Committee (3rd 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 groups 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.
Debate on Amendment 15 resumed.
My Lords, what we learned from the abortive boundary reviews of 2013 and 2018, conducted under the rules set by Parliament in 2011, was that they were very disruptive. Very many constituencies were to be split up, with different parts of them to be sent in several different directions, and many anomalies were caused not by the boundary commissioners but by the rules.
Naturally, the proposals in these reviews were unpopular with many MPs from different parties, to the point that several Conservative MPs met with me privately in 2013, hoping that I could help prevent them being implemented. Having seen the actual effect of these reviews, many MPs in the other place raised concerns in recent debates about the rigid requirement of no more than a tiny 5% variation from the quota for electors for each constituency.
Attempts were made to reassure MPs that another review might not again lead to such fundamental changes and perverse outcomes, but in June the Constitution Unit confirmed fears that it would. It reported that
“changing the size of the Commons”
from the figure of 600 proposed in 2011
“would not substantially affect the degree of disruption.”
The academic experts studying this Bill, whose reputation for their understanding of boundary review processes is universally regarded, all sounded alarm bells about the consequences of this Bill. The late and much missed Professor Ron Johnston, with his colleagues David Rossiter and Charles Pattie, concluded that
“the new rules are just as likely as those they replace to result in major disruption to the constituency map at all future reviews.”
When the reviews were to be held every five years, they concluded that adhering to a fixed number of constituencies and a restricted tolerance of only 5% in constituency electorates would mean that
“major change would occur in around one-third of seats and minor change in another third.”
The work of these academics was very persuasive to the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The committee produced an excellent report in March 2015 with strong recommendations about future boundary reviews. It concluded that to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries and major disruption with every review, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. It also said that in its opinion this would still allow the Government to achieve their objective of roughly equal-sized constituencies. The conclusions of that Select Committee, with cross-party agreement for its recommendations, should have been the starting point for this Bill.
Those most familiar with the history of the 2011 Act which brought in new processes for reviewing constituency boundaries will know that we came very close then to a government concession which would have allowed a 10% variation in the quota for each constituency. This was when the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that this might be necessary to get the legislation through. It was only because David Cameron did not want to grant that concession in response to an organised filibuster that it was not made. It was not an issue of principle.
Ministers should now consider that the previous Bill of 2011 was nearly killed off because of the rigidity of its adherence to the 5% limit for varying the quota of electors for each constituency. An amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and others, which would have allowed variation to the strict quota in exceptional circumstances and which proposed extending the margin for flexibility from 5% to 7.5%, was carried in the House of Lords by 275 votes to 257 on 9 February 2011. This was not an amendment that my party was able to support then, but for reasons that I will explain, it would do so now.
The amendment provided for a 7.5% variation and became the subject of parliamentary ping-pong. When it returned to the House of Lords a week later, the Government were able to defeat it only by the narrowest possible margin of just one vote—242 votes to 241. On that occasion, 68 Lib Dem Peers had to vote with the Government because of the coalition, and to deliver a referendum on the alternative vote system. If we had not, the Government would have lost by 134.
We Liberal Democrats are now free to vote without those constraints, with greater knowledge gained from the abortive reviews and with the benefit of independent analysis of the consequences of the new rules. The evidence is clear that allowing only a 5% variation in the quota produces many anomalies and much unnecessary disruption to constituency boundaries with every review. The Government should therefore not be wedded to the 5% rule.
The reasons for it have been shown to be misconceived, as it was never the case that all large constituencies were Conservative-held and all small ones had Labour MPs. The 5% rule is not necessary to meet the agreed objective of roughly equal-sized constituencies, and there is no particular benefit to any party in insisting on it. It is an issue on which the Government may have to compromise if they wish to secure passage of the Bill in time for the Boundary Commissions to start work in 2021.
The Government and all those concerned with boundary review issues would do well to reread the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on 9 February 2011 at col. 231. I regret having been put in the position of opposing his amendment on technical grounds and because of my party’s desire to secure a referendum on the alternative vote system. My view is that the current Amendments 15, 16 and 17 all avoid the problem I described then about vague definitions such as “viable constituency”.
Amendment 18, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Grocott, repeats the error of introducing vagueness to the rules where clarity is required and legal challenges should be avoided.
Amendment 19 shows typical wit on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, seeking to suggest that the rules should move in exactly the opposite way from that sought by everybody. His amendment would force the Boundary Commissions into proposing the most perverse set of boundaries.
I also believe that the best interests of those pursuing the later Amendments 21, 22, 23 and 24, about Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, would be best served by supporting Amendments 15, 16 or 17, which provide for consistent rules across the UK for the election of a UK Parliament.
Why is it so important that one of Amendments 15, 16 or 17 is carried? Under the proposed system, small population shifts in English regions, Scotland or Wales will change the quota for the number of MPs representing each of them. Each such change will then trigger major changes involving most constituencies and will mitigate their being formed on the basis of natural communities, or within the same counties or local authority areas.
One ward moving from one constituency to the next will not be the end of the process. Moving that one ward from constituency A to constituency B will trigger moves of more wards away from constituency B, and perhaps to constituencies C, D and E. Each of those constituencies may then see some of their wards moved further afield leading to the break-up of constituencies F, G, H and others. The process has been described as akin to “pass the parcel” as wards are all moved around with knock-on consequences.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, suggested that much more splitting of local government wards would reduce the knock-on consequences of moving whole wards, but this will not generally happen. The Government amended the 2011 Bill so that the rules must generally have regard to ward boundaries as well as to local authorities and so on.
The Boundary Commission for England has explained that it has
“traditionally sought to avoid the division of wards between constituencies, recognising their importance in reflecting community ties and to aid the efficient running of elections”.
It said that it would split wards in only “exceptional and compelling circumstances”, but that
“the number of splits should be kept to an absolute minimum”.
For the 2018 review, it eventually agreed to just 10 wards being split in the whole of England. Maintaining the 5% limit means major disruption with each review.
The academic experts have now gone back to look at the changes in the electorate since they first suggested that one in three constituencies would face major boundary changes with each review. They have also noted that there will be more disruption after eight years of population changes than there would have been after five. Based on the data from 2018, they said that
“around half of all seats would experience major changes at each subsequent review, with just one in five escaping change of any sort”.
But the review to be published in 2023 will be based on changes in population over a 20-year period from 2000 to 2020, so it will be even more disruptive and the outcome may be known less than a year before the general election.
However, we can bring some common sense and greater stability to the process by changing the 5% rule. The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters considers variations of up to 10% perfectly acceptable. Today may be the first time that I have quoted the Conservative MP Peter Bone in defence of any of my arguments, but his Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill proposes that the figure be set at 7.5%. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to some of these arguments and accept that greater flexibility on the 5% rule is needed.
Accepting Amendment 16 would indicate support for what the House of Commons Select Committee found cross-party agreement to in 2015. There is only limited flexibility in Amendment 15, and the wider latitude provided for in Amendment 17, even when the Boundary Commissions do not identify special circumstances, is problematic.
We therefore need a consensus and one has been previously found for the principles of Amendment 16, which provides for 8% variation in general and 10% where the Boundary Commissions find exceptional circumstances based on the criteria outlined in the legislation. Showing flexibility would help to prevent the predictable anger of many MPs in 2023, when, without some amendment along the lines proposed, most of their constituencies will face major boundary changes and more than four in five will be changed. It is no wonder, perhaps, that the Government are opposed to allowing Parliament the final say on these changes.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I am not sure that I will tell my honourable friend Mr Bone about the support he has from the Liberal Democrats—I am very solicitous for his health, of course. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a powerful and interesting speech, which I listened to carefully, as I have tried to to all speeches in your Lordships’ Committee.
A false dichotomy underlies part of our discussion last week, between an attitude posited—even called a sort of arithmetical obsession by one Member of the Committee, who avows his authorship—and the idea of fluidity and connection with local places and local ties. It is said that these two things are antithetical; they cannot run together. Of course, there is a balance in these matters. I believe, and I hope to persuade the Committee, because the Government cannot accept the amendments spoken to today, that a good and fair balance is struck by a tolerance of 5%.
There has been a difference of opinion. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott, proposed a tolerance range of 15%, plus or minus 7.5%. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, backed up ably by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, proposed plus or minus 8%, together with headroom to move to 20%—plus or minus 10%—where deemed necessary. The noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, went further, suggesting 20%—plus or minus 10%—in all instances. Amendment 22 in the next group even envisages a 30% range in some circumstances. A variety of opinion has been put before the Committee, before referring to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who went in the other direction by suggesting a tolerance range of 5%.
I also thank other noble Lords who spoke, my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Hayward. My noble friend Lord Blencathra nodded to the amendment from my noble friend Lord Forsyth and came down on balance, I think, in favour of 5%, as did my noble friend Lord Hayward. His expertise, detailed knowledge and experience of this subject—matched, as we heard today by other Members of the Committee—are of great benefit. I was struck by what he said about splitting wards and noted also what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said on this subject.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra gave us a dose of practical political reality in his powerful speech. There will be disputes. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was very solicitous for the future of the Conservative Party, which was kind of him, but wherever one strikes this, there will be disruption—the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—but the Government believe that the current position, set out in existing legislation, is the right one; namely, a tolerance range of 10%, to allow the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies 5% larger or smaller than the quota.
The Government are resolute in their goal of delivering equal constituencies so far as possible. We committed to do so in our 2019 manifesto and the elected House has upheld that position. With our having made that pledge, I hope noble Lords will recognise that this House should not wind back the current reasonable and achievable tolerance range of 10%.
Of course, I understand the views expressed in this Committee about communities being kept together within single constituencies and about particular geographies being respected. They are powerful sentiments and were eloquently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, but the concept of equal votes—the simple idea that each elector’s vote must count as nearly as possible the same—is equally, if not arguably more, powerful. It is the cornerstone of our democracy and fundamental to maintaining voters’ participation and trust.
The only tool we have by which to ensure such an approach is to apply the electoral quota on a universal basis while allowing appropriate flexibility to the Boundary Commissions to take into account important local factors such as geographical features and community ties without introducing significant variability. That will remain the position. Previously, Parliament has debated tolerance and judged that a range of 10% is right and will allow this. The Government believe that we should hold to that position. It strikes the right balance between achieving equal, fair boundaries and allowing the Boundary Commissions flexibility to take account of other factors.
If we let out the seams of tolerance, as it was put in debate, the results are quick and clear, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra illustrated. Using the electoral figures from 2019, with a 15% range, one could range from 78,000 electors to almost 11,000 fewer. At 20%, one would be looking at a potential disparity of 20,000-plus electors, with some constituencies of around 62,000 and others approaching 83,500. I agree with my noble friends Lord Hayward, Lord Blencathra and Lord Forsyth: there is no legitimate argument for having constituencies with sizes varying by potentially 11,000 or 20,000 electors, depending on the amendment in question in this group. That is not equitable.
At 20%, the latitude provided to the Boundary Commissions is so significant that more than 80% of constituencies could be untouched by the next boundary review. Some—and it has been argued for in this Committee—may think that a good outcome, but I urge that we recall that the purpose of a boundary review is to update constituencies to take account of how the population has changed. The current parliamentary constituencies, which no one defends, are based on the electorate as it was in the early 2000s, nearly 20 years ago. We all know that there have been significant shifts since then, in migration, in housebuilding and in population growth.
Let me touch on the idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—followed up by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, with some interesting historical references —of giving the Boundary Commissions discretion to apply a greater tolerance in certain instances where they judge it to be needed. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested a basic tolerance range of 16%, but with flexibility to move to 20%. Similar ideas were put forward in the other place. On the face of it, such discretion may seem attractive, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a good fist of it, but, in reality, it can make the job of the Boundary Commissions more difficult and the outcome of boundary reviews considerably less certain.
It is not difficult to envisage that the Boundary Commissions would quickly come under pressure to use the discretion allowed by this amendment. When a commission used that discretion in one part of its territory, it is highly likely that communities in another part would call for something similar. The same phenomenon would be likely to occur across the four nations of the union. For example, were the Boundary Commission for Scotland to be quicker to propose constituencies with a larger variance range, it would surely not take long for a similar approach to be demanded of the Boundary Commission for England or for Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned protected constituencies. We have discussed this concept and will do so again on a later group of amendments. I thank him for acknowledging that there is a small number of specific instances where exceptions might be sensible. We will discuss that later but, again, the Government’s feeling is that we have struck the right balance.
One reason why the Boundary Commissions are as effective and respected as they are is that they implement rules that are clear and unambiguous—the importance of clarity of rules was referred to also by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. While they act with clarity and transparency and steer clear of subjective judgments and rankings, the scope for disagreement and challenge—yes, it will be there—will be limited. The Government are keen to protect that position.
Our task is to update the UK’s parliamentary constituencies and to ensure that our electors have votes that are fairer and more equal. That task is urgent. As Professor McLean said of Parliament when giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee,
“it is … very embarrassing that it is operating on the basis of 20-year-old boundaries and therefore we did not have equal suffrage in the 2019 general election”.—[Official Report, Commons, Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Committee, 23/6/20; col. 94.]
I should at this point add my own comments of respect and appreciation for the late Professor Ron Johnston and endorse what many others have said in this Committee.
I urge the Committee to recognise that the tolerance level agreed in previous legislation and reaffirmed by the elected House on this Bill is right and reasonable. Changes to it have been rejected on numerous occasions in the elected Chamber, to which it relates. I ask noble Lords to resist the desire to fix something that the Government contend is not broken and not to press these amendments.
My Lords, I have received no request to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.
On Thursday, on an earlier group of amendments, I thought that the Minister was correcting my quotation from the Constitution Committee. In fact, he rightly questioned my assertion that it had endorsed, rather than simply noted, suggestions from others as to how to ensure that the Boundary Commissions were independent. He was right; I was wrong. I think that is 1-0 to the Minister.
However, on this amendment, the Minister is on shakier ground, but I shall to try to avoid making what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, called a “holier-than-thou” speech, especially as I want first to turn to something more serious that the noble Lord said, when he claimed:
“Trying to link this matter to the issue of saving the union is very shoddy politics”.—[Official Report, 10/9/20; col. GC 320.]
I shall not try to pretend that I understand Scotland, but just at the moment in Wales, when the Government seem intent on weakening the devolution settlement via the internal market Bill and when again and again UK Ministers ignore the Welsh Government—indeed, even sharing the internal market Bill with Welsh Ministers two hours after it had been shared with the press—the noble Lord might note that a seismic reduction in Welsh voices in Westminster fuels separatist emotions and the feeling that Wales is a mere afterthought to this Government. I was particularly struck that the Government’s statement on the internal market Bill quoted the Scottish Secretary of State, a Scottish businessman and the Scottish Retail Consortium, with no equivalent endorsement from anyone in Wales, not even the Welsh Secretary.
I am not speaking for Scotland, but I hope that the Government do not think that chopping Welsh input into Parliament has no wider implications. As was said in an earlier debate, the Americans recognised early on that size alone did not matter, with each state being accorded proper recognition in the Senate. The UK Government should give serious thought to binding in each of the four nations if they really want to retain the United Kingdom. This does not go to the heart of these amendments, but it is a response to what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said. Incidentally, he apologises because he has just left to chair his own Select Committee, but he has been with us thus far.
Turning to the meat of Amendment 15 and the numbers game, I will make two points. First, some 9 million people—almost 20% of those eligible to vote —are not on the register. That is an average of 10,000 per constituency, repeating the Government’s obsession with the last 3,500, which, of course, at 5% is fewer than when we were looking at a 600-seat Chamber. It makes that obsession about the last 3,500 a little hard to comprehend. As my noble friend Lord Lipsey reminded us, with turnout as it is, non-voters will also outnumber the figures that we are discussing within the context of variance.
Secondly, this focus on arithmetic equality ignores the fact that MPs represent communities as well as constituents based on the geography of the UK, particularly Wales, where the south and east are dominated by mountains and valleys. Beautiful they are, but good for transport they are not. My noble friend Lord Foulkes —I am afraid without the dress uniform and a cock-plumed hat imagined by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra —said that the equal votes obsession reminded him of the British imperialists drawing straight lines in Africa.
Others in the Committee might have read James Barr’s A Line in the Sand on the Middle East or seen Howard Brenton’s play “Drawing the Line” about the partition of India and Pakistan and the lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe who, with his pencil, divided communities. Luckily, we are in very different territory here, but Boundary Commissions need the leeway to respect communities, culture, travel patterns and history, as well as the natural boundaries described by my noble friend Lord Grocott as the sea, mountains, or a river estuary.
As my noble friend Lord Lennie, said, a 7.5% variance would allow the Boundary Commissions sufficient latitude to respond to the community or geographical needs of an area, without the knock-on or ripple effects on neighbouring seats, with changes made otherwise simply for arithmetic reasons. As the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, pointed out, Amendment 15 simply makes the margin 5,500 rather than 3,600 people. It is hardly revolutionary: it is just flexibility. We are obviously going to return to this issue, which is important for the representation of the Commons. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 18. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
18: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Taking account of local ties
(1) Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act is amended as follows.(2) In rule 2(2) (electorate per constituency), after “4(2),” insert “5(1)(d),”.(3) In rule 5(3) (factors), at the end insert “, except that a constituency does not have to comply with rule 2 if the Boundary Commission considers it reasonable taking into account the factor in paragraph (1)(d).””
My Lords, I am getting increasingly concerned about the form and the forum in which we are considering this matter, which is so important to our democracy. We said in previous debates that the Bill ought to be in Committee on the Floor of the House, and it is not: it is in this Grand Committee. I do not blame the Government in any way for the fact that we are in special arrangements because of Covid-19—it is not their fault—but because of that, we are isolated from reality. If we were considering this normally, there would be much more media coverage of what we were doing. The Scottish media might have been interested in the arguments for 59 constituencies remaining in Scotland, yet none of them has picked it up. We would also have had experts—I recall this well from previous discussions—sitting outside the Committee Room, but they are not allowed in now because of Covid-19. I used to get very useful advice from the Law Society of Scotland about various matters, but we cannot get that now. This is really an opportunity for the Government to squeeze things through, to say, “No, we are not accepting any amendments” and get away with it without any pressure. I fear that that is what is going to happen. It is a great pity, because it means that we are not dealing with some very important issues.
The Minister is obsessed with equal votes. He keeps going on about it; he has said it on so many occasions. I pointed out on a previous occasion that the irony is—and my Liberal Democrat friends jumped up and down with excitement—that if you take what he is arguing to its logical conclusion, you end up with proportional representation, particularly the single transferable vote. My noble friend Lord Lipsey argued very strongly that because some seats in the past were considered safe seats—they are not always, but there are still some significant ones—it is only in a limited number where the vote actually counts. We did not get an answer from the Minister, although I hope we will eventually. My noble friend also mentioned—it has just been mentioned again by my noble friend Lady Hayter—the turnout. I said on the previous occasion that there were also people who were not registered. The truth is that that there are a lot of citizens of this country who, for one reason or another—because they are poor or disadvantaged, for example—are not registered or not able to get out to vote or live in constituencies where their vote does not count. That is a different category. We really need to think about that seriously.
Turning to my Amendment 18, it is back to arithmetic. The amendment fits in with the plus or minus, whether it is 2.5%, 5%, 7.5% or 10%, because that is flexibility. It is all a question of flexibility. I want to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I have great respect for him; I see him at meetings of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and we very often debate things together. He made an eloquent and very elegant speech last Thursday: it was really quite captivating and I enjoyed it. However, as is often the case, the noble Lord was not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I am not saying that he was lying: it was just the way that the argument was put, which was very clever indeed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, MPs argue a case at Boundary Commissions that is particularly advantageous to them and their party. That is why they go there: I have been to half a dozen or more Boundary Commissions, and I have done that. They can often creatively call on local ties and natural boundaries if their lucky numbers do not come up and they are facing notable boundary changes. However, none of that should diminish the fact that local ties and natural boundaries are very important and should be taken seriously in terms of constituencies.
At present, local ties and arithmetic are dominant in this argument. They theoretically have equal status. In my experience, however—and I am open to contradictory arguments from the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Rennard, and anyone else who has a lot more experience than I have—by default, arithmetic usually triumphs. I have seen it again and again: the deputy commissioner has said, “No, no, no, I have to go by the numbers. The numbers take precedence over local ties.” That is not beneficial to our representative democracy. Drawing arbitrary lines through communities does nothing to serve the needs of those local communities and ensure proper representation.
The Government ought to be more aware of the inconsistencies and drawbacks in relying on an algorithm, as we saw with the exam results fiasco last month. Surely some lessons might be taken from that in terms of arithmetic—numbers being the god we worship.
Amendment 18 in my name seeks to ensure that community boundaries and community links are given priority over arithmetic—it would make them paramount. Of course the arithmetic has to be taken account of and of course it has to fit in to the plus or minus—whatever percentage we ultimately agree. In that way we can avoid circumstances which result in the creation of artificial boundaries which have limited community coherence. I want to see local ties such as school catchment areas, major highways, major local authority boundaries and natural boundaries such as rivers, lochs—lakes, for the English among us—and mountains given greater priority. This would all be subject to the constituency limit, which, as I and others have argued, should be as flexible as possible.
A plus or minus 10% quota would provide greater flexibility for the Boundary Commission to accommodate these important local ties and natural boundaries. Hopefully it would take account of the particular circumstances in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What one party gains in one area, it could lose elsewhere if, indeed, there are still old party loyalties. Certainly, in my own country they are not as strong and clear as they used to be. Things are also changing in England, and things will continue to change, so that should be taken into account.
Nevertheless, by taking a community-centred approach, we can create a framework that supports and nurtures strong connections between the Member and her or his constituents. It also provides a more logical and sensible structure to support opportunities for further devolution of power across the United Kingdom, not just in England—I shall be arguing that in a Question next week in the Chamber—but in Scotland, where unfortunately there has been far too much centralisation in Edinburgh following devolution to Edinburgh. There needs to be much greater devolution within Scotland.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 20 in my name. I am delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who is widely respected in the House, both for his service as an invariably responsive and listening Minister and for his previous role in Wales since devolution. Noble Lords will recall that he endorsed my plea at Second Reading that the especially distinct identity of Cornwall should be recognised in the Bill.
I am also pleased to have the support of two of my noble friends, both of whom have given great public service to Cornwall. Noble Lords may be aware that allies on Cornwall Council have also endorsed my proposition.
Physical geography makes it abundantly clear that Cornwall is an especially distinct entity in the UK. If you try to follow the boundary between England and Wales and England and Scotland, or even between Northern Ireland and the Republic, you have the devil’s own job. You can find yourself endlessly crossing largely invisible lines. However, if you try crossing almost all the boundary to Cornwall, you will get very wet. When the Conservative Party was pushing the case for a Devonwall constituency, David Cameron was very dismissive of the River Tamar. He is reported to have objected, “It’s not exactly the Amazon, is it?” Ironically, his comparison is actually rather useful: the Tamar has been a natural boundary from prehistoric times, while the Amazon is the natural route into the interior of all of South America. Indeed, for many centuries it would have been the only link between different inland areas.
The constituency I served, North Cornwall, ran for miles along that natural boundary. The administrative separation is clear and logical. I would have found it unnecessarily bureaucratic and hugely time-consuming to have to deal with both Truro and Exeter council officials, 100 miles apart, and my constituents would inevitably have suffered.
The previous planned Devonwall constituency was an impractical nightmare. I simply cannot understand why any of the current MPs in Cornwall were prepared to even countenance it. Physical geography can determine human geography, and never more so than in the history of the Cornish peninsula. I admit that I am very strongly prejudiced: my ancestors arrived in north Cornwall around 1066 and, perhaps more significantly, I am directly descended from Bishop Trelawny, on whose behalf the national song records that 20,000 Cornishmen threatened to march on London to secure his release from the clutches of James II. In truth, he and the other six bishops were acquitted by a London jury in Westminster Hall, thus precipitating the 1688 Glorious Revolution. It was the King who was found to be trying to undermine the rule of law—a moral for today.
This reminder of the extent of Cornish self-awareness, pride in our distinct history and determination to maintain the identity and integrity of Cornwall is obviously very relevant to the Bill. As the Minister will confirm, our own Government have recognised this with the 2014 declaration of the extension of the framework convention for the protection of national minorities to Cornwall, acknowledging the unique identity of the Cornish and comparing them to the other Celtic peoples in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In this context, an explicit reference to the political integrity of the territories associated with such groups is formidable.
I anticipate that the Minister may claim that the combination of 650 constituencies and his limited 5% margin either side of the expected base figure, around 72,000 electors, could mean that the breaking out of Cornwall’s traditional boundary may not be necessary. We have no proof of that; until the latest March 2020 electoral registers are known, we cannot be sure. Of course, it is blindingly obvious that if the House arrives at a consensus variance of 8%—or 10% where special circumstances persuade the Boundary Commission to be exceptionally flexible—this threat will recede. That is acknowledged and accepted. However, it would surely be wholly preferable for the legislation to leave no shadow of doubt—any more than it does with the borders of England with Wales and Scotland—to maintain this long-standing distinct identity for Cornwall. It would be helpful to create this clarity for future boundary reviews. Who knows how the electorate will vary in years to come?
If the Minister wishes to tighten up the wording of the amendment, I am sure that I and my three colleagues would be only too happy to discuss with him the optimum way to do so. As long as the intention is abundantly clear, I am always ready to explore improvements. One does not need to be a separatist to acknowledge the strength of this case. Indeed, I believe that the continuing unity of the United Kingdom depends on accepting the lessons of its diversity.
I turn to Amendments 18 and 22. The former, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, emphasising the vital significance of local ties, is very relevant to my amendment, and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic.
I have more difficulty with Amendment 22, because I too want to argue for much greater attention to local demography. However, it should surely apply in all parts of the United Kingdom and not just in Wales. That should surely be a common feature throughout if we are to remain united. The supporters of this amendment are usually very eloquent, so I hope that they will be able to indicate why remoter areas elsewhere in the UK, with equal problems regarding rurality, should not have universal equality of treatment. Perhaps they will indicate to the Committee whether they accept the proposed maximum number of constituencies for Wales, when their special 15% lower variance for some would inevitably mean a special higher variance for others.
I must apologise to colleagues if I have been even less articulate than usual. Our son, a proper Cornishman, swam the Channel overnight in a relay with three other Hackney pirates. Proud and anxious parents did not get much sleep as we followed their progress.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I am in much agreement with what he said, specifically on Cornwall and Devon. My name is also against Amendment 20. I thank him for his kind words and say that he was making even more sense than usual despite that lack of sleep. I offer him many congratulations on that feat.
I want first to say something in general in relation to amendments in this group before turning to the position relating to Cornwall. I have much sympathy with the argument that a 5% variance in each direction is too strict and rigid. We should not apologise for a principle of equal-size constituencies in population terms in general. We have demonstrated as a country and a Parliament flexibility in relation to some islands, quite rightly, and I cannot see why we should not do the same elsewhere. Clearly, there has to be a restriction on the variation, but we need more flexibility in that direction, particularly in rural areas and particularly in the rural areas of Wales, which I know well. There is a compelling case in relation to Brecon and Radnorshire; I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who knows a thing or two about that area. There is such a case to be made too in relation to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The same principle applies, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said.
In Cornwall, not only does the Tamar provide an effective natural boundary—who can doubt that who has been into Saltash?—but it is also a demarcation of a clear difference between Cornwall and the rest of the country. It has its own cultural attributes, its own language and its own national minority. There is a powerful, compelling case for acting differently in relation to Cornwall as we have done in relation to islands such as Ynys Môn, the Isle of Wight and so on. I agree with the powerful case put by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
I shall not delay the Committee too long, but I strongly support this amendment. The Minister, whom I know well and who has listened with great care and attention as he always does in these debates, appeared sympathetic to the case for Cornwall. I hope that he is persuaded of the need to protect in legislation the unity of Cornwall and to write that into the Bill.
Baroness Jolly. No? If the noble Baroness is not with us, we shall go on to the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 22 standing in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, to whom I am grateful.
Why this Bill? Is there a clamour from voters to change their constituencies? No. Do, for example, rural voters in Wales want even larger constituencies because they think that their MPs are too close to them? No. So what is the motivation?
Much is made by Ministers, as the noble Lord, Lord True, has already done, of the case for equalisation, but equalisation has been the principle behind our constituency system for generations—we all accept that principle. The point is that the Boundary Commissions have had the discretion to apply it fairly and sensibly, taking proper account of local views, of community identity and of geographic sparsity instead of being rigidly straitjacketed, as this Bill requires.
The Bill means that the uniqueness of Wales, in the past always having had special consideration by this Parliament, including in the 1944 Act, and by the Boundary Commissions, is ignored. In no other nation of Britain, proportionate to the population, are there such large and remote areas and vast geographical rural areas where there are thousands more sheep than people and constituencies are hundreds of square miles if not larger. Yet under this Bill, four existing geographically large seats in Wales could well become, and almost certainly will become, two monster ones. Instead of being hundreds of square miles in size, each will become thousands of square miles, in mid-Wales, north Wales and west Wales—none of them, by the way, Labour seats, so no party pleading is going on here.
Much has been made about the Bill creating constituencies that are more equal in size, but that has come at the expense of community ties, history and geography. We do not live in a world where populations grow in neat conurbations which fit an electoral quota dictated from on high. Nor does our geography in Wales lend itself to communities being switched dogmatically between constituencies to help achieve that quota. Our existing system already takes account of that by trading off strict electoral quotas in order to prioritise community identity, local ties and geography. Identifying with the constituency we live in and the close link between an MP and their constituents are fundamental to our parliamentary democracy and envied by democracies around the world.
The rigidity of the electoral quota and the 5% variance provided for in the Bill put that in jeopardy and give primacy to a rigid mathematical equation which is damaging for our democracy. That is why Amendment 22 proposes, in relation to Wales alone and to meet its specific needs, that the electorate of any constituency be no less than 85% of the United Kingdom electoral quota and no more than 115% of that quota. Why is this needed? Wales’s unique geography means that constituencies can vary drastically, from vast rural constituencies which are sparsely populated, such as the existing Brecon and Radnorshire, to densely populated, small urban constituencies in Cardiff and Swansea.
It is no surprise that two of the five largest geographical constituencies, Montgomeryshire and Dwyfor Meirionnydd, are also two of five smallest in electorate size, while two of the five largest electorates, Cardiff South and Penarth and Cardiff North, are also two of the five smallest geographical constituencies. There is a logic to that. There are seven constituencies in Wales which are more than 1,000 square kilometres in size—Brecon and Radnorshire is more than 3,000 square kilometres—but because of the rigid electoral quota used during the last review under the previous legislation, the Boundary Commission for Wales ended up proposing mega constituencies to achieve numerical parity and to cover the vast areas of sparsely populated rural Wales, as I described in great detail when moving Amendment 14. Much the same will happen under this Bill.
Mega constituencies like that will only alienate voters from those whom they elect to represent them, leaving them feeling more cut off and remote than before. It is a toxic combination which will lead to disengagement and undermine democracy. Equally, the strict quota is problematic for valley constituencies and makes the task of creating constituencies which make sense to valley communities extremely difficult.
It is not easy to move single communities from a valley and dump them in a different constituency. By their very nature, valley communities are linked and do not easily connect with neighbouring valleys. To reach a neighbouring valley you cannot just drive over a mountain of fields and forests. You have to drive to the top or the bottom, making communication take longer and not easy. Valley communities are also linked to specific towns in terms of transport, community links and historical ties. These community ties form the basis of many of the valley constituencies in the south Wales area, which I know well, still live in, and represented for a quarter of a century.
During the last boundary review, the rigid quota saw some of those bonds butchered. However, blame should not be laid at the door of the Boundary Commission for Wales, for it is working to the rules laid down by this Parliament. It is hamstrung by those rules and is having to put a rigid mathematical equation ahead of community and historical ties in a way it has never had to do before in the history of Boundary Commissions. This is a revolutionary proposal. The Minister may as well admit that it flies in the face of all history and tradition.
The Boundary Commission for Wales said as much when it gave evidence to the inquiry into parliamentary constituency boundaries:
“Any limit in terms of tolerance from the EQ (electoral quota) restricts the ability of the Commission to take careful account of the unique geography in Wales. For example, the Commission had some concerns about constituencies proposed in the valleys areas due to the 5% limit. The limit created a situation where the commission had to combine and split valleys in order to create constituencies. In the ordinary course of a review these would not form cohesive constituencies.”
Crucially, it went on to say
“the greater the flexibility in terms of electorate numbers, the more cohesive a constituency the commission can create.”
In practice, a 15% variation instead of 5% would provide that flexibility and this small and modest change— to meet Wales’s needs alone, with the Government recognising them and with Parliament doing as historically it has always done—would create far more representative constituencies.
Using the 2019 electorate, I have calculated that the average size of a constituency would be 72,613 and a 5% variance would create constituencies ranging in size from 68,982 to 76,243. Currently, just four Welsh constituencies meet that criteria. However, a 15% variance would see constituencies ranging in size from 61,721 to 83,505. Nine of the existing Welsh constituencies would meet that threshold—nine, not four, as under the smaller rigid restriction.
More importantly, the greater variation gives the Boundary Commission for Wales much more room to manoeuvre, enabling it to create constituencies that communities can identify with. The 7,000 difference between the lower thresholds can mean the difference between a community sitting in its natural, historical constituency, where it has community ties, or being placed in a completely different one to which it has little affinity.
Greater variation gives the Boundary Commission for Wales greater flexibility to deal with the unique geography of Wales, so that it can accommodate vast geographical areas that are sparsely populated without creating mega constituencies, where communities are bolted on to already large constituencies in an effort to meet an arbitrary electoral quota that equates a dense urban constituency with a sparse rural one. It would allow it to better deal with the densely populated smaller geographical areas, such as our valley communities that have their own distinct identities and geography and cannot be easily moved.
Constituency boundaries should mirror the communities they represent. Boundaries that cut across several councils and geographical borders such as valleys, mountains and rivers do not fit with local community ties and make it difficult for MPs to represent the area that elects them effectively. The ability of voters to identify with a constituency in our political system is crucial. If a community does not identify with a constituency it leads to disengagement and a feeling of disenchantment.
A 15% variance for Wales to meet Wales’s unique demography would strike the right balance between achieving greater parity between the size of constituencies but not at the expense of community ties. It would also be far less disruptive. Without this change the restrictive electoral quota imposed by the Government will inevitably lead to the break up of close-knit communities or the creation of mega constituencies with no natural affinity. International best practice recommends that flexibility should be part of the system to allow for consideration of geography and community ties. The smaller you make the variation, the fewer options you have. The larger you make the variation—and this proposal under Amendment 22 is modest—the more options you have and the more flexibility you have when dealing with problematic border communities, unique geographical areas or the creation of nonsensical constituencies.
Wales will take the biggest hit in terms of constituencies lost in the next boundary review due to the large population shifts in the last two decades, but a 5% variance will double down on that because it will have a disproportionate impact on Wales due to the unique challenges Welsh geography poses. Wales should be treated fairly and not punitively, so it is crucial that the Boundary Commission for Wales is given greater flexibility to take account of this unique geography. There will always need to be a variance, but I submit that a 15% variance strikes a balance between having constituencies that are broadly equal and ones that reflect the local community and represent their communities. I very much hope that the Minister will accept this amendment so I do not need to press it on Report.
My Lords, I support Amendment 22 in the name of my noble friend Lord Hain, who spoke so impressively in support of it. I will also address the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Foulkes and I particularly warmed to the case made for Cornwall. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that if our amendment relating to Wales is not acceptable, there is nothing to stop similar, parallel amendments being put forward with a case for England, Scotland or, indeed, Cornwall itself. That is in the hands of noble Lords in this Committee or on the Floor of the House on Report. All I would say is that the case for Wales stands out because of the extent of the changes proposed by virtue of the rules being put forward.
I will pick up on one point that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, made about the valley communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, will be familiar with this as well. When I was a councillor in Merthyr before becoming a Member of Parliament, I had good friends who had never been to the Cynon valley, the next valley to the west, or the Rhymney valley, the next valley to the east. That is the nature of the valley communities. It is not because of a closed mentality but because the geography and topology of the area dictates it.
We have already debated the number of seats that Wales should have in the House of Commons and I hope that the Government will give careful thought to that between now and Report. Amendment 22 addresses the other aspect of this issue—the factor that led to Wales having a slightly higher representation than is fair statistically. That does indeed relate to geography and topography and the nature of Wales, the distribution of our population and, in particular, our communities.
As I said at Second Reading, MPs are representatives not delegates. If they were delegates, then, arguably, the number should correspond to the number of electors on whose behalf they cast their votes in the legislative process. If that were the case, they should also reflect the political balance of their constituencies by proportional representation which, of course, the House of Commons has rejected. If MPs are not elected on such a basis, it is quite illogical that their constituencies should be determined by that very dimension.
MPs deliver a service to their constituents. That involves making themselves available to discuss, dealing with individuals and with groups of constituents, a diverse range of issues, and taking them up at Westminster. As MP for Caernarfon, I represented a range of different communities of interest in the 92 towns and villages which made up my then constituency. I had to be reasonably knowledgeable about farming and fishing, manufacturing industry and slate production, river pollution and radioactivity, tourism and higher education, as well as a whole range of social legislation and service delivery. I had 28 community councils all expecting to see me on a regular basis, and I worked very closely indeed with Gwynedd Council, the unitary authority within which my constituency was wholly located. I had to work within the twin structures of UK government departments and the Welsh Office, as then was, and deal with a plethora of all-Wales bodies. I had to discuss and correspond about such issues in two languages, since 84% of my constituents had Welsh as their first language, and I had a five-hour journey each way, each week, between Caernarfon and Westminster.
My point is this. If I had had a compact seat in London, I could have undertaken my duties as MP in far less time than was needed to do so in Caernarvon. For there to be an equivalence in the service afforded by an MP to constituents, there has to be some weighting in the structure of representation. Rural areas, communities for whom London is remote, areas where the structure of government is different and communities of a different nature to those of metropolitan England—all these should have a representational weighting to achieve an equivalence of service delivery. In practical terms, it would be ludicrous, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, emphasised, for a county such as Powys to have only one MP. The south-east of that county looks to Newport and Cardiff for many services, the south-west to Swansea, the north-west to Aberystwyth and Bangor and the north-east to Wrexham. The commission which draws up any new Welsh constituency boundaries should start with the assumption that Powys has two MPs, and the rest should follow from there.
There should be a flexibility in the numerical size of constituencies to allow such a structure, and Amendment 22 goes a long way to provide this. There can never be a perfect answer that fits all circumstances, but I believe there should be some guarantee in both constituency service terms and the coherence of a national voice, of a de minimis representation for Wales in the House of Commons and, within that, the flexibility to make it work for its communities. Amendment 22 offers that possibility and I commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, I will not repeat some of the debate on the previous grouping, when my noble friend Lord Blencathra and I made comments on a number of issues in relation to some of the localities we have discussed today and the scale of geography that different constituencies face. I merely repeat my observation that I have a Cornish father and I was born in Devon, so I have sympathy with and understanding of the emotive issues that that division may generate.
Perhaps I may clarify one point for the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because he was not sure about the balance between the numbers game, to use his phrase, I think, and the influence of local factors. I say this with at least two glass walls between me and the Government Whip, because she may want to hit me for pointing this out. In fact, in the legislation to which I referred, Schedule 2 says that the electorate of any constituency “shall be”, in other words the number is pre-eminent, whereas the requirement to take factors into consideration is described by “may”, as the noble Lord is indicating. Therefore, one has pre-eminence over the other.
On the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others, I have over time, as have many others, sat through many, many hearings and inquiries on boundaries. However, one does not just face the question of communities, geography and history. I have listened to any number of submissions in cities such as Birmingham, London and Manchester where the issues of deprivation, non-registration and English as not the first language all come into consideration. People argue—quite reasonably, and I well understand those arguments—that the numbers should vary on their behalf, as against the geographical arguments that we are facing this afternoon.
I will just make two or three other quick observations. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, is correct up to a point, but one reason why Wales’s constituency total is as it is in comparison with Scotland is that Scotland had a Parliament introduced under the devolution legislation and therefore took a substantial hit to its previous total number of seats; Wales did not. That is why Wales has historically been—if I can use this term, and I cannot think of a better word—overrepresented in comparison with Scotland.
The valleys are a great barrier in Wales. I lived in Wales for a number of years. I was a candidate and lost my deposit in Wales—sadly, a great many years ago. There is no question but that they are a barrier. However, they should not be overemphasised in comparison with some of the other barriers that people face around the country—lochs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred, geography, distance and the like—because some of those valleys are linked in one local council or another. The local government reorganisation—of which year I am not certain—brought a number of those valleys together.
In conclusion, I pass comment on just one other matter that I wanted to identify. It has been suggested that MPs on the Tory side during the previous reviews did not make clear their opposition to the Devonwall constituencies. There is absolutely no doubt: they made their views known not just to the Whips in private. A number of them made comments opposing the proposal of Devonwall constituencies on the Floor of the House. It has been and remains the subject of contention, but it is not that any one particular party that has made those representations: they have come from representatives of all different parties.
My Lords, thank you for letting me speak. As a signatory to the amendment, I should explain a little why I decided to support it. I have lived in Wales for many decades and provided healthcare to some of these communities. The geography is unique and different to the cultural mix in cities in either England or Scotland—I have done exactly the same as a GP in inner-city Glasgow.
Wales currently has 40 constituencies for its 2.3 million registered electorate. Yes, the size of the constituencies is smaller on average or on median size than other nations in the UK, but Scotland’s smallest constituency has half the number of electors of the smallest in Wales. The current boundaries in Wales allow co-terminosity, which helps co-ordination between the Senedd and Westminster. I will return to that relationship between Wales and Westminster in a moment.
To look at this and try to understand it, I spent some time with an Excel spreadsheet to look at the consequences of a rigid numerical approach. A cull of Welsh MPs to provide only 29 would be a 28% reduction in representation from Wales under the 2018 proposals. While maintaining 650 MPs, a leeway allowing a 5% margin on electoral numbers would still lost Wales nine seats—a 23% reduction in MPs. Are the Government determined to alienate their support for the union and fuel separatist nationalism? It certainly looks like that from all their behaviour at the moment. Funnily enough, as far as I can see, England would see only a rise in numbers under the Bill’s proposals.
A 15% lower margin on electorate numbers—I say lower because it is not about raising the 15%—although again hitting Wales hard, would decrease representation from Wales by 5%, or two MPs. However, it would also allow the complexity of the geography and demography to be accounted for. For an MP in Wales to represent an area with difficulties of travelling across large areas where, as we have heard, the sheep really do outnumber the population, it can take over two hours in some parts and around four hours in those same places in the winter. The South Wales valleys are indeed quite distinct zones, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, pointed out, and travelling from one to another requires driving north across the Heads of the Valleys road and down, or south to the M4 and up the valley. While it is reasonable to expect the MPs to do that, the constituents cannot. Many do not have their own car, have care responsibilities and cannot just access a remote MP surgery in an adjacent valley, nor do they identify with that position in an adjacent valley either. Poverty and an elderly population—9.5% is over 75—means that few have IT access to Zoom or Teams, and so on, although I accept that after Covid, that might have improved. However, on all other measures, they will effectively be relatively disenfranchised in relation to UK government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has already pointed out the political message that this is giving. The political message a massive cull of Welsh MPs gives is that Westminster is not concerned about Wales. I wonder whether one solution to meet the Minister’s concern about a 30% range of variance overall would be simply to delete the upward tolerance and allow only a downward tolerance. Without that, this amendment will fuel a narrative that Westminster really would like to see Wales cut off, cut out, and effectively ignored.
My Lords, this is a pretty odd grouping, is it not? You have one amendment on the links between constituencies, one on Devon and Cornwall, and one on Wales. It would have been even worse if I had not insisted on degrouping my amendment on Brecon and Radnor, for which the Committee will pay a price when I introduce it in a few minutes’ time. The grouping is so wide and disparate that I do not have a great deal to add, so I will not.
First, I totally agree with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes about local ties, which seem wholly to have been ignored by the Government in drafting the Bill, and which I will come back to in the Brecon and Radnor context.
Secondly, I totally agree with my noble friend Lord Hain about the underrepresentation of Wales—the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and a few other noble Lords came in behind him. I will say only that even the 15% variant would not deal with the Brecon and Radnor problem; it deals with certain problems but not with that.
Finally, on the epoch-shaking issue of Devon and Cornwall, I am in no doubt about the passions that this stirs in that part of the country, but I know nothing about it or those passions, and therefore I will remain silent.
My Lords, I hesitate to intervene on Welsh and Scottish matters, in particular on the complications of the geography of Wales, beyond saying that of course all the regions of this country have large and disparate constituencies. One of my strongest memories of the early days of the coalition Government was of standing in William Hague’s office in the Foreign Office, discussing with him where exactly it was as you moved from Richmond up Swaledale that you lost mobile phone coverage, and seeing the horrified expression on the face of his private secretary as he realised that the Secretary of State would be unattainable in large areas of his extremely large and remote constituency. Yorkshire also has large constituencies.
On the question of the union as a whole, I will say only that we should all be very worried about its future. I have close relatives who live and work in Edinburgh, and each time I talk to them, I get increasingly concerned about the future of the union. The image they have of a competent Government, who also value international ties, as opposed to the incompetent and English nationalist Government in London, gives me no guarantee that if there were another independence referendum, they would not vote to support independence. We also know the games that are being played over the future of Northern Ireland. I leave it for the Minister to reflect that we have a Government who are playing fast and loose with the union even as the Prime Minister insists that he is doing his utmost to defend it, and we need to be extremely cautious about that.
I most want to focus on Amendment 18, which talks about the importance of retaining local ties. I remind the Minister that the Conservative manifesto last December made no reference to a 5% variation as the limit, but said:
“We will continue to support the First Past the Post system … as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally.”
That is the way one can defend the first past the post system—it is about having a recognisable community which each MP represents and in which the voters are aware of the link between the constituency and the MP. When I first started out in politics, I remember many Conservative MPs who would say, “I represent all the voters in my constituency, not just the ones who voted for me”. That was the old approach to this. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has already said that the important thing is whether you can identify with the constituency you live in. I remember in the 2010 election standing in the middle of the marketplace in Huddersfield, canvassing for the Liberal Democrats, and every other voter who came up to me on market day said, “I live in so and so—can you tell me which constituency I am in?” We are only half way towards the problem that most voters do not know what constituency they live in. If we move boundaries more and more frequently, and more and more without reference to the idea of local community, we are moving away from the principle of the first past the post system.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord True, knows Edmund Burke off by heart, and his references to the importance of localism—of the “little platoons” in which people live. We are in danger of losing that connection. As we lose it, we weaken the connection between the voter and their elected representatives, and we therefore weaken trust in democracy as the idea of politics becomes one of a distant game in Westminster not connected with the voter on the ground.
I fear that the devolution White Paper, when it is published next month, may make that worse. We already have in cities such as Leeds and Bradford local wards which are 12,000 to 15,000 voters per ward. That means of course that in Leeds there are only four wards per constituency, which is one of the reasons why the question of dividing wards up as you adjust the numbers for the Leeds constituency comes up so frequently. Many of these wards used to be entire urban district councils. The gap between the most local elected representative and the voter has already been severely damaged, and I fear that next month’s devolution White Paper will have little to do with devolution but much more to do with weakening local government further. I appeal to the Minister, whose distinguished record in local government I am well aware of, and as someone who cares about local government, to bear in mind how important it is to restore trust in democracy among our voters by recognising that democracy starts at the local level and requires a link between voters, their local community and democracy as such through their elected representatives.
Given that, Amendment 18 is important. We should not lose sight of this. We do not wish to follow the United States down the road where each district is redrawn after almost every election according to partisan forms. Under a Conservative Government we follow American politics far too often in far too many ways. We need politics to regain its sense of the local, the national and the regional. That is why I strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, the case made for respecting communities by implementing the principle of equalisation in a fair and sensible way, as my noble friend Lord Hain put it, is pretty convincing. As I stressed at Second Reading and in Committee, MPs represent and need to know and understand the communities in their patch if they are to be able to speak on behalf of individual constituencies as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, described. The better MPs know the schools, clubs, local authorities, head teachers, councillors, GPs, hospitals, charities and churches in their area, the better equipped they are not just to understand but to sort out the problems brought to them, hence the need to permit the Boundary Commissions, as they set about their work, to respect community ties.
It is obviously writ large in the case of Wales. One part of my family from one valley was Welsh speaking and the other from not many miles away as the crow flies—although a long way by road—was largely English speaking. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said in an earlier debate, we do not want Welsh MPs to have to go up to the Heads of the Valleys, across and then down to the bottom of the next valley in the same seat, a point emphasised today by my noble friend Lord Hain. As has been mentioned, Scotland’s special geography has been recognised in its two preserved seats, as has Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, in this Bill. I used to live in Anglesey. Believe me, it is much faster to cross the Menai Bridge than to travel from one valley to another in the south.
I recognise that I have not served in the Commons and neither has the Minister, but I think we both have enough colleagues who did to know a fair amount about the work of MPs. The amendments in front of us now are partly to help constituents to be well served and partly to help MPs represent those constituencies. They are partly to recognise the importance of communities and partly to give a proper voice to all parts of the union. They are important, and I hope that the Minister will hear what is behind them and be able to respond accordingly.
I do not believe that we have been able to recover the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, so on that basis, I call the Minister.
My Lords, perhaps I should open by congratulating the son of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on his great achievement in the channel. I think many noble Lords know that I am descended from generations of fisherfolk, and genetically the greatest horror I can imagine is finding myself swimming in the open sea, miles from land. I congratulate the team on their extraordinary achievement.
Moving on to the serious business of the amendments, I strongly disagree with the repeated tenor of the remarks made in your Lordships’ Committee that the proposal for a Boundary Commission with permission to have a plus or minus 5%—that is, 10%—tolerance in the size of seats sweeps away, as someone put it, all local ties. I say with respect that that is exaggerated talk. In discussion of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Hayward and I have made no secret of the fact that we believe that having broadly equally sized constituencies is pre-eminent, but there remains an allowance for recognising local ties and geography and so on, and it is to caricature the nature of the Bill or the Government’s objectives to say that it will sweep away local ties.
Without being in any way critical, because I know it is a long-held aspiration of many in your Lordships’ House, I can say only that as we have listened to the debates over the past three days some of these very arguments about local ties have come from people who for many years have argued for massive, multi-member constituencies in the name of proportional representation. There are difficulties in arguing on the one hand that small local ties are important, as I would argue and the Government recognise, while on the other saying that all these constituencies should be swept away and rolled together. I respect everything that everybody says in your Lordships’ Committee, but I note with interest that outside this Committee many of the self-same people have spent many years calling for massive multi-member constituencies.
We have talked on many occasions about tolerance. It is an important issue. There must be some degree of tolerance. There is disagreement in your Lordships’ Committee about what that might be, and that is reflected in the amendments before us. I will come on specifically to the points on Wales, which we have already discussed in this Committee, but it is an extremely important issue. It is not true to say that this Government do not respect Wales or that they are playing fast and loose with the union. Political comment and knockabout are fair enough, but this Government are passionately attached to the concept of our great union and all of us who speak about it should not feed the impression that we think otherwise. I will come back in detail to those points.
Starting with Amendment 18 and the idea that the Boundary Commission should have the ability to ignore the tolerance range wherever, in its opinion, local ties demand a more flexible approach, here the same arguments that we made during our previous discussion of the benefits of limiting the discretion of the Boundary Commission apply. Like many of us, I sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said. He knows very well that if he tugs at the issue of local government, he certainly tugs at my heartstrings, which perhaps shows what a sad individual I am, but he is absolutely right about the importance of local government. Many of us here in your Lordships’ Committee will have had the privilege of serving either a constituency in Parliament or a local authority ward and, whether we have or not, we have all come from a local community. Several of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I, have recognised that somewhere that we represented in our titles. Like every citizen, we feel strongly about those places and about what defines them: their geography, community and particular cultures, as my noble friend Lord Hayward said. I am a historian by training and vocation, and I could never be blind to those issues. These are our local ties; they are important and our experience is rich with them.
However, this amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would place an obligation on the Boundary Commission to judge the respective merits of different local ties and to reward those deemed particularly strong with special treatment by relaxing the rules, but what of the neighbouring constituency where no special treatment applies? Perhaps in the neighbour’s case, the community might fit neatly into the constituency proposed and all within it will be content, but that will not always be the case. It is inevitable that some local communities where ordinary tolerance rules will apply will feel that if only the Boundary Commission understood their character fully, they too could have a different, more appropriate and more generously drawn constituency.
These are the essential ingredients of dispute and challenge, the kind of process that my noble friend Lord Blencathra described for us and that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, drew our attention to in talking of the importance of clarity. They bring a potential to undermine in some ways, and certainly make more difficult, the work of the Boundary Commissions. I repeat that the Bill allows respect for local ties and the Government believe that what is in it is sufficient and the Boundary Commission will respect that.
Amendment 22 seeks to allow the Boundary Commission for Wales to use a tolerance range of 30%—plus or minus 15%. As was powerfully argued by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, the intention is to provide more flexibility to the Boundary Commission for Wales in how it responds to the particular geography of Wales, which in parts is rural and sparsely populated. I do not accept that Wales has been treated, to repeat a phrase that was used, punitively. My noble friend Lord Hayward addressed this point. I and the Government do not believe that equal representation in our Parliament is punitive; it is equal representation, which should apply across England, Wales and Scotland. We all have an equal stake in our union and should be equally represented. Wales, of course, has the great benefit, which England does not, of having its Senedd.
I cannot accept the amendment. As with the other amendments we have discussed, we cannot accept an amendment that will allow a greater degree of variation in the size of considerable numbers of constituencies, in this case only in Wales. We cannot prejudge how the Boundary Commission for Wales might apply this proposed tolerance range, but the result could be that, as was pointed out today, more urban constituencies—for example in Cardiff or Swansea—would have considerably more electors than more rural, less populated constituencies. That variability in electorate size means one thing: voting of differing strengths for the people of different parts of Wales and the people in different parts of the union. Therefore we cannot accept the amendment before the Committee.
I turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and supported by my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth. “Shall Trelawney die?”—in my day at school we used to sing these good old songs. I am fully aware of the passion—the word has been used by others—that is rightly held for the history and spirit of Cornwall and Devon. The noble Lord’s amendment looking at Devon and Cornwall seeks to erect inviolable borders around each of those two counties. I am sure this will find great favour in parts of the south-west. In effect, the amendment treats Devon and Cornwall separately, with their own allocation of constituencies, just like the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Once the allocation for Devon and for Cornwall had been set, presumably using the same method as for the four nations—consequential amendments would be needed to establish this, but I will not go into the technicalities of amendments as we are arguing the issue—it would be for the Boundary Commission for England to propose the boundaries of those constituencies within the boundaries of Devon and Cornwall.
The elevation of two counties could only lead to calls from other counties for similar treatment. What is good for Devon is surely also good for Northumberland or Essex. We might see a queue of applicants forming and a slide towards the fragmentation of our current system. My fisherfolk ancestors lived in Norfolk and Suffolk—the kingdom of Raedwald and the East Angles. Norfolk and Suffolk are pretty jealous about the Waveney. One can imagine those kinds of arguments coming forward if this principle were to be extended.
I will say what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said I would say—I disappointed him on an earlier amendment so I will try to please him on this one by him calling me right. Without prejudging the work of the independent Boundary Commission, and based on current ONS data and a 650-seat Chamber rather than 600, the changes are likely to be far less dramatic. It appears likely that Cornwall will retain its six seats without needing to cross the Cornwall-Devon boundary. Hence I do not believe that this amendment is needed to keep the two counties separate.
Each time you carve out an area of exemption—the Government have recognised the call for that in the case of Ynys Môn in Wales—the work of the Boundary Commissions becomes more complex and constrained and potentially a greater burden is placed on the remaining areas where no exemptions apply. I shall not go into the maths in detail, but it also becomes necessary to put in place mathematical formulae to address the impacts of rounding effects in the allocation of small groups of constituencies. This is not a path the Government wish to follow.
If we wish to achieve one thing with this Bill, it is 650 equal and updated single-Member constituencies providing the electors of the United Kingdom with the confidence that their votes in those constituencies are of equal strength. The tolerance range of 10% and a logical, fair and cautious approach to exemptions are the tools by which we achieve our goals. I repeat that the current tolerance range has previously been agreed by Parliament and that approval has been recently renewed in the other, elected, House. These tools are sufficient and should stand.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his moderate and reasoned response. However, I appeal to him again to look at Amendment 22. By the way, I have never favoured multi-member PR seats; I have always been in favour of the single member alternative vote system, which is fairer. I urge him to listen and read again the excellent contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and her point about fuelling separatist nationalism. We had a Secretary of State for Wales in the 1990s called John Redwood; he was a perfectly nice man personally but he behaved in an arrogant fashion. A lot of people in Wales, despite the moderation the Minister showed in his response, will see this as a punitive measure because Wales has been hit harder than anybody else.
We are not asking for the moon in Amendment 22. It is a moderate, constructive amendment. I and those who have backed it are not seeking to overturn this legislation, whatever our feelings about it or the motivation for it. We are asking the Government to give this to the Boundary Commission for Wales because of the unique circumstances of Wales which have historically always been recognised by Parliament. This is making a break with tradition and history, and the Minister should explain why the universal principle of equalisation, which has applied over the changes in boundary reviews for a long time, has been put on a rigid, straitjacketed altar that affects Wales so uniquely and badly.
There should be a 15% variation for Wales as opposed to 5%. Yes, there will be knock-on implications for England, but it has hundreds of seats—more than 500—whereas Wales has 40, so it will be a bit of impact for everybody as opposed to a massive impact for a few in Wales. I urge the Minister to reconsider this. Otherwise, his Government will reap a bitter harvest in Wales, as happened in 1997 when they lost every single MP because they were perceived as behaving in an arrogant way towards Wales. I do not accuse him of that personally, but I appeal to him to look again before Report at this moderate, constructive amendment proposing a 15% variation as opposed to a much more rigid 5% and see whether he can support it.
My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord enormous hope of a volte-face in the Government’s position. I can say to him and to all members of the Committee on this and other issues that I will read what has been said extremely carefully. It is my duty as a Minister to listen to what colleagues and other noble Lords say here and to reflect on it.
The Government’s position is that of course we want Wales, as all other parts of the United Kingdom, to be well represented. A sense of contact with democracy, which others have referred to in this Committee, is vital. Wales is fortunate in that it has a wonderful, solid tradition of local government out of which some of the greatest politicians in the history of our country have emerged. It has that system of local government and the Senedd with legislative powers over a range of policy areas. It has a strong voice in Westminster, including through the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Welsh Grand Committee and voices on the Benches of this House—we have heard them today—who persuasively make the case for Wales every day.
The Bill does not seek to change any of Wales’s democratic traditions—as if one ever could; we would never wish to do that. It would simply make sure that for UK general elections, wherever a vote is cast across the Union, it will carry the same power in helping to decide who governs our country. That is our position and the one I put to the Committee. Of course, I was not suggesting in any way that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, was guilty of arguing for multi-member constituencies outside this Committee and for micro-activity inside. I think he perhaps knows who I had in mind. I will, of course, reflect and carefully read the wise and heavy words of all those who have spoken. I have no doubt from what I have heard in this Committee that we may well be hearing further discussion of this later in the Bill and on the Floor of the House, where, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, many of us would like to be.
My Lords, I am grateful to members of the Committee for supporting my Amendment 18, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who stressed the constituency link. It reminded me that when I was in a radical mood, as I was when I was a bit younger, I used to say: “Why do we use this term ‘the honourable Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley’? It is very old fashioned”. Someone reminded me that it is a very clear way of reminding people that you represent a constituency. You are not there as George Foulkes, you are there as the honourable member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—that is very important. They do not do the same in the Scottish Parliament; they use individual names, as the Chairman—I nearly called you Ian—knows. In fact, Alex Salmond used to call me Lord Foulkes, using “Lord” as a term of abuse —look what happened to him. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his support and for reminding me of that.
I am even more grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for pointing out exactly what I was trying to say earlier, that “shall” refers to the arithmetic consideration and “may” to the local links. I wanted to turn it the other way around and I am grateful to him for pointing that out.
My noble friend Lord Hain made a very powerful argument on behalf of Wales. I am almost Welsh—I was born in Oswestry. I remember at Gobowen station an announcement that the steam train would go to Llanymynech and Pant. I thought it would breathe heavily at Pant, but Pant, of course, is a town in Wales, as members of the Committee will know, so I know Wales very well. However, I say to my noble friend Lord Hain: “Don’t make the case for Wales at the expense of the case for Scotland”. I was disappointed that he did that.
I remind him that the largest constituency set out by the Boundary Commission for Scotland was Highland North, which is 65% of the size of the whole of Wales. Scotland represents one-third of the land area of the United Kingdom—sparsity, size and difficulty of getting around apply a fortiori to Scotland more than even to Yorkshire, with no disrespect to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, on my left, and to Wales. Please do not give the Government the opportunity to divide and rule. The case for Scotland is strong; the case for Wales is strong as well.
Finally, I have got to know the Minister a lot better as time goes on and he is a very polite and kind man, but he did say that if conflicts arose between one area and another with people arguing for one constituency, then another might lose out as a result. That is precisely what the Boundary Commission is there to sort out. It has to make these judgments in relation to the representations that it receives. I therefore do not accept his explanation—despite the nice way in which he put it. We will no doubt return to this general and particular issue on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdrawn the amendment.
Amendment 18 withdrawn.
Amendment 19 not moved.
Clause 6: Taking account of local government boundaries
Amendment 20 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
We now come to Amendment 21. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate.
Clause 7: Protected constituencies
21: Clause 7, page 5, line 22, at end insert—
“(d) a constituency named Brecon and Radnorshire with identical boundaries to those of the existing Brecon and Radnorshire constituency”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment creates an additional protected constituency to make this seat geographically manageable.
My Lords, Brecon and Radnorshire, let me count the ways I love thee. It was quite a tie to come up to the House to be able to present my case for the constituency in person this afternoon when I saw the weather forecast suggesting 24 degrees today. I believe strongly that it should remain a single constituency, but perhaps more importantly, I have sought the views of the present Member, Fay Jones, as to whether it should be a single seat. All the views of existing Members of Parliament on their constituencies and boundaries have to be taken with a pinch of salt. As an invariable rule, they want no changes in the boundaries unless they think it is going to bring in a lot of extra votes for them, in which case they may well favour changes, but Fay Jones has established herself as a well-liked local representative of the people.
She writes as follows: “Brecon and Radnorshire is an outstanding constituency but it is not without its challenges”—you can say that again. “It stretches from Ystradgynlais”—did I get that right, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter?—“in the south-west corner of the constituency 60 miles north of Swansea to Knighton in the north-east, 10 miles west of Ludlow”. Towns include, “Brecon, Crickhowell, Talgarth, Builth Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Presteigne, Knighton, Rhayader, and Ystradgynlais itself—a huge variety and more than 3,000 kilometres, which is bigger than Luxembourg. I frequently have a 63-mile drive to get from one meeting to the next, taking well over an hour and a half to drive between meetings. Considering the additional challenge of sub-standard broadband and mobile signal, it is still essential to travel to face-to-face meetings as much as possible. Covering such a large rural area takes a huge amount of time and energy and, while I hope I am still young enough to do the role justice, an even bigger constituency may reduce the quality and frequency of the service offered by the Member of Parliament.” I endorse all that.
If the Minister’s position was that the 5% rule was universal and had to apply everywhere, that would be a position that I could respect, though I would not agree with it. However, the Government have driven their own coach and horses through that by designating certain constituencies that do not have to come within the 5% rule. Indeed, that list has been growing. When we started off on this process, it was just the Orkneys and the Western Isles. I know the Western Isles from when I went up as a journalist to cover Calum MacDonald’s campaign there once. It took me a lot longer to get there than it took me to research and write the piece, so I could see the point in that case, but it has since been extended to the two seats in the Isle of Wight and to Ynys Môn. With those extensions, the case has gradually been watered down. It is a 10-minute ferry ride to the Isle of Wight: it is not like going on an airplane to Scotland and then on another one to Stornoway. For Ynys Môn, there is not even an unusual journey to be done: you just get on the Menai Bridge and you are there. If I may make the point, you have to get across the Severn Bridge to get from here to Brecon and Radnorshire. The fact that something is an island is not in itself sufficient to justify it being a separate constituency.
Moreover, Brecon and Radnorshire is a much larger constituency than nearly all of those listed as special cases. Only the Western Isles is bigger, by a smidgen. Of the Isle of Wight constituencies, the largest is 1/20th of the physical area of Brecon and Radnorshire. Furthermore, it requires less messing with electoral quotas. I do not remember the exact figure, but in the Western Isles it is about 20,000 voters. Brecon and Radnorshire would be 57,000 voters, roughly three-quarters of the electoral quota. It does not quite meet my noble friend Lord Hain’s 15% suggestion, but it is not that far out. It is wrong to suggest that it makes a difference that these others are islands, when they are linked so closely to the mainland. It does not make a difference. Compared to the amount of distortion in the Minister’s preferred option of 5% either way, the amount of distortion in the case of Brecon and Radnorshire is much less than in the case of most of those mentioned.
I am a numbers person, but there is more to local ties and local constituencies than simply square mileage. Brecon and Radnorshire has an absolutely fascinating recent political history. I first went there in 1979 as part of the entourage of Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister for whom I worked, in the delightful setting of the Brecon town hall, where he was supporting Caerwyn Roderick, the Labour MP for Brecon and Radnor, who unfortunately did not hold his seat. More recently, there was a by-election there in 1985; the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, would, I am sure, remember it very well. The key things I remember about it were these: first, this was an election that the official opinion polls got totally wrong. There was a poll done by a university down there that got it bang on. I pointed this out in a piece that I wrote for the Sunday Times at the time. Many Members present will recognise this. I then got a phone call from Bob Worcester, whose firm MORI had been responsible for the ghastly, wildly inaccurate poll, berating my extraordinary ignorance for congratulating the people who got it right. That conversation will remain with me for years to come, with many others from the great Bob Worcester.
Secondly, another consequence of the by-election was the return of Richard Livsey. It took some time before that came to affect my life. Richard Livsey was Lord Livsey of Talgarth when he came to this place. I was Lipsey and I lived in Talgarth, unlike him. Day after day, therefore, huge piles of post would arrive for me which were in fact intended for Lord Livsey of Talgarth. The letters did not detain me terribly long, because they were nearly all in Welsh, and I was not able to decipher them before passing them to the great Lord Livsey.
Finally, the constituency entered political history as a result of Chris Davies, the sitting Conservative MP. He was a good friend of mine, but he was unseated by his constituents after losing a legal case and was replaced by a Lib Dem. The Lib Dem was replaced by Fay Jones. This might sound like gossip, but it is a bit more than gossip. Places are a bit more than just registers in town halls. Places have a history and that is the political history of Brecon and Radnor. When you start adding bits to them which have nothing to do with that history, that history is by definition diluted, and therefore the sense of community, which is hard to create in a constituency of that size, is under threat from the additional bits that have popped on to the back of it.
I should probably draw stumps there. Fay Jones and I will be asking for a meeting with the Minister and the Cabinet Office Minister, Chloe Smith, to debate these points with them. As I said, if 5% applied everywhere, it would be difficult to make a special case for Brecon and Radnorshire. However, special cases have been recognised by the Government; there is no reason why they should be confined to islands when there are other anomalous and strong cases such as that of Brecon and Radnorshire. I therefore strongly hope that this evening, preferably—but if not this evening, before Report—the Minister will be persuaded and we shall have news that Brecon and Radnorshire is to be preserved for posterity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for tabling this amendment to add Brecon and Radnorshire to the list of protected constituencies in Wales. It is, as the noble Lord says, a beautiful constituency, with endless miles of green, lush hills and pastures, a few popular and busy market towns, and wonderful historic farmhouses. It is a constituency that I am very familiar with. I have enjoyed every occasion when I campaigned or canvassed there. I can testify to the remoteness of some of the villages and the problems of walking up to the top of hills in an effort to get a mobile phone signal. It also, of course, has the rather dubious honour, as we have heard, of being the largest constituency by area in England and Wales.
The noble Lord’s concerns are understandable, but his concerns reflect those of other constituencies too. Last week, I said how comfortable many felt with the 40 constituencies we have had in Wales since 2010. However, I recall the reactions to the outcome of the 2018 boundary review in north Wales as well. That review proposed that my home constituency of Aberconwy in the north, a reasonably compact constituency with an electorate of some 44,500, was to be replaced by a new Gwynedd constituency, covering the whole of the rural hinterland, from the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in the west almost as far as Denbigh in the east, some 70 miles across, and south as far as Tywyn in Merioneth, some 60 miles away from my home in the Conwy Valley. As is the case with Brecon and Radnorshire, there would not have been a town with a population larger than 10,000 in the constituency. The thought of attracting a candidate brave enough to take on a commitment to such a large area was quite daunting.
I hope the next review will be kinder to north Wales. Whereas the review for the 2010 elections succeeded in producing compact constituencies by linking the more populated coastal conurbations with their rural hinterlands, that option was not available to the 2018 review. The reduction in the number of proposed constituencies in Wales at that time from 40 to 29 and the requirement to create constituencies of equal size put a strain on the options open to the commission.
Key to the hope for a less severe outcome next time in north Wales is the decision to create the protected island constituency of Ynys Môn. The 2018 review had linked the island with the university city of Bangor, across the Menai Straits, in order to create the larger Ynys Môn and Bangor constituency. This had the effect of leaving the rural area of north-west Wales without a major conurbation to help reduce the area of the massive Gwynedd constituency the commission proposed.
I assume that it was this same approach that also led to the proposed formation of the Conwy and Colwyn constituency—an amalgamation of the major coastal conurbations of Llandudno and Colwyn Bay, which also robbed their rural hinterlands of areas of significant population. My hope is that the 2020 review will now be in a position to link rural areas of north Wales to their larger conurbations and create constituencies that make more sense historically, geographically and demographically, even if those new constituencies cover a much greater area than they do now.
The 2018 review also proposed increasing the size of Brecon and Radnorshire by adding part of south Montgomeryshire to it. The noble Lord is obviously seeking to avoid that proposal returning, but the review also proposed increasing the size of Ceredigion by adding parts of north Pembrokeshire and adding south Clwyd to the remaining part of Montgomeryshire, creating the mega-constituencies the noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned earlier. Each of these mid-Wales constituencies could make an equally valid claim to become a protected constituency, but I think that each of them realises that protection for one constituency, in these circumstances, can have a negative knock-on effect on its neighbours.
Now, with 32 or more seats to create, rather than the 29 proposed in 2018, there is some hope that the Boundary Commission for Wales will have slightly more room to manoeuvre and will have the opportunity, I hope, to deliver a better balanced outcome.
I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey. Brecon and Radnorshire is the largest constituency in Wales and England by area, with a population of around 69,000 and an electorate of 53,000. It is a rural area with a small population, and to get the numbers up to the quota suggested would mean having a constituency that would cover an even larger area of Wales.
Brecon and Radnor at the moment is a very big constituency, stretching from Ystradgynlais in the south—which is the largest town with a population around 9,000—to Presteigne in the north. It is a round trip of around 300 miles. I know as I have done it. I spent much time driving around the constituency when I was a Labour Party organiser. I used to enjoy the scenery very much. The drive over the Brecon Beacons is probably the most scenic you can find, I would have thought. The beauty is outstanding.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey reminded us of the 1985 by-election. I was the Labour agent at the time, so I spent many weeks there appreciating how big the constituency was and the long distances one had to travel. I do not know if the Minister has ever been there. I suggest he pays a visit. Not only would he have a great time, but he will appreciate the argument for retaining the present boundaries.
Today, even with all the new technology, the MP needs to be seen and constituents need access to their MP. It is already difficult for the MP to serve his or her constituency because of the size. A geographically larger constituency would only increase that difficulty, not only for the MP but also for political parties to organise elections and communicate with the electorate.
One of the features of a democratic system is that the elected Member is accountable to the residents of the constituency they serve, not just the electorate. How much more difficult will that be if these boundaries in Brecon and Radnor are extended? I believe it reduces the voice of people in the area. There is a fear in Wales that we are going to lose a lot of seats. It is important for constituencies such as Brecon and Radnorshire that we can maintain the present boundaries. I hope the Minister will accept this amendment and keep Brecon and Radnorshire as a protected constituency.
My Lords, I will be brief because I do not have the power to reminisce like my noble friend Lord Lipsey or the recollections of my noble friend Lady Gale of traversing the constituency and seeing more sheep than people and presumably getting more and more frustrated as election day dawned.
My great-grandfather was born in mid-Wales, and I have a great affection for the area. I primarily put my name to this amendment because it demonstrates, if nothing else, the absurdity of having rigid numerical targets for the impositions of the Boundary Commission and then exempting islands and Ireland from the requirement while constituencies with 3,000 square kilometres are left to fend for themselves in arguing the case for a balance between the size and rurality of the constituency and the logic of being able to represent people adequately with individuals able to make contact with their constituency MP other than on Zoom or by text.
It seems to me that the Government have put the Boundary Commission in an impossible situation. The only thing I can say about the debates we have been able to have —and they have been extremely powerful, including earlier this afternoon—is that it might help the commissioners and those doing the leg work for the commission to understand much more powerfully just what the challenges on the ground are. I hope by the time they get the final remit that the Government will have adjusted their requirements and whatever amendments we are able to pass on Report will be kept in the House of Commons. Without them, we are going to get some absolute absurdities and contradictions. Speaking to this amendment and highlighting the position of Brecon and Radnorshire is a way of demonstrating that a little common sense should apply. I understand that we are nudging nearer to greater parity of numbers across the bulk of the country but we should stick rigidly to giving power to the Boundary Commission to make sense of local requirements.
My Lords, there have been some very powerful contributions on what looked like a very small problem, although it is for a very big area. I know this constituency quite well. One of my brothers has lived there for over 60 years, and I spent a great deal of time in the company of my splendid colleagues Richard Livsey and Roger Williams, both of whom will be well known to many Members of your Lordships’ House and, no doubt, to the Welsh Members of this Grand Committee. They were both very effective MPs for that constituency. Knowing that area, I have great sympathy for the arguments that have been made. However, I will underline and reinforce the point made by my noble friend Lady Humphreys.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, we will now resume the debate on Amendment 21. However, before we do, I will explain what has happened for the benefit of those who have been joining remotely. In the building, the Division Bells alerted us to a Division, and I adjourned the proceedings. Unfortunately, however, my adjournment was not heard and, as a consequence, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was not informed that it had happened and he continued with his remarks, for which we owe him an apology. We therefore invite him to repeat his remarks so that we may hear them. Although they were still being spoken, they were drowned out by the bell and various other elements. Therefore, if the broadcast hub can return us to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, we will invite him to repeat his remarks.
I am very grateful. It was in fact a complete mystery to me that the House was voting, because in preparation for my speech I had, correctly, turned off my iPhone, so there was absolutely no way I could have known that a Division was taking place. If any Members of the Grand Committee have already heard anything of what I have said, I apologise most sincerely. The repetition will probably be quite different, because I was seeking to respond to the debate that had taken place, rather than just to read some prepared remarks.
I know the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency quite well. My brother has lived there for more than 60 years. I went there on a number of occasions to support Richard Livsey and Roger Williams, distinguished Members of Parliament there. I spent a lot of time with local farmers there, understanding only something of what they were saying, because my Welsh is non-existent, and I found it extremely important to know something of the communities to which other Members have referred.
The whole way in which this debate has taken place has emphasised two really important propositions for general consideration as we continue discussions about the Bill. First, it is a classic case where local circumstances should determine some important decisions by Boundary Commissions. That would apply elsewhere. Secondly, as my noble friend Lady Humphreys said, there are implications for adjoining constituencies, in mid-Wales certainly, and in north Wales as well. I know that other members of the Grand Committee will share that view.
Once you start making a special provision for any constituency it has implications, but, as has also been said, once the Government have decided in their wisdom that there will be protected constituencies, for whatever reasons and whatever they will be, they have to admit that there is a perfectly acceptable proposition that the 5% margin will not be universally applied. That is extremely important for the discussion we had at Second Reading and in the Grand Committee. It is clear that Members on all sides of the Committee are very uneasy about the approach currently in the Bill.
I want to be absolutely clear that when there was a discussion in 2011 on the previous Bill—I was involved in the discussions with our Conservative Party colleagues and partners in the coalition—there was no principled adoption of 5%: absolutely the opposite. There was a pragmatic, political discussion about whether it would be more appropriate to move to 10% and it was only the resistance of the Prime Minister at the time, who did not wish the House of Lords to make the running on this issue, that stopped 10% being accepted universally throughout the United Kingdom as a variance to either side, plus or minus, of the quota.
The noble Lord, Lord True, referred again to the Conservative manifesto this afternoon. The manifesto makes no reference to any percentage, certainly not to 5%, so the idea that somehow the country has voted to limit the variance to 5% is simply unacceptable. Even in current circumstances, when manifesto commitments in other directions are being torn up, there is no commitment here to tear up, so I hope that it will be possible for the Government, and the Minister in particular, to look again at the very powerful and persuasive arguments that have been put forward in Grand Committee and by so many Members at Second Reading that 5% is simply too limited and too inflexible and should be removed.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for his understanding. If something is worth saying, it is worth saying twice. I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.
I am not sure whether the Deputy Chairman is inviting me to say everything I am about to say twice, but I will try to refrain from doing so.
I welcome this debate. It illustrates the fallacy of trying to achieve arithmetic equivalence with no recognition of geography, travel habits, infrastructure, community or even the work of an MP in representing her or his constituents and constituency—I make that distinction between the two. We are talking here of a constituency of 3,000 square kilometres—it is larger than Luxembourg—so representing it is already a challenge, not just for the MP who has a 60-mile drive between meetings but for political parties which need to function along constituency lines. Brecon and Radnorshire may have a small number of voters, but it is very big not just in its heart but in geography, as its MP said, from my home town of Ystrad in the south to Knighton in the north-east, much of it with scant access to public transport. I have never done it myself, but my noble friend Lady Gale says it is about a 300-mile round trip. I hope she was not enjoying our views too much when she was driving at that time. So it is very different from my present home in Hackney where it is still possible to beat the bounds, albeit I do it on a bicycle these days—a mode of transport that now defeats me in Wales.
It is already difficult, as we have heard, for the MP to serve this constituency as it is. A larger one would not only be more challenging travel-wise but would break the pattern of travel, which, as we have heard, is currently up and down the valleys and not across mountains. Organising meetings with constituents, interest groups, local councillors and Senedd Members—or organising elections—would be near impossible, with simply no public transport reaching across the constituency.
As I said earlier today and emphasised at Second Reading, MPs do not just represent constituents but communities. An expansion which took the constituency into different places of work with different schools, served by different local authority areas with different histories and even different dominant languages would make relating to all the relevant interest groups and organisations really hard to achieve—particularly when involving different local authorities and a greater spread of elected representatives. Understanding the community, its rhythms, employments, schools, charities, welfare clubs—where we come from it is choirs—is as vital a part of MPs’ work as the casework they turn to every weekend. That is partly because, as I said earlier, dealing with that casework means you need to know the organisations in your constituency.
It is a very rural area, as we have heard, and has a low population. To achieve the quota, even if it were amended, it would have to cover very different areas, possibly Montgomery, as was suggested last time.
As has been said by others, it has been accepted that islands are a special case and that constituencies should not cross water. I have to say, mountains are as high as rivers are deep, and communities have been built up along valleys, not across hills. I look forward to hearing from the Minister—I wonder whether she will take up the suggestion to come and visit the place—how an even larger constituency will serve the needs of the good people of Brecon and Radnorshire.
I thank all noble Lords for their comments this afternoon on Wales in general and on Brecon and Radnorshire in particular. As I have already stressed, I understand how strongly your Lordships feel about particular parts of the country and about protecting the voices of the communities that dwell there.
Having spent 25 years in local government and gone through many boundary changes in my divisions, I understand how difficult it is. I also understand that there are opportunities to explain to the Boundary Commissions about local priorities, communities and transport links, and I understand that they listen. Not all is lost. Every MP and councillor will think that their particular constituency or division is unique.
The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, responds to the geography and rurality of mid-Wales by proposing a protected constituency covering the area currently covered by the existing constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. Here, the tolerance rules would not apply. I have heard the passion for this constituency from almost every noble Lord. Interestingly enough, I also know this area very well. I have sold many sheep—Black Welsh Mountain, torddus and torwens—in Builth Wells over a number of years. I have also spent many very happy weekends at the Royal Welsh Show in this constituency. I know how rural it is and how difficult it is to get around there. I was particularly moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, saying “I love thee”. That is how many of us feel about the places we grow up in and live for the rest of our lives.
Just like many other rural parts of the UK, the rural character of parts of Wales can generate a small number of larger constituencies in places, and Brecon and Radnorshire is currently the largest. This amendment would remove that constituency from the tolerance regime and fix it at its current electoral size, which is approximately 55,000. That is over 15,000 less than the UK average.
There is no doubt that rural constituencies present their own challenges, particularly in terms of travel for constituents—we have heard a lot of that from noble Lords, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Gale —and their MPs, but that truth would also apply elsewhere, in East Yorkshire or North Antrim, for example. It also applies to Montgomeryshire, right next door. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, the size of some of the constituencies in Scotland is far, far greater.
I remind your Lordships that the Government’s manifesto commitment is to deliver updated and equal constituencies. We have heard that many times in this Committee. There are some unique geographical locations where tolerance cannot reasonably be applied and where a protected constituency is merited, but there are only five of them. They are all islands with considerable populations. Ynys Môn is an island, but it is also of sufficient size. These islands are separated from the mainland by sea and with the accessibility challenges that come with that.
To ensure equality for the electors of the United Kingdom, our approach to protected constituencies must be a sparing one. If we were now to add Brecon and Radnorshire to that short list of protected island constituencies, we would not have to wait very long for several other rural constituencies of a similar size in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to join the queue, and with good cause. Much of the debate of this amendment has gone back to the tolerance levels. However, I think my noble friend Lord True answered these queries in the debates on previous amendments extremely well and I do not intend to repeat his arguments.
The Government believe strongly that equal constituencies and equal votes are important to our democracy. This is not a queue that we wish to form, and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
We have had no requests to speak after the Minister so I call on the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and particularly those who have spoken twice. I will make one point. The Minister expressed her support for the existing exceptional constituencies and said that Ynys Môn was of sufficient size. Not only is it a quarter of the size of Brecon and Radnorshire in geographical area, it has 51,925 electors as opposed to Brecon and Radnorshire’s 55,490. If Ynys Môn is of sufficient size, so is Brecon and Radnorshire.
This may have been an oversight by the Minister, but I did say that I and the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire would like to have a further conversation before Report. It would be extremely kind if the Minister were able to give an assurance that that request will be seriously and positively considered. Subject to that, I wish to withdraw my amendment.
Does the Minister wish to come back on that point?
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Clause 7 agreed.
Amendments 22 and 23 not moved.
Clause 8: Registers used to determine the “electorate” in relation to the 2023 reports
Amendment 24 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clauses 9 to 13 agreed.
Clause 14 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
That concludes the Committee’s proceedings on the Bill. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room. Thank you.
Committee adjourned at 5.16 pm.