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As we have already set out, voters will, by virtue of our new rule 37A, rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference by marking 1 against their first preference, 2 against their second preference and so on. It is important for Members who were not present for the debate on amendment 62 to recognise that it is the optional preferential system, so voters do not have to vote for all candidates; they can vote for as many or as few as they wish. That differs from the version used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives, where voters are required to rank all candidates in order of preference. The Australian experience is bandied about quite a lot, but it is important for Members to recognise that although there are some similarities, this is a different system from that used in Australia.
New rule 45A sets out how the votes are to be counted. Candidates must secure more than 50% of the votes in the count to be elected, so if, following the counting of voters' first preferences, a candidate has secured more than 50% of the votes in the count at that stage, he or she is declared the winner and is elected-and I am sure greatly relieved. If there is no winning candidate at that stage, a further stage of counting would be required. Paragraph (3) of new rule 45A provides that the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the counting process and each vote originally allocated to them will be reallocated to a candidate remaining in the count according to the next preference expressed on the ballot paper. If, after that stage, a candidate has more votes than the remaining candidates put together-so more than 50% left in the count-he or she is elected. If there is no winner at that stage, the counting process continues until someone has more than 50% of the votes remaining in the count and is declared the winner.
New rule 45B sets out what information the returning officer makes available about the progress of the count at the end of each counting stage, except at the final counting stage, at which the candidate is elected and the result is declared under rule 50. That makes sure that everyone knows what is going on. In answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I have already set out how the order-making power works.
I hope that Members are clear in their mind about which form of AV the Government are proposing that we ask voters about. It strikes me that there is a job of work to be done during the campaign, because although Members are probably relative anoraks when it comes to understanding electoral systems-after all, that is how we get here, and we all have electoral systems very close to our heart-there was a fair bit of confusion this afternoon about how amendment 62 would work, and how the AV system will work as set out in clause 7, so whatever side of the debate we shall be on in the electoral campaign, I think we all have our work cut out. I would therefore ask that clause 7 stand part of the Bill, so that we can move closer to the day when it gets Royal Assent and we can engage in that referendum campaign.
Chris Bryant: I think we have discovered another problem in the clause, have we not, in relation to what the Minister just said. He said that the Minister would not be bringing AV forward so that it affected any by-elections next year. However, clause 7 is the implementing element of the Bill and it hangs on clause 6, which says that the Minister must put all of this into operation by virtue of an order; and he is now saying that it is not stated anywhere in the Bill that that would happen at the next general election, rather than immediately. Let us say that there is a yes vote in May 2011 and there is a by-election at the end of May or in June or July, which is perfectly possible-or for that matter several by-elections-the Minister's decision as to whether or not to bring in the order would almost certainly end up being challenged in the courts, because it is nowhere explicit in the Bill. So I am afraid that I do not find his answers sufficient. For that matter, I know he is relying on the word consequential in rule 45B(4), which states that the amendments have to be consequential. However, I know from our own time in government that the word consequential can be something of a weasel word, and some people try to slip larger things in than perhaps they should. I agreed with him when he used to condemn such matters.
"The Minister must make an order bringing into force section 7, Schedule 6 and Part 1 of Schedule 7 ('the alternative vote provisions') if-
(a) more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer 'Yes' than in favour of the answer 'No', and
(b) the draft of an Order in Council laid before Parliament under subsection (5A) of section 3 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act...has been submitted to Her Majesty".
In other words, this system will come into force, if there is a yes vote in the referendum, once the order has been brought in implementing the new electoral boundaries. If by-elections were to be held, they would be for constituencies with the old boundaries, not with the new ones, so I think I was accurate in the way I set out the position.
Chris Bryant: No, I do not think the Minister was, because he is relying on what happens in the rest of the Bill. Anyway, we are not convinced by the Minister's presentation of his case on the clause, so we will be pressing the clause to a vote.
Mr Harper: These Government amendments-following our debate yesterday-genuinely fall into the technical category. Their purpose is to set out the procedure in the parliamentary election rules for determining which candidate is to be elected when only two candidates stand at an election under the alternative vote system and they receive the same number of first-preference votes. The amendments would provide for the returning officer to decide by lot which of the two candidates was to be elected.
Under the current first-past-the-post system, a tie between candidates is resolved by the returning officer drawing lots. Under the alternative vote system, the situation might arise whereby during the count either two or more candidates at a particular counting stage had the same number of votes or at the final counting round the two remaining candidates had the same number of votes. The provisions in paragraph 7 insert new rules 49 and 49A into the parliamentary election rules to deal with those circumstances. If the tie were at the first counting stage, on first-preference votes, lots would still have to be used to decide the outcome. If the tie occurred at a later counting stage, under the alternative vote system the use of preferences would allow the returning officer to refer to previous stages and use those preferences to make the decision.
The drafting of new rules 49 and 49A does not specifically cover the unlikely situation in which there are only two candidates at the outset who receive the same number of votes, but we thought it sensible to ensure that that possibility was clearly addressed to avoid any doubt. The Government have therefore tabled the amendments to ensure that rule 49A deals with the possibility of that situation and provides for the winner to be elected by drawing lots. I hope that Members are content with that.
We touched on this issue during our debate about clause 7, but it is worth saying that clause 7 deals with the two key aspects of the election under the alternative vote system-how votes are cast by voters and how they are counted. Schedule 6 sets out further amendments to the parliamentary election rules and other aspects of electoral law that would be required to hold a UK parliamentary election under the alternative vote. The changes reflect the fact that the election would be held under a preferential voting system. They touch on the ballot paper and guidance for voters; how we conduct recounts; how we decide whether the ballot papers are rejected; how we deal with candidates with the same number of votes-I have just set out our amendment on that; how the result is declared; a candidate's deposit; and a number of other changes.
I am content for any member of the Committee to ask me questions on those measures, but I do not see anyone rising to their feet immediately. I urge Members to accept the Government's amendments and to agree to the schedule.
The schedule makes a number of other very important amendments to the law that pertains to the election, and they, along with the other measures that we discussed in clause 7, will come into force when the Minister tables the order that follows a yes vote in the referendum. Some of the provisions are pretty straightforward. For instance, the notice that is normally exhibited on the ballot paper under the existing system says, "Vote for one candidate only". Obviously, that would be thoroughly misleading if we were to adopt the alternative vote system, because it would point out precisely what the voters had not to do.
"Do not use the same number more than once.'"
I presume that if a voter did use the same number more than once, that would invalidate a vote. I presume that if somebody voted 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, that would invalidate the vote at the point that one reached the second preference, because one would not be able to determine the second preference, even if there had been some other strange means of adding to it.
Thomas Docherty: This is obviously a very technical and complex debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is exactly why, in the next version of this Bill, the Government have to give way on the issue of the same date for the Welsh and Scottish elections in 2015? The potential for confusion is far too great.
As I have said previously, one difficulty that we as a Committee have in debating the Bill is that we do not know the precise amendments that the Government are going to table on the combination of polls in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We do not yet know what the law-as the Government expect it to be in relation to those three territorial departments-will be, because the statutory instruments have not been tabled. That makes it difficult for us to imagine exactly what a polling station is going to look like when somebody goes in. However, the measures in the schedule do not
affect the conduct of the referendum next May, but rather the conduct of an election at a subsequent date once there has been a successful yes vote in a referendum and the measure has been introduced.
Thomas Docherty: I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being clear enough. I was referring to the 2015 elections, where we will have the additional member system in Scotland, as well as first-past-the-post and the AV system, if the Government do not give way. Would it not have been better to have one single Bill for fixed terms and for these provisions instead of this mish-mash of two Bills?
Chris Bryant: That is a good point, although I have not yet given up on the idea that the Government's Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will end up with a five-year rather than a four-year parliamentary term, which would be more advisable and acceptable, I suspect, to this House and the other place. If there were to be a combination of simultaneous parliamentary elections in Scotland for this House and for the Scottish Parliament, and in Wales for this House and for the Assembly, operating under different electoral systems, both of which involved writing "1, 2, 3, 4, 5", there would be capacity for confusion, and polling stations could be a rather complex area for voters to enter. Unfortunately, we are not able to have that provision in this Bill because the Government have decided to bring forward not a great reform Act but little tiddly bits of reform as they can be spatchcocked into Bills to appease both sides of the coalition.
Under paragraph 5, the system for recounts will be changed to allow for a recount to happen at any stage in the voting process. That is obviously a sensible measure. If, say, five candidates were standing and the person in fifth place is there by only two or three votes, they will want to have a recount to make sure that they really are the person who should be eliminated at that stage. I remember that when I stood in 1997 in High Wycombe-not traditionally a safe Labour seat; in fact, the Conservatives had a majority of 18,000-there was a recount in the ballot, and on a night when many Conservative seats fell, my friends thought, "Blimey, it looks as if Bryant has won High Wycombe." In fact, I had not come anywhere near to winning; it was all about whether somebody else-the Green candidate, I think-had lost his deposit.
Under the schedule-it is also animadverted to in the clause that we have just debated-there is to be a public announcement at each stage of the process, so at each point where there is an elimination the returning officer gets everybody together to agree, "Yes, this is the person who is being eliminated, these are the votes that have been cast, these are the second preferences as they have been cast, this is the number of non-allocated ballots," and so on. I am concerned about that, because there has been a growing tendency for the presumption of secrecy during the counting process to be completely ignored, with many broadcasters and journalists asking candidates on the night, in the middle of the count, to reveal what is happening in the process. That is a disturbing trend, particularly in relation to postal ballots. At some counts, the returning officer has decided not to validate the postal ballots separately but to put them in with all the others so that nobody can start doing what every political
party does-the sampling process-and then say, "It was the postal ballots that won this election," or otherwise. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that, particularly as it might apply in the process as it develops.
If we have public announcements at every stage, are we not letting the secrecy of the ballot run away with us? It has sometimes been difficult to get all the agents and candidates together for announcements, and it might take some considerable time to arrive at an election result if one had to go through the whole process at each stage. I understand, however, that according to the schedule there can also be a recount at the end of the process, as long as the final result has not yet been announced. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will enlighten me.
"A ballot paper on which a number is marked elsewhere than in a proper place shall not be deemed to be void for that reason alone."
"A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which...is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but...is not a number (or is a number written otherwise than as an arabic numeral), shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number (written as an arabic numeral) has been marked instead",
is an important element of what we are guaranteeing. In the transition from the existing system to the new system, assuming that there is a yes vote, if a voter still has not quite understood the system, or, for that matter, is a conscientious objector to the new system and therefore wants to vote only with their first preference and chooses to do so with an X, a tick, or as the Minister frequently says-I am not sure if that is because he votes in this way-with a smiley face, then we should allow them to do so.
We are fully supportive of the Minister's amendments, which seem to make sense in the way that he has described. I hope that he will be able to answer the questions that I have asked in the course of my comments. Otherwise, I see no reason why the schedule should not stand part of the Bill.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman seems to be mostly concerned about publicity in relation to the declaration of results. Rule 45B in clause 7 requires the returning officer to "make publicly available" specified information, so that information will be public not only to those at the count-the agents and so forth-but to the media and everybody else. He refers to an increasing trend for people to set out the partial results of elections before the result is declared. He will know that that is an offence. I shall not name the person, but there was a parliamentary candidate-a Member of this House-who did that on Twitter and was suitably chastised. However, I do not think it is a widespread situation that people are publicly making declarations or suggestions about the results of general elections. If they were to do so, that would be an offence.
Chris Bryant: I am not sure that that is right. I know about the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Because of the practice of sampling, which happens when returning officers verify the postal votes separately, I have frequently heard people say-indeed, I have heard it in this House-that a seat was won or lost solely by virtue of the postal votes. I would have thought that that was an offence.
Mr Harper: I am not going to get into what may or may not be an offence. The hon. Gentleman may well be right. I thought that he was citing the situation whereby people have referred to results before the result was declared, which is clearly more significant. Because of the nature of the alternative vote, one cannot just wait until the final result but must say what is going on at each stage. The Bill makes it clear that that will be publicly declared so that everybody knows what is going on.
"a candidate or candidate's election agent...may request the returning officer to have the votes re-counted".
In the same way as under our current rules, that would be not a demand but a request that could be made. It would ultimately be up to the returning officer to grant it, unless they thought it unreasonable. Of course, the returning officer themselves could choose to have a recount if they thought there were problems with how the count had progressed.
"(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.".'.
determine that the difference between the registered electorate and the assessed numbers eligible to be registered is so significant as to give rise to concern about the number of people to be served within such constituencies as would otherwise be created by rule 2(1) above.'.
Chris Bryant: I presume that once we have been through the amendments, we might then have a clause stand part debate, but maybe you will wish to return to that matter later, Mr Gale, having seen how the debate proceeds.
As the Committee will know, we are now moving into part 2 of the Bill, and into what I believe to be its directly partisan elements. Clause 8 provides for a complete change in how the boundary commissions will proceed, and particularly in the speed with which they will produce their reports. The Government say in subsection (3):
"A Boundary Commission shall submit reports under subsection (1) above periodically...before 1st October 2013, and...before 1st October of every fifth year after that."
The last part of that presumes that another Bill that is currently going through the House, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, will not only be carried but remain precisely as it stands. It assumes that we will have five-year Parliaments.
I have pointed out before to the Deputy Prime Minister that the average length of a British Parliament in peacetime since 1832 has been three years and eight months. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some five-year Parliaments, not least the previous one and the final Parliament of John Major's Government, for the most part the British political system has tended to move more or less in a three and a half to four and a
half-year cycle. It would make far more sense for us to proceed on the basis of a four-year Parliament than a five-year Parliament, especially since I find remarkably few instances of the latter around the world.
The existing process for boundary reviews is that they proceed on a seven-year basis. That is partly because after the Triennial Act 1641 originally provided for three-year Parliaments, there was later a move to seven-year Parliaments. As a result of the Parliament Act 1911, Parliaments were changed to five years, but without a change in the seven-yearly boundary reviews.
The assumption has always been that the boundary commissions in each nation of the UK are independent. That has not changed, except that an overriding provision is to be arrived at before each national commission considers the matter. The Government intend that there should be boundary commission reports on the whole country by 1 October 2013 and subsequently every five years. Our amendment would leave out the words "before 1st October 2013" and insert
"within twelve months of Part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010"-
"coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof",
We believe that given the provisions that have been put together, not least those in clause 9 about the number of seats, it is a pretty tall order for the boundary commissions to achieve a review by 2013. Some argue that the six or seven years that they have previously taken is too long and carries the risk that population movements in the meantime are not taken into account. I have some sympathy with that view, and it may be possible to expedite a boundary review, but that would require additional resources. I ask the Minister who responds-I presume it will be the Deputy Leader of the House-what resources there will be.
Why are the Government proposing to have a review conducted in less than three years? After all, it would not even be a standard boundary review. They are proposing arguably the biggest, most controversial and most complicated redrawing of constituency boundaries since the departure of Irish MPs in 1921. The reason why the 1832 Great Reform Act is the largest Bill sitting rolled up in the parliamentary archives in the Victoria Tower is that it goes through each parliamentary constituency in the land in detail, making provision for each. The current Bill, however, will give the boundary commissions carte blanche and demand a review with a swiftness that may mean it does not meet the political necessities of the British constitution.
The Government intend to do all that, of course, on the basis of an entirely new set of inflexible mathematical rules that will mean factors such as geography, history and community being completely and utterly gazumped by the need to adhere unbendingly-or, to be fair to the Government, not entirely unbendingly but only very slightly bendingly-to a higher electoral quota. We will discuss that when we come to clause 9. If there were ever a case for arguing that seven years is an appropriate period for redrawing constituency borders, it is now, because every single constituency in the land is to be redrawn.
Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is right that the boundaries be redrawn, whether in three years or seven? Does he agree that it is almost absurd and bizarre that Labour can secure 70% of the MPs from Scotland with 42% of the vote? Surely that is wrong and must be challenged.
Chris Bryant: Obviously I would love Labour to secure every single seat in Scotland, but I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to entice me to talk about proportional systems, which are not the material of part 2. As he knows, I believe that there is a case for reform and for redrawing boundaries, but how do we decide how that should be done? More importantly in the context of clause 8, we have to consider what time should be allocated for a boundary commission to be able to carry out a review in a genuinely independent way that meets political needs. I understand that he may believe that the boundaries in Scotland are currently drawn up so as to benefit Labour over the Scottish National party, but I am not sure whether that is true.
Pete Wishart: That is exactly what I contend. It takes many fewer electors in Scotland to elect a Labour MP than one of any other party. The reason why I believe a boundary review is necessary is that there is something wrong with the fact that 42% of the voters in Scotland can elect 70% of its MPs. Surely that cannot be right. As a fair man, surely the hon. Gentleman will concede that it is wrong.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman knows that in majoritarian systems, there is a disproportionate benefit for parties that get beyond 40% of the vote. That is a simple fact, so in a sense, his argument is partly in favour of a change to the electoral system, which I am sure he supports, although I suspect he supports a fully proportional system rather than the one subject to the referendum. However, it is not true to suggest-as we read in some of the propaganda-that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative or Liberal MP. [ Interruption. ] I am not denying that that has happened, but it does not happen because of the drawing of the boundaries. It sometimes takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because of the tendency of likely Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters to live in certain areas.
Gavin Barwell: Has the hon. Gentleman seen the report by the British Academy entitled, "Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom"? It finds that a number of factors give rise to the apparent bias in the electoral system, but that constituency boundaries were worth 18 seats to the Labour party at the last general election. He is right to say that there are a number of factors, including the distribution of the vote, but Labour seats are smaller on average than Conservative seats. That independent analysis found that that was worth 18 seats to Labour at the last general election. Has he seen that report and would he like to comment on it?
Chris Bryant: I have seen the report and I agree with some elements of it. I agree with the bits that agree with me and disagree with the bits that disagree with me and that are unhelpful to my argument. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of the bits of the report that is not helpful to my argument, so I was not going to refer to it.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Contrary to the evidence offered by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) might be aware that some extensive work by the university of Liverpool that was reported on "Newsnight" in the third week of August showed that the proposed mathematical formula and the arbitrary reduction from 650 to 600 seats would result in a 13% loss for the Liberal Democrats, a 10% loss for the Labour party, but only a 4% loss for the Conservatives.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman must do a little better in explaining why he does not accept that analysis. If, as the independent British Academy report suggests, the current boundary system favours the Labour party, albeit in a minor way, does he accept that it is unreasonable to allow that unfairness to continue, and does he agree that it should be addressed before the next general election?
Chris Bryant: There are a lot of misconceptions in relation to the supposed benefits or otherwise of the system to the Labour party. For instance, I heard frequently during the general election-this is before Cleggmania rose and fell-that the system was unfair because the Conservatives would need to be 10 points ahead to gain a majority. That is not precisely the hon. Gentleman's point, which I will come to in a moment, but many people forget that the difference between winning an election and winning a majority is significant in our system. However the boundaries are drawn, the moment a party gets over the 40% mark in a majoritarian system such as ours, it tends to do rather better than its share of the vote would suggest.
Mr MacNeil: The reason why parties or people do well in a majoritarian system when they get more than 40% of the vote is that the first-past-the-post-system was really designed for two players. A third or fourth player complicates first past the post and renders it idiotic, but for chaos theory.
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's pronunciation of the word "renders", but other than that, I am not sure I agree with his point. It is true that in elections in the previous century, the Conservative and Labour parties secured something like 95% or 96% of the vote and that in the last election, we secured considerably less than that. That is one reason why we ended up with a hung Parliament. However, I do not see how that bears on my point, which is that in a majoritarian system, once a party gets more than 40% of the vote-many
think that this is the great benefit of that system-it tends to find it rather easy to get not just a majority, but a fairly hefty one.
Graham Stringer: We can try to work out how many votes it takes to elect a Scottish National party MP or a Labour MP, but the distribution of seats, turnout and the number of candidates standing are bigger factors than boundaries. My hon. Friend and I would have no objection to a quick boundary review if it were seen to be fair, and if there were a right of appeal against Boundary Commission decisions.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes precisely the point that I have laboriously tried to make, and far more succinctly. He is right that a wide range of factors pertain to the different number of votes it takes to elect Labour and Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats are not in contention in a large number of seats in the country but none the less gain 15% or 20% of the vote nationally. They accumulate a lot of votes around the country, but do not necessarily secure seats in the House of Commons. That is one function of the majoritarian system. I do not think that the number of votes necessary for election indicates fairness or unfairness in relation to drawing the boundaries. Short of gerrymandering the boundaries so that the pockets of Lib Dem voters around the country ended up in the same constituencies, we would be unable to overcome that element of unfairness.
Gavin Barwell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a third time. I completely agree with his argument on the number of voters that it takes to elect MPs from certain parties. However, for the benefit of hon. Members who have not seen it, the British Academy report shows that the average electorate in Labour seats is significantly lower than the average electorate in Conservative seats. Even after we strip out factors such as turnout and the advantageous concentration of the Labour vote in certain parts of the country, a partisan advantage is still derived from the way in which the boundaries are drawn. In the average Labour seat, there are just over 69,000 electors, but in the average Conservative seat, there are just over 73,000. That is unfair. Should it not be corrected before the next election?
Chris Bryant: I have said several times already in the course of these debates that there should be a greater drive towards equalisation. However, as we will debate under clause 9, I do not want the drawing of our constituencies to be merely mathematical. Other things must be taken into consideration.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): One factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that the United Kingdom is made of four distinct countries, with four distinct constitutional settlements. Therefore, to proceed on a purely mathematical basis is completely incorrect. We must take into account the constitutional settlements in place in the respective countries, a point of which I know my hon. Friend is very well aware.
I say this to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has intervened three times: changing the boundaries in the way that he suggests will not of itself make the dramatic difference that he thinks it will make. My argument on clause 8 is that there is a real danger that the boundary commissions will be unable to redraw every single constituency in the land with proper diligence and sheer impartiality using a mathematical equation. Of course, they can bear other things in mind, but not if a proposed constituency strays outside the mathematical equation.
Mrs Laing: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the representatives of the boundary commissions for each part of the UK gave evidence to the Select Committee on that point, saying that what they will be required to do by the Bill can be done properly, reasonably and in a measured and correct way?
Chris Bryant: Yes, I know that they have said that, and of course they would say that, wouldn't they? If they are required by Parliament to do that, they will undoubtedly do their best to achieve it. However, to be able to do so for 600 or 650 constituencies-whatever number we end up with-will be difficult in a completely changed system without dramatically increased resources. The only way it can be achieved in that time is to get rid of the due process-the public inquiries. Getting rid of those inquiries is likely to destabilise people's understanding of their parliamentary constituency, and that is a retrograde step. Without due process, it is difficult to proceed in the way that is being suggested.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Surely the important factor is not what the boundary commissions think, but what the public will make of this process. Is not the real danger that the rushed approach and the huge changes that will be made to constituency boundaries will mean that the public will come to see the boundary commissions as partisan and unfair, as opposed to independent and objective?
Chris Bryant: Indeed. The Electoral Reform Society has produced two versions of what might happen in Wales with a reduced number of seats. The suggestion for the Rhondda, the parliamentary constituency in which I take most interest-as hon. Members will not be surprised to learn-is that the Rhondda Fach should be split, with the north end being put in one constituency and the south in another. It also suggests that one of the wards should be split in half. That would be bizarre.
Any of us could swiftly split the country up in that way, probably in less than a week, but that does not necessarily mean that the result would be the right constitutional settlement for this country or an appropriate approach to take. Members of Parliament should have roots in their local communities-not personally, but their office should have roots in the local community-and the number of voters in each constituency should be broadly equal around the country. However, constituencies also need to match the political structure in the local area, and that is an important factor. Balancing all those factors cannot be done swiftly.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may be overestimating the complexity of this task. Gloucestershire has six MPs and almost exactly the right population for six MPs under the new system, so very little adjustment will be needed there. That could also be true in large parts of the country, and he may be extrapolating too much from the Rhondda valley.
Chris Bryant: That smacked a little of "I'm all right, Jack" to me. The problem is not only what happens in Gloucestershire and the boundary commissions cannot bear in mind only what happens there. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) are united on the proposal that Gloucestershire should retain six seats. The point is that neighbouring counties may not have sufficient numbers and may have to nick population from somewhere else. When we come to the divvying up of boundaries, that is one of the issues to which I wish to refer, and I have some examples. However, just as we should not look at the whole country on the basis of what will happen in the Rhondda, nor should we look at it in relation to what happens in Cheltenham.
Luciana Berger: Unlike in Gloucestershire, we have just over 30,000 households in Liverpool that are not on the register, which means that the number of MPs will probably be reduced from five to four, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) received a parliamentary answer that confirmed that it was conceivable that a constituency in Liverpool could be split by the River Mersey.
Chris Bryant: That is the sort of thing that makes sheer nonsense of the situation. Indeed, I believe that someone in Cornwall is on hunger strike because of their objection to the proposals. My hon. Friend mentioned a constituency being split by a river: for those in the Rhondda, having half the Rhondda Fach allied with the Rhondda Fawr, and the other half with the Cynon Valley is almost as difficult a concept to grasp.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The speed with which this will have to be done and the fact that the public inquiries will be dispensed with are key points. In the last two boundary commission reviews in Northern Ireland, both public inquiries led to changes in the recommendations, and that gave the public confidence in the boundaries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is foolish to sweep that aside?
Chris Bryant: I presumed that the hon. Lady would speak with some authority, as she is a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission and knows her stuff. She is right: if there is no due process, with a proper opportunity for people to provide oral evidence to a public inquiry, the public cannot be carried along with the changes to the boundaries. That is why it will be difficult to perform this function to the timetable that the Government suggest.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are doing a jigsaw with 600 pieces instead of 650 pieces, every piece will be different, so it is naïve to think that significant changes will not be necessary across the whole country?
Chris Bryant: That is certainly true. Should the boundary commissions start from the south of England and work their way upwards with their mathematical equations? When the process starts, how often should the boundary commissions allow themselves to use the 95% rule and how often they should force themselves to use the 105% rule? In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made the good point that the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has always been constituted on the basis of its four constituent parts. The consideration has always been first that there should be X parliamentary seats for, say, Wales, and then those seats have been distributed within that area. That is a more constitutionally wise way to proceed.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that in Wales we are looking at county council boundaries, which is causing all sorts of chaos. Some of my wards have registration levels of 70% to 75%, but in others registration levels are 95%. So the decisions will not be made on the true population levels of the seats.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is right. There are many reasons why electoral registration is so low in certain communities, and in some cases people do not want to register because they do not want to pay council tax-a residue from the original attempt to introduce the poll tax-and others might not want it to be known that they are living in a particular house. In some urban areas, with a highly mobile population, many people are not registered because the process of registering is so difficult. We make it virtually impossible for someone to register at any one time, and that is one of the problems that we need to overcome.
Graham Stringer: Several interventions ago my hon. Friend was destroying the complacency of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). He made the case that county boundaries will not necessarily be taken into account in working out constituency seats. Does that not show something that has not really come out in this debate and the public discussion, which is that it is most unlikely, if these proposals go ahead, that any hon. Member will ever again represent the same constituency from one election to another?
The Temporary Chair (Mr Gale): Order. The Front-Bench spokesman asked whether there would be a stand part debate. As is generally known, I take a fairly relaxed view about these things, but we can have a stand part debate only once, and it seems to me that we are having it now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) also makes a good point, which is that we are to do this every five years. In other words, between each election, every Member's boundaries could be redrawn. That does not provide any political stability to constituents. It is already difficult enough for most members of the public to know who their MP is. It is one of the embarrassing things about the British political system that very few people know who their MP is.
I hate to refer again to the Rhondda, but it is probably easier for people there to know not the name of their MP-I am not asserting that-but that their MP is the MP for Rhondda, because they know that they live in the Rhondda. Most people do not know the name of their constituency, so when the MP for Middle Wallop comes on television, they do not know whether they live in Middle Wallop, Upper Wallop or Nether Wallop. That matters because it is about ensuring that MPs are not deracinated from the politics around them.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The point is that all Members of the House elected to take part in the law-making process of our Parliament should come here with equal weight and represent an equal number of people, regardless of whether they are in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales, and regardless of whether they are from a mountain, a hillside, a valley or an inner city. It is the principle of democracy that matters.
Chris Bryant: I completely and utterly disagree with the hon. Lady. Of course one ought to strive towards equality in representation, but that is simply not the British way of creating the House of Commons. Historically, we said, "Okay, the shires need to be represented", and consequentially the knights of the shires were brought into the first Parliament in the 13th century-incidentally, the only reason we know the names of any of those who first attended is that they presented their expenses chits and had them paid. Then we decided that the towns and villages needed representation, because the principle was that representation was based on communities-it was communities that were represented here. It was not just about the mathematical calculating machine system for deciding constituencies. There are countries that have used that system. The United States of America uses it for its House of Representatives. In fact, that is what led to the concept of gerrymandering-it was, I think, a Governor of Massachusetts, Mr Gerry, who was the first person to create a constituency designed to get him re-elected, and it was in the shape of a salamander.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): May I return to the earlier point about urban under-registration, because it is an important point in seats such as mine? However, that is an operational matter for the electoral registration officer and the Electoral Commission; it is not an excuse for perpetuating a bias in the electoral system in favour of small urban seats. It is an important matter, but let us not confuse two things.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right in a sense, although I expect that the under-registration in his constituency is nowhere near as high as it is in, for example, Hackney North and Stoke Newington or Hackney South and Shoreditch, which have much more mobile populations, in part because the people there do not own their own homes and because of the ethnic mix. Clear evidence has also been provided showing that people from black and ethnic minority groups and poor people are far less likely to register. We need to bear that in mind. I shall refer to that again when we discuss how many MPs there should be.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said that we should have mathematical purity when drawing boundaries. Wales has 22 local authorities.
That was not our choice: they were given to us by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) when he was Secretary of State for Wales. It is a crazy number, and would make it very difficult to draw boundaries without crossing in some cases more than one local authority boundary. That is a political problem.
Gavin Barwell: The problem that the hon. Gentleman is trying to explain occurs under the current rules. There are plenty of constituencies in this Parliament that cross local authority boundaries. We already have and deal with the problem to which he alludes.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman made the point that, if we go for greater electoral equality, we will have seats that cross local authority boundaries, but there are already significant numbers of Members representing seats that cross local authority boundaries. Lots of London seats cross London borough boundaries. [Interruption.] No, the London borough of Croydon is not crossed, but the neighbouring borough of Bromley has a seat that crosses into Lewisham, and that applies to the seats of lots of hon. Members. It is perfectly straightforward.
Chris Bryant: I am not sure who is giving way to whom now. The hon. Gentleman makes a point, and it sounds like he is happy with crossing those boundaries- [Interruption.] And clearly the Minister is relaxed about it as well. However, I am less relaxed about it. There is already a problem with it, but there is no need to exacerbate it.
Political boundaries are one thing-in the end they are in our minds, they are a political construct-but geographical and cultural boundaries are not just boundaries that we have imposed; they have been given to us by others.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Further to the intervention from the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) about adopting an approach of mathematical purity and equality, he will be aware of my amendment 70 on taking into account concerns about voter registration levels across the country. This is not merely a technical matter for registration officers. As I suggest, it should be a matter for the discretion of the Boundary Commission when it takes into account the relative weight of a population in an area, bearing in mind the indicative registration levels that should apply in that area, whether it be urban or rural.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The pattern of under-registration is different in different parts of the country. The consistent bits are that poorer people and those who live in rented accommodation are less likely to register, black and ethnic minorities are less likely to register and the young are less likely to register. That is a problem.
I confess to the Committee, however, that Labour Members cannot preach overly on this issue because we failed to take some of the steps that could have been taken to change the electoral registration system. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) says rather unfairly, with a scowl on his face, that we failed to take any measures. We took some measures, but we should have adopted the situation in Chile, where it is mandatory to register. I wish that we were moving towards that, but unfortunately the Minister completely disagrees.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I want to follow on from the point about under-registration. The response to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), whose constituency I know quite well, is that, on average, there are more registered voters in Conservative seats than in Labour seats. The differences referred to are more than explained by that demographic bias. Many Labour seats contain as many people of voting age as Conservative seats. For example, Bradford West has an 18-plus population of 77,848, but the registered electorate is just 62,000. Bermondsey and Old Southwark is a starker example. There, the 18-plus population is more than 101,000, but only 76,000 people are registered. Does my hon. Friend accept that this is systematic bias against poorer people in Labour seats? If we compare the number of seats with the size of the 18-plus population, we see that there is no bias. This is about gerrymandering, not fairness.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend, now the Member for Swansea West, is right, in the sense that the level of registration makes a dramatic difference to the issues that were raised by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), which were not sufficiently addressed by the British Academy report. It perhaps takes someone who is used to knocking on doors and discovering that the electoral register has large gaps in it to make that kind of analysis. My anxiety is that many local authorities do not engage in proper canvassing, and consequently seem to take a rather lackadaisical attitude towards getting people on to the register. Local authorities should be saying, "We know you exist, because you're being paid benefits. The least that we can do is put you on the electoral register and not make it almost impossible for you to register."
Luciana Berger: Does my hon. Friend believe that the forthcoming census, which comes only a few months after the arbitrary cut-off date in March and will cost £500 million, with 38,000 canvassers knocking on doors across the UK, could provide a fantastic opportunity to boost registration in constituencies such as mine, where more than 5,000 households are not on the register?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no reason why the census should not be able to engage in that activity. If people are going door to door, they could be doing more than one task. In addition, there will be profound embarrassment if, according to the census, the number of people eligible to register in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham, or wherever else, turns out to be considerably higher than the number of people who are registered, and yet constituencies have still been allocated solely on the basis of those who are registered.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I find this conversation difficult, because we have electoral registration officers whose job it is to get people on to the electoral register. That is their day job. In South Derbyshire, registration stands at some 98.5%, which is absolutely excellent and shows that it can be done. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that the job is too difficult to do. It is not too difficult to do.
Chris Bryant: In a sense, the hon. Lady makes my point for me. Registration in her constituency may be at 98%, but in many constituencies in the land it is closer to 80%. That is precisely the problem, because-to meet the point that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made-those are the places where there will be an inequity of representation if we proceed solely on the basis of what is proposed in the Bill.
Mark Tami: I totally agree with the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). However, that is the point: the job can be done, but too many local authorities are interested only in doing a tick-box exercise, as if to say, "We sent the forms, we sent them again, we've sent someone round, and no one has replied," despite the fact that everyone knows that a number of people are living in the property concerned. However, as far as the local authority is concerned, it has done what it wants to do, but it is not prepared to put in the extra work to get those people on to the register.
Chris Bryant: That is true. Most local authorities are having to make fairly substantial cuts at the moment, and my anxiety is that they will find their electoral registration budgets all too easy to cut, because people will think, "Well, you know, what's the real benefit of that?" From my perspective, if we are to achieve equity-which, broadly speaking, means achieving the equalisation of seats, but not absolute equalisation, to allow for where the Boundary Commission has an overriding concern, whether about a geographical community or the splitting of wards, which I hope all hon. Members would think was more complicated-then we need to change what the Bill currently provides for.
The Government propose a timetable of less than three years, which is artificially quick, even under the Bill's own terms. I do not see why the timetable has to be three years. According to clause 8(3), future reviews will be held on a five-yearly basis, but the initial, dramatic redrawing of boundaries is being tracked even faster than this apparent ideal. Why? Is the reason that the Government are trying to minimise the risks of the results being made out of date by interim changes in the population? There are significant parts of the country where population changes are moving swiftly. Is that why the Government wish to move so fast? I suspect that that cannot be the reason, or else they would be proposing that three years should always be the period for boundary reviews.
"we need to start with the work of the boundary review as soon as possible in order that it can be concluded in the timetable that we have set out. That is why the boundary review will be based on the electoral register that will be published at the beginning of December this year."-[ Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 37.]
Greg Hands: Is the hon. Gentleman defending the status quo? Under the current system, we typically have boundary reviews every three Parliaments, with the population data that are fed in typically being about 10 years out of date. The new boundaries that were introduced in May were based on electoral registers from 2000, and they may still be in force in 2024 if we have three five-year Parliaments. Is he seriously defending the status quo, under which our data can be up to 24 years out of date?
Chris Bryant: I think that I am correct in saying that that system was set up by the previous Conservative Government, and no, I am not defending the status quo. I am not defending it in relation to the overall structure of the system that we ought to have, nor am I defending it in relation to the precise allocation of seats, and so on. As I have said several times in this debate, I would prefer to move towards closer equalisation. However, I want the boundary commissions to bear in mind other factors, which should include the political realities of the Union, along with ward and other political boundaries. Boundary commissions should also be able to bear in mind geographical features, such as rivers, islands and, in my case, valleys, as well as physical access, because it is pretty difficult to tie two places together that have no access between them.
The timetable for the boundary review is not driven by practical concerns about what would be suitable, but by crude and, I believe, partisan calculations that are the antithesis of the supposedly high constitutional principles that the Deputy Prime Minister invoked in his first speech in office. How quickly those noble ideals seem to have been cast aside. Back then he promised the
"biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes."
The Temporary Chair (Mr Roger Gale): Order. So far as I can see, we have debated most of clause 8 and a chunk of clause 9, and we are now moving on to clause 10. The hon. Gentleman has yet to move the first of a series of amendments to clause 8, many of which other hon. Members wish to speak to. I would be grateful if we returned to the amendment.
I was trying to argue that the Government want to move with precipitate haste towards producing a Boundary Commission report on 1 October 2013, and that that date has been arrived at for the specific purpose of trying to hold together the coalition, in order to drive all of this forward towards the measures relating to five-year Parliaments in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.
An Electoral Commission study published earlier this year found that under-registration was concentrated among specific social groups. That is why I believe that it would be inappropriate to move at the pace on which
the Government are insisting, and why the amendments would be more appropriate. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has tabled amendment 341, which proposes to leave out the date "2013" from the clause and insert "2018". That would be a more appropriate timetable, and if he were to press that amendment to a vote, we would want to support him. Mr Gale, I am grateful for the leniency that you have shown in this debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I must start by saying that I did not know that the word "majoritarian" existed until now, so, as a politics graduate, I have learned something new. I rise to speak in support of amendments 341 and 342. I am pleased to say that they are, in parliamentary terms and in common-sense terms, remarkably simple. Amendment 341 would simply delay the introduction of new boundaries following any boundary review, whatever its findings, until after the next but one general election. That would mean that the next election would be fought on the current boundaries, and that the new boundaries-whatever they might be-would be introduced afterwards, in time for the election in 10 years' time, if we have fixed-term Parliaments.
Amendment 342 relates to the regularity of boundary changes. Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of the process of introducing boundary changes. Every boundary review and change incurs a significant cost, which we should surely be concerned about in a time of austerity. They also cause chaos for the constituents of all hon. Members around the country, and for all the local authorities that have to work out the boundaries. Recently, I found out that one of my local pubs had been wrongly put into Leeds Central as a result of the latest boundary changes.
This illustrates the point of amendment 341. We introduced significant boundary changes for the election that took place just six months ago, and to ask the people of this country to understand why we are now going to redraw them again, even for a good reason, is simply not common sense. It is simply not acceptable.
Mrs Laing: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he must accept that those boundary changes were based on figures collected almost 10 years ago. Also, does he accept the principle of the equalisation of the numbers of voters in constituencies?
Greg Mulholland: Forgive me, but I do not think the hon. Lady has been listening to my comments very well, because I just said that I supported the principle of having more equal constituencies. I support that aim, although I also support many of the caveats relating to common-sense, physical boundaries and to local determination which other amendments deal with. However, I support equalisation as a principle.
I was listening to what the hon. Gentleman was saying, and I am still listening, but he is contradicting himself. If he agrees with the principle of equalising the number of electors in each constituency, he must accept
that populations move and that their numbers change, and that there must therefore be boundary changes. If he is simply arguing that they are inconvenient for the boundary commissions, I do not think his argument is very strong.
Greg Mulholland: I think the hon. Lady must be the only person in the Chamber who could possibly regard what I have said as a contradiction. I will tell the Committee who is inconvenienced by the boundary changes: it is the voters of this country, as well as Members of Parliament. There are constituents in this country who have been in four different constituencies in recent times. They simply do not know what parliamentary seat they are in, who their MP is or even who they will be allowed to support at the next election.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making the sensible case for equalisation rather than the illogical case for it. Does he agree that if such a profound change were to take place and if it were the view of Parliament, it would be right and proper to bring the measure in over a longer and more considered period of time, not least because the Government's proposal is not for an equalisation but for an equalisation plus or minus 5%? Thus a degree of discretion will be allowed, which is potentially arbitrary. It could be countered even on the principle of equalisation if there were the ability to have public inquiries and hearings based on the principle that the hon. Gentleman is advocating.
Greg Mulholland: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but let me make it clear again that I support the principle of having more equal constituencies. Indeed, we need to move towards such a system that recognises, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, that populations change. Clearly, that has to be recognised; it is why we have boundary changes now. It is also fair to say that those boundaries changes might be too infrequent and based on out-of-date data. However, that is an argument for having boundary changes every 10 years so that we have the same boundary at least for two consecutive general elections. Having different boundaries for every single general election is, frankly, absurd and would lead to utter electoral chaos.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The problem at the first redrawing would be one of the massive reconstruction of the whole country. With the second, third and subsequent redrawings, if there is such a word, there would be only marginal changes.
Greg Mulholland: Indeed, but the hon. Gentleman makes my point because that huge initial change should not be rushed through, certainly not a mere five years after new constituency boundaries have been formed. He knows-I have said this to him in person-that I support his particular campaign for his area and his constituency to remain as one. He provides living proof of one of the very caveats I agree with to the principle of more equal constituencies, which I generally support.
Another issue that has not been discussed in relation to changing boundaries more regularly is that the elections for this Parliament are out of sync
with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, for example, which happen between general elections but with the same boundaries. When the boundaries change, it can lead to the anomalous position whereby my constituents in Dundonald, for example, are part of the Belfast East parliamentary constituency for Westminster purposes-so I represent them-but they are represented by my Strangford colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are sometimes uncertain to which constituency they owe their loyalty and to whom they should go with their problems and difficulties. A level of confusion among the electorate is created. I think that is unhelpful if we want to get people more connected with politics, which is what will ultimately improve registration.
Greg Mulholland: The hon. Lady reminds us that there are indeed many complications stemming from devolution in the three affected nations. As an English MP, however, my concern with devolution is that there is not yet a satisfactory solution for the English people at this stage-something for which I shall continue to push.
Whenever boundary changes are made or proposed, we see the disfranchisement of possibly hundreds of thousands of people. It results in two classes among the electorate. The first class comprises the people who can vote for someone again after the boundary changes are made; but then there are people in limbo in certain parts of our constituencies. We were their Member of Parliament leading up to the last election, but we knew and they knew that they could not vote for us. They could no longer realistically hold us to account. They could not realistically expect us to knock on their doors-again because they knew and we knew that they could not vote for us. They did not know who their candidates would be in the general election. That is chaos; it should not happen more frequently than once every 10 years. The idea of making boundary changes for every election is simply ridiculous. I hope that that point will be taken seriously on Report and in the other place.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Some Members may not be aware of the knock-on effects on constituencies. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) suggested that there might be marginal changes in subsequent boundary reviews. In fact, an urban extension might have an initial effect on the constituency involved and subsequent knock-on effects on others, and the change might be more radical each time a boundary was subjected to a review.
Greg Mulholland: My hon. Friend has made a good point. I am amazed that the reality of boundary changes is being accepted by so few Members, despite the effects that it will have on their constituents.
As Members who served before the last general election know all too well, there is also a huge problem with parliamentary protocol, which causes all sorts of squabbles and spats. According to the democratic process, I, as a candidate, had every right to knock on doors in the bits of the constituencies next to mine where I would be asking people to vote for me; yet, theoretically, parliamentary protocol says that I should not do so. I am afraid that such matters have simply not been considered.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Is not the reason why so many Government Members seem to have failed to notice that the Bill will have an enormous impact not just on seats in areas like mine in Wales-which will pay a heavy price-but on seats throughout England that they are being reassured by their Front Benchers that this is gerrymandering that will strip out Labour Members but not have a detrimental effect on Tory seats? The reality is very different. As the hon. Gentleman says, there will be an impact on every Member's seat.
Greg Mulholland: I take issue with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman. We must stop this being a partisan, party political matter. We are talking about electoral, constitutional and parliamentary changes. They should be taken very seriously, and every Member should speak on that basis and that basis alone.
Pete Wishart: We are getting to the heart of the debate now. This is what it is all about. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is an in-built Labour advantage in the current arrangements, and the coalition are trying to deal with it. I am not in favour of retaining a Labour advantage in elections, because my party is at a disadvantage. Why is the hon. Gentleman in favour of that?
Greg Mulholland: It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is thinking of his self-interest. My point is that that should not be the principle of changes of this nature. It should not be the approach of any party in the House or any individual hon. Member. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks in those terms when it comes to such a major change.
Geraint Davies: May I extend the hon. Gentleman's point a little? Does he accept that in the event of gradual migration from the north of England to the south-for reasons connected with jobs, for instance-there may be dramatic and ongoing changes as each constituency in the south becomes more populated, while those in the north become less populated? If we change the boundaries every five years, there may be enormous shifts.
The hon. Gentleman made an eloquent point about whether Members were familiar with their own constituents. This proposal would lead to a shambolic effect on the association between Members and the stable populations that they represented.
Greg Mulholland: If the hon. Gentleman visited my constituency, he would understand why people not only would not want to leave but would want to move there in great numbers. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) asks whether we do not need two Members of Parliament. Perhaps she is making the case for an English Parliament. As I have said, the English question with regard to devolution certainly needs attention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for giving way a third time. I had no intention of interrupting him at this point, but as he has put words into my mouth, I must ensure that they are not on the
record as mine. I will advance no argument for an English Parliament, now or at any other time. What I was saying to the hon. Gentleman was that if many people came to live in his constituency-as he has just said that they might, because it is such a desirable place-the population would rise considerably, and it would need more than one Member of Parliament in order to have equal representation in the House.
Greg Mulholland: I am starting to worry that my acting as a tourism officer for Leeds North West may attract an undue influx of people to the constituency. I think a few would be good for the local economy, but if there is such an influx I will come back to the House and explain that we do have a real problem.
It is rather odd that the hon. Lady should make that point given that I have already said that I support the principle of more equal constituencies, which she agrees with, and that it should be done on a sensible and regular basis. I think that that sensible and regular basis should be every 10 years-at every other general election, rather than every election. That seems to me to be so commonsensical that I fail to understand why someone with as much common sense as the hon. Lady does not support it. I can only suggest that perhaps some of the rather less kind comments from certain Members might explain in part why other Members do or do not support this proposal. Indeed, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was at least honest about supporting it for the entirely self-interested reason that he hopes the Scottish National party will gain in representation as against the Labour party.
I support many proposals in the Bill, and I support the principle of sensible, more equal constituencies, but we should not be enforcing yet another boundary change-with all the ensuing chaos, cost and confusion both in Parliament and outside-before the next general election. That change should come in after the next election, and we should have a review every 10 years, or for every other election.
Geraint Davies: Amendment 125 suggests that instead of using the register of voters for calculating the relative size of constituencies, we should use the best estimate of eligible voters, so that each MP represents the same number of people who are eligible to vote, not the same number of people who happen to have registered. I propose that because of the demographic bias in respect of the categories of people who are more or less likely to register, and my contention is that all those people have the right to vote. They may at some point register if there are better registration systems, and they should not be denied a proportionate voice. I also contend that those Members, particularly on the Government Benches, who have argued that there is a systematic bias in favour of the Labour party because the average number of registered voters in Labour seats is less than the average number in Conservative seats miss the point that that bias does not exist when account is taken of the number of eligible voters-those aged over 18.
I do not intend to run through a comprehensive list, although I have been provided with figures from the Library. I pointed out earlier that in Bradford West there are 77,848 people over 18, yet only 62,519 are
registered. In Holborn and St Pancras in London, there are 119,000 people aged over 18 and the number on the electorate is 86,000, and the electorate as a proportion of the 18-plus population is just 73%.
To summarise, the top line of my argument is that we must have the right basis for doing the calculation before we have a big argument about whether we should then apply other criteria, such as community and geography. We should establish fairly and squarely the basis of the argument put by the Government, and decide who we should be counting. I say that we should be counting those who are eligible to vote.
Greg Hands: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, I think, but does he think that there is an easy way that can be picked up in his amendment to tell the difference between a set of electors-say, US citizens living in the constituency that he just named-who are not able to vote under any circumstances, and those who would be able to vote but are simply not registered?
Geraint Davies: I should certainly like to help the hon. Gentleman on that point. What the amendment actually says is that we should use figures by the Office for National Statistics for who is estimated
"to be eligible to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections".
As has already been pointed out and as we all know by now, there is a systematic bias against the registration of certain categories of people-ethnic communities, people in private rented accommodation, 17 to 24-year-olds and, generally, those in poorer areas. Those poorer areas tend to be more likely to be represented by Labour MPs. That explains the difference in the average figures for registration. The problem that I have with the current thrust towards quickly redrawing the boundaries on the basis of registered voters is that clearly there will be a bias in that, so people from poorer communities will be under-represented. That is not effective or fair democracy.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I was by the fact that the Government do not seem committed to putting in extra resources in the lead-up to December to gain the count that they seek for the new constituency boundaries?
Geraint Davies: That is unfortunate and surprising. If one were cynical about it, one would say that the Conservatives already know that there is a registration bias in favour of people who, demographically, are more likely to vote for them, so why should they take the action that my hon. Friend suggests? I introduced the amendment to say, "Let's do this on a fair and equitable basis." We want more registration because the people who are registered to vote are the people who are allowed to vote. That is a separate issue from the relative sizes of constituencies, which should be based on the number of people who are eligible to vote. We hope that those people will, over time, register to vote and will ultimately vote.
Mrs Laing: We have been having the argument about registration across the Floor of the House for many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the individual has to take a certain amount of personal responsibility in registering to vote, especially when individual voter registration is introduced-a measure brought in by his Government, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition? Does he agree that there is an element of personal responsibility, that sometimes people do not register to vote because they choose not to do so, and that they therefore choose to lose their vote, for whatever reason?
Geraint Davies: Clearly, we all want to encourage individual responsibility, and I think that there is an individual responsibility to try to register to vote. However, there is a propensity for certain categories of people not to vote because it is more difficult for them to do so. Examples include the one in five people in Britain who is functionally illiterate and finds it very difficult to fill in forms. And what about people who do not speak English very well?
We are about to move to the next stage, which is individual registration as opposed to household registration, and that will have a dramatic impact, particularly on ethnic communities, where there may be a lead member of the household who is the only person in the household who can speak English; in such cases, we may start off with five votes and get one. Some people might say, "It's their fault; they should learn English," and all the rest of it, but our law is that an eligible voter is an eligible voter, whether they are educated or not.
Through the amendment, I am saying that the boundaries should be drawn on the basis of eligible voters. Parallel to that, we want more registration, because the people who can vote are those who are registered. The point is that Parliament should represent the people. Poorer people should not be less well represented because they do not register as a result of failures in the education system, or for a host of other reasons.
John Mann: My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Of course, in coalfield communities, in particular, significant numbers left school aged 15 without the school being the slightest bit bothered whether they could read or write. The problem is exacerbated among those who are elderly and have, for example, eyesight problems. Among those with low literacy and eyesight problems, registration is therefore below the norm. Does he also agree that certain categories of people are over-registered? Students, for example, can be registered in two places-once by their parents and once by a university authority. That will mean that on 1 December 2010 they will therefore bias the system even more against former coalfield communities.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling point. In many cases, the individual who has not been educated has been born and brought up in a cultural system that might not encourage that, and that might not be their fault. There is obviously individual responsibility to get educated but, in terms of the bias, it is clearly the case that the more money people have, the more educated they and their children tend to be, and the more likely they are to be registered. If we consider the system overall, we have clearly moved to a system- [ Interruption. ]
Oh, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) is crossing the Floor on the basis of my argument. That is good to see.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): On the point about individual responsibility, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an individual responsibility on all hon. Members to ensure that every eligible adult gets on to the electoral register and that we have a particular moral responsibility when we consider that somebody might be disadvantaged in any way? That very much equates to individual responsibility in this case and it is shameful that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) does not seem to recognise that.
Geraint Davies: I certainly think that more resources need to be put in. More people need to be registered and to participate in the vote, but it remains the case that as we stand-as has been pointed out, not many resources have been put into this-there is a systematic bias against poorer areas in terms of the number of eligible voters being reflected in the number of registered voters. If we are going to make this massive change based on a numerical system of one size fits all, that numerical system needs to be rooted in the best estimate of eligible voters, not in the number of people who happen to have registered. As we go downstream with individual registration, my fear is that things will get worse and worse as groups of people who are not very literate and so on fall off the register because they are not being registered as a household. That will produce more and more of a bias.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman is being extremely gallant in giving way, because I have to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who is sitting on the Bench almost beside him and has just accused me of saying something shameful. She is completely wrong and she took my words completely out of context, which is not normal parliamentary behaviour. I agree with every word that she said about individual responsibility resting also on Members of this House to ensure that people are registered. Of course we must, and it is wrong of her to call me shameful.
Geraint Davies: That was a strange intervention on my speech. The case that one would want to make is that we have an individual responsibility to register, but that we have to be cognisant of the fact that there is a bias in the rate of registration among different groups. With this amendment, which I would like to press to a vote tomorrow-if that is when we have the vote-I am calling for fairness in that sense.
I should declare an interest. My father, David Thomas Morgan Davies, was the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Wales between 1973 and 1984, so I have a particular interest in this area. Historically, it was always the case that the start point for drawing boundaries was equality in size and populations of constituency, adjusted for community and natural geography-rivers, seas and so on-and the needs of effective democracy. That is why we are where we are in Wales, for example, which stands, as has been pointed out, to lose a quarter of its elected representatives-the number will go from 40 down to 30. The real fear, as well as the points that I have made about the proportion
of people from mining communities and other communities that are under-registered, is that we will lose out numerically and that communities will be merged-one valley with another, and with no geographical relationship between them-or that people will have to be in a constituency with a mountain in the way. In terms of effective democracy-devolution was mentioned-an Assembly boundary might be coincident with a parliamentary boundary, so that people can come to see me to talk about benefits and see the Assembly representative to talk about the health service. Now the boundaries will all be changed and then, every five years, changed again. The issue is one of effective democracy. How does the citizen know who represents them and which institution has a clear mechanism for doing so? These things have evolved into place over time and there is a risk that by superimposing a one-size-fits-all system based on the wrong calculus-namely, registered voters as opposed to eligible voters-we will end up with a much less effective democracy.
Owen Smith: My hon. Friend mentions devolution. Does he agree that the Bill being railroaded through to try to fix the result of the next election has another unintended consequence-on devolution? The Bill makes a radical change in Wales that will shift the balance between Westminster and the Assembly. It will be the biggest change since devolution was introduced, with a quarter of Welsh MPs losing their seats, and will therefore mean a radical diminution in both the scrutiny of Welsh-related legislation in the House and, potentially, a reduction in the quality of the Executive that hands over the block grant to Wales. It is a very important-
Geraint Davies: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting and important point. Wales is a nation of just 3 million people sitting alongside a larger nation that is 17 times its size. It is completely dependent on the financial stream from Westminster to fund the devolved Welsh Assembly. Historically, the relationship between the number of seats per head in Wales has been different from that in England because of the need to keep the Union together, in harmony, in a situation of great inequality between the two neighbours.
I fear that the haste with which this process is moving forward and the tremendous step change that it will make to the representation of Wales in Westminster-reducing the number of seats by a quarter from 40 to 30-will have such a dramatic effect on the people of Wales that they will be driven into the arms of the nationalists. There is a danger that we will fracture the United Kingdom. I am sure this could be part of a Conservative conspiracy, whereby some in the Conservative party think, "Well it is nice to have the Union, but these people in Wales keep on voting Labour, so wouldn't it be better to chop 'em down, cut their money and live with a world where we can guarantee continuous Tory government in England at the expense of an impoverished Wales that is split between Labour and the nationalists, who will then be thrown the right to raise their own taxes on a tax base that is a third poorer?" That is the sort of grand plan that seems to be emerging. It is very
concerning that the haste and nature of the changes we are considering are such that they will risk and provoke rips in the fabric of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely terrible.
Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend makes a very persuasive case. Do the measures in the Bill not suggest that there is no real feel for the fabric of the United Kingdom from the Government and that the interrelationship between Wales, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and many of the Scottish islands is not felt by them? Their desperate desire to ram the Bill through is incorrect.
The Temporary Chair: Order. We are straying rather far from the point that we are supposed to be debating-the registration and under-registration of voters and the relevant group of amendments. Hon. Members should confine themselves to debating those matters.
The amendment is about the relationship between the number of people registered and the number of people who are eligible to vote. If, in the comprehensive spending review tomorrow, there is a particular focus on poorer people and people in public service-in Wales, 24% are in public services and in England 20%; in Swansea, in fact, it is 38%-those people will suffer. People in public service tend to be poorer, and because they are poor, they tend to be under-registered. Those people who will face the real sharpness of the Conservative axe will the next day be denied the chance to vote against it because their constituencies will be smaller and because they are less likely to be registered-unless my amendment is agreed to ensure that people who are poor, and who are more likely to be unregistered, have an equal right to a share of a constituency, by virtue of being an eligible voter.
That is part of the mix of what seems, from the Welsh perspective at least, to be doing down Wales-attacking Wales financially, attacking Wales by reducing representation, attacking the poorest communities, attacking public services. In that political and economic context, what has understandably been seen locally as constitutional gerrymandering is in danger of ripping open the Union and having dramatic effects on our historical future. That may all be clinically predicted but it is very unfortunate.
As I pointed out, the 3.5 million or so unregistered voters are not evenly distributed. We heard from the Conservative Front Bench that, apparently, we are doing very well because in Britain, some 92% of people are registered. We are told that we should pat ourselves on the back and need not make any changes, but we know that registration is thoroughly disproportionately distributed, and in some areas it may be as low as 70%. To pre-empt the arguments against the amendment, we also know that the census comes around only once in a while. I am arguing that we should assemble a portfolio of data, including the census returns, registration figures and other data sources, to give our best estimate of the number of eligible over 18-year-olds in each area. That would be much more representative than the number of registered voters.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Member believe that the registration forms are too complex and need to be simplified to encourage more people, especially from poorer backgrounds, to register to vote?
Geraint Davies: Yes, I certainly do. Obviously there are issues about literacy-about being able to read-language, and style. We have all seen forms produced by bureaucracies that are long, complicated and intimidating when they need to be catchy. If one wanted to persuade someone to subscribe to Sky television, one would not use an electoral registration form. I do not mean that completely as a joke; it is true. To capture someone's attention, it is necessary to make them interested and make it easy, and ensure that there is a follow-up system; but electoral registration systems are not focused in that way. There are limited resources, and some people may say, "We have sent a form through. What more can we do?" A lot more could be done if we were serious. The worry is that people are not serious.
Mr Love: If we were to take the Government's intentions seriously, would they not be building on the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 in strengthening the Electoral Commission and the work of electoral registration officers and giving more resources to ensure that we can take those constituencies with 73% registration up to at least the average for the whole country?
Geraint Davies: That is precisely right. The failure to provide the necessary resources and the fact that the deadline is the end of December show that the Government have no interest in doing that. Even with the best will in the world, which they do not have, there would still be substantial under-representation in various constituencies for the reasons that have been suggested-the forms are wrong, the language is difficult, and so on. As has been said, some people think they might get caught for the poll tax. They are still living in the past, when people fell off the register through fear.
The way to short-circuit those problems and move forward to a new mandate on a more equal basis must surely be to count the people who are eligible to vote, or to get the best estimate. That might not be perfect, but it would be a great deal better and fairer than the current system.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend makes a persuasive case for his amendment. Does he agree that the Government have acknowledged part of his case with their announcement last month about data-sharing pilots? They acknowledged-the Minister nods-that there is an issue of other data sources being available to authorities. Might that be a way in which the proposal in my hon. Friend's amendment could be constructed-by using some of those other data registers to ensure a much more accurate list of adults living in an area, rather than moving rapidly to boundary changes, as proposed in the Bill?
That is right. The amendment proposes that the estimates should be put together by the Office for National Statistics. I hope it would use a range of data sources, and if the Government plan any initiatives to enrich the data, that would be welcome. If a sudden change is made to all the boundaries with a view to
changing the composition, possibly for the next general election, let us get it right. In order to do what my hon. Friend suggests, which I entirely agree with, the necessary time must be allowed.
I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. We had the great joy of hearing expert witnesses from the Electoral Commission and the administrators, and from the Minister. What was fed back from the practitioners was that given the resource and the time available, it would be difficult to administrate the changes, in particular for the administrators of the election. The commission has been given an extra £1.9 million to drive ahead, although there are only 3 million people living in Wales. That is an enormous cost to railroad the provisions through. The administrators of the electoral areas thought the results would be chaotic. In terms of effective democracy, which is what we are about, as well as inherent fairness, the speed and nature of the change are wrong.
I will conclude now as I know that Members want to move on. In essence, I am arguing that a more sophisticated, accurate and fairer way of counting voters to provide the best estimate of the number of people eligible to vote is the best way to sustain credibility and confidence in our democracy in future. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment when it is put to the vote.
I give notice that I may seek to press amendment 70 to a Division. It achieves much the same as the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve. The Bill proposes to put a straitjacket around the Boundary Commission in its interpretation of the role of divvying up the nation, or the nations, to deliver so-called equal seats, but the amendment takes into account the variability in registration around the country. It is a good idea to start from the fundamental premise that we are trying our utmost to achieve, if at all possible, a strong sense of equality throughout all seats in terms of their electorates. However, the 5 to 10% margin might create a straitjacket that does not allow as my amendment would, for the discretion to-
The Temporary Chair: Order. This debate is about the question of registration or under-registration and the hon. Gentleman's amendment 70 focuses on that very directly. As we are taking amendments at this stage, he needs to confine his remarks to the question of registration or under-registration.
"This rule is subject to an independent assessment of the Boundary Commission as to the potential electorate within any area where the Commission, having consulted-
the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Registration Officer of the local authority or authorities in that area,
(c) such other organisations and individuals whom the Boundary Commission may choose to consult".
I mentioned the margin of error in order to contrast it with the proposal in my amendment, which would give the Boundary Commission some discretion over how it interpreted the rule. In other words, the commission would be able to take into account the distinction between, as the amendment itself describes, the potential electorate, bearing in mind the variability of registration throughout the country, and the actual electors on the electoral roll. The amendment prises open the issue that several Members have already teased out in today's debate and, therefore, questions whether the 5% margin of error might in fact reflect a larger margin of error in the registration of electors in each constituency.
The Boundary Commission has not been given sufficient leeway to take account of that variability, and, as others have already pointed out, the Electoral Commission studied the issue earlier this year. It produced a report entitled, "The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain, March 2010", and I shall quote from the document's key findings. It states:
"national datasets and local case study research suggest there may be widening local and regional variations in registration levels. While there is no straightforward relationship between population density and the state of local registers, the lowest rates of completeness and accuracy were found in the...most densely populated...areas"
"Recent social, economic and political changes appear to have resulted in a declining motivation to register",
"Under-registration and inaccuracy are closely associated with the social groups most likely to move home."
"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)."
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for that list of people who are under-represented or not registered. Does he agree that the categories he has outlined, although unregistered, often form the majority of an MP's caseload, and that that huge impact on their workload should be recognised by the Boundary Commission?
Andrew George: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I argue further that any Member of Parliament who does their job properly should be seeking out those silent voices rather than waiting for them to come to them. MPs should recognise that people who are not registering are probably not articulating themselves in other ways, so they should be finding ways of ensuring that their needs are properly articulated.
Mark Tami: Some local authorities are clearly better than others at raising registration levels. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should learn from those that are achieving much higher levels of registration? Some have improved from quite low levels, whereas others are more interested in doing the absolute minimum just to say, "Well, we have done what we are required to do."
Andrew George: I agree. It may be a function of a change of staff or of the resources of the local authority and how it goes about its task. Inevitably, in different parts of the country, the situation will ebb and flow over time. One cannot necessarily say that a place with high levels of registration will always have them-there may well be variations.
Chris Ruane: Speaking from experience, Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire in my constituency, has taken the electorate up from 49,000 to 56,000-a huge percentage increase. That has been achieved partly by having a big, bold reminder in the middle of the registration form saying that not registering is an offence punishable by a £1,000 fine. At the end of the process, the chief executive sends out letters to those who are unregistered saying, "I am now turning this over to my legal department for you to be prosecuted." That ability to prosecute, which is a powerful tool in forcing people to register, is going to be removed by the hon. Gentleman's Front Benchers, as was outlined a few weeks ago. What does he think about that?
As well as the groups in the community that the independent Electoral Commission found were under-represented, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and I, and many other hon. Members-the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) referred to this-represent parts of the country where there are large numbers of second homes. Those part-time residents often like to ensure that they are on the electoral register. Given the relative weight of the significance and marginality of the two, or possibly three or more, seats in which they have their votes, one suspects that in some cases-of course, this should not happen-they might decide where they might most effectively cast that vote, if indeed they cast it only once. There are questions about whether they should register to vote in the first place, which of course they are entitled to do for local authority elections. Strictly speaking, they should not cast a vote in the general election because they are not in their primary residence.
Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend has a long record of pointing out anomalies with regard to second homes, and he knows that I had a meeting about that last week with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is not in his place. It is felt keenly in my constituency by people who stood in local authority elections-independents as well as party members-that second home ownership in an area can be influential in determining results. If someone is not normally resident in a place, they should not be on the register there. The problem is that local authority officers may not have had the point reinforced to them that they have the power to prevent people from getting on the register if they cannot prove that they are normally resident in the area. It is not about whether they own a property there.
Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point of electoral law, which needs to be emphasised. Points have been made about registration levels-the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said that registration levels of 98 or 99% had been achieved in her area. In fact, in constituencies such as mine it is potentially possible to achieve registration levels over 100%.
Andrew George: It is an important case in point. As I understand it, students can register in more than one location and decide where their primary residence is for the purpose of electoral registration and casting their vote. Most university students go to their parental home, for example, when they are not at university, and they spend about half the year in each place. The point therefore becomes moot.
John Mann: The vast majority of first-year students are registered where they were living with their parents, and if they are living in a hall of residence they are simultaneously registered by the university authority, often without their knowledge. They are entitled to vote in either place, but is not the salient point in regard to this Bill that they count twice in determining the size of the electorate? That will create another artificial and arbitrary division based on the date of 1 December.
My primary point is that the margin of error in the registration level is significantly greater in certain areas. Registration can be as low as 80%, but I would argue that in some areas, perhaps those with high numbers of students or second homes, it could potentially be more than 100%. With such margins of error, the straitjacket of a 5% margin of error in the Bill is inappropriate.
The Boundary Commission should be given discretion over the matter, because the Bill as currently drafted would unquestionably result in young, vulnerable and minority ethnic communities being under-represented and second home owners and students being over-represented. We all want equality, but we want it interpreted reasonably.
Graham Stringer: The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) made some general, profound comments on the threat behind the Bill to the effect that it will destroy the accountability link between hon. Members and their electorate by ensuring that Members never stand again for the same constituency. If he presses his amendment to a Division, I will happily join him in the Lobby. The electorate has an absolute right to vote to support a Member of Parliament who has done a good job, just as it has the absolute right to throw a rascal out.
Greg Mulholland: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Does he think I should seek to divide the Committee on amendment 342, which would mean a report every 10 years, or amendment 341, which would delay the changes until after the election?
Mr Dodds: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there would be support from the Democratic Unionist party and, I am sure, from other parties, if the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) were to press those amendments to a Division? As he said, there is a lack of consensus or cross-party support for those fundamental changes to parliamentary democracy.
I shall speak to amendment 38, which is in my name. With permission, Mr Bayley, I should also like to press it to a Division. Other than what I said on amendments 341 and 342, arguments about the number of people on the electoral register lie behind this debate. One argument that was touched on earlier is bogus, and it should be discounted: namely, that the number of electors that it takes to elect a Member from one political party is different from the number it takes to elect a Member for another party. That is irrelevant to this debate. Turnout, the number of candidates and the distribution of electors also affect the number of people it takes to elect a Member for a political party. If people want a kind of representation that means that it takes exactly the same number of people to elect each MP, the answer is PR. I am against that and in favour of first past the post. However, that is nothing to do with the clause.
The second point at the heart of clause 8 is that constituencies should be based on an equal number of registered electors. That is a reasonable starting point, but there are two exceptions-one is relevant to this clause and the other will be debated later. If people are to represent constituencies, geographical features, boundaries and real communities should be significant considerations, as well as absolute numbers. However, how can the Committee say that absolute numbers is the overwhelmingly relevant consideration and accept that change to the system when 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register?
In amendment 38, I am seeking, in a different way from the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), to address voter registration. He is trying to get the Boundary Commission to assess the difference between those who are registered and those who are not. The point of my amendment is to get the Electoral Commission, which is the more appropriate body, to try to satisfy this House and the other place that enough changes and processes have taken place to ensure that as many people as practically possible are registered. Once that has been done, but not before, the figures can be taken into account when considering boundaries.
My hon. Friend says that 3.5 million people are missing from the register, but the Government announced the other week that they will introduce individual registration and remove some of the measures that could help us to increase registration. When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was a 10% drop in registration. If it is introduced on the mainland, that could mean 4.5 million people fewer on
the register, so that 8 million people-including the most vulnerable in society-could be missing from the register. Does my hon. Friend agree that that constitutes a very little English coup?
Graham Stringer: I would not use the word "coup", but I would use the word "gerrymandering". In fact, a double gerrymander lies at the heart of this Bill. I would like the Electoral Commission to look at the issue of registration and report to both Houses, because there are sins of commission and sins of omission involved in why the electoral register is not complete. It has already been said that some electoral registration officers are more effective and efficient than others, and that is true. I represent areas of Manchester and Salford, and the electoral registration and returning officers there are doing a good job. They have done three canvasses and use what data they may legally access to ensure that electoral registration is as complete as possible. But that is not the case in several constituencies.
Geraint Davies: My hon. Friend may be interested to note that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is now in his place. In his constituency, the register contains 77,628 people, so it is on target, but the population of those over 18 and eligible to vote is 101,000. In other words, 26,000 people will not be counted, and that is wrong. However, Members on the other side of the House, including the hon. Gentleman, will sleepwalk into this ridiculously unfair system.
Graham Stringer: Unfortunately, I think that my hon. Friend may have encouraged the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to attempt to intervene. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).
Like me, my hon. Friend represents an urban constituency. I have three surgeries a week and more than 50% of those who attend are not on the electoral register because they are homeless, asylum seekers or simply incapable of being allowed to register. Does my hon. Friend agree that were we to proceed-as I sincerely hope we will not-with this crude numerically simplistic stitch-up we would be ignoring the reality of life in urban constituencies?
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the suggestion that a Member of Parliament who knows that 50% of those attending his surgeries are not registered does nothing about it. Why does he not point out to the people who attend his surgeries but fail to be on the register that they are breaking the law? If the issue is as simple as that, something can be done about it.
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