given the functions that it fulfils. We are a reflective House. We do not have an outward-facing role in the same way that the Commons does, with Members having to deal with constituencies in relation to their role and in relation to the Executive. The functions are very different. We fulfil different roles, and we add value to the political process by fulfilling that reflective role. Deriving from that, we do not need to be quite so big or, indeed, as big as the House of Commons.
Secondly, as was just touched on and as the noble Baroness stressed, this is not a part-time House. It is very much a full-time House, with some Members who work part-time, if you like, because they do their day jobs then come in to provide their expertise. It did a very good job in 1999 when we had more or less the same number of Members as the House of Commons, so unless my noble friend the Minister is going to argue that it was doing a worse job than now, again, there is no case for the arguments that he has advanced in terms of size.
My next point—again one that the noble Baroness touched upon—relates to my noble friend saying that reform should not be piecemeal. Well, the reform that has been achieved has been piecemeal; it has been the grand schemes brought forward by government that have got nowhere. Those piecemeal changes have I think been well considered—I speak as someone who drafted one of the Bills—and have achieved a great deal. Had we not achieved the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, just think what the size of the House would now be. We would be moving in the direction of the size of the House when we had the hereditary Peers and all the problems that derived from that.
Finally, while I am not saying that we should have a statutory number, there is a case for considering it. My noble friend did not really make an argument against that and I draw attention to the fact that it is not at all unusual for nations to have a set number of Members of their second Chambers. There is not really a clear argument against that. I am not necessarily beating the drum for it; I just say that there is no strong argument against it.
So I am not persuaded by any of the points that my noble friend made—he will not be surprised to hear that. I wanted to tease out the stance of the Government and allow us to continue to make the case—as the House has agreed, without a vote—that we are too large and that steps should be taken to reduce the size of the House. We can move towards that; the Burns recommendations create the means for achieving that. We can have a smaller House that fulfils its key functions and adds value. This House fulfils a very important role that is demonstrably different from that of the Commons. That is why it adds value, and that is why we should serve to uphold it. That would, I think, be facilitated by having a smaller, not a larger, House. We should follow Burns and try to reverse the direction of travel when it comes to the size of the House.
So I am, as I have said, grateful to all those who have spoken. I have made all the points that I think are important in this context, and I am extremely grateful for the support I have received from other Members. I am sure that this is something we will continue to pursue but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Before I call the next group, I have had a request for Members in the room to speak up a little, because I think it is hard for Members, particularly those at the far end, to hear what is going on. It is not made easier by the extraneous noise outside. So if people could perhaps speak a little closer to the microphone, it would be appreciated by the noble Lord who I can see at the end of the table.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 14. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
14: Clause 5, page 4, line 31, at end insert—
“(2) Rule 3 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (allocation of constituencies to parts of the United Kingdom) is amended in accordance with subsections (3) and (4).(3) After rule 3(1) insert—“(1A) The number of constituencies in Wales shall not be less than 35.”(4) In rule 3(2), at the beginning insert “Subject to rule 3(1A),”.”
My Lords I beg leave to move Amendment 14, in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Rowe-Beddoe. I am especially grateful to my noble friend Lord Grocott for adding an English voice.
Since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act was passed in 2011, the subsequent boundary reviews have disproportionately impacted Wales. The 2013 review slashed the number of seats by a quarter from 40 to 30—a huge loss of representation, had it been implemented. The 2018 review was even more savage, with Wales expected to lose 11 of its 40 seats. Even under current proposals, which maintain the total number of MPs, Wales is set to lose eight seats—fully a fifth. Whichever way you look at it, Wales will be the most punitively and uniquely impacted of the four nations.
Such a ruthless cut in the number of seats, coupled with the unique Welsh geography, which can see constituencies vary drastically from vast rural ones that are sparsely populated, such as Brecon and Radnorshire, to the densely populated small urban constituencies in Cardiff and Swansea, will have a brutal impact on parliamentary representation in Wales.
In the two previous reviews of the last decade, the cut in the number of constituencies resulted in the Boundary Commission for Wales proposing mega-constituencies to achieve numerical parity and to accommodate the vast geographical areas that are sparsely populated and in which there are thousands more sheep than people. The proposed constituency of Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire extended 87 miles, and the proposed constituency of Brecon, Radnor and Montgomery stretched over 83 miles, from the north to the south of the constituencies. It would take someone well over two hours—maybe three if behind a tractor or a caravan, as often happens on the roads concerned—to drive from one end to the other, covering communities with very different cultures, including different levels of Welsh language speakers. Despite the vast size of the proposed Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire constituency, it only just met the minimum threshold for a constituency by less than 300 voters. The proposed South Clwyd and North Montgomeryshire constituency crossed five local authority boundaries, yet it had the smallest electorate and only just scraped inside the minimum size for a constituency by 66 electors.
These Boundary Commission proposals were obviously under the previous legislation, which was never implemented, but there would be a similar impact under this Bill. The impact would be slightly less brutal but still pretty ruthless. By the way, there are no Labour-held seats in this part of Wales and there have not been for many generations, so I am making not a partisan case here but one about democratic representation.
Valley communities, such as the one I represented in Neath, with their unique geography, also suffered. It is not easy to move single communities from a valley and put them in a different constituency. By their very nature, valley communities are linked and do not easily connect with neighbouring valleys. You have to somehow get up to the top or the bottom to get into a neighbouring valley—you cannot climb or drive over a mountain.
Valley communities are also linked to specific towns in terms of both transport and community links, and also historical ties. These community ties form the basis of very many of the valley constituencies in the South Wales area. During the last boundary review, some of those bonds were butchered—there is no other word for it. Islwyn was carved up between three constituencies, while the historic constituencies of Pontypridd and Aberavon were both split in two.
Slashing the number of constituencies in Wales restricted the Boundary Commission’s options when redrawing the boundaries, which came at the expense of community ties, history and geography, as will inevitably be the case under this Bill. Constituency boundaries should mirror the communities they represent. The ability of voters to identify with a constituency in our political system is crucial for the health of our democracy; otherwise, it leads to disengagement and a feeling of disenfranchisement, and ultimately undermines democracy.
As a small nation it is vital that Wales’s voice is heard in Parliament and that its unique geography is taken into consideration when drawing up the boundaries—and no more so that at this time, when there are threats to the unity of the United Kingdom.
That significance was recognised by Parliament when it first decided over 70 years ago, in the 1944 Act, that, because of its uniqueness, there should be a minimum number of 35 seats in Wales, which is what the amendment seeks to bring about. Now such uniqueness is being ignored and such special consideration and respect for Wales are being casually tossed aside.
That is why I am proposing in Amendment 14 that the Bill should include a minimum number of seats in Wales and that that minimum should be no fewer than 35 seats, as in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944 and reaffirmed in the 1986 Act. I am not suggesting a retention of the 40 existing seats. This is a modest and, I hope, acceptable amendment to the Government of a minimum of 35 seats to reflect the special needs of Wales. It would create an average electorate of 66,110 in Wales, based on the 2019 electorate, increasing the average number of electors but not so savagely at the expense of geography, history and community ties as under the Bill.
Although the average size may be lower than in the other nations of the UK, it is a compromise position that is much fairer than the one currently being proposed. Importantly, it has legislative precedent under a national coalition Government, not the most dogmatically partisan one-party Government Britain has experienced, if not ever, then for generations.
Amendment 14 would protect against such a savage and disproportionate cut in the number of seats and would provide the Boundary Commission for Wales with greater flexibility to accommodate the vast geographical areas that are sparsely populated and the more densely populated valley constituencies that are not easy to modify. The unique challenges that Welsh topography poses already create difficulties when drawing boundaries. Slashing the number of seats seriously compounds the problem and leads to terrible disruption, because the Boundary Commission is so hamstrung.
As the Bill stands, the significant hit to the number of Welsh seats will profoundly change the way in which Wales is represented in Parliament. Wales’s voice in Parliament will be drastically smaller than it has been for generations. Parliament can already feel very remote to communities across Wales and marginalising their voice will serve only to further erode the link between Parliament and Welsh communities and voters.
No other nation is experiencing the hit that Wales is under the Bill. Wales should be treated fairly, not punitively. Setting a minimum number of Welsh constituencies with legislative precedent strikes a balance, creating more equal-sized constituencies but not at the expense of geography, history and traditions, community ties and, ultimately, democracy. I very much hope, therefore, that the Minister will, in responding, understand the case for the amendment and that the Government will accept it or a version of it.
My Lords, I support Amendment 14 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, to which I have added my name. It addresses the level of representation that devolved Wales should have in the House of Commons.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, described, Amendment 14 provides for a minimum of 35 MPs from Wales. Two distinct issues are at stake with regard to the appropriate level of representation from Wales and they are interrelated. We shall return to the second, the appropriate size of constituency, on which the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has commented, when we debate Amendment 22, so I will not go on to that aspect now. The first and more fundamental issue is whether Wales—or, for that matter, Scotland or Northern Ireland—should, as some suggest, have fewer MPs in future compared with the level that we have enjoyed in the past because we now have our own elected legislatures.
The question arises as a direct result of the ad hoc system of devolution that has been developed over recent years. When non-devolved issues such as general taxation and social security—or, for Wales, policing—arise, it is totally unacceptable that Wales should have a lesser voice because of the existence of our own legislature, dealing with other matters such as education or housing. If it is unfair for Welsh MPs to legislate on English matters, as is quite arguable, it is the same unfairness as having English MPs voting on matters relating to Welsh-language television, for example, as is currently the case. Those difficulties would be sorted by a federal or confederal constitution, but as successive Governments at Westminster have refused to face such anomalies, I am afraid that they have to live with the consequences or cobble up some ad hoc system such as English votes for English laws, which is not entirely satisfactory.
These anomalies certainly do not justify the overall reduction in the number of Welsh MPs because of our unbalanced or inconsistent devolution settlement. Amendment 14 proposes a de minimis of 35 MPs—a reduction of five seats compared with the present level but well above the 29 seats recently advocated. The reduction of five seats is a recognition that relative population is a valid consideration, but it leaves some legroom and flexibility to take on board community considerations, which we will discuss later under Amendment 22.
Amendment 14 is a compromise. I could well make the case that the appropriate level should be maintained at the current 40 Members. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, and I, as well as other supporters of the amendment, are being pre-eminently reasonable. The amendment offers the possibility of a sensible compromise and I commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, these hybrid proceedings are very strange. I was in the Committee Room on Tuesday, so I know that my face is appearing on large screens in front of those noble Lords who are present—quite a frightening prospect.
Indeed it is—I can see that already. Here at home we are at least spared the glass boxes that I suffered on Tuesday.
I am once again speaking up for Scotland, as I do from time to time, after the eloquent speeches by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley—my good friends. I was happy to see Wales go first in the argument, because it has a strong case to put forward. It is totally wrong for Wales as well as Scotland to lose seats in this review and it needs to be reversed. That is why I tabled Amendment 23, which seeks to protect the number of seats in Scotland at the current level, so that Scotland is allocated 59 constituencies, including the two protected constituencies of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I am not making a political argument. Indeed, some people might say that it is against our interests, as the SNP has so many constituencies in Scotland at the moment. Of course, that is merely a temporary situation, which will be reversed at the next election.
Perhaps I can give a little history. When I was first elected, in 1979, there were 71 constituencies in Scotland. That was when there were only 635 constituencies, not 650, in the United Kingdom as a whole. My noble friend Lord Hain referred to the unique position in Wales. I know this sounds a little strange, but Scotland is even more unique than Wales. Can I say that? I am not sure. We certainly have our own peculiarities. I will give the Committee just some examples.
The largest constituency set out in the Boundary Commission for Scotland’s proposal was Highland North, at 12,985 square kilometres. That is about the size of Yorkshire, eight and quarter times the size of Greater London, five times the size of Luxembourg and larger than Cyprus and Luxembourg put together. Indeed, the three largest proposed constituencies—Highland North, Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, and Inverness and Skye—cover 33,000 square kilometres. To put that in context, the three constituencies would cover over 40% of the area of Scotland, which is larger than Belgium. The two constituencies of Highland North and Argyll, Bute and Lochaber would cover an area larger than Slovenia. These large constituencies would also include several island areas, which makes MPs’ travel across them even harder. In fact, the constituency of Argyll and Bute already contains five airports.
I have one point for the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, who will be speaking later. He said earlier that the reduction from 71 to 59 constituencies from 2005 onwards was to take account of devolution. The fact that we have Members of the Scottish Parliament has already been taken account of. The constituencies that Scottish MPs are expected to represent are just as large, if not larger, than they have always been.
My amendment would also ensure that the boundaries for constituencies of the UK Parliament would take account of the Holyrood constituencies. That would provide opportunities for better connections between the Member and their constituents and also between Members of the UK and Scottish Parliaments when they are dealing with important matters.
The question of the union was also mentioned. The union is in danger, as we know, with pressure from the SNP and from the situation in Northern Ireland. The proposed reduction of the number of Members from Scotland and Wales would add an extra tension. Accepting the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and myself would also help strengthen the union. I have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is about to speak on this matter, although his name is not on the amendment. I am grateful to him for his support. I have put forward arguments for the size of the constituencies and for the fact that we have already had a reduction from 71 constituencies—in 1983 it was 72—to 59. There is no argument for further reducing the number of constituencies in Scotland.
Finally, we have four separate commissions dealing with this matter, looking at the situation in each of the countries. That accepts the fact that the situation is different in each country. It is a de facto acceptance of that. Agreeing that the number of seats in Wales and Scotland should be specified gives clear direction to those separate Boundary Commissions. So I hope that, as well as the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Hain, the one that I have put forward will be accepted by the Minister, if not today then at least at some time in the future.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to give my strong support to both these amendments from my noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Foulkes. It is an oversight on my part that I have not actually signed the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. As this is a virtual Parliament, perhaps he can now accept my virtual signature. The amendments are quite similar. They establish minimum numbers of MPs who should represent these two countries.
If it is not too presumptuous to say so, I thought it was quite important that an English voice from an English constituency should take part in this short debate. As I shall argue, these two amendments have significance for the whole United Kingdom. However, in my case, it does break the habit of a lifetime in politics—in fact an iron rule of it—of avoiding making political interventions in either Scotland or Wales. It is a cause of some nervousness, but not in this case. It is a question of the representation not just specifically in those two countries but in the United Kingdom as a whole.
Looking at some of the thankfully now-aborted, deeply flawed boundary proposals based on the 600 constituencies, I, like everyone else—like every other former MP—was focusing almost entirely on the effect on my own constituency, perhaps to the neglect of other parts of the country. I can still remember the absolute shock when I was told by friends representing Welsh constituencies that the number of seats in Wales was to be reduced by a quarter. To me, that was absolutely staggering. It was crass. It could only have been the result of some calculating machine operating somewhere—as we know it was—on a very tight formula for electorates of constituencies and with total disregard for pretty much everything else.
I will not go into any more detail as it has already been dealt with thoroughly by my noble friends. In addition to the point that has already been made about the huge significance to the constitution of the country as a whole, a Boundary Commission would be disregarding all that, including geography, history and culture—it is invidious to mention anywhere in particular, but let us say from the valleys of south Wales to the Highlands of Scotland and everything in between—and the massive contribution that MPs from constituencies in those countries have made to the Westminster Parliament. I will not begin to tot up the number of Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and heaven knows who else who have come from there. It really was constitution-making on the hoof, but with regard to only one rule.
I have no hesitation whatever in saying that more factors need to come into play in drawing the electoral boundaries of the United Kingdom than a simple arithmetic rule. The proposals from my noble friends for a minimum number of MPs from both countries seem to be a very sensible structure. If that were to be adhered to, it would be to the benefit of representation and a voice from them. It would benefit the United Kingdom, and it would benefit the variety of opinion, the depth of experience and the representation of unique communities that the House of Commons should rightly pride itself on. I support the two amendments with enthusiasm.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for tabling Amendment 14 and for presenting us with the opportunity to debate the impact of this Bill on the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales and for his excellent introduction to this amendment. As we know, Wales has 40 MPs. If the recommendations in the Bill come into being and constituencies of near equal numbers of voters are created, it is estimated that this would result in the number being reduced to somewhere around 32—or, as the leading north Wales newspaper’s headline proclaimed:
“Proposed boundary shakeup ‘could see Wales lose a quarter of its MPs’.”
At a time when it is important that the voice of Wales is heard in Westminster, this reduction in representation is a real disappointment. By making all votes count equally throughout the UK, Wales will lose eight or perhaps even nine MPs to England.
If the Government care about all votes counting equally, could I recommend that they adopt a fair, modern and proportional voting system to represent properly the political views of all voters in the UK? I think that many people in Wales are beginning to view the country’s political future in a different light. We know already that as a small country we are massively outnumbered, as it is, by our larger neighbour. This reduction in the number of Welsh MPs will further unsettle voters.
However, attitudes towards our relationship with England and the union are changing. Devolution and, ironically, Covid-19 are contributing to that. A YouGov poll published on 1 September showed that more than twice as many people trust the Senedd as trust Westminster to look after the interests of Wales. The people of Wales are turning their backs on the union with England in another way. While preparing for this debate, I reread the speech I made in October last year in response to the Queen’s Speech. I spoke about the independence debate in Wales and the growth of what is termed the “indy-curious”—those people in Wales who do not consider themselves to be nationalist but are curious about independence and open to it. At the time I made the speech, I think around 6% of the Welsh population were in favour of independence. By June this year, the figure had risen to 25% and the latest YouGov poll taken in August shows 32%, the highest figure ever recorded in favour of Welsh independence.
For me, maintaining the status quo would be the ideal. We are rather comfortable with the 40 parliamentary constituencies we have now, but I accept that that is probably a non-starter under the Bill. I regretfully accept that there is very little likelihood that the Minister will agree to the proposed number of Welsh MPs being increased, despite the excellent case made by many speakers in Grand Committee today, but I would be delighted if the Minister proved me wrong.
Fortunately for Welsh voters, there is a way to redress the balance. The Senedd has legislated in Wales for more than 20 years, with only 60 Members. It desperately needs more. As the McAllister review concluded in 2017, the National Assembly, as it was then, needs more Members as its powers continue to grow in order effectively to hold the Welsh Government to account and deliver for the people and communities of Wales—now even more so.
As our representation and voice in Westminster look likely to be reduced, it is not only logical but right that our Senedd take the tools they need to do their job. The Welsh people now understand the value of devolution and the Senedd and the challenge is for political parties to be clear with the electorate as we approach the Senedd elections next year and make the case for increased representation in Cardiff in their manifestos. If Welsh voters are to lose out in Westminster, they cannot and must not also lose out in Cardiff.
My Lords, I support the amendment so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Hain, as is his custom. He was my political neighbour for many years. I represented Aberavon and he represented Neath. I am not going to take up too much time expanding on the observations I made at Second Reading. Indeed, I made the same points almost exactly word for word in the debates on the earlier Bill from the coalition Government. I could see that there had been an obvious increase in Welsh representation over the years. I suspect the reason has been that the Boundary Commission has not wanted to upset unduly the status quo and has taken the easiest route by expanding membership. I suspect it looked at Wales, as it knows it well. In fairness, there were strong arguments for it: first, the affinity with local government; secondly, the advantage of continuity; thirdly, the particular needs of constituencies with the run down of traditional heavy industries; and lastly, the unwritten rule manifested in practice almost without exception over a long period of time that the number should not fall below 35. Can the Minister tell us exactly when and on what occasions and for what period the figure went below 35? I have not gone into the history of the matter, and I hope the Minister will be able to give us the answer to that specific question.
The previous Boundary Commissions held the line. It is a kind of glue that binds Wales into the United Kingdom. The perception of reducing the number and influence of Welsh political representation does nothing to strengthen the union in which I believe so strongly. I say this very, very solemnly: given the position in Scotland today, the Government should be very wary of inflaming the situation which has been accepted for a very long time that 35 is the minimum number at which we should be represented. The wholesale wrecking of Welsh constituencies, which the proposed number would involve, is highly questionable in the perception of voters, who look to their representatives and know who they are and that they are not forgotten.
When I appeared professionally before the boundary commissioners, I always argued for continuity of membership, constituencies and people as constituents. I regard it as the most crucial and important matter that they should be able to know who their representative is and should have some degree of continuity. When people are in trouble, they want to know who their MP is and who to go to for advice. When my constituency was wrecked after 23 years, it took years to build up a new relationship with the part added on to my constituency just to make up the numbers. I pinched a certain number from the constituency of my noble friend, then the Member for Neath, in order to make up the numbers.
The same situation happened going from east to west in the county of West Glamorgan where there were five constituencies. They had to chip in a little bit here and a little bit there in order to make up the numbers. I was fortunate in building up a new relationship with the new part of my constituency over a number of years. I was very lucky, but it is not easy to build up a new relationship after a long time representing another area in South Wales. I commend the amendment.
My Lords, I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, expanding on his amendment. While he was talking about the unique difficulties of these extremely large Welsh constituencies and the difficulty of travel, I must confess I was quite sympathetic. When he concluded his remarks, I did a little Google search to find out the largest constituency in Wales. It seems to be Brecon and Radnorshire; the twelfth largest in the UK, it is 1,164 square miles. When I read that, I changed my mind and thought, “Lord Hain, so what? Big deal. Dry your eyes and get over it”. My constituency in the Lake District was 1,450 square miles and stretched from the Irish Sea on one side to the Pennines on the other where it was closer to the North Sea than to the other side of the country. If I wanted to travel from the Scottish border to its southern extremity, it was only an hour on the M6, even sticking to the legal speed limits. If I wanted to go from west to east, it was at least two and a half to three hours on minor and difficult roads. I am not quoting that as a sob story, merely to point out that Wales is not entirely unique in having large constituencies. I think the Richmond, Yorkshire constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Hague, was the second largest to mine, although he did not like to hear that.
In a spirit of being helpful, I did not want to be too provocative and stir up the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I cannot call him my noble friend but, in some ways, he is my noble pal because we worked together at the Council of Europe. I was tempted to put down an amendment reducing the number of Scottish constituencies to 30. However, I realised that if he was present physically, or even on the large screen, that could cause a bout of apoplexy, so I did not do it. I do not know if Scotland is unique, but the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, certainly is and the House of Lords is a better place for it.
Scotland—and, to a certain extent Wales, but I do not know much about that—does not need all these excess MPs because the MSPs are doing the majority of the work. I remind the Committee of the matters devolved to Scotland which MSPs are in charge of, taken from the Scottish Government’s website: agriculture, forestry and fisheries; education and training; environment; health and social services; housing; land use; planning; law and order; local government; sport and the arts; some forms of taxation; and many aspects of transport. That is what MSPs do; United Kingdom MPs from Scotland do not have those matters to handle. The reserved matters, in which they can legitimately have an interest and on which they can claim to be working, are: benefits and social security, which I accept is quite a big one; broadcasting; constitution; defence; employment; equal opportunities; foreign policy; immigration; and trade and industry.
Those noble Lords who have been Members of Parliament in the Commons will realise that the former category of devolved matters involves the vast bulk of constituency work. Scottish MPs only have to do the reserved matters; English MPs have to do the whole shooting match—everything that is devolved to Scotland and all the reserved matters as well. I was interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, say that in Wales most people now seem to accept that the Welsh Assembly Members are the real powerhouse. They are the ones who do all the work and people are increasingly looking to their Welsh Assembly Members to fix all their problems, not the United Kingdom MPs from Wales who come to Westminster.
It cannot be right that we have so many Members of Parliament from Scotland and Wales who are doing half the workload of English MPs. It is notable that all the advocates of these amendments have talked about constituency size in geographical terms, not about the number of constituents or the much-reduced workload for United Kingdom representatives from those countries. That is not right. Rather than halve their salaries, I would like to see their numbers cut to equate to their responsibilities. I am therefore happy to support the Bill in its present form.
My Lords, I support Amendment 23, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I apologise for not having signed it, because I agree with it wholeheartedly. I could not agree less with what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has said. Not only is he being provocative, but he has knowingly missed an important point.
During my time as an MP and a candidate, I experienced four boundary reviews and I know how disruptive and traumatic they are. The first-past-the-post system sets great store by the connection between an MP and his or her constituents; boundary changes weaken, and can destroy, this, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, pointed out. This is why the commission should seek to minimise disruption and retain community and geographical links as far as possible. At a time of tension in relations across the UK, a reduction in the number of MPs representing its devolved parts will not be well received.
When I embarked on my parliamentary career, we had 72 MPs in Scotland. Following devolution, we now have 59— just over 9% of the total. The change was made for a particular reason: the effect of devolution. The rural constituencies in Scotland are now, on average, larger areas than their counterparts in the south, in spite of everything mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. They are further away from London and, in most cases, certainly when they are from the north of Scotland, MPs have to fly in order to attend the House of Commons. Travelling time to, from and within constituencies is often greater and it is not practical to nip back for a constituency event during the parliamentary week, other than in exceptional circumstances. It is true that, prior to devolution, details of Scottish policy that are now handled by Holyrood were decided by Westminster. Much of domestic policy is now devolved, but that is why we had the reduction in MPs previously, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, pointed out.
The Government are embarking on a range of radical proposals which have far-reaching implications for Scotland and the future of the UK. I completely refute the case that Scottish Members of Parliament—or Welsh or Northern Irish ones for that matter—will have less work to do. On the contrary, this Government’s cavalier lack of interest in the continuation of the United Kingdom means that they will have far more to do than they have had since devolution began. Right now, apart from this Bill, there are the immigration, Trade, Agriculture and internal market Bills, which require detailed scrutiny by representatives from Scotland as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. I have been, and will be, involved in debates on these Bills, seeking to strengthen the devolution settlement and moving us towards a more federal union. Yet the Government are resistant to requiring consent to legislation from the devolved Administrations or considering a form of qualified majority voting to balance the fact that England can always outvote the devolved legislatures.
It is argued that numbers should prevail, but federal countries such as the USA, Canada, Germany and Australia all provide checks and balances between the centre and the parts that make up the whole. For example, California has two senators, as does Wyoming, which has the smallest population of all the United States. I understand the case for approximately equal numbers, but I believe that this can lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Through the different boundary changes during my time in Parliament, my constituency started out in Aberdeenshire; then it was part of Aberdeenshire with part of Aberdeen; then part of Aberdeenshire with parts of Banffshire; then, finally, part of Aberdeenshire with part of Aberdeen, although not the same part. The Aberdeen part was the northern suburbs, which was confusing as the constituency of Aberdeen North did not include the northernmost wards of the city. All this makes a mockery of the special link between the MP and the constituency, although I was fortunate enough to get myself elected, in spite of these changes, on seven separate occasions.
When the Scottish Parliament was set up, the Westminster constituencies and those for the Scottish Parliament were the same. This was not sustainable when the number of Westminster constituencies reduced. At the foundation of the Scottish Parliament, the Gordon constituency had an MSP and an MP for the same territory. Once the boundaries were changed, the constituency then included parts of east Aberdeenshire, parts of west Aberdeenshire and parts of Donside, which caused further confusion for almost everybody. Even more frustrating, at the start of each boundary review, the electorate of Gordon was almost exactly on quota. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, seemed to have had the same issue. Yet the Boundary Commission drew up the boundaries of the surrounding constituencies and took chunks out of Gordon to make up their numbers, which is why I had so many radical constituency changes. I did manage to persuade the Boundary Commission to keep Huntly in Gordon, given that it was the seat of the Dukes of Gordon and the recruiting base for the Gordon Highlanders. It would have been pretty ironic to keep the constituency name and remove the Gordon connection.
I hope the Boundary Commission will have learned from previous reviews and take seriously the need to minimise disruption between Westminster and Holyrood boundaries and anomalous breaches of community links. However, its task will be made harder if amendments such as these and other related ones are not accepted to change this rigid application of numbers, with a totally cavalier disregard for the implications for further tensions in the United Kingdom. The Government are not prepared to consider how the devolution settlement can be updated to allow the devolved Administrations to have a genuine say in UK decisions, rather than a situation where the United Kingdom can overrule them.
Maintaining the number of MPs from the devolved parts of the United Kingdom will of course still mean that England can outvote them by about 5:1, but at least their voices will be there. The smaller the voices, the less noise will be heard and the more disregard the Westminster Parliament will have for the continuation of the United Kingdom. The Government should take heed. This is something they should take very seriously if they really do care about what they call the precious union, but which they treat with disregard and disdain.
For me, this is about priorities. I suppose that is what I shall try to appeal to the Minister about. My priority is the future of the union and what I see, if the Bill goes through in its current form, as the undermining of its unity. The argument we are getting back is that the priority has to be the number of electors in a constituency, the size of the constituencies and how that gives equal weight to votes. However, as we heard on Tuesday, our current first past the post system for Westminster, although I support it, does not offer equal votes with equal responsibilities. We would have to change the electoral system, which I do not want to do, to get to a situation where votes are of equal value.
On Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, got half of it right and half of it wrong. The half that was right was about the devolution of powers to mayors, the nations, local authorities, councils and local councillors, which I fully support. However, one of his big attacks, which he repeated today, was on numbers. I touched on this at Second Reading: currently, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have 117 constituencies, with London and the south-east having 156. If these proposals go through, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be reduced to 106, with London and the south-east having 164. Even within the history of United Kingdom, MPs in London and the south-east would easily be able to outvote those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
That takes me back to the priority of the union. The best way for us to protect the union, which I think the vast majority, if not all, of us in the Grand Committee want to do, would be to have the voices, concerns and issues of constituents, communities and people across the nation aired well and loudly in Westminster. These reductions in Scotland, and in Wales, as we have heard from far more eloquent speakers, will undermine that. The points that my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Hain made about geography and community are absolutely right and important, but my appeal to the Minister is that if we can retain what we have, we will give those who seek to undermine and break up the union fewer arguments. If we move forward with the proposals as they are in the Bill, it will enhance those arguments for the break-up of the union.
I want to speak specifically about Amendment 14. I am glad to see it on the Marshalled List, because it raises some important and specific issues about the situation in Wales, introduced very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
The reference to the 1944 Act in this amendment reminds us that Wales has always been accepted as a special case. In terms of population, its smaller rural constituency sizes have been accepted as a practical necessity. The formula that the Government propose would see 32 Welsh constituencies, which is clearly inadequate. Some would argue, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has, that, now that Wales has devolution, it no longer requires this protection.
My answer is that the Senedd still has unrealistically low numbers of Members—only 60. That is quite out of kilter with Northern Ireland, for example, which has a smaller population and 90 Members of its Assembly. As it has gained more powers, the Senedd has a greater rather than a lesser problem; it is now within the Senedd’s own power to increase its size, and it has been Welsh Liberal Democrat policy for many years that there should be greater powers for the Senedd and at least 80 Members. If that were to be the situation, we would not oppose a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs. I considered tabling my own amendment on this, but I could not find a way to cast it that would be acceptable because, as I said, it is the Senedd that decides its membership, and I very much hope that it goes on and approves an increase in membership very soon.
The news yesterday and today in Wales is dominated by the UK Government’s internal market Bill, but in Wales there is an additional concern about it because the Government intend to recentralise some powers that were previously devolved. MPs from Wales will therefore apparently be busier than they are now, so it seems a strange time to cut the numbers so drastically.
I looked at the predicted numbers across all the nations of the UK; the totals give a stark picture of 10 more MPs for England and eight fewer MPs for Wales. It sometimes seems that this Government neglect no issue in their attempts to alienate the devolved nations. I warn them not to take Wales for granted. My noble friend Lady Humphreys has pointed out the increasing support for independence. Yesterday’s resignation by David Melding, the Conservative shadow Counsel General in Wales, makes the point that this is not just a nationalist flurry. David Melding is an ex-Deputy Presiding Officer for the Senedd and one of the leading Conservatives in Wales.
When we argue for the special factors in Wales, it is geography which usually dominates the debate. There is an old joke: if Wales was ironed flat it would be as big as England. The mountains are our glory, but they are also powerful barriers, and there are so many of them. In the north there is Snowdonia, in the middle, the Brecon Beacons, and in the south, dividing the valleys. I live in Cardiff, and have to cross Caerphilly Mountain, or go a very long way around the bottom of it, to get to the next local authority. Combining valleys in one constituency means combining totally different communities, served by different local authorities and services. It already takes two or more hours to drive from one end of Brecon and Radnorshire to the other, so combining it with another constituency is clearly ridiculous, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said. All this makes a powerful case for the importance of the Electoral Commissions continuing to take into account local community ties and identities, as they always have.
The truth is that no single system is appropriate for every type of area across the UK, from the Cities of London and Westminster to Orkney and Shetland. In Wales, we have a specific additional factor that must be considered: the Welsh language. It is by far the most developed and flourishing UK minority language. I was proud to be the very first Minister for the Welsh language, and I initiated a strong programme to support and encourage its use. It was all community-based. The language’s areas of strength are geographically based in the west and north of Wales, although nowadays even areas of Cardiff are recognised as Welsh-speaking areas. It would be a mistake to fragment those Welsh-speaking communities by dividing them into different constituencies.
I realise that a number of other parts of the UK might claim a similar distinctiveness. My noble friend Lord Tyler’s Amendment 20 makes a similar point about Cornwall. The following group of amendments that will be considered this afternoon, to which I will not speak, relates to the different percentages that might be used as the permitted variants, and includes Liberal Democrat Amendment 16. These are all ways of attacking the problem that the current 5% variance is too tight to avoid constant reorganisations of constituency boundaries. I hope that when these variations are discussed, this can happen alongside consideration of the importance of local community ties and characteristics.
The proposal for 32 Welsh constituencies is clearly a product of an inflexible approach and an attempt to standardise the fundamentally different parts of this United Kingdom. The 35 seats suggested in Amendment 14 is one way to tackle the issues. Liberal Democrat Amendment 16 is another. It is a different approach, and I hope that they would achieve similar outcomes; they both have similar intention, and I urge the Government to accept one of the proposed compromises.
My Lords, I was thrilled when in introducing this debate my noble friend Lord Hain thanked my noble friend Lord Grocott for participating as an Englishman but did not thank me. That was quite right, because I have been for 25 years now living half my life in Wales. I am only a little behind my noble friend Lord Hain, who started in Neath in 1991, so I speak now—officially anointed by my noble friend—as a Welshman. I am not going to speak about Wales—there has been a wonderful hwyl about the geographic specialities and peculiarities of my adopted country; no doubt I could persist in that. I am afraid that I am going to speak about crude politics.
We are constantly told that this is a Conservative and Unionist Government, who want to save and protect the union. We are all of us familiar with the threat to the union from Scottish independence, but I am afraid that I detect—I hope that I am wrong, but I do not think I am—a growing threat in Wales. Polls have been referred to. At the beginning of the year, only 19% of Welsh voters were in favour of an independent Wales; that reached 25% in June and 32% in August, when polled by YouGov. That is sharp increase in sentiment in favour of an independent Wales.
We also have elections coming up for the Senedd next year. Not all people in Wales have the great enthusiasm I have for the current Administration in Cardiff, but what are those who do not want to vote Labour supposed to do? The Lib Dems are past their peak down our way. The Welsh are not naturally Conservatives. Brexit or one of those lot? I doubt it. Quite apart from increasing sentiment for independence, there will be a strong temptation to turn to Plaid.
If I were a Plaid campaigner in those Welsh elections—which I will not be—I would have, as the first and last line in every speech I made, this Bill will dilute the importance of Wales in our national politics and cut the seats of Welsh politicians at Westminster. They would be entirely entitled to say that this Bill is a crude attempt to gerrymander away a few Labour seats and get a few extra Tory seats. That is what will happen. This seems a potent argument that might appeal to the Government in a way that such matters as justice, geography and so on are of no concern to them. Do they really want to create a Wales that is against the national union at a time when Scotland is already in the hands of a party that is against the union? I do not believe they do; I believe they are genuine in their unionism. One of the best ways they could show that is by compromising on this ludicrous reduction.
My Lords, I sympathise with many of the sentiments expressed by those who want to protect some of the principles of existing constituency representation in Wales and Scotland, but there is a need to agree a set of rules that can apply across the UK for drawing up constituency boundaries for MPs serving in a UK Parliament. We must look to how best to address all these concerns fairly.
First, I think we need to go back a little in history. In 1996 I was the joint secretary of what became known as the Cook-Maclennan committee, which drew up proposals agreed between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to legislate for the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The plans were good and were quickly enacted following the 1997 general election, but the Labour Party chose not to legislate for the 144-Member Scottish Parliament agreed by all parties in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, nor for the 80-Member Welsh Assembly, as it was then called. It legislated instead for a 129-seat Scottish Parliament and a 60-seat Welsh Assembly. I understand why, for its own interests, it wanted less-proportional outcomes in those elections, but it was wrong in its calculations.
More significantly, given the increased powers given to these devolved Parliaments since 1999, more consideration must now be given to increasing the number of parliamentarians in those places, as suggested by my noble friend Lady Randerson a few minutes ago. This would be instead of simply trying to suggest that different rules should apply for drawing up Westminster constituency boundaries in different parts of the UK. We need fair rules everywhere, and this requires greater flexibility in those rules.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, described some of the potential consequences to constituencies in Wales that featured in the proposed reviews based on the process legislated for in 2011, but I urge him and his party colleagues to look carefully at Amendment 16 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. It gives the Boundary Commissions more latitude, while preserving the agreed principle of the Bill. It allows them to take more account of special geographic considerations including the size, shape and accessibility of constituencies, their existing boundaries, local ties and the need to avoid unnecessary disruption.
The best hope for those sympathetic to these amendments is to be found in Amendment 16, which provides greater flexibility for the Boundary Commissions than any other amendment.
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to this very interesting debate. Some powerful contributions have been made, not least by fellow Celts—I speak as a Cornishman. I have a great deal of sympathy with what they are saying, not least in their emphasis on human geography. After all, in the end, all these proposals will not be there for the benefit of elected MPs, or indeed anybody else in the political system; they must be there to serve the people of the areas concerned. It is the human geography that is important. In that context, it is important for all of us who have been MPs to remind your Lordships’ House that when we are elected we are not there just to support, endorse and help only those who happen to be on the electoral register but to support all those who live in the areas concerned. For example, I do not recall ever asking anybody who came to me for help whether they were registered on the electoral roll.
The one thing I found very disappointing about this debate was from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, with whom I have worked in the past and for whom I have a great deal of respect, right back to his radical days as a young Liberal. He of course was a very distinguished member of the Government my noble friend Lord Rennard just referred to; the Government who introduced the first major steps to affording devolved representation at Holyrood and in Cardiff and the powers needed to do a job for those nations. To not see this Bill in the context of the very successful devolution that took place then and that has taken place since is a major disadvantage. I was very glad that my noble friends made reference to that in their contributions.
We Liberal Democrats are concerned about the threat of a disunited kingdom, if I may quote the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. However, we are also extremely concerned that the forthcoming devolution White Paper for England represents a major change too. As we have very unequal representation at the national level within the United Kingdom, we are in danger of a major political and constitutional problem.
My noble friends referred to the long-standing commitment that we have had for a federal constitution for the United Kingdom, which would take account of the needs of the different nations. In addition, however, we have been firmly committed to the principle of subsidiarity, and reference has been made to that in this and previous debates on the Bill. We believe that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them. Therefore, we take very seriously indeed the extent to which we have not been able to extend devolution to parts of England.
Those who have been the strongest protagonists for improved and strengthened devolution powers in Cardiff and in Edinburgh must recognise that English citizens are at present deprived. Even though we have a form of devolution in Cornwall, we would dearly love to have the same sorts of powers that are currently exercised in the Senedd or in Holyrood. Incidentally, the point made by my noble friends about the lack of sufficient membership in the Senedd is extremely valid. As my noble friend Lord Rennard just reminded the Grand Committee, that was not what was intended at the outset in 1999.
I believe that this set of proposals, however powerful, has to be seen in the wider context of the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Bill goes through in its current form, with 650 Members for the whole of the United Kingdom, I must assume that the Minister will, in a few minutes, tell the Grand Committee that every additional Member that is allocated to Wales or to Scotland means fewer for the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be irresponsible just to ignore that point.
As has already been said, there are a number of constituencies in other parts of the United Kingdom that are very big indeed—big both in geography and in the difficulty of representing them adequately, and most importantly, as I said at the outset, big in their human geography. It would surely be folly to ignore that particular lead, simply by trying to deal with the problems that may result in rural Wales or the highlands of Scotland.
As it happens, I know both those areas quite well, as I will explain when we come to the amendment dealing with the current constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire—I know that constituency extremely well. I recognise the special case which can be argued for that part of Wales—of its rurality and the difficulty of communities coming together in an area like that—or indeed in the highlands of Scotland. I had the privilege of going to campaign for the then Member of Parliament in that area, and for the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, when he was the long-standing and much-respected Member for Gordon. We may need to take special account of both those areas, and it will be the human geography, as well as the physical geography, that will need our attention.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard suggested, when we come to the next group of amendments—particularly the amendment in my name and his—we may be able to find some way of dealing with such special circumstances. I very much hope so, and I hope that Members on other sides of the House and in this Grand Committee will also see the advantage of coming to a firm decision, but one that is applicable throughout the United Kingdom, to deal with the particular problems which have been referred to at this stage.
I look forward with interest to how the Minister will attempt to square the circle. I am sure he will share with all of us the concerns expressed about the service that can be given to people in areas described in this debate. However, I do not think it necessarily will require a major change between the different nations, and therefore a diseconomy between the attitude that is given to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and to other parts of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, thanks are due in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Hain, Lord Wigley, Lord Foulkes and Lord Grocott, for speaking to this amendment. Between them, they made the essential points. I will not go into too much detail of what I wish to say, but it is about the geography of Wales and Scotland and how that relates to the rest of the UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, said that it has been a ruthless, if not brutal, exercise in seeing the proposed move from 600 seats to 650 seats. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made the point that geographic size matters, despite the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, saying that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, should dry his eyes and get on with it. That would be an unwise piece of advice, given the current state of the union in the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, reminded us of the massive contribution that has come from Welsh and Scottish politicians to the whole of the UK, and it is hard to underestimate the numbers—we referred to Prime Ministers and others—who have come to represent this country.
The noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNicol, made the crucial point: the impact that this decision will have upon the survivability of the UK. As we know, the SNP has a majority in Scotland and is promising, or threatening, another independence referendum. In Wales, the mood about whether it needs to strengthen its independence from the rest of the UK is getting stronger. If this Parliament gets this decision wrong, it will have those kinds of consequences. While I am sure that the Minister is thinking very carefully about this, I ask him to bear in mind the consequences on the whole of the UK of the decisions to be made about Wales and Scotland.
My Lords, the two amendments in this group seek to fix the number of constituencies of two nations. Respectively, they propose that, in Wales, there should be a minimum number of 35 and, in Scotland, the current number of 59 constituencies should be retained.
A number of noble Lords brought up the union, and I begin by reiterating that we are committed to equal representation across the United Kingdom and within the constituent nations of our union. Updated and equal boundaries will ensure that every constituent nation in the United Kingdom has equal representation in the UK Parliament and will deliver parity of representation across the United Kingdom’s constituencies. The measures in the Bill that address fairness and equality are designed to strengthen the ties between the four parts of our country. We know that a vote has the same value whether it is cast in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Each voter’s contribution to the important matter of choosing a Government will be even more clearly a shared and joint endeavour among all nations of the UK.
The Government strongly believe that, for something as important as the right to choose the Government of the day, equality and fairness must be the overriding principles. It is in everyone’s interest that our political system is fair and that votes carry a more equal weight throughout the country. If we let some constituencies stay smaller than others, voters in those smaller constituencies will have more power than those in larger ones. That cannot be equitable.
I add that there are no proposals in the Bill to reduce the number of seats in Scotland and Wales—the Boundary Commissions decide on that at each review. If there were a mass population increase in any part of Scotland or Wales, they would get more seats than they already have, and that is the same across the whole United Kingdom.
I thank the noble Lords from Wales and Scotland. I wrote a list: from Wales, we heard the noble Lords, Lord Hain, Lord Wigley and Lord Lipsey, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Humphreys and Lady Randerson. From Scotland, there were the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, Lord Grocott, Lord Bruce of Bennachie and Lord McNicol. These noble Lords obviously love their countries and spoke very strongly for them, but this is not a Bill to discuss the geography of Wales or Scotland, or even, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, the Lake District. The time for that is when the Boundary Commission comes in.
Within the current rules set out in the legislation, the Boundary Commission continues to take into account factors such as physical geographical features, including the mountains we heard about, rivers, local government boundaries and local ties. It is therefore important that all local people, from politicians to ordinary members of our communities, get involved. As politicians, we should be the ones to encourage people to get involved in those reviews. There will be written representations during the first consultation stage, public meetings in the second, and then a third consultation stage. That is when the issues raised so clearly by noble Lords this afternoon will be taken into account. The Boundary Commission rules say that they must be.
There are some other issues to raise. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, talked about seats in Wales. I had a little look: the last time that Wales had 32 seats was in 1826. Interestingly enough, in 1945, there were two Scottish MPs for every Welsh MP. That is how unequal it was then; it is now three to two, but it still needs more work, that has to be said.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his support, but I must say that, when the Scottish Parliament came into existence in 2005, Scotland took a reduction of 13 constituencies. It is important that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have equal weight in our UK Parliament. It is Parliament that looks at tax, immigration and defence, which are important things for the people of the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, equal representation really matters.
There was quite a bit of talk from noble Lords about tolerance. Later in Committee, we will debate a number of amendments tabled on this issue. They are closely related: by setting a fixed or minimum number of constituencies in a particular area, they dictate that the Boundary Commission will not be able to apply the same tolerance in those places as it is obliged to implement elsewhere. Cementing certain numbers in Scotland and Wales—based, I assume, on your Lordships’ hunch that those numbers sound about right—will enshrine electoral inequality. As I have tried to explain, that is exactly what we are trying to move away from.
Under the current legislation, a mathematical formula called the Sainte-Laguë method—I have notes on it but do not intend to explain it—is used to allocate constituency numbers to each of the four nations on the basis of their electorates. This method is widely used internationally and is recognised as one of the fairest ways to make this type of distribution. It is rational and just and should be maintained, not just for England and Northern Ireland but all four nations.
Amendments 14 and 23 take a very different approach. They ignore the notion that a vote in Aberdeen or Aberavon should be the same as one in Aylesbury. The ratio of citizens to MP should be broadly similar across the union. In effect, the amendments would establish separate and lower electoral quotas for Scotland and Wales, providing no justification to the electors of England and Northern Ireland for why that should be the case.
Based on electoral data from 2019, we could expect to see an average constituency size of approximately 67,500 people in Scotland and 66,000 in Wales, while all constituencies in England and Northern Ireland would be pegged to the UK average of approximately 72,500. In fact, the Boundary Commissions for those less-favoured nations might struggle to keep within a 10% range of the electoral quota because, as a result of Scotland and Wales’s allocations being earmarked, they would have fewer constituencies than they might have usually expected over which to spread their electorates.
This approach is neither fair nor rational. It flies in the face of the equality that the Government seek to achieve for the United Kingdom and which was endorsed by the other place. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Lords, Lord McNicol and Lord Lipsey. I first call the noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride.
I want to come back to the Minister. The Government seem to put all their weight behind the equality of the number of electors within constituencies, and have said that all the arguments from all the noble Lords who spoke in the debate are irrelevant because we would move away from equal votes of equal weight across the nations.
How does the Minister explain the exemptions that there are already in place for the islands? Yes, they are islands, but in accepting that they are special cases because they are islands, you are accepting the premise that there can be exceptions. I think that, with the arguments made—specifically the point about protecting the future of the union—these exceptions for Wales and Scotland should outweigh this crass, simplistic, mathematical argument.
I just repeat, because it is really important: under our current electoral system, which I support, if we were to make the changes proposed in the Bill and constituencies were of a similar size within quite a small variation, a single vote in Lerwick would still not be the same as a single vote in Luton. With our electoral system, you cannot make that argument.
The five protected constituencies are islands, as the noble Lord has already said, and I think an island is different. The islands need to be of a certain size in order to merit this, but I think that is correct.
I have mentioned the fact that it is for the Boundary Commissions to listen to these arguments about the specifics of constituencies, and that is not just for constituencies in Wales and Scotland; I am sure, as we have heard already today, that similar issues may arise in certain parts of England. Each constituency is unique; every single MP in this country will say that they have a special constituency with unique features which needs unique ways of dealing with these issues.
So, I am sorry, but I do not agree. I think that islands are different, and that is why we have further brought the Isle of Anglesey into this. Any local issues of geography and community should be brought up with the Boundary Commissions when they do their reviews.
I will just, if I may, correct the Minister on a minor point. She listed among the Scottish Members present my noble friend Lord Grocott. As he was born in Watford, educated at Leicester and Manchester and represented English seats, including The Wrekin, I wonder if she might withdraw that little error.
I am sorry; I am very happy to withdraw that. He was supporting the cause of Scotland.
My Lords, I thank all who have participated in the debate, beginning with my noble friend Lord Wigley, whose passion for Wales wins huge respect and affection not just in Wales but in your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes spoke eloquently about Scotland, but I think that he will nevertheless agree that Wales is impacted far more punitively and that this amendment is far more moderate than his.
I also applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, for making the point that twice as many voters trust the Senedd as trust the UK Parliament. That is a pretty salutary figure. She also made the point that there has been a rise in support for independence from a frankly derisory figure that would disappoint my noble friend Lord Wigley up to nearly a third—a point also made by a self-adopted Welshman, my noble friend Lord Lipsey. This should worry the noble Baroness the Minister.
I express gratitude to my former MP neighbour, my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon, who has served in public life with such distinction. I agree strongly with his phrase about the wholesale “wrecking” of representation in Wales, which this Bill represents. It is important, as he says, that people know who their MP is.
I say as gently as I can to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that to say that MPs in Wales have half the workload shows profound ignorance. We should recall that a great bulk of work, especially in recent years, has fallen on MPs in Wales—social security matters under the Department for Work and Pensions are held by them, as are immigration issues. These are hugely complex, time-consuming and difficult cases. It is simply not the case that they have half the workload of English MPs.
My noble friend Lord McNicol and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, talked about the cavalier approach to the union. The Minister should take that issue much more seriously than she did, but she paid no respect to it at all. As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, Wales is a special case. She noted pointedly that, while England will have 10 more seats, Wales will have at least eight fewer. Those facts speak for themselves as to where this Government’s priorities are.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lennie for his response and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for reminding us that Wales had 32 seats—although it was way back in the 19th century, before the great increases in population which subsequently happened with industrialisation and mining. With respect to her, to pass the buck to the Boundary Commission as being responsible for the number of seats in Wales is sophistry. The Minister and her Government are straitjacketing the Boundary Commission for Wales, as with Boundary Commissions elsewhere.
Nobody disputes the principle of equalisation; it has governed Boundary Commission recommendations for generations and is the basic principle on which the commissions for all parts of the United Kingdom have worked. The question is how that principle is applied. If it is just applied willy-nilly and rides roughshod over local traditions, community identities, interests, geography and all such crucial issues—including, in Wales’s case, a unique topography—then the Government may say that equalisation should be applied in this rigid fashion, but it will not then result in equal representation if barriers are put in the way of constituents trying to reach their MPs. It turns on its head the traditional role of a Boundary Commission, going back years and years—generations—by straitjacketing its remit. It strips off its ability to apply that principle in the way that it has always been applied: to respect local issues and local communities, instead of riding roughshod over them as the Bill does.
I appeal to the Minister to look again at this amendment, and for the Government to consider supporting it on Report. It is not asking for the status quo; it recognises the Government’s desire to move towards greater equalisation. However, it does so in a less harsh way, with a less punitive impact on representation in Wales. If the noble Baroness and her Government want to speak for Wales as a UK Government, in the way that they claim, then they should respect Wales. This amendment, in suggesting a reduction of five, to 35, has legislative precedent. That legislation entrenched that principle while recognising Wales’s special interests, as I have tried to argue. I hope that she will reconsider her response and that the Government will consider supporting it, as it is my intention to bring it back on Report.
Meanwhile, does the noble Lord beg leave to withdraw it?
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
Clause 5 agreed.
A little later than we planned, the Committee will now adjourn for 15 minutes.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 15. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
15: 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%”.”
My Lords, if we did not know it before, we now know that this will be an important issue, and it might go on for a little while. I do not intend to delay progress with a lengthy speech. I want to make what I think are the essential points about 7.5% replacing 5% tolerance levels in the Bill. Incidentally, we can almost safely ignore the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, which is coming later, to reduce the size of tolerance to 2.5% as simply ridiculous. It is never going to happen—but I know it will be debated.
So why 7.5%? It would set variance levels against the normal size of constituencies to allow the Boundary Commissions sufficient latitude to determine where boundaries lay. Incidentally, when the figure of 600 constituencies was proposed, 5% tolerance levels were still part of the proposed legislation that never saw the light of day. That would have given a variance higher than the 7.5% based on 650 constituencies, given that the size will significantly reduce. Therefore, the numbers do matter to the argument. This is important to constituents because it will make it less likely that they will move from one constituency to another, allowing MPs, as we heard on the previous day in Committee, to build bonds and relationships with their constituencies.
The reason why 7.5% seems sufficient comes from evidence taken in the Commons Select Committee from Dr Rossiter, who demonstrated that having tolerance levels of up to 8% has a significant impact on constituencies—and after that it is a diminishing return. I therefore argue that 7.5% is a better level at which to set tolerance than, say, 10%, which will be argued by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, because the amount of benefit between 7.5%, 8.5%, 9.5% and 10% is significantly less than on the way up to 7.5% from a 5% tolerance level.
There is a difficulty in the redistribution of, say, 16,000 electors to neighbouring constituencies in the event of one ceasing to exist, and the knock-on effect is felt most in neighbouring constituencies. However, it is not just in these that the impact happens; it happens as a ripple effect across county areas, beyond these into other counties and so on. That impacts on the relationship between constituencies and local authority boundaries and therefore makes it more likely that we will have ward splittings and all kinds of other means by which the Boundary Commissions can set constituencies at the 650 level with the 5% tolerance applying within them.
The ripple effect becomes more of a wave. Therefore, by giving tolerance levels the variation that we seek, you reduce the disruption to electors and the impact on the relationship between elected representatives and constituents, and you increase the political stability that is felt and needed in terms of the ongoing relationships that exist between constituents and their representatives.
In giving this presentation, I am also grateful to Greg Cook, who is a long-time researcher of these things. He has conclusively shown that these variations are not the thing upon which outcomes of elections are decided. This is not a partisan plea from the Labour Party to seek greater influence in the outcome of elections. What determines these outcomes are events that take place as a result of Governments’ and Oppositions’ competence in responding to the challenges that they face: the “events”, as Macmillan called them, not the size of the tolerance levels around constituencies. If you broaden the tolerance levels, you give the Boundary Commissions a greater chance of getting constituencies that are right and felt to be so by communities and their elected representatives.
So I ask the Government, before concluding this position, to think carefully about what works best in the interests of the whole nation.
My Lords, these various amendments remind us of a fundamental and inherent contradiction in a key aspect of this Bill. That is to say that, on the one hand, we are told repeatedly by the noble Lord, Lord True, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that the whole heart and function of the Bill is to provide as near as possible arithmetic equality in the way in which constituency boundaries are determined, and that that is the thing that matters most. Some quite elaborate language is used to describe “fair votes” and “equal votes”; I stopped jotting down the number of times that these phrases were used by Ministers but, when Hansard is available for this Committee stage, I will make a little note of them all, because this is at the heart of the justification throughout.
That is on the one hand but, on the other hand, of course, we have—as has been mentioned from time to time—the section of the Bill dealing with protected constituencies, where precisely the reverse applies. It says that mathematical accuracy is an irrelevance and that what matters are geographic matters and cultural issues, as well as issues of accessibility, natural boundaries and the rest. For the avoidance of doubt, I emphasise that I totally agree with there being constituencies in that category. All I am saying is that some of the common sense that has led to that decision should be applied to the other 645 constituencies in the United Kingdom.
Even if you take barriers and natural boundaries—the sea is one, of course—the best that Ministers could ever say was that they are all islands, but of course some of them are made up of several islands. While the sea is a barrier, so is a mountain range or a river estuary, when it is difficult to get from one side of the estuary to the other. There is nothing in the rules that prevents you having anything other than constituencies that go across river estuaries because you have to keep to the precise mathematical formula.
What we should be trying to do, and what the amendments are trying to do, is not to try to square the circle and say that all constituencies should be excepted constituencies—and not, as the Government certainly do not say, that all 650 constituencies should have endless possibilities of variation. The amendments would provide significantly greater flexibility and thus allow for all the things that we know are important, as they always have been, in drawing constituency boundaries. This was fundamental to many of the arguments in the previous group of amendments about Scotland and Wales. You do not want to rip up communities and establish random connections just to get the electorate up by a few hundred votes. You do not want constituencies that straddle a mountain range. I could go on, as we all could, because we all know different parts of the country so well.
Whichever of the amendments is taken—I prefer the one with the largest possibility of variation—in my view, all of them are trying to attach a logic to the Bill as a whole, which the Government have failed to do. I hope that the Minister sees the sense of this and will adopt one or other of these proposals.
My Lords, I wish particularly to speak in support of Amendment 16 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard. Inevitably, I need also to refer to some of the others in this group which offer slightly different solutions to the fundamental problem with this Bill that we all agree is so apparent. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will break the habit of a lifetime and support a Liberal Democrat proposal, because I think that it would absolutely and precisely meet the circumstances to which he has just referred.
All those who have been carefully examining the psephology on which this Bill is predicated will have been hugely indebted to the independent and non-partisan academic analysis by the late Professor Ron Johnston and his colleagues. This was the core of the evidence presented to the Commons Public Bill Committee. In brief, it proved conclusively that the proposed very limited 5% permitted variance in almost all constituencies, except of course for the five exempted ones, was not an essential requirement in the context of the Government’s anxiety to improve the equality of vote value that they repeatedly claim to be their objective in this legislation. My noble friend Lord Rennard will give further details of that analysis.
Meanwhile, there is common ground across your Lordships’ Committee that the insistence on the 5% variance straitjacket, imposed on the four Boundary Commissions, will result in the following problems: first, more changes with 650 constituencies than were proposed with the previously proposed 600 constituencies; secondly, more regular changes for more constituencies and more reviews; thirdly, more consequent knock-on changes even to adjoining constituencies that are themselves within the prescribed limits; fourthly, more disruption of historic and naturally cohesive communities; and, fifthly, more disconnection between MPs, councillors and the public, at more regular intervals, than is either necessary or desirable. It is disruption which is going to be the name of the game if we let the 5% stand.
We were told during the coalition that these latter reasons were basically those that motivated the then Conservative Leader of our House to recommend to the Prime Minister that the variance be 10%. I mentioned on Tuesday that some 20 of those who contributed to the Second Reading debate, from all parts of the House, expressed concern about the 5% limit at present in the Bill. We can, perhaps, take it as read that there is a strong argument for more flexibility. The question in this debate is how we should adjust the figure.
Our Amendment 16 recommends a normal 8% variance 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. That would be very relevant to the concerns expressed about local problems to be addressed in the previous debate. This might include avoiding crossing major administrative boundaries—for example, in English counties and unitary authorities—or greater problems of rurality and limited transport links, or other special factors. Paragraph 5(1) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act makes detailed references to which we can refer and to which our amendment refers. My noble friend Lord Rennard will pay special attention to some of those.
I recall that in my then North Cornwall constituency, before boundaries were redrawn, to drive from one 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. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, might note that that involved getting around an estuary. Let us compare that with some inner-city constituencies where a similar electorate can be conveniently served by a short cycle ride or even an energetic jogger.
As has been emphasised by all participants at all stages of the Bill, our prime concern should be for the effect on the individual residents, groups and communities in a distinct area rather than their political representatives or local political parties. That is why we prefer our formulation in Amendment 16 to those in Amendment 15 or Amendment 17. The former seems to us too restrictive and not to recognise the special local circumstances to which I have referred. Some areas will certainly require more variation than 7.5%. I think that is widely acknowledged across the Committee. The latter provides so much variation universally that it fails to accept the significance of a smaller number of potential constituencies with unusual requirements. However, the common cause we all recognise is that the unacceptable level and regularity of disruption, implicit in this current 5% straitjacket, must be avoided. Between now and Report we may be able to achieve a consensus on the optimum solution.
Finally, I suspect that the author of Amendment 19 has not had the advantage of educating himself by reference to the exhaustive independent academic analysis to which I referred earlier. The rest of us hope that the Minister will accept the strength of the case for greater flexibility that so many of your Lordships are advancing. I hope that he is listening.
My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord True, had only just entered the House, in 2010, when we did the 2011 Bill late into the night, night after night. I do not know how that relates to his extreme reluctance to draw any time limit to business tonight or determination to get to the Government’s target. We may well make it anyway, but it would be very disappointing if we were left short of time to have these important arguments. Indeed, it would only prolong Report in a way that none of us would really want to see.
I will focus, because I do not want to speak for any longer than I have to, on the central logic that underlies the Government’s proposal of 5% in this Bill, which, as the Minister said earlier—I thank him giving me the text—is that each vote must have the same value. The Government realise that they cannot achieve that just through boundary changes. The only way for each vote to have equal value would be to have PR on a national scale, and then each vote would have equal value indeed. I suspect that there is no majority even in this Committee that would favour that approach; most of us would like to see a preservation of the constituency-based system, for very good reasons. Therefore, we do not want to see complete equality of votes.
The more you look at this proposition of the equal vote, the less it stands up. First, the Bill does not pretend to provide equality of votes; within the 5% each way margin, it provides equalities of electorates, which are very different things, because turnouts are very different in different seats. The Government are not even potentially achieving the objective that they have set themselves of equality of votes. Equality of electorates is no doubt a useful surrogate, and you could imagine a system—I could design one, given a few months—in which the Boundary Commission was told to project the likely turnout in each seat, and do that within 5% each way. I do not think that that would prove a very comprehensible system, although it would certainly be a sensible and logical one if you really wanted to equalise votes. But the Government do not really want to equalise votes—they just say they do. They just want to equalise electorates, and there it can.
The second problem with this argument about equalising votes is that only some votes count. Only votes in marginal seats count; all the rest of the seats are in large piles. The occupants of safe seats build up huge majorities, and they make no difference whatever to the national result—nor, when people go and cast those votes, have they any reason to think that it is even remotely possible that their act of civic discipline will change the result of the general election one iota. This is not a sensible goal when most votes do not count under the system that the Government provide.
Thirdly, if you start to look at results and not just high theory, we actually have a gross inequality in votes. Each Conservative Member at the last general election had the support on average of 38,300 voters. For each Labour MP there were 50,800 votes. But to get a Liberal Democrat in required 336,000 votes nationwide, so there is a factor of 10 in the efficiency of vote use against the Liberal Democrats. Interestingly, with all this talk about Scottish and Welsh representation, it may be said that the present system greatly favours Plaid and the SNP. The SNP needed only 26,000 votes per seat, and Plaid only 36,000—less, even, than the Conservatives, so they were favoured by it. But it is a grossly unequal system. There may be good reasons for that, but it is not an equal system. It takes the wind out of the argument that this is somehow a Bill about inequality.
Let us get away from electoral theory and go into the practice of the matter. What you are trying to do with boundaries is to weigh up various important factors and reach some kind of balance. There is no religious solution or mathematical formula that does it for you; you are trying to get to a reasonable solution. Yes, reasonable equality of votes is one factor that should be taken into account. We do not want to go back to Old Sarum, with its two voters choosing a single Member. There has to be reasonable equality between the sizes, but there are many other extraordinarily important factors that have to be weighed.
The most obvious of these factors is geography. Later in our debates we will come, no doubt, to the question of whether the fact that one thing is an island and another thing is not should make a difference to what we do electorally, but geography is very important. We do not want Welsh MPs to have to go up to the head of their valley, go across and then down to the bottom of the next valley to make a seat. That is important. Local ties are terribly important. Many former Members of the House of Commons have told us what they think about the importance of local ties, local loyalties and, indeed, reasonable consistency over time as to what a constituency is. Local government boundaries are very important: it is extremely hard for a Member of Parliament to deal with multiple local authorities in the course of his work. Ward boundaries are of some importance, albeit probably less.
All these factors have to be weighed to get a sensible amount of variation. Personally, I thought we managed pretty well in the days before we had a set limit laid down, but it seems we are to have one, so what should it be? We have a wide choice before us: 2.5% from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, 5% from the Government, 7.5% from the Labour Party, 8%, and 10%. I could go through at great length, as we did in 2011, the anomalies that crop up under each to see how many there are and how bad they are. Like other noble Lords, I took the advice of the great psephologist Ron Johnston and his colleagues about it at the time and it seemed that 10% was a good result. Indeed, I think it is true to say—the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will put me right if I am wrong—that, in the midst of the Government’s Bill being torn to shreds in this House, the Leader was quite happy to go to 10%, which would have solved an awful lot of problems, but the Prime Minister of the day was so cross with us for daring to interfere with his perfectly formed legislation that he would not allow it. We therefore got a Bill that never actually took effect. How extraordinary: all those hours into the night and the Bill was stillborn.
Why was it stillborn? Why did the Government not go ahead, especially when, on all the psephological calculations, the new boundaries on the whole would have suited the Conservative Party reasonably well and the Labour Party less well? I referred to this in my speech on the first day in Committee. It was because bedlam broke out in the parliamentary Conservative Party. It is all very well saying, “This is good for the party nationally”, but if it messes up your seat, you will not have it. There was a stream of people going into the Whips’ Office saying, “We can’t back this”, “You’ve got to stop this”, “No”, “Go back on it”. The stream became so great that it was not the Lib Dems who sank it in the end, but very sensible Conservative Back-Benchers who were not prepared to have their constituencies mucked around to achieve some chimerical equality that was, in fact, no equality at all.
Generally in politics people learn from their mistakes, but the Conservative Party seems to find that extremely difficult to do. Yes, it has gone from 600 back to 650 and that is an improvement. I am slightly sorry that my own party sees that as enough of an improvement and has not put up the fight I would have expected on the wider question of these limits. I very much hope that the Government will change their mind—10% would be great and I would happily settle for 7.5%, but 5% would be a disaster. If they stick to their guns, it will not be this year that their Bill is ruined, but when Conservative MPs realise what they have done to themselves. A lot of these are newly arrived MPs, after all, from red wall areas, half of whom were not expecting to be there in the first place. They will find that their newly won seats will be destroyed by their Government’s own legislation. They will not like it, and neither should we.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the erudition of my noble friend, in every sense of the word, Lord Lipsey, whose amendment I support. He gave us a very good analysis of the Minister’s obsession with equal votes, pointing out that in safe seats, it does not have much of an influence. He also referred to turnouts. There is also the scandal of non-registration of many people who ought to be on the voters’ roll. There is a whole range of issues there and no one knows them better than my noble friend Lord Lipsey.
I did not want to intervene after the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, but I was a wee bit disappointed by her response to the last debate. I am afraid that she did not seem to understand some of the issues. I hope she will do some homework before we get to Report, because this is a very important matter. As I gather from the conversations that took place while we were adjourned, everyone agrees that this is an important issue.
We will come again to the general issue of flexibility at the next session of the Committee when we deal with my amendment in relation to local ties versus arithmetic, and the constant obsession with getting each constituency arithmetically as near as possible to the others rather than taking account of local ties. This matter and others that we have already debated are all part of the issue of getting some flexibility.
The Government seem to be obsessed with 5%. The Minister needs to explain why 5%. Why have they come across this? Why is 5% particularly the figure that they have arrived upon? I look forward to hearing the explanation. My noble friend Lord Lennie in his introduction argued the case convincingly, using some very powerful arguments, for much greater flexibility.
I look forward with even greater fascination to an explanation by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, of why 2.5%. I cannot think of any rational explanation whatever, except that, for once, the noble Lord may want to make the Government appear reasonable by making 5% a good balance between 2.5% and 10% It would be an interesting occasion to see the noble Lord take this opportunity to make the Government seem reasonable. Usually, he is—effectively and correctly—undermining, challenging and questioning of what this awful Government are up to.
I support my noble friend Lord Lipsey’s amendment. I want more flexibility so that council boundaries can be taken account of in Scotland, as well as Scottish Parliament boundaries, natural boundaries such as rivers, estuaries, lakes and mountains, and community ties as well.
When I was thinking about arbitrary lines, I remembered how the British imperialists in Africa drew straight lines and said, “This side is Uganda and this side is Kenya”, or whatever it was, not taking any account of community or historical connections whatever. It was just appropriate so that the British masters went in and ran their parts of the Empire, and they were arbitrarily drawn. Maybe this is not quite as arbitrary as that situation, but it reminded me of it. We must take account of local interests and community, of where people shop and where their schools are; all these kinds of ties need to be taken account of.
That is why I think 10% is the right figure. It does not mean that there has to be a variation of 10%; it just gives the Boundary Commissions flexibility. The commissions need to look at the constituencies carefully, and if they do not think there needs to be a big variation then they will take account of that.
I strongly support my noble friend Lord Lipsey’s amendment, and I am looking forward with real excitement to the following speaker, my “noble friend”—I use inverted commas because he is not my noble friend politically but he is in other senses of the word—Lord Forsyth explaining how 2.5% can be in any way be sensible.
I am very happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I am not sure he is right about me not being supportive of the Government. I am very supportive of the Government, but it is our role in this House to hold the Government to account.
I did not speak at Second Reading. I thought it was a perfectly sensible Bill implementing a pledge from a manifesto on which the Government obtained a substantial majority, and that pledge was to update and create equal parliamentary boundaries. The Bill has been supported by the House of Commons, whose main concern this is, so I am very surprised that so many colleagues in the House of Lords want to second-guess the electorate and indeed the Commons by seeking to amend it in the way that I have listened to today and that I have read in previous debates. I am delighted that the Government have abandoned the coalition idea of reducing the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, and I very much support the Bill.
I have to say that I was hugely amused by the speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Lennie and Lord McNicol, on an earlier set of amendments, passionately arguing against what is intended here, which is to create equal constituencies. This is a measure that people have argued for since the last century; indeed, it was a central plank of the Chartist movement that they wanted 300 electoral districts consisting of equal numbers of inhabitants. I take the point that we have not yet got to the stage where the electoral roll includes all the inhabitants, but we can and should work towards that as part of a good democracy. However, for people whose heritage in the Labour Party is the Chartist movement to argue that we need something different from that when the Bill seeks to achieve it, and when the voters in the general election endorsed it so strongly, was, shall we say, interesting. The Bill seeks to introduce those equivalent constituencies.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said that he thought 10% was the right figure. I have to tell him that plus or minus 5% is a 10% variation, and plus or minus 10% is a 20% variation. These numbers that appear small are actually very large if they are plus or minus. My amendment would simply recognise that when people talk about 5% they are really talking about plus or minus 5%, and therefore it suggests that the figure should be plus or minus 2.5% to allow for a 5% variation between constituencies. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, just dismissed that out of hand and said it would not happen. I have news for the noble Lord, Lord Lennie: I do not think any of these amendments are going to happen because this measure is what the Government won an election on proposing.
What has been central to the debate this afternoon, at Second Reading and elsewhere is that you have to choose. Either you have identifiable communities or you have equivalent votes. This Bill is about equality of seats.
There have been a certain number of holier-than-thou speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that the decision to try to reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600 was because it would advantage the Conservative Party. Well, it is true that people in the Conservative Party thought that, because there were so many Labour seats that had a very small number of electors relative to other seats. I have been through Boundary Commission reviews and seen the way in which political parties hire QCs and go to great efforts to suggest that this river or this mountain or this local authority ward should be in a constituency, having worked out what the electoral consequences would be for them—particularly in marginal seats. We all know that that happens. To suggest that it is all based on some high-minded view of what the local community represents is to miss a lot of the stuff that happens in smoke-filled rooms, and with all the political parties—although I have to say that my own party has never been as successful as the Labour Party in these matters. Of course it is important to take account of geographical and other factors, but it cannot be right that we have constituencies where the electorate is twice that of others.
On the theme of the gerrymandering tendencies of the political parties, I very much welcome the introduction in the Bill of automaticity. We saw in 1969 the way in which the Labour Party tried to legislate to stop the boundary review being implemented, and we saw what happened in 2011. Our earlier discussions on Amendment 12, moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, covered some of this ground.
Indeed, back in 1997 when I was Secretary of State, before the electorate asked me to leave my office and constituency, under the rules as they were then, I had to sign to implement the Boundary Commission report, which I knew would destroy my chances of holding my constituency. I had to sign my own death warrant. I did that without a second thought because it was the right thing to do, but I have to say that that has not always been the position of Governments from all political parties.
So I welcome the fact that we will have equal constituencies and that we are going to have arguments based not on political advantage, as they often are, but on genuine geographical concerns. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, I think that there is merit in automaticity.
I want to pick up on one point, on which I have been silent because of the extraordinary procedures we have that prevent us intervening. Trying to link this matter to the issue of saving the union is very shoddy politics indeed. The whole devolution exercise in Scotland was implemented by a Labour Party that boasted that devolution would kill nationalism stone-dead and saw it as a way of preventing separatism. Someone said in an earlier debate that we should not take the devolved nations for granted. Well, it is also time that we did not take England for granted. We should understand that it is important to stop referring to the Westminster Parliament and to refer instead to the United Kingdom Parliament, and recognise that in the United Kingdom Parliament all constituencies should be of roughly equal size, leaving aside the exceptional issues that arise with the islands.
The pleas that the Committee has heard to move away from the terms of the Bill because of devolution seem to ignore the fact that we now have 120 MSPs in Scotland and 60 Members in Wales as a result of devolution. It is argued that it is somehow essential to treat the United Kingdom Parliament constituency sizes differently, yet there are these additional politicians. I must say, I do not meet many members of the electorate who think that we should have more politicians.
If my noble friend the Minister decides to stick with plus or minus 5%—which is not a new innovation, of course—I hope that he will at least take into account my view that he should perhaps be thinking about plus or minus 2.5%. If I have helped to make him look reasonable, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, suggested, then I am proud of doing so because I know of no one more reasonable than the noble Lord, Lord True.
My Lords, the amendments in this group are mainly to do with promoting constituencies that are genuine, from a community standpoint, rather than percentage purity. Percentages are useful, but they are a tool; community and geography should trump them. The Committee just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on his amendment, which would make the job of the Boundary Commissions even more difficult than the Government have. The House of Commons Library tells us that the quota is likely to be in the area of 72,600, so 2.5% either side of that would mean a flexibility of no more than 1,800 either way—that is people, not percentages. This would be far less than most local government wards and would lead to the splitting of both wards and polling districts in all but the smallest of rural wards. That amendment would make a poor Bill worse.
The other three amendments all attempt to improve the lot of the Boundary Commission in, hopefully, getting cohesive constituencies based on genuine communities. The flexibility offered by the 5% tolerance from the quota gives 3,600 people—not percentages—either side of it. Amendment 15 would move that up to 5,400. Amendment 16 would move it up to 5,800, or 7,260 in certain cases. Amendment 17 would shift the figure to exactly 7,200. An amendment being tabled next week would move it up to 10,900 in Wales. I trust that we can manage to consolidate these amendments at a later stage.
One of the fallacies of being in the grip of percentages is that the 5% used in the 2018 proposals for the 600-seat House of Commons—which are now well behind us—gave a tolerance of 3,900. These present proposals would reduce that further, as the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, alluded to earlier.
I often try and look at the other fellow’s viewpoint. We can learn a little of Her Majesty’s Government’s thinking by going back in history. Over the years, the inner-city constituencies lost population and the suburbs increased. Conservative politicians thought that meant that their constituencies were disadvantaged. Perhaps the breaking down of the “red wall” might change that a bit.
I am pretty certain that greater flexibility will assist principally in giving, let us say, a modest-sized town its own seat, rather than having to lose a bit of it to another seat or having to take in a small part of a rural area just to make up the numbers. It is of course far easier to use the building blocks of wards and polling districts to build constituencies in large cities. Small towns and large seats in rural areas are the ones that will really benefit if we can change this business of percentage purity. I hope that we can do something to make the geography and community sense of our constituencies real for people to absolutely understand.
With the consent of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, next.
My Lords, these are important amendments—among the most important in the Bill. I congratulate all noble Lords who have made such telling arguments about the need for flexibility so that communities and local links are retained intact, and made them with a straight face and an earnest tone. For a moment or two, I was almost convinced, then I came back to reality.
All of us in this Room may not in a technical sense be noble friends, but we are political colleagues. Let us in the closeness of this Room, with no one listening in, be honest with one another about the arguments that we have all made to inspectors hearing constituency boundary inquiries. All noble Lords who were MPs, myself included, have sat at inquiries and made the most earnest arguments that boundaries should be changed or not changed because, as I said at Second Reading, they conformed with local travel-to-work areas, social habits, local boundaries, communities, cultural norms, mountains, lakes and rivers which could or could not be crossed, motorways, shopping habits or ancient history such as the routes followed by King Edward III when he invaded Scotland in 1356.
It is always a pleasure to listen to my pal, my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock; I think that he would have made an excellent governor-general in parts of Africa in his dress uniform and cocked, plumed hat. However, I care to bet that, at some point in his distinguished career as a Member of Parliament for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—is that not a magnificent name?—the noble Lord would have quoted Rabbie Burns as justification for including or excluding a part of Ayrshire. After all, there were few parts of the county to which Rabbie Burns did not wander in his travel to work as an exciseman or travel for favours in pursuit of many bonnie Jeans and bonnie lassies.
I think that I had a run-in my noble friend Lord Hayward who, wearing his hat as a national Conservative Party expert on constituencies, had a plan for boundary redistribution in Cumbria. At that time, Carlisle had about 50,000 electors, while I had more than 80,000 and the largest geographical constituency in England. Thus it made sense that part of my constituency should be added to Carlisle. I opposed it on the selfish basis that I did not want to give away part of my 18,000-strong majority, and the Labour Party strongly opposed it on every ground under the sun when the real reason was that it was afraid that an influx of Tory voters would lose it the seat. I recall us arguing for the creation of a new seat in Cumbria that was more than 100 miles long and banana-shaped, stretching from Barrow-in-Furness in the south and up the west coast, taking in Maryport and Whitehaven and almost reaching Carlisle. We said in all honesty to the inspector that this was a traditional travel-to-work route and a shopping route, and that people did this for recreation et cetera. The inspector said that, in that case, he would drive it next day and check it out for himself. I do not think that the poor fellow was ever seen again, lost in the wilds around Sellafield.
The arguments made by Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs were all bogus, as everyone in this Room knows. It was happening in every constituency, not just in Cumbria. What we were all after was getting a constituency boundary with sufficient wards to give us a safe majority so we could give away enough of our own supporters so that we could take the neighbouring seat for our party. That is a perfectly legitimate aim. Let us be honest about it. Let no former MP now in this House deny that that was indeed the game—because we all played it for political advantage. Thus I do not accept that we should have all the flexibilities argued for by the movers of these amendments.
When I wrote my notes, I did not know exactly what the new theoretical average constituency size would be. I took 78,000 as an example. I now understand it will be about 76,000, but my figure is perfectly valid for the comparisons I will now make. The current law would permit constituencies to range by 10%. It is not 5%. It is 5% down and 5% up, which is a range of 10%, from 95% to 105%—or, in my calculations, from 74,100 electors to 81,900. That leeway of 10% is a considerable number: 7,800 electors. I much prefer my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment, which would restrict that to a range of 76,050 to 79,950.
Amendment 15 would make the range 15%, from 72,150 to 83,850, or a range of 11,700 electors. Amendment 16 is slightly worse. It would make the range 16%—not 8%—or from 71,760 to 84,240, or 12,480 electors’ difference. Amendment 17 is by far the most extreme, making the range 20%. If the average electorate is 78,000, this amendment, if approved, would permit deviations as low as 70,200 or as high as 85,800, or a 15,600 variation. If this amendment were to be accepted, we could have a constituency with 70,000 electors sitting next door to one with almost 86,000 electors. That is preposterous and there is no electoral justification for that. There are no legitimate arguments for having constituencies with sizes varying by almost 12,000 in Amendment 15, over 12,000 in Amendment 16 and almost 16,000 in Amendment 17.
Integrated communities of that size do not exist as coherent electoral units any more. Just as people no longer have loyalty to one supermarket—apart from some Waitrose and Ocado customers, it seems at the moment—there are no longer party loyalties. People do not care who is their MP. This talk of a relationship between electors and MPs is nonsense. If it were true, seats would not change hands.
Electors no longer think that they have to operate in strict district, county or unitary authority guidelines. Let us not kid ourselves that local ties to an MP are important. They are now irrelevant. Even if they were important, the time has come for change. Local council boundaries are not nearly so important now as in the past. My former constituency of 1,500 square miles stretched from the Irish Sea to over the Pennines. I had one county council, three district councils and, while all of it was in England, we had Scottish postal codes in some of it, as well as Cumbrian pupils going to school in Northumberland. Health trusts covered different wards from the water utilities, which were different from the gas and electricity suppliers.
The only really silly boundary I had was a little stream between Cumbria and Northumberland, which ran right through the middle of the village of Gilsland. Electoral law did not permit it to remain intact and put it wholly in Cumbria or Northumberland. That is just one reason why the Boundary Commission must have the flexibility to cross district and county lines.
The electorate will not care one way or another. They simply want someone to deal with their problems, and they do not care whether it is one MP on one side of the street or a different MP on the other. It is all irrelevant these days, especially since we have the insidious single-issue pressure groups, whereby electors bypass MPs and try to get the law changed by mass political pressure rather than by MPs taking an overall view on the balance of duties and responsibilities, freedoms and liberties.
In conclusion, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Forsyth on the points that he made about saving the union. It is nonsense to say that we should increase the number of MPs from Wales or Scotland in order to save the union. I am sure that if we increased the number of MPs from Scotland to 100 or 200, Sturgeon would not immediately stop campaigning for an independent Scotland—no way. I cannot see Scottish electors saying, “Oh well, that’s okay then. We’ve got double the number of MPs in Westminster, so we shan’t vote for independence”.
Therefore, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will reject Amendments 15, 16 and 17 as driving a coach and horses through electoral fairness. Although I like the sound of Amendment 19, I am content to stick with the current variation.
My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on a number of points that have been raised by other noble Lords before I move on to commenting on the core points that I want to make.
First, I pick up on the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in relation to the loyalties of constituents. If the Committee will indulge me, I am pleased to say that constituents are loyal on many occasions, and MPs are loyal to their constituents. One of my former constituents, Gary Sheppard, retires today as a doorkeeper in this House. I had the pleasure of refereeing him on a number of occasions, and I am wearing my Bristol referee’s tie as a compliment to the doorkeeper who is retiring this evening. I wish him well in his retirement.
I move on to the different interpretations of percentages. My noble friend Lord Blencathra gave some calculations, but perhaps I may indicate that, certainly going on the December 2019 electorates, the projection would probably be that the average constituency of 650 seats would be around 73,000, rather than the slightly higher figure that he gave. However, that does not deny the point that he made. I certainly did not come to blows with him over what he said when he argued with me. I remember Sir Michael Fallon making exactly the same point when I worked for the Tory party on a national basis. Basically he said to me, “What you want is two seats with 7,000 majorities and I want one seat with a 14,000 majority.” That sums up the view of most Members of Parliament when one is trying to deal with the issue on a national basis.
As for arguing that you follow the route that one English monarch followed when invading Scotland, that is for mere beginners. I remember listening to Hazel Blears argue that there was a distinct difference between Salford and Manchester because Salford predated Manchester in the Bronze Age. I think that that was the term she used, but certainly it was very common to go back way beyond the Norman invasion, and Roman times were cited on many other occasions.
There is a difficulty with a 5% target, although I support it. It provides a reasonable range, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra indicated. People talk of going down to 2.5%, 3% or 3.5%. Australia has scales of geography and difficulty way beyond ours in terms of distance, yet it operates on a target of 3.5%. I think that 5% provides a good range, and I say that because the presumption is that 5% will be the cause of all the problems. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made the point that one has to adhere to local ties. The other day I cited the existing legislation, which goes unchanged. Rule 5 quite specifically says:
“A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit—(a) special geographical considerations …; (b) local government boundaries …; (c) boundaries of existing constituencies; (d) any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies; (e) the inconveniences attendant on such changes.”
Those rules are not changing.
However, the problem people start to identify is on the supposition that everything is perfect at the moment and that all will fall away if we have a 5% rule rather than a 7.5% rule. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, identified that that is not the case because it does not change political allegiance very often. He cited Greg Cook’s research. Greg Cook and I have shared many a hearing in one part of the country or another and I respect him enormously, but it denies what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, which is that people were storming in to see the Whips because they discovered that they were going to lose their seats because the range was 5%. They discovered that they were going to lose their seats for a whole series of other reasons, but it was not to do with 5%. It probably had a lot more to do with the fact that the number of seats was going down from 650 to 600 and you cannot force a quart into a pint pot.
I will give some examples of the difficulties one has at the moment. Take the MP for Carshalton and Wallington, who was formerly a Liberal and is now Elliot Colburn. He cannot get from one part of his constituency, Clock House, to the rest of his constituency without going out of it. Tom Brake likewise could not do so.
Equally, Lancaster and Fleetwood is split by a river. If you go from Fleetwood to the rest of the constituency, you have to go out of the constituency and through two other constituencies, I believe, to get back into the other part, except for the fact that you could, if you were lucky, catch the ferry. But the ferry finishes at 5.45 pm, so if you have an evening engagement or surgery you will have to drive round. This is not something that is specifically new.
If Jon Cruddas leaves the core of his constituency and visits Rush Green, the main route he follows, which he does not have to take, takes him into Andrew Rosindell’s constituency. Why? Because the boundary of Barking and Dagenham borough is based on the grounds of Barking Abbey, which existed in the 15th and 16th centuries. It makes no sense. Rush Green is very close to the centre of Romford and it should not be part of the other constituency, but it is.
Any noble Lord who knows the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial will know that there is that slight sliver at the top of Knightsbridge—the museum area—which is part of Westminster. Logically, it should be part of Kensington. Why is it not part of Kensington instead of Westminster? Because Queen Victoria did not want Bertie in the suburbs, was the phrase she used.
A thin finger of land links Newmarket with the rest of Suffolk. I think that I am right in saying that if the Secretary of State gets off the train at Newmarket station he is in his constituency, but if he gets on it on the other platform he is in a neighbouring constituency. There are houses to the south that are not in his constituency. There is a vast range of these circumstances right across the country already where problems exist.
Boundaries do change. I represented what used to be the city and county of Bristol. It then became the county of Avon. It shifted its boundaries. I am a Devonian by birth. My father is Cornish by birth. The boundaries of Devon and Cornwall constituencies have changed. They are not immutable, as some Cornish friends of mine would maintain. The constituencies shifted in the 1960s. A series of problems already exist.
There is no question that there are problems with the ranges. Statistically, if you move to a broader range, you are likely to solve some of the problems. Some of the evidence has been identified, but as I said, I think that 7,000 and a bit is a good range.
Reference has been made to David Rossiter and Ron Johnston’s research. I am looking at the document which they published in July 2014, Equality, Community and Continuity. They identified that with a bigger range some problems are clearly solved. But another, better way of solving a problem is by splitting wards. The English Boundary Commission is the exception among the four: it had always been unwilling to split wards, until the second aborted review. Faced by the difficulties there were, it then chose to accept some splitting of wards in South Yorkshire and the West Midlands.
The splitting of South Yorkshire’s wards was agreed by Clive Betts and me while sat in Portcullis House. We made a joint submission on how we split the wards in Sheffield. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, was a bit unfair this week on the commission because it does in fact hold boundary hearings in major cities. I checked the figures overnight with the Boundary Commission; the Sheffield hearings have been relatively poorly attended. That is no fault of the Boundary Commission. It has advertised them, as it has in other places.
Ward splits solve some of the problems, but the significant thing is that quite a lot of them are not solved by increasing the range. Even if we go to a much bigger range, well beyond 7.5% or 8%, the wards we have in some of the big cities will still not be resolved. These are places such as Bradford, Manchester, Leeds and much of Birmingham—despite the recent changes in its boundaries—Wakefield, Kirklees, Bromley, parts of Croydon and Greenwich, Wandsworth and Tower Hamlets. It is not just the big, historical cities. There are wards in Milton Keynes, Southampton and Portsmouth which are beyond the ranges, unless you go up to 10%. Just increasing the range does not solve the problem.
I hope and believe that the English Boundary Commission will be willing, as it was in the second aborted review, to accept splitting of wards in places where you cannot solve the problem other than by having incredibly weird constituencies. The Boundary Commission came up with some very bad ones but, significantly, it changed them after representations from the different political parties.
Looking at the paper which Johnston, Pattie and Rossiter produced, they identify in tables 17 and 18 what range of seats in counties that have problems might be resolved by increasing the range and what problems are solved by splitting wards. It is quite clear that far more are solved by splitting a few wards in some places. Most other counties, where the majority of seats are situated, do not face the problem because their electorates are in general between 4,000 and 6,000. On the basis that, as far as I am concerned, first, there are already problems that are not solved by increasing the quota and, secondly, there is another part to the solution through ward splitting in a very limited number of places, we can progress to a reasonable set of boundaries across the whole United Kingdom.
Debate on Amendment 15 adjourned.
That completes the work of the Committee for today. The Committee stands adjourned; I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 7.19 pm.